OAKLAND, Calif. -- Before anyone suggests that the worst is over, remember that momentum begins and ends in the very same place.
"It goes about as far as your starting pitcher [in the next game],’’ Red Sox manager Terry Francona said today following an 8-2 win over the Oakland A’s that felt like a liberating experience. "I do know I’d rather get on the plane winning rather than losing, but I think you turn the page. I think you have to.’’
As a result, only one question matters:
What happens next?
Roughly 12 hours after Daisuke Matsuzaka melted down on the Oakland Coliseum mound Tuesday night, the Red Sox showed up for work today in a virtual state of disarray. Matsuzaka promptly went on the disabled list. The Red Sox bullpen was spent. Minor league callup Hunter Jones had begun what became a 12-hour journey to nowhere, making consecutive transcontinental journeys to and from the West Coast as if he were the hardball answer to Charles Lindbergh.
Then Tim Wakefield went out and turned the clock back to 1995 -- taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning and pitching a complete-game four-hitter -- after which he and his teammates similarly journeyed back to the future known as Eastern Daylight Time.
Players being players, they believe in momentum. They believe in confidence and the power of positive thinking, and they believe that chemistry helps them win games. They believe that the slightest bit of good fortune can get them on a roll, just as Kevin Millar eternally preserved for us on video during batting practice before Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series.
Does that mean Brad Penny will pitch the Sox to a resounding victory over the Baltimore Orioles when the Sox return to Fenway Park on Friday night? No. But the Red Sox feel a lot better about themselves now than if Wakefield had dealt them the other extreme.
"I do believe that, yes, and I believe that games can have a lasting effect over the short term even if not over the long term,’’ said veteran third baseman Mike Lowell. "If Wake threw four innings and we had to use our bullpen for another five innings, there could be a hangover effect. I don’t think we can overvalue how important his start was for us.’’
In the interim, the Red Sox are still 3-6 and have lost all three of their series to start the season, one each to the Tampa Bay Rays, Los Angeles Angels, and A’s. David Ortiz has more strikeouts (eight) than total bases (seven), and Jon Lester has pitched far more like Ramiro Mendoza (21 baserunners in 10 innings) than Sandy Koufax. Already, the Sox are three deep on the depth chart at shortstop.
A baseball lifer who has been a player, coach, and manager, Francona understands the bigger picture as well as anyone. Of course, that is a key reason he became a successful manager at all. As much as players and spectators like to believe the games are all connected, men like Francona see them as entirely separate entities. The Sox could have scored 18 runs today, but that won’t mean a darned thing if Orioles starter Jeremy Guthrie does to them what Wakefield just did to the A’s.
That is why, when the Sox faced playoff deficits in their world championship years of 2004 and 2007, Francona did not juggle his rotation or try to squeeze blood from a stone. He just filled out his lineup card and let the team play. If the Red Sox ended up losing as a result, Francona was willing to accept the reality that the other team was simply the better one.
This year, quite definitively, we can state that the Red Sox have not been as good as their competition. One flashback performance by a 42-year-old knuckleballer does not change that. Until the eighth inning today, the Sox had scored a mere 29 runs in their first 81 innings, an average of just 2.8 per nine. For the moment, today’s six-run, game-breaking outburst in the eighth inning is the aberration rather than the rule, just like the final innings in unforgettable Game 5 of last year’s American League Championship Series.
In baseball, more than any other sport, the true measure of success comes in consistency. Any player can have a good week, month, or even year. The same is true of almost any team. The most accomplished individual and groups succeed over and over again, which is why someone like Greg Maddux is going to the Hall of Fame. It is also why this era in Red Sox history stands out from any other, the Sox having won two world titles and played in four AL Championship Series while making five trips to the postseason over the last six years.
This year? Because every year is a new year, there is still a lot about this team we do not know yet. We don’t know about Ortiz and we don’t know about Lowell, and we don’t know about Penny or Takashi Saito or John Smoltz. As much as players and teams would like their past achievements to afford them greater latitude, the harsh reality is that the game stops for no one.
At the moment, what we do know is that the 2009 Red Sox had their first meaningful victory in the wake of Tuesday’s potentially damaging loss.
We just don’t know how many others they will have yet, or they can even win two games in a row.
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