Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Tek & Sox Facing Big Decisions

The Red Sox and Jason Varitek will soon be faced with critical decisions; to remain in partnership or to part ways.

For both parties, the decision will be a difficult and perhaps emotional one. Varitek has been with the Red Sox for 11 seasons, longer than any current player other than Tim Wakefield. Varitek is the team leader, and because of this unquestioned status was named team captain four years ago when he signed his last contract. The organization loves "Tek" and he loves the Red Sox.

But baseball is a multi-million dollar business and the Red Sox have a history of generally making good, sound business decisions, absent irrational emotion. They don't let their hearts get in the way of their own best interests.

Varitek is widely lauded for his gritty, hard-nosed leadership. He has also been credited with helping to groom the club's young pitchers, and getting the best out of its veterans. However, he is not the player he once was. At age 36, he experienced a precipitous decline this season. And he will be 37 in the second month of the 2009 season, an advanced age for any catcher. That would seem to merit a two-year offer from the Sox -- at most.

With him or without him, the Red Sox need additional help behind the plate.

During the regular season, Sox catchers ranked 13th among the 14 American League teams in OPS, 13th in slugging, 10th in on-base percentage, last in batting average, 12th in RBIs, 13th in total bases, and last in runs scored.

“Red Sox catchers” essentially means Jason Varitek, since Kevin Cash only played every fifth day and had just 142 at-bats this season. That said, Cash batted just .225 in limited action. However, Varitek was even worse, hitting just .220 in over 400 at-bats. And Varitek also had career lows in both on-base (.346) and slugging (.439) percentages.

Varitek’s woes extended into the post-season; he hit .214 (3/14) in the ALDS, and then had just one hit in 20 at-bats -- his much celebrated homer in Game 6 -- during the ALCS. If you’re scoring at home, that’s a .050 average. And over the entire playoffs, Varitek hit just .088 in 32 at-bats. How pitiful.

By August, things had gotten so bad that the Sox -- perhaps as a contingency plan for the post-Varitek era -- signed catcher David Ross to a minor-league contract after he was released by the Reds. Ross hit 17 homers in 311 ABs in 2007, and 21 homers in 247 ABs in 2006. Yet, he had a .369 OBP, .231 average, with 3 homers and 13 RBI in 60 games of action last season.

The 31-year-old finished the season at Pawtucket and could conceivably compete for a roster spot next season, depending on what happens with Varitek and Cash. The Red Sox would be his fifth team, and first in the American League. Considering Ross' poor offensive skills, it says a lot about the dearth of catching throughout baseball that he would even considered a possibility.

Varitek’s agent, Scott Boras, emphasizes that his client's value comes from his leadership and defense. Over the past three seasons, including the playoffs, the Red Sox have a .596 winning percentage in games in which Varitek has appeared, and a .508 winning percentage when he did not. This season, the Red Sox went 78-53 with him and 17-14 without him.

However, that record is actually the result of the fact that Tim Wakefield pitches on Varitek’s off days; Wakefield is an average pitcher who has lost more games than he’s won in two of the last three years. Would Wakefield and the Sox really have better winning percentages if Varitek caught him as well? It's highly doubtful.

Boras can come will all the charts, graphs and statistics that he wants to, but none of it can mask the fact that Jason Varitek is an aging catcher in decline. It's truly hard to imagine a big market or serious demand for him and his faded offensive skills. What's more, Varitek only caught 16 of 72 (22%) of base-stealers this year.

Hopefully the same loyalty and comfort with playing in Boston will compel him to accept a two-year offer from the Sox. Remaining in Boston would also keep Varitek on a highly competitive team that has a legitimate chance to win the World Series each year. And a two-year deal would also give the Sox time to groom Varitek's successor, whether it's Mark Wagner, Luis Exposito, George Kotteras, or some player who isn't even in the Red Sox organization right now.

But one thing's for sure; neither Varitek or the Red Sox will have many other good options. That's why it's likely they'll remain in partnership for a couple more years. And then if all goes right, Varitek will continue with the organization as a coach, something he seems destined for.

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

WHERE DO SOX GO FROM HERE?

Unquestionably, The Offense Needs To Be Addressed This Off-Season

This is the story I was hoping I wouldn't have to write. Even after the Dodgers were eliminated from the NLCS, I still had hope that the Red Sox might prevail as the American League Champs. But it was not meant to be.

The reality is, Manny Ramirez was better off with the Red Sox, and they were better off with him. The Red Sox were undoubtedly a superior team to the Dodgers; they played in a tougher league, in a much tougher division, and had a much better record. The Red Sox won 95 games, while the Dodgers won just 84. The Mets, Cardinals, and Astros all had better records than the Blue Crew, and yet none made the playoffs. The Yankees had a better record too, and they finished third in the AL East.

As amazing as Manny was after his arrival in LA -- and he was truly remarkable -- it wasn't enough to get the Dodgers over the hump. They just weren't that good. But Manny did everything humanly possible -- almost superhumanly -- to make an average ball club a playoff-caliber team.

Manny hit .396 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs in 53 regular-season games for the Dodgers after being acquired on July 31 from the Red Sox. It was a mind-boggling level of offensive production. Then the slugging left fielder hit .520 with four homers, 10 RBIs and 11 walks in eight playoff games; also truly incredible.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox offense clearly struggled in the post-season without Manny. In the ALDS, the Sox scored an average of 4.5 runs per game. In the ALCS, the Sox averaged 4 runs per game, including two 1-run games and one 2-run game. However, the Rays averaged just over six runs per game, despite being blanked in Game 1.

Without Manny, the Sox just couldn't generate enough offense. Jason Bay is a terrific player, and I'm very happy that he's a member of the Red Sox; I just wish he was the center fielder and that Manny had been patrolling left and batting cleanup at season's end. Yes, Manny is a total mental case, but he is a savant with a bat in his hands. The Sox needed him -- at least until they could address their offensive needs this offseason. And in retrospect, he clearly needed them, as well. Both were better of with each other. It was an imperfect marriage, but one of convenience to both parties.

The Red Sox shortcomings are certainly not the fault of Jason Bay, and he did an admirable job in the post-season. In the ALDS, Bay hit .412, with 2 homers and 5 RBI. But in the ALCS, Bay declined to .292, with one homer and four RBI in seven games. Simply put, he was merely good when the Sox needed him to be great. Why? If not him, who was going to step up and fill the rather massive void left in Manny's absence?

Kevin Youkilis had a break out year at the plate and became an All Star for the first time. He was the Sox only true, and consistent, power threat, helping to carry the team down the stretch. He led the team with 29 HR and 115 RBI. For the first time this decade, no Sox player hit as many as 30 home runs. And Youkilis was the only player to reach at least 100 RBI.

That may be somewhat misleading since Jason Bay finished the year with a combined 31 HR and 101 RBI between the Pirates and Sox. But it's just conjecture; we won't know until next year how he'll fare over a full season in the AL. However, I figure he'll do quite well.

Clearly, one of the Sox' primary problems is offensive production. The Sox hit a total of 173 home runs this year, after hitting just 166 last season. They have traditionally been viewed as a power-hitting team, and they certainly lived up to that reputation in this decade, hitting 238 homers in '03; 222 in '04; 199 in '05; and 192 in '06. As you can see, they've mostly been in decline in tis category for the past six years.

In fact, you have to go back to 2000 to find a Sox team that lacked home run power to the degree this one does. That year, the Sox hit 167 home runs.

But it's not home runs that win games, it's runs. And the Sox have been an offensive juggernaut this decade. But they have suffered from an unbalanced attack that relied too heavily on just two players -- Ramirez and David Ortiz.

But Manny is now gone and, rather suddenly, Ortiz looks old, slow, overweight, and hobbled by injuries. However, Ortiz doesn't even turn 33 until next month and should still be in the prime of his career. But he has to lose weight. Just imagine if the guy actually had to play in the field each day? As it is, all he does is take about 4-5 at-bats per game and it looks as if it's become a burden on him.

