The Red Sox are clutching tight to their playoff spot like a T passenger clinging to the handrail on a herky-jerky jaunt on the Green Line. September has brought a fall from grace for the Sox, who are just 5-14 this month and have the Tampa Bay Rays nipping at their spikes for the American League wild card, two games in arrears.
With eight games remaining for the Red Sox here are a Nomar-esque five thoughts about the direction of the team, both in the short-term -- and it could be very short -- and the long-term.
1. Let's go Yankees? -- A playoff race makes for strange bedfellows and nothing is weirder than Red Sox fans having to root for the arch-rival Yankees the next three days to help protect Boston's playoff berth. Then of course they'll shower them with the usual vitriol when the rivals meet at Yankee Stadium on Friday, before resuming Yankee-rooting position for the final three games of the season.
The Rays, who have a day-night doubleheader tomorrow, open a four-game series against the Bronx Bombers tonight at Yankee Stadium. Tampa Bay plays seven of its final 10 games against the Pinstripes. The Maddon Men are a mediocre 5-6 against the Yankees.
Yankee broadcaster John Sterling's mawkish signature game-closing call for Yankee triumphs will practically sound like "Sweet Caroline" the next few days. It's time to pass the Pepto-Bismal and root, root, root for Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and even Alex Rodriguez. Here's hoping CC Sabathia finally gets that 20th win tomorrow.
2. Papi knows best -- David Ortiz is right. Alfredo Aceves should have been starting for the Red Sox, who have had the worst starting pitching in baseball since Aug. 30 (6.64 earned run average). Kyle Weiland shouldn't be thrown into the crucible of starting crucial September games. Aceves is already stretched out enough to go five innings -- he pitched four innings in relief against Tampa on Sept. 10 -- and is one of the five best pitchers currently on this staff.
The problem, however, is that the Sox shallow pitching staff is a shell game. If you remove Aceves from the bullpen then you have no reliable bridge to get to Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon, and you're only letting Aceves effect one game every five days instead of two or three. So, Terry Francona is doomed if he does and doomed if he doesn't with Aceves. But can the Sox seriously use John Lackey as a postseason starter if he continues to pitch the way he has this month (31 hits in 17.2 innings pitched and a 10.70 earned run average)?
3. Rotation formation -- Speaking of a possible playoff rotation, whether the Sox hold on to their precarious playoff lead or not this collapse could inflict damage. The schedule for each American League Division Series has the first games set for Friday, Sept. 30, two days after the end of the regular season. If the Sox go into Baltimore needing to stave off or catch the Rays, then both Josh Beckett and Jon Lester could be pressed to make full-effort starts, instead of truncated tuneups.
Even if Beckett pitches the first game of the Baltimore series next Monday, he would not be available to pitch Game 1 of the ALDS on regular (four days) rest. He would either have to go on three days or pitch Game 2 on Oct. 1. Lester, who pitches against the Yankees this Friday, could end up having to pitch the regular-season finale. That would make him off-limits until Game 3 and relegate him to one start in the series. Such a scenario primes the Sox for a Patriot-like departure from the playoffs.
4. The right thing to do -- This will be longer than it should be for general manager Theo Epstein with a $160-million payroll. First up is rebuilding the bullpen, which is reliever roulette. Second is acquiring another starter to stabilize the back end of the rotation. But on that list should be acquiring a righthanded-hitting outfielder who can play right field and spell Carl Crawford in left.
The Sox lead the majors in batting average against lefthanders (.282) and extra-base hits (177). They are second to the Yankees in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) at .810. Dustin Pedroia terrorizes portsiders, but the Sox are also lucky that the top lefties in their lineup -- David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury -- have all hit well against lefthanded pitching this season.
I'm not sold on handing right field over to Josh Reddick next year. The Sox need a switch-hitting or righthanded hitting alternative. It would not be a bad idea to give the Kansas City Royals a call and inquire about either Melky Cabrera, who has hit lefties at a .303 clip and has the fourth-most hits in the AL, or Jeff Francoeur, who leads the American League in doubles (46) and has a .958 OPS against lefties. More costly options would be free agents Michael Cuddyer (1.019 OPS against lefties) and Carlos Beltran.
5. Out of leftfield -- Looking back, the Sox's decision to hold the line with Matt Holliday during the offseason following the 2009 season was a costly one. Holliday got a seven-year, $120-million deal to return to the Cardinals. The Sox had offered him around $85 million over five years, and then took that money and spent it like a profligate celebutante on John Lackey (five years, $82.5 million). Last offseason to fill the gaping hole in front of the Green Monster they emptied the coffers for Carl Crawford, inking him for seven years and $142 million.
The Sox could have saved themselves $104.5 million and gotten a better fit for their lineup by getting the right-handed Holliday. As bad as things have been with Crawford it could have been worse if the Sox signed Jayson Werth instead. Werth, who signed with the Washington Nationals, is slugging a paltry .287, compared to Crawford's .402, while batting .230 with 19 home runs and 56 runs batted in. Talk about wasteful spending in Washington.
...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.