August 10, 2009
Rumble in the Bronx
Over their last three games, Red Sox starters threw 20 innings, allowed three runs, and posted a 17/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. When you're looking for a reason why they lost all three, we can comfortably excuse the rotation. Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester did their jobs well, giving the team three quality starts and putting them in position to win all three ballgames.
Last night's implosion by Daniel Bard notwithstanding, the bullpen wasn't bad either. It provided 7
No, the Sox got swept because their offense didn't show up. Their only runs in the final three games came on Victor Martinez's homer in the eighth inning last night, a shot that ended a 31-inning scoreless skein. Shut out for 15 innings Friday and nine more on Saturday, the two runs they scored Sunday weren't enough, as it turns out. Even Thursday's six runs were a failure when you look at how many they could have had:
That's just awful, and while John Smoltz's poor pitching didn't help matters, the Sox very well could have overcome even his poor start had they capitalized on even a couple of the situations enumerated above. They ended up scoring six runs in the 13-6 loss, and they left at least six more on the table. As much as the focus was on Smoltz's decline at the end of his career, it should have been on David Ortiz's decline at the end of his. Ortiz was directly involved in four of the above innings, making outs all four times, including a crippling double-play ball in the third. Maybe this is just a bad season, but we're dealing with a bad-bodied 34-year-old who has been going backwards for two years and who had old players' skills when he was 29. How good he was in 2007 and how clutch his performances were in 2004 mean nothing if he's DH with a .730 OPS in 2009. He is, at best, someone who can play twice a week when both Jason Varitek and Mike Lowell need time off, and for when you want to shuffle bodies around. For the most part, though, he looks done, unable to hit great fastballs, and having to cheat to hit good ones, making him vulnerable to off-speed stuff. He brings negative baserunning value as well.
Smoltz was so bad after this game that the Sox designated him for assignment. This is a little embarrassing for me, as I've advocated for Smoltz since last winter, and not an hour before the game I was on the radio in Boston talking him up. Since I wrote a defense of Smoltz two weeks ago, he made two starts, facing 47 batters. Smoltz struck out just five of them, walked four, allowed 21 fly balls and six line drives, including seven extra-base hits. Against the Yankees on Thursday night he got just two swinging strikes on 92 pitches. Maybe he has something left, maybe he doesn't, but it's clear that a pennant race in the AL East isn't the place to find out.
Still, the Red Sox have plenty of starting-pitching options, especially with Tim Wakefield set to return from the DL. Their rotation, featuring one of the best one-two punches in the game, plus a ridiculously talented Buchholz and the veteran Wakefield, will be fine down the stretch and into the postseason.
To right the ship they'll have to score more runs. The Sox have averaged 4.3 runs per game since the All-Star break, largely because they're carrying Ortiz at DH, Jason Varitek's collapse behind the plate, and the worst regular on a contender in Nick Green at shortstop. Those three leave them with a six-man lineup, which is how you get shut out for 31 straight innings in the biggest series of the season. Upgrading from Green to Cristian Guzman, as is rumored, would be worth close to a win in the season's last seven weeks, a not-insignificant gain, and treating Martinez as the clear number-one catcher and Varitek as the backup might be worth about that much as well. Jacoby Ellsbury remains a mystery, a talented basestealer who hits the ball hard enough to bat .300, but who seems unable to change his approach at the plate. Ellsbury has just 27 unintentional walks in 466 plate appearances, and while his .348 OBP isn't bad, it's lower than you'd like from a leadoff man. The Sox need him on in front of their best hitters more often.
There is a lot of panic in Boston this week-heck, there was a lot of panic last week after the trip to St. Petersburg-so perhaps it's worth it to look at the bigger picture. Even after a six-game losing streak, the Sox are tied for the lead in the wild-card race and have a game-and-a-half edge on the Rays in that race. They have the fourth-best run differential in baseball, and are in a virtual tie for the fifth-best third-order record. Despite the various lineup holes, they have enough talent to fill eight lineup spots well, if they so choose, and are in talks to perhaps patch the shortstop problem. They have an embarrassment of pitching riches, going six starters deep even after a trade and the ending of the Smoltz experiment. And they have a deep and imposing bullpen. This is still one of the best teams in baseball and the favorite to win the AL Wild Card. It's just going to be a little more dramatic than they would have liked.
Notes from the game last night: