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May 25, 2011

On the Beat

The Red Sox Rebound

by John Perrotto

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Regardless of what happens in this afternoon's game against the Indians, the Red Sox will walk out of Progressive Field feeling better about themselves than after their last trip to Cleveland. That came back in early April, when the Red Sox were swept in a three-game series. The Red Sox fell to 0-6 as they headed to Boston and Fenway Park for their home opener the next day.

"The last time we left Cleveland, I was worried we might all be shot when we lined up along the first base line at Fenway," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said last night with a smile.

No casualties were suffered on Opening Day in the Back Bay, though the Red Sox eventually lost 10 of their first 12 games. However, things have turned around since then, as the Red Soxhave played .667 ball, winning 24 of 36 to improve to 26-22.

When Francona thinks back to the season's first two weeks, he rattles off a list of reasons why his team stumbled out of the gate. However, he also says it in a voice that makes it seem like he feels it was a lot longer than five weeks ago that his team sent New England into a panic.

"Nothing was going right," Francona said. "The days [ace left-hander Jon] Lester pitched well, we didn't get runs. We got blown out every so often. We'd lose a close one. We were inconsistent in all areas."

That has all changed, though, as the Red Sox are now tied for second in the American League East with the Rays, just a half-game behind the Yankees.

"It seems like we're spreading our runs out a little better and we're winning close games," Francona said. "We're doing the things we should be doing."

The Red Sox were generally considered the favorites to at least win the AL pennant following an offseason in which they signed left fielder Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million contract as a free agent and traded for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and then signed him to a seven-year, $154 million extension in April.

Crawford has struggled, with just a .215 True Average. However, Gonzalez's .334 TAv is second on the team to third baseman Kevin Youkilis' .345. Designated hitter David Ortiz (.320) and shortstop Jed Lowrie (.316) are also over .300 for a team that is third in the AL and fifth in the NL in runs scored with an average of 4.49 a game.

Francona has been most impressed by Gonzalez, who had TAvs of .344 in 2009 and .336 in 2010 with the Padres. The Red Sox's hot streak has coincided with Gonzalez getting hotm as he hit .244/.346/.400 in the first 12 games of the season and has put up a .372/.409/.622 line in 159 plate appearances since.

"We knew what we were getting in Adrian Gonzalez, but it's sure been fun to watch him hit in person," Francona said. "I know he's hot right now—he's more than just hot. He just does a lot of good things as a hitter."

What has most impressed Francona is how Gonzalez is able to function as his own hitting coach. If his mechanics get out of whack, Gonzalez is usually able to fix them without needing any advice from Francona or Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan.

"I'm usually confident that my body is going to respond the way I want it to," Gonzalez said. "When I go into funks, it's because my hip is flying open or something in my body is not staying square. When I keep my hip in and my body square, I'm able to see the ball, stay behind it, and take the right path to it."

Gonzalez also shows uncanny plate discipline, which draws comparisons to another great Red Sox hitter who hailed from San Diego—Ted Williams. Like Williams, Gonzalez's first tenet of hitting is to get a good pitch to hit.

"I feel I'm able to swing at the pitches I want to swing at right now," Gonzalez said. "I'm not chasing many pitches out of the strike zone right now. I'm executing my game plan."

Crawford was never the most patient of hitters during his nine years with the Rays, walking in just 5.4 percent of his plate appearances. However, he was productive and had a career-best .322 TAv last tear. Thus, his continued struggles this season are becoming baffling.

"I know I'm swinging the bat better than I did at the start of the season, but I've never really gotten into a groove," said Crawford, who the Red Sox hoped will fill the No. 3 spot in the batting order when they signed him but is instead hitting eighth. "I feel like I'm close to being back to normal, but I can't quite get over the hump. I'm trying not to get frustrated, and it helps that we're winning and so many other guys are picking up the slack. Still, I want to get in on the fun, too."

The Red Sox need as much offense as they can get. Two starting pitchers, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka, are on the disabled list, and the Red Sox are allowing 4.40 runs a game, which is 11th in the AL and 24th in the majors.

"Sometimes when you're the manager, you tend to get caught up in things and see the warts of your club more than people on the outside do," Francona said. "People tell you that you're playing well, but you always want to do better. We've been playing well lately, but I know we're capable of doing more. We're going to need to pitch better in the long run. We're still not playing as well as I think we will."

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Rumors and Rumblings: While Athletics closer Brian Fuentes says he and many of his teammates have issues with Bob Geren's perceived lack of communication skills, the manager has the firm backing of general manager Billy Beane. … One general manager's take on Mets owner Fred Wilpon's claim that his club will lose $70 million: "If that's the case, it's the most egregious case of financial mismanagement in baseball history." … Many front office types believe designated hitter Jim Thome, who hit two home runs on Monday night in his first game off the DL, could be an attractive trade chip if the Twins throw in the towel in the American League Central. The Twins are already shopping right-hander Kevin Slowey, who has suggested a trade might be in his best interests after struggling in his move to the bullpen. … The Giants are strongly leaning toward having Buster Posey switch positions in the long run, possibly as soon as next spring training, because of the beating he has been taking from foul tips as a catcher. … Right-hander Mitchell Boggs will transition back to a starter after being optioned to Triple-A Memphis by the Cardinals. … The Cubs are now down three starting pitchers, with Matt Garza going on the disabled list with an elbow contusion. They may be forced to recall Randy Wells from his rehab assignment earlier than they had planned. … Jordan Schafer is expected to play center field and bat leadoff regularly for the Braves while Nate McLouth is on the DL. … The Tigers' ailing offense could have right fielder Magglio Ordonez back in the lineup soon, as he could be activated from the DL this weekend. … Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore could also be back this weekend. … Michael Morse will see the bulk of the action at first base for the Nationals with Adam LaRoche on the DL.

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Scouts' views:

Yankees right-hander Bartolo Colon: "I don't see how he is going to last the whole season. He's heavy and not in good shape. He's going to eventually wear out. It's seems to me the Yankees are just going to ride him as long as they can, then get someone else to replace him."

Athletics closer Brian Fuentes: "Instead of pointing fingers at Bob Geren, he should look in the mirror. He's falling behind hitters consistently then serving up fat pitches in hitter's counts. It isn't Bob Geren's fault that he's not throwing strikes."

Dodgers reliever Kenley Jansen: "He has a great arm, but the Dodgers are putting him in over his head when they ask him to close out games. He needs more experience. They only converted him from a catcher two years ago. He's still learning how to pitch. He has a chance to be really good, though."

Twins right-hander Kevin Slowey: "Moving him to the bullpen was a disaster, and there was really no reason for it. There is no way you can tell me the Twins have five better starters than him. The Twins don't usually make a lot of mistakes, but they screwed up with this guy."

Marlins right fielder Mike Stanton: "This kid is going to hit 50 home runs some year soon. In fact, he might do it more than once in his career. His raw power is just off the charts. He's one of the few guys in the game who can mishit a ball and still hit a home run."

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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