The name "Big Papi" was given to him for his big hits. These days, he just looks plain big -- too big. Some people even refer to him as "Big Sloppy." His bat speed has been slowed significantly, and the former clutch hitter was a bust in the playoffs, going .235, 0 HR, 1RBI in the ALDS, and .154, 1 HR, 4 RBI in the ALCS. That's ugly for a one-time Super Man.

The Sox had no power and no punch in the playoffs. They simply couldn't generate enough runs to win. The diminutive Dustin Pedroia led the team with three homers in the ALCS. Youkilis (2) was the only other Sox player with more than one homer. When a 5'5", 150-pound second baseman is your deep threat, you've got issues. Jason Bay and JD Drew were the only Sox players to homer in the ALDS. Personally, I think the Sox got lucky in that series. I thought the Angels should have won; but they choked -- again.

The Sox have big decisions to make this offseason; what do they do with Tim Wakefield and Paul Byrd? Wakefield is 42, has a career ERA of 4.32 and has been injured in each of the last two seasons. He lost more games than he won for the second time in three years and is, at best, a #5 starter.

Meanwhile, Byrd was 11-12, with a 4.60 ERA this year (4-2, 4.78 with Sox). He'll be 38 in December. But even so, he pitched more innings than Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka this year (180). And he is a control pitcher, tying Beckett for the fewest walks among Sox starters (34). He should come cheap, and seems to like playing in Boston for a contender. Most importantly, he would provide insurance. Will Clay Buchholz bounce back this year, regain his confidence, and realize his potential? Will Justin Masterson start, or remain in the bullpen? Who knows? But by now we've learned that the Sox will surely need more than five starters each year.

Jason Varitek -- the captain, the heart and soul of this team -- is a free agent. He'll be 37 at the start of next season (ancient for a catcher) and has been in steady decline. Varitek looked old and washed up at the plate all season. When he steps into the batter’s box, he now amounts to an almost certain out. The Captain my call a good game and be a master of preparation, but he is a disaster offensively. This year, Varitek couldn’t even bat his weight (.220), and only managed to drive in a meager 43 runs—both career lows with a minimum of 250 at-bats.

The Sox should ceremoniously retire Wakefield, and with him the need for a personal, or speciality, catcher. Guys like Roger Clemens Pedro Martinez, or Greg Maddux deserved a personal catcher -- not Tim Wakefield. I love him and all he's meant to the team, but he's just not that kind of pitcher. The Sox offense has struggled because of it, and he would need an ERA under 3 to justify it. If the Sox can resign Varitek to a two-year pact, and deal for a solid offensive catcher who can split time with him, it could benefit Tek and extend his career. He could then help groom and develop his successor, whoever that happens to be.

The Sox need to address the issue of run production. Where will the runs come from? Sean Casey (0 HR, 17 RBI), Coco Crisp (7, 41) , Mark Kotsay (6, 49), Jed Lowrie (2, 46), and Jacoby Ellsbury (9, 47) are not exactly offensive powerhouses. The five players combined for a grand total of 24 homers and 200 RBI this season. That’s one more homer than Ortiz had in an off year, and fewer RBI than the combination of Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis.

The Sox need juice. They also need Mike Lowell, JD Drew and Ortiz to remain healthy next year. Anyone willing to lay odds on that? It's certainly not a bet I'm willing to make. All three players are over 30 and have a history of injuries.

Lowell and Drew are un-tradable. No one would touch them, or their contracts, given their age and injury status. Youkilis and Pedroia are the team's best young players and its future. They are untouchable.

Bay is a very good, 30-year-old player who is under contract for next season. That's the good news.

Julio Lugo will be traded, but for what? Who wants an under-performing player who earns $9 million in each of the next two years? That signing definitely goes in the category of "Epstein's Folly."

Jed Lowrie started hot, then cooled considerably, hitting a miserable .111 in the ALCS.

