Last week they faced a measuring-stick series with the sizzling Dodgers, then returned home to face an Orioles team that has given them trouble for the better part of two years. Next week they'll take on the Tigers in a fight for the top spot in the American League, then begin the stretch where they finish the regular season by playing 19 of 21 games within the East division.
In between there is this weekend, and its series with the White Sox. The last-place, playing-out-the-string White Sox, whose arrival in Boston brings little of the intrigue and fanfare that has accompanied the Red Sox' most recent opponents, and will again starting Monday.
But don't sleep on the importance of this three-game set. Or, thus, the importance of Friday night's 4-3 victory in its opener.
Given how tight the races are atop the division (where the Red Sox lead the Rays by 3.5 games) and the league as a whole (where they lead the Tigers by half a game), every win obviously matters. Even more so, winning series matters. Especially against subpar teams that should be little obstacle for the supposedly elite.
The White Sox are one of those below-average teams. Even if they entered Fenway having won eight of 10, and having just given the Tigers all they could handle, they were still 56-76 overall, still occupying the cellar of the AL Central, and still owners of the third-worst record in baseball. Because of all that, they're still an opponent that presents the Red Sox with a chance to add some cushion along the bridge from August to September, before they begin a closing month where pretty much every contest carries two-game consequences.
A robust 22.5 games better than Chicago according to the standings, Boston merely needs to take care of business this weekend. That's been something of a challenge lately, when they needed 15 innings and a six-run ninth inning to beat Seattle, when they struggled in Houston before scratching their way to two wins against the barrel-bottom Astros, when they dropped two of three to the fifth-place Blue Jays a few days later, then when they lost a game they shouldn't have to the flailing Giants. They pulled a few of those games from the fire, and thus their playoff hopes lived to tell about it, but a hiccup now would not be good, given what lies ahead.
And Friday was a big step toward seeing that that doesn't happen. Not only did they win, but they beat the best of the three starters the White Sox will throw at them this weekend, and they did so by knocking him out in the fourth inning. That forced Chicago to use three relievers for at least an inning apiece, and that could have an impact over the next couple of days.
Meanwhile, Sox starter Ryan Dempster pitched into the seventh inning. Junichi Tazawa took over there, and spent only nine pitches in his inning of work. Craig Breslow didn't pitch at all. And Koji Uehara's four outs of perfection required him to fire only 17 bullets. So Boston's three best late-game relievers should all be at the ready if they're needed either Saturday or Sunday.
There was also the reemergence of David Ortiz, who snapped a long hitless streak with a two-run single, and also worked a couple of walks -- one of which came after the White Sox walked Dustin Pedroia intentionally to pitch to Big Papi. That bodes well, as does the continued success of Pedroia and Shane Victorino, each of whom reached base three times on the night.
The game never seemed to be in jeopardy, and once it was official the Sox had their fifth win in six games -- and after so much talk about their struggles against left-handed pitching, southpaw starters are 0-5 against Boston since C.C. Sabathia won ugly on Aug. 18. They'll face another of those Saturday, when John Danks takes the ball for Chicago, as the Red Sox look to take their major league-leading 28th series of the season.
And, importantly, take care of business.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||0-for-5, 2 K: After tearing up the Orioles, he went hitless for the first time in four games, missing a chance to get back over .300 for the season. (He's at .297.)|
|Shane Victorino, RF||2-for-4, 2 R, RBI, BB, SB: As he marches toward .300 himself, Victorino has been a table-setter in a true sense. Over his last five games he has 10 hits, and he's scored nine runs.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||1-for-2, 2 BB, 2B: His two-bagger moved him into a tie with Jarrod Saltalamacchia for the team lead in doubles, with 35. That's also tied for fifth in the American League.|
|David Ortiz, DH||1-for-2, RBI, 2 BB: It came as no surprise that the hit on which Ortiz finally busted his slump came on a pitch that was down in the strike zone. He got it, recognized it, and hit it hard to center.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||0-for-3, K: It's of growing concern that Gomes is struggling against lefties. He's now at .201 for the season, which is 72 below his career average and about 100 points lower than he's hit over his four previous seasons.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||0-for-3, RBI, BB, K: He didn't have a hit, but he added to his impressive bases-loaded RBI total with a walk in the third. He's now got 24 RBIs in 18 opportunities this season.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||0-for-4, K: He left the sacks full after Napoli's walk, and Saturday could be a good time for David Ross to get a start. It's an afternoon game and Saltalamacchia is 0-for his last-8.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||1-for-4, K: Make it 13 straight starts in which Drew has either reached base or driven in a run as he continues to justify Farrell starting him (instead of Xander Bogaerts) against lefties.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||1-for-3, R, BB, SB: He looked better at the plate than he has recently, and he found other ways to contribute, too. He stole a base and he took a run away from the White Sox by eliminating Paul Konerko at the plate on a grounder to third.|
|Ryan Dempster, SP||6.1 IP, 3 ER, 5 H, 3 BB, 5 K, HR: It's convenient that Clay Buchholz's rehab schedule lines up precisely with Dempster's turn in the Red Sox rotation, but the veteran did well for himself Friday, holding the White Sox hitless until the fifth.|
|Junichi Tazawa, RP||IP, H: He hasn't been good as far as preventing inherited runners lately, and he let one of Dempster's score. He has recently been susceptible to the big hit.|
|Franklin Morales, RP||0.1 IP: Pitching for the first time in 10 days, the eighth inning of a one-run game seemed a weird spot to bring on Morales -- but he got the job done, inducing an Adam Dunn grounder to first.|
|Koji Uehara, RP||1.1 IP, 2 K: He threw 14 of his 17 pitches for strikes, and while the stats say he's a rather uninspiring 15 for 18 in save opportunities overall, he feels like every bit as much of a lock-down closer as Jonathan Papelbon ever did in Boston.|
For the first time since his slump began, the case could be made that David Ortiz's struggles hurt the Red Sox. They've still won six of nine since he last recorded a hit -- on Aug. 18, meaning his offense went missing for as long as the suspended Ryan Dempster -- though they lost to the Orioles on Thursday, 3-2, in part because Big Papi couldn't deliver.
Twice he came up with runners in scoring position. Twice he struck out, the second time doing so on four pitches in the eighth inning. He finished his night 0-for-4, which left him hitless in his last 22 at-bats, and with just one walk plus a sacrifice fly to show for his last 24 plate appearances. Meanwhile, his OPS has plummeted 49 points.
Why is that? The Red Sox have said the designated hitter isn't hurt, so taking them at their word it would either mean the reason is that opposing pitchers have identified a way to exploit Ortiz, or it's just that the clean-up hitter has hit a rough spell. With the help of the ever-helpful BrooksBaseball.net, here's a look at how Ortiz was being pitched to before this skid, and how he's been pitched since it began (click each image for zoom options):
In terms of location, pitchers have generally tried to pitch Ortiz the way they usually do, with both time periods seeing almost 60 percent of the pitches he's been thrown over the outer third of the plate, or even farther away.
Pitchers have recently been doing a better job of keeping those pitches in the strike zone, as prior to Aug. 19 they were firing strikes on just 29 percent (272 of 950) of their attempts to that part of the plate; since then, Ortiz is seeing strikes on 43 percent (20 of 47) of pitches to that side of the dish.
But the biggest difference appears to be that pitchers are keeping the ball elevated. Prior to the slump, 51.3 percent of the pitches Ortiz saw were on plane with the bottom third of the zone or lower. Over the last six games, only 33.8 percent of the pitches have been that far down.
Now look at the next data set to see what that means.
Of the 25 zones, Ortiz's two most dangerous -- and three of his five best -- are in the lower third of the strike zone. He's hitting .549 when he gets a chance to get extended on that plane, as well as .474 with the ball down and in. It's not depicted here, but we'll also point out that these lower-third areas also account for the DH's ideal location in terms of his slugging percentage and his line drive rate.
Though they're coming less frequently, Ortiz is still doing a good job identifying those pitches that he likes. He's hacked at 41 percent of such offerings since the start of his slide, which is comparable to 43 percent before. And the same is true for pitches inside the strike zone that are middle-out and down; it's 75 percent since, compared with 74 percent prior.
So the identification is there. So is the contact...
... which leads to the conclusion that Ortiz either isn't putting good swings on the ball (a few have been uncommonly ugly) or he's just not getting good results. Either way, it doesn't appear as though pitchers have figured out a new way to attack him, or that he's suddenly looking vulnerable in a particular area.
Nope. They're just doing a slightly better job of staying away from the spots where he can hurt them the most, and he's missing his opportunities when they do arise. It seems more to be about timing, and confidence, and execution. He's straying from the zone and chasing pitching with a bit more frequency (rising slightly from 28 percent to 33 percent over the past six games), and he's also swinging and missing slightly more (21 percent, up from 17 percent), but neither of those differences are significant enough to account for such a slump.
So that's exactly what it is. A slump.
And thus, if they're telling the truth about his health, there's no reason to think it won't reverse itself soon.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||2-for-4, SB: He notched his third straight multi-hit game, returning to the lineup a night after fouling a ball off his right leg, and subsequently stealing his 50th base. That matches his 2008 total -- in seven fewer attempts (61 to 54).|
|Shane Victorino, RF||2-for-4, R, RBI, HR: He slugged his fourth homer in four games, another rocket shot that cleared the Green Monster in a hurry. He did miss on an opportunity to advance Ellsbury after the leadoff man reached in the eighth, however.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||0-for-4, K: His nine-game hitting streak came to an end as he hit the ball to the right side three times (two flyouts, one groundout).|
|David Ortiz, DH||0-for-4, 2 K: Big Papi is now hitting .310 with a .390/.557/.947 slash line for the season.|
|Daniel Nava, 1B||3-for-4, R, 2 2B, K: He's hitting .467 with seven doubles in 30 at-bats since Aug. 13, lifting his average up to .297 and his OPS to .821.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||0-for-4, K: He grounded into a double play after Nava reached as the leadoff man in the ninth, capping a tough night where he stepped in for the scratched Mike Carp (shoulder) and saw only three pitches per plate appearance.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||0-for-4, 2 K: Yours truly wrote about glowingly about him in today's New Hampshire Union Leader, filing the story prior to the game -- so of course the catcher struggled.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||1-for-3, RBI, K: He knocked a two-out single to plate Nava with the game's first run, moving him up to fifth on the team with 53 RBIs.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||0-for-3, K: The third baseman has hit something of a snag, now 3-for-18 since the team arrived in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, he still has a .945 OPS since his recall.|
|Jon Lester, SP||6 IP, 3 ER, 5 H, 3 BB, 4 K: It was a grind for Lester, though he got through it by keeping his team in the game. He'll finish August with a 2.97 ERA, even after starting the month by allowing 6 earned runs in 4.1 innings.|
|Matt Thornton, RP||IP, 2 H:: Brought in to face the top of the Baltimore order, he got two quick outs, then ran into trouble -- but escaped by getting the mighty Chris Davis on a fly to shallow center.|
|Brandon Workman, SP||1.2 IP, 3 BB, 2 K: He now has 36 strikeouts in 32.2 innings, though he also has 11 walks. He can be a great weapon for the Sox this season if he can command.|
|Craig Breslow, RP||0.1 IP: Two Workman walks necessitated the summoning of the veteran Breslow, though, like Thornton, he escaped trouble by retiring Davis.|
It was on Aug. 28 that the 2012 Red Sox really began to roll over, play dead, and await the merciful end of a long-lost season. Ownership and the front office had done so a few days earlier, waving a white flag that took the form of a megadeal with the Dodgers, though the players had actually managed to win three of four after Adrian Gonzalez had been yanked from their lineup in anticipation of the trade.
They were still at least competing, still seemingly caring -- until Alfredo Aceves blew a save in Los Angeles, it sparked a seven-game losing streak over which the Sox were outscored 58-16, and most sense of resilience, pride, and effort plummeted precipitously from there.
So it was fitting that on Aug. 28, the 2013 Red Sox offered yet another juxtaposition between the failures of last year and the fun of this one, this time with a reminder of just how tough a team they are. Tough mentally. Tough physically. Tough to put away in an at-bat. Tougher still to put away in a game. Tough to discourage. Tough to dislike. And, ultimately, tough to defeat.
On this night much of that was apparent in the starting pitcher, the guy who gutted his way through 28 starts two years ago despite dealing with an elbow injury that -- if Peter Gammons was right -- required Tommy John surgery as early as June of that year, but returned this season so recommitted that he now regularly leaves the mound to a rousing ovation from the fans who loathed him not long ago. Though it was after John Lackey's 7.1 stand-and-cheer innings of three-run ball having kept them in position to do so that the Red Sox' toughness went on full display.
That began with Jacoby Ellsbury, the leadoff man whose toughness is maligned more than any teammate not named Clay Buchholz -- but who in truth has played more games than any Red Sox other than Dustin Pedroia this season, who led the major leagues in plate appearances in 2011, and who ranked 10th in the American League according to that same category two years earlier. The knocks against him are that he's injury prone, and that he won't play through some of the minor nags, but those numbers say that when he doesn't have ribs cracked in a collision with Adrian Beltre, or doesn't get his shoulder landed on by a shortstop after sliding hard to break up a double play at second base, in the three other seasons he's been the Sox' full-time center fielder he's typically stayed on the field.
And that's exactly what he did Wednesday after a foul ball found the sliver of space between the two pads that protect the lower part of his front leg. Ellsbury was hobbled, to the point a trainer accompanied manager John Farrell out to check on him. He stayed in the game, finishing his at-bat by bouncing a single over second base, but when the Orioles made a pitching change immediately thereafter, the manager and trainer came out to check him again.
But again, Ellsbury stayed in the game. And impacted it with his legs, no less. The Sox trailing 3-1 in the seventh, he stole second to put the tying runs in scoring position, then raced all the way around when Dustin Pedroia's single slithered past a pair of diving infielders on the left side. Both times Ellsbury popped up from his slide with a pained grimace, and he didn't go back to center field for the eighth. But no matter. Bruise and all, he'd already been there when the team needed him most.
And he'd already used his unique skill set to arrange the stage for what happened an inning later. The game still tied, and two outs, Jarrod Saltalamacchia fell behind 1-and-2, but the count full, fouled off another offering, then lifted the seventh pitch of the at-bat high off the left-field wall for a double. After Baltimore elected to walk Stephen Drew intentionally, that brought pinch-hitter Mike Carp to the plate as a pinch-hitter, and he floated a flare toward shallow left.
Third baseman Manny Machado made an attempt, but the ball landed beyond his glove -- scoring Saltalamacchia and, once Koji Uehara pitched a perfect ninth, marking the 20th time the Sox have won a game in their last at-bat.
With his single, Carp became the 10th different Sox hitter to deliver the decisive blow in one of those games, joining Pedroia, Ellsbury, David Ortiz, and Will Middlebrooks among those who've done so once. What's more interesting is who has done it more than once: Daniel Nava has done it four times; Drew, Jonny Gomes, and Shane Victorino have all done it three times; Mike Napoli has done it twice.
The common theme among those multi-time heroes is obvious. Aside from Nava, none of them were part of the Red Sox on Aug. 28, 2012. So if Ben Cherington entered last winter looking to spend Carl Crawford's and Adrian Gonzalez's money on players he thought would be capable of not just enduring Boston, but actually capable of thriving in big moments in Boston, it says there he found the right guys. He found guys who made his team better. Made his team deeper. Made his team more likeable.
And, as Wednesday once more reminded, who made his team tougher.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||2-for-3, R, BB, 2 SB: His steal in the seventh was his second of the night and 49th of the season. One more swipe and he'll match the second-most of his career. He said afterward he expects to be back in the lineup Thursday.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||1-for-4, RBI: A night after reaching five times he only got aboard once -- but he made it count, singling home Drew with the Sox' first run.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||1-for-2, 2 BB, 2 RBI: His clutch single extended his hitting streak to nine games, and over the past four he's reached in 11 of 18 plate appearances. For the year he's now even, with 65 walks and 65 strikeouts.|
|David Ortiz, DH||0-for-4, K: His skid is now 0-for-18, dropping his average from .327-.313. But look at the positive: The Sox are 6-2 since his last hit. Early in the year there were questions about what they'd do if Ortiz got pitched around, or struggled. The answer is that they'll survive.|
|Daniel Nava, LF||1-for-4, 3 K: The Red Sox have played 62 games since Nava's last home run, and he's started 36 of them -- yet his season-long OPS of .808 justifies him hitting fifth against righty Bud Norris.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||0-for-4, 3 K: It looked like a regression after a promising stretch that included mammothhomers in each of the previous two games. But we'll wait a day or two before making that declaration.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||1-for-2, 2 R, 2 BB, K: Over the past month, Drew is now hitting .296 with a .378 on-base percentage.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||2-for-4, R, K, 2B: The key double was his 35th, moving him into sole possession of third-most all-time among Red Sox catchers in a single season.|
|Xander Bogaerts, 3B||0-for-3: He handled a couple of tricky foul pops rather adventurously before catching both, but at the plate he looked a bit anxious. His three trips totaled four pitches, then he was hit for by Carp.|
|John Lackey, SP||7.1 IP, 3 ER, 7 H, BB, 4 K: He credited his ability to command the ball and work ahead as the biggest factor in his success, as he fired 68 of 92 pitches for strikes -- 13 of those strikes swinging.|
|Craig Breslow, RP||0.2 IP, K: The lefty did his job, getting both of the batters he faced after coming on for Lackey in the eighth. For it, he earned his fourth win.|
|Koji Uehara, RP||1 IP, K: The particularly pathetic swing he generated on strike three to Nick Markakis summed up this outing -- and many others -- for the closer who now has 14 saves.|
When the Red Sox faced Orioles' lefty Wei-Yin Chen back in April, they encountered him with their typical approach. He wasn't giving them much, so they grinded out at-bats and made him work, eventually wearing him down until he finally broke and surrendered a three-run homer to Daniel Nava in the seventh. That blast came on his 107th pitch, to the 24th batter he faced. That's 4.46 pitches per plate appearance.
Since then, Chen has put together a decent season for himself. An oblique injury sidelined him for a while, but he returned to Fenway Park on Tuesday night sporting a 3.19 earned run average, his success built on throwing strikes and challenging hitters by pitching to contact.
So, it seems, the Red Sox accepted that challenge -- seemingly altering their approach to be a bit more aggressive in big spots. And it worked, as Chen left charged with a career-worst eight earned runs over just 4.2 innings, and Boston blasted its way to a 13-2 win.
This season the Twins and Red Sox are the only teams in all of baseball that are averaging more than 4 pitches per plate appearance -- must be something in that Fort Myers water -- but Tuesday night the Sox didn't bother to wait around. Rather they forced Chen to spend just 80 pitches on the 22 batters he faced, an average of 3.73 per, and carried that aggressiveness forward against the bullpen, too, seeing a below-average 3.88 pitches per plate appearance for the night.
David Ortiz's ice-breaking sacrifice fly came on the second pitch he saw, as did Jonny Gomes' two-run double in the fourth and Shane Victorino's three-run homer in the fifth. Victorino hit the third pitch when he plated two more with a late double, and in the end the Sox wound up bringing home 13 of their 18 baserunners. They left only five on base and went 5-for-9 with runners in scoring position, and indication of the way that, when they got themselves in position to separate themselves from the Orioles, and O's pitchers obliged, the Sox attacked.
