There was no question that Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez would come out of the gate in 2004 against the Yankees, and it was an equal no-brainer that Josh Beckett and Schilling would be the tone-setters vs. the Indians a year ago.
But as the Red Sox get ready for Game 1 against the Rays at Tropicana Field on Friday night, there are some interesting things for Francona to consider.
First of all, Jon Lester, who has emerged into the ace of the staff, can't open up because he fired seven scoreless innings in Monday night's AL Division Series clincher against the Angels.
Beckett could pitch Game 1 on the standard four days' rest, but that might not be as much of a no-brainer as it seems. Coming off a right oblique injury that pushed him back a few days against the Angels, Beckett wasn't particularly sharp in his Game 3 start, throwing 106 pitches over five innings and giving up nine hits and four runs.
"I thought he was good," Francona said of Beckett. "I thought he was a little frustrated. He wants to be Beckett in a situation where maybe it's a little hard to be. Maybe it's not fair. It had been two weeks [between outings]. I thought the Angels deserved a lot of the credit. They really grinded him out. He wasn't that bad. It wasn't the 96-mph velocity, but it was firm, there was some movement. There were a lot of pitches that were just off the plate they didn't swing at."
Francona also has the option of opening the series with Daisuke Matsuzaka, the 18-game winner who would be working on six days of rest. However, Matsuzaka labored through his Game 2 start against the Angels, throwing 108 pitches over five innings and giving up eight hits and three runs.
Then, there is knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who didn't pitch in the ALDS but could be in the cards for one of the first two games at Tropicana Field because of his career dominance (9-3, 2.86 ERA) under that roof.
However, Wakefield was pounded in his most recent start at the Trop, giving up six hits and six runs over 2 1/3 innings on Sept. 17.
As for Game 2, Lester, who could make that start on regular rest, would be the obvious choice. The left-hander didn't allow an earned run in 14 innings during the ALDS, getting the win in Game 1 and leaving with a 2-0 lead after seven innings in Game 4.
But there is this to consider: If the Red Sox hold Lester out until Game 3, they could pitch him at Fenway Park, where he's been nothing short of brilliant (11-1, 2.49 ERA) this season. If Lester took the ball in Game 3, it could also line him up for Game 7 if the series goes that far. The pitcher who starts Game 4 would also have enough rest to pitch Game 7, thanks to an off-day between Games 4 and 5.
So going with some combination of Beckett/Matsuzaka/Wakefield in the first two games would not qualify as a shock. Neither would it be for Lester to pitch Game 2, since he's been Boston's most consistent pitcher all year.
The Rays as a club have struggled against both Beckett (.209 average against this year) and Matsuzaka (.228). Wakefield held the Rays to a .279 average this year.
"It's going to take three quality starting pitchers, maybe a fourth, to get through the next round," said Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell. "We're fortunate now we can get Jon some rest here, but the fact that Josh got out and pitched [Sunday] night is a huge boost for us, and Dice-K has been winning for us all season. We feel good about the starting pitching we've got for the next series."
Now it's just a matter of how it lines up. The Red Sox will likely unveil their plans on Wednesday during an afternoon press briefing at Fenway.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.