The last time I posted (August 11) the Sox weren’t hitting and the bullpen was hemorrhaging walks and runs. In the interim, the Sox caught fire and those issues were dismissed with authority. They punished the ball, Koji Uhehara came back, and Kimbrel found the strike zone.
The last weekend of the season looked more like August. Kimbrel was a disaster and Pedroia started to yank the ball again( which means ground out), and Papi looked tired. The Blue Jays took two of three and could easily have swept. O.K. so the Jays were more motivated.
Mercifully the Sox have four days to re-group, and they get to lead with Porcello against the Indians on Thursday. And yet the stumbling August team still haunts me. Which team will show up on Thursday?
The teams with momentum are the wild card teams and the Indians. The Giants and the Mets have proven how much momentum means in past playoffs, so it is far from inevitable that the team with the best season-long stats will emerge victorious.
For the Red Sox it depends on situational hitting and a bullpen that throws strikes. They are masters of loading the bases, and experts at leaving them loaded. Hitters need to take what the pitcher gives them and go to the opposite field. Those that can bunt need to execute at the right time. More aggressiveness on the base paths. You can’t wait for the fat pitch to send over the wall. Playoff pitchers are too good to make many mistakes.
And the bullpen needs to get ahead of the hitters. Careful on the first pitch, but pound the strike zone. Kimbrel’s re-discovery of the strike zone may be a deciding factor. His performance over the weekend was sad in the deepest sense. Great talent, poor consistency.
These fragilities show how vulnerable the Red Sox are despite their epic September. Will they sustain that pace or will the Red Sox of October continue the debacle? For Papi’s sake and for mine, I hope the September Sox will come for a curtain call.
It is easy to sing the praises of Theo Epstein after his recruits fill out the respective All-Star squads, and I take nothing away from him
But I’ll give Dave Dombrowski plaudits before the Red Sox have played a single game in the second half. He saw the needs; he made the moves. The holes on the pitching staff are plugged and the bench is replete with role-players.
Reliable starting pitcher? Drew Pomeranz- check
Late-innings/ closing pitcher? Brad Ziegler- check
Power hitting infielder? Aaron Hill – check
Bolstering catching corps? Sandy DeLeon retained.
For two years the Red Sox brooded over their reclamation projects: Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly, Pablo Sandoval, Jackie Bradley Jr., waiting for them to rejuvenate. Only Jackie Bradley Jr. proved worth the wait, and I’ll admit I had given up on him. Patience may be rewarded, but it has seldom vindicated Red Sox general managers. Last year at this time the Red Sox were sellers and believers in redemption of starting pitching. In the fall came Dombroski and regime change.
Dombrowski was not patient. He brought his wheelbarrow of cash to woo David Price, and he sacrificed a valuable Minor League prospect to land another lefty: Drew Pomeranz. It may be easy to second guess these moves, but I, for one, will not wait for the end of the season to use 20-20 hindsight. I am delighted for an impatient general manager who sees a pennant within his grasp and reaches for it.
I’ll make some predictions which I think will vindicate Dave Dombrowski and make Sox fans forget Theo Epstein.
- David Price will have a sizzling second half and win twenty games or more.
- Steven Wright be a little less consistent, but still finish with 17-18 wins
- Drew Pomeranz will suffer a little in the American League East, but he will still win 12-14 games
- Rick Porcello will continue to give up gopher balls, but he will also pitch brilliantly enough to match Steven Wright
- Eduardo Rodriguez will finally get his act together and substitute for either Pomeranz or Porcello one of whom will hit the disabled list by September.
- Hanley Ramirez will hit 20 homers in the second half
- David Ortiz will get hurt before September, but return for the playoffs.
- Pedroia will get hurt in August and be replaced by Brock Holt. Never sure how long Pedey will recuperate, but he will probably return before he’s ready.
- Top clutch hitters in the second half will be Betts, Ramirez and Aaron Hill, because Ortiz will be walked more than ever.
- Brad Ziegler will be the closer until Kimbrel returns.
- Setting up will be Ross, Barnes, and Uhehara. Bucholz will be traded for a good middle innings pitcher. Tazawa will be a slow comeback.
I don’t know who else will deepen the Red Sox bench, but I know Dombrowski will not be waiting for 2017 to win a World Series. That’s why I like him.
To give proper credit, last night’s win over Texas was an example of a game the Red Sox used to lose. It’s a good sign that they can win in Texas at all, but to bust their bullpen with such an outburst shows the fight in a team that used to lay down in the 8th and 9th innings. Bravo to third-string catcher Sandy DeLeon for leading the charge.
But in the long view, the Red Sox need more consistency against upper division teams like the Rangers and the Orioles, who usually have their number. Both of these teams show disrespect for the first-pitch strike that the Red Sox regard as a treaty with their foes. Both pitchers and hitters on the Red Sox tend to sit out the first pitch, as if no one expects a serious swing at it. With certain teams this strategy is fatal, and with most teams it puts the Red Sox hitters down in the count before they get the bat off their shoulders.
