David Ortiz with a walk-off home run, a familiar and dramatic tune for Red Sox victories. But it is not the real theme song for the new Red Sox. Three innings of shut-down relief pitching is.
It’s fun to re-live the days of yore when Papi drove in the late inning runs to seal a Red Sox victory, but it is not what the Red Sox do best today. After the first game blowout, the Texas series settled down into the battle of the bullpens: Texas won game 2 and Boston won game 3. That could well describe the pattern for success in 2013.
Before Michael Kirkman’s flat delivery the Rangers had solved Big Papi with inside stuff from their potent left-handers. In his previous two at-bats, Ortiz left runners on base in scoring position. The Rangers had every right to believe he would strand them again. But—stuff happens.
A strong bullpen depends on “stuff” not happening in the late innings. The Texas bullpen avoided the stuff in Game 2 and the Red Sox bullpen avoided the stuff in Game 3. Koje Uhehara allowed the game-winning double in the middle game of the series, but shut down Texas with style in the final game.
The Red Sox offense, on the other hand, left runners on base in every inning of the third game, revealing their weakness in situational hitting. What happened in game one was a freak of baseball, setting all kinds of Texas records for defensive futility. That is not what to expect in future meetings of these teams. The same could be said of games with the White Sox, the Orioles and the Yankees, all of whom play the Sox tough.
If we are now seriously considering the Red Sox as pennant contenders ( who actually said that in Spring Training?), then we can gauge their progress by the consistency of their bullpen. The starting rotation is as good as any and the hitting is good for getting runners on base. But the fate of this team in the late innings seems to hang on its bullpen.
The walk-off heroes of the future are named Uhehara, Tazawa, Miller and Bailey. If they can avoid the “stuff” of late innings, the Red Sox will contend.
The moment when Jacoby Ellsbury crossed the plate in the bottom of the tenth inning on Saturday was the beginning of the new Red Sox under John Farrell. The Sox had just beaten the Tampa Bay Rays with the same combination of aggressive base-running and pitching that the Rays had used to dominate the Red Sox in recent years.
The Red Sox held the Rays to one run with a succession of strong pitchers from the new John Lester and revamped Andrew Bailey to the relentless pounding of the strike zone by Koji Uhehara. For the Red Sox of previous seasons extra innings had been like Russian Roulette, with each reliever coming out of the bullpen a possible bullet or an empty chamber. In 2013 the chambers are mostly empty.
The Red Sox scored on a single, a stolen base, an advance on an overthrow and an infield hit. How many times had the Rays used that formula to beat them? The Rays have always been the fundamentally sound team that pushes their opponents into mistakes. That formula has worked consistently against the Red Sox since 2008.
Another way the Rays could beat you was getting run production out of role players with .200 batting averages. On Saturday the Red Sox plated their other run with a home run from their back-up catcher, David Ross. That catcher, if he never hits another home run, will earn his keep throwing out base runners.
Fabric is the key to the new Red Sox. Defensive fabric and offensive fabrication. The beauty of this style of game is that it can produce a victory on any given day, not just the day Will Middlebrooks hits three home runs. The Sox could always win with power. Now they are winning with fabric.
Gordon Edes of ESPN.com takes a dim view of the re-treads the Red Sox brought in over the Winter. He portrays the glass half-empty for 2013: fragile bodies, disappointing 2012 performances, uncertain clubhouse culture. But Edes misses the point when he evaluates what the Red Sox have added, because the one thing that has to change in 2013 is the pitching.
The Red Sox will hit, they always have hit, but what will make the Red Sox into a contender is their pitching. So it matters that they brought in Ryan Dempster, Joel Hanrahan, and Koji Uhehara, all pitchers with good credentials. Even more it matters that the front of their rotation, John Lester, Clay Bucholz, and John Lackey make a comeback from career-worst seasons in 2012. If those three pitch as they are capable, it hardly matters who is in the line-up next to Ortiz, Pedroia and Ellsbury. The Red Sox will hit, and they will win.
On their best days, no one can out-pitch John Lester and Clay Bucholz. The problem was they had maybe two “best days” apiece during the 2012 season. You could see the pitches, the aggressive approach, the frustration in the eyes of the hitters, but you saw it only occasionally. These are both blue chip pitchers. Other teams always ask for them in trade talks. What will they show in 2013?
In 2011 John Lackey spelled disappointment. Many doom-sayers thought the Red Sox had overpaid for him, and I was one of them. When it was disclosed he had a deteriorating elbow condition, a lot of things made sense. Lackey should be a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher, but he hasn’t been healthy since he came to Fenway Park. If he can win 14-15 games in 2013, he will be what the Red Sox anticipated when they traded for him.
Rounding out the rotation will be Felix Dubront and Ryan Dempster. Both of them can be counted on for 10-12 wins if they stay healthy. Both of them have to prove they can endure a full season of starting at 6-7 innings a start. Both of them have proven they can face the best line-ups in baseball when they are healthy. So durability is the big question.
The bullpen has been reassembled with a new closer, Hanrahan, with Aceves moving back to middle relief. Andrew Bailey’s health remains a question, and Daniel Bard’s confidence needs re-building, but the bullpen can survive the collapse of either of them with the insurance of Uhehara, Aceves, Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller. Franklin Morales may yet play a vital role for the Red Sox, but where and how remains a question. The upshot is there are a lot of questions in the bullpen, but a lot of answers as well.
So what matters in 2013 is, Can John Farrell, the erstwhile pitching coach, assemble a strong pitching staff from these elements? The Red Sox were clearly counting on this when they aggressively pursued his contract from the Toronto Blue Jays. Ben Cherrington was clearly counting on this when he signed Hanrahan, Uhehara, and Dempster. All the noise about Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes and Stephen Drew is just distraction compared to what happens on the mound this year.
It’s a new era in Major League Baseball. With good hitting you might stake out third place in the division. For the long haul and in the playoffs, pitching rules.