EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 30, 2008

Rookies must adapt to playoff baseball

Rookies must adapt to playoff baseball

By Alan Siegel

BOSTON — In 2006, 32-year-old Sean Casey made his postseason debut. Playoff baseball, he said, was a whole new world.

"There's definitely a different edge to it," said Casey, who helped the Detroit Tigers advance to the World Series for the first time since 1984. "No doubt about it."

Red Sox rookies Jed Lowrie and Justin Masterson will be similarly tested during the American League Division Series this week. But if they're able adjust on the fly, like Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester before them, they'll be fine.

Lowrie, the self-aware infielder, knows that's easier said than done.

"Obviously it's not just another game, but I have to treat it like that," he said Sunday. "I'm sure I'll be a little more nervous, but once you get in the flow of it, I can't imagine it will be anything I haven't gone through before."

Despite his recent struggles — since Aug. 14 his batting average has dipped from .314 to .258 — the 24-year-old Lowrie is undaunted. He's casually sought counsel of his older, more experienced teammates, who have all dispensed a familiar message.

"There are a lot of veteran guys on this team that played a long time and only got a couple opportunities to go the playoffs," Lowrie said. "They just said, 'enjoy it.' "

While Lowrie has struggled of late, Masterson has not. In his last 10 appearances, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound reliever has allowed three runs on seven hits. On the season, he's 6-5 with 68 strikeouts, 40 walks and an ERA of 3.16. His walks/hits per innings pitched (1.22) and batting average against (.216) are both on the positive side.

"He's (handled) exactly what we hoped he could handle," manager Terry Francona said.

Masterson claims not to have consulted anybody about the postseason.

"No, not really. I'll figure it out as I go," he said with a smile. "For me, I'm just going to treat it as another game. 'Cause I think if sometimes you make too much of it, you only hurt yourself. I'm definitely excited, but I'm definitely going to stay within myself."

Still, both Masterson and Lowrie will be forced to adjust. It's just the way it is.

"You have to experience it," Casey said. "I think a lot of those guys went through it last year. Jonny Lester, Pedroia, Ells. I think it'll be new for Jed and Masterson, but it's still baseball. You have to go out there and stay focused and make sure you don't get caught up in all the hype, caught up in the atmosphere, and just play game."

Pedroia remembers his postseason series. He pressed, hitting .154 (2 for 13) in the 2007 ALDS.

"I think my first couple games last year, I put too much pressure on myself," he said. "I wanted to do well. You see yourself doing things you don't normally do." The stakes are higher. Pressure increases. Even the fans know it.

"The energy of the crowd here is unbelievable," Casey said. "But it'll be different come playoff time. It just will. The environment is heightened."

Masterson said he's ready, no matter how crazy things get.

"That's what makes the game fun," he said. "I think throughout the season the games where the intensity level is raised, that's when (relievers) want to get in the game."

Postseason exhilaration can be fleeting. The Red Sox are in the midst of a historic run. How long it'll last is uncertain. Make the most of it, teammates have told Lowrie.

"Especially coming in, my rookie year and getting an opportunity right away," he said. "Some of these guys played 10, 11 years only to have a couple chances."

At 23, Masterson already knows complacency is the enemy.

"I don't think it's like getting to the end of the season, saying 'there's the finish line' and taking a deep breath," Masterson said. "We're stampeding through the finish line, getting ready to go."

It's not that he's unaware of how daunting the playoffs can be for a young pitcher. It's that he's embracing the challenge.

"When there's that smell in the air, that's when it's time to go," he said. "Everyone loves that. That's why you play the game."