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Emotional rescue

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff August 31, 2007 10:32 AM

They have the best record in baseball (barely), but they aren't baseball's best team.

They have the best pitching in the majors, but with a lineup of increasingly frustrating incompetence.

They are going to win the American League East for the first time since 1995. They may even have home-field advantage throughout October.

But there is no way these Red Sox are winning the World Series.

Might as well get used to that thought right now so that the inevitability doesn't charge at you on whatever cool autumn night the end comes, sparking destruction of the piles of leaves you forced your kids to rake as penance for instilling their youthful exuberance in this team.

As far and as much as a fire for playing the game is concerned, the Yankees, Angels, and Indians all have to be considered superior American League squads. First-place Los Angeles put on the clamps, and shut down the Mariners to take control of the West with a 5 1/2-game lead over Seattle. The Indians put any lingering thoughts the Twins might have had about getting back into the race by sweeping and putting Minnesota in a nine-game hole.

Your Boston Red Sox? They go to the Bronx and show all the passion of a weasel on Xanax in getting swept by the Yankees, who made them look foolish offensively and even suspect on the mound, where Boston has honed its greatest strength this season.

The bright side is that the Red Sox will now get to beat up on the Orioles and Blue Jays for the next 10 days, so all is well. Except that teams like the atrocious White Sox aren't going to be playing in October.

It's a different brand of baseball come autumn, and it's now completely evident that the Red Sox don't have that (bleep) 'em attitude that defined their 2004 predecessors. The Yankees have it. The Angels have it. The Indians seem like they have it. The Red Sox? I give you J.D. Drew.

For all the warranted criticism hammered upon the underperforming outfielder, his emotionless approach to the game has seemingly become this team's calling card. For all the passion emitted from guys like Josh Beckett, Kevin Youkilis, Jonathan Papelbon, and David Ortiz, on the whole the Red Sox are a squad that comes to the office, does their business with zombie-like efficiency, says all the right things afterward, and then has fans scratching their heads wondering if there is anything special here at all. That's J.D. Drew, and that is the Red Sox.

Too bad the whole Joba Chamberlain incident happened in the ninth yesterday (if your kids can read lips, you probably spent the rest of the evening explaining what Beckett had to say) and not Tuesday since it released at least some semblance of emotion. Of course, in two weeks you'll have to remind many of them of their ominous remarks when the Yankees come to town since most of them would prefer not to ruffle any feathers. One R word (revenge) will miraculously be replaced by another (respect).

Curt Schilling came out of New York with the best outing of any starter, but was victimized greatly by a Manny Ramirez-less lineup that had the following 6-9 hitters: Drew, Jason Varitek, Eric Hinske, Alex Cora. Beckett pitched well when he needed to wriggle out of jams, but 13 hits? Daisuke Matsuzaka at this point is an enigma, and has not had a memorable, step-up, "wow" performance in his rookie season other than a recent 1-0 outing at Cleveland.

The days of late-inning heroics are long gone; the celebrations of leaping men in uniform at home plate a thing of the past. That was the identity of the Red Sox these past few years, more than often bailed out by Ortiz. What is this team's identity? We've sought so long and hard for one that by now it has become evident that it doesn't really have one. Theo Epstein wanted to rid himself of the "Idiot" culture, but he has replaced it with a collection so vanilla in attitude that one has to wonder what the consensus is when adversity is placed in front of the OPS objective.

Where's the fire? Where's the passion?

The Yankees welcomed the Red Sox into their home and were ready to pounce, even after falling one night earlier to Detroit, 16-0. Their zeal was evident from pitch one on Tuesday. Boston's wasn't even noticeable until the wee innings of yesterday. There was such a lackadaisical approach on display by most of the offense (J.D. Drew, yes, we are always looking in your direction) that you could just envision this being a playoff game and imagine the disastrous results.

Now, before we get out of hand, let's be fair and rewind the clock. It was Sept. 17-19 of '04 when the Red Sox invaded Yankee Stadium for three, starting with a thrilling 3-2 win on Friday night, and ending with embarrassing 12-5 and 11-4 losses the next two days. The next weekend, the Yanks made Pedro Martinez their adopted son.

One month later, none of it mattered.

Maybe we're being a bit too revisionist, erroneously remembering the 2004 squad as a group that could change water into wine, slay the dragons that unwelcomingly inhabit the Charles, and accurately able to translates the mayor's jabberings. But still, that team had a certain undeniable ardor that this edition is severely lacking.

"You know what happens when you wake a sleeping giant," Papelbon said yesterday after the Chamberlain incident.

Yes. But whether the Red Sox are indeed a snoozing leviathan or indolent group of nondescript ballplayers remains the question. They're one of the best teams in the game, no doubt, and have an outside shot at a 100-win season. But be honest, can you really imagine this group as World Series champions? On the flip side, nobody expected Detroit and St. Louis to be in the World Series last year after the way they played much of August.

But the fact that there is something so maddeningly lacking on the Red Sox in terms of fire and inspiration still has much of the baseball world looking elsewhere when trying to pinpoint a winner. They can do it. They just have shown us no reason why anyone should think they could.

by eric wilbur


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