Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

LESTER SHINES AT FENWAY

This version of Jon Lester was the one everyone was waiting to see. From the ownership group, to the baseball operations department, to the coaching staff, to his teammates, to the fans of Red Sox Nation. This was delivering the goods. This was living up to the promise, and the expectations.

Lester out-dueled one of baseball's bona fide aces, Roy Halladay, throwing eight innings of one-hit, six strikeout ball. Though he allowed four walks, he didn't let them hurt him and got out of jams each time.

For his part, Toronto's resident stud threw yet another complete game, allowing just five hits and one run, while striking out six. Halladay has lost too many heartbreakers of this nature as his offense has stumbled.

Lester was the reason for that on Tuesday night.

But Lester's inconsistency has frustrated everyone, including himself. All too often he has been the victim of his own high pitch counts, numerous walks, and early exits. The poor performances even lead him to doubt himself. Good thing his confidence wasn't too shaken. And after such a compelling performance, he should be inspired.

The key was throwing first-pitch strikes and getting ahead in the count early. His changeup was elusive and made his fastball all the more effective. His consistency in the strike zone allowed him an economical 97 pitches.

This was surely one of Lester's finest moments in the Majors.

"Everything's coming along good," he said after the game. "Seems like every time I go out there, I take strides in the right direction."

Lets hope this is the beginning of the right kind of consistency.

Copyright © 2008 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

MASTERSON MASTERFUL

In the past week we've witnessed a remarkable display of the Red Sox organizational depth and player development. We've been impressed by he likes of Jed Lowrie and Craig Hansen, while Joe Thurston and David Pauley contributed as well, though less spectacularly. Pauley may make a serviceable fifth starter for some Major League team, though it likely won't be the Red Sox.

And then today we had the Major League debut of Justin Masterson, who certainly opened some eyes with an impressive performance against a potent Angels offense.

In six innings of work, Masterson stymied Angel hitters with his tough sinker, allowing one earned run on two hits. The young righty struck out four batters and left the game with a 3-1 lead, only to be undone by the lamentable middle relief of the Red Sox.

Already it's become an old story, even though it's still so early in the season.

The Red Sox bullpen (three different pitchers) allowed four runs -- on four hits and three walks -- before recording a single out in an abysmal 7th inning that saw the Angels take a 5-3 lead. Javier Lopez and Manny Delcarmen were just awful (two earned runs apiece), and even Hideki Okajima didn't even look like his usual, dependable self. David Aardsma and Julian Tavarez were no better in their turns on the mound.

Whether it's Lopez, Delcarmen, Tavarez, Aardma, or Mike Timlin, it is often an adventure -- or misadventure -- for the Red Sox. No lead is safe when any member of this group takes the mound, as we've repeatedly seen in the season's opening month.

The powerful Red Sox offense has bailed out the bullpen with 10 come-from-behind wins already this year. That's the significant reason the Red Sox, despite the loss today, still have the best record in the American League at 15-9.

It's too bad that Masterson's masterful performance was spoiled by such futility and incompetence. But the Red Sox are not alone. The same problem prevails all over baseball. As I've said before, middle relief is no relief at all.

No matter, Justin Masterson gave us something to look forward to today, and he lived up to all the hype. That's often tough to do; many young players wilt under such expectations. His presence will provide depth and additional possibilities as the season progresses. We're sure to see him again this year, and at this rate it may be as a middle reliever.

Any one of the guys that let him and the rest of the team down -- again -- today could be out of a job before long.

Copyright © 2008 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

LOWRIE MAKING AN IMPRESSION

Sure, it's early. But Jed Lowrie is increasingly looking like the real deal.

The kid had two more doubles on Sunday, scored once, and knocked in a run in yet another come-from-behind Red Sox victory. Solid and consistent play is quickly becoming routine for the 24-year-old infielder.

