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That didn’t exactly go according to plan.  I had in mind more of a sweeping and crushing manifestation of vengeance.  Something on the order of what the Rangers did to us, except more, and with us as the victor.  But alas, the team had other plans.

We lost, 6-3.  At least it wasn’t another huge loss, but a loss is a loss as far as the standings are concerned.  To be fair, we can’t really blame Beckett for this this one; it’s true that it was by no means his best start, but it wasn’t that bad either.  If the only runs that our pitching staff gave up were his three runs, it’s possible that we would have gone into extra innings and maybe won after all.

He hurled seven innings and gave up seven hits; he walked one and struck out seven.  He threw sixty-eight of 110 pitches for strikes.  Like his start, all of his pitches were decent; he threw both fastballs, a changeup, and a cutter for strikes most of the time, and he threw a curveball for strikes half the time.  He threw eleven to fifteen pitches in every inning except the third, when he threw thirty-one.  The inning started and ended with lengthy strikeouts; in between, he gave up a walk, three consecutive singles, and one run.  The next inning, he allowed a single followed by a home run to left on a fastball followed by three straight outs, two of which were swinging strikeouts.

His last three innings were his most solid; the Rangers went down in order.  That’s why it was so infuriating when Morales gave up three runs in that frame.  One frame and the Rangers doubled their run total.  That’s like, literally, the exact opposite of what relievers are supposed to do.  He began with a flyout.  And then there was a single, an intentional walk, an unintentional walk, a hit batsman that scored a run, and a double that scored two more.  After a second intentional walk, Albers came on and got the final out and finished the game.

We actually got on the board first when Papi led off the second with a double, followed by a homer by Youk on a sinker.  He smacked to left center field off the light post on the Monster the first time he batted sixth since 2008.

We didn’t score our final run until the bottom of the ninth, which seemed so promising but ended way too soon.  It began with a walk by Ross followed by a strikeout.  Then Youk reached on a throwing error, and Sweeney singled in Ross.  And it looked for a moment like we were going to come back.  But just like the numerous times when it looked for a moment like we were going to come back but didn’t, we didn’t.  Salty hit into an unassisted double play, and that was the end of the game.

No multi-hit games.  Three of our five hits were extra-base hits, two doubles and the homer.  Too bad those five hits were only half of the Rangers’ ten.  It wasn’t super-horrible like Tuesday, but it wasn’t great.  I mean, we lost.  And a loss is a loss.  So there you go.

By the way, Melancon was optioned and Tazawa was called up.  Surprise, surprise.

AP Photo

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Just so you know, this is not going to be a happy post.

First of all, it’s pretty much unofficially official.  Theo is going to take over the Cubs.  It’s a five-year deal, and the only thing left is for the two clubs to agree on compensation since Theo is technically entering the last year of his contract with us.  The deal is currently worth twenty million dollars, which reportedly includes said compensation.  As of late, Theo’s title within the Cubs organization is unclear, but it supposedly is something higher up.

The bottom line is that he’s leaving us, so we’ll have to find a first-base coach, a manager, and a general manager.  Here’s an understatement: this offseason, we’ve got some serious work to do.  With any luck, we won’t actually have to find a general manager and will instead be looking for an assistant general manager; I wouldn’t mind having Ben Cherington take the helm.  That’s where it looks like we’re headed, anyway.  He’s been included in all club dealings so far during the offseason.  He’s been Theo’s right-hand man for years, and the two of them started with Larry Lucchino in San Diego anyway.  It obviously won’t be the same, but it’ll be pretty close.

That is, if you like the job Theo did.  Sure, he made some huge mistakes.  Eric Gagne and Dice-K were the most notable of those; if Jenks doesn’t recover properly he’ll be another, and if Crawford and Lackey don’t turn it around they’ll be a third and fourth.  But I would argue that his good so epically and completely eclipsed his bad that this discussion isn’t even necessary.  His drafting and farming decisions were legendary and include Pedroia, Ellsbury, Youk, and Lester.  He is the youngest general manager to be hired, and he is the youngest general manager ever to win a World Series.  After almost delivering us in 2003, his first season, he lifted us out of the Curse of the Bambino in 2004 and reminded us that we weren’t dreaming in 2007.  His acquisition of Gonzalez was absolutely masterful.  He brought sabermetrics to Boston and made it feel at home here.  He wasn’t just a professional removed from everything; he was a baseball guy and, worth noting, a Red Sox fan.  He’s from Boston, specifically Brookline about two miles from Fenway Park, and that’s something Chicago will never change.  Chicago’s dysfunction as an organization goes well beyond any single position that Theo could possibly fill.  Make no mistake; he won’t simply waltz in there and have them winning World Series left and right.  If he could do that in Chicago, we would have been winning every single World Series title since his takeover of our team, and clearly that didn’t happen.  And if it didn’t happen here, it’s not going to happen there.  But that’s neither here nor there.

