Even though the Red Sox snapped their four-game losing Sunday with a 4-2 win over the Pirates at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, they managed just six hits in the game and have scored just 14 runs in their last five games. While fans of most teams wouldn't worry about a small cold spell, the Fenway faithful are alarmed, which is understandable given that the Bosox had just completed a stretch of 16 games in which they won 14 and averaged an amazing 8.0 runs a game.
"You can't keep that up all year," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said of his team's hot streak. "There is no way you can keep scoring runs like that. This is the big leagues, and you're facing quality pitching. Eventually, we had to come back down to Earth at some point."
Yet that 16-game stretch showed why the Red Sox lead the major leagues in runs scored with an average of 5.33 per game and can make even the best of pitchers cringe. A high-octane offense has helped the Red Sox overcome an 0-6 and 2-10 start to record the third-best record in the major leagues at 45-32, putting them half a game behind the Yankees in the American League East.
"When we're all hitting, it's pretty special," first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. "Our team is more than just about the offense because we've got great pitching and defense, too, but it is fun when we get on a streak where it becomes contagious and everyone up and down the lineup starts hitting at once. There are no easy outs in our lineup."
The Red Sox have five regulars with True Averages over .280: Gonzalez (.355), designated hitter David Ortiz (.337), third baseman Kevin Youkilis (.323), center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (.302), and second baseman Dustin Pedroia (.291).
However, the addition of Gonzalez has upgraded the Red Sox's offense from very good to great. The slugger is having a phenomenal season after being acquired from the Padres in a December trade for three prime prospects, including first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who is now in the major leagues. Gonzalez has a .361/.415/.611 slash line in 349 plate appearances, and his TAV is the best in the major leagues.
No wonder Francona was flummoxed when asked if Gonzalez compared to any other hitters he has ever been around.
"Maybe a young Terry Francona," he said with a grin. "Really, I'm not good about comparing one guy to another unless it jumps out at me. He's hitting .360 and leading the league in RBIs, so it's pretty hard to compare him to anybody. Who else can do that?"
Francona eventually threw out Wally Joyner as a possible comp because of "the weight shift and the way he can maneuver the ball." However, Gonzalez is above and beyond Joyner, who had a .285 TAV in a 15-year career that spanned from 1986-2001 with a single-season best of .312 with the 1997 Padres. Conversely, Gonzalez has a .307 career mark that includes .329 and .323 seasons in 2009 and 2010, respectively, with the Padres.
Gonzalez had shoulder surgery at the end of last season that left him unable to participate in exhibition games until midway through the Grapefruit League schedule. He got off to a slow start, hitting .263/.344/.388 with one home run in his first 20 games and 90 plate appearances. In the 57 games and 259 PA since, he has posted a .391/.433/.687 line with 15 homers.
"He's put up those numbers without getting many infield hits because he can't run a lick and he might not be faster than I am," said Francona, who has had both knees replaced. "You read the scouting reports, and obviously they are great, and then it's obvious what we thought of him because of the type of talent we gave up to get him. Then you see him in person, and he's unbelievable. Not only is he a great hitter, but he plays a great first base, and he's in the lineup every day. He had shoulder surgery last winter and hasn't missed a game yet, so he's durable, too."
There were the requisite questions about how Gonzalez would adjust to shifting from the National League back to the AL, where he spent the first two seasons of his major-league career with the Rangers in 2004 and 2005. He has answered those questions to everyone’s satisfaction.
"I really never looked at it as a big deal," Gonzalez said. "Guys move around so much in the game anymore that switching leagues is very common. A lot of guys I've faced so far this season, I've seen before. It really hasn't been a difficult transition at all."
Much was made at the time of the trade about the left-handed-hitting Gonzalez having an inside-out swing that was perfect for Fenway Park and the Green Monster in left field, especially after he’d spent the previous five seasons playing his home games at Petco Park, the major leagues' toughest hitting venue.
However, Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz made a good point when he said, "He has a swing that's made for any ballpark. He's a monster, man. He's something very special. This is one-of-a-kind guy that makes it look so easy. He's pretty smart, he's got that great swing, and his approach is unbelievable."
Said Gonzalez: "I don't pay attention to the parks. I've learned the best way to be is just go out there, put a good at-bat, and if the end results are good then you're happy with it. If you're at a place that's better to hit, you're going to have more good end results. You don't hit to the park, you don't change anything."
While Ellsbury, another of the Sox’ offensive standouts, is not a newcomer—he made his major-league debut with the Red Sox in 2007—having him at the top of the batting order has been like adding a new player after he was limited to just 27 games and 74 plate appearances last season because of broken ribs. The 27-year-old is having a breakout season with a .303/.365/.461 line, nine home runs, and 25 stolen bases in 35 attempts in 344 trips to the plate.
"I worked hard all winter because I wanted to come back strong and have this kind of season," said Ellsbury, whose pain tolerance was questioned by some of his teammates last year, notably Youkilis.
The hard work has paid off, and Francona is certainly glad that it has.
"He's meant a lot to us," Francona said. "When he's at the top of the lineup and going good then we're a really good offense. He's doing everything. He's hitting for average. He's hitting for power. He's stealing bases. He's really doing a great job of setting the table, and the guys behind him are following suit."
Rumors and Rumblings:
The Rays are in favor of all of the changes being discussed by Major League Baseball, including an expanded postseason, realignment, and a balanced schedule. As Rays president Matt Silverman said: "Any idea that can be contemplated would be helpful to the Rays. It can't get worse."… The Rockies would like to add a starting pitcher, and Astros left-hander Wandy Rodriguez and right-hander Brett Myers are potential trade targets, along with Marlins right-hander Anibal Sanchez, Mariners left-hander Erik Bedard, Orioles right-hander Jeremy Guthrie, and Nationals right-hander Livan Hernandez… Rangers general manager Jon Daniels recently went to Japan to scout Nippon Ham Fighters right-hander Yu Darvish, but it is not yet clear if Darvish will be posted as a free agent in the offseason… Veteran right-hander Kevin Millwood has an opt-out clause in his contract with the Red Sox but has no plans to leave Triple-A Pawtucket yet… Now that Davey Johnson is taking over as the Nationals' manager, the average age of skippers in the NL East is 65. The Marlins' Jack McKeon is 80, Johnson is 68, the Phillies' Charlie Manuel is 67, the Mets' Terry Collins is 62, and the Braves' Fredi Gonzalez is the baby at 47 after replacing 70-year-old Bobby Cox last October…
Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto: "He shows that Luis Tiant-style turn at the back of his windup every so often, and I think he should consider doing it more often. He's got good stuff, and turning his back on the hitter like that makes him even more deceptive. It's not easy to do and consistently throw strikes, but if he gets comfortable with it, look out."
Cardinals right-hander Kyle McClellan: "Moving from the bullpen to the rotation this year has caused him to lose a couple of ticks off his fastball because he needs to pace himself now. He's compensated by sharpening his changeup, though. It's a swing-and-miss pitch for him."
Cubs first baseman Carlos Pena: "He's been swinging the bat better lately, but he is what he was in Tampa Bay. He'll pop you some home runs, he'll draw some walks, he'll play a solid first base, and he'll also strike out a ton because he can't lay off the off-speed stuff with two strikes. "
Braves catcher David Ross: "The Braves have a real luxury with someone this good as their backup catcher. He could start for a number of teams. He's excellent defensively, knows how to handle a pitching staff, and he's not an easy out because he has some pop in that bat."
Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth: "Everyone knows they overpaid at $126 million, but you can't put a price tag on the credibility he brought to that franchise by signing there. Ultimately, that's where his true value will come in, not so much what he does on the field, but how he changed the perception of the franchise."