On Saturday night Lowrie knocked a single, a double, scored a run, and drove in an RBI on a sacrifice fly. And his three RBI against Cleveland on Tuesday were the most by a Sox player in his debut since Merrill Combs drove in four against the St. Louis Browns in 1947.

So far, in 12 at-bats over three games, the switch-hitter has five hits (three of them doubles), five RBI, three runs, and is batting a healthy .417. That's a pretty sweet stat line to begin a career.

The kid has already proven that he can hit big league pitching, and that he is also versatile enough to play third, short and second. That sort of ability increases his value to the team and could make him a sort of "super-sub" until the Sox can open a position for him.

The most obvious position in the near term would be shortstop, where the $9 million-a-year Julio Lugo currently resides. At that price, the Sox aren't likely to find any takers willing to assume all of Lugo's hefty salary, so they would likely have to eat some of it.

Some may find that sort of talk to be a bit premature. After all, the Sox did manage to win a World Series with Lugo hitting just .237, to go along with a paltry .294 OBP. And Lugo did manage to knock in 73 runs and steal 33 bases last year.

This year he's off to a better start, hitting a respectable .273. But his OBP is still just .304 and he has only two extra-base hits. Lowrie has already exceeded that. To top it off, Lugo has a whopping six errors in the season's first month, tying him for the major league lead. If the veteran shortstop keeps this up, calls for Lowrie to replace him will be heard loud and clear all over Red Sox Nation.

It sure would be nice to see Lowrie stick around for a while. The rest of the season would be nice. After all, who wants to see this kid back in Pawtucket? He's already earning his place and helping the team win.

At this point, Julio Lugo looks like the one with something to prove.

Copyright © 2008 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

MIDDLE RELIEF AIN'T NO RELIEF AT ALL

Thank goodness for Josh Becket. The Red Sox resident ace managed to go eight innings against the potent Yankee lineup, giving up six hits and only one walk, resulting in just three earned runs. Through eight innings, Becket threw 105 pitches.

The Red Sox needed this sort of performance, coming on the heels of repeated short starts, and high pitch counts, by Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Clay Buchholz and Tim Wakefield.

In their last three starts, respectively, the stat line of the foursome looks like this:

Lester: 4.1 innings - 10 base runners; 5.1 innings - 9 base runners; 6.2 innings - 6 base runners

Matsuzaka: 5 innings - 11 base runners; 6.2 innings - 11 base runners; 6.2 innings - 2 base runners

Buchholz: 3.2 innings - 9 base runners; 6 innings - 7 base runners; 5 innings - 8 base runners

Wakefield: 6 innings - 11 base runners; 5 innings - 8 base runners; 6 innings - 9 base runners

So far this season, Sox pitchers are undermining themselves, and the team, with walks. The walks have lead to high pitch totals and starts that have been all too brief.

Despite Beckett's one-walk outing, Red Sox pitchers lead all of baseball with 74 walks. The league average is 49. Last season, the Sox allowed a total of 482 walks, which were sixth-fewest in all of baseball. This season, they are walking batters at a rate that would result in 739 walks by season's end. That would be the most in the majors since the Brewers granted 728 free passes in 2000.

In all of baseball, only Cleveland's Fausto Carmona has more walks than Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester (15 each). And Tim Wakefield isn't far behind with 12.

These high walk totals have been running up the Sox starter's pitch counts, and ultimately taxing a bullpen that is already overworked in just the first month of a six-month season.

Because they can't consistently throw strikes, the starters are wearing themselves out, and they're wearing out the bullpen too. This has got to stop, and soon. It won't work over the long haul of a 162-game season. Teams like the Yankees are stocked with patient hitters who tend to wear down pitchers. They make pitchers throw strikes, and so far Sox pitchers can't do that consistently.

Seemingly, every time a Red Sox starter takes the mound, at least three additional pitchers are needed to complete the game. So far, that's not working, and no one should expect it to.

