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Red Sox’ ALDS advantage over Indians lies in crucial game one

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The Sox have to take advantage of the promise of a Porcello vs. Bauer matchup

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Boston Red Sox David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday night, the Red Sox will play in their first postseason game since clinching the World Series. And while it’s just the first game in a best-of-five set, there might be no more crucial contest than the first against the Indians.

The reason why so many had the Indians lined up as the ideal postseason opponent is obvious. Their rotation, once a clear strength, has been decimated. Actually, going by the literal definition of the word, it’s been decimated four times over, and that’s being generous. Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are out of the picture and Corey Kluber is coming off an injury, leaving Trevor Bauer of the 4.26 ERA as their game one starter. That’s the sort of thing you expect from a team that’s fought a long battle just to survive a wild card game, not a runaway division winner.

For the Red Sox, their opportunity to capitalize on that weakness is largely concentrated in that one game on Thursday. They get to send one of the AL’s leading Cy Young candidates to the mound against Trevor Bauer. If they win that game, then the rest of the series starts to look kind of unfair for Cleveland. They pair their ace against would-be ace David Price, Josh Tomlin against Eduardo Rodriguez, Trevor Bauer on short rest against Clay Buchholz, and finally Kluber vs. Porcello if it comes to it in Game 5.

All of those matchups after Game 1 are the sort which could reasonably go either way. This is particularly true with Kluber coming off an injury and Bauer pitching on short rest. Whoever takes that first game, though, gets to put the burden of going 3-1 on their opponents. That’s a tall-task facing four games that are up for grabs.

But that depends on taking game one, and as we know, there’s no such thing as a lock in baseball. The Red Sox do seem quite likely to win that game—at least about as likely as any team can be to win any game in the playoffs. That the Red Sox have battered Bauer in the few times they’ve seen him doesn’t count for much on its own. What does matter is that Bauer doesn’t exactly bring anything to the plate the Sox haven’t seen. Bauer’s greatest strength lies in combining a deep repertoire with a put-away curve that has been by far his most effective pitch in 2016. But the Red Sox are one of the best teams in baseball at hitting the curve, and the most selective bunch to boot. A little more aggression might be called for, as they’ll want to avoid getting in pitcher’s counts where Bauer can drop the hammer, but Bauer is going to have to walk quite the tight rope to set that curveball up, with the Red Sox ready to punish him for putting his lesser offerings in the zone.

Porcello’s matchup against Cleveland is rather less interesting. It’s a pitcher with a lot of strong weapons against a team that lacks clear weaknesses at the plate. That should rob Porcello of some of the value of his versatility, and there’s some extra pressure on (presumably) Sandy Leon to be detail-oriented in developing a plan of attack against each individual batter. But at the end of the day, this is mostly just a matter of quality vs. quality. The sort of matchup that would be worthy of a national audience even if it came in May rather than October.

So if the Red Sox enter this series as the lower seed, it still feels like they hold the advantage over the Indians. They just need to actually seize it in this first game, where Cleveland’s injuries have conspired to leave them throwing Trevor Bauer against one of the league’s best arms this season. if everyone—to borrow a line from Bill Belichick—just does their job, the Sox should come out in great shape. But we certainly know that’s no guarantee.