The only reasonably attractive trade chips the Sox possess at the Big League level are Coco Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury. They are essentially the same player at the same position. That needs to be addressed. Neither hits well, neither has power, but both are exceptionally fast and are great defensive outfielders. Ellsbury is younger and would seem to have more upside after stealing 50 bases this year. Does that make him a keeper? The Sox weren't willing to part with him as part of a package for Johan Santana last winter. Are they even more in love now? He would certainly be a more attractive trade chip than Crisp, who interested absolutely no one this year when made available.

A case could be made for trading Manny Delcarmen as well, who seems to have either regressed or to have been over-rated from the beginning. He's young, but how desirable he is to other teams is anyone's guess. Do you really want him pitching in a critical situation? Neither does Terry Francona. Delcarmen spent the playoffs mostly siting down, pitching a total of 4.1 innings in 11 games.

As is often the case, the Sox have big decisions to make in the coming months. They are a team comprised by a mix of older veterans and more youthful players. Trading the younger players could irrevocably alter the team's future. Yet those are the types of players that other teams covet; younger, healthier, cheaper, and with greater upside.

Some decisions will be easy, such as trading Lugo. But the Sox will pay him to play for another team, just like Edgar Renteria and Manny. That has become an ugly precedent. Other decisions, such as saying farewell to Wakefield, Varitek, or Ellsbury, for example, will be more difficult.

But this is a "change" year, and like it or not, change is coming.

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

Saturday, October 18, 2008

TONIGHT, ALL WILL BE REVEALED

Who faces the most pressure tonight? If the Red Sox lose, their season is unceremoniously ended. But if the Rays lose, they live to play another game. Advantage Rays.

Much is made of playoff experience, which this young Rays team mostly lacks; the franchise has played a grand total of nine playoff games -- all of them this season. But, as of yet, it hasn't seemed to matter. Will the Rays' monumental Game 5 implosion come back to haunt them? Was it the start of a post-season meltdown by a young and inexperienced team? We'll know soon enough, as the Rays are given a chance to reveal their mettle this evening.

Tampa sends James "Big Game" Shields to the mound tonight -- a player who had never pitched in any big games before earning his absurd nickname. As it stands, Shields has pitched in exactly two "Big Games," both this season. In those two playoff games, "BIg Game James" is 1-1, with a 3.29 ERA. When you're the Rays, that constitutes Big Game status. Meanwhile, back in reality, it amounts to novice status. Simply put, Shields was anointed far too early.

That's not to say that Shields and the Rays won't win. At this point, to call Josh Beckett unpredictable is not only overly kind, but also inaccurate. The big Texan's fastball -- his best and most dominating pitch -- has dropped from about 97 mph to around 92, a huge difference to a big league pitcher and the big league hitters he faces. Whether it's Beckett's elbow, his oblique muscle, or both, is unknown. And what difference does it make? He needs to undergo a rather spontaneous and miraculous healing, one way or the other, if the Sox are to stand a chance.

The fact that the Rays find themselves on the brink of a World Series birth is phenomenal; it's like something out of the Twilight Zone. Suddenly, the world has been turned upside down; nothing seems right. After all, this is a team that never won more than 70 games in any of its first ten seasons. And now here they are, hoping to eliminate the defending World Series Champions with a win tonight, and subsequently earn a chance at their own World Championship.

Yes, this seems rather bizarre. All of it seems too soon, too early, for the Rays. They don't seem to have earned their place at the playoff table. And yet, here they are anyway. The Red Sox -- a truly historic franchise, and the best team this decade -- appear worthy of the opportunity to return to the World Series; but not the Rays.

However, the Rays won the AL East and finished two games ahead of the Red Sox. Don't tell them they don't belong. They are playing out of their minds and above their heads this post-season, just as they did all year long. They're too green and too naive to know any better, or to face any self-doubt or jitters this post-season. They feel that all the pressure is still on the Red Sox, and it is. The Sox were expected to prevail -- the defending Champs are supposed to prevail -- and now they are facing elimination once again, just as they have in eight consecutive ALCS games, dating back to 2004.

At some point the Red Sox incredible streak of victories in must-win games has to run out; the odds dictate it. The question is, when? The Sox (and their fans) hope that streak continues for at least two more games, and that the supposed advantage of post-season experience finally adds up and benefits them, while the lack of it finally catches up to the Rays.

