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.
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.