What are the chances that a team top-heavy on offense (like the Red Sox) can hit the jackpot?
CHICAGO -- He spends most of his time now traveling, golfing, skiing, and taking his kids to either cheerleading or football practice. The only time John Burkett watches baseball, he says, is when the Red Sox are playing the Yankees.
But Burkett, a 20-game winner who played with home run king Barry Bonds in San Francisco and MVPs Juan Gonzalez and Pudge Rodriguez in Texas, pitched in the same rotation with future Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine in Atlanta, and ended his career with the Red Sox when they were just becoming baseball's greatest run-scoring machine in the last half-century, has some feel for a question that hangs over Boston's quest for back-to-back World Series titles:
Can a team bash its way to a championship?
''I think so," Burkett said by phone from his home in suburban Dallas, ''even though there's no doubt that over history we haven't seen it very much."
So true. Since 1969, when baseball expanded to 24 teams and adopted divisional play, only one club, the 1987 Minnesota Twins, has won a World Series with a staff earned run average ranked as low as the 11th place the Sox registered this season at 4.74. As Jayson Stark of ESPN.com noted this week, only one team in history has won a World Series with a higher ERA, the 2000 Yankees (4.76), and that was a team that still boasted Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte and had Mariano Rivera for last call.
When the Sox won the World Series last season -- when Curt Schilling was the genuine Big Schill and Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe had not yet left as free agents -- their ERA was 4.19, more than half a run lower than this season, and they ranked third in the league. That was consistent with history: Of the 35 Series winners since 1969, 26 had pitching ranked in the top three in the league.
The fear, reinforced by the fact that their bullpen ranked last in the league with a 5.15 ERA, is that these Sox, even with Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz and Johnny Damon, may conjure memories of the '97 Indians, who had Manny and Robbie Alomar and Jim Thome and Eddie Murray, scored 11, 10, and 7 runs in consecutive Series games, and still lost to the underdog Florida Marlins.
Or worse, the Sox might experience something akin to the '63 Yankees, who had Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra but ran into a Dodger pitching staff that boasted Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Johnny Podres and scored a total of four runs in four games while being swept.
Terry Francona, for one, doesn't want to place the burden entirely on the Sox offense.
''I hope it's pitching versus pitching," Francona said at his press conference yesterday, the eve of Game 1 of a Division Series that pits Boston against the White Sox, whose starting pitchers tied with the Angels for the best ERA in the league, 3.75. ''We really love our lineup. Over 162 games, our lineup has been pretty special. But to win in the playoffs, we're going to need pitching.
''If you hear the White Sox talking about their pitching a week from now, I may not be sitting here smiling. Pitching is very important, especially when you get into a shorter series."
Burkett's last season with the Sox was 2003, when the Sox led the league in runs, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage and still didn't make it to the World Series, falling to the Yankees in seven games in the ALCS with a pitching staff that ranked eighth in the league in ERA (4.48). Burkett won 12 games for the Sox that season, even with an ERA of 5.15, and despite getting knocked out in the fourth inning, was able to celebrate a 9-6 Sox win in Game 6 that forced a decisive seventh game.
''One intangible these guys have, I think, is that they have some of that old Yankee karma going for them now," Burkett said. ''These guys believe they can't be beat, and other teams feel that. Even the Yankees feel it. The games I watched this season, when the Red Sox won, they pounded them. When the Yankees won, it was pretty close."
The numbers bear Burkett out. In the nine games the Sox beat the Yankees, they did so by a startling 88-19 count.
''I thought our team had the same kind of attitude," Burkett said, ''but once they won, it really increased their confidence. You do something once, you have the confidence you can do it again. And when you come back from 0-3 to the greatest team in the history of baseball, that's pretty substantial.
''That's going to carry on for a while. I don't think those guys are thinking, 'Man, we were fortunate to do that last year, can we do it again next year?' "
The number-crunchers at Baseball Prospectus, the think tank populated by disciples of Bill James and respected by the game's progressive class (including Billy Beane, Theo Epstein, and J.P. Ricciardi), note that since 1995, while four teams that led the AL or NL in ERA reached the World Series, four teams that led the league in runs scored also made the Series.
''To get to the World Series, being one of the top-scoring teams in your league is nearly as important as being a great pitching team," they wrote.
The Sox enter the postseason having led the league in runs (910), team batting (.281), hits (1,579), doubles (339), walks (653), on-base percentage (.357), and on-base-plus slugging percentage (.811). The damage wrought by Ortiz (47 home runs and 148 RBIs) and Ramirez (45 and 144) is unprecedented for any tandem in Sox history.
''Those two guys are my favorite players," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said bravely. ''We pitched good against them this year.
''With Jose [Contreras] pitching [in Game 1], I don't want Ortiz to beat him. I will take my chances with Manny.
''Some people get caught up saying, 'Don't get beat up by these guys,' but they forget about [Jason] Varitek, they forget about Damon. I think the key for us and anyone playing the Red Sox is keeping Damon and [Edgar] Renteria off the basepaths."
Surprises can happen
Gary Hughes, a special assistant to Cubs GM Jim Hendry, was with the Marlins when they won the World Series in 1997.
''Can you win a World Series by winning 11-10 every night?" Hughes said. ''I don't know about that. But 6-5, yeah, I don't see why not. The Red Sox are sure used to coming back and not quitting and grinding it out."
The Sox came from behind to win 46 times in 2005, which ties Cleveland for most comeback wins in the majors. Six times they overcame a deficit of four or more runs to win; five of those wins came after Aug. 1.
''But that's pretty tough to do," Hughes said. ''And usually what happens, is that some pitcher steps up. Look at us in '97; we won even when the guys who were supposed to win didn't. Kevin Brown didn't win a game, Alex Fernandez was out. Jay Powell was the winning pitcher in Game 7."
In 1992, the Toronto Blue Jays ranked second in the American League in hitting, but only ninth in pitching, and they were going up against the defending world champion Atlanta Braves. The Jays won the first of consecutive World Series not by outslugging the Braves, but by outpitching them, winning four one-run games. A young lefthander named David Wells pitched several times in relief, while a 22-year-old Mike Timlin saved Game 7, fielding Otis Nixon's surprise attempt at a bunt hit for the final out. Seventeen years later, that remains Timlin's only save in the postseason.
''That's what makes me cautious about the Red Sox' chances to win it all this season," said one veteran American League executive. ''The Yankees have Mariano Rivera at the end of the game, the Angels have [Francisco] Rodriguez. The White Sox have a little problem with their closers -- [Dustin] Hermanson is throwing again despite his bad back, but hasn't been very good, and the kid [Bobby Jenks] has struggled.
''So I think the Red Sox can outslug the White Sox. But with Boston having uncertainty in their own pen, I'm not sure they can outslug the other teams."
Last season's World Series matchup featured the highest-scoring teams in their respective leagues, the Sox and St. Louis Cardinals. But except for a sloppy 11-9 win in Game 1, the Sox shut down the Cardinals, who batted a collective .190 and scored a total of three runs over the last three games.
''I think Schill can still pick it up," Burkett said. ''I love Wake. Wells loves the big stage when it comes up. The only thing you worry about is the late relief; those kids did OK, but sometimes they get overwhelmed. I think Timlin can do it. He certainly has the stuff.
''I don't think this is a team that's going to need to win 13-12. David [Ortiz]? He's been doing this for the last three years, and Manny, he looks like he has the best attitude he's ever had. You can see in the closeups when he's at the plate, he's on a mission. He's concentrating on every pitch."
So the runs should come. And with enough pitching, the rings may follow.