It was Saturday night in Florida and the Tampa Bay Rays were on the field. But who was hit-and-running in the first inning and then attempting a squeeze play at home? The Boston Red Sox–new edition. This was a case of turning the tables on Joe Maddon, the Tampa Rays’ manager. Earlier Valentine paid tribute to Maddon for his ability to surprise.
The idea of being unpredictable … I hope I’m unpredictable. Most of the guys I’ve managed against that I thought were pretty good managers were predictably unpredictable. You could be sure that you’re not sure. Whether it’s the first inning or the ninth inning, I think that’s important.
The problem with the Red Sox– 2011 edition— was their predictability. They could be counted on to take one base at a time and to work deep into the count when they were at the plate. The strategy can be effective, except when it is always your strategy. It was too easy to anticipate the Red Sox and too easy to surprise them.
Maddon pressed the advantage of surprise in every game with the Red Sox, which partly explained why he had such a lopsided record against them. The Rays were always pressing for another base, whether by stealing or aggressive base running. The Red Sox always looked like a team on their heels, trying to react to a team with an inferior, but unpredictable offense.
Saturday the shoe was on the other heel. Although the squeeze play in the first inning failed when the bunt went foul, there was suddenly a feeling that the Red Sox had taken the offensive, an offensive they pressed in the second inning with what Valentine called a “fake steal of home.” Jose Iglesias apparently did not get the sign correctly and was out attempting to steal. Still the Rays were suddenly on the defensive. You could see this in later innings as the Rays’ catcher kept faking runners back to their bases. The Rays suddenly regarded the Red Sox as a threat to run.
As the game progressed you felt the Red Sox in command, and the Rays on the defensive. Sometimes the Red Sox hitters went with the first pitch, sometimes they worked the count. Sometimes they stole second, sometimes they waited at first. It was the sense of unpredictability that kept the Rays off balance and less instinctive. It also made the game more exciting for Red Sox fans.
Whether the Red Sox will win their division remains to be seen, but the odds of their improving their record against the Tampa Bay Rays are pretty good. The unpredictability quotient has shifted to the other side of the field. You can not doze on the Red Sox anymore.
Every year I think the Red Sox are upgrading their defense, but I’m disappointed. Last year the left side seemed shaky. Crawford was getting used to left field, shortstop was a revolving door, and Youkilis did not seem comfortable returning to third base. Catchers had a problem keeping runners off second base.
In Spring this all looks improved, but, of course, it’s early. In spite of the uncertainty at shortstop, the candidates look like solid fielders. By trading Marco Scutaro, the Sox seemed to putting their faith in defense at shortstop, and that’s a switch. Jose Iglesias, their shortstop of the future, will probably always be known for defense, and his placeholders, Aviles and Punto, bring versatility as well as range in the infield. Viewing the shortstop as a defensive anchor has always seemed the best perspective in building a starting line-up, but the Red Sox have always preferred offense in their recent parade of shortstops, beginning with Nomar Garciaparra and finishing with Scutaro.
Youkilis should be a solid third baseman when he’s healthy and settled in the position. Last year was probably not a fair test of his defense, given the plague of injuries he suffered. When he came up as third baseman, he fielded the position consistently, and he should return to that form.
The outfield has usually been fine at Fenway, but more challenged in the cavernous stadiums in the west. It will be interesting to see if the new left and right fielders cover this territory. Ellsbury is a great centerpiece to build the outfield around, but he’ll need help in the larger ballparks. At the least we know that Ryan Sweeney can cover a lot of ground, and a healthy and confident Carl Crawford can cover left field-and-a-half.
The catching position is definitely a defensive upgrade with Saltamalachia and Shoppach. Salty has already made some pinpoint throws to second base, and Shoppach has one of the highest percentages of throwing out base stealers in the American League. It looks like base runners will be a little more cautious trying to claim second base under the Valentine administration. However, this is definitely a work in progress.
If stronger defense has become a theme of fortifying this baseball team, it will definitely be a better team than the 2011 edition. Keeping an eye on the developing defensive alignment might tell us more about what kind of team to expect in 2012. The offense will take care of itself.
I’ve got my tickets for a weekend trip to Fort Myers–March 16,17—and I’ve got Spring Training Fever. Looks like it’s been quite a few seasons, since I had that fever or at least since I opened up this blog.
As much as I feast on the detail of the Spring developments, I wish the media would avoid contriving the news. Like the morbid details about the clubhouse rules. Like the silly exchange about whether Jeter was out of position during a play he made eleven years ago. Like who is going to apologize to whom about clubhouse behavior in September. These reporters sound like a klatch of middle school girls digging up dirt and spreading rumors. And their problem is the same. Too much time on their hands and not enough hard news to go around.
Occasionally Spring Training reporters feature a new player on the squad or the comeback of an old one. Now that’s interesting. The Red Sox faithful would like to hear about players who were not on the roster last year. The uncertain prospects in the outfield also make for good news–Crawford’s rehab. A Cody Ross or a Ryan Sweeney sighting. That’s good for one day. The progress of the lame, the halt and the blind the Sox recruited for the bullpen. How are their arms performing? That’s another good day of news.
Here’s an idea: interview the veteran reporters who can compare this team with previous ones. I always like to hear what Peter Gammons, Dan Shaughnessy, or Roger Angell have to say. They won’t hand out the tired cliches and the faint praise you get from the coaches and the manager. They can and will say what they think.
What about this new park? Does it really resemble Fenway? Does it have a Pesky pole or an under-developed foul territory? What do the players think of it? Inquiring minds want to know.
Well, it may not be hard news, but it would be worth reading, and it suits the speculative frame of mind we’re in as Spring Training rolls in. And it beats running back and forth between training camps trying to start a feud over nothing or trying to deconstruct off-the-cuff remarks like they were the words of the prophets.
Let’s read about baseball and not who broke up with your sister’s ex-boyfriend.