The middle relievers can't be counted on to bail the starters out. Middle relievers are in that role because they're not good enough to close or start. Manny Delcarmen, Mike Timlin, Javier Lopez, Julian Tavarez -- do you really trust any of them? How could anyone?

Each time one of them comes out of the pen, you can almost hear the collective gasp go out from Red Sox Nation. Hold on tight, it's gonna be a bumpy ride!

To be fair, the Red Sox aren't the only team with a weak or unpredictable middle relief corps. And most A.L. clubs are lucky to have two decent starers -- at best. But to be champions again, the Red Sox will need to do better. If the bullpen remains this overworked and unreliable, the Sox will be forced to call on castoffs like Kyle Snyder or Bryan Corey again, or surrender a valuable asset/prospect in a trade they'd rather not make.

Being forced to make such decisions would surely be regrettable, but perhaps no more so than the current status quo.

Copyright © 2008 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

BULLPEN DEPTH COULD PROVE VALUABLE TO SOX

It has been said countless times that "pitching wins championships." That old adage may indeed be true, and that's what makes Big League pitching so valuable. With 30 Major League clubs, and fifth starters the modern day norm, many pitchers in the game today would have never made the grade in decades past.

That's why teams covet good pitchers, both young and old. Young guys are often cheaper and have less "mileage" on their throwing arms. The downside is that they are less experienced than older, more seasoned veterans.

Mike Timlin is very experienced; the 42-year-old reliever is the active leader among major league pitchers, with 1,011 appearances to start the season.

But Timlin, as would be expected, has become more susceptible to injury as he's gotten older. Timlin had been healthy since 2001, when he went on the DL because of knee surgery. But he's now been on the DL four times since the start of the 2006 season, when he was sidelined with a strained shoulder. Then he opened 2007 on the DL with a strained oblique muscle, and later went back on the DL with shoulder tendinitis. Those injuries limited him to 50 appearances last season. And Timlin missed the first nine games of this season with a lacerated ring finger on his pitching hand.

The rust showed immediately upon return last weekend; Timlin gave up home runs to the first batter he faced both Friday night and Sunday night against the Yankees. In each case, it was Jason Giambi, who had not hit a home run against anyone else this season After Giambi's home run Sunday, Jose Molina and Melky Cabrera singled, making opposing hitters 5 for 5 against Timlin in 2008. It was not the kind of return the veteran pitcher had planned.

But Timlin bounced back last night, pitching a 1-2-3 eighth, earning the win against Cleveland. Yet he is 42, with a history of injuries -- the shoulder issues being the most troubling.

To make room Timlin on the 25-man roster, the Red Sox designated 34-year-old righty Bryan Corey for assignment. Kyle Snyder had previously been designated to make room for the returning Josh Beckett. Both pitchers are younger and healthier than Timlin. But neither was consistent.

Why weren't Snyder and Corey just sent down to Pawtucket? They were out of options.

Each player can be optioned three times. One option is expended per year, regardless of how many times the player goes back and forth from Pawtucket. After three seasons of being called up and sent down, he is out of options and can no longer be returned to the minors without first clearing waivers. That means every other team in the major leagues has a chance to claim him for a nominal waiver fee.

The Sox ran into that same problem with 27-year-old, lefty-reliever Craig Breslow, who was out of options and subsequently designated for assignment at the end of Spring Training. The Indians promptly claimed Breslow and he is now on their big league roster.

But the 30-year-old Snyder was not claimed by another team. He cleared waivers and accepted an outright assignment to Triple A Pawtucket. And so far Corey has elicited little interest from other clubs either. Since pitching is at such a premium, why aren't teams more interested in Snyder and Corey? The simple answer is that they are viewed as fringe players by other clubs, who would be in the same position as the Sox, unable to option the pitchers out if they wanted to send them to the minors. Perhaps Corey could find his way back to Pawtucket within days as well.