This is about what Theo did for this city in his nine memorable years here.  He brought a new approach to the game and put the pieces in place for us to win.  He established a winning culture here.  He’s a genius and will be sorely, sorely missed.  Here’s to you, Theo.  Here’s to everything you’ve done for us and for the game of baseball.  Here’s to the good, the bad, and the ugly, and here’s to smiling through all of it because, all along, in Theo we trusted.  We know that other fans in other places rooting for other teams will be trusting in you from now on.  But we also know that you can take the general manager out of Boston but you can’t take Boston out of the general manager.  We just hope that the great things you’ll accomplish will not be at our expense.

Secondly, all of the pieces to the devastation puzzle are now coming to light.  It’s an ugly story.  Here goes.

It wasn’t one pitcher responsible for the beer-drinking between starts.  First of all, it wasn’t just drinking beer; it was also ordering in fried chicken and playing video games.  Secondly, it wasn’t just one pitcher; it was three.  Beckett, Lackey, and Lester.  I never thought I’d see Lester on that list, although I should point out that the degree to which he actually participated in these goings-on is highly speculative, and it’s possible that he wasn’t really a mainstay.  Apparently they not only drank beer but ordered fried chicken and played video games, all at the expense of working out, and they were starting to get more players involved.  All I know is that when we needed them to deliver most, they didn’t, which is unusual for them so something must have been going on.  We knew they were health, so that should have tipped us off, but I never thought I’d see the day when such people would actually knowingly put on pounds and thereby sabotage everything the team worked for.  It’s sacrilegious. Pedroia probably couldn’t believe his eyes and must have been seething.

Meanwhile, Tito was losing influence with both old and new guys, he was having health issues, and he was living in a hotel due to marital issues.  He insists that the former wasn’t due to the latter two, but I’m also sure that Beckett, Lackey, and Lester insisted that their very visible extra fat and subsequent tanking wasn’t due to their clubhouse habits either.  I’m actually inclined to believe Tito, though; he’s focused, dedicated, and committed, and we can’t just assume that he doesn’t know how to handle personal issues in his life and balance them with his job.

Then, apparently, the team accused the brass of caring about money more than results when they scheduled the doubleheader in response to Hurricane Irene.  Then the veterans on the team, including Tek, started pulling back on leadership.  Wake exacerbated this problem by calling for a return next year so he could break the all-time wins record; neither the time nor the place when you’re days away from playoff elimination.  And Youk, as you can imagine, was more of a clubhouse pain than usual, which we all knew but didn’t feel because all of these other issues weren’t present before.  At least, if they were, we didn’t know about them to this extent.  Youk was the only player to call Ellsbury out for his time on the DL last year due to his rib injuries.  And it’s obviously admirable and dirt-doggish indeed that he played through his injuries this year, but doing so apparently brought the worst out of him socially in the clubhouse.  And when you’re hanging on by a thread in the standings, that is so not something you need.  Gonzalez, of all people, joined in the pettiness by complaining about the late-season schedule.  I honestly thought he would be much more Pedroia-like than that.

Ellsbury, by the way, is officially the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year.  I can’t think of anyone who would deserve it more.  He earned every last bit of that honor this past year, so hats most definitely off to him.

Add to that the fact that the signing of Crawford was largely a push from Theo over which the brass was divided.  If you ask me, I would have said it was the other way around.  Crawford’s strengths, both in practice and in numbers, aren’t that compatible with sabermetrics, the philosophy used to build the team.  So I thought that we would all find out that it was Theo who was against it, and it was the brass who was pushing him to sign Crawford because of the wow factor of bringing in a star or something.