Tonight we'll find out which pitcher really is Big Game. Can an injured and diminished Josh Beckett get by on guile, will, smarts and experience alone, despite not possessing his best stuff? Or will "Big Game James" finally be worthy of his prematurely granted nickname?

It's not all on Beckett; the Sox offense must show up too. They've been trounced by scores of 9-1 and 13-4 in this series. For the better part of three consecutive games, the Sox have shown no heart, no honor, no desire and no championship spirit. Players talk about "leaving it all on the field." During most of this aforementioned stretch, the Sox have looked as if they left it all in the locker room.

Maybe the sleeping giant has finally been stirred. Maybe veteran presence and experience really does matter after all. The Red Sox have come back after being down 3-0 against the Yanks in '04, and 3-1 against Cleveland last year. They've been here before. Tonight they need both the real Josh Beckett and the real Sox offense to show up, simultaneously. That is the key.

Starting at 8PM EST, all will be revealed.

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

No Pitching + No Power = No Championship

Where, you might be asking, has the Red Sox offense gone?

Aside from an offensive explosion in Game 2 (resulting in nine runs), the Red Sox scored an anemic total of three combined runs in Games 1 & 3 of the ALCS. It's not an isolated circumstance.

In four games against the Angels in the ALDS, the Red Sox batted a mere .250 and hit just three home runs.

There is no oomph, no punch, and no power in the Sox lineup. When a 5'5", 150-pound second baseman is your deep-ball threat, you have issues.

But, you ask, this is the super-slugging Boston Red Sox, isn't it? No, this isn't the same team we've become used to for so many years.

Jason Varitek has looked old and washed up at the plate all season. When he steps into the batter's box, he now amounts to an almost certain out. The Captain my call a good game and be a master of preparation, but he is a disaster offensively. This year, Varitek couldn't even bat his weight (.220) and only drove in a meager 43 runs -- both career lows with a minimum of 250 at-bats.

David Ortiz, adoringly known as "Big Papi" for his big blasts and clutch hits, just looks plain big these days. However, his bat has looked small for the better part of two years. Ortiz has been hobbled by injuries, and probably excess weight. In seven post-season games this fall, Ortiz has come up short, hitting no home runs and just one RBI. At this point, he doesn't appear to be a hitter that opposing pitchers fear or respect.

And there is no Mike Lowell to spike the offense. So where will the runs come from? Sean Casey (0 HR, 17 RBI), Coco Crisp (7, 41) , Mark Kotsay (6, 49), Jed Lowrie (2, 46), and Jacoby Ellsbury (9, 47) are not exactly offensive juggernauts. The five players combined for a grand total of 24 homers and 200 RBI this season. That's one more homer than Ortiz had in an off year, and fewer RBI than the combination of Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis.

The Sox had exactly one player with at least 100 RBI this year -- Youkilis (115). They did not have a single player who hit 30 homers, though Youkilis hit 29. Manny Ramirez, who didn't even play for the Sox over the season's final two months, finished third with 20 homers. JD Drew was injured at season's end and fell into offensive oblivion.

The point is, this team lacks power and punch, and it should be no surprise that they've struggled to find offense in the post-season.

And if a team can't score runs, it has to rely on dominant pitching. But in Games 2 & 3 of this series, the Sox starting pitching has been anything but dominant.

Josh Beckett's regular season struggles have continued, and he is winless in two starts this post-season. The big Texan has a mind-boggling 11.57 ERA, surrendering 18 hits and 12 runs in just 9.1 innings. And Jon Lester, after looking un-hittable in the ALDS (two starts, 14 innings, no earned runs), suddenly looked quite mortal, getting touched for five runs (2 HR) on eight hits in 5.2 innings of Game 3.

The Sox averaged 4.5 runs per game in the ALDS, and if they could get that sort of output in the ALCS, they could win the series with excellent pitching performances. As the old axiom goes, pitching and defense win championships.