"Some of the pitches that he threw, that we hit, were actually good pitches," said Dustin Pedroia, who watched Chen throw two balls in the dirt to get ahead 3-0, then pounced on a 3-1 count for a two-run double that was his third hit. "It was just one of those games that we were on. He's got great stuff, knows how to pitch."
The Red Sox, though knew just how to approach him.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||3-for-5, 3 R, K, 2B: He was 1-for his last-16 when he stung a single to center in the fourth, then followed with another single and a wall-ball double. The two runs he scored gave him 82 for the year, and put him on pace to finish with an even 100.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||3-for-3, 4 R, 7 RBI, BB, HBP, 2B, 2 HR: Career homers 100 and 101 marked his second-career multi-homer game, and his first since 2008. Both came from the right-handed batter's box, as have eight of his 11 blasts this season. Historically he's more balanced, actually with 52 batting lefty and 49 batting righty, which likely speaks to the season-long state of his balky hamstring.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||3-for-5, R, 2 RBI, 2 2B: His first-inning double would've been out of most parks, but nevertheless it began it second consecutive three-hit game. He's got eight hits over his last three contests. Last time he did that was June 23-26 -- which began a two-week stretch where he hit .447.|
|David Ortiz, DH||0-for-3, RBI, IBB, SF, K: He had a sac fly and an intentional walk, though he and Drew were the only Sox starters not to register a hit, as his skid reached 0-for-13 dating back to the Sox' last homestand. He wasn't running particularly well on Gomes' double, either, so his health may be worth keeping an eye on in the coming days.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||1-for-5, 2 RBI, 3 K, 2B: The team's best hitter with two outs and runners in scoring position delivered the knockout blow in that very situation, crushing a bases-loaded double off the wall in center after the Orioles elected to intentionally walk Ortiz trailing. A 6-1 lead became an 8-1 lead quite quickly.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||1-for-5, R, RBI, 2 K, HR: Upon contact the only question about the first baseman's no-doubter off Chen was whether it would travel farther than his Sunday blast. (ESPN says Sunday won by five feet, 437-432.) Either way, when it did land Napoli had homers in consecutive games for the first time since April 21-22.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||1-for-3, R, K: The run scored was the eighth in seven games for Saltalamacchia, who yielded to David Ross in the seventh. Next time he crosses the plate he'll match his career high of 55 runs scored, and with two more hits he'll reach triple digits for the first time.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||0-for-2, R, 2 BB, K: There was some chatter before the game about why Drew (and his .198 BA against southpaws) was in the lineup over Xander Bogaerts against a lefty starter. However, Drew worked a couple of walks against lefties, and made a sterling defensive play to take a hit away from Adam Jones.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||2-for-4, R, K: The third-inning single that put him aboard ahead of Victorino's first homer came on an 0-and-2 count, as he pulled his hands inside the pitch and whacked a looping liner into right-center. His second single came with two strikes, too, muscling the ball to center despite breaking his bat on a full count.|
|Felix Doubront, SP||6.2 IP, 2 ER, 4 H, BB, HBP, 7 K: He responded beautifully to a rough patch, retiring 14 of 16 after walking in a run, and leaving to a standing ovation. That seems to be a key for Doubront: He tends to lose it temporarily, but if he can recover quickly he is usually able to salvage his start like he and his lively fastball (his seven Ks were all swinging, all on fastballs) did Tuesday.|
|Matt Thornton, RP||0.1 IP: His first appearance after coming off the disabled list began and ended with a soft Steve Pearce comebacker, the reintroduction lasting all of three pitches (all strikes).|
|Drake Britton, RP||2 IP, K: The big lead made a good spot for the rookie's first work in nine days, and he handled it well. He navigated the first inning flawlessly, needing just seven pitches, then followed that with another perfect frame highlighted by his gassing Nick Markakis with 94 mph heat up and in.|
As a Red Sox fan, you weren't alone if you were starting to fret at this time last week. The Sox themselves were in the air, on their way to San Francisco for the start of a six-game trip to California after a late-night with the Yankees, and much of the Nation beneath them was worried about the state of a club that had lost seven of ten games, and three straight series, as they headed west to take on the reigning world champs and the hottest team in baseball.
But how can you not feel good about the way things are as they return?
You've got to feel good about winning four of six on the trip. The Giants aren't very good at this point, particularly offensively, though the Dodgers hadn't lost a series in more than two months since the Sox went in and took two of three. It's been noted -- ad nauseam -- that Boston avoided Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke while in LA, though a team doesn't win 42 of 50 with just two pitchers. Not only was it hot, but it's a very good team top to bottom -- and this weekend the Red Sox were just better.
You've got to feel good about the way the Red Sox continue to respond. Three times during this trip, a response was required: The first came right away, when the club few across the country on Monday after Ryan Dempster let one get away on Sunday's late night, and Jon Lester picked them up by pitching them to victory. The next came Wednesday, on the heels of Tuesday's tough and troubling loss. Hours removed from that frustrating failure, they jumped on Barry Zito early and pummeled San Fran, 12-1. Then the third came Saturday. They were shut down by Ricky Nolasco on Friday, giving the Dodgers all the momentum heading into the weekend, but they struck for four runs in the first inning and set the tone for the afternoon right there.
You've got to feel good about the starting pitching. Bookended by 8.1 innings from Lester and a complete-game three-hitter from Jake Peavy, Sox starters allowed only five earned runs over 46.1 innings of work -- good for a sterling 0.97 ERA. Nobody allowed more than two earned runs in any start, and the only performance that didn't last until the eighth inning was Peavy's effort in San Francisco.
You've got to feel good about Lester in particular. After allowing just a run over 15.2 innings on the trip, he's got a 2.31 ERA since the All-Star break. For the season his ERA is finally under 4 again, and if he could erase the brutal month that spanned from May 20 to June 21, his ERA for 2013 would be 2.94.
You've got to feel good about winning with almost nothing from David Ortiz. He started only three games, leaving one of them early with discomfort in his back and going 0-for-11 therein. Yet despite the lack of contribution from the team's cleanup hitter and leader in all three triple-crown categories, the Sox still scored 33 runs in the six games -- most of them while the 37-year-old rested for the stretch run.
You've got to feel good about the way Mike Napoli is trending. When he was at his hottest, in April, he showed an ability to carry the offense. After Sunday's homer and double left him 5-for-8 in Los Angeles, there's a sense his bat might be warming again.
You've got to feel good about Dustin Pedroia, too. The second baseman was barely above average offensively for the three months preceding the visit to his native California, but he went 11-for-28 there, compiling a 1.007 OPS. Maybe most encouraging was his five extra base hits, which were as many as he totaled in his previous 29 tilts.
You've got to feel good that Xander Bogaerts looks like he could make an impact. After going hitless in his first four big-league at-bats, the blue chip went 3-for his next-5, including an impressive RBI double to the gap in right-center on Sunday. It was expected to be the case, but he doesn't look at all overwhelmed.
You've got to feel good about the way Jarrod Saltalamacchia is lengthening the lineup. He's in the neighborhood of Yadier Molina and Joe Mauer this season as far as extra-base hits go -- he jacked his 11th homer Sunday to go with 34 doubles -- and to have that sort of thunder looming later in the lineup is imposing.
You've got to feel good about Koji Uehara's usage. To see Farrell call upon him for, and to see the closer successfully achieve, a four-out save was encouraging. So was his light workload for those worried that the Sox may burn out the 38-year-old. When Boston begins its series with Baltimore on Tuesday, Uehara will have thrown all of 34 pitches in the past two weeks.
You've got to feel good about Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa getting rest, too. The byproduct of seeing the starters get so deep into games is that it saves the bullpen. Breslow and Tazawa, Farrell's two favorite setup men, each pitched only 1.1 innings over two games during the trip. To go 4-2 while sparing those arms could pay dividends later.
You've got to feel good about shutting up Carl Crawford. He generally played well in the series. But he began it by saying he wanted to win all three games badly. He won one.
You've got to feel good that, for all their struggles over the past three weeks, the Sox' lead atop the AL East is still intact. They led by a game when they began a stretch during which they played 16 of 19 on the road, and during which they struggled en route to a 9-10 record -- but they still lead by a game as they return home. On one hand, they've missed an opportunity to separate themselves as the Rays struggled; on the other, though, there's now three fewer weeks for the Sox to protect their advantage.
You've got to feel good about what lies ahead. The Sox start a nine-game homestand Tuesday, then they'll have another in September, and finish with 18 of the final 30 games at Fenway Park. They've also got four more off-days than the Rays, so between the lack of travel, the comforts of home, and the idle evenings, the Sox should be more rested and energetic as the marathon nears its end. They'll be feeling good.
As well they should.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||1-for-5, R, K, SB: He stole his 47th base off a pitcher with an excellent pickoff move, but maybe most impressive was that he managed to see 29 pitches despite the Dodgers peppering him with 21 strikes. On the night, Ellsbury hit 11 foul balls.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||2-for-4, 2 R, RBI, K, 2B, HR: His fifth multi-hit game in the last eight contests included another right-handed home run against right-handed pitching -- his second of the month and third of his career.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||3-for-4, R, RBI, 2B: He had three hits, but the highlight was the flip he made to first, with his glove, to take a bunt hit away from old buddy Nick Punto.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||2-for-4, 2 R, 3 RBI, BB, 2B, HR: Since snapping the skid over which he struck out in nine of 12 at-bats, he's hitting .368 with a 1.218 OPS -- and has struck out just twice in 21 plate appearances.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||0-for-4, BB, 2 K: Gomes he's hitting just .234 on the season, which includes a .185 average over the past two weeks. For the season he's also hitting 66 points below his career average against lefties. But how much does Don Mattingly respect his ability to rise to the occasion when opportunity emerges? The Dodger manager intentionally walked Gomes with two aboard in the first.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||1-for-4, R, 2 K: Middlebrooks didn't have a great stop in LA, as he went 0-for-11 with six strikeouts in those 11 plate appearances.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||1-for-3, R, 2 RBI, BB, K, HR: Over the past 28 days, the catcher is hitting .311 with a .919 OPS. Last season over that same stretch, from July 28-Aug. 25, he hit .221 with a .554 OPS. (An ancillary benefit of the off days upcoming could be a chance to keep playing Saltalamacchia while still keeping him fresh.)|
|Xander Bogaerts, SS||2-for-4, RBI: He smacked the first pitch from Chris Capuano into the gap, scoring Middlebrooks from first when Skip Schumaker briefly bobbled the ball in center. It might've been generous scoring, but he was credited with the first of what will presumably be many RBIs.|
|Jake Peavy, P||0-for-4: He was so focused, he even made contact in all four of his times at bat.|
|Jake Peavy, SP||9 IP, 3 H, BB, 5 K, HR: When evaluating how Peavy will succeed on a given night, look for swings and misses -- of which he had 11 Sunday. When he gets at least eight in a start, his ERA this season is 2.53; when he gets less than that, his ERA is 6.20.|
The Red Sox would really prefer not to plug Koji Uehara into a situation where he's entering the game with men on base. That's been apparent for most of this year, and especially after mid-June, since when John Farrell had summoned him under those circumstances only once before Saturday.
But if Boston gets to the playoffs, preference be damned because they may need their best reliever in spots like that. So Saturday was an encouraging sign that he can handle that task.
He entered with things unraveling -- in the game specifically, but perhaps in the season, too, if he failed. After playing all afternoon with a four-run lead furnished when Jonny Gomes followed Mike Napoli's RBI single with a three-run homer in the first, old friend Adrian Gonzalez had just halved the Sox advantage with a two-run double in the bottom of the eighth. Then Hanley Ramirez drew a walk to put the tying runs on base.
The Dodgers had knocked out starter Jon Lester, then dispensed of Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow, Boston's two best setup men. And, once Ramirez reached, the Sox' win expectancy suddenly dipped down to 86 percent -- which was lower than it had been since Lester recorded the first out of the fourth inning.
The Sox had spent most of the day in the low-90s per that estimate, so this was a game Farrell couldn't afford to let slip away, especially when having begun the afternoon in a virtual tie with Tampa Bay atop the American League East. So unlike he did under the slightly different circumstances in San Francisco a few nights earlier, he acted with urgency.
Like the Sox, the Dodgers have thrived this season in the late innings, and have made a habit of coming from behind -- but by bringing on Uehara, Farrell never let LA get closer to those Hollywood dramatics than they were with men on first and second with two outs. A.J. Ellis gave the Boston closer a battle after falling behind 0-and-2, but Uehara escaped with his 79th strikeout of the year. Instantly the Sox' win expectancy jumped back up to 94 percent. Nine pitches later, eight of them strikes, it hopped to 100 with a perfect ninth.
The result was much better than it was July 6 against the Angels, when Uehara came in with the bases loaded and the Sox ahead by four with two outs, but blew the game thanks in no small part to an error by Brandon Snyder. That was the last time before Saturday that he came in without the bases clean, though his four-out save against the Dodgers reaffirmed what he showed early in the year. (And what had him so excited to give all those high-fives.)
Take away the meltdown in Anaheim, and Uehara has now allowed just four of 18 inherited runners to score this season. And since being traded to Texas halfway through 2011, just 12 of the 53 (22.6 percent) he's inherited to cross the plate. Over that span he's been brought in with runners aboard 24 times; only eight times has a runner scored, and only twice has he given up a lead.
In his big-league career, Uehara has basically been equally tough whether pitching with the bases empty (.198, .576 OPS) or occupied (.196, .570), though this year he's been even better with men on. In those spots, he's held opponents to a .129 average and .443 OPS. Plus, with an 8.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio, there aren't many types of pitchers who fit better into a situation where they can ill-afford to give away a base or could really use a strikeout.
Those was the scenario that presented itself Saturday. It's a scenario that is likely to arise in the playoffs. And it's a scenario, though they'd prefer not to if it can be avoided, that the Sox should call on Uehara with the same confidence they always do.
After a quick rise up the organizational ladder and a particularly successful stint at Triple-A made his name well-known and the fan base anxious for his arrival, the Red Sox finally opened the door and promoted the hotshot shortstop considered to have superstar potential. A few days ago, that was Xander Bogaerts.
Seventeen years ago, though, it was Nomar Garciaparra -- who wound up hitting just .241 with an on-base percentage of .272 over his introduction to the majors after coming up in late August, but who said Friday that the month he spent at the major-league level in 1996 set him up to succeed in 1997, when he was an All-Star, earned MVP votes, and was the American League Rookie of the Year.
"When I got the call I thought, 'OK, I'm ready for the next level.' Ninety-six was definitely helpful, coming up there and being around that, and playing for that month and getting that experience," Garciaparra said from the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Penn., where he's working for ESPN and also helping Subway promote its work with the Challenger Division.
"You can't simulate the speed -- it is another speed going from Triple-A to the big leagues -- and to have an offseason to go out there and put in the time, put in the work, work hard to prepare yourself for the following year, it definitely helped. It was another step that was really good, because when you get to the big leagues you want to stay. You don't want to dwell on the past experiences that got you there; you want to constantly keep your eyes and ears open, and be constantly learning and making progressions while you're there so you can stay there."
Constantly learn and make progressions, he said, but at the same time don't try to do too much. When Garciaparra was promoted and plugged in as the team's starting shortstop for the majority of September, the Sox were 3.5 games back in the wild card race, and as Bogaerts is injected into an even tighter tussle atop the AL East, his 40-year-old predecessor says the best thing he can do to deal with the pressure is simply do things the same way he did while prompting the club to move him from Portland to Pawtucket to a pennant race within the same season.
"He just has to go continue doing what he's doing. That's really it," Garciaparra said. "You don't have to do too much more. It's not about going, 'Now that I'm here I really have to go about changing everything;' just keep doing what you've been doing to get you there, because that's what they've been seeing, that's what they wanted. They recognized it in order to make the call to get you up there. For him, just continue to respect the game, respect your teammates."
The character and composition of those teammates should help Bogaerts, too. "A great thing for him, he's got great veterans there to help him along the way. I was very fortunate that I had great veterans that helped me along the way, as well," Garciaparra said. But ultimately it comes down to ability, and in that regard the .312 career hitter sees what so many do in the guy who may well be the best Sox prospect to reach the bigs since himself.
"He's very talented, there's no question about that," Garciaparra said. "Obviously to make it up there you have to have all the tools -- they don't put you up there if you don't. Now it's just a matter of time. Just go out there and just play; just do everything you've been doing to get to that point. I got to watch him a little bit at the Futures Game in New York this year, and he looked like a great talent out there. I wish him nothing but the best."
And if the best doesn't necessarily show itself right away, be patient. After all, Bogaerts is just 20 years old. That's three years younger than Garciaparra was when he was summoned to The Show -- and merely seven years older than some of the kids Garciaparra has been watching in Williamsport this week.
"The way these kids seem to advance so quickly, I don't know if I marvel at it, it's just that he still has room to grow. I don't have the expectation that he's got to go out there and he's got to be a superstar at 19 or 20," Garciaparra said. "He's got a lot of growing and learning to do and if he's a huge superstar, fantastic. That's what you hope for. You pull for that, but, at the same time, put it in the perspective that there's time for all that.
"It's a credit to his talent and the ability that he has to be brought up so young."
Now 11 games into his second chance to be the Red Sox' everyday third baseman for 2013, things couldn't be going much better for Will Middlebrooks. Demoted in late June because of the holes in his bat and an exploitable approach, he returned while the big club was in Kansas City on Aug. 10, and since then the only game he's finished without a hit was the one in which he was intentionally walked twice. Over the stretch, he's boasting a .441 average while reaching base at a .535 clip and slugging .707.
At every opportunity he continues to insist his approach at the plate hasn't changed -- and that's fine. Admitting something needed to be corrected isn't typically easy for a big leaguer still a few weeks shy of his 25th birthday. And, also, there's a chance he's just being honest.
But that would bring up a question: Are these 44 plate appearances evidence that he's actually improved, or are his numbers simply the byproduct of a hot streak that actually started before he ascended from Pawtucket?
Only time will tell, of course. And, fighting to fend off the Rays atop the AL East, the answer is irrelevant to the Red Sox for as long as some semblance of the production remains. However, looking at what he's done over these last 11 games may lend some clues as to how long that might be and how legitimate his numbers are.
And based on one previously problematic area in particular, there's reason to think Middlebrooks has adapted and improved. Despite what he may say.
Before being called up earlier this month, the third baseman was brutal when the opposing pitcher got ahead of him. He was hitting .103 when behind in the count; .115 when the count began 0-and-2; and .157 when the count got to 1-2. Basically, once a pitcher gained the upper hand the at-bat was practically over.
Middlebrooks didn't appear to make major gains as far as being better in those predicaments at Triple-A, either. He went just 10-for-52 when hitting behind in the count, and with just three extra-base hits, his OPS was a meager .519 in those situations.
