It has come to pass that the Red Sox need to fret about hitting more than pitching. The sidelining of Cliff Bucholz is worrisome, but it is also clear that John Farrell understands his fragility and intends to keep him healthy with rest. The bullpen has been a little unpredictable, but it is still deep in both left and right-handers.
The big worry is the bottom of the batting order, which is a rally-killer. There should be no day that Stephen Drew, Will Middlebrooks and Dave Ross, the .200 club, are in the line-up together. They each have something to offer the team, but, as a unit, they are they are a yawning burial ground where rallies go to die. As a group they prefer the strikeout, rather than putting the ball in play.
I make the case for Jose Iglesias as an every-day player, because he puts the ball in play and more frequently makes hits out of mere contact. No one disputes his defensive prowess, and I have argued he makes the rest of the infield better. To consider him now as an offensive player requires an altered appreciation for his talent.
It is also inspiring to see Jonny Gomes making better contact on the recent road trip. Everyone wants him to succeed, and he clearly has talent and a good eye at the plate. However, any day when Daniel Nava sits, the Sox are a weaker team. Nava, along with Pedroia and Ortiz, is one player I like to see with men on base. He also brings a decent glove to the outfield. Having four decent outfielders is a problem I like to have, especially when you have two suicidal performers like Victorino and Ellsbury crashing into fences and throwing themselves around the bases. But, please, let Nava play with as little rest as he needs.
Admittedly it is a delight to talk about the Red Sox as though they were pennant contenders, urging line-up fixes, instead of trades and siphoning reinforcements from Pawtucket. When you are talking about securing the lower third of the line-up, you are talking about competing with the best teams in the league, like Baltimore and Texas.
To say there is a grave pit at the bottom of the line-up, is to say we have a problem we can fix. So, please, don’t let the .200 club populate the lower third. Iglesias forever and Ross on the weekends!
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.