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Not half bad

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  July 14, 2010 02:46 PM

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Before the second half's first pitch is delivered tomorrow night -- our guess is that it will be a knuckleball -- let's take one more spin back through the first half with the family game everyone can play, Red Sox Bests and Worsts . . .

0715papi2.jpgBest reason to begin the season May 1, Part 1: David Ortiz. Papi batted .143 with a home run and four RBIs in April, and he looked as overmatched as his stats would suggest, to the point that there was legitimate concern as to whether he’d survive the season with the ballclub. Turns out all he needed was for the calendar to turn. Since May 1, he has a .641 slugging percentage – more than 100 points higher than his OPS (.524) in April – and is back to being one of the AL’s most dangerous sluggers.

Best reason to begin the season May 1, Part 2: Jon Lester His April woes remain a mystery, but for the second straight season the big lefty was slow out of the blocks, winning one of five starts with a 4.72 ERA. His ERAs in May, June, and July (thus far): 1.84, 2.62, 2.08. Lester has won 10 of his last 11 decisions and is on the short list of AL Cy Young favorites despite the pokey start.

Best open-field tackler: Third baseman Adrian Beltre, whose key statistics this season include a .330 batting average, 13 homers, 55 RBIs, at least eight left fielders’ ribs broken, and two teammates disabled. Let’s just say he pursues popups vigorously.

Worst example of the run-prevention model: We’re probably being a little harsh here, for he’s nobly played through what is surely an agonizing injury, a sports hernia. But Mike Cameron, a longtime Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, has until recently struggled mightily with the glove, not only in getting jumps on the ball, but at times, catching them. His .976 fielding percentage is his worst since 2004, and is minus-37 UZR reads like an homage to Wily Mo Pena.

Best excuse to tune into Don and Jerry in the second inning: Daisuke Matsuzaka, who despite the occasional gem is always an enigma and generally maddening, no more than during the first inning. He has an 11.25 ERA and 16 walks during the initial frame of his 12 starts. You know, I might just wait until the third inning, just to be safe.

Best example of the volatility of relief pitchers: Hideki Okajima. The Red Sox’ lefthanded setup man since arriving from Japan in 2007, he’d slightly regressed in his second and third seasons, but still remained an effective, essential member of the relief corps. This season? Not so much. Okajima, 34, has a 6.00 ERA and a hideous 1.89 WHIP, and improvement doesn't seem to be in sight. He had a 6.52 ERA in 11 appearances in June. Paging Mr. Scott Downs . . .

BkGZYrQmkKGrHqUH-CkEsTqEBLWJw1ZIU_1.jpgBest fastball: Who else but Daniel Bard? The second-year setup man has used a more diverse repertoire to compile some fantastic first-half numbers (1.90 ERA, 42.2 innings, 23 hits, 12 walks, 45 strikeouts), but let's face it, when he's on the mound, we're all watching the radar gun to see if Bard, with an effortless motion that belies his velocity, cranks it up to triple digits.

Best (or most accurrate) imitation of Frank Castillo: John Lackey, who has a 4.78 ERA, has allowed 135 hits in 113 innings (with a 1.60 WHIP), and despite his nine wins, has very rarely looked like the "third ace" he was touted as when the Red Sox signed him to a five-year, $82.5 million deal in the offseason.

Best fastball (non-pitcher dept.): The ever-versatile Bill Hall, who while pitching in mopup duty May 28 in a 12-5 loss to Kansas City, touched the low 90s on the radar gun in one flawless inning of relief. Theo Epstein has been hit or miss with his bullpen choices over the years, but hey, no GM in the game has a better knack for finding utility infielders who can pitch in a pinch.

Worst imitation of an ace: Josh Beckett, who has one win and a 7.29 ERA before going on the disabled list in mid-May with a back issue. Though we're confident he'll have a big second half, it's fair to wonder if Epstein is starting to get a twinge of buyer’s remorse after signing the 30-year-old righthander to four-year, $68 million contract extension in early April.

Worst juxtaposition: Dustin Pedroia put on a Rocky Mountain Laser Show June 24, bashing three homers and driving in five runs while going 5 for 5. The very next day, in his second at-bat against the Giants, he fouled a pitch off his left foot, and you knew it was bad when perhaps the Red Sox’ toughest player (certainly pound for pound) had to leave the game.

Best career move: Jason Varitek, essentially the Red Sox’ starting catcher since 1997, who has gracefully accepted his backup role behind Victor Martinez while also being generous with his institutional knowledge of the pitching staff as well as providing surprising pop off the bench. He’s hurt right now – another member of The Broken Foot Brigade – but when he’s healthy, he’s baseball’s best backup catcher.

Worst imitation of a major-league hitter: Poor Niuman Romero and his two games of gory. Overmatched in the Craig Grebeck tradition, put in a spot he wasn't ready for, gone but never forgotten. [Although the correct spelling of his name was by me earlier. I'm a dope.]

Worst absentee outfielder: Jacoby Ellsbury, who has played just nine games after suffering broken ribs in a collision with – you know it – Beltre on April 11. One abbreviated return and an awkward though not openly contentious dispute about the diagnosis later, and Ellsbury is only now on the verge of beginning baseball activities. There’s no doubt he was seriously hurt, but he's emitted a prima donna vibe, and there’s something unbecoming (is Boras-ish an adjective?) about the way the situation has been handled.

Best story that reads like a Disney sports movie blockbuster: The emergence of Darnell McDonald, a former No. 1 pick in 1997 who spend just 68 games in the big leagues before this season. McDonald, 31, has been a godsend for the injury ravaged Sox with his ability to play three outfield positions and wring out tough at bat after tough at bat at the plate. But the best part of his season was first part; in his debut April 20, he clubbed a tying home run in the eighth and then singled in the winning run in the 10th with a wall-scraper.

Best story that reads like a Disney sports movie sequel to a blockbuster: Daniel Nava’s grand slam on the first major league pitch he ever saw would be a tale worth retelling even without his remarkable back story. But his amazing debut is only enhanced by his long and winding path to the big leagues, which included initially getting cut as a walk-on in college, playing in an independent league, and never having been drafted.

Best introduction: Felix Doubront, the 22-year-old rookie lefthander who, in two spot starts, has appeared to have a pretty damn good curveball for someone who wasn’t supposed to have a curveball. Can't wait to see more.

Worst moment: Are you really going to make us mention Pedroia’s injury again? The Sox lineup isn’t the same without him, obviously, and they are not nearly as fun to watch. Here's hoping he comes back soon, but not too soon.

Best everyday player: Kevin Youkilis. Maybe Joe Girardi can help us with the answer, but for now we’re not sure why Youkilis is rarely regarded among baseball’s elite players. We suspect it’s because there’s no flash to his game – his swing is unorthodox, and let’s face it, so is his appearance. But his statistics again scream superstar -- .293-18-57, with a .981 OPS – and while his national profile isn’t what it should be, YOOUUUUKKK!! is certainly appreciated in his home ballpark.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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