On baseball

Hindsight is still 20-20

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 18, 2007
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"20/20" is a good TV show. But to the Red Sox, 20-20 means an average record since June 1.

Still, it is not time to panic. Not now, anyway.

The Sox are eight games up on the Yankees, seven in the loss column, in the American League East. The last time the lead was this low was June 18. In such situations, pessimists start to squirm.

It's never OK to lose to the Kansas City Royals at home, 9-3, as the local nine did last night. As buoyed as Red Sox Nation felt about Kason Gabbard's three-hit shutout Monday night, that's how bad it felt losing to the Royals on a night they started 23-year-old Leo Nuñez.

Then the scoreboard showed New York and Toronto engaged in a pitchers' duel between Andy Pettitte and Roy Halladay, which was won by the Yankees in 10 innings. The Yankees' next 12 games are against Toronto, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, and Baltimore, and you wonder if they just might make a run, as they tried to do in early June when they won nine straight.

Nights like last night reveal the flaws on a Red Sox team that has spent 94 days in first place. Where is the offense? Where is the pitching? You wonder if the Red Sox can stretch the lead to double digits again.

What if the lead continues to dwindle? What if the loss of Curt Schilling takes its toll? You can't help but wonder what is ahead.

It is mid-July and the Sox' record over their last 40 games is dead even.

"We feel inconsistent lately," said third baseman Mike Lowell. "We're still a team with the best record or one of the best records in baseball, but if that's our record, you're talking about over a month playing that way and we have to pick it up and do better than that.

"There's no doubt we've had some missing pieces that have affected us. Losing some of Curt's starts are definitely a factor because he's such a quality pitcher, though it's hard to beat what Kason gave us the other night. And believe me, there are signs. Julio Lugo is a completely different hitter now than he was earlier in the year. Manny [Ramírez] is really stroking the ball well. So there are signs, but we've got to start doing it. We've got to start stringing together some wins."

As Lowell said, there are good things going for the Sox.

They have the second-best record in baseball.

They have a favorable schedule the rest of the way.

The news on Schilling gets more encouraging by the day, with a rehab stint Saturday in Pawtucket.

They have a terrific bullpen -- perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the league in Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima. They have added Manny Delcarmen as their righthanded setup man. They have two terrific starters in Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka and two terrific prospects in Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester.

Then there are glaring weaknesses:

Where's the consistent starting pitching we saw the first two months of the season?

What's happened to tonight's starter, Julian Tavarez?

What are they going to do with Wily Mo Peña?

"I just remember '03 in Florida we got really hot the second half of the season and our momentum just carried us," Lowell said of the Marlins, who won the World Series that year. "I remember coming up in 1998 with the Yankees and that team was way out in front for the season and they were just kind of floating along. I remember Joe Torre telling us we needed to kick it in gear and we did and we won."

That's what the Sox did in '04. It may take more than a "Gipper" speech from manager Terry Francona. Save for last season, general manager Theo Epstein's inclination is to improve the team, and right now the Sox need help.

He does not want the Sox to back into the playoffs, or the division, or the wild card. He wants to win it outright, with a comfortable lead and, more important, with momentum to win a championship. They did it in '04. The White Sox did it in '05. And the Cardinals, as horrible as they were for most of the season in winning only 83 games, did it last season.

The Red Sox are a hard team to tweak because there are high -priced players everywhere. You're not going to supplant J.D. Drew in right, or Lugo at short. As Epstein indicated yesterday, he's looking to add a complementary piece without giving up the farm.

You could add a spark, a good bat off the bench such as Mike Piazza or Reggie Sanders. You could add more bullpen help. You could make a blockbuster deal and try to extract a big-time starter such as Roy Oswalt and leave no doubt about keeping a big lead intact.

As Lowell said, every team goes through a lull. The key is to kick it in gear when it counts and carry that surge into the postseason. But you've got to get there first.

What the Red Sox don't want is to become the New York Mets of last season: Get a big lead, win the division, and then lose momentum and get eliminated in the postseason.

It's too early to panic. But it's not too early to break out of this 20-20 maze.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at

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