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Red Sox make progress, but pitching still must improve

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  May 24, 2012 10:56 AM

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If the Red Sox are feeling good about themselves in the wake of a stretch during which they have gone 10-3, that is certainly a good thing. If the Red Sox are more unified now than they were at the beginning of the season, that is a good thing, too. And if the Red Sox are using the media and criticism as a rallying cause, that is also excellent news.

But for a team that has not had a winning record at any point this season, the Red Sox on Wednesday seemed a touch beyond their skis.

"[If] we play like this the rest of the season," manager Bobby Valentine said following a 6-5 victory over the Baltimore Orioles, "we're going to win the championship."

At the risk of sounding like Jim Mora ... championship? Championship? Let's slow down here. The Red Sox still have issues. Even with their latest surge, the Sox still rank 13th overall in the American League in ERA. While their relievers have crept up to a far more decent ninth -- still below average -- the starters, too, rank 13th. And that all comes after a 2011 season in which the Sox finished a disappointing ninth in ERA.

The point? The pitching on this team, particularly in the starting rotation, remains inconsistent. And unless or until that changes over an extended period of time, the Red Sox are likely to continue along the pattern that has thus far produced stretches during which they have gone 4-10, 7-1, 1-8 and now 10-3.

Add it all up and what you get is 22-22 after 44 games, a perfectly mediocre record that puts them right there with the Chicago White Sox, smack dab in the middle of the 30 major league teams.

Think Robin Ventura is talking about a championship in Chicago?

* Adrian Gonzalez is a three-time Gold Glove Award winner who won the honor in the American League as recently as last season. He has some reason to gripe about being moved to the outfield, temporarily or not. Instead, Gonzalez has gone out and demonstrated tremendous instincts in right field, which is a testament to his natural baseball ability.

Not every player, no matter how accomplished, would so willingly do what Gonzalez is doing now. As much as many of us think of Derek Jeter, he was never going to give up shortstop for Alex Rodriguez or anyone else. Jeter is nonetheless regarded as one of the best team players in baseball, the kind of guy who always greets teammates at the top step of the dugout, the way David Ortiz does.

Interestingly, during the same period of time where Gonzalez has accepted a move to the outfield, Kelly Shoppach went into manager Bobby Valentine's office on Tuesday and complained about a shortage of playing time. Was he kidding with this? Someone needs to remind Shoppach that he was brought here to be a backup catcher for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who continues to make strides as a player. If Shoppach is unhappy with that, the Sox should release him and hand the job to Ryan Lavarnway.

End of story.

* Speaking of Ortiz, let's say this all again: given his performance and tenure, he was the right man to speak up and call a team meeting. Somebody in the Red Sox clubhouse should have done so a long time ago -- we're going back to last September now -- and maybe someone did. Ortiz has always been one of the most approachable and well-liked players by his teammates, but he has never run the clubhouse with an iron fist, the way some other players might have.

If he opted to do so now, amen.

That said, when Ortiz said he is not respected by the front office, he's got it backwards. If he were not David Ortiz, the Red Sox might very well have cut him loose after the 2010 season. Theo Epstein explained the decision to retain Ortiz at that time by saying Ortiz was very important to "ownership," which certainly suggests that baseball operations was prepared to cut him loose and move on.

Since that time, the Red Sox have committed $27 million (including this season) in guaranteed salary on Ortiz. Last fall, he could have declined arbitration and hit the open market, but he chose not to. Know why? Because nobody would have given him more guaranteed money than the Red Sox did by agreeing to arbitration and, eventually, a one-year, $14.5 million settlement.

Every player ages. Eventually, they almost all end up on a series of one-year contracts. Before Ortiz says that he has been disrespected, he should consider that men like Pedro Martinez, Trot Nixon, Derek Lowe, Johnny Damon and, most recently, Jonathan Papelbon have been cut loose by the Red Sox with no real attempt to retain them.

With Ortiz, that has not happened.

* Given the rash of injuries the Red Sox have suffered in the outfield, the Red Sox should continue to find ways to get Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis and Will Middlebrooks in the lineup at the same time. If that means putting someone other than Gonzalez in the outfield, so be it. That is especially true in left field at Fenway Park, where there has been a long history of substandard defensive play.

Manny Ramirez, Mike Greenwell and Jim Rice all played left field at Fenway on a full-time basis and none of them were especially good outfielders. Heck, even Wilfredo Cordero played left field. It's just not that tough.

On the road, the Sox will need to be more careful about picking their spots.

* As we all know, Daniel Bard has strikeout stuff. So can someone please explain why Bard has so completely gone away from it? If Bard were using two-seam fastballs (or sinkers) to augment his power arsenal, that would be one thing. If were showing some propensity for pitch efficiency, that would be another. But Bard hasn't been getting strikeouts or quick outs, which really has more to do with his approach than his stuff.

Unbelievable. Major league evaluators are obsessed with velocity and power. Bard has both, but he's not using them. That makes no sense.

* Alfredo Aceves is still far more suited to be a middle reliever or set-up man, but has made one heck of a comeback in the last month. Since allowing five runs in the Red Sox' cataclysmic 15-9 loss to the Yankees on April 21, Aceves has brought his ERA from 24.00 to 4.15. In his last 15 outings, he is 8 for 8 in save opportunities while posting a 0.96 ERA with 19 strikeouts and five walks in 18.2 innings.

Last September, Aceves showed us all that he has guts.

Now, he's showing us again.

Tony's Top 5

Favorite blog entries

The final chapter on Teixeira and How Red Sox pitchers work the strike zone Jan. 7, 2009 and July 17, 2009. Some actual reporting – an obsession with Mark Teixeira and the art of pitching.
For 2011 Red Sox, there was plenty of blame to go around Oct. 1, 2011. The disgraceful collapse of the Red Sox stoked the fire in all of us.
Behind Garnett and James, Celtics and Heat are digging in June 4, 2012. Improbably, the Celtics pushed the Heat to the limit.
Thrill is back for Patriots Jan. 30, 2012. Another Super Bowl has even Bill Belichick musing.
You’ve got to believe June 15, 2011. On the morning of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, we all had reason to believe.
Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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