Yet since his promotion, which came in the midst of an eight-game Triple-A hitting streak, Middlebrooks has been markedly better when batting in deeper and more disadvantageous counts. Particularly over the past week, when he's really started to look like a middle-of-the-order option again, rather than overmatched and overwhelmed once his adversary gained the edge. Consider a few related scenarios:
|BEHIND IN THE COUNT|
|Before Aug. 10||.103||7||68||4||0||.116||.162||.278||36.2|
|Since Aug. 10||.429||6||14||1||2||.400||.929||1.329||20.0|
Speaking to his being more comfortable in the situation -- and perhaps more confident -- Middlebrooks has just one fewer hit from behind in the count since his recall than he did before, despite having 54 fewer opportunities. He's also slugged a couple of home runs on 0-1 counts, victimizing C.C. Sabathia and Barry Zito after not homering at all when down in the count during his first foray this season. Even last year, when Middlebrooks generally succeeded, he hit just three homers in 97 plate appearances ended with the pitcher ahead.
|AFTER FALLING BEHIND 0-AND-1|
|Before Aug. 10||.157||18||115||6||2||.157||.261||.417||35.7|
|Since Aug. 10||.467||7||15||2||2||.438||1.000||1.438||13.3|
Prior to his stint at Triple-A, getting Middlebrooks out was as simple as getting the first pitch past him. Some of his improvement here is surely a byproduct of his good fortune on balls in play -- he's hitting .556 since, compared to .222 before -- though the rate at which he's driving the ball, reflected by the disparity in slugging percentage, suggests a degree of improvement.
|AFTER FALLING BEHIND 0-AND-2|
|Before Aug. 10||.115||7||61||3||0||.115||.164||.279||50.8|
|Since Aug. 10||.333||2||6||1||0||.333||.500||.833||33.3|
He's only been pressed into this position six times since he's been back, so it doesn't show much -- but early in the year he ultimately struck out more than half the time he fell two strikes behind. Thus far, at least, he's not giving at-bats away. Among the six occasions, he's battled three times to points a pitcher was forced to expel five, six, or seven pitches.
|AFTER FALLING BEHIND 1-AND-2|
|Before Aug. 15||.157||13||83||5||0||.167||.217||.384||46.4|
|Since Aug. 15||.429||3||7||1||0||.556||.571||1.127||11.1|
We put the dividing line here at Aug. 15 because Middlebrooks has fallen behind 1-and-2 in nine of his last 21 plate appearances -- and the fight he's shown in those circumstances is encouraging. He didn't draw a single walk after falling behind 1-and-2 in the initial 84 times he did so, though he's worked two free passes in the past week. He's reached base more than three times as frequently, and striking out about a fourth as much. In fact, since his return he's less likely to strike out after stumbling into a 1-and-2 hole (11.1 percent) than he is in other situations (17.6 percent).
|AHEAD IN THE COUNT|
|Before Aug. 10||.292||14||48||2||7||.417||.771||1.188||11.5|
|Since Aug. 10||.583||7||12||2||0||.706||.750||1.456||0.0|
We point these out to show how dangerous Middlebrooks has been when hitting ahead in the count -- and those opportunities should come more often as he reestablishes himself as an offensive threat, and as pitchers are forced to reckon with the idea that they can't put him away by getting ahead early.
Again, it remains to be seen if all this is for real. It's only 11 games, only 43 plate appearances, and his BABIP is an unsustainable .500 over that stretch. He's still seeing roughly 3.9 pitches per plate appearances, which is actually down from where it was early in the year, and so there are reasons to believe him when Middlebrooks says he's maintained the same approach.
But there are even more reasons to think that whatever has changed since June has indeed been for the better.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||3-for-4, 2 R, SB, 2B: His 14th multi-hit game moved him to .299 for the year, and his major-league leading 46th steal made him the second player to swipe that many in 50 attempts or fewer.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||3-for-5, R, RBI, 2B, K: The boxscore doesn't show that one of his hits came when Brandon Belt failed to touch base in his first try after Barry Zito fielded a bunt, and another came when Belt let a pop drop in the shallow outfield. But, hey, they all count.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||2-for-4, 2 R, RBI, 2 2B: His first game with mutliple extra-base hits since May 31 gave him 30 doubles for the sixth time in his seven big-league seasons. Last year it took him 110 games to get there; this year it was 128.|
|David Ortiz, DH||0-for-3, 2 K: It was not a good series for Ortiz, who finished 0-for-5 after griping about how tired and sore his body was Monday. He left Wednesday with back tightness the Sox say (and had better hope) is minor.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||1-for-4, R, 2 RBI, BB, 3 K: On top of the single that turned a 3-1 lead into a 5-1 lead, he made a nice catch on a ball slicing away from him in left. His UZR says Gomes would cost the Sox 10.1 runs if he played 150 games in left, but the eye test implies he's better than that.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||1-for-4, 2 R, 2 RBI, BB: He delivered a backbreaking two-run single in his 100th game -- and with the way he's going at the plate, the question of how long he can keep it up is becoming increasingly important. Because he's starting to look like an indispensable piece of the lineup.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||1-for-5, R, 3 RBI, HR: The Red Sox leader in RBIs this month? With 14, that'd be Drew, who's also just one behind Ortiz for the team lead in home runs.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||1-for-3, 2 R, 2 RBI, BB, HR: In his first try at second base he also looked like a natural when pivoting to turn a double play -- which is no small detail, given what that versatility could mean as far as including Xander Bogaerts instead of Brock Holt on a prospective playoff roster.|
|Felix Doubront, P||0-for-3, K: He got one less chance at bat than did Ellsbury -- yet he managed to see three more pitches, 15-12.|
|Felix Doubront, SP||8 IP, ER, 5 H, BB, 3 K: The afternoon began with a line drive back up the box nearly hitting him in a bad spot, but Doubront made it through there, and subsequently when on to pitch as many innings as he had in his two previous starts combined. His ERA is back down to 3.79 for the season (21st among AL qualifiers).|
|Koji Uehara, RP||1 IP, K: He was brought on to get some work ahead of Thursday's off-day and, well, he was on the mound, at least. Calling six pitches "work" might be a stretch, but when they're all well-placed strikes, it makes things easy.|
Tuesday night the Red Sox lost for just the fourth time this season when leading after seven innings, falling to 58-4 in said situations when a borderline pitch went the way of Marco Scutaro, and his bases loaded walk forced home the decisive tally in a 3-2 win for the Giants.
But while the game was ultimately decided late, it was a series of choices made by the Red Sox -- some good, some not -- that put them in that precarious position to begin with. So let's take a look at some of the decisions that shaped an outcome that left Boston tied with Tampa Bay atop the American League East:
John Farrell was justifiably excited about the opportunity to get top prospect Xander Bogaerts into his first big-league game, though with his inclusion came the exclusion of Stephen Drew against San Francisco righty Ryan Vogelsong. The regular shortstop has a very solid .828 OPS against right-handed pitchers this season, and while he was just 1-for-3 in his career against the Giants' veteran, he began the night as the only Sox batter ever to record a hit off him.
Without Drew, there was only one player in Boston's Tuesday lineup that had ever reached base against Vogelsong -- and that was pitcher Jake Peavy, who once drew a walk. Additionally, by sitting Drew on the same night as David Ortiz and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (two more who do their best work against right-handed pitching), it put on the bench three of the five Sox hitting better than .300 this month.
And, wouldn't you know, when it came time for the Red Sox' shortstop to hit for the first time in the game, the bases were loaded with two away. The second time, again with two down, there were runners on second and third. Bogaerts ground out both times, while Drew -- second on the club with a .949 OPS when hitting with two outs and runners in scoring position -- watched from the bench.
Farrell pulls Peavy in the sixth.
The manager wasn't bleepin' kidding Peavy, to answer the barking starter's question, when he lifted the right-hander with two outs and the tying run on second in the sixth inning. It took control of the situation out of Peavy's ultra-competitive hand, which he didn't much like after firing only 92 pitches, but it's hard to dispute Farrell's logic -- particularly given that they were playing under National League rules.
Peavy was due to bat second in the next half inning, and with the score at 2-1 (or worse), Farrell had already made the decision he'd pinch-hit for the pitcher there. Bogaerts had made the last out in the previous inning, so using Drew in a double switch would be easy. And, to boot, Brandon Crawford was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts against Breslow in his career. Peavy's night was going to be over, anyway, so the manager merely seized the opportunity to improve the matchup with a fresh arm.
No bunt after David Ross' seventh-inning double.
On the NESN broadcast, Dennis Eckersley advocated the idea of a sacrifice bunt after Ross led off the seventh with a double, saying that in a big NL park there's no sense in playing for the big inning.
It wouldn't have been the worst play at that point, but with Drew -- a left-handed pull hitter -- at the plate, Farrell was right to let him swing away expecting that at a minimum he'd yank a ground ball and advance the runner that way. Vogelsong doesn't strike out a lot of hitters, and Drew hasn't dropped a successful sacrifice bunt since 2011, so the right play was to trust that he'd do the job. The trouble came in the execution, not the strategy, and thus Ross and the insurance run he represented were left stranded.
Shane Victorino catches Buster Posey's foul pop.
With one out and men on the corners in the eighth, and the Sox still holding on to their 2-1 advantage, the Giants cleanup hitter floated a high fly into foul territory in medium-depth right field. With Scutaro at third, it was certainly deep enough to score the runner, which put the choice in Victorino's hands.
Should he catch the ball, knowing it would tie the game, but getting the second out to lessen the chance of San Francisco putting together a bigger inning? Or should he let it fall, and let Junichi Tazawa try to pitch his way out of the jam?
He chose the former, fearful that the reigning NL MVP would subsequently find a gap and the Red Sox would fall behind with San Fran closer Sergio Romo looming. However, this wasn't last year's Posey that Tazawa was pitching to. Since the All-Star break, the catcher is hitting just .226 with little power, and he was already 0-for-3 on Tuesday night. Furthermore, there was a runner on first, so there was the opportunity that Tazawa could escape with a double play -- something Posey hit into more of than all but one NL batter in 2012, and something he's done a dozen times in 2013.
Tazawa doesn't induce a lot of twin-killings -- he had prompted two in 40 opportunities before Posey dug in -- and so it might not have ever played out that way. But Victorino had decided while sprinting into position that he wouldn't let the situation get that far.
Franklin Morales came in to start the ninth.
He hasn't pitched a clean inning all season, which makes him a tough choice to go to in the ninth inning of a tie game. But credit Brandon Belt with forcing the Red Sox' hand there. He put together an eight-pitch at-bat in the eighth, driving Tazawa's pitch count up to 24, and essentially eliminating any chance he could go multiple innings while working for the third time in four days.
With Brandon Workman having thrown on each of the previous days, that left Farrell to choose between Morales, Brayan Villarreal, and Drake Britton if he wanted to save Koji Uehara for a save situation. Given Britton's recent struggles, there was no great solution.
Villarreal comes in with the bases loaded.
This is the decision that proved lethal for the Sox -- and the one that was easiest to first guess, let alone question after the fact. After Morales melted down, walking and hitting consecutive batters after getting into a 1-2 count with each, Farrell decided he couldn't trust the lefty with the bases loaded.
But there's nothing to suggest he could've trusted Villarreal, either. Acquired from the Tigers as part of the Peavy-Jose Iglesias trade, he had walked eight men in 4.1 major-league innings this season -- equating to a gross BB/9 rate of 16.6 -- and it was no more encouraging in the minors, where he posted 10.5 walks per nine innings between Toledo, Lowell, and Pawtucket.
Particularly with a patient grinder like Scutaro at the plate, that is not a guy you want on the mound with a chance to force in the winning run, regardless of what the alternative may be. The Sox would've been better off letting Morales try to wiggle his way out of trouble there. Or go to Britton and his 2.5 BB/9 rate.
Or, best yet, bring on Uehara. He would've pitched to a maximum of one hitter in the ninth, then could've come back for the 10th to preserve the game or protect a lead. He'd thrown 13 pitches in the previous week. He was fresh enough to handle that workload. And, at the very least, he would've likely made Scutaro and San Francisco earn their victory. Instead, with the decision to bring on Villarreal, the deciding run came too easy.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||1-for-4, R, SB, K: The center fielder started the night with a single, but that wound up his only hit. He did steal his 45th base, though he also made it nine straight contests with a whiff. He never went more than five straight games with a K during his magical 2011 season, while his longest prior streak this year was six games -- starting a current stretch in which he's struck out in 17 of 20 tilts.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||1-for-3, R, RBI, HBP, HR: He roped his eighth home run over the wall above the left field corner, batting right-handed against the righty Ryan Vogelsong. It was just the second homer he's hit in 130 right-on-right plate appearances in his career, and this season he's now hitting .323 against righties since an ailing hamstring forced him to temporarily give up hitting lefty.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||1-for-3, BB: His first-inning single probably would've scored Ellsbury had Scutaro not managed to keep it on the infield. With two more groundouts, he never wound up getting the ball to the outfield all night -- but once again his defense helped save a run, as he made consecutive plays to keep Joaquin Arias from scoring after he reached third with nobody out in the fifth.|
|Mike Carp, 1B||0-for-3, RBI, 2 K: He opened the scoring with a sac fly to right, but otherwise it was a rough night at the plate before -- in a good sign as far as his foot injury is concerned -- Mike Napoli entered as a defensive replacement.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||2-for-4, 2 R, RBI, BB, 2B, 2 K: His first hit was a gift, as he got credit for a single when Scutaro misplayed a routine grounder to second -- but his second hit was a good, crisp, clean liner to left. Tuesday marked the third time in four games, and fifth time in 10, that he collected two hits.|
|Daniel Nava, LF||1-for-4, 2B: His 21st double extended his streak to 32 consecutive starts in which he's reached base. Dating to June 22, it's the second-longest active streak in the majors, trailing only the 40-game run of the Angels' Mike Trout. Not bad company, there.|
|Xander Bogaerts, SS||0-for-3, K: The heralded rookie had a chance to make a big impact with his bat in his major-league debut, though he left the bases loaded in the first, left runners on second and third in the third, then struck out in his third trip. He did, however, make what was looking like the game's pivotal defensive play, charging and showing quick hands to throw out Marco Scutaro and leave the tying run at third in the fifth.|
|David Ross, C||1-for-4, 2B: Back in the lineup for the first time since June 14, he used a nice piece of hitting to drive a pitch away to the base of the opposite-field wall in right for a leadoff double in the seventh.|
|Jake Peavy, P||0-for-2, K: The veteran righty actually homered twice in 2006 as a member of the Padres, though since coming to the American League in 2009 he's now just 1-for-21 at the plate.|
|Jake Peavy, SP||5.2 IP, 5 H, BB, 4 K: The Giants battled him with 22 foul balls, and Lester induced only 10 swings and misses among his 77 strikes (12.9 percent, compared to his season average of 14 percent), but the lefty prevailed.|
|Craig Breslow, RP||1.1 IP: Another solid outing for the lefty, who stranded the runner Peavy left for him. He's now allowed only one of eight inherited runners to score this month.|
|Junichi Tazawa, RP||IP, ER, 2 H, K: Beaten by Brandon Belt after a long battle, Tazawa was tagged with his seventh blown save of the season -- and fourth of the last month. Each of the last three times he's come in with the Sox holding a one-run lead, he's been scored upon; those are the only runs he's yielded since July 27.|
|Franklin Morales, RP||0.2 IP, ER, H, BB, HBP, K: The lefty has now walked 11 and hit three batters in 15.1 innings this season. That's far too wild to be relied upon late in close games.|
|Brayan Villarreal, RP||0 IP, BB: Pitchf/X suggests his fourth pitch of his four-pitch walkoff walk was definitely a strike, and his first one was at least borderline. The second one was almost a foot high, but this indicates the reliever generally didn't miss by as much as the naked eye suggested on the initial view.|
The label doesn't fit like it was supposed to when it was pinned on him in the 2008 postseason, or when he injected himself in the 2010 Cy Young race, or when he became Boston's annual opening day starter.
But when the Red Sox really needed one Monday night in San Francisco -- where he was awaiting the arrival of his teammates after crossing the continent a day ahead of them -- Jon Lester looked like an ace.
The Sox were tired after a rare gameday flight followed a late night with the Yankees. The bullpen was particularly strained, having worked 11 innings over the weekend and 21 over the previous week. And the team was generally looking haggard, having dropped three straight series and seven of 11 games.
But in his left hand, Lester carried the antidote for all of those ailments -- delivering 8.1 efficient, effective, and (in many ways at this stage) essential innings to take advantage of the early support of the Boston bats and pitch the Sox a 7-0 win over the Giants in the first of their six-game trip along the California coast.
The lower half of the Sox order struck in its first time through against Tim Lincecum, staking Lester to a 3-0 lead by the time he took the mound for the second -- and not once the rest of the night was there reason to worry that wouldn't be enough, based on the way the southpaw was dealing from the start. He got through the first on just six pitches, didn't allow a hit or a baserunner until the fourth inning, was only at 61 pitches through five, and it wasn't until the sixth that he faced more than four batters in a frame.
Even then, when the Giants coupled a hit with one of his two walks, they didn't get a man to third. They wouldn't all night.
Lester ultimately scattered six hits, though they were all singles. And while he finished with only three strikeouts, his consistency and command inside the strike zone kept San Francisco's hitters off balance. He started 18 of 24 batters with a first-pitch strike, which at 75 percent represents a significant improvement over his season (60 percent) and career (57 percent) numbers, and that aggressiveness helped limit the quality of contact.
So did his stuff. Lester recently found success by moving away from his bread-and-butter cutter, but Monday night the bite was back on that pitch, so it once again became his preferred breaking ball. The key to it all was -- and always has been -- Lester's ability to locate his fastball, but if he can establish the heater while also having the confidence and capability to execute the cutter, curveball, and changeup in his arsenal, his unpredictability is a weapon unto itself.
It looked that way Monday, and while the opponent must obviously be taken into account -- the Giants are 25th of baseball's 30 teams in runs scored -- Lester's 12 ground-ball outs were tied for his second-most this season, it was just the third time this season he hasn't allowed an extra-base hit, and his game score (as calculated by Bill James) was his fourth-best of the year, at 72.
Two of his three better performances came prior to May 11, but, encouragingly, the other came just four starts earlier, when Lester threw seven shutout innings at the Orioles. That speaks to his resurgence, which has seen him compile a 2.52 ERA since the All-Star break, and beyond that has seen him pitch into the seventh inning in eight of his last 10 outings.
With that his ERA is down to 4.09, which is as low as it's been since June 10, and that justifies the growing sense that Lester is again becoming the pitcher he was earlier this season, when his excellence over April and May were among the primary reasons for the Sox' hot start. Whether it's the result of a strategic adjustment, finding a fix for a mechanical flaw, or the extra rest built in to what became a nine-day break around the All-Star Game, suddenly Lester looks again like a guy the Sox can hand the ball in a playoff game. And do so confidently.
He's got the right attitude, too. After inducing a double play to squander San Francisco's last-ditch threat in the eighth, cameras caught him trying to convince John Farrell to let him finish the game as he left the field. The manager let him try before pulling him when two singles followed a fly to center. But by then he'd long proven his point.
The Sox needed a win. His teammates needed him to pick them up. He wanted to finish what he started. And he pitched like he understood the urgency to all of it.
