Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

DON'T BELIEVE CHICKEN LITTLE

No, the sky isn't falling.

Yes, the Sox have seen a one-time 14 1/2 game lead (on May 29) shrink to just eight.

But, clearly, there are problems. On their recent West Coast road trip, the Sox finished 3-4, and scored two runs or fewer four times. They batted just .222, with seven home runs, and had almost twice as many whiffs as walks. Against Colorado last week, the Sox scored just five runs over three games.

But when the offense has faltered, the Sox have often been able to count on solid pitching. After all, the team is 44-25 and its .638 winning percentage is still the best in baseball.

At 9-1, the resurgent Josh Beckett has led the way. And the club has gotten some nice performances from rookie Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has pitched better than his 8-5 record would attest. Matsuzaka has more strike outs (93) and fewer hits (88) than innings pitched (92.2). Plagued - once again - by poor run support, veteran knuckle-baller Tim Wakefield has gone 7-7, but has surrendered just 78 hits in 88.1 innings. Even Julian Tavarez has surprised some, if not himself, and usually given the club a chance to win, or at least compete.

Curt Schilling was expected to be the staff stalwart, but his 6-4 start this season has to be considered a disappointment -- so far. Though he sports a winning record, it doesn't tell the whole story. Monday night against the Braves was just the latest example.

Schilling's outing was brief and not what he expected. In fact, it was his shortest since opening day.

Boston's one-time ace lasted just 4 1/3 against the Braves, getting shelled for a season high six runs on 10 hits. In the fifth, Schilling blew up, surrendering three runs - including a homer - on three hits. But some of his most glaring problems were these; Schilling, legendary for his control, issued two walks and had no strikeouts (if you're counting, that's 12 baserunners allowed). That's likely due to the fact that his once-dominant fastball topped out at 89 mph. It was only the second time in his lofty career that he failed to strike out at least one batter, the last coming in July of 1993. Consider this; the man is fourth among active pitchers in strikeouts. Folks, there is reason for concern here. This isn't an isolated incident.

In his last start, on June 13 against Colorado, Schilling lasted just five innings - in which he threw 98 pitches - giving up six runs (five earned), on nine hits. In that game, Schilling had a more Schilling-esque strikeout/walk ratio of 5/1. But, nonetheless, he still followed up his dominating one-hitter in Oakland with an ugly loss.

After the impressive outing against the A's, the Globe's Nick Carfado wrote that the time was now to offer Schilling the one-year, $13 million extension he desires. But Schilling has surrendered 109 hits this season, most in the American League and second most in baseball. This is a pitcher who looks old, though he still has moments of brilliance.

In his post-game interview, Schilling sounded confused and distressed. "I'm not pitching well. That's what chisels away at your confidence -- when you suck. I didn't even give us a chance." The 40-year-old veteran said that he has no explanation for why he pitched so poorly, but that his health is not a factor. "I struggled. These last two starts have been terrible, and I'm better than that. It's just frustrating."

Schilling's pitches blended together and all looked the same. His fastball had nothing on it and was indistinguishable from his slider. Right now he looks totally lost, which certainly isn't what the Sox need. In his last two starts combined, Schilling has lasted just 9.1 innings and surrendered 12 runs. The result has been his first back-to-back losses since last August. Things have gotten ugly. After tonight's beating, Schilling's ERA shot up from 3.80 to 4.20.

But this hasn't come out of nowhere. In 94 1/3 innings this season, Schilling has allowed a whopping 109 hits while striking out just 71 batters. This is very unlike the pitcher that hitters have always feared and respected.

But the team's problems of late haven't really been the result of poor pitching. The hitters haven't been hitting.

Incredibly, Mike Lowell leads the club with 12 homers and 50 RBI. If you're scratching your head, you're not alone. This is a team with two of the best power hitters of their generation in David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. That's not to say that the Dynamic Duo aren't holding their own in other ways. Ortiz is leading the team with a .333 average, a .450 on-base-percentage, a .596 slugging percentage, and 27 doubles. Manny is hitting a respectable .293, despite his surprisingly low 10 homers and 39 RBI.

Of course there has been one particularly bright, if unexpected, spot this season. Dustin Pedroia has been a revelation and a surprise to everyone -- except, perhaps, to himself. Hitting an impressive .322, the rookie has proven to be a tough out this year, striking out quite infrequently. In fact, Pedroia has struck out just 16 times in 177 at-bats. By comparison, most of his teammates have a much higher strike out ratio. For example, Wily Mo Pena has 35 strike outs in just 91 at-bats; Eric Hinske has 17 strike outs in just 63 at-bats; and Doug Mirabelli has 20 strike outs in just 61 at-bats.

However, the struggles of JD Drew, Julio Lugo and Coco Crisp have been well documented. Everyone has been waiting for them to come around, but many are now wondering if that will ever happen this year. Entering Monday's game, Drew was batting .242, Crisp just .233, and Lugo a hapless and unfathomable .207 this season. To make matters worse, Lugo went 0-3 against the Braves on Monday, dropping his average to a woeful .205. That's just brutal.

Of greatest concern, this is the continuation of a disturbing trend that goes back to last season. Lugo hit just .219 in 49 games with the Dodgers after being traded by Tampa Bay.

But if you're looking for signs of life, there have actually been a few for this listless group.

Of Drew's five homers this year, three have come in the last week, including one tonight.

Crisp belted a pair of solo homers, both from the right side, for the first multi-homer game of his career. That's twice as many long balls as he had all season. Crisp's drought had resulted in just one homer in 227 at-bats. The speedy center fielder finished 4-for-4, and hopefully this is the catalyst that he -- and everyone else -- has been waiting for.

And there's even a ray of light for Lugo. Despite his pathetic average and .270 OBP, Lugo has struck out just 36 times this year. By comparison, Kevin Youkilis, one of the league's best hitters at .331, has struck out 35 times. So, Lugo is hitting the ball -- he's just hitting at people. What's more, Lugo has an unexplainable 34 RBI, to go along with 19 stolen bases in 19 attempts -- good enough for second in the AL.

Expect Schilling to continue having his ups and downs. He's 40-years-old and his best days are behind him. But every couple of starts he will wow us with an impressive performance that reminds us of how good he used to be on a consistent basis. Jon Lester will buoy the staff when he returns and will inject some much needed life. Tavarez has gone beyond most reasonable expectations, but his 4.97 ERA will make Lester seem like a Godsend. At the least, he will represent an upgrade.

Wily Mo Pena will never be anything more than a designated hitter, and in Boston he is stuck behind the greatest one to ever play the game. He will be trade bait at the deadline. Coco Crisp has played stellar defense -- better than anyone else in the Sox outfield -- but the team may weigh his value and listen to any compelling offers, should there be any for him. Crisp's greatest asset, besides speed and defense, it his relatively cheap contract.

The Sox could use another bat, and Crisp and Pena could be packaged, either together or with a pitcher like Kason Gabbard or Devern Hansack, to get one.

But one way or another, the Sox have built a nice lead in the AL East, and they should be a playoff team once again. A monumental meltdown is almost unthinkable, although we've seen it before in Boston. But that was then, this is is now. The 2007 Red Sox are a solid team with good chemistry. If all the hitters just start hitting up to their potential - consistently - and if the pitchers give their best efforts at the same time, this team will win 100 games this year, and perhaps even the World Series.

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

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