While handing out accolades of appreciation, we should also note those players who contributed with Hall-of-Fame grit this season. These players laid their bodies down for the team in a year plagued with injuries.
The first Grit Award goes to Shane Victorino who slammed his body into walls and thrown baseballs to record outs and get to first base. His ruthless attack on the outfield walls threatened a body already injury-prone. I have never wanted so much to tell a player, “Hey, take it easy. Spoil the out and spare the body.” I noticed fewer collisions in the second half of the season, so maybe I got through.
Then he made the historic journey to the right side of the plate, favoring his wounded right hamstring, and began to lean into pitches to get on base. Why the umpires allowed his regular joust with the inside pitch is a wonder to me. As they say, “He took one for the team,” but I would say he took several.
The Second Grit Award goes to Mike Napoli who played with plantar fascitis, a condition he compared to running on glass with bare feet. Much of the mid-season his bat had on-the-schneiditis, a condition of carving the air against high-outside and low-outside pitches. However, in mid-August during the fabled West Coast Swing (2 of 3 each from the Giants and Dodgers) he let the dogs and the bat bark in harmony. Napoli caught fire, while his feet burned, but nobody heard about the feet, only the feats of opposite field power. After writing heartlessly about “batting crappily,” I have to give Napoli a “Gritty” for running through glass while driving in runs.
The third “Gritty” is a tie between one player who rose from the grave of Tommy John surgery and another who broke his foot, stole a base, and scored on a shallow fly in the same inning. Of course I mean John Lackey and Jacoby Ellsbury. Lackey pitched inspirationally from Spring Training to the playoff-clinching win on Thursday night, a complete game of dominance. He worked quickly and gained more and more control as the season waxed, and he took a lot of hard-luck losses. No one should judge Lackey for wins and losses this year, but for the determination that will most likely give him the “Comeback of the Year” award. Not as prestigious as the “Gritty.”
Ellsbury’s romance with the disabled list would remind you of Mickey Mantle, the archetypal talent bedeviled by injuries. It looked like he was going to defy the DL this year until he hit a foul ball off the only place on his right foot unprotected by a shin guard. Ellsbury’s return to the Disabled List should not overshadow the important run he scored that same night, after stealing second with his broken foot, hustling to third on an overthrow, and scoring on a shallow fly ball, which few others in the line-up would have attempted.
So for a full season of rehabilitating a serious arm injury and for one inning of running and scoring with pain, John Lackey and Jacoby Ellsbury deserve to share a “Gritty.”
Still, as the cliche goes, every team member contributed, and it would be safe to say each one would lay out for the sake of the team. So the “Team Grit” award should go the Boston Red Sox. And who can forget the “bloody sock” that started the gritudinous tradition?
Pedroia Gives the Royal Wave
Lord Pedroia, you define loyalty and determination. You are a model to the young, who hope to emulate your intensity. You offer every moment on the diamond to the service of almighty baseball. You make me your proud servant.
As your loyal subject, Duke of Fenway, I have a timely message to deliver. Resist the temptation to yank the ball to left and go with it to right field, as you do so well. (While you’re at it, mention this to Mayor Napoli, the Regent of Saltalamachia, and Squire Drew, all of whom will whiff at David Price fastballs, while trying to out-muscle him.)
No doubt I will receive your contemptuous stare for thinking I can give you batting advice. It’s not as if I invented the art of going with the pitch. It’s just that I can see you struggling with pitches, you have smoothly delivered into right field in the past, and I think, “His majesty is striving overly hard. He needs to relax and go with the pitch.”
Notice the stout Lord Ortiz who gently guides the ball into left, when they pitch him away. He knows he can jack it and often he does. He takes what is served and serves it right back. Notice the Earl of Ellsbury who slashes the pitch to left, spinning toward the foul line. He gave up on his long-ball aspirations and raised his average fifty points. The Baron Nava patiently watches the world go by until he takes the two-strike pitch to the opposite field. O.k., maybe the Baron could be less patient.
When I see these pretenders negotiating with the fierce Price or the relentless Moore, I think, “His majesty can negotiate with the best of them. Indeed look at the fine contract he has negotiated with Count Cherrington. He acquitted himself with such dignity to complete a prosperous contract in the midst of the tourney. Surely he can out-fox the sinister Sir Price!”
My lord Pedroia, I implore you. Hold back a modicum as the pitch slips over the outside corner. Swat the delivery into right field and take your modest station at first base. You will vanquish the fearless Price and his minions of the bullpen. You will humiliate them with the might of small ball and win the war of attrition.
I beg your forgiveness for my impudence and wish you Godspeed on Monday.
Your loyal servant,
If Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz are the heart and soul of the Red Sox, Jacoby Ellsbury is the pacemaker. If the Memorial Day Ellsbury survives without injury or major slump, the Sox will be contenders for a World Series berth and World Championship.
The new Red Sox can ride the energy of Pedroia and the clutch hitting of Ortiz to a winning season, but they need someone to create havoc in low-scoring contests. That someone is Ellsbury. Between his speed and situational hitting, Ellsbury puts the team in contention in games when the heart of the line-up is befuddled by breaking balls and pinpoint pitching. Pedroia has the gift of getting on base as well, but only Ellsbury can create panic by his presence on the basepaths.