But Beckett looks like a number four starter (at best) and is probably still affected by the injuries that plagued him all year. He certainly is not the same pitcher that built a reputation as one of the best big-game pitchers in recent history (6-2, 2.85).

In the absence of that greatness, Lester needs to be perfect; there is no room for error. Yet that obviously wasn't the case on Monday.

So now the Sox put their hopes in Tim Wakefield for Game 4. How does that make you feel? Are you any more confident now?

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

Friday, October 10, 2008

DICE-K WHISTLES THROUGH THE GRAVEYARD -- AGAIN

Whistling through the graveyard. That's the only way to describe it when Dice-K pitches.

The Japanese hurler started the game inauspiciously when he loaded the bases -- on walks -- in the first. It was white-knuckle time right off the bat, so to speak. Yet, not much went off the Tampa bats, and Dice-K managed to record the requisite three outs and escape what appeared to be a harrowing jam. As always, Matsuzaka remained cool and composed. It was the 15th time this season that he has escaped a bases loaded jam without allowing a run.

Dice-K remained poised throughout, going an uncustomary seven-plus shutout innings, allowing four hits and four walks, while fanning nine. And with Dice-K leading the way, the Red Sox managed to match their regular season win total at Tropicana Field, the lame equivalent of a Triple A park. Along with the Metrodome, it has got to be the worst park in the Majors.

Matsuzaka, the 18-game winner, actually had a no-hitter going when the speedy Carl Crawford singled to right to lead of the seventh. Cliff Floyd followed with another single to left-center, putting runners at first and third with no outs. That was the moment when it appeared that Dice-K's shutout bid would soon be lost. Yet somehow, most amazingly and incomprehensibly, the high-wire walking pitcher managed to record three consecutive outs and maneuvered his way out of a mess once again.

Watching him pitch is an occasion for Alka Seltzer and sedatives.

With the Sox leading by two (Jed Lowries sac fly, Kevin Youkilis RBI double), Jonathan Papelbon took his customary place on the mound to close out a very tight game.

Joe Niekro had previously held the career record with 20 post-season innings pitched without allowing a run. But in the 9th inning of Game 1 of the ALCS, Papelbon surpassed that mark, recording three consecutive outs, two on strike outs.

The Sox have already managed to achieve the minimum requirement in Tampa -- splitting the series. They will now try to return home to Boston with a two-games-to-none lead. Game 2 is Saturday night.

You don't have any other plans, do you?

Monday, October 06, 2008

SOX TO MAKE 4TH ALCS APPEARANCE IN 6 YEARS

After it was all said and done, Jason Bay put it this way: "There are no superstars on this team, no egos. We all just get along."

Though that wasn't a direct jab at the man he replaced, one can't help but recognize that Manny Ramirez's departure changed the culture, changed the attitude and changed the demeanor of this team. And that is a critical distinction; this club is now the epitome of a team. There are no more prima donnas and no more me-first players.

Despite his awesome talent and breakout season, there could be no better example of that than the incredibly humble and deferential Jon Lester.

At this point, the lefty has to be considered the staff ace; he's earned the right and the distinction. Lester pitched seven shutout innings in the clinching game, surrendering just four hits and striking out four, while throwing 109 pitches. In his two ALDS starts, Lester, who won Game 1, pitched 14 innings without allowing an earned run. And in the 23 1/3 innings of his post-season career, Lester has allowed a measly three runs. That's flat out awesome. To top it off, he's now 12-1 at Fenway this season.

The Red Sox started rookie Jed Lowrie at shortstop in the ALDS, a position he inherited when Julio Lugo pulled his quadriceps. Lowrie was a revelation from the get-go. And once again, in the clinching game of the ALDS, the 24-year-old rose to the occasion and didn't disappoint. Stepping into the batter's box -- with two outs in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game -- Lowrie ignored the weight of the moment and lined the game-winning single into right field, scoring Jason Bay from second. Bay had arrived there on a ground-rule double.

That's right, two players who weren't even on the roster at the start of the season combined to win the game for the Red Sox in walk-off fashion.