Just like an ace would.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||1-for-4, R, 2 K: Not sure whether or not it's a skill, per say, but Ellsbury has perfected the act of reaching on catcher's interference. Pete Abraham has the details after the center fielder prolonged the second-inning rally.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||3-for-4, RBI, 2B: He delivered the first of the Sox' four two-out RBIs with a single, and had three hits against Lincecum -- all batting from the right side.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||1-for-5, R, K, 3B: His second triple of the season was his second extra-base hit in the past two weeks, and spared him from waking up for just the second time this season with an average below .290. (He was hitting .289 on April 13.)|
|David Ortiz, 1B||0-for-5: He told WEEI.com that, at 37, he was particularly tired and sore after the gameday flight. That might've been a factor in his hitless night, but it didn't hurt the Sox in his glove work at first base. He'll likely rest Tuesday.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||2-for-4, 2 R, RBI, BB, 2B, 2 K: His team-leading 34th double is his seventh in his past 10 games, and over an eight-game hitting streak he's got a .991 OPS. The Giants' Buster Posey is the reigning NL MVP, but since the All-Star break, Saltalamacchia's OPS (.802-.614) is significantly better.|
|Daniel Nava, LF||3-for-4, 2 R, RBI, BB: He returned to his native Bay Area, which meant a chance to see his newborn baby girl -- so call it Dad Strength: Since returning from paternity leave, the first-time papa is hitting .462 with a .533/.615/1.149 slash line in 10 games.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||2-for-5, R, RBI, K: His first night with Xander Bogaerts backing him up included a mashed wall-ball double. He also made an error, but Drew is playing way too well right now to cede his position completely.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||0-for-1, RBI, 2 BB: Batting before the pitcher, he was 0-for-0 after his first three plate appearances, lifting a sacrifice fly before two intentional walks.|
|Jon Lester, P||0-for-3, K: When you're now 0-for-28 in your career, a night where you only strikeout once and manage to force the opposition to throw 14 pitches counts as a victory.|
|Jon Lester, SP||8.1 IP, 6 H, 2 BB, 3 K: The Giants battled him with 22 foul balls, and Lester induced only 10 swings and misses among his 77 strikes (12.9 percent, compared to his season average of 14 percent), but the lefty prevailed.|
|Brandon Workman, RP||0.2 IP, 2 K: Summoned when Lester put two aboard in the ninth, Farrell brought him in hoping to avoid a laborious circus. Workman did his job, striking out both men he faced.|
With weary eyes and a slow saunter, David Ortiz walked through a collection of media members and club employees on his way out of the Red Sox clubhouse early Monday morning, his son D'Angelo trailing a couple steps behind.
"I'll see you guys in a couple of hours," the designated hitter said to no one in particular -- and without a hint of humor. It was an exaggeration, but only slightly; Ortiz and his teammates were due back to Fenway Park at 8:30 a.m. for TSA screening prior to their flight to San Francisco. Once that landed in California, the players were scheduled to have just a half-hour at the team hotel before buses began leaving for AT&T Park.
It's a whirlwind schedule that Adrian Gonzalez might suggest puts the Sox at a disadvantage in tonight's opener of a three-game series with the Giants, but it's one they've known they'd encounter for a while now. Playing on national TV, with ESPN's extended between-inning breaks, against the everything's-a-grind Yankees, a four-hour game is the expectation. This one was that and then some, ending at 12:17, and nobody should've been the slightest bit surprised that Sunday Night Baseball didn't end until Monday morning.
It all made the rubber match with New York something of a must-have for the Sox, who entered having lost six of nine, three of four, and at risk of dropping their third straight series. Winning Sunday wouldn't reverse all that, or righted the ship, but it would've at least made their looming travel -- and the looming Dodgers -- a little bit less daunting. It would've built in some forgiveness, at least for Monday. Everybody should've understood the landscape and the urgency, especially the starting pitcher who was the player least affected by the schedule because he won't appear in the Giants' series anyway, but who could ease the burden on his teammates with a quality performance
Ryan Dempster didn't do his job, though.
His job wasn't to defend the honor and history of baseball. His job wasn't to make a statement about right and wrong. His job wasn't to stick up for the clean guys. His job wasn't to leave the bruise many -- including many within the Yankee organization -- have wanted to inflict upon Alex Rodriguez.
His job was simply to win the game. And he failed.
Much of the criticism being cast Dempster's way since he plunked Rodriguez with a 3-0 pitch in Sunday's second inning has been centered on the premise that it quickly led to the evaporation of his 2-0 lead while energizing and unifying the Yankees. That's all legitimate criticism, too.
But the fact of the matter is that it was the Red Sox who scored four of the game's next five runs, and who had staked Dempster to a three-run lead as he took the ball in the sixth. Heck, Boston's advantage was still 6-4 after Rodriguez juiced a no-doubter to the center field seats.
Long after the incident that briefly emptied the dugouts and bullpens, Dempster was very much in position to win -- and with a terrific opportunity to pick up his team.
Rodriguez homered on the right-hander's 90th pitch, so he wasn't overly taxed on a comfortable evening. He'd retired nine of 10 before the blast, so he'd settled into something of a groove, and after A-Rod's interruption he did the hard part by getting Curtis Granderson on a grounder to first. That left him with one out, the bases empty, and the bottom third of New York's lineup coming up, represented by Eduardo Nunez, Lyle Overbay, and Chris Stewart -- all of whom stepped in with OBPs of about .305.
Had Dempster merely retired two of the three, John Farrell would've had his bullpen set up perfectly, with any of his three southpaw relievers coming in with a clean slate to face the three lefties at the top of the Yankee lineup in the seventh, then he could've used Junichi Tazawa for the eighth, and Koji Uehara in the ninth. Instead, Dempster allowed a single to Nunez. Another single to Overbay. Then he walked Stewart, a .230 hitter, on four pitches.
That was the end for Dempster, who watched from the dugout as Drake Britton's second pitch was slugged to the warning track in right field, where it landed for a three-run triple that gave the Yanks a 7-6 lead. For that reason, the 24-year-old lefty isn't absolved of blame, either -- but the 36-year-old, $13.5 million veteran never should've put him in that position. Given everything going on, Dempster must be better in that situation. Must be.
And his inability to be so was his most egregious offense of the night.
If he wanted to (and he, understandably, denies the pitch was even intentional) make a statement by drilling Rodriguez on the national stage, he could've succeeded in doing that -- and still succeeded in doing the job his team needed him to do. If he was really delivering a message on behalf of his teammates, they subsequently supported him by giving him the lead back. His failure to hold it had much less to do with the way he pitched in the second than the way he pitched in the sixth.
So the tired Red Sox head to San Francisco with their division lead down to just a game as they begin a stretch that might decide the fate of their season. After facing the reigning champs, they face a Dodgers team that's doing things unseen in 71 years, then it's home to face the perpetually problematic Orioles. There's a brief respite with the lowly White Sox coming to Fenway for Labor Day weekend, but after that it's the AL-best Tigers in town, then trips to face the Yankees and second-place Rays.
To their credit, the Sox continued to insist they're equipped to handle that hellacious stretch as they packed their bags for the left coast. "Nobody is worried, nobody is panicking," Will Middlebrooks said. "We’re a really good team. We’re going to be good throughout the rest of the season."
A short night later, after not much more sleep than the couple hours Ortiz suggested, a tired team will hop off the plane and start trying to prove that late Monday, under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Circumstances that became even more difficult because of a series of pitches not made Sunday -- not because of one that infamously was.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||0-for-4, R, BB, 4 K: He entered with decent-enough numbers against C.C. Sabathia (.273 lifetime), and walked and scored to start the game, but then proceeded to strikeout in his next four trips. It's the first time he's struck out four times as a big leaguer, and the first time since July 30, 2011, he's whiffed three times in a game.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||2-for-5, 2 R, 2B, K: He was in the middle of a couple Sox rallies, scoring in the first and third -- the second of which he started with a double into the left-field corner.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||1-for-5, R: He left four runners on base as his average dipped to .291. After the Sox' first 63 games, he was hitting .335 with a .418 OBP and .878 OPS; in the team's next 63 games, his numbers were .249, .322, and .658 in those respective categories.|
|David Ortiz, DH||2-for-4, RBI, BB, 2B, K: Now hitting .361 with a .923 OPS lifetime against Mariano Rivera, Ortiz is feeling good at the plate, and with Mike Napoli dealing with a foot issue Farrell might be tempted to use Ortiz at first base more than the planned three or four times during this six-game interleague swing.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||0-for-2, RBI, 2 BB: After two more walks, his on-base percentage is up to .421 over the past two weeks. It could be a product of more consistent playing time.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||2-for-4, R, RBI, BB, 2B: He began the night hitting .211 from the right side, but after singling and stinging his 33rd double off the left-field wall, Sabathia pitched around him before intentionally issuing ball four to load the bases in the fifth. It cost the Yankees a run when Daniel Nava followed with a walk.|
|Daniel Nava, 1B||0-for-2, RBI, BB, 2 K: In the bottom of the fourth, with nobody out and Saltalamacchia on second, Nava dropped a sacrifice bunt. It worked, as Saltalamacchia took third and later scored on Stephen Drew's sacrifice fly. But, still, it seemed curious so early in a game where C.C. Sabathia never seemed entirely comfortable.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||0-for-3, RBI, SF, 2 K: His sac fly to center scored Saltalamacchia, and made it 17 of his last 18 games in which he's had a hit, a walk, or an RBI. He also robbed Rodriguez of a hit with a nice defensive play -- probably to the bemusement of Yankee management.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||2-for-3, R, RBI, BB, 2B, HR: Perhaps most encouraging about his opposite-field homer and his double to the left-field corner was that both came when he was behind in the count. He struggled in those situations at Pawtucket, and in the big leagues early in the year.|
|Ryan Dempster, SP||5.1 IP, 9 H, 7 ER, BB, 3 K, HBP, HR: The veteran posted a 3.86 ERA over a two-month stretch that took him into August, though this month his ERA is 7.40 -- and that includes seven innings of one-run ball in the start before Sunday.|
|Drake Britton, RP||0.1 IP, 2 H: Over his first eight outings, Britton had a 0.79 ERA and had allowed only one of six inherited runners to score. Since then, in four games, he's allowed all five inherited runners to cross the plate -- including all three Sunday, when he surrendered a bases-clearing triple to Brett Gardner -- and his ERA is 15.00.|
|Brandon Workman, SP||IP, ER, H, K: Curtis Granderson reached on a fielder's choice, then scored after stealing second -- spotlighting what is emerging as a weakness for Workman. He's now allowed five stolen bases in his last four appearances, with only one attempted theft thwarted.|
|Franklin Morales, RP||0.2 IP, 2 H, K: He didn't look particularly sharp, but with two on and nobody out in the eighth he bore down and struck out Robinson Cano after falling behind 3-1.|
|Junichi Tazawa, RP||0.2 IP, H, K: He inherited the two runners left by Morales, and started his performance by exploding a 96 mph heater past a late-swinging Soriano. He would've been out of the jam altogether if Pedroia handled Rodriguez's tough one-hopper, but instead he was forced to prompt a pop-out from Granderson with a full count and the bases loaded.|
|Rubby De La Rosa, RP||IP, ER, 2 H, 2 HBP: Put himself in a bad spot by plunking .230 hitter Jayson Nix, letting him advance on a wild pitch, then paying the runner no attention as the shortstop stole third without a throw. One pitch later, Chris Stewart singled him in. Ultimately the inning became a reminder that De La Rosa was averaging 4.9 walks per nine innings at Pawtucket.|
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||3-for-5, 2 RBI, K, 2B: His sixth-inning double knocked Kuroda from the game, as Ellsbury drove the ball into deep right to score Jarrod Saltalamacchia. With 41, he's now three behind Pedroia for multi-hit games this season, and tied for ninth in the AL.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||2-for-5, K: Out of the original lineup until Mike Napoli was pulled because of a foot issue, he snapped an 0-for-14 skid by legging out an infield single in the third, then chipped in with another hit later.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||0-for-5, 2 K: He had a strong game defensively, making a couple of tough plays going up the middle and turning two double plays, and it appears he'll be okay after fouling a ball off his foot in the eighth and leaving the game.|
|David Ortiz, DH||2-for-4, 2 R, RBI, BB, K: He slugged his 24th of the year off Adam Warren in the seventh, moving into a tie with the Orioles' Adam Jones for 10th in the AL this season.|
|Mike Carp, 1B||2-for-5, R, 2B, SB: His second career stolen base immediately resulted in a run, as his taking third on the front end of a double steal enabled Will Middlebrooks' infield single to bring him home.|
|Daniel Nava, LF||2-for-3, R, BB, K, 2 2B: His two doubles off Hiroki Kuroda were his third and fourth in the last two starts -- a good sign, considering he recently had four over a span of 23 games (18 starts). His average is back up to .292, and his OPS is at .811.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||0-for-4, R, RBI, SB: It was a hitless day, but he still found a way to contribute, including a nice over-the-shoulder catch where he doubled-off Alfonso Soriano on the play when the Yankee outfielder strayed too far from second.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||1-for-4, R, RBI, K: His RBI single was a significant play in the game, as his knock scored Nava to increase Boston's lead from 3-1 to 4-1, and put Kuroda on the ropes before Ellsbury knocked him out.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||2-for-3, RBI, BB, K: Make it seven straight with a hit for Middlebrooks, who has increased his average from .192 to .217 since his promotion from Pawtucket on Aug. 10.|
|John Lackey, SP||6.2 IP, 6 H, ER, 3 BB, K, 2B. He helped himself with a couple of nice defensive plays, too, leaving to a rousing ovation after lowering his ERA to 3.22. That's 12th in the AL, and second-best among qualified pitchers from the East -- trailing only Kuroda (2.41).|
|Craig Breslow, RP||0.2 IP, H: He allowed an infield single to pinch-hitter Vernon Wells, but then retired two lefties -- Ichiro Suzuki and Robinson Cano -- to leave a clean slate for Tazawa.|
|Junichi Tazawa, RP||0.2 IP, K: He was called upon to face the Yankees' hottest hitter in the eighth, that being Soriano, and he struck him out swinging at the end of a nine-pitch battle. Then he got Alex Rodriguez on a fly to right.|
|Koji Uehara, RP||IP, H, 2 K: He allowed a double to (old friend?) Lyle Overbay, but still got through the ninth in 13 pitches. He's thrown 169 pitches in the past month; he threw 229 the previous month. Even using him in non-save situations, the closer role is helping to preserve his arm.|
Looking at a few numbers that may explain how the Red Sox have lost six of eight, and now trail the Rays by one game in the loss column…
0-3 – When it got to Toronto, Boston was 16-11 in one-run games, good for a .592 winning percentage. Since then they’ve lost all three such contests, sliding to 16-14, and .533.
18-for-79 -- Since going 8-for-15 on the second night in Houston, those are the Sox numbers when batting with runners in scoring position over their last nine games. That’s a .228 batting average; prior to this stretch, they were hitting .277.
3.4 runs per game – Despite 79 at-bats with runners in scoring position, the Sox have scored just 26 runs over that span (3.7 per game). They had been scoring 5.1 runs per contest previously.
2 – That’s how many wins have been credited to Red Sox starting pitchers this month, and they came on back-to-back days when Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront beat the Diamondbacks on Aug. 3 and 4.
9 – Including seven over the past three games, the Sox have committed nine errors over the past eight games. Stephen Drew has two of them, after previously committing three all season.
1 earned run in 21.1 innings – That’s what the Red Sox have managed against left-handed starters over the past eight games, going 0-3 against the less-than-imposing veteran trio of Bruce Chen, Mark Buehrle, and Andy Pettitte.
.207 – David Ortiz has two homers and a double over this stretch, though those signify half of his hits in 29 at-bats and 33 plate appearances.
.118/.211/.147/.358 – Shane Victorino’s average/OBP/Slugging/OPS over the eight-game stretch.
6 – Only three Red Sox hitters with at least 20 plate appearances over the past eight games have an OPS over .700 (Will Middlebrooks, .978; Jarrod Saltalamacchia, .812; David Ortiz, .751). Six own an OPS of .692 or worse.
7.27 – The collective ERA of Felix Doubront, John Lackey, and Jake Peavy is more than three runs worse than the league average over the last eight games, five of which they’ve started.
16.88 ERA – Drake Britton has been touched for five earned runs in 2.2 innings pitched, allowing 11 of the 18 hitters he’s faced to reach base.
3.1 BB/9 IP, 6.1 K/9 IP – Those are the numbers of the Red Sox pitching staff since the start of the Kansas City series. The free passes are slightly worse than league average, while the strikeouts are equivalent to second-worst in the AL this season.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||1-for-5, K: Since going 4-for-5 at Kansas City last Saturday, the center fielder is 3-for -25 with one walk and six strikeouts.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||0-for-4: The previously referenced slump has cost him 17 points on his batting average and 43 points on his OPS, and while John Farrell referred to pulling him from Friday’s game as precautionary, it prompts the question of whether he could use some rest for his hamstring.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||2-for-4, 2 R, K: He takes the field for his 30th birthday 5-for his last-9, and having totaled five hits in consecutive games for the first time since late June. His average is at .295.|
|David Ortiz, DH||1-for-4, RBI, K: With the Red Sox chasing a six-run deficit in the seventh, Ortiz was thrown out by Alfonzo Soriano attempting to get to second after a single. At that point in the game, with that deficit, that can’t happen.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||1-for-4, RBI: His single to center scored Pedroia with the Sox’ first run in the fourth, and for the first time since June 6-8, he went consecutive starts with neither a strikeout nor a walk.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||2-for-4, R, K, 2B: Since Jose Iglesias was traded, Drew is hitting .355 with a .438 OBP, .516 slugging, and .954 OPS.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||1-for-3, BB, 2B: He hasn’t struck out in consecutive games, just the seventh time he’s done that this season. His season-long is three games. Meanwhile, he has delivered an extra-base hit in back-to-back starts for the first time in four weeks.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||1-for-4, RBI, K: His single up the middle gave the Sox some life, cutting the Yanks’ lead to 7-3 in the seventh. Behind the plate, however, he surrendered three stolen bases – including one apiece to the slothenly duo of Alex Rodriguez and Alfonzo Soriano.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||1-for-2: He had a hit in his sixth straight game since being recalled to the big leagues before being pulled for pinch-hitter Mike Carp – who was ejected after striking out instead of (as he believed) reaching on a hit by pitch.|
|Felix Doubront, SP||4 IP, 8 H, 6 ER, 4 BB, 8 K, 2 HR. It was his first start since early May that he allowed more than three earned runs – but his second straight brutal outing. He hasn’t retired a batter in the fifth since Aug. 4, and the start before that he didn’t get an out in the sixth.|
|Rubby De La Rosa, RP||2.1 IP, 2 H, BB, K: The results were there, though it wasn’t as clean as the total picture would suggest. He needed 39 pitches to get seven outs, partially because only 21 of them were strikes.|
|Franklin Morales, RP||1.2 IP, BB: In contrast to De La Rosa, Morales needed only 22 pitches to get five outs, stranding the runner he inherited.|
|Drake Britton, RP||IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 3 K: He struck out the side – but what happened otherwise amounts to his worst outing as a big-leaguer, and took away any chance the Red Sox had of coming back.|
The Red Sox couldn’t complete another comeback, losing to a team that began the day 17 games behind them in the standings and starting a pitcher who’d recently been demoted from their rotation. They stranded five runners over the final two innings, went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position, and basically gave the Blue Jays a run early by committing two throwing errors on the same play.
