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CASEY BLAKE (left), PAUL BYRD (center), VICTOR MARTINEZ (right) and the rest of the Indians are ready to take on the Red Sox in the ALCS.

Photos by AP / Design by DON McCORMACK
The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

BOSTON — Sports played for fun — ping-pong, pick-up basketball, backyard football — often employ the win-by-two rule. That is, a team or player must win by at least two scores to assure that the better side emerges victorious.

But, what if the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox were required to win the American League Championship Series by two games? On paper, at least, the series might go on until Christmas.

“They’ve got great pitching and we do, too,” Indians left-hander C.C. Sabathia said. “They’ve got huge bats and we do, too. You look at the numbers, you look at the pitching, you look at the offenses, and I think we’re dead even.”

What will eventually make the difference? What always makes the difference in postseason baseball?

Pitching.

Specifically, Cleveland’s top two starters against Boston’s top two. Sabathia against Josh Beckett, both Cy Young Award candidates. Fausto Carmona, second in the league in ERA (3.06) against Curt Schilling, one of the best postseason pitchers ever to take the mound (9-2).

“Their guy is one of the best in the game, we feel like our guy is one of the best in the game,” Boston manager Terry Francona said of tonight’s Game 1 starters. “It’s pretty awesome. That’s why we’re playing this game. Anything less would be a little disappointing.”

Sabathia (19-7, 3.21 ERA) might be the near-unanimous choice as the league’s best pitcher this season if he had been given adequate run support during his string of 10 consecutive starts allowing two runs or fewer. He led the major leagues in innings pitched (241) and was fifth with 209 strikeouts.

“Pitchers can have good stuff in a lot of different ways,” Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell said. “C.C. is a big left-hander who seems like he’s right on top of you, especially when he throws hard. It’s a different angle than anybody else you’ve seen, except maybe Randy Johnson.”

“C.C. is able to pound the strike zone with all three of his pitches and both tilts of his fastball, too,” Boston catcher Jason Varitek said. “I wouldn’t say his stuff has changed, but his experience has changed.”

Beckett (20-7, 3.27) has plenty of good experience in the postseason.

The 27-year-old right-hander has thrown three postseason shutouts in his career — but, oddly enough, only two in the regular season. In his five postseason starts, Beckett has a 0.70 ERA, a .118 opponents’ batting average, six walks and 41 strikeouts.

“It’s October,” Beckett said. “Everybody’s locked in this time of year. Nobody’s in there just flailing away. There is no chance to slip through the cracks on Oct. 11 or 12.”

Beckett made two starts against the Indians during the regular season (1-1, 1.80 ERA, .143 opponents’ average).

“He’s one of the best we’ve faced all year,” Indians first baseman Ryan Garko said. “He throws three real good pitchers. He reminds me of Felix Hernandez.”

“He’s got a good power fastball, a good curve and changeup and a little cutter,” Indians outfielder Jason Michaels said.

Sabathia and Beckett have a lot in common. The same can’t be said for Carmona and Schilling.

Carmona (19-8, 3.06) spent his first full year in the big leagues and quickly developed into a right-hander to be feared. The 23-year-old’s explosive sinking fastball often had batters walking away shaking their head.

“I’ve got to be honest with you,” Red Sox catcher Doug Mirabelli said. “You don’t look forward to facing Sabathia or Carmona.”

“They’re very capable of putting together back-to-back good starts,” Lowell said. “It’s our job not to let them put together back-to-back good starts.”

The 41-year-old Schilling (9-8. 3.87) did not pitch from June 18 to Aug. 6 due to tendinitis in his right shoulder, but had a 3.16 ERA in September and carried that momentum into the postseason.

Beckett and Schilling were at their best against Los Angeles during the Division Series, combining for 16 shutout innings as Boston swept the Angels in three games.

“Schilling has had a great career, and he’s going to pitch a little while longer, too,” Michaels said. “He comes right after you. He has command of all his pitches. He still has that power fastball he can run up there against you.”

Sabathia and Carmona shut down the Yankees in the Division Series, but must contend with another potent batting order. Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, Boston’s Nos. 3 and 4 hitters, were a combined 8-for-15 (.533) with 11 walks and four home runs against the Angels.

Beckett and Schilling must face another pretty good middle of the order, Cleveland’s Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez.

“Obviously, they have their thumpers in the middle,” Beckett said.

“You need to look for a good pitch to hit against both of those guys,” Hafner said of Beckett and Schilling. “But, if they execute their pitches, they’re going to be tough.”

Both teams will have a fine 1-2 punch to throw at the opposition, and fans of pitching could certainly enjoy watching this series.

“These guys have had tremendous years and have tremendous stuff,” Varitek said. “It’s a great thing for baseball.”

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