This should not undervalue the many role-players that make up the Red Sox, but those role-players are not enough to attack dominant pitchers like Hiroki Kuroda or Matt Moore or Justin Verlander. When the Red Sox need to manufacture runs, they need Ellsbury and Shane Victorino to get on and keep moving. The Sox find it fairly easy to load the bases, but getting the runs across the plate remains a challenge.
So when the heart is failing, bring on the pacemaker. He has the talent to bunt his way on or to reach out and poke the outside pitch to left field. He has the speed to steal his way from first to third and don’t leave home plate unprotected!
There are too many uncertainties to put a lock on first plate yet. Injury is the widest pitfall and the pressure to go deep could thwart the good swings he is taking now, but if Ells stay healthy and keeps taking the outside pitch to left, he will keep the Sox in every remaining game.
And the fielding? We saw on Monday how his hitting put a charge into his fielding, as he made a spectacular over the shoulder catch (see photo) and threw out two runners on the base paths. He just needs to avoid a “Victorino,” a close encounter with a wall at full speed.
The best teams rely on every player to step up sometime in the game. But the best teams also have a pacemaker, someone who can make something out of nothing and fabricate runs on the bad days. Ellsbury is the pacemaker, the one who keeps the heart pumping on days when the main arteries are clogged.
Speculation around the 2013 Red Sox revolves around the new acquisitions in the off season, especially Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew, Ryan Dempster and Joel Hanrahan. These players could revitalize the team at their respective positions, but they are not as crucial to the success of the 2013 Sox as two pitchers who have become veteran leadership: John Lester and Clay Bucholz.
If both Lester and Bucholz return to the form of their early years with the Red Sox, they could be the most potent top of the rotation in the American League. They are probably the two most-mentioned players in trade talks during the off season and simultaneously the biggest disappointments of 2012.
The 2012 World Series showed how critical pitching has become in Major League baseball. The Giants won because their pitching rose to the occasion and the Tigers lost, because theirs didn’t. Excellent pitchers can beat excellent hitters , even Triple Crown hitters like Miguel Cabrera. Bullpens can take over a game in the seventh inning with lefty specialists, set-up men, closers and defensive replacements. The last three innings have become like fourth quarter football with preventive defense.
The Red Sox have stocked their bullpen with multiple closers, set-up men and lefty specialists. It’s hard to imagine a less than competent bullpen from the likes of Hanrahan, Bailey, Uehara, Aceves, and Miller. With Breslow, Tazawa and Morales, they even have depth to anticipate injuries.
So it comes down to the top of the rotation, which could be the most feared in baseball. The physical health of Lester and Bucholz can not be assumed, but the discipline and mental preparation will definitely improve under John Farrell, who brought them into the Major Leagues as their pitching coach. Farrell’s value to the Red Sox really turns on his ability to manage pitchers, and these two pitchers are his proudest accomplishments as a pitching coach.
Even in their worst seasons in the Majors, there were days when Lester and Bucholz were unhittable in 2012. You watched accomplished hitters trudging back to the dugout shaking their heads. They knew they had been over-matched. Contending teams in baseball need two pitchers who can do that. Ryan Dempster can do that, too, if his arm holds up.
It’s a safe bet that the Red Sox will improve offensively with a healthy return of Ellsbury, Ortiz and Pedroia. The team chemistry has to improve with their new manager. Defensively they are stronger up the middle than in any recent season. The crucial element is the pitching and Lester and Bucholz are the critical members of this staff. Imagine a season when both of them are healthy and focused, and you can imagine two twenty-game winners. Then you can easily imagine playoffs and who knows what else?
When I read about Dustin Pedroia working out with Jose Iglesias, I thought about what a team leader he has become. He doesn’t make a lot of public pronouncements, but he did step up during the debacle with Bobby Valentine in September and stood for sanity and communication at a time when the Red Sox were noticeably lacking in those departments.
According to his teammates Pedroia leads by example, because he works harder with more expectation than anyone else on the team. He takes command on an infield fly or steps back to let the shortstop cover the base. He is willing to play a role by stealing a base or hitting to right to advance a runner. And most of all, he leads with intensity, making every at-bat and road game important in the long season of Major League Baseball.
If there is going to be a team captain this year, it should be Pedroia. On a roster with rapidly shifting personnel, Pedroia is an axis of stability. He came up through the farm system and stepped into a starting role with some struggle at first. But he never lost confidence or focus. He played through hitting slumps and prolonged rehabilitation. He played through team dissension and front office confusion. He has shown uncanny focus on his job. Players respect that level of commitment. On the Red Sox only David Ortiz has a comparable focus on his work.
The Red Sox have benefited from a captain at certain junctures in their history–Yastrzemski and Varitek come to mind. With half the roster shipped off over the last few months, they might benefit from an established leader.
I don’t pretend to have insider knowledge of these dynamics, but I do admire Pedroia and think he stands for values that make the Red Sox better. We could all learn from the smallest man with the biggest heart on the team. And the Red Sox might recover some dignity with such a leader.