They lost a game on their lead over the Rays in the AL East. And they fell for the fourth time in six tilts, now needing a win Thursday to salvage a split on a 10-game roadtrip that featured visits to two last-place clubs. It was a bad loss.
But, looking at the bigger picture, Wednesday was a good day for the Red Sox.
It was a good day because although the Sox left the bases loaded afterward, then men on first and second in the 10th, Mike Napoli’s two-out, game-tying home run in the ninth could be just the spark of confidence needed to snap a brutal slump that’s left Boston without one of its big middle-of-the-order bats for the better part of a month. He was brought here to hit fifth, and to mash lefties, but Napoli was dropped to seventh in the lineup on Wednesday night, and while doing so Manager John Farrell suggested Mike Carp or Daniel Nava could soon be getting more regular playing time at first base. Napoli needs to first make consistent contact, then start slugging again in order to reestablish himself. Wednesday was a good start on both of those goals.
It was a good day because before the night began, Clay Buchholz threw a 50-pitch bullpen session – ramping up as high as 80 or 85 percent of max effort – and came through with no soreness. There’s still a lot of progress to be made before he’s pitching again in the big leagues, and we should know by now to anticipate some sort of setback, but Wednesday at least flashed some light at the end of a tunnel the Sox hopes leads to their ace on the mound in the playoffs.
It was a good day because, despite incurring the loss, Brandon Workman continued to prove himself out of the bullpen. After striking out three of the six hitters he faced on Saturday in Kansas City, he stranded the only runner he inherited from Jon Lester in the seventh, then allowed only a walk between the eighth and the ninth. Eventually the Jays reached for a run in the 10th, but overall the manager trusted him to keep the score where it was, then tested him by keeping him in with the game on the line, and he responded well enough to get more of those opportunities moving forward.
It was a good day because Workman’s length allowed Farrell to stay away from what has become the big three at the back of his bullpen – Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa, and Koji Uehara – and every high-pressure inning spared from those arms could be important coming down the stretch and into an October.
It was a good day because Jon Lester showed an ability to grind through and keep his team in the game. The lefty didn’t have his best stuff -- allowing six hits and two walks, hitting a batter, and generating only five swing-and-miss strikes in 114 pitches – and he didn’t help himself by committing two errors. But with all those baserunners, and all the trouble he’s had lately making pitches with two outs, or two strikes, or with men on base, it was a positive sign for the Sox to see Lester battle his way through.
It was a good day because Will Middlebrooks continues to play like he belongs at this level. He doubled and was hit by a pitch in four trips, moving him to .400 with a .471/.533/1.004 slash line in four games since his recall from Pawtucket. He looks comfortable again, which couldn’t be said before he was sent down.
And it was a good day because for as poorly as they played, the Sox still found themselves in position to win the game. Much has been made of their attitude, character, chemistry, and whatever other intangibles they’ve used to pull so many games out of the fire – and all that praise is valid and true and warranted. But sometimes in giving so much credit to those emotional attributes we undersell the talent on this team, and underrate it from a pure baseball perspective. More than anything, it takes good players for a team to put itself a bloop or a bleeder away from stealing a game it has no business winning based on the way it played before that point.
Wednesday offered another reminder that the Red Sox have those good players – and that if Napoli can get himself going, if Buchholz continues working his way back, if Workman can fill a role in the bullpen, if Lester shows an ability to grind, and if Middlebrooks can contribute, this club should be deep in dangerous come October.
And more good days are still to come.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||1-for-5, 2 K: His infield single loaded the bases for Shane Victorino in the ninth, but he was left there. That was the Sox’ only hit of the night with runners in scoring position, and it didn’t even result in a run.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||0-for-4, BB, K: He had a chance to play hero for a second straight night, but he flew out to left with the bases loaded and the game tied in the ninth. He also made his third error of the season as part of the comical sequence that allowed Rajai Davis to circle the bases after hitting the ball back to the pitcher.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||1-for-5, 2 K: As much as it feels like Napoli has been struggling, consider that over the past four weeks, Pedroia’s average is only four points better (.194-.190) and his OPS is 135 points lower (.699-.564)|
|David Ortiz, DH||1-for-5, R, RBI, HR, K: A solo shot was good for his 23rd homer and 75th RBI of the year. He later tried to bunt his way on in the ninth – not a bad idea with the infield shifted and the Sox down by two – but his execution was awful, and he was thrown out.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||1-for-4, R, BB, K: John Farrell suggested before the game that the competitiveness of Gomes’ at-bats against righties could earn him more opportunities. He had an infield hit off Esmil Rogers and saw a team-high 23 pitches for the night, ultimately walking off lefty Brett Cecil ahead of Napoli’s homer.|
|Stephen Drew, SSs||0-for-4, BB, K: The shortstop nearly came up with Brett Lawrie’s game-winning single, but it nipped off the end of his glove and went into left field.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||1-for-5, R, 2 RBI, HR: How’s this for a surprise: Every Sox starter struck out at least once except Napoli. Sometimes all it takes is one big hit to turn things around, and his two-run, game-tying homer in the ninth would certainly qualify.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||2-for-4, 2 K: He connected for two doubles, extending his career best and giving him 32 for the year. The second came in the ninth, when he was lifted for a pinch runner (Brock Holt).|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||1-for-3, 2B, HBP, K: Most encouraging about Middlebrooks’ double might’ve been that it came after he fell behind in the count 1-2. He subsequently laid off a pitch that went for a ball, then whacked his two-bagger to the opposite field.|
|Jon Lester, SP||6.1 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 3 K. He threw 72 of his 114 pitches for strikes, but the Blue Jays drove up his pitch count with 28 foul balls, and never allowed him to get through one inning completely cleanly.|
|Brandon Workman, RP||3 IP, ER, 2 H, 2 BB, 4 K: He’s now allowed five runs in 18.1 innings a starter, and 10 runs in 11 innings as a reliever. But over his last two appearances out of the bullpen he’s worked 5.1 innings while allowing only four hits and two walks, with one of those walks intentional and offset by seven strikeouts.|
Looking beyond the box score as we wonder how last night – and this season – might be different if the Red Sox had gone the safer route and re-signed Cody Ross (who just went down for the year with a dislocated hip) rather than make a three-year commitment to Shane Victorino...
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||1-for-6, 2 R, RBI, K, 2 SB: Now up to 44 steals, he’s approaching the second-most of his career. For now, that’s 50, which came in 2008 – when he was caught 11 times. So far this season, he’s been nabbed only four times.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||1-for-5, 2 RBI: His 11th-inning, game-winning single gave him a hit in four straight games, and prolonged a hot streak that’s seen him hit .350 with a .942 OPS over his past 14 games – while dealing with an injury that’s prompted him to hit right-handed versus some righties.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||2-for-6, RBI, 2B: The multi-hit game was just Pedroia’s third of the month, and fifth since the All-Star game. He had five in the 11 games that preceded the break.|
|David Ortiz, DH||2-for-3, 2 BB, K, 2B: The Red Sox went 3-for-14 with runners in scoring position, but don’t blame Big Papi: neither he nor Jarrod Saltalamacchia ever got an opportunity.|
|Daniel Nava, LF||1-for-2: Singled in one of his two trips before Jonny Gomes took over, the substitute walking and striking out in three plate appearances.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||0-for-5, 3 K: The struggles continue for Napoli, who’s 0-for his last-12 and has struck out three times in three consecutive games.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||0-for-5, 2 K: Even after going hitless in five trips, he still has the third-best slugging percentage (.434) among Tuesday’s Sox starters, trailing only Ortiz (.584) and Saltalamacchia (.447).|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||1-for-4, R, BB, 2B, 2 K: The catcher hit the 30-double plateau for the first time in his career.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||2-for-5, R, 2B, K: The third baseman knocked his 14th double of the year in extending his streak to four straight games with a hit since being brought back up to the majors.|
|Ryan Dempster, SP||7 IP, 4 H, ER, 2 BB, 4 K. The veteran righty was terrific, needing only 88 pitches to navigate seven strong innings in which he allowed only six baserunners. His ERA is now 4.50 – which represents the baseline ERA for a quality start.|
|Junichi Tazawa, RP||1.2 IP, 2 H, BB, K, HR: He wasn’t as sharp as he’s been lately, surrendering a gopher ball – and the lead – to the Blue Jays’ J.P. Arencibia.|
|Craig Breslow, RP||IP, 2 K: As Breslow continues to get the job done and solidify himself as a late-inning stalwart for the Sox, Ben Cherington’s under-the-radar move of Breslow for Matt Albers last July becomes all the more shrewd.|
|Koji Uehara, RP||1.1 IP, K: The closer got the win by retiring all four hitters he faced and dropping his ERA to 1.32.|
After the Red Sox dropped three of four in Kansas City, losing a series for the first time this month, and losing a road series for just the seventh time in 19 opportunities this season, let’s get right to drilling into the box score…
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||0-for-5, K: A day after collecting four hits and acting as a catalyst for the Sox offense, he did nothing with James Shields, then struck out swinging against Greg Holland to end the game..|
|Shane Victorino, RF||1-for-3, R, 2B, SB:.Doubled in the first inning, took third on his 16th steal of the year, then scored the game’s first run when Royals catcher Salvador Perez threw the ball away trying to pick him off.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||0-for-3, BB: After seeming to regain his form during the latter part of the Sox last homestand, The second baseman is now 3-for his last-18. His average is correspondingly down to .29 1..|
|David Ortiz, DH||0-for-4, K: Like Pedroia, Ortiz struggled over the weekend, going hitless in his final eight at-bats and Sunday failing to reach base for the first time in his last 24 games.|
|Daniel Nava, LF||1-for-3, R, K: Nava registered just his second infield hit of the season, which put him on for Ryan Lavarnway’s two-run single in the sixth that made the score 4-3. He was then lifted for Jonny Gomes in the eighth; Gomes drew a walk.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||0-for-3, BB, 3 K: Sunday was the second straight day in which Napoli struck out three times, bringing his total to 155 on the season. At this rate, Mark Bellhorn’s team record of 177 for a single season could be wiped out before September.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||2-for-4, R, 2B, K: With a single and a double, the shortstop is now 19-for-45 over a 12-game hitting streak. That run has elevated his average to .255 and his OPS to .781 on the season.|
|Ryan Lavarnway, C||2-for-4, 2 RBI: He came up with a big, run-producing hit for the second time on this trip, and has begun to look comfortable in the big leagues. It’s a modest sample size, but he’s got six hits in his past 16 at-bats – just as David Ross is about a week away from returning to the backup role behind the plate.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||1-for-3, BB, 2 K: He continued the positivity of his return by following up Saturday’s 2-for-4 with a third-inning single, He’d walk in the fifth, another good sign for where his head is at, even if he struck out twice..|
|John Lackey, SP||7 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, HR: He allowed all four of Kansas City’s tallies over the first three innings, then settled and kept the Royals at bay. He dropped to 7-10 with the loss, but his ERA remains at a very respectable 3.32 and he kept himself in the game long enough to record a seventh-inning out for the 10th time in 11 starts..|
|Drake Britton, RP||1 IP, 2 H, 2 BB, K: Britton allowed four baserunners over his one inning of work, including an intentional walk to Perez, but he danced his way around the threats to escape without damage by inducing a ground ball force out at home and then striking out Jarrod Dyson with the bases loaded. Despite that Houdini act, he didn’t likely strengthen his case that he deserves consideration in higher-leverage situations.|
Without a doubt, preparations and research are already being done on the binder that Scott Boras will send to teams as a centerpiece in his efforts to convince some club that Jacoby Ellsbury is worthy of giving a nine-figure contract. But he might save himself him time, and just ship out DVDs of Saturday night’s Red Sox-Royals game.
In one, tidy three-hour-and-28-minute package, the center fielder displayed all the areas in which he has the ability to impact the game, connecting for two singles and two doubles, driving in two, stealing a base, and making a couple of above-average defensive plays that helped spare the Sox a few runs.
All that was missing, really, was a home run – but Ellsbury hit two of those in one game a few days ago, and he’s got four since the All-Star break to continue a torrid stretch that dates all the way back to a walkoff hit in late May and has reinstalled him as one of the premier players in the game.
That’s not a subjective opinion, either. Even with a slow start that left his batting average mired in the .240s after seven weeks, after Saturday’s 4-for-5 performance, Ellsbury now ranks fifth among American League position players in Wins Above Replacement (according to the Baseball-Reference.com formula), his 5.1 trailing only the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera (6.5), the Angels’ Mike Trout (6.3), and the Orioles’ tandem of Manny Machado (5.3) and Chris Davis (5.1). Talk about elite company.
Fangraphs.com calculates WAR a little differently. But they still hold Ellsbury in elite regard. Per those calculations, Ellsbury has been worth 4.6 wins above the replacement-level player, putting him in a tie for 11th in all of baseball and 6th in the AL, behind the four aforementioned players and the Rays’ Evan Longoria.
Fangraphs takes its value estimations one step further, too – and this is where Red Sox fans should really make a point to enjoy Ellsbury this season, because he’s playing his way into an enormous contract that’ll likely come elsewhere. Having determined the dollar value of a victory by weighing a wide variety of factors, and the market, the site says Ellsbury’s contributions this year have been worth $22.8 million to the Red Sox. And it’s not even midway through August.
There’ll be other factors considered when a team decides what it’ll offer Ellsbury this winter, specifically that he’ll be turning 30 next month, that he’s missed a significant chunk of two seasons with injuries, that his power isn’t what it appeared to be when he nearly won the MVP two years ago. As a result, it’s unlikely anyone will be him $22.8 million on the open market.
But Saturday was certainly a reminder that – binder or not – there’s a decent chance Boras will convince somebody to come close.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||4-for-5, 2 RBI, 2 2B, SB: The one thing Ellsbury didn’t do was score. He was forced out, thrown out trying to turn a double into a triple, and stranded twice on a night the Sox went 3-for-9 with runners in scoring position.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||1-for-5, K, SB: The steal was his 15th of the year, putting Victorino on track to finish the year in the neighborhood of .290, 10 homers, 20 steals. With his excellent defense, that’d be a really nice season.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||1-for-4, BB, 2 K: In case you’re curious, he ranks 6th among AL position players in Baseball-Reference’s WAR calculations, and 18th according to Fangraphs. The former rates him as the AL’s most valuable infield defender, and second only to KC outfielder Lorenzo Cain at any position.|
|David Ortiz, DH||0-for-4, BB, K: He came up twice with runners in scoring position and failed to get them home both times.|
|Mike Carp, LF||2-for-3, R, BB: Carp had been in a bit of a funk, though a couple of hits is an encouraging indication that he could be heating up again.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||0-for-4, 3 K: Just when it was beginning to look as though Napoli getting bumped down the lineup and given a night off might’ve sparked a change of fortune, the only contact he made was a flyout to center.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||1-for-4, R, K: His impending free agency is discussed far less than Ellsbury’s – but as of now his .779 OPS is just a fraction behind Pedroia’s .781 and Napoli’s .783. For a catcher, that’s fantastic.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||1-for-4, R, 2B, RBI, K: Another productive night for the shortstop, whose double with one out and two on in the fourth opened the scoring for the Sox.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||2-for-4, 2 R, 2 RBI: He made a big contribution in his first game back in the bigs after seven weeks at Triple-A, stretching the Sox’ lead to 3-0 after Drew’s double. He left Pawtucket on a seven-game hitting streak, so there’s a chance the timing was perfect as far as riding the hot bat.|
|Felix Doubront, SP||4 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 4 BB, 3 K: He kept alive his streak of starts allowing three earned runs or less, though he was pulled after 98 pitches and four grinding innings. Part of the problem was falling behind 10 of the 22 men he faced.|
|Brandon Workman, RP||1.1 IP, 2 H, 3 K: They’d prefer not to call upon him quite that early, but otherwise Workman fulfilled exactly the role he’s expected to play. Working parts of two innings, he got three of his four outs via strikeout, and kept the score where it was.|
|Craig Breslow, RP||0.2 IP: One batter, six pitches, five strikes, double play. Can’t ask for much better than that from the lefty.|
|Junichi Tazawa, RP||2 IP, 2 H, 2 K: Tazawa has been really good lately, and Saturday was no different. He came on against the heart of Kansas City’s lineup and twice pitched around doubles to keep the lead at 5-3.|
|Koji Uehara, RP||1 IP: Save No. 12 was perfect for the right-hander, who induced two grounders and a fly to left.|
When it was all said and done -- once a 9-6 loss was official, and after Jake Peavy's line in his second start as a member of the Red Sox showed him allowing six runs over five innings -- John Farrell pinpointed the problem that prompted those results.
“I think," the manager told reporters in Kansas City, "the put-away pitch was a little elusive for him."
Indeed, it was more elusive for Peavy then it's been in a decade, as Friday marked the first time since June 22, 2003, that the accomplished right-hander failed to register a strikeout in a start of at least five innings. (The last time he didn't notch a punchout in any start was on June 4 of this year, when he yielded six runs in 2.1 innings, then spent the next seven weeks on the disabled list.)
The Royals deserve some of the credit for that, of course. They've struck out fewer times than any team in the major leagues this season -- 235 fewer times than the Red Sox, actually -- so they generally do a good job of putting the ball in play. And when the ball is put into play, anything can happen. There are occasionally nights like Friday, when Kansas City's batting average was .424 on balls in play.
But Peavy's frustration was a product of his inability to finish the job after putting himself in position to get outs -- and specifically after his teammates put him in a position to win the game.
The Sox offense struck for three runs in the fourth, which staked Peavy to a 6-3 lead, and to that juncture the 32-year-old had effectively capitalized on working himself into pitchers' counts. David Lough's second-inning RBI single came on a 2-2 changeup, but Peavy had successfully retired eight of the 10 hitters he'd gotten to two strikes.
That began to change in the fifth, when Billy Butler lined a hit to left after falling behind 0-2. And then things unraveled quickly in the sixth. Peavy left the game after three successive singles, the first and third of which came on 1-2 fastballs. At that point he was up to 105 pitches, but more damning for his immediate future was his lack of finish in each battle.
Peavy's average of 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings is above the league average, and at this point in his career he relies heavily on not giving away bases with walks and putting hitters away when he has the opportunity to do so. He did fine with the first part Friday, walking only one -- but he struggled mightily with the second.
And, afforded little relief by the pitchers who followed, the Sox saw how much of a battle it can be for him when that's the case.
"A lot of two-strike hits," Peavy told reporters after seeing the Royals go 5-for-13 (.385) with two strikes. The AL average in that situation this season is .178. "My stuff just wasn't sharp at all."
