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?
So my favorite baseball analyst, Tim Kurkjian, has put the Red Sox in third place in the AL East. I know he likes Boston, so I’m not going to accuse him of Hub-prejudice, but I think he is overly cautious in forecasting the success of a club with many unknowns. Admittedly some luck will determine where the Sox finish in 2013.
In Major League baseball Luck is always on deck. Typically, the Red Sox are stocked with starters with Achilles’ tendons, Tommy John elbows, and the constitution of Jimmy Piersall in center field. Add to this the mysteries of concussions and hidden hip ailments you have a line-up for the infirmary, rather than the All-Star team. So any hopeful predictions will assume a reckless disregard for the curse of injury.
But we are done with curses. Leaving Spring Training we have every reason to hope for dramatic recovery from David Ortiz and John Lackey. We have hope that Jacoby Ellsbury will survive his year leading up to free agency and dazzle his suitors. We have hope that Mike Napoli will earn the contract incentives he signed up for during the winter. And we believe that at least one unproven rookie, a Jackie Bradley, a Jose Iglesias or an Allen Webster will surprise his critics and reach Major League maturity early. And even if Luck goes three for seven on my wish list, that would be .428 and enough to get the Red Sox to second place.
Because, for the first time in five years, the Red Sox have an established pitching rotation, not one built on “Spahn, Sain and two days of rain.” Every pitcher in the five-man rotation is a proven starter. In the bullpen, there are three bonafide closers. In the middle innings there is a reliable right-hander and left-hander. And, of course, the usual number of works-in-progress named Bard, Breslow, and Morales. But what if just one of them fully recovered?
Luck’s greatest mystery is John Farrell, who has yet to prove he can manage a winner. Farrell brings the experience of past success with the Red Sox and especially the knowledge of handling pitchers. If he can motivate a team through long road trips and hardship, that will seal the season. The X-factors of injury, batting slumps, and lost confidence are frequently dispelled by good managing. My expectation is that John Farrell is the man for the job.
Luck is always on deck. I have seen Luck swinging and stretching and nodding as he looks over the Red Sox. With all the bad things that could happen this year, only a few will transpire. With all the miscues of a first-year manager only a few will set back the team. Under the pressure of September only one hitter will fold. Luck says we’re a cinch for second, and his sister “Good Luck” says “No Limit to the Possibilities.”
If the President needed evidence that everyone needs medical care eventually, he could exhibit the Boston Red Sox, with a Disabled List long enough to field a new team. O.K., so we might have some peculiar health at shortstop and catcher, but the rest of the line-up is intact or, I should say, infirm.
First, every member of the pitching staff, except John Lester, has been on the disabled list this year, and Lester has visited within the past twelve months. Their ailments range from the usual neck, elbow and shoulder complaints to esophagitis (Clay Bucholz). A full-time orthopedist would have more activity on this staff than the pitching coach.
The outfield has rotated through the disabled list from Spring Training on, with Carl Crawford a charter member and Jacoby Ellsbury an annual candidate for long-term rehabilitation. But the Sox were prepared. They acquired Ryan Sweeney, Cody Ross, and Scott Posednik as capable replacements, but they have all had fifteen days or more among the lame, the halt, and the blind. Add the benighted Darnell McDonald and you have two complete outfields who required affordable health care this year.
The infield has been more stable, but only because Pedroia and Youkilis played hurt the entire first half of the year. Both of these soldiers deserve honors for grit and refuse-to-excuse determination. Unfortunately Youkilis’ heroism could not overcome his encounters of the wrong kind with pitched balls. His injuries added a new page to the Merck Manual.
Will Middlebrooks could be the latest cursed third baseman, as he nurses a hamstring pull that could lead to the DL. Perhaps it is only a rite of passage, and Middlebrooks will return stronger after the All-Star game.
To be fair, the Red Sox have reclaimed some pitching from the chronically disabled list this year, including Vicente Padilla, Aaron Cook, and Franklin Morales. The rejuvenation of abandoned arms gives hope that an intact pitching staff might still be assembled. The challenge for the Sox has been to maintain a starting rotation with less than eight pitchers. Even six would be a good number of starters to carry into the fall.
The All-Star Break will be welcome relief for the walking and sitting wounded. If the Sox can arrive at mid-season still above .500, they should thank their deep Farm system and capable medical team. The heck with a deep bullpen; let’s stock up on trainers.