The Red Sox suffered through a great assortment of injuries this season (15 different players did a total of 20 stints on the DL), and they filled the voids with a combination of rookies and veterans.

Aside from Lowrie, another rookie, Justin Maserson, made his playoff debut in the ALDS. However, his Game 4 outing wasn't pretty. After Hideki Okajima got two eighth inning outs and then surrendered a walk, he gave way to Masterson. The rookie quickly proceeded to walk an additional batter, throw a ball past Jason Varitek (who deserves his share of the blame -- it was ruled a wild pitch), and give up a two-out, two-run, game-tying single. The unseasoned pitcher -- who typically looks cool under pressure -- didn't look ready-for-prime-time on this night.

And aside from Bay, several other newcomers joined the Sox at various points this season and made their presence felt as well: Sean Casey, David Aardsma, Bartolo Colon, Paul Byrd, and Mark Kotsay (who made a couple of fantastic catches in the clinching game) all made key contributions in 2008.

The Red Sox will now make their fourth ALCS appearance in the last six years, a rather remarkable run that has resulted in two World Series Championships. At this point, the Sox are playing for history and a chance to be remembered as the first dynasty of the 21st Century. They are now 31-16 in October since the start of the millennium.

When it comes to experience, in this year's playoffs the Red Sox can't be beat.

On the other hand, the Tampa Bay Rays have that, "How did they get here?" quality. But make no mistake, the Rays were the real deal this year. A year after finishing with the worst record in the Majors, the Cinderella Story Rays finished two games ahead of the Sox and won their first-ever AL East crown this season. And in head-to-head competition this year, the Rays came out on top, 10-8.

But the Angels beat the Sox even more convincingly in the regular season, 8-1. Yet, as they quickly learned, that doesn't always matter in the post-season; especially against an experienced, veteran playoff team -- like the defending World Series Champions, the Boston Red Sox.

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

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Roller Coaster Ride Ends Nicely For Sox In Anaheim

We should be used to it now; high pitch counts, too many base runners, and a seeming high wire act.

Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched his customary five innings, giving up three runs on eight hits and three walks. If you're keeping score, that's 11 base runners and 108 pitches in just five innings. As noted previously, it's always ugly with this guy, and it's always an adventure. Yet, he always seems to win despite these tendencies. Apparently, 18-3 wasn't an accident.

Jason Bay remained hot, hitting his second home run in as many games in the first, and now has five RBI in the ALDS. In the process, he became the first Red Sox player to homer in each of his first two post-season games with the club. At this point you can't help but ask, Manny who?

The unpredictable Hideki Okajima pitched a 1-2-3 6th, with the assistance of a great leaping catch at the wall by JD Drew to end the inning.

Oki returned to start the seventh, but couldn't record an out, allowing two consecutive singles. Justin Masterson came in to try to thwart the Angels' rally. The big reliever recorded one out before walking the next batter and loading the bases. The kid then buckled down and proceeded to fan Howie Kendrick on three pitches. But then things got really interesting when he walked in a run. Suddenly, the Red Sox lead was shrunk to 5-4. Disney Land doesn't have that much adventure. After walking a long tightrope, Masterson finally struck out Erick Aybar, ending the inning.

Masterson started the eighth, and promptly gave up the first extra-base hit the Angels had all night, a triple to Chone (I can't spell my name) Figgins. That put an end to Masterson's uneven outing.

Unwilling to take any more chances, Terry Francona went to Jonathan Papelbon to secure the eighth. It was pressure time for Paps, a situation he seems to thrive in. After a Garrett Anderson popup, Mark Texiera quickly tied the game, driving in Figgins with a deep sacrifice. Suddenly, the prospect of having Papelbon trying to record six outs seemed daunting. But Paps induced yet another infield popup, this time to Vlad Guerrero. End of inning. Sigh of relief.

David Ortiz, having already hit safely in 12 straight ALDS games, hit the first pitch of the 9th off the right field wall for a double. Coco Crisp was quickly brought in to run for Papi. It didn't matter. The next batter, JD Drew, blasted a deep shot that cleared the center field wall for a two-run homer. Blown save -- K-Rod. More Drew playoff magic, a-la-2007. The long blast was the difference maker and the eventual game-winner.