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||1-for-4, BB, SB: An active night for the leadoff man included a single, his 41st steal, a pretty leaping catch at the wall in center, and a 10-pitch walk.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||1-for-4, R, BB, K: His single started Boston's first-inning rally that threatened to produce more than just one run, then he walked to get the tying run to the plate in the eighth.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||1-for-4, R, BB: Came up with two on and nobody out in the eighth, with the Sox trailing by three, and crushed the ball -- right at the third baseman, who stepped on the bag and started a 5-4 double play that squashed hopes of a rally.|
|David Ortiz, DH||2-for-5, 2 R, RBI, HR: His 22nd tater of the year traveled 405 feet to right-center, an encouraging show of power after a stretch in which he's been much more of a singles hitter.|
|Daniel Nava, LF||1-for-4, R, RBI, HBP, K: He whacked a single to right, scoring Victorino with the first run of the game. He was also hit by an Ervin Santana pitch, his AL-leading 13th HBP of the season.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||2-for-3, R, 3 RBI, 2B, BB, HBP, K: It was a very encouraging night for Napoli, whose biggest hit was a bases-clearing, two-out double to right. He also had a single, a walk, and was hit by a pitch, meaning he reached base in four of five trips.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||1-for-5, 2 K: He singled and scored in the Sox' two-run third, though he failed to deliver in two opportunities to hit with runners in scoring position. Nevertheless, he's still had a hit in every game since Jose Iglesias was traded.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||2-for-4, RBI: Both doubling on Friday, he and Napoli remain tied for the team lead with 29 two-baggers. Saltalamacchia's latest was a two-run knock that put the Red Sox up 3-2 in the third.|
|Brock Holt, 3B||0-for-4: The slumping third baseman is now 1-for his last-20 -- and with every unsuccessful at-bat from he or Brandon Snyder, Xander Bogaerts (or Will Middlebrooks) seems one step closer to the big leagues.|
|Jake Peavy, SP||5 IP, 10 H, 6 ER, BB, 2 HR: He managed just one 1-2-3 inning, the fourth, and the two long balls made it seven straight starts in which he's allowed at least one homer. This season he's surrendered 17 circuit clouts in 92 innings -- four more than he allowed in his entire 2007 Cy Young campaign.|
|Drake Britton, RP||0.2 IP, H, 2 ER, BB: The rookie lefty came on with the Sox up two and a man on with nobody out in the sixth, and left with Boston trailing 7-6 after a walk, a single, and a sacrifice fly.|
|Pedro Beato, RP||1.1 IP, 3H, ER, BB, K: He didn't put out the fire that Peavy and Britton left smoldering in the sixth, allowing a Billy Butler double, an Alex Gordon walk, and a Jason Maxwell single before escaping the inning.|
|Craig Breslow, RP||1 IP, 2 H, K: He surrendered two singles and a wild pitch, but escaped trouble with the help of a double play and a strikeout.|
It was one of those nights for the Red Sox. Don't hit at all. Don't pitch as well as the other guy. Don't field the ball.
Sometimes it's just that simple, especially when those struggles come against a club that's now won 14 of its last 16, and has outscored its opponents 77-35 over that stretch. If it weren't for the Tigers' ridiculous run that's now up to 12 straight wins, the Royals would be regarded as the hottest team in the American League, so it's no surprise that they capitalized on the Sox' struggles -- and there's no time for the Sox to dwell on Thursday. They've got to come back Friday and play better, lest a four-game series really start to get away from them.
Fortunately for Boston, it's got a track record of doing that, at least offensively. Led by lob-ball starter Bruce Chen, Thursday night marked the 17th time the Sox have been limited to one run or less this season -- they've been shut out nine times -- and after the previous 16 instances the Sox have responded nicely the next time out.
In those follow-ups, Boston is averaging 6.1 runs and 10.2 hits. Ten times they've erupted for at least five runs in their next game, and nine times the Sox have totaled double-figures in hits. On a couple of occasions they've been shut down in consecutive games, but other than one four-game stretch last month where they were limited to one run or less three times, a drought of that degree hasn't lasted more than a couple days.
During that span, which ran from July 22-26, the Sox faced Matt Moore, David Price and Chris Tillman -- two 2013 All-Stars and the 2012 AL Cy Young honoree. And while they aren't likely to encounter such a difficult sequence often, the trio of arms the Royals throw the next three nights will be no picnic. Ervin Santana takes a 2.97 ERA into Friday, Saturday starter Jeremy Guthrie has yielded just three runs in his last three starts, and the always-tough James Shield takes the ball Sunday.
That's formidable, especially given how hot the team around them is at this time. Confidence is high at Kauffman Stadium as Kansas City attempts to measure itself against one of the best -- but the Sox needn't worry about that. Their focus is more introspective and simpler: Just play better.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||2-for-4, K: He followed Wednesday's 0-for-5 with a couple of hits, though after the first he was picked off by Chen when he left too early in a steal attempt. It was the fourth time this year he's been caught stealing.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||0-for-4: The Sox finally got a runner to second base in the eighth, and Victorino represented the tying run with two outs -- but he popped up to third, taking his first 0-for in 10 games.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||0-for-3, BB: His five-game hitting streak came to an end, though he did see a team-high 18 pitches and worked the lone walk.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||1-for-4, R, 2B: He doubled late, but his misplay of a ball in left led to two unearned runs that put the Sox in a hole in the first.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||2-for-4, RBI: Moved up to fifth in the order, he stayed on a roll and knocked in Boston's only run. He also committed an error, though -- his fourth in 353 chances this season.|
|Mike Napoli, DH||1-for-4, K: Dropped down to sixth in the order for the first time as a Red Sox, he delivered a single -- but he also struck out and hit into a double play, which he's doing too often of late.|
|Daniel Nava, 1B||1-for-3: Back from the paternity list, he recorded his first hit as a father -- and his first error, too, booting a ball at first base.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||0-for-3: He went without a hit, but also without a strikeout for the seventh time in 11 games. After whiffing 34.4 percent of the time over Boston's first 100 games, his strikeout rate is 15 percent since.|
|Brock Holt, 3B||0-for-3: He had a hit in eight of his first nine games with the Sox -- and is 3-for-25 since.|
|Jon Lester, SP||7 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 4 K: All in all, an encouraging start, as after the first he allowed just two hits without a walk over six innings. It was a good response after his struggles against Arizona.|
|Rubby De La Rosa, RP||IP, 2 H, 2 ER, 2 HR: After his encouraging debut, he surrendered a couple of solo homers in his second appearance. No reason to run from him, but a reminder that he's had control issues at Triple-A, and is still a work in progress in terms of his command.|
As New England joyfully searches for an explanation as to how its local nine team keeps snatching victory from the fire late in games -- which they did again Wednesday night, when Stephen Drew drilled a three-run home run with an out in the ninth to deliver Boston a 7-5 win -- it's logical to praise the intangible. After all, these Red Sox are fun, vivacious, and likable. Those are feelings. And the Sox have this region feeling good.
Thus their late-game heroics are said to be a credit to their character, their attitude, their approach. To their professionalism, their guts, their preparedness. To their self-belief, their effort, their resilience. To the presence of their manager, their veterans, their leadership.
But let's not forget the tangible fact that may explain eight wins when trailing or tied in the ninth, 11 walkoff triumphs, and 27 come-from-behind victories better than anything: This lineup is relentless.
That's no groundbreaking revelation, obviously, considering the Sox woke up Thursday with the second-best offense in baseball. But drill a bit deeper into those 5.09 runs per game, with a particular eye on the way they're built from top to bottom, and that construction might be even more impressive than that aggregate total.
Many have noted that no Boston hitter beyond David Ortiz (and maybe Daniel Nava) is having a career year, which has spawned differing viewpoints about how sustainable the club's offensive success will be moving forward, though what those people miss when looking for the monster numbers is the remarkable depth and consistency throughout the Red Sox order, and how those stats look in the context of the league as a whole.
Check it out for yourself. Here's the Sox' typical lineup, with the on-base plus slugging and adjusted OPS of each player:
Jacoby Ellsbury, .793/115
Shane Victorino, .760/106
Dustin Pedroia, .787/115
David Ortiz, .999/168
Mike Napoli, .783/111
Jonny Gomes, .783/111 or Mike Carp, .923/147
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, .784/111
Stephen Drew, .779/110
Brock Holt, .564/56 or Brandon Snyder, .646/71
Look at that. It says that in every spot from 1-8 in the order, the Sox have received better production than expected when accounting for ballparks and the league as a whole. And when Nava's .791/115 numbers are thrown in the mix, that doesn't even change when their fifth outfielder is plugged in.
Entering Thursday, the average OPS for an American Leaguer is .724 -- yet every night John Farrell is writing out a lineup where everybody except the third base platoon is at least 36 points better than that. Furthermore, while Ortiz is the only Boston hitter inside the AL's top 24 in that category, most nights he's sharing the lineup with six hitters whose OPS is between .779-.793.
And that's a big reason why the Sox are so dangerous late in the game. While other teams might be hoping they get lucky, and the meat of their order happens to come around again in the ninth, it matters very little where Boston is in the order because there isn't a prolonged stretch of vulnerability anywhere in the lineup.
Take Wednesday as an example. Down a run in the ninth, the card said the Sox had their 6 and 7 hitters coming up with pitcher Drake Britton pinch-running at first and one out. Back in the early '90s, the television graphics would've told you one guy was hitting .239 and the other hitting .247.
But Gomes and Drew are much more threatening than those attributes would suggest, and they both showed why. Gomes worked a walk after a lengthy at-bat, then Drew stepped in and belted a Josh Fields fastball into the seats in right. Upon completion of a trot around the bases so stone-faced and business-like it had to be in homage to his brother J.D., the Red Sox' one-run deficit had turned into a two-run lead.
And subsequently their lead in the division stretched to 2.5 games as they were making their way to Kansas City, where they'll encounter a Royals team that's been among the hottest in baseball of late. Wednesday night, KC scored its 15th win in 20 games on the strength of 5.1 scoreless innings from its bullpen -- which had better be ready to come right back Thursday because these Red Sox don't quit late in games or when they're behind. They're confident. They've got chemistry. They grind.
Oh, and they can hit a little bit, too. From top to bottom.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||0-for-5, 2 K: He failed to reach for the first time in 12 games, but he did at least do part of his job as the leadoff man, seeing a team-high 24 pitches.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||1-for-4, K: He was ejected in the top of the seventh after disputing a check-swing call from the previous inning, when he struck out with the bases loaded.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||1-for-4, R, BB: It was an infield single for Pedroia, who chopped one over the mound and reached safely after the pitcher's glove slowed the ball down.|
|David Ortiz, DH||4-for-5: Of Ortiz's last 27 hits, 24 have been singles, but it's good enough to make him 8-for his last-9 and send him up to .332 for the season. The last Sox hitter with back-to-back four-hit games? Carl Crawford. Take that for what it's worth.|
|Mike Carp, LF||1-for-5, R: Carp stepped in at first base -- and filled did his best impression of the August version of Mike Napoli, going 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position, and hitting into two double plays. He did single, too, ahead of Gomes's seventh-inning circuit clout.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||1-for-2, 3 R, 2 RBI, 3 BB, K: In high-leverage situations, Gomes is hitting .283 with a .943 OPS. In low-leverage situations, he's batting .224 with a .755 OPS. Seems about right.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||2-for-4, R, 3 RBI, BB, K: Since the All-Star break, his .998 OPS ranks behind only Wil Myers, Mike Trout, Edwin Encarnacion and Kendrys Morales among AL hitters with 50 ABs. (Ortiz is 6th.)|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||2-for-4, 2B, BB, K: His 28th double put him in a tie with Napoli for the team lead, and over his last 10 games he's hitting .324 with a .943 OPS. Not bad for a guy who's now caught in 89 games this season.|
|Brock Holt, 3B||0-for-1, RBI, 2 BB: Three trips to the plate for Holt before giving way to Snyder (0-for-2, 2 K), and three productive trips: a run-scoring ground out and two free passes.|
|Ryan Dempster, SP||6 IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 7 K, HR: Dempster didn't allow a runner to second base in four of his six frames -- but didn't do a good job of limiting damage in the other two innings, letting three doubles and a homer explode into five runs.|
|Junichi Tazawa, RP||2 IP, 2 K: Two perfect innings for Tazawa further the notion that he's back on track. In August he's thrown 5.2 scoreless innings, allowing only two hits without a walk.|
|Koji Uehara, RP||1 IP, H, 3 K: There was a hit, but he threw 16 of his 19 pitches for strikes, and ultimately struck out the side. He's 6-for-6 in save opportunities since an unearned run blew one for him a month ago.|
You weren't alone if you felt bad for Ryan Lavarnway as he left the field after the first inning Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park.
He'd just matched a major-league record by allowing four passed balls in an inning, and as he was wearing out the path back to the backstop the Astros scored three runs despite managing just a single hit off knuckleballer Steven Wright. He said otherwise afterward -- "You can never get frustrated," the catcher told MLB.com -- but he looked a bit shell-shocked as he retreated to the dugout following the frame. And that look brought a twinge of sympathy when considered in conjunction with the path Lavarnway's career has taken over the past 22 months, then what all of that might mean for him moving forward.
He was the Red Sox' minor-league offensive player of the year in 2010 and 2011, hitting 32 home runs between Double- and Triple-A in the latter of those seasons, which ended with him hitting fifth and protecting Adrian Gonzalez in the lineup as the big-league club tried to stave off its epic collapse. He entered the next season ranked as one of the 100 best prospects in all of baseball.
But he began 2012 back in Pawtucket, where he struggled early, and where he never really found the same power he'd showed since graduating from Yale. He was finally called back up to the majors in August, for good once Kelly Shoppach was shipped off, but Lavarnway hit .157 with a .211 OBP and .248 slugging percentage in 46 games at that level. He could've set himself up to be the Red Sox' catcher against left-handed pitching in 2013 if he'd performed adequately in that audition -- but instead the club was compelled to sign veteran David Ross to a two-year deal last winter.
As a result, Lavarnway went back to the minors to start this year, and though he's been with Boston a couple different times, he hasn't exactly been used in ways that suggest he has the confidence of his manager. Just this past weekend, for instance, Saturday presented a perfect chance to give Jarrod Saltalamacchia a break, given that the Sox were scheduled for a day game after that night game, and the Diamondbacks' left-handed pitcher would force Boston's starting catcher to hit from his far-weaker right side -- yet Lavarnway sat in a spot where Ross almost certainly would've been deployed.
Ross will get his role back as soon as he's healthy, which is expected to be soon. Then it's back to the minors for Lavarnway. And it's not like there's a lot of security there, either. PawSox catcher Dan Butler, who's on Boston's 40-man roster, has a .283 average for the season and a 1.275 OPS over the past month. Christian Vasquez, another on the 40-man, is a defensive whiz and was an Eastern League All-Star this season at age 22. And Baseball America just named Blake Swihart the best defensive catcher in the Single-A Carolina League. With all that on the way, and with the two major-league jobs currently secured, it's hard to see Lavarnway sticking with the organization for much longer if he doesn't start to show more.
So, yeah, you couldn't but help but feel sorry for the guy being made to look bad by the nastiness of Wright's knuckler in the first inning, then followed it up by striking out in each of his first two at-bats. But give him credit for never feeling sorry for himself.
And subsequently for shaking off all that grounds for frustration to deliver what might've been the biggest hit among the 15 that rendered a 15-10 Red Sox win over the Astros.
After Wright's ugly inning, and after eventually falling behind 5-0, the Red Sox fought themselves into a position where they were down just 7-6 with two outs and two on in the top of the fifth. David Ortiz was on third, Stephen Drew was on first, and Lavarnway was in the batter's box to take a swing at redemption. He wasted no time before taking that hack, either, whacking Jordan Lyles' first pitch to the gap in left-center, sending a happy Ortiz hopping home and scoring Drew all the way from first.
After a game and a half full of frustration against the lowly Astros, the Red Sox finally had a lead, 8-7, as Lavarnway trotted into second and looked toward the dugout as he nodded his head. The Sox had finally scaled a hill that proved much more difficult to climb than they expected, but they never looked back once Lavarnway pushed them over.
"Nobody ever gave up in that game," he told reporters. "We never said quit."
Lavarnway would go hitless in both of his next two at-bats, striking out in one of them to finish 1-for-5 with three whiffs. With those tries included, he's now hitting .250 in 16 big-league games this season, and is hitting .180 with a .511 OPS since he was trusted in the middle of the order that night in Baltimore where the Sox were trying to save their season. As he celebrates his 26th birthday today, there are legitimate questions about what the future of his career -- in Boston and in general -- holds in store. But Tuesday night against the Astros he may have answered some of the questions relevant in the moment, overcoming some early trouble to play hero when the opportunity arose.
And for that, you also weren't alone if you wound up feeling pretty good for the guy.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||2-for-4, 4 R, 3 RBI, 2 BB, K, 2 HR: It took him 80 games to hit two homers this season; Tuesday he had that many through seven innings. He's got four since the All-Star break -- and don't look now, but all of sudden he's up to fourth in the AL with 4.7 WAR.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||3-for-5, 4 R, 2B, BB, K: Ho hum. Just another multi-hit game for the right fielder, who has six of those in his last eight contests.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||2-for-5, R, 2 RBI, 2B, HBP, K: Now 11-for-35 (.314) over the past eight games, things seem to have stabilized for Pedroia -- whose opposite field double in the fifth was a piece of pure hitting beauty.|
|David Ortiz, DH||4-for-4, 2 R, 2 RBI, BB: For what it's worth, this marked Big Papi's second 4-for-4 performance in the past 10 days. Of those eight hits, seven are singles. The other is a homer. (In fact, 20 of Ortiz's last 23 hits are singles.)|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||0-for-4, R, 2 BB, 2 K: The first four hitters in the Sox lineup combined to score 11 runs -- despite Napoli going hitless in six plate appearances, five of which he came up with at least a runner on, and four of which he stepped in with one or more runner in scoring position.|
|Mike Carp, LF||0-for-3, RBI, K: Carp wasn't a big part of the fun, but Jonny Gomes (2-for-3) jumped in on it as soon as John Farrell let him loose, slugging a three-run pinch-hit homer that stretched the Sox' lead from 10-7 to 13-7 and effectively put it away.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||1-for-2, R, 3 BB: He's now reached base in 19 of 33 plate appearances over the past week, lifting his average 20 points (to .246) and his OBP 27 points (to .335) in seven days.|
|Ryan Lavarnway, C||1-for-5, 2 RBI, 2B, 3 K: After his defensive trouble early, he made a nice throw to nab Jonathan Villar trying to steal third in the fourth. That helped keep the Sox deficit at 7-3, and set the stage for Boston's five-run fifth.|
|Brock Holt, 3B||0-for-5, R: He's now 3-for-20 with a walk and two sacrifices since being called up on the final day of July, even with most of those at-bats coming under the friendly circumstances of his platoon with Brandon Snyder.|
|Steven Wright, SP||IP, H, 3 ER, 2 BB, K, WP: Someday he should tell his grandchildren that he gave up one hit in his first major-league start ... and hope they don't ask any further questions.|
|Brandon Workman, RP||4.2 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 2 BB, 2 K, 2 HR: It wasn't pretty for the pitcher the Sox might be hoping is a major weapon for them out of the bullpen, but he did at least get them to the later innings by spending 91 pitches.|
|Drake Britton, RP||2.1 IP, H, ER, 2 K, HR: He allowed his first big-league run, but it came on a solo homer that represented the only hit he allowed. It was solid work that saved Farrell from needing to call on the core of his bullpen.|
|Rubby De La Rosa, RP||1 IP, 2 K: His first outing for the Red Sox was electric, as he worked quickly and challenged hitters with heat that reached as high as 98. He's a very intriguing option as a reliever -- if he can throw strikes. Tuesday he was 12-for-16 in that regard.|
These things happen in sports. Especially in baseball. Sometimes the worst team in the league beats the best team in the league -- and sometimes the worst pitching staff in the game shuts down the game's second-best offense. Both happened Monday night in Houston, where the Astros beat the Red Sox, 2-0, behind the pitching of the inimitable Brett Oberholtzer and Boston's general inability to execute.