All in all, the team this year turned out to be one big, dysfunctional family on every front.  Nobody, from the players to the brass, was spared.  Everyone who had issues let them loose at exactly the wrong time and in exactly the wrong ways.  Players on whom you depended to carry your team through the stretch in the clubhouse either withdrew or sunk to the level of the players you never thought would sink to that level in the first place.  It seems like it was just an awful atmosphere completely non-conducive to anything positive or constructive.  Obviously you’ve got to consider sources of this information when you read stories about this, but I guess now that we know the end story, we saw the signs all along.  That’s true of Theo’s departure as well.  At the time to us on the outside, all of the signs were too subtle for us to keep putting two and two and two and two together to come with what is clearly a very elaborate set of social circumstances that spiraled out of control and led to our painful and epic downfall.

Organization chemistry, both in the clubhouse and in the front office, is a very difficult thing to fix and cultivate.  It’s organically grown, and you either have it or you don’t.  You can’t force it.  Now Papi is claiming that he’s seriously considering free agency as a way to escape all the drama.  It’s all been meshing so well recently; how, in such a short time, could we become “that team” with all the drama? It’s like a soap opera.  Seriously.

John Henry even drove down to 98.5 The Sports Hub on Friday completely on his own because he felt like he had some records to set straight.  He said that Crawford was not signed to boost NESN ratings, although he confirmed that he did oppose it but ultimately approved it because baseball operations were for Theo and Larry to govern.  Henry also implied a confirmation that Theo is going to Chicago while saying that he wishes that Theo would stay.  He said that, during the season, he let the brass know that he was all in favor of picking up Tito’s options and that the only time he thought that that maybe wasn’t such a good idea was when Tito told the brass that he didn’t want to come back.

Significant changes to the organization could potentially be afoot, and that’s either good or bad.  There’s no way to know who’s on the radar or what we should expect.  There’s nothing to do.  No amount of speculation would ever shed any light because this organization keeps everything under wraps, as is appropriate and right even if it is annoying for us fans hanging in the breeze.

The whole situation is crushing.  Make absolutely no mistake whatsoever about that.  It’s crushing.  It’s devastatingly epically crushing in every conceivable sense.  We’ll get through it because we’re Sox fans and we always do, but it’s just so remarkably and epically depressing and crushing.  I can’t even believe that this whole situation is happening.

Ultimately the big question is short and sweet and simple but revealing of the trepidation that’s currently racking all of us.

What’s next?

Also, Scott Williamson is auctioning off his 2004 World Series ring.  Why in the world would you ever do that? That’s completely sacrilegious.

In other news, the Pats summarily disposed of the Jets, 30-21.  Would I have preferred a blowout? Obviously.  But hey, that score is a lot better than the score we put up against them the last time we played them last season, so I’ll take it.  And the Bruins, since beginning their season on October 6, have beaten Philly, Colorado, and Chicago and have been beaten by Tampa Bay and Carolina.

AP Photo

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You will see in short order that the title of this post couldn’t be dripping with more sarcasm, but you will also see eventually that somehow it’s strangely appropriate.  Yesterday’s game was nothing short of excruciating.  We won, but it was not easy.  That was one of the most difficult games we’ve played this year.  The whole monstrosity took five hours and seventeen minutes.  That means that if you were driving from Boston to New York for the series opener on Tuesday and were listening to a complete replay of yesterday’s game on the radio, you could make that drive within the span of that game and would still probably have to sit in the car once you got there to finish it.

Well, let’s start from the beginning.  I suggest you get comfortable.  It’s going to be a long one.

The story starts with Beckett.  Shoddy changeup, shoddy curveball, shoddy cutter.  Brilliant two-seam, brilliant four-seam.  Game-high twenty-three pitches in the sixth; the only other time he came close was twenty-one in the second.  So his efficiency was there.  He varied speeds, he attacked the zone.  And yet he was saddled with his sixth no-decision of the season.

Beckett was removed after giving up a walk and a single in the seventh.  All told, he pitched six innings, gave up three runs on four hits, walked three, and struck out four.  He fired 102 pitches, fifty-eight for strikes.  He made a wild pitch and hit a batter.  So technically it wasn’t his best night, but it was far from his worst.

We scored first.  With two out in the first, Gonzalez launched a changeup into the Monster.  The pitch stayed up, and his timing was perfect, even given the wind.

