Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Torch Has Been Passed

In last night's game against the Yankees, the Red Sox may have unofficially (at least) witnessed a symbolic passing of the torch, or the baton or, more appropriately, the bat.

Stepping to plate in the 9th inning of a tie game, David Ortiz, who built his reputation as "the most clutch hitter in Red Sox history" feebly struck out. Then he did the same again in the 11th. Sadly, it was part of a trend, not only of the night, but of the newly minted 2009 season.

Ortiz struck an embarrassing four times in six at-bats last night, and entered today's game third in the Majors with 20 whiffs. Mired in a what may be more than merely an early season slump, Big Papi is hitting a paltry .215, which doesn't begin to approach his hefty weight, officially listed at 230 pounds.

Ortiz's problems go back to at least last season, when he suffered through a wrist ailment and hit just .264 with 23 homers and 89 RBI.

Over a three year span from 2004-2006, Ortiz averaged 48 homers and 141 RBI. But in 2007, Ortiz, while having an excellent season by most standards, didn't measure up to his Ruth-like past. Ortiz had 35 homers and 117 RBI, while dealing with a knee injury that most believed had hampered his hitting.

But it was simply the first stage of a decline that accelerated last year and looks downright precipitous this year.

Whereas Ortiz made highlight reel moments routine, and created lifetime memories for Sox fans over his first five years in Boston, this year he simply wilts under pressure -- the very moments he used thrive in.

Into the void has leapt Kevin Youkilis. After a career-year in 2008, in which he lead the team in homers (29), RBI (115), and OPS (.959), Youkilis finished third in the MVP voting and established himself as a team leader and one of the game's best all-around hitters.

Last night at Fenway, Youkilis proved that once again, and emphatically established himself as the inheritor of Ortiz's former mantle as the Sox best clutch hitter. In addition, he is now the team's premier power hitter, Jason Bay notwithstanding.

Stepping to the plate in the bottom of the 11th, Youkilis blasted a definitive and decisive shot over the Monster Seats. It was very fitting; Youkilis has surpassed Ortiz as the heart and soul of the Red Sox order. At this point, "Big Youkie" is the team's most potent and dependable power hitter, eclipsing Ortiz and becoming the big bat that Ortiz previously acknowledged the team needed.

In light of that, it's somewhat ironic that the Red Sox miss Ortiz's bat even more than that of Manny Ramirez.

Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mark Fidrych: Twice Gone Before His Time

Fidrych Put the Joy in Baseball

I was saddened to hear about the untimely death of Mark Fidrych.

Baseball fans all over the country immediately fell in love with "The Bird" in 1976. He was playful and goofy, without any hint of pretension. Fidrych put the fun in baseball; he was a big kid in a kid's game. One of the game's genuine characters, he simply captured our imaginations.

On the heels of Fred Lynn, Fidrych almost pulled off his own awards double-play; he was named Rookie of the Year and finished second to Jim Palmer in the Cy Young balloting.

Fidrych went 19-7 as a rookie, leading the league in earned-run average (2.34) and complete games (24).

For comparisons sake, Roy Halladay led the Majors with nine complete games last year. My, how the game has changed.

Halladay also led the Majors in innings, with 246. As a rookie, Fidrych threw 250 innings. That would never happen in today's game.

I don't know if modern pitchers are any less durable, or if teams are simply protecting their investments. Bullpens are notoriously dicey, and many games are lost after a manager goes to his relievers. Most teams would be better off just riding their starter through at least eight innings. Perhaps it's all about prolonging careers, or do modern pitchers simply tire earlier than their predecessors? Surely, they are more pampered; no one will ever get used to pitching nine innings and completing their starts unless given the opportunity.

The pitchers of previous eras threw numerous complete games on four-man rotations and still had lengthy, productive careers; many pitched for 20 years, or more.

But no pitcher has reached double digits in complete-games since Scott Erickson had 11 for Baltimore in 1998.

From the 1920's through the mid-‘80's, 20-30 complete games a season were commonplace in baseball. No longer.

Most recently - in 1985 - Bert Blyleven had 24 complete games for Cleveland and Minnesota. And in 1986 Fernando Valenzuela had 20 for the Dodgers. But no pitcher has reached 20 complete games since then, and it's likely that no one ever will again.

Fidrych was a byproduct of that bygone era, when pitchers were truly work horses that could carry heavy loads over great distances.