Against an Astros team that entered with an earned run average almost half a run worse than the next-worst team in the majors, and a full run worse than the MLB average, the most frustrating of the Red Sox' failures was the trouble they had with the bats, and particularly in taking advantage of their opportunities.
Oberholtzer was good, and he validated the seven scoreless innings he threw against Baltimore in his first big-league start by matching that line Monday -- but the Red Sox had chances. Boston put runners aboard in six of the nine innings, and in five of those frames they advanced a runner into scoring position, though they repeatedly lacked the key hit and left those men stranded.
Stephen Drew popped out with two on in the second. Dustin Pedroia got caught stealing in the fourth. Brandon Snyder flew out after Drew's two-out double in the fifth. Mike Napoli grounded harmlessly to second with two on ahead of him in the sixth. Drew and Snyder both struck out -- Oberholtzer's only two Ks of the night -- after Jonny Gomes doubled and moved to third on Jarrod Saltalamacchia's flyout in the seventh. Then Napoli whiffed to leave the tying runs on the corners in the eighth.
Collectively, the Sox were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position, and left eight baserunners as a team. But that can happen when a team hits 15 flyballs in a game -- so maybe more glaring from an execution perspective was the defense.
Getting little help from John Lackey, who didn't do a good job of limiting the Astros to honest leads, Saltalamacchia allowed Houston to successfully swipe bases on six of its eight attempts to do so. One of their steals contributed to the game's first run, when LJ Hoes struck a one-out single, stole second, then scored on Robbie Grossman's hard shot to right.
Hoes would score again two innings later, when Houston again out-executed Boston. This time Hoes doubled to lead off the frame, then No. 9 hitter Jonathan Villar attempted to get him to third with what was supposed to be a sacrifice bunt, but he dropped it past Lackey on the left-field side of the mound, and by the time Snyder came off third base Villar reached himself without a throw.
That left the Astros an extra out to play with, and they dared use it to have Brandon Barnes drop down a suicide squeeze. It was an obvious option at that point, and the Sox should've been prepared for the possibility, though, instead, the Astros pulled it off without resistance. Junichi Tazawa left his pitch in a buntable location, even though the runner was breaking for home on the side of the diamond the reliever faces as he throws, and when he fetched the ball between the mound and the plate he had no play but throwing it to first
There haven't been a lot of these types of nights this season for the Sox -- a team for which preparation, readiness, and urgency have become hallmarks -- but for them to let it happen now, and for them to be mostly outplayed by the lowly Astros just as they embark on the home stretch of a pennant race, begs the question of whether they might've simply taken their opponent too lightly.
Throughout this first season as lead man in the dugout, John Farrell's greatest strength has been his ability to put his players in position to succeed and to get them acutely focused on winning a baseball game every time they step on the field. But if we read between the lines on some of the manager's actions over the couple days leading up to Monday night, a couple of them in particular could be interpreted as indications that the Sox perhaps thought they could show up and win without taking that task as seriously as they have when facing a more challenging foe.
The first came before Sunday's game, when the manager announced that rookie knuckleballer Steven Wright would start in Houston on Tuesday. The decision made some sense, given how bad the Astros have been against right-handed pitching, and inserting Wright between Lackey and Ryan Dempster gave Boston three righty starters in the series -- though that wasn't his publicly stated primary reason. Rather, Farrell said he was moving Wright in to give the rest of the starting staff an extra day between outings.
That's plausible, too, except that the Sox have a day off scheduled for next Monday, and have rest built in to every week remaining in the regular season except for the week of Labor Day. With the Rays nipping at their heels, now wouldn't seem the time to experiment with a Triple-A call-up -- unless the manager was already looking ahead to a four-game set with the Royals, and took the chance to have his four best starters ready for that series against one of baseball's hottest teams, because he figured it didn't really matter who pitched against the Astros.
The other telling decision came later Sunday, as the ninth inning approached. The Red Sox had a four-run lead, which meant it was a non-save situation. Closer Koji Uehara had pitched the day prior, and using him in that spot would likely render him unavailable for Monday -- but Farrell brought the Japanese righty in nevertheless. Certainly there were others who could've tried to seal up a four-run spread, but there's no sense in saving Uehara if you don't think Houston can stay close enough that you'll need him the next day.
Again, Farrell has done a terrific job. He probably deserves to be American League manager of the year for the work he's done reshaping the attitude and approach of this team. But sometimes human nature creeps in. Sometimes a couple of subtle decisions can unintentionally deliver the wrong message. Sometimes a team can let its guard down against the dregs. These things happen.
Farrell had just better make sure they don't happen again over the next two nights. Or the next opportunity lost for the Sox will be one that shows up in the standings.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||0-for-3, BB: His long drive to the left-center field warning track was a good sign, even if it was tracked down, though his night went quiet from there until his leadoff walk in the eighth.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||0-for-4: The newly anointed AL player of the week got off to a tough start as he looks to repeat, but he still boasts an 1.141 OPS over his past seven games.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||2-for-4: After registering just one hit over a seven-game stretch, Pedroia has now hit safely in six of his last seven contests. His caught stealing was his fifth of the year.|
|David Ortiz, DH||1-for-3, BB: Ortiz also reached on an error, so he was on base three times and in scoring position once. He's now got on in 19 straight games, though his OBP has actually slipped five points (from .405 to .400) over that time.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||0-for-4, K: Since being the lone offensive bright spot in Boston's series against Tampa, Napoli is batting just .135. He hit two balls to the warning track on Monday, but couldn't carry them any farther.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||1-for-4, K, 2B: Coming off the most impactful 1-for-12 homestand in modern history, he did a nice job of going with the pitch and crushed a double to right-center in the seventh. He then dived into third just ahead of Hoes' throw when Saltalamacchia's fly to right, but that's where he stayed.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||0-for-3, BB, K: A catcher's primary job is defense, and the Astros clearly weren't afraid to run on him. They stole six bases in eight tries -- and they won't likely be the last to at least try it. Before Monday he'd thrown out 19 percent of attempted thieves, markedly below the league average of 27 percent.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||2-for-4, 2 K, 2B: Remarkably, given where he was at in the public's mind two weeks ago, when he batted in the ninth as Boston's last hope, those who've been paying attention would've actually wanted him in that spot.|
|Brandon Snyder, 3B||0-for-3, K: Was indecisive on the bunt that led to Houston's second run, and went hitless in three trips at the plate. Expect the Sox to make a move for a more regular third baseman before long.|
|John Lackey, SP||6 IP, 8 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 10K: He pitched well early, then ran into some challenges, but recovered from that blip -- and a rolled ankle -- to strike out 10 and keep the Sox in the ballgame.|
|Junichi Tazawa, RP||1 IP, K: Tazawa made his 51st appearance of the season, and with the Sox wanting to preserve him as much as possible, it couldn't have worked out much better than a scoreless inning on eight pitches.|
|Craig Breslow, RP||1 IP, BB, K: With another scoreless appearance, Breslow hasn't been charged with a run since July 21. Beyond that, he's yielded one earned run in the past month.|
The Astros are every bit as bad as their 36-74 record would suggest. The White Sox' and their 11-game losing streak are worse over the last 10 games, though Houston is baseball's worst team over the past 20 games (4-16), worst team over the past 30 games (6-24), worst team at home (18-37), and worst team against foes at .500 or better. Their run differential of negative-1.5 is pretty much twice as bad as any other team in the game, a byproduct of the fact they've given up more runs than anybody (5.2 per game). And they're a major-league worst 26-56 against right-handed starters -- a fact surely not lost on John Farrell when he plugged Steven Wright into his rotation, and arranged things so his staff features John Lackey, Wright, and Ryan Dempster over the three-game set.
So it'll be a disappointment if the Sox don't leave Minute Maid Park with a sweep, although they are responsible for giving Tampa Bay two of its six losses over the last 31 games. Here are five Astros to watch as Houston attempts to play spoiler.
1. Jason Castro, C. He was the lone Astro in the All-Star game, though it wasn't necessarily because Houston needed representative. He's a good, young catcher who has struck 26 doubles as well as 13 homers, whose .784 OPS equates to a 116 adjusted-OPS, and puts him among the best offensive backstops in the AL. Illustrative of his important to his team in particular, he's Houston's No. 3 hitter.
2. Chris Carter, DH. He's neither the Hall of Fame receiver, nor the former Red Sox utility man, but he is a slugger. The DH leads the team with 19 homers, and his 49 walks are respectable -- but he's struck out 145 times, which is part of the reason he's hitting .213. He can be pitched to.
3. Jarred Cosart, SP. The 23-year-old right-hander has been ranked among the top 100 prospects in all the minor leagues each of the past two seasons, and he has shown why since being called up. In four starts he's averaged seven innings, and having yet to allow more than one earned run in any single appearance his ERA is 0.96. He's slated to start against the Sox and Dempster on Wednesday night.
4. Brett Oberholtzer, SP. Another young starter, the 24-year-old pitches for Houston tonight, trying to follow up on a first career start that couldn't have gone much better: In Baltimore, he went seven innings, allowing six hits but no walks or runs. Part of the package the Astros received from the Braves for Michael Bourn two years ago, it will be his fifth major-league game overall.
5. Matt Dominguez, 3B. Houston's third baseman doesn't walk much, as evidenced by his .271 on-base percentage, though he has connected for 15 homers in 390 plate appearances, and over the past month he's been better as an overall hitter, batting .295 with a .333/.449/.782 slash line. Typically batting near the bottom of the order, he may be the only guy Sox pitchers have to worry about that far down the lineup.
As we mentioned earlier, the Astros struggle against right-handed pitching as much as anyone. Take a look at the team individually against righty starters to see who's most vulnerable:
When the Red Sox take the field at Minute Maid Park on Monday night, they do so with the chance to equal last year's win total -- with almost two months still to play. And they should have a good shot of doing so, considering Boston has won three more games this season at home (39) than Houston has won anywhere (36).
That fact is an illustration of the significant disparity between the Red Sox and the Astro team that will be their hosts for the next three nights. But it's also an indicator of one of the major reasons for the difference in results from last year to this, and a reason to think this one will indeed end in the postseason.
After beating the Diamondbacks to finish 5-2 during their latest homestand, and send them into a stretch where they'll play only three home games in three weeks, Boston is 39-21 at Fenway Park. That's a winning percentage of .650.
And that's significant because since 1988, every season in which the Sox posted a .600 winning percentage on their home field they reached the postseason. Conversely, during that same span the only time they reached the playoffs by winning fewer than 60 percent of their home contests was in the strike-shortened campaign of 1995.
Assuming they play all 81 Fenway dates, the Sox would need to win 49 games to play .600 ball at home. That means they need only go 10-11 in their remaining games to hit that mark.
Getting to that number is not only a key tell for the Red Sox, either, as baseball's standings have in recent seasons reflected a similar stress on the importance of winning at home. In the past two seasons specifically, 13 teams have finished won at least 49 home games; 12 of those clubs made the postseason, 11 won their division.
When the Red Sox made the playoffs six times in seven seasons between 2003-09, and won two World Series, a major facet of their success was that Fenway was an intimidating place to play and thus they assembled baseball’s best home record over that stretch – but over the next three years they slid from first to 19th in that category, with their winning percentage slipping from .658 to .514. The low point, of course, came last season, when the club was apparently more comfortable on the road (35-46) than at home (34-47).
But after winning 20 of their last 27 there, and after 11 walkoff wins, there's an aura and an excitement to Fenway again. And at this rate, it'll still be there come October.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||1-for-4, 2 RBI, K: The RBI single that extended his hit streak to 10 games was something of a gift, getting lost in the sun and falling feet from right fielder Gerardo Parra, but he also had a sac fly and saw 26 pitches over his five plate appearances.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||2-for-3, RBI, K, 2 HBP: After banging his left hip on the wall in an effort to catch a foul pop, the switch-hitter batted from the right side against right-handers -- and reached base all four times he did so. That gave him his fifth multi-hit game in the Sox' past six contests.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||1-for-3, RBI, 2B, 2 BB: With two on in the fifth, Pedroia fouled off four straight 1-2 pitches before doubling home Brock Holt. It was his first double since July 14, on the same afternoon as his first multi-walk game since July 2.|
|David Ortiz, DH||0-for-4, BB, K: A seven-game hit streak came to an end, and he finished the homestand just 6-for-30 (.200), but the intentional free pass means he's still reached in 18 straight tilts.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||0-for-5, 3 K: It had the potential for a big day from Napoli, who could've made this one a lot more comfortable for Boston, but he was retired twice with the bases loaded and another time with two men aboard.|
|Mike Carp, LF||1-for-3, K: With a single from Carp before being lifted for Jonny Gomes (0-for-1), the Sox now rank second in the AL in OBP (.337) and fifth in OPS (.756) for left fielders.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||1-for-3, R, BB: Having him catch the day game after a night game speaks to the contributions the Sox have consistently been getting from Saltalamacchia (and probably says something about their confidence in Ryan Lavarnway, too).|
|Stephen Drew, SS||2-for-3, 2 R, BB: We suggested after Saturday's win that it was beginning to look like Drew could have a major impact down the stretch, and that notion was only strengthened Sunday, when even the out he made required a terrific diving stop from second baseman Aaron Hill.|
|Brock Holt, 3B||1-for-2, R, BB, K: Made his second error, but was in the thick of the Sox' first two run-scoring rallies, singling ahead of Ellsbury in the fifth, then dropping a sacrifice bunt in the sixth.|
|Felix Doubront, SP||7 IP, 5 H, 5 K: Keeping the opponent to three runs or less is a regular feat for him, but maybe most impressive about Doubront's performance was his pitch efficiency. One outing after needing 104 pitches to get through five frames, he needed just 95 to complete seven.|
|Matt Thornton, RP||0 IP, H: Allowed a single before leaving with an oblique issue on his right side.|
|Drake Britton, RP||1 IP, H, K: Now nine innings into it, Elias says Britton is the first Red Sox pitcher ever to begin his major-league career with seven straight scoreless appearances. If Thornton is out for any length, Britton could be tested.|
|Koji Uehara, RP||1 IP, K: Farrell took no chances, bringing his closer on in a non-save situation, and Uehara ended things in just 14 pitches. Over his last 25 games he has a 0.33 ERA and foes are hitting .101 against him.|
Seemingly from the moment he signed in late December, a certain segment of the team's fans and followers -- maybe because of his last name, maybe because of the $9.5 million the Red Sox paid him, maybe because of his slow start, or maybe because he was blocking Jose Iglesias -- never wanted to give Stephen Drew a real chance in Boston.
But they may want to start reconsidering. Because with Iglesias now in Detroit, and with the shortstop healthy again, it's beginning to look like J.D.'s little brother could have a big impact for the Sox down the stretch.
He's still hitting .239 for the year, and his overall numbers are nothing special -- but look deeper, and there's plenty to like about the player. He's been on the disabled list twice, but take away the first five games after each of those stints, and Drew's average is up to .257. Since May 1 he's a .259 hitter with an .802 OPS that ranks fourth on the Red Sox, behind only David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury among qualified hitters. And over the past month his .377 on-base percentage is second only to Ortiz -- despite reaching in only three of his first 18 plate appearances after that second DL stint.
After going 2-for-4 on Saturday night, including a rare lefty-vs.-lefty single against southpaw Pat Corbin, he's hit .379 with a 1.181 OPS over his last eight games. And those numbers alone don't reflect the impact he's had on the Sox' 6-2 record over that stretch.
Evidenced by his .325 average and 1.017 OPS with two outs and runners in scoring position this season, he has shown a knack for delivering in the big moments -- recently including the game-winning hit in the 15th inning, working out of an 0-2 hole to draw a walk in the Sox' six-run rally the next night, then starting the ninth with a single as the Sox tried to erase a one-run deficit the night after that.
“His swing, he looks much more confident at the plate,” Manager John Farrell said Friday. “Not just because he hit a home run tonight, but even some pitches last night that he just missed, there’s more authority to the swing. And as we’ve seen the couple times that he’s missed some time on the DL, as he gets those at-bats, he’s so much of a timing hitter and a rhythm hitter. He’s seeing the ball real well right now.”
And then there's the defense. According to the UZR/150 calculations at Fangraphs, Drew is the third-best shortstop in the American League this season if a scant three errors in 339 chances isn't convincing enough. Smooth and fundamentally sound, he's not as flashy as Iglesias, but he handles pretty much everything hit to him. And sometimes more.
Put it all together, and Drew is starting look like the guy who was one of the best shortstops in the National League between 2008-10. And a guy who's poised to really help the Sox from here on out.
So give him a chance.
“I feel good,” Drew said. “It's one of those things where you're looking around and balls are falling where I'm hitting them, and beforehand I was lining out. It's good. It's a good feeling when you're hitting the ball and things are going your way.”
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||1-for-4, RBI, 2 K, SB: He whiffed in his first two trips against Corbin, but stayed on a slider in his third trip and served it to left for a go-ahead single. With that, his hitting streak was extended to nine games, and he had the opportunity necessary for his 40th steal.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||2-for-3, R, 2 RBI, HR: His homer broke the ice against Corbin in the fifth, and he's now 10-for his last-23, a run that's included two of his season's seven homers.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||1-for-4, K: He's now hitting .145 since the All-Star break, but it's important to note that he's hitting just .130 on balls in play over that stretch. The AL average is .296, so the case can made that much of Pedroia's trouble is a product of misfortune.|
|David Ortiz, DH||1-for-4, K: His first-inning safety extended his hitting streak to 17 games, and he's now reached base in 17 straight contests.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||0-for-1, R, 3 BB: His three walks matched a career high, and over the past dozen games his OBP is up to .392. He also saw 25 pitches on the night, tied with Pedroia for most among the Sox.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||0-for-4, K: The situations where he batted were too low-stakes, apparently. Perhaps he's saving his hits for the late innings some night on the upcoming road trip -- but still he found a way to contribute, gunning down the would-be tying run at home in the eighth inning.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||2-for-4, R, 2 K: He's now hit in six of his last eight games, four of which have featured at least two hits.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||1-for-4, 2 RBI, R: A night after narrowly missing a couple of homers, Salty got what was coming -- lifting an insurance-providing blast to the Red Sox bullpen in the eighth.|
|Brandon Snyder, 3B||1-for-3, K: Like Brock Holt, he continues to do his job, and the platoon continues to work. Snyder is 3-for his last-7.|
|Jake Peavy, SP||7 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 7 K: He gave up a solo homer to Paul Goldschmidt, and the bullpen couldn't prevent the runner he left for them in the eighth from scoring. But, still, it was about everything the Sox could've asked for his Boston debut. They'll wholeheartedly take three months of that.|
|Craig Breslow, RP||0 IP, H, HBP: He went to 0-2 on both of the hitters he faced, but spun a curveball into the cleats of the first, then gave up a single to the second.|
|Junichi Tazawa, RP||1 IP, H, K: After allowing one run to score on a single, he pitched out of a jam -- and punctuated his effort by striking out Goldschmidt with some high gas. Impressive.|
|Koji Uehara, RP||IP, BB: He walked a batter, which is actually newsworthy, given how unhittable he's been of late. He still kept it to three hitters, though, ending the game with a double play.|
The Diamondbacks come to Fenway Park this weekend for the first time since being swept here in June 2010, arriving with a 55-53 record that puts them in second place behind the Dodgers -- who have been 13 games better than Arizona since June 22. The D'backs are a streaky group who dropped four of five before getting to Boston, but are slated to send their two best starters to the mound this weekend.
