Commentary

Angels turn to Escobar to right ship in Game 2

Originally Published: October 4, 2007
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- To spot the sweetest sight of the night for the Red Sox, all you needed to do was peek at the Boston bullpen, where the door never opened and the pitchers never were used. What wasn't happening out there, as it lay dormant, is what manager Terry Francona and his team may eventually be thankful for as their series against the Angels progresses.

The bullpen stayed shut because of a dominating performance by starter Josh Beckett, who threw a shutout in a 4-0 win over the Los Angeles Angels on Wednesday night in Game 1 of their AL Division Series.

In saving his bullpen, Beckett gave the Sox a potentially decisive advantage when these two teams play again Friday night -- when Boston's 'pen likely will be called on for the first time in five days.

"Your pitches are better with the rest you have," Red Sox lefty reliever Javier Lopez said. "If you have more rest, maybe your command will be a little bit better. It's tough to get rest as a bullpen, but it worked out great [Wednesday night]."

To be fair, the Angels' bullpen didn't get much work, either, since Ervin Santana, normally a starter, pitched two innings after John Lackey threw six and gave up all four runs. Now the Angels will turn to Kelvim Escobar, who was so dominant for long stretches of the season that he was among the top candidates for the AL Cy Young Award. About a week before the season ended, he skipped a start due to shoulder soreness, but he returned Saturday to win his final start of the season.

Escobar will face Daisuke Matsuzaka, a pitcher who also drew concerns about the wear on his arm and who's never pitched a postseason game in the big leagues before.

Even Francona acknowledged his own anticipation.

"I'd say [I'm] more than curious" about how Matsuzaka will pitch, Francona said. "We've seen all the bumps in the road, the hiccups in some of the outings. But being intimidated or shrinking from a challenge won't be one of them."

Kelvim Escobar

Escobar

Starting Pitcher
Los Angeles Angels

Profile

2007 Season Stats
GM IP W-L BB K ERA
30 195.2 18-7 66 160 3.40

Escobar, a former closer, is similar in makeup. He is a fierce competitor who has done nearly everything the Angels have asked of him, including pitching out of the bullpen in 2005. He will speak out about anything and is a clubhouse leader. His teammates love him, and they know how passionate he is about the game. In spring training, Escobar and Lackey set out specific goals, and among those was to win 20 games each and for one of them to win the Cy Young. The 20 wins did not happen for either (Escobar had 18, Lackey 19), and it is likely that neither will win the Cy Young, but they both came incredibly close.

Even Escobar, brimming with confidence, acknowledges his unsightly history at Fenway Park, where three years ago he faced the pressure of starting an elimination game in Game 3 of the ALDS.

"Coming here, everybody knows Fenway Park ... I think it's better this time," Escobar said before Game 1. "It's a new year, new games. I think [three] years ago, just coming down here in the series, I think I put pressure on myself a little bit, trying to do too much, just trying to get a win for the team. And it didn't work out."

He wasn't exaggerating. Escobar lasted just 3 1/3 innings in that 2004 Fenway start, giving up five runs and walking five. While he did not take the loss, the Angels lost 8-6 in 10 innings. The Red Sox swept the series en route to their first World Series championship in 86 years.

Today, Escobar is fresh off the best year of his career, and he says he's matured as a man and as a pitcher. But there are still questions.

In particular, can his sore shoulder withstand the barrage that is the Boston offense along with the wear of more innings? Escobar pitched 195 2/3 innings this year. His career high was 208 1/3 innings in, of all years, 2004.

One pitcher on the Angels staff said before Game 1 that Fenway, to him, is a bandbox, and he'd rather blow it up. Now Escobar will have to pitch here with a sore shoulder and his team down 1-0 in the series.

It appears that the odds are difficult, and while this is true in many regards, there is this: The Angels have lost the first game of an ALDS before and rebounded to win the series. In 2005, their most recent trip to the postseason, the Angels beat the Yankees in five games after losing Game 1 at home. But that was the Yankees, who have always had a difficult time beating the Angels.

I'm going to be honest with you, this is a weird set-up. The fact that this series is a five-game series that stretches out so long, we'll see if it affects any team.

--Angels manager Mike Scioscia

These are the Red Sox, the ones who disposed of the Angels in three games in 2004 and who own the season series 7-4, including wins in six of eight games at Fenway. The Angels have not won a season series against Boston since 2001.

The teams have an off day Thursday, and the players are not in agreement about whether that is a good thing.

"It's not our choice, so we really don't have a say in it, so it doesn't matter," Angels leadoff hitter Chone Figgins said.

Perhaps, but the Angels will be at Fenway on Thursday, taking batting practice and having a traditional workout, while the Red Sox elected for an optional workout. Red Sox center fielder Coco Crisp said he's going to play video games and hang out with his family on Thursday, while Angels center fielder Reggie Willits talked solemnly after the game about taking extra batting practice and working out on the off day.

"I'm going to be honest with you, this is a weird set-up," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "The fact that this series is a five-game series that stretches out so long, we'll see if it affects any team. ... We'll see, we want to get out there obviously, and I think our guys are disappointed with the offensive effort -- in fact, I know they are -- but at the same time you've got to tip your cap. That was a terrific game that Beckett pitched, and hopefully we'll get another crack at him."

That would mean a Game 4, and Scioscia at this point would probably be more than happy with that.

With the look of this series and the advantage Boston holds, this may be the last East Coast trip of the year for the Angels. But not if Escobar can help it.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

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