Among the hitters Mookie Betts is the exception, because he never gets into a rhythm of taking any pitches. He comes up hacking, unless he needs a look at the pitcher first. But as you go to the heart of the order, Pedroia, Bogaerts, Ortiz, Shaw, these batters start with their bats on their shoulders, and pitchers take advantage of them. Obviously some of them are adept at hitting late in the count, but many pitchers get the upper hand by putting hitters behind, and these pitchers beat the Red Sox. Each of these hitters in the heart of the order swing at bad third strikes once they get two strikcs down, because they have to protect the plate.
The pitchers are worse, because they lay out their first pitches assuming they are getting a freebie. Price, Porcello, and Rodriguez are often guilty of this, because they are trying to get ahead of batters, as they should. How many of their first-pitch strikes have ended up in the bullpen? I don’t have the stats, but my impression is they are being beaten by aggressive hitters, who know it is fatal to get behind them. It is sad to see these pitchers watch their first pitch sail over their heads as if thinking, You weren’t supposed to swing at that one. There is no diplomatic agreement that protects the first pitch in baseball.
Clearly this strategy comes and goes, because if you make assumptions about the first pitch, other teams will adjust to it and pitch and swing accordingly. But what I see right now is pitchers getting ahead of Red Sox batters, and hitters taking advantage of Red Sox pitchers’ predictability. The Sox pitchers are too aggressive in the count, and the Red Sox hitters are not aggressive enough. You see this most painfully with the Orioles, who bash the Red Sox regularly with the home run, and quickly put their hitters behind in the count.
Good baseball teams are strategic, not predictable. In May the Red Sox were strategic; in June they have been predictable. It’s time to shake-up the strategy of the first-pitch strike. John Farrell, wake up the sleepers, who thought they had the formula for winning.
When the Red Sox go on the road, the broadcasters and fans want to know what happened to the 2013 World Champions. Worst to first to worst again? How could it be?
The old saw about strength up the middle seems to apply. With the departure of Jacoby Ellsbury and Jared Saltalamacchia and the decline of Xander Bogaerts and, till August, of Dustin Pedroia, the Red Sox had a gaping alley where All-Stars used to be.
Everyone talks about the weak hitting outfield, but the Sox did not have a heavy hitting outfield in 2013. Well, Daniel Nava and Shane Victorino finished strong, but Victorino was hurt much of the year and Nava came in under the radar with a strong finish. Ellsbury was really their most consistent hitter and lit up the basepaths, when the hits were fewer and far between. Then Ellsbury and the Red Sox went south.
But think if Pedroia and Bogaerts were hitting as they did in 2013 and if A.J.Pierczinski delivered on his offensive reputation as a catcher. How different that batting order would be. While Jackie Bradley, Jr. has won admirers with his spectacular play in center field, his hitting has been demoralizing. At this point he really can not have all the confidence he claims to have at the plate or we might consider him dissociated. He probably needs what we euphemistically call “seasoning” at Pawtucket.
The Red Sox have made the right moves to repave the pot-holed alley from catcher to center field. They trusted their young talent by returning Bogaerts to shortstop, bringing up Christian Vasquez at catcher, and auditioning a series of players in center field. Bradley Jr. may still be the center fielder of the future, but for the immediate future, they have Brock Holt and Mookie Betts, two infielders who showed amazing versatility in the outfield.
Once you are committed to re-building you can bring up all the ripening talent you can find and see what combination works up the middle. Bogaerts has been making big plays at shortstop and Vasquez has been praised for his work behind the plate. Except for third base, the infield is tightening. And Pedroia is now hitting, proving that going out and working hard everyday has to pay off eventually.
The immediate impact of the Fire Sale of 2104 has brought a solid pitcher (Joe Kelly) and a power outfielder (Yoenis Cespedes) to the Red Sox. Tuesday night they showed what a good investment they will be, as they led the visitors to a 3-2 win over Cincinnati.
But the secondary reinforcements on the Red Sox, the strength up the middle, will be the foundation for the future. Already we see the infield healing its wounds, and center field has candidates to finish the season. This could be the biggest change in the team once headed for worst in 2014.
I try to avoid gloating in print, but the Red Sox performance Friday night was just what I predicted yesterday before game time. They became a defensive juggernaut with the insertion of Iglesias in the the infield. Even Mike Napoli, never touted for his prowess at first base, delivered several critical stops earning the commendation of pitcher John Lackey. As ESPN noted this morning:
Indeed, while Napoli deserves loads of credit for his stellar play with the glove, the entire infield was on its game. And it had to be, for Lackey was getting the Cleveland hitters to pound everything into the ground. In addition to eight strikeouts, he recorded 12 outs on the ground and just one through the air in seven stellar innings.
Iglesias received notice as the “brand-new third baseman” for making his two chances “neither of which were routine, look easy.” Operating from the corner instead of the center of the diamond, Iglesias still sets the tone for the defense. Both Dustin Pedroia and Lackey himself made athletic plays to cut down potential rallies by the Indians.
The Red Sox are a different team when the defense raises its game. Mike Carp ended a 0 for 21 slump with a titanic three-run homer. Ellsbury drove in two runs for a month-long total of 5. And the team left only three runners on base. They often leave that many on in one inning.
With Iglesias on the field, we have a new version of the Red Sox, the “Darned Sox.” They stand up, they hold, they stretch, they make plays and even drive in runs. A few more runs won’t hurt these Sox.