Whiff of success for whipping boy
PHILADELPHIA -- He's one of the only remaining Sox players who can still provide ammo for the fellowship of the miserable. Oh, there's still some local grumbling about Keith Foulke, Alan Embree, and now Ramon Vazquez, but Mark Bellhorn is the big dartboard for those who find fault with a first-place team that has won seven straight games.
Bellhorn's an easy target. It seems that all he does is strike out and walk. He's batting only .229 and he's whiffed an amazing 83 times in 69 games. Fans will accept strikeouts if you hit a lot of homers, but Bellhorn's gone over the bridge only five times.
And then there's the Bellhorn look. With his long hair and sideburns, he could be one of the Sweathogs from ''Welcome Back, Kotter." Tom Werner could cast him in ''That '70s Show." We half expect to see him carrying a pack of Marlboros in the rolled-up sleeve of a white T-shirt.
Bellhorn plays the game without expression, prompting some fans to believe he doesn't care. They'd rather see a guy like Trot Nixon, spitting nails and smashing water coolers after striking out.
So Bellhorn stands almost alone as the Sox rumble through this giddy ride of the 2005 season. While most of his teammates walk on water around Boston, Bellhorn tiptoes on hot coals in the players' parking lot at Fenway Park. The harsh Hub might be getting to him. He's hitting only .162 at home, compared with .286 on the road.
The quiet second baseman with the often quiet bat played a big part in yesterday's 12-8 beating of the Phillies. He went 3 for 4 with a homer, three RBIs, and four runs. After the Sox blew an 8-1 lead, it was Bellhorn who put Boston on top for good with an RBI double to deep center in the eighth. Oh, and he didn't strike out.
He was not the most entertaining player in the Philly finale: that trophy goes to David Wells, who staggered through five innings, giving up 10 hits and five runs and entertaining millions with a base hit, an RBI, nimble fielding, and a hilarious sprint to cover first base in which he was beaten at the wire by fellow belly-bumper, Jim Thome. If there'd been a hamburger on the bag, my money's on Wells.
''Tie goes to the runner in my book," said Wells. ''That wasn't fun at all. I would have had him, but he broke his bat on the swing and the bat went by me and I had to wait for it."
Later, Wells added, ''We showed a lot of character in this one. We gave up the lead, then came out and put a four-spot on there."
Bellhorn's hit was the key blow. He already had a walk, a homer, an RBI single, and three runs when he came to the plate in an 8-8 game with Johnny Damon on first and none out in the eighth. In a very uncharacteristic move, he swung at the first pitch (computers must have tilted in Kansas) and cracked a double over the head of center fielder Jason Michaels.
''I was just looking for a good pitch to hit," said the polite, yet always bland Bellhorn.
''He just wants to swing at a ball he can handle," said manager Terry Francona.
There's been speculation that Bellhorn has damaging tapes or photos of someone in Red Sox management. Many of us fail to see what he offers this team of thumpers. We know that he's a Moneyball/Bill James/stat minion creation. The walks and strikeouts drive us crazy. But Bellhorn has an army of supporters in the Sox clubhouse.
Let's hear from captain Jason Varitek: ''He's a great teammate who absolutely works his butt off. The entire team roots for him and we want everybody to see the kind of player he is. He had huge hits for us last year and huge hits for us this year. He's had some rough spots lately, but he's a guy I absolutely love having on the ballclub."
Bellhorn struggled through much of the postseason in 2004, but came up big when it mattered. He was 3 for 21 in the American League Championship Series before he homered in Game 6 at Yankee Stadium. Then he hit a winning two-run homer off Pesky's Pole in the first game of the World Series.
''He's just a good player," said Francona. ''He knows how to play the game right. He was in the middle of things today and he usually is. Yeah, he strikes out a lot. But what people don't get is the way he plays the game every single day. He plays second base as good as anybody. He's come up big for us so much and he plays the game right. I think a lot of things bother him, but he doesn't show it."
The quiet infielder shrugs when asked about playing through the rough times in front of the Boston crowd.
''I know my teammates appreciate what I do," he said. ''People tend to look at stats. Obviously, I'd love to contribute in other ways if I'm not hitting and I try to do that. When you're not hitting, you make sure you do the other things right. It's not always all about hitting three-run homers."
With that statement, he was gone. The Sox were in a hurry to get to the airport before storms in Boston postponed their trip home.
And what a trip. It was the team's first perfect road trip (six games or more) since 1977.
''We sure are making you look good," Kevin Millar said to Francona as they walked to the bus under the stands at Citizens Bank Park.
I don't know about you, but I'm really going to miss watching the Red Sox play against these National League frauds. It's been a hoot watching the Sox embarrass the Reds, Pirates, and Phillies (an aggregate 8-1) over the last couple of weeks.
The Franconamen never trailed in their three-game sweep of the Phillies. Philadelphia fans don't need much reason to boo, but the Boston beat-down of the local nine was downright humiliating.
Good thing Mark Bellhorn doesn't play in Philadelphia.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.