Starting in the bottom of the second, every inning was one-two-three and nobody scored until the fifth, when we added another run.  Crawford singled and scored on a single by Drew.  In the sixth, Beckett let the A’s tie the game.  After inducing a flyout to start it, he hit that batter, gave up a walk on four pitches, and made his wild pitch.  A subsequent single brought in two.

We put ourselves ahead the very next chance we got.  In the sixth, we scored three.  Ellsbury singled, stole second, and scored on a single by Pedroia.  Gonzalez struck out.  Pedroia scored on a double by Youk.  Papi grounded out.  And Youk scored on a single by Crawford.

Albers replaced Beckett in the seventh and allowed one of his inherited runners to score.  He was then replaced by Hottovy.

Both teams went down in order in the next two half-innings, thanks in his half to Bard.  In the eighth, we picked up two more; Gonzalez singled, Papi doubled and was replaced by Reddick as a pinch-runner, and both scored on a double by Crawford.

So at this point, we were the very proud owners of a four-run lead.  The rest of the game should have been a walk in the park (pun intended).  But could Paps let us half our easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy win? Not in the least.  Not even remotely in the least.  That ninth inning was an unmitigated disaster.

He gave up a single and a walk.  It took him seven pitches to notch the first out in the inning, an eventual strikeout.  Then of course Pedroia had to make a fielding error, his third of the season, which allowed Coco Crisp of all people to reach base and a run to score.  The ball had all the makings of the beginning of a routine double play that would end the game promptly with a win for us.  Pedroia had to move toward second base to corral the ball anyway.  But he didn’t.  Instead – and these are words that no member of Red Sox Nation will ever feel comfortable hearing – the ball went through his legs, and the game continued.  I think Paps’s reaction to that – crouching and covering his head in complete disbelief – pretty much says it all.

If Paps had rallied and ended the inning there, it wouldn’t have been his fault, and we still would have won.  But it didn’t.  He gave up a double that brought in another.  And that’s when Tek lost it.  He turned around and unleashed a verbal storm on home plate umpire Tony Randazzo, who in Tek’s eyes had been making questionable calls that inning that greatly affected the game.  It was the fifth ejection of his career and his first since 2009.  It was strange seeing him let loose like that.  He’s usually so composed.  But the way the game was going was bound to get to someone, and it wasn’t finished yet.

Salty came in to catch, and Paps allowed two more runs to score on a single that deflected at third.  And then Paps lost it.  Randazzo called a strike on Paps’s first pitch to Ryan Sweeney, but after receiving the ball, he sort of glared at him for a few seconds and looked away.  So Randazzo started to make his way toward the mound.  Salty made a move to keep Randazzo away and go to the mound to keep Paps stationary, but Paps would have none of it.  Randazzo started talking, and Paps said something to Salty and then just went right past him and got right up in Randazzo’s face.  Thankfully, Paps didn’t touch him.  Tito had to come out and get in the way.  Paps was ejected for the first time in his career.  It’s funny; you would think that, with his personality, he would have had more, but he knows how to keep his composure when he needs to.

Jenks came in after that and gave up a single but followed with back-to-back K’s.  He pitched the tenth and was replaced by Aceves in the eleventh.  Aceves gave up a walk, a double, and a sac fly.  So naturally it was do-or-die for us in the bottom of the inning.  Lowrie struck out swinging.  Drew struck out swinging.  Salty doubled.  And it was Ellsbury with the game-saving hit, a double that brought Salty home to preserve the tie at eight apiece.  Without that hit, we would have lost, plain and simple.

Aceves pitched a one-two-three twelfth and thirteenth.  He put two on base in the fourteenth.

Youk flied out to open the bottom of the inning.  Cameron did the same.  Then Crawford doubled, and Lowrie was intentionally walked.  And of all the batters in our entire lineup, the one who had to come up at that moment was JD Drew.  Two outs, bottom of the fourteenth, the game on the line, and you have stepping up to the plate a batter who had struck out four times in his previous four at-bats.  He watched a fastball go by.  Strike one.  And we’re all thinking of his called strikeout that ended the ALDS for us in 2008.  Fortunately, it was not to be.  His next pitch was a fastball right down the middle, and he hit a single! It was so simple! One single, one run, one win! 9-8! Cue the walkoff mob! After all that, it was absolutely glorious.

