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Sox need to make the right move with Gonzalez

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  June 28, 2011 02:49 PM

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If this remarkable month in Boston has taught us anything it's that the implausible and unimaginable are not as far-fetched as we've assumed. In a June that's been anything but jejune, we've seen two historic Hub happenings that most deemed inconceivable -- the Bruins won a Stanley Cup and the FBI found fugitive gangster Whitey Bulger.

So is Adrian Gonzalez playing right field for the Red Sox for a game or two in interleague play that unbelievable a notion? It's time for manager Terry Francona to toss Gonzalez an outfielder's glove, get David Ortiz back in the lineup at first base, and hope for the best.

It's the right move.

It's now or never for the Sox, who open a three-game set against the Philadelphia Phillies tonight, with the great Gonzo debate. If you're not going to move the chess pieces against the best pitching staff in baseball, then don't do it during the following series with the Houston Astros, who have the worst record in baseball and the second-worst earned run average.

The assumption before the Sox began this nine-game traveling interleague interlude was that their lineup was strong enough without Ortiz to beat up on the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Houston Astros. No need to risk Gonzalez in right against lightweights that the Sox could beat with Craig Grebeck in the lineup. This still may true of the latter, but it clearly was not of the former.

Maybe if both Carl Crawford and Jed Lowrie were in the lineup and not on the disabled list then Big Papi's absence would not have seemed as glaring in the Steel City. The Sox lineup without Ortiz, who got three plate appearances total, looked less offensively inclined than Bismack Biyombo, as they dropped two out of three.

The Sox scored a total of nine runs during the three-game set and stranded 29 base runners. In Sunday's game -- the only win -- the play-it-safe Sox scored four runs. They crossed home plate via a groundout, a throwing error, and two sacrifice flies. Not exactly the work of the 1927 Yankees.

But it followed a theme for a Sox lineup manacled by having to play by National League rules -- no designated hitter. In Saturday's 6-4 loss they scored via three solo homers and a ground-out by Gonzalez. In last Friday's 3-1 loss to the Pirates, the lone run scored on a ground-out.

If that's all the offense the Sox could muster against the Pirates with Ortiz relegated to Matt Stairs impersonations, then don't expect much more against the Phillies armed and dangerous staff, which has allowed the fewest runs in baseball this season and tossed the most shutouts (11).

The Sox face left-hander Cliff Lee tonight, and all he has surrendered is a single run over his last four starts, including back-to-back shutouts. Thursday, it's lefty Cole Hamels, who has a lower WHIP than both Lee and Roy Halladay at 0.96 and is third in MLB in fewest baserunners allowed per nine innings (8.84). Even Philadelphia's fifth starter, rookie Vance Worley, who will face the Sox on Wednesday, has a 2.83 ERA.

If the Sox are okay sacrificing these interleague games for the greater good and betting they'll still get their 95 wins, then continue to park Ortiz on the pine. But if they believe these games matter, then they have to at least give Gonzalez a shot in right field.

It's risky, and the team has every right to express trepidation about doing it. But unless the Sox plan to encase Gonzalez in bubble-wrap and tissue paper for the rest of the season, they can't get a guarantee that's he's not going to get hurt. That is impossible.

He could get injured fouling a ball off his foot at the plate like Dustin Pedroia did last summer, or he could break a bone in a collision at first base like Albert Pujols recently did. Or he could throw out his back carrying the Ortiz-less lineup.

Gonzalez himself has said that he feels he's less likely to get hurt in right field because he'll be more cautious.

The sum of all fears is that Gonzalez could, gasp, pull a hamstring chasing a fly ball and be out a few weeks. How is that different from the regular right fielder, J.D. Drew?

One admirable trait of the Sox during the Theo Epstein administration is that they have blocked out the babel that comes with baseball in Boston, making decisions on merit instead of public opinion. The talk radio backlash and incessant second-guessing from a Gonzalez injury in the outfield shouldn't be a factor in this decision.

Now, the easy out for the Sox is to point out that they're facing a pair of lefthanders in Lee and Hamels, and say that they'll keep Ortiz on the bench for those reasons. The counter for that argument is that Ortiz has hit .346 against lefties this season and is a decent .240 against Lee (6 for 25).

Plus, lefties (.258) have actually fared much better against the changeup-tossing Hamels than righties (.197) this season. Gonzalez rakes against both Lee (7 for 10 with a homer) and Hamels (8 for 22, two homers), so he's not sitting to make room for Ortiz in either of those two games.

The real issue here is that baseball, which has integrated everything else about the American and National Leagues from umpires to office administration to scheduling, continues to allow the leagues to play under two different sets of rules. That has put the Sox in this Procrustean predicament.

The DH was introduced in 1973 and 38 years later it's absurdly an AL-only feature. Spare me the talk of purity and the patriotic splendor of the double switch. I have as much interest in watching pitchers hit as I do in watching Rafael Nadal play Wimbledon with a wooden racket.

The Sox are boxed in. All the more reason to think outside the box.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news


...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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