Here are five Diamondbacks to keep an eye on while they're here to face those never-say-die Red Sox:
1. Paul Goldschmidt. The first baseman is the team's leader in batting (.300), home runs (24), runs batted in (86) and just about everything else -- including steals (10). Just 25 years old, he projects as one of the National League's best players for a long time to come, though the Sox may be catching him at a good time. Since his trip to the All-Star game, he's hitting just .208 with five extra-base hits in 60 plate appearances.
2. Randall Delgado. He and third baseman Martin Prado were the pieces that excited Arizona enough to send Justin Upton to Atlanta last winter, and the 23-year-old righty has delivered on his promise at the big-league level of late. He was bad at Triple-A to start the year, but has a 2.61 ERA since joining the rotation on June 18, and carries a 14.1 inning scoreless streak into Friday's start. Last time out he tossed a three-hit shutout against the Padres, and he's yet to allow more than three runs in any start as a Diamondback.
3. Pat Corbin. After Delgado tonight, the Sox get Corbin tomorrow. And things will get tougher. A just-turned-24 lefty, he's 12-2 with a 2.24 ERA after losing his last start -- but that loss was about as hard-luck as they come, considering he allowed a run on six hits over eight walk-free innings. It was the fourth straight start in which he allowed just a lone run, and while he's hell on lefties, who are hitting only .161 against him, he's no picnic for righties, either. They're hitting .217, which goes a long way toward a 0.991 WHIP that ranks fourth in the NL. The D'backs are 18-3 when he pitches, so it's very possible that Jake Peavy is excellent in his Red Sox debut and he still gets outpitched.
4. Brad Ziegler. Heath Bell and J.J. Putz have had opportunities to close for the Diamondbacks this season, though three weeks ago that job was bestowed upon Ziegler. And he's handled it dutifully. Since July 4 he's a perfect 5-for-5 in save opportunities, hasn't yielded an earned run, and has held opponents to a .206 average. He's not a strikeout pitcher, but he throws strikes, and has had success against the Red Sox (2.45 ERA) over the course of his career.
5. Cody Ross. He hasn't lived up to the production Arizona expected when it signed him to a three-year deal worth $25 million guaranteed during the offseason, though since the start of July he's hitting .312 with an .845 OPS and three homers. Overall he's batting just .271 with a .714 OPS and six taters through 86 games, so the numbers seem to justify the Red Sox decision not to bring him back after he hit 22 bombs and drove in 81 for them last year, despite Ross' preference to come back. The outfielder wanted to sign for three years; the team wouldn't offer more than two. "They told me that they didn’t want to sign guys to long-term deals, and then they gave Victorino a three-year deal, and then Napoli a three-year deal or four-year deal, whatever it was (before injuries cut it to one year)," he told WEEI's Mut and Merloni on Friday. "So, basically they lied to my face. At that point, I kind of got a bad taste in my mouth and wanted to move on, and that was it."
Back in late September 2004, a little bit of doubt might've been beginning to creep in for Red Sox Nation. Their team had its playoff spot all but secured, though cracks were starting to show as it lost three straight games -- by an aggregate score of 34-11 -- and was on its way to a fourth after Keith Foulke wasted eight shutout innings from Curt Schilling by surrendering a two-run, go-ahead homer to (the pre-calcification version of) Javy Lopez in the ninth.
Just as quickly, however, those Sox showed what they were made of. In the bottom half of the frame, Mark Bellhorn shook off two earlier strikeouts (surprise, surprise) to drill a two-run, game-winning double to deep center. The next night the Sox blew another ninth-inning lead to force extras, but Curtis Leskanic pitched out a jam in the 12th, then Orlando Cabrera followed that with a leadoff homer.
Once it cleared the wall the Sox had gutsy, gritty, never-give-up walkoff wins in back-to-back games, and with that it really began to feel like there was something special about that bunch.
Just like these past couple of nights have convinced the Nation of this 2013 team.
By overcoming a five-run, ninth-inning deficit for the first time in six years, the Red Sox registered their 11th walkoff win of the season. That's the franchise's most in any campaign since 1978, and is two shy of the team record, and they'd seem to have a reasonable shot of reaching that mark considering they haven't gone more than 10 straight home games yet this year without finding reason to leave the field with jerseys ripped, helmets tossed, and playful jabs thrown.
Now, there's no guarantee it'll ultimately end the way it did for that 2004 team, considering the last time the Sox had walkoff wins on consecutive days was August 2011 -- and everybody knows how things wound up for that team. But for the moment things seem "magical," as John Farrell might put it, so enjoy the fun.
And what better way to do that than to relive it all. Here's our ranking of the Red Sox' 11 walkoff wins this season:
11. June 30
Red Sox 5, Blue Jays 4
That Koji Uehara could actually blow a save seems at this point a notion as foreign as the reliever himself, but the Sox covered for his single gaffe since assuming the club's closer role by rallying in the ninth and scoring the winner when Shane Victorino's chopper ate up Josh Thole -- a catcher by trade -- at first base.
10. July 31
Red Sox 5, Mariners 4 (15 inn.)
Wednesday's triumph featured a couple of big defensive plays and quality work from the Red Sox bullpen, though it wasn't exactly an instant classic despite Stephen Drew delivering Dustin Pedroia with a hot shot into the right-field corner.
9. July 3
Red Sox 2, Padres 1
San Diego struck for a run on three hits in the first inning, but Sox pitching yielded only three hits the rest of the way, and although Boston squandered a golden chance in the eighth, Jonny Gomes added to his legend by leading off the ninth with his second walkoff homer in two weeks.
8. April 13
Red Sox 2, Rays 1 (10 inn.)
It ended oddly -- with Tampa's second baseman throwing to first after making a diving stop on Shane Victorino while Jacoby Ellsbury darted home from third with the winner -- but it nevertheless offered the first suggestion that something was afoot. David Price was tough on them all afternoon, yet they scrapped and clawed until victorious.
7. July 21
Red Sox 8, Yankees 7 (11 inn.)
Mike Napoli had a chance to put the Sox ahead three innings earlier, but hit into a double play with one out and the bases loaded. He made up for it later with his second homer of the night, the two-out blast giving Boston a series win over the rival Yankees.
Napoli HR; had hit into DP with bases loaded in 8th
6. June 6
Red Sox 6, Rangers 3
David Ortiz hadn't hit a walkoff home run in four years -- and apparently over that time Texas Manager Ron Washington forgot that was something Big Papi was wont to do. After Gomes doubled, the Rangers walked Pedroia intentionally to get to Ortiz against lefty Michael Kirkman, and the DH made them pay dearly with a ticket to yesteryear.
5. June 18
Red Sox 3, Rays 1
After Andrew Bailey coughed up the game-tying homer in the top of the inning, and Daniel Nava walked, Farrell stuck with Gomes against righty Joel Peralta and Gomes responded by launching his first walkoff tater as a member of the Red Sox -- and subsequently punting his helmet en route to the plate.
4. May 6
Red Sox 6, Twins 5 (11 inn.)
Six of the Sox' 11 walkoff wins have come after the bullpen blew a lead in the eighth or ninth, and none would've been as frustrating a loss as this. They had chipped away with a run an inning to take a lead on a Pedroia homer, though Joel Hanrahan gave it away on a Brian Dozier long ball (in Hanrahan's farewell), and Boston couldn't capitalize on 16 hits. At least until Drew plated Jarrod Saltalamacchia with a double. Instead of defeat, they left the field with proof of their character and resilience.
3. April 15
Red Sox 3, Rays 2
This one disappeared quick from Boston's consciousness, coming minutes before the marathon bombings. But it was a nice win, coming when Napoli lifted a double off the wall in left-center, and Pedroia made the mad dash all the way from first to complete a sweep of the Rays that could prove huge in the AL East race at season's end.
2. May 26
Red Sox 6, Indians 5
In a preview that probably added some degree of belief as the Sox began the bottom of the ninth on Thursday, they were down three to Cleveland and closer Chris Perez. They scored twice quickly, but still faced a 5-4 deficit with two outs and the bases empty when a walk, a single, and another walk brought up to bat the .245-hitting Jacoby Ellsbury, who laced a double to center. Gomes and Drew scored -- and since then Ellsbury is hitting .356.
1. Aug 1
Red Sox 8, Mariners 7
The Sox were down 7-1 in the eighth, and 7-2 in the ninth, then won the game on a rally started and ended by the guy who has recently begun to look like their third option in left field, and keyed by a variety of heroes. They could celebrate five more walkoffs, and it'd be tough to top that.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||2-for-4, 2 R, BB, 2 K, 2B: Added a walk to the ninth-inning rally, and at .363 his OBP ranks third among AL outfielders, behind only Mike Trout and Nava.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||2-for-5, 2 R, 3 RBI, HR: Hit his sixth homer of the year in the eighth, then made Seattle interim manager Robby Thompson pay for bringing in the wrong reliever by delivering a single from the right side in the ninth.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||1-for-4, R, RBI, BB, K: Drove home Ellsbury with a single in the ninth, then scored the winning run for the second straight night -- and third time in the 11 walkoffs.|
|David Ortiz, DH||1-for-4, RBI, 2 K: He made the only out in the ninth, weakly waving at a sequence of pitches against Oliver Perez, though he'd already extended a humble hit streak to five games (and 12 of 13) before then.|
|Mike Carp, 1B||0-for-3, 2 K: It was a quiet night for Carp against his former team before giving way to Gomes -- who made a tough catch, threw out a runner at third, and tied the game with a single. All in an inning and a half's work.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||1-for-3, 2 BB, K: For the second straight night, he came up with Pedroia on second, Gomes on first and the game tied. This time he didn't get the winning hit, but he did draw a walk after falling behind 0-2, and thus set the stage for Nava.|
|Daniel Nava, LF/1B||2-for-4, R, RBI, 2B, BB: He got the start for just the third time since July 20 and made the most of it, doubling off Felix Hernandez early, walking to start the ninth, and ending it with the shot that skipped off the warning track in center. Carp and Gomes are appealing, but Nava is still plenty respectable at .285 with a .372 OBP and .424 slugging.|
|Ryan Lavarnway, C||2-for-4, R, 2 K: His misplay on a popup cost the Sox a run, but two hits suggest his bat might be coming to life -- might being an important word, given that a 30-point hike in his average is the result of going 3-for his last-7.|
|Brock Holt, 3B||1-for-4, R, RBI, 2B: His ninth-inning double made the first dent in Seattle's lead, scoring Nava as it rolled into the left-field corner.|
|Ryan Dempster, SP||6 IP, 9 H, 7 ER, 5 BB, 6 K: It wasn't pretty, but it was just the second time since May 23 that he'd allowed more than three earned runs. He's the Sox' fifth -- maybe even sixth -- starter. That's plenty good enough.|
|Steven Wright, RP||3 IP, 2 H, BB, 2 K: Dempster's personal mop-up man, the knuckleballer has followed Dempster in two of his three major-league appearances -- and won both of them, both against the Mariners. Ahh. Baseball.|
By trying to take the extra base, or playing a hit-and-run, or swinging early in the count, aggressiveness is a common part of offense. By attacking hitters in certain ways, it's a routine part of pitching, too.
Far fewer are the opportunities to be aggressive defensively over the course of a baseball game. But by seizing on a couple of them in extra innings on Wednesday night, the Red Sox gave themselves a chance to beat the Mariners -- and eventually they did, 5-4, after the contest had ticked past the five-hour mark and the calendar had flipped from July to August.
Stephen Drew ultimately played hero by knocking home Dustin Pedroia with the winning run in the 15th inning, though that opportunity might never have come if the shortstop hadn't helped keep the game alive with a risky, but ultimately right, defensive decision four frames earlier.
The choice came arose when Seattle had a man on first with one out against Red Sox reliever Matt Thornton, and when Michael Morse chopped a grounder slowly over the mound. Drew charged it hard, and fielded it in front of the second-base -- so far in front that he was on the infield grass with all his momentum headed toward first.
The safe play -- and the play most probably would've made -- would've been to follow that momentum and take the sure out at first. There would've been two away at that point, and it would've been up to Thornton to get Michael Saunders. But Drew got aggressive.
"From the time I grabbed it," he said, "my thought is to go ahead and get him out there."
That thinking didn't make for an easy play, as by the time Drew collected the ball and got it out of his glove his only chance was to make a little sidearm shuffle across his body, and the choice seemed to surprise even Pedroia, who didn't stretch to receive the throw. But somehow Drew got it there, and seemingly omnipresent umpire Jerry Meals said it got there ahead of pinch-runner Brandon Ryan, so the lead runner was eliminated.
Seattle was left with a man only on first -- and that proved enormous when Saunders followed with a single to center field. There it was collected by Jacoby Ellsbury, who since the start of the 2011 season has collected 126 singles with a runner on second. Of them, 115 have scored. And only one has been thrown out.
Ryan would've been waved around. He probably would've made it. But Drew never allowed him the opportunity.
"Believe it or not, he got a hit," the shortstop said of Saunders. "It worked out. Close play, but he was still out."
Four innings later, Jonny Gomes got his opportunity to keep things tied. The scenario was actually the same as it would've been had Drew's gamble not worked out -- runners at first and second, one out, Saunders batting -- with Drake Britton on the mound.
Given the velocity Britton pairs with a slider, and the lefty-on-lefty matchup between the rookie and Saunders, Gomes was "pretty sure a ball would come my way," especially once there were two strikes on the hitter. And he was right.
Saunders put good wood on the ball, and stung a sinking liner toward shallow left. Leading off of second, Raul Ibanez thought with near-certainty that the ball would land safely, so he took off toward third in anticipation of trying to score. Had Gomes decided to play the ball on a bounce it might've been tough to throw out Ibanez given that head start, so instead the left fielder opted to try and take that prospect out of the equation.
"What we do in the outfield, it's a do-or-die situation," said Gomes, who came in hard and fully extended himself. If he missed the ball both runners were likely to score, and at least Ibanez would be home safely if he trapped it. But Gomes got his glove underneath it with his dive, snatching the ball inches off the ground.
"It stayed up long enough, and like I said, do-or-die," he said. "To be able to play left here, you definitely have to do extreme things, extreme angles."
Afterward, Gomes was most pleased with the way he finished the play. After the catch, he got up, then jogged the ball in himself to tag second and double-up Ibanez. He did that purely for the fact he knew the 7-unassisted double play was a baseball rarity. Not unlike defensive aggressiveness.
"Never had one, never seen one," he said with a big smile. "That's why I'm glad I've got it on my resume."
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||1-for-6, 2 K: He singled to leadoff the first, and was subsequently retired in his next five trips. It's the 12th time in his career he's failed to notch at least two hits when getting at least six at-bats -- lowlighted by an 0-for-8 two years ago.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||2-for-6, R, BB, K: With two singles, the second of which put him on ahead of Pedroia's (temporarily) take-the-lead blast, Victorino now has 24 games with multiple hits this season -- and 24 games with no hits.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||2-for-6, 2 R, 3 RBI, BB, K, HR: He briefly put the Sox ahead with a mammoth two-run clout in the bottom of the seventh, and hit homers on consecutive days for the first time since July 27-28, 2011. Eight frames later he worked a four-pitch walk to start the Sox' 15th-inning rally.|
|David Ortiz, DH||1-for-7, 2 K: For the third straight game, he had a hit to left field against a left-hander, and he finished the month 32-for-93 -- putting him at .359 over the past two Julys after hitting .251 for the month in the three seasons prior.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||0-for-5, 2 BB, 2 K: He was 3-for his last-24 when Mariners interim manager Robby Thompson elected to intentionally walk him with first base open, a runner on second, and a lefty on the mound in the 15th.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||2-for-7, 2 K: He's now had two hits in each of his last three starts. Last year fatigue started to show itself in his numbers around the Fourth of July -- but since that point this year he's now batting a respectable .277.|
|Mike Carp, LF||0-for-3, K: He failed to reach base, snapping a streak of nine straight starts where he reached at least once, then was pulled for Daniel Nava (0-for-2), who was pulled for Jonny Gomes. Gomes walked twice in two trips, but wound up having the biggest contribution of the bunch -- with, of all things, his glove.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||2-for-6, RBI, BB, K: Even with his three-hit, two-homer night in Baltimore, Drew is just 8-for-35 since coming off the disabled list. But it's been enough of a contribution to play a major part in a couple of crucial wins.|
|Brock Holt, 3B||1-for-5, 2B: Holt got the start, and had a hit for the ninth time in 11 games, though Brandon Snyder pinch-hit for him in the 14th -- finding the left-center field gap with a double of his own, and later getting gunned down at the plate trying to score on Victorino's fly to center.|
|John Lackey, SP||7 IP, 8 H, 3 ER, BB, 6 K: An encouraging performance from Lackey, who'd been charged with nine runs over his two previous outings, and was pulled from each in the middle of an inning with trouble brewing. This time he pitched into the seventh for an eighth straight start -- and finished it.|
|Junichi Tazawa, RP||IP, 2 H, ER, K, HR: Kyle Seager took him deep to tie the game in the eighth. He's now made 48 appearances: in the first 24, his ERA was 2.70 and opponents had a .295 OBP against him; over the latter 24, his ERA is 3.52 and the opposing OBP is .306.|
|Koji Uehara, RP||2 IP, 3 K: He needed only 19 pitches to get six outs, and he's dispensed only 248 bullets to get 58 outs since taking over as the closer. That's 4.28 pitches per out; entering Wednesday, the AL average was 5.48.|
|Matt Thornton, RP||1 IP, 2 H: He's yielded 11 baserunners in 6.1 innings since joining the Sox, but thanks to a generous call on a close play at second base (from Jerry Meals, no less), and Ellsbury's sliding catch of Dustin Ackley's sinking liner, Thornton's still allowed only two runs after keeping things tied in the 11th.|
|Craig Breslow, RP||2 IP, H, 2 BB: Asked to go more than an inning for the 11th time this season, the southpaw retired all three righties he faced, and allowed three of the six lefties he encountered to reach.|
|Drake Britton, RP||2 IP, 3 H, 2 K: Called upon for the 14th, left a runner on first when he struck out Seager -- Seattle's hottest hitter -- with a nasty breaking ball. He got into some hotter water in the 15th, too, but Gomes' unconventional twin killing bailed him out, and so he's still yet to allow a run in the majors.|