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April 16, 2008

On the Road

The Champion's Travels

by John Perrotto

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Try as he might, Terry Francona could not contain his yawns. "It's the cold weather," the Red Sox manager said Tuesday night before his team beat the Indians 5-3 in Cleveland to sweep a two-game series. "It always makes me sleepy."

Of course, the schedule also has Francona and his team dragging these days. The Red Sox are at the tail end of a rather murderous stretch that started when they went to Japan to open the regular season with a two-game series against the Athletics in the Tokyo Dome on March 25-26. That was followed by three exhibition games in Los Angeles against the Dodgers, two more regular-season games against the Athletics in Oakland, and then three games in Toronto against the Blue Jays.vThe final totals for the trip: 19 days, 16,000 miles, and three countries.

"It was quite an experience," Francona said. "It was a tough stretch to begin the season but we really tried to make the best of it. We were treated great in Japan and it was a really good experience for all of us. But the trip did get long. By the time we got to Toronto for the last three games, everyone was a little edgy, including me. We had all pretty much run out of patience."

The road hasn't gotten easier for the Red Sox since they returned from their around-the-world adventure. After spending last week at home with three-game series against first the Tigers and then the Yankees, the defending world champions are now in the midst of a four-game trip that included the two games against the Indians in Cleveland on Monday and Tuesday, and then a two-game series starting Wednesday night in New York against the Yankees. That itinerary, containing games against some of the best teams in the league, is enough to make even the most seasoned traveler's head spin.

"It's been a pretty grueling stretch," Francona admitted. "Everybody felt the effects at some time. Some guys felt it when we first got to Japan, others when we got back to the United States and others not until the very end of the trip in Toronto."

Even on the current four-game trip, it hasn't been easy. The trip started in Cleveland after a Sunday night game in Boston against the Yankees. That meant the Red Sox didn't get into their hotel until 4 a.m. They did not figure to get into New York on Wednesday morning until around 4 a.m. It will likely be another early morning arrival Friday in Boston following the two-game series with the Yankees. In all, the Red Sox will play on 20 consecutive days before their next open date on April 28.

Francona noted, "We've done our best to rest guys, give them a day off here and there, and we'll continue to do that, but it's not the easiest thing to do. When I give a guy a day off, I want him to be off. When it gets in the late innings and it's a one-run game, the temptation is really great to start bringing your starters in off the bench. I hate to do that because then it really isn't a day off. At the same time, you're trying to win the game. It's a real balancing act."

The Red Sox's entire early-season schedule has been a balancing act, as they have played against top-flight competition. Because of the off days for travel, they faced the Athletics' best two starting pitchers, Joe Blanton and Rich Harden, twice each in the first four games of the regular season. Every other game the Red Sox have played this season has been against a team that finished over .500 last season. "We knew when the schedule came out that the possibility was there for it to be a tough first month," Francona observed. "I think we've come through it fairly well to this point. You always want to have a better record but I really can't complain about what we've done to this point."

The Red Sox are 9-6 and lead the American League East by a half-game over Baltimore and Toronto. Boston's vaunted offense, though, is just sixth in the AL with an average of 4.4 runs a game. Last season, Boston was third in the league with a 5.4 average. Only two Red Sox hitters are among the top 20 in the AL in equivalent average: corner infielder Kevin Youkilis is fifth with a .341 EqA, and right fielder J.D. Drew is 12th with a .323 mark. Left fielder Manny Ramirez (.311) and the center field tandem of Jacoby Ellsbury (.290) and Coco Crisp (.281) have decent EqA, but the rest of the lineup is lagging, especially second baseman Dustin Pedroia (.255), catcher Jason Varitek (.241), shortstop Julio Lugo (.197), and designated hitter David Ortiz (.141). Third baseman Mike Lowell (.167) was also struggling before going on the disabled list last week with a sprained thumb. In his absence, Sean Casey (.264) moved into the lineup at first, with Youkilis shifting from first to third.

Ortiz's struggles have drawn the most attention, especially considering that he was second in the AL last season with a .338 EqA, just two points behind league leader Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees. Ortiz had knee surgery in the offseason, but the Red Sox say they aren't concerned about Big Papi's slow start. "He's a 3-for-4 night from getting right back to normal," Francona said. "He's going to be fine. It's so hard to judge a hitter this early in the season, especially in the Northeast because of the cold weather. The bat never feels right in your hands and it's tough to stay loose when it's so cold. The weather will eventually warm up and Papi will, too. He is the least of my worries."

Said hitting coach Dave Magadan, "people say he's off to a bad start, but a start is 150 at-bats, not 40. We're just at the beginning of the season." Ortiz, though, sounds like a man who let the long trip get to him more than most of his teammates: "With the time differences and all the travel, everybody was just worn out. We wanted to get it over with. This game is not easy. We had the trip to deal with and every year there's something new to figure out. Every year they find a new way to pitch me and I've got to make adjustments. Every year they put that shift on, and they change the shift, and you've got to try to beat that. It never ends, man, so I have to keep ahead of it."

To add to their troubles, the Red Sox pitching has been shaky in the early going, allowing 5.3 runs a game, ranking just 12th in the AL. A year ago, Boston led the AL by allowing an average of just 4.1 runs. Daisuke Matsuaka is the only Red Sox starter in the top 30 in the AL in SNLVAR in the early going with 0.8. Josh Beckett, last October's post-season hero, began the season on the disabled list with a lower back strain, and veteran rotation anchor Curt Schilling has not thrown since the early days of spring training as he rests his achy shoulder. Among the only high notes on the pitching staff is that closer Jonathan Papelbon has the early AL lead in WXRL at 0.900.

"We've done OK, all things considered," Francona said. "We knew the early part of the season was going to be hectic, but now things are back to normal. We're back in a regular routine and that always makes everything a little better."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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