Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Thursday, September 20, 2007

THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD....

.... IS COMING TO AN END.

None of the past week’s events should come as a surprise. If you didn’t know it before, you know it now; the Boston Red Sox just aren’t a great team. Yes, they’re good, but they’re not great. They’re not the best team in the American League. In fact, they’re not even the best team in their division. That distinction goes to the hated, and once again dreaded, New York Yankees.

Over the past few weeks, and even months, many key Red Sox personnel suddenly look tired, as if the grind of a month-long spring training and a six month season have finally caught up to them.

Clay Buchholz is just a rookie with no playoff experience. He won’t be the hero this year. Hideki Okajima? Ouch. Eric Gagne. Help! Bryan Corey? Javier Lopez? Mike Timlin? Anyone? Anyone?

Kevin Youkilis has suffered his second consecutive second-half fizzle. Before the All-Star break, Youkilis was hitting .328 with 40 strikeouts. Since the break, it’s .234 with 60 whiffs.

By the end of every season, the 230-pound Jason Varitek always looks burdened by consistently crouching down under his own weight. A career .267 hitter, Varitek is hitting just .252 this year.

JD Drew is a well-documented disaster. Coco Crisp, while a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, has never found his stroke since coming to Boston. Julio Lugo, despite his contributions with stolen bases and RBI, hasn’t been able to hit his way out of a season-long slump. And Alex Cora, Doug Mirabelli, and Eric Hinske, while all fine role players, simply cannot hit.

And that has been the Achilles heel of this Red Sox team all year long; poor hitting and a lack of offense in critical situations. How many times have the Sox left men on base in scoring position to end an inning? Mike Lowell, David Ortiz, and Dustin Pedroia have carried the team almost all year long, making up for the inefficiencies of their teammates.

When the Yankees swept three straight games from the Sox at Yankee Stadium in late August, the writing was on the wall; the Yankees were a superior team. And when the Yankees took two out of three at Fenway last week, that writing became larger, clearer, and even more glaring.

The Sox supposed strength, pitching, hasn’t made a difference against the Yankees, who took the season series 10-8. But here’s the shocker; the Sox outscored the Yanks in the season series 99-93. I’m as surprised as you are. Yet the Bombers are baseball’s number one offense, outscoring the Red Sox by 81 runs this season. The Sox are fourth in runs scored.

The Red Sox stormed out of the gate, going 16-8 in April and 20-8 in May. Meanwhile, the Yankees staggered out of spring training, going 9-14 in April and 13-15 in May. The hobbled and wounded New Yorkers used multiple starting pitchers and didn’t resemble the team that had won 11 AL East titles in 13 years, including the last nine, and four World Series titles in five years.

But how the Yanks turned things around in the second half, going 14-6 in July and 18-11 in August, closing the gap on the Red Sox all the while. And the Yankees have never let up, going 13-4 so far in September.

A couple hundred miles to the northeast, the Red Sox were also winning -- just not nearly as often. The Sox went 15-12 in July, 16-13 in August, and 10-8 so far in September.

The point is this; it’s not how fast you start, it’s how strong you finish that counts. The Yankees are finishing stronger than the Red Sox and have been the better team in head-to-head competition.

Winning the division is relevant only for bragging rights and home-field advantage in the playoffs. The home field advantage is obviously the more important of the two. The Sox are 5-4 against the Yankees at Fenway this year. They are 3-6 in the Bronx.

So winning the division may matter a bit, but perhaps not enough to really make a difference for the Sox. The Yankees seem to be the better – certainly the hotter – team right now, as we near the end of the regular season.

There are just nine games remaining until the playoffs begin. The Red Sox had better win the division so that the Yankees have to play their nemesis, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, California, USA. The Angels have been hell for the Yanks going back to 2002. But the Sox will still have to beat the Indians to earn a right to play for the Pennant. And this year the Sox won’t be the favorite.

Winning the division would be nice, but it won’t matter if the Sox are bounced in the first round, or lose to the Yankees in the ALCS.

Do we pray for the Angels to win? Pick your poison.

Are you feeling confident about any Red Sox starter other than Josh Beckett right now?

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