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.
Signing Grady Sizemore to a major league contract brings up the chief vulnerability on the Red Sox roster: they lead the league in rehabbed players. Up and down the roster we find players who have spent large chunks or whole seasons on the disabled list, players who are healthy today, but could be hurt tomorrow.
Last year, the Red Sox got lucky with injuries. Really? you say. They lost two closers, their number one starting pitcher, every member of their infield for twenty-one days or more, and an outfielder who played hurt most of the season. Why lucky?
First, they solved their closer problem with an aging Japanese import, who had a career season in the bullpen. No one knew how good he would be. Second, John Lackey came back from shoulder surgery in a dramatic fashion, worthy of “comeback of the year.” Third Jake Peavy pitched some of his best games in years, following a mid-season signing. Any one of these pitchers might have sunk the Red Sox pennant drive.
In the first half of the season, John Farrell kept his infield together with bailing wire. He played Middlebrooks at second at one point, and shortstop was covered by Jose Iglesias, while Stephen Drew languished on the disabled list. Iglesias astonished the world by hitting .400 in the early going. When Mike Napoli languished in an awful hitting slump, Mike Carp and Daniel Nava added more than adequate punch to the line-up. Later Napoli sat out with plantar fascitis.
The biggest injury story was Shane Victorino, who crashed into walls and stormed around the bases with abandon throughout the season, incurring an untold range of injuries. Victorino played hurt the whole season, as far as I can determine. Whether he could do that again is best known by his doctors.
With the exception of Iglesias and Drew and Xander Bogaerts, this is the team that Cherrington says he is happy with for 2014. They are the World Champions, so it is hard to argue, until you consider their physical vulnerability. Clay Bucholz is a significant question mark since he has never had a season off the disabled list, except maybe his first. Another wild card is Koji Uhehara, who enters the season as a 38-year-old closer, having never pitched a full season in that role before. You could say these are the anchors to the pitching staff, but they are not reliable anchors.
Of course, Spring Training brings another crop of almost-Major-Leaguers, and maybe the Red Sox know they have some aces in the hole. There are probably half a dozen pitchers who could be ready for the big time, if their confidence and location come to fruition. They have a cluster of catchers who may be ready to step up if the aging catching duo of Pierczinsky and Ross go down.
But you can’t have too much insurance on the bench with this corps of fragile and aging bodies. Maybe it wasn’t luck that the Red Sox had Uhehara and Carp ready to fill key roles on the team. Maybe it was the genius of foresight. Foresight needs to step up to the plate again this spring.
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.