Terry Francona, I'm going to tell you how to win this series right now. It's a little unconventional, but hear me out: throw Game 2. Just let them win it. Send Tim Wakefield out to toss batting practice for nine innings. He's a knuckleballer, it's not like he's going to get tired. Then you can use Mike Timlin and Bronson Arroyo for a combined three innings in each of Games 1, 3, and 4. Let's face it -- if Lenny DiNardo or Chad Harville or Jeremi Gonzalez gets in there, you're basically conceding. Get it all out of your system in one night, go back to Fenway all tied up with your two decent relief arms fully rested, and let the good times roll. Easy!
As for the White Sox, well, muzzle Ozzie Guillen, don't teach Scott Podsednik the steal sign, have Frank Thomas mindmeld with Aaron Rowand, and hypnotize Joe Crede to think his every at-bat is occurring in the ninth inning with the game on the line. And maybe get a cardboard cutout of Jay Mariotti set up in the locker room like in Major League, except in reverse -- each win puts another piece of clothing back on. For starters.
Starting pitching. On either side, these guys have seen better days. For Chicago's Mark Buehrle (16-8, 3.12 ERA, 1.18 WHIP), Jon Garland (18-10, 3.50, 1.17), and Freddy Garcia (14-8, 3.87, 1.25), those days were as recent as the first half of this season. For Curt Schilling (8-8, 5.69, 1.53) and David Wells (15-7, 4.45, 1.31), you have to reach a little farther back. Matt Clement (13-6, 4.57, 1.36) was Boston's most reliable guy for most of the regular season but has the shortest playoff portfolio. Jose Contreras (15-7, 3.61, 1.23), rather shockingly, carried the ChiSox down the stretch and will draw the Game One assignment. Wakefield (16-12, 4.15, 1.23) is a great guy and a true Red Sox diehard but knucklers tend to flatten out in cold weather and it gets chilly in Chicago and Boston in October. Advantage: White Sox.
Bullpen. The White Sox, again, were much better in the first half than in the second. Nagging injuries dragged closer Dustin Hermanson down, fatigue set in slightly for Cliff Politte and Neal Cotts, and Ozzie got to Damaso Marte. Bobby Jenks has the closer's mantle for the time being but the results might not be pretty when he tries to throw straight fastballs past hitters the pedigree of Man-Ram and Big Papi. Still, Chicago ranked 4th in the majors in bullpen ERA thanks not least to a hardy, efficient starting staff (29th in the bigs in relief IP). They have a few minor concerns while the Red Sox have a full-blown disaster. My suggestion at the top of the page is hardly in jest as closer Timlin and converted starter Arroyo are basically the only two semi-reliable guys they have on board. Chad Bradford can under no circumstances be allowed to face lefthanded bats; Mike Myers is the other way around. Just a glance down a roster that includes such luminaries as DiNardo, Harville, and Gonzalez and you know why Boston finished second-to-last in the majors in bullpen ERA. The unknown quantity is rookie Jonathan Papelbon, who pitched well both in starting and relieving roles for the Red Sox down the stretch. If he can handle eighth-inning playoff pressure, maybe Francona doesn't have to throw Wakefield out to the dogs. Advantage: White Sox.
Catcher.Jason Varitek is Boston's emotional leader and a two-way All-Star receiver. A.J. Pierzynski has thrived in U.S. Cellular's homer-friendly environment (12 of 18 home runs hit at home) but is slightly inferior defensively and vastly deficient when it comes to on-base skills. If reports out of San Francisco are correct, he's Varitek's polar opposite in the clubhouse as well. Tek is supported by Doug Mirabelli, who is great at the two things Boston asks him to do: keep Varitek extremely far away from Wakefield's knuckler and hit occasional home runs with an impeccable sense of timing. White Sox backup Chris Widger is just another guy. Advantage: Red Sox.
First base.Kevin Millar's power utterly abandoned him this year, with his playing time increasingly going to John Olerud, who hit nearly as many home runs as Millar (7 vs. 9) in fewer than half as many at-bats. They'll probably be in a mixed platoon with Olerud being utilized for his still-solid defense in addition to his lefthanded bat. Longtime Chicago first sacker Paul Konerko should work his way on to a few MVP ballots this season with his .283/.375/.534 line and 40 homers. He's not a super glove guy, but he's not awful for a man his size. Advantage: White Sox.
Second base. Boston's management finally tired of the truest of Mark Bellhorn's three outcomes and brought on inoffensive vet Tony Graffanino from Kansas City. Surprise! Graffanino's been super (.319/.355/.457). Tadahito Iguchi meanwhile has done it all year for the White Sox. He's a good defender and Ozzie Guillen's dream #2 hitter: he hits behind runners, bunts like a dream, and is a chore to double up. After an August slump he came up with a few huge hits as the White Sox fought off the Indians down the stretch. A Rookie of the Year candidate, if you don't mind the fact that he's 30. Advantage: White Sox.