That may be a good thing for the Sox. Having pitchers with Big League experience just a phone call, and 60 miles, away in Pawtucket could prove quite valuable. The season is long and injuries are sure to occur to Sox pitchers. You never know, Mike Timlin could again be one of them.

Another old adage goes like this: "You can never have enough pitching."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

WILL THE REAL JON LESTER PLEASE STAND UP?

There's no doubt that the Red Sox organization thinks highly of Jon Lester; he is expected to become one of the anchors of the pitching staff for years to come. In fact, the Sox like him so much they wouldn't pull the trigger on the Johan Santana trade. Some see Lester as a #2 starter, and he has been compared to successful lefties such as Bruce Hurst and even Andy Pettitte.

But with those lofty expectations comes a pressure that could be tough for him to live up to.

It's very early in Lester's young career, and he could certainly live up to the hype and projections that have followed him since his days in the minors. At this point he is just a budding 24-year-old, and perhaps a rising star. The Red Sox have thought so since they selected him in the second round of the 2002 draft.

But Lester continues to have control issues, which have led to far too many base runners and high pitch counts. That, in turn, has ultimately led to short starts, resulting in additional stress on the Sox bullpen. For example, last night Lester only lasted 5 1/3 innings -- as has become customary -- and allowed 9 base runners (5 hits, 4 walks). Base runners usually mean trouble for Lester, and sure enough he allowed 4 earned runs.

Lester can be tantalizingly good, and then frustratingly bad. In fairness, he seems just average, which is better than bad. But he has long been expected to be better than that.

Inconsistency has plagued Lester from the beginning, and belies his 12-4 Big League record. The truth is, Lester has the privilege of playing for the best team in baseball, one with a high-powered offense that can put runs on the board in bunches, and in a hurry. He has clearly benefitted from that run production; his record is much better than it should be, as evidenced by his 4.66 career ERA.

Lester had a WHIP of 1.46 in 2007, and has allowed a staggering 249 base runners in his 160 career innings. You could say he is a victim of his own making. The high pitch counts have often led him to tire early, and he’s averaged just 5.5 innings per start. These statistics are not good, and not the sign of a rising star.

Lester needs to work on his control and lower his walk total; perhaps that would also help lower his ERA and extend his starts. He would be wise to put the ball over the plate and trust his defense. All of his attempts at finesse and painting the corners are not working for him (at least let's hope that's what he's trying -- if not, his control is even worse than it appears). He simply isn't throwing strikes, and to be a successful Big League pitcher he needs to.

So, the jury is still out on Jon Lester. But, as noted, it's still quite early in his career. Maybe he will develop in the next Bruce Hurst for the Red Sox, or even an Andy Pettitte. But at this point all of that seems like too much hype; the expectations should be much more realistic for him. He will continue to frustrate and to tantalize. At times he will look like an All Star, or even an ace. At others, he will look like he still belongs in Triple A.

Get used to it.

Copyright © 2008 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

AT LAST, PERHAPS, ALL IS FORGIVEN



BUCKNER'S OVATION HIGHLIGHTS MAGICAL DAY AT FENWAY

The Red Sox produced yet another memorable Opening Day celebration at Fenway Park on Tuesday. The festivities were filled with with many nice elements, such as having members of the Celtics, Bruins and Patriots Championship teams in attendance.

Seeing little old Johnny Pesky raise the Championship Flag was a heart-warming experience and brought a tear to my eye. The man is the living embodiment of the Red Sox and lives -- perhaps quite literally -- for the team and his place on it. His presence and participation made for some truly special moments on a truly special afternoon.

Having Bill Buckner throw out the first pitch was a wonderful surprise and another touching moment. In fact, the standing ovation he received was clearly a highlight on a day that was filled with them.

Buckner's life has probably been a living hell for the past 21+ years, and hopefully his appearance -- and the subsequent fan reaction -- finally puts to rest whatever demons may have haunted him all this time. Billy Buck was terrific hitter, who batted .300 or better eight times in his fine career. That is largely forgotten in the shadow of "The Error" in Game 6.