Youk went two for five with two doubles.  Gonzalez went three for five with his homer.  Ellsbury and Crawford both went four for a whopping seven.  And Drew, the unlikely man of the hour, went two for seven.  But it was enough.

I am convinced that, if there were any team that could eke out a win under those circumstances, it would have been us and nobody else.  You have to have matchless grit to play more than five hours of baseball, roll out the entire bullpen, lose two players through ejections, give up a lead, come back, and then finally win for good.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you separate the men from the dirt dogs.  Plain and simple.

In other news, the Bruins lost to the Canucks, 3-2.  Mark Recchi and Milan Lucic forced sudden death, but we lost there.

Boston Globe Staff/Jonathan Wiggs

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This is so ironic.  I’m really impressed with the outings Aceves and Wake have been turning in.  I’m telling you, it’s really getting to the point where Lackey and especially Dice-K have a new standard to live up to.  In four starts, the two of them combined are undefeated in their three decisions with a 1.82 ERA.  Everybody can clearly see that Aceves and Wake still have it, so if those two want to keep their roles in the rotation, they’re going to need to at least match these performances.

Wake was wonderful.  Seven innings, two runs on five hits, one of them a solo shot to lead off the second.  Two walks, two K’s.  And the win.  Eighty-three pitches, fifty-eight for strikes.  A thoroughly deceptive knuckleball.  That’s all there is to say about Wake.  If he had a bad outing, it would have been because his knuckleball didn’t dance.  But it did, and with remarkable efficiency.  It took Wake eighty-three pitches to get through seven innings.  We have pitchers on our staff – you know who they are – who sometimes can’t even get through five innings with that pitch count.

Bard had a three-up, three-down eighth.  Paps allowed a run on a single followed by a double, which thankfully didn’t matter.

In the first, Ellsbury singled to start the game and later scored on a wild pitch.  In the third, Ellsbury led off the inning with a homer that ended up just inside the foul pole in right.  It was a fastball out over the plate, and he hit a rocket of a line drive into the seats.  Pedroia walked after that, and Gonzalez singled.  Both scored on Youk’s double, who scored on Crawford’s home run.  Also a fastball, this one high and inside.  Also ended up in the seats in right.  But this one was a towering blast.  Over his last nine games, he’s batting .429.

Gonzalez and Ellsbury both went two for five.  And Ellsbury even threw in one of his classic, epic, running, diving catches to end the sixth.  Not to mention the fact that he’s having a monster year so far with a .299 batting average, .365 on-base percentage, twenty-seven RBIs, six home runs, and eighteen thefts.  And those numbers are only going to go up.

And that was it.  That was all we needed to win.  6-3.  Another short and sweet one.  We are twelve and two in our last fourteen games.

Oh.  One other thing I should mention.  Because, you know, it’s extremely important.  We are now in sole possession of first place in the American League East division! The Yankees, after losing to the Mariners, must now be content with second.  Oh, how the mighty have fallen.  More importantly, we have risen!

In other news, the Bruins beat the Bolts! 1-0 courtesy of Nathan Horton in the third period! We are now officially the Eastern Conference Champions, and we won’t stop there.  Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to Vancouver.  We are going to beat the Canucks right out of the Stanley Cup finals.  This could be the year that Boston, in every sport, becomes Title Town.

AP Photo

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The A’s completely rescinded their offer to Beltre.  Now, he’s got nothing.  I can understand where they’re coming from; this is the second year in the row they’ve chased him, and they’ve had this offer on the table for weeks now.  And just last week Beltre stated publicly that he wants to stay in Boston.  He turned down the A’s, who offered him more money and more years, last year to come here.  During the Winter Meetings, Theo will be in the hunt for a reliever and another big bat.  Beltre certainly fits the latter description, but I just don’t see how we’d ensure regular playing time for him.  We certainly don’t have room for him as a starter with the other Adrian coming in.  (And putting Theo aside, make no mistake; Youk was the real basis for the deal.  If Youk didn’t have the ability to just switch from first to third like that, Gonzalez would still be in San Diego.) It’s just a shame because Beltre is a beast.  By the way, Cameron is giving Gonzalez jersey number twenty-three.

This week, the Winter Meetings came and went.  And anyone thought we’d ride that deal and go in and out quietly was so incredibly wrong, it’s not even funny.  Theo Epstein was the king of the Winter Meetings.