But his brilliant flame burned out rather quickly; he made just 11 starts in 1977, and a combined total of just 16 over the following three seasons. His career was effectively over in 1980. Fidrych's rocketing ascent briefly scorched baseball's atmosphere before quickly coming back to earth.

However, it wasn't the result of overuse. Fidrych tore knee cartilage while chasing fly balls in the outfield during spring training in 1977 and was placed on the disabled list. He sustained a serious shoulder injury that July while compensating for the knee problem. Sadly, he never fully recovered. Fidrych won just 10 big league games after his remarkable rookie year.

Even more sadly, his life, like his career, ultimately proved to be far too short.

He will be missed by many.

Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.

Friday, April 10, 2009

For Red Sox, Nothing is a Given

The Red Sox have dropped two of the first three games of the 2009 season. No cause for alarm; it's far to early for that.

But what makes it sting a bit is the fact that they were at home, where they have the best winning percentage in baseball over the past six seasons (.652), and they lost to their newest rival – the defending AL Champion Tampa Bay Rays.

We've all become accustomed to the Red Sox wining their home series, as well as beating up on the lowly Rays. Things are changing. At the least, the Rays have changed.

I must say up front that I have been dubious about the Rays' ability to repeat the success of 2008. After they won the 2006 AL Pennant, the conventional wisdom was that the Tigers were a young, up and coming powerhouse that would contend for years to come. They had speed, defense, power, pitching and a seasoned, successful manager. That didn't quite work out for the Tigers.

I wouldn't be surprised if the same happened to the Rays and they fall back to earth. But, simply by this small three-game sample, perhaps I'm wrong.

For decades, the Red Sox have been a team built on offense. They have had an offense perennially stacked with big boppers and have relied on the long ball to win games. And the Sox of this decade are no exception. From 2003-2008 (the Theo Epstein/Terry Francona era) the Sox have averaged nearly six runs per game. Those days may be a thing of the past.

This version of the Red Sox seems to be built on pitching and defense. Offensively, the current lineup is laden with question marks. Mike Lowell, David Ortiz are aging and coming off injury. JD Drew and Julio Lugo are inconsistent and coming off injury. Their reserves may need reserves; Mark Kotsay will soon return from back surgery, and Rocco Baldelli may be incapable of being an everyday player ever again. George Kottaras has played five career games in the Majors and Chris Carer has played nine. Nick Green is Nick Green. And will Jacoby Ellsbury or Jed Lowrie ever fully mature and develop?

The truth is, the only sure things in the Red Sox nine-man lineup, or bating order, are Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay; that's one-third, folks.

I'm not throwing in the towel by any means; again, it's far too early for that. The Sox will have one of the best starting rotations in baseball (if not the best), and perhaps the game's best bullpen. The team has solid defenders at almost every position. But they will have to keep runners off the base paths, and runs off the board, to win. They can no longer rely on three-run homers to win games, or to vault them back into the lead in late innings.

There are many questions on this year's Red Sox; more so than in the club's recent run of success, going back to 2003. Even the vaunted pitching staff has reasonable questions; can Tim Wakefield remain healthy? At age 42, can he remain effective? Will Brad Penny's arm endure the rigors of a full season? Will pitching in the WBC cause Dice-K to run out of gas earlier in the season? Can he manage to give the team at least six innings per start? Can Jon Lester repeat last year's success? It was just one season, after all. Can Josh Beckett put last season's health issues behind him? Is Clay Buchholz ready to step up and become a big league pitcher? Can he ever fully live up to the hype and the promise?

I'm not trying to be negative. I'm asking legitimate questions that have to be asked. This team is shrouded in uncertainty.

The good news is that the Yankees have their issues as well, as do the Angels. There is an excellent chance that the AL Wild Card will once again come from the East this year. Who it will be is anybody's guess, as is who will ultimately prevail as division champs. The Rays will have the kind of pressure on them this year that they've never faced before. They stepped up and answered the initial round of questioning quite nicely in the past few days, however.

Though the Sox have significant and serious questions, at this point they still seem to have as good a chance as anyone else in the AL East, or the entire AL for that matter. All teams have questions; most are just an injury or two from falling right out of contention. The difference for the Red Sox this year, unlike in recent years, is this; there are no givens any longer.

Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.