Papelbon came on again in the bottom of the 9th, running on pure playoff adrenaline. Kevin Youkilis made a spectacular catch, reaching into the camera pit in foul territory, and taking an at-bat away from Gary Matthews Jr. Papelbon retired the side, earning the win, and the Sox find themselves sitting pretty.

Both Bay and Drew finished the night going 3-5, with a home run and three RBI apiece. Those types of contributions are exactly what the Sox needed from them to win.

Suddenly, an Angels team that won a club-record 100 games -- the best in baseball this year -- is down 0-2, and heading back to Boston. The Angles have now lost 11 consecutive playoff games to the Red Sox, going back to 1986 -- a new MLB record. Think there's some psychology at play here?

This win was a dagger in the heart of the Angels, and it may prove to be fatal. The Sox merely need to win one of the next three games to advance to their fourth ALCS this decade. The Angles need to win all three, including he next two at Fenway, where the Sox are 56-25 this year.

Don't start the celebration yet. But keep the champaign (or beer) chilled in preparation.

It's not over until someone wins three, and Red Sox fans have seen the improbable happen before. But this is an experienced, veteran team and it knows how to win. And for this generation of Red Sox, October has become winning time.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Game 1: Sox Roll Behind Lester & Bay

Jon Lester put it best.

"Any time you can come in to another team's ballpark and take the first game, it's huge."

The Red Sox took a huge step in their quest to repeat as World Series Champions last night in Anaheim. And Jon Lester was the driving force in the statement victory. Lester pitched seven strong innings, striking out seven, walking just one, and giving up only one earned run.

"Hopefully we can do it again tomorrow and go from there," said the highly poised left-hander in his on-field, post-game interview.

But as good as Lester was, he didn't do it alone. Rookie Justin Masterson seemed amazingly cool and confident, pitching a scoreless 8th in his first career playoff appearance. And closer Jonathan Papelbon guilefully struck out the side in the 9th to secure the game.

Angels' starter John Lackey didn't give the Sox a lot to work with, going 6.2 innings and giving up just two runs on four hits. Both of those runs were the result of Jason Bay's 6th inning, two-out homer that finally put the Sox on the board.

After 771 Major League games, over five full seasons, Bay finally got a taste of the playoffs. And the Canadian native seemed unfazed by the glare of the media spotlight, hitting the game-winning home run, as well as a double later in the game.

Bay has been a difference maker for the Red Sox since arriving on August 1st, accounting for 9 HR and 37 RBI in 49 games. But most telling was the way he seemed to inspire his teammates after his arrival. The following is an illustration of the "Bay Affect."

Red Sox W/Manny W/Bay
Record 61-48 34-19
Win Pct. .560 .642
Runs/Game 4.9 5.8

Chemistry is a critical component, and as opposed to the previous dissension and enmity in the clubhouse caused by the previous left fielder, the newcomer seemed to know his place and fit right in from the start. Bay's good-natured demeanor seems entirely well-suited to the veteran ball club.

Bay's heroics saved rookie Jed Lowrie, also playing in his first career playoff game, from being "The Goat."

In the bottom of the third, with no score, Garret Anderson on first, and two outs (both strike outs), Lowrie misplayed a routine ground ball off the bat of Vlad Guerrero that should have been an easy force at second. But the error resulted in Anderson reaching second. Torri Hunter then knocked a bloop to right, and the Angels scored the game's first run.

All you could think was, Lester deserved better.

The Angels actually out-hit the Sox, 9-8, and each team committed an embarrassing error. But the Red Sox were able to put four runs on the board (to the Angels one), and extended their MLB-record 10th consecutive playoff victory over the Angels.

The Red Sox made a statement and picked up a critical win in a short series. Just two more victories are needed for the Sox to return to the ALCS for the forth time in seven years. It's not over yet by a long shot. But the Red Sox have now stolen home field advantage, and they are lethal at Fenway Park.

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