BOSTON Even when they lose, Josh Beckett and C.C. Sabathia can seem unbeatable.
The hard-throwing Cy Young award candidates had outstanding outings on consecutive days in late July. Both struck out seven and allowed one run and no walks but ended up losing 1-0 decisions.
And they came against each other's teams.
The Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians meet again tonight, and now their aces square off against each other in the opener of the AL championship series.
"They were great ballgames to watch, old-school baseball," Cleveland manager Eric Wedge said Thursday. "It's feasible for something like that to happen again."
That loss in Cleveland on July 25 in which Beckett pitched an eight-inning complete game, but Game 2 starter Fausto Carmona was just a little better, probably didn't provide much help for tonight's outing.
"They've got a couple new guys so you've just got to go at it as a new game," Beckett said.
He was 20-7 this season, the first 20-game winner in the majors since 2005, with a 3.27 ERA. He pitched a four-hit, complete-game shutout in the opener of the AL division series against the Los Angeles Angels.
"The matchup, it's a great thing for baseball," Boston catcher Jason Varitek said. "Those two guys have had tremendous years, and they both have tremendous stuff."
Sabathia's 1-0 loss in Cleveland the day before Beckett's setback came against Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is set to pitch the third game against Jake Westbrook.
The Indians lefty finished at 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA but labored in his team's playoff opener, throwing 114 pitches in five innings. Still, he got the win in the 12-3 rout of the New York Yankees.
"It was just a case of me overthrowing," Sabathia said. "It was the first game against the Yankees, first game of the playoffs, (my) first playoff game in six years, so I was excited."
He's not alone.
Despite his postseason success three shutouts in six starts and the MVP award of the 2003 World Series with Florida Beckett feels the jitters on days he pitches, too.
"All day is kind of like an anxiety-type deal for me," he said. "I think it's a little more during the playoffs, but after you throw your first pitch, it's back to executing pitch by pitch by pitch."
Both teams finished at 96-66, the best record in baseball, but Boston gained home-field advantage by winning the season series 5-2.
The Red Sox had a better batting average, .279 to .268, but the Indians hit more homers, 178-166. Their pitching staffs were comparable Boston had the AL's best ERA and Cleveland ranked third.
"They've got great pitching and we do, too. They've got huge bats and we do, too," Sabathia said. "I think we're dead even."
He'll have to face a potent Boston lineup that outscored the Angels 19-4. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez found their power strokes, each hitting two homers in the three games. For Cleveland, five of their nine starters hit .353 or better in the four games against the Yankees.
So with the Green Monster looming in left field and the short wall down the right-field line, might this be the time for Beckett and Sabathia to unravel?
"I don't see panic taking over," said Boston pitching coach John Farrell, who was Cleveland's director of player development before joining the Red Sox this season. "I know one thing. It'll be a tight game."
Game 2 on Saturday night shouldn't be any different when 23-year-old Carmona, who was 19-8, faces 41-year-old Curt Schilling, 9-8 in an injury-plagued season. Both had brilliant games in their division series and Schilling has a long history of postseason excellence.
The Red Sox are making one lineup change for tonight, putting switch-hitter Bobby Kielty in right field in place of J.D. Drew, whose three career at-bats against Sabathia were all strikeouts. Kielty is 9-for-29 against the lefty.
"He'll give us a good at bat, and he's definitely a threat from the running side," Boston manager Terry Francona said.
The Red Sox made another change, dropping catcher Kevin Cash from the roster and adding pitcher Tim Wakefield, who sat out the first round with a back problem.
Cleveland is in its first ALCS since 1998 and last won the World Series in 1948.
Boston won the World Series in 2004 for the first time in 86 years, then was swept in the AL division series in 2005 and missed the playoffs last year.
The Red Sox have the edge in experience, which may not matter.
"I didn't have any in '03 and I did pretty good,." Beckett said.
"Sometimes," Farrell said, "players, because it's postseason, will try to do a little bit more than maybe they're physically capable of. Josh, on the other hand, stays very much in an emotionally controlled state that allows him to execute pitches."
Boston's regular season success against Cleveland won't necessarily transfer to the playoffs. The Indians were 0-6 against the Yankees then beat them 3-1 in the division series.
"You start over," Wedge said. "Ultimately, once you get down to the end, that's the team that you are."
Boston's Mike Lowell hopes that's true. He'd hate to see another offensive slump like the one the Red Sox had against Sabathia and Carmona in July.
"I hope we score more than one run in two games," he said. "I think it just shows that there's two really good pitching staffs going after each other."