Shortstop. Big free-agent signing Edgar Renteria hasn't done all that was expected of him for the Red Sox. He had a good May and a torrid August but his June and September were awful. Perhaps most alarming have been his 30 errors at short compared with 11 in a comparable number of innings with St. Louis last year. Still, his overall line of .276/.327/.401 is not unspeakable for a middle infielder and he's useful for a double here and a stolen base there. Juan Uribe is one of the "Kids Can Play" White Sox from a few seasons ago who has actually stuck with the club, and like a lot of his teammates he has a surprising number of homers (16) but a rather ugly OBP (.301). He's a solid defensive shortstop but not a Gold Glover. Advantage: Red Sox.
Third base. Joe Crede is one of those players I like completely out of proportion with his actual ability since seemingly every time I attend a White Sox game in person, he hits a game-winning home run. It's happened like four times. It's getting freaky. Crede has reportedly been on the hot seat in Chicago ever since Ozzie Guillen arrived as manager but he's never been seriously challenged for the starting job, thanks to a lack of decent competition more than anything else. 22 homers, .252/.303/.454, it is what it is. Boston's loyalty to Bill Mueller is odd given the obvious major-league readiness of Moneyball's infamous Kevin Youkilis, but you have to hand it to Mueller for making his job hard to give away -- he had another solid campaign, posting a .295/.369/.430 line. Mueller is a good third baseman who has lost a couple of steps while Crede is a bit of a head case afield. Advantage: Red Sox.
Left field. Thanks to a simply amazing blarney campaign on the part of his manager, Scott Podsednik was somehow labeled the poster boy for the Pale Hose's early-season success and was elected over Derek Jeter as the "Final Vote" All-Star representative. A groin injury in mid-August scuttled both his chances for the AL stolen base crown and his usefulness to the White Sox. He's a fan favorite and a real dirtball, but if I hear Hawk Harrelson's speech about how his presence at first base so distracts a pitcher one more time, the result will be a hostage situation. He's a fair leadoff hitter but his bat is so unsuited for left field it's kind of funny. Then there's Manny Ramirez. He's one of the all-time great flakes, but he's also one of the most intimidating right-handed sluggers who ever lived. His OPS was under 1.000 for the first time since 1998 this year, but he did hit 45 home runs and knock in 144 baserunners so I don't think we can describe him as being in his decline phase quite yet. Podsednik was a good leftfielder before he got hurt while Manny is (absent his habit of occasionally taking bathroom breaks or calling his relatives on Neptune in the middle of innings) somewhat underrated. Advantage: Red Sox.
Center field.Johnny Damon may have the most famous facial hair in baseball, but Aaron Rowand is a good candidate for the ugliest. It looks like it was drawn on a Woolly Willy. Rowand had a sick 2004 but has regressed this season; his glove it seems is fantastic except in must-win games on national TV. A .329 OBP and 13 homers were not what Guillen was hoping for from the 28-year-old. Damon meanwhile is on the verge of a truly silly long-term deal somewhere after this season. He's one of the best if not the best power/speed leadoff guy in baseball, and according to a line of dialogue in last week's "Veronica Mars" episode "he's so pretty." Damon's girly throwing arm is his most promoted Achilles' heel; Rowand's is better but it hardly makes up for the difference in offensive output. Advantage: Red Sox.
Right field.Jermaine Dye, with 31 homers, has been one of the biggest bats on the South Side. But stop me if you've heard this one before: his .333 OBP leaves something to be desired. Trot Nixon would be one of the best hitters on the White Sox if he played for them; instead his .275/.357/.446 numbers cushion the back end of the Boston lineup. Neither of these guys is making money for their defense. Advantage: White Sox.
Designated hitter. It was all downhill for the White Sox, I've suggested, when they failed to move Carl Everett only so they could reacquire him for the third straight year. I kid, but Everett has been a positive contributor for Chicago this season (23 homers) and he's one of the few guys on the roster who's "postseason-tested." David Ortiz on the other hand is the Cookie Monster. There is no single player in the game with a better reputation for delivering in the clutch. At some point in this series Ortiz's bat is going to make solid contact with one of Bobby Jenks' triple-digit fastballs and Fox will have an image that will run in their promos for a decade. Advantage: Red Sox.
Bench. Olerud, Youkilis, and Adam Hyzdu for Boston; Timo Perez, Willie Harris, and Geoff Blum for Chicago. Not only are the Red Sox's guys much better, but you know for certain at some point Guillen is going to take Konerko or Everett out in the seventh inning of a tie game to pinch-run Willie Harris, leading to a situation where Harris comes up with the winning run in scoring position in the ninth and dribbles out to the pitcher. Advantage: Red Sox.
Manager. The Mouth Almighty vs. Mr. Right Place, Right Time. Neither Francona nor Guillen has shown much of a knack for effectively managing their bullpens or their substitutions, but Francona is infinitely less likely to run out onto the field in a hailstorm of bilingual obscenities, wielding a bat at one of his own players. The best hope for the White Sox as I see it is for Ozzie to miss a few games or perhaps the entire series when one of his already-legendary pregame press conferences runs a week or so long. Advantage: Red Sox.
Let's see, that's five for Chicago and eight for Boston. However it ends up, I think that the team that wins this series will win it at home. I like Boston in four, but if I got a second choice it would be the White Sox in five.