But there was plenty of blame to go around on that evening in late October of 1986; Calvin Shiraldi, Bob Stanley, and Buckner all played critical roles in the great meltdown.

The infamous ground ball that eluded Buckner was so routine; he would have made the play easily on a thousand other occasions. Yes, he should have fielded it cleanly because it was just a "slow roller". That's what left everyone in such a state of disbelief and disappointment. But Buckner was gimpy, on bad ankles -- in high-tops no less! -- and probably shouldn't have been in the game in the crucial late innings anyway.

It can never be forgotten that the Sox were just one strike away from a Championship. Buckner's error was simply the most glaring, and therefore most memorable, mishap.

But that now seems like ancient history, and all has been forgiven -- if not forgotten. Two World Series Championships in four years will induce that sort of amnesia. Perhaps time heals all wounds, but there's no doubt that the World Series trophies and flags have done their part as well. They are a soothing balm for the long-tortured psyches and souls of millions of Red Sox fans old enough to remember the annual heart breaks.

Buckner clearly looked touched by the response of the Fenway crowd, as evidenced by the tears he wiped from his eyes. I don't think anyone watching could help but feel happy for him. It was courageous for him to show up, and a very classy gesture for the organization to have extended the invitation in the first place.

Perhaps the Red Sox World Series tragedy of 1986 is finally over and all has been forgiven. Thank goodness, and good riddance to those ghosts. It's as if an exorcism was performed on the Fenway field nearly 22 years later. Better late than never.

A fitting moment on a day of jubilation, celebration and, perhaps, forgiveness.

Copyright © 2008 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

YOUK ETCHES NAME IN RECORD BOOKS

The Gold Glove Award was first presented in 1957 to honor the best fielders in each league at their positions.

When you think of greatest defensive first baseman since that time, the names that come to mind are a who's who of baseball greats; Keith Hernandez - 11 Gold Glove Awards, Don Mattingly - 9 Gold Gloves, George Scott - 8 Gold Gloves, Vic Power - 7 Gold Gloves, and Bill White - 7 Gold Gloves. Wes Parker and JT Snow each won six awards, and no other player has won as many. So it is an elite and distinctive list of relatively few names.

So who would have guessed that a converted third baseman would surpass, in some way, these all time greats?

That's just what happened yesterday when Kevin Youkilis put his name in the record books and made history.

The Red Sox defensive whiz set the major league record for consecutive errorless games by a first baseman during the Red Sox 5-0 victory over Oakland.

Youkilis played his 194th consecutive mistake-free game at first base to break Steve Garvey’s record for errorless games at their position. Garvey set the record with San Diego from June 1983 - April 1985. During his esteemed career, Garvey won 4 Gold Glove Awards.

Showing a true measure of class, the A’s gave first base to Youkilis in appreciation. After the game, Youkilis' teammates signed the base in the clubhouse in recognition of his accomplishment. The ball used on his final putout was sent to the Hall of Fame.

"I thank the Oakland A's for giving me the base, just as a memory to keep around and have something cool to have in the collection," Youkilis said.“It’s an achievement you never set out to do, but it’s a great honor."

Last year, after just two season at first, Youkilis was recognized for his defensive prowess by winning his first Gold Glove Award. It isn't hard to imagine that it could be the first of many.

The 29-year-old first baseman posted a .995 fielding percentage in 2006 and followed that with a perfect .1000 last year, due to his flawless fielding.

The streak, which began on July 5, 2006, has stretched through parts of three seasons.

When it will end is anybody's guess. But in the meantime Youkilis, a sort of human vacuum at first, will carry on with the hope of remaining mistake free. That's not to extend his own mark, but because every out counts and could be the difference between winning and losing.

Copyright © 2008 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.