The Werth saga continues.  Apparently, we sat down with him and Scott Boras but never made him a formal offer.  And we certainly would not have been prepared to even come close to what the Nationals gave him.  It’s a shame for us and for Werth.  A real shame.

But not anymore.  Not today.  Ladies and gentlemen, we have our elite outfielder and our second big bat.  And no, it’s not Magglio Ordonez.  Ordonez can chase a two-year deal elsewhere with all the teams that were formerly chasing Werth and Crawford, because both are now officially taken.  The hottest position player on the market is now off.  Carl Crawford, welcome to Boston! Seven years and 142 million dollars and a pending physical later, he’s walking that speed of his right into Fenway Park.

Wow.  Just, wow.  I mean, what? It happened so fast.  First we were reportedly in talks, and then you turn around and there’s already a deal on the books.  I’ve never been one to feel comfortable with contracts as large as this one; he’s the first player in franchise history to get seven years and an average of twenty million dollars per year, and he’s the first position player in baseball history to land 100 million dollars without hitting twenty home runs a year.  It’s the tenth-largest contract in baseball history, less than deals for players that include Manny Ramirez, Joe Mauer, and obviously a sizeable host of Yankees.  But, as always, in Theo we trust.  Everybody in Red Sox Nation is hungry.  Crawford is young and more than capable.  He can succeed here; in seventy-eight games at Fenway, he’s batted .275 with twenty-four doubles, thirty-five runs, and twenty-six stolen bases.  He’s yet another lefty bat, but he makes our lineup unbelievably potent, and he and Ellsbury comprise the most formidable speed duo in the game right now.  He’s not a slugger, but he’ll hit a decent amount out and he finds gaps like no other.  His speed also makes him great in the field, and it’s perfect because he’s a left fielder by trade.

So that’s Theo for you.  He’s asked whether a deal is being considered, and he refuses to rule anything in or out.  I’m convinced that the Werth deal upped the ante here though; if that deal hadn’t gone through, Crawford would never have been in a position to demand or merit a deal of this magnitude.  So that’s that.  We can take comfort in the fact that Theo would never offer a deal like this if he didn’t think the player was worth it.  Crawford is young enough and good enough to deliver in all seven of his contract years, which is why Theo offered it, and his playing ability is elite enough to merit his salary.  It’s not like we mete out contracts like this in every offseason.  This is the first contract of this magnitude that we’ve finalized during Theo’s and this ownership group’s tenure.  Given our current position and resources, this deal makes sense for us.  Crawford will obviously need to work on patience at the plate.  He needs to increase his walk total to up his on-base percentage.  We can’t say anything beyond that; we’ll just have to wait and see.  Meanwhile, there is a ton of celebrating to be done.  Adrian Gonzaelz and Carl Crawford.  Hello, October 2011!

As far as relievers are concerned, something must be done.  Bard said almost the exact same thing.  We’re looking at Matt Guerrier as well as Brian Fuentes and Arthur Rhodes, who was an All-Star for the first time this year at age forty.  Supposedly we’ve made a formal offer to Kevin Gregg.  Supposedly we’re going to sign Scott Downs.

We’re also keeping an eye on Russell Martin, who was indeed non-tendered by the Dodgers.

And that’s the story of how Theo put all other general managers to shame, made not one but two splashes, and came to rule the 2010 offseason.  If you ask me, it’s a pretty great story.  And technically it’s not even finished.

In other news, the Bruins bested the Sabres by one and the Islanders by three, but we lost to the Flyers in sudden death yesterday.  The Patriots, in one of the most anticipated games on the calendar this year, completely crushed and humiliated the Jets in every way.  The final score was 45-3.  It was a total crush.  So incredibly awesome.

Boston Globe Staff/John Tlumacki

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Two huge news items this week: the rotation and Mauer.  I’ll talk about the rotation first because it’s awesome.

Ladies and gentlemen, your starting five: Beckett, Lester, Lackey, Wakefield, Buchholz.  In that order.  Beckett gets the nod to start the fifth Opening Day game of his career, the second of his career with us.  And let me tell you that I am looking forward to some serious, ice-cold domination over the Evil Empire because it’s going to be real interesting to see exactly how they intend to beat him.  He’s Beckett.  Beckett the Unbeatable, if you will.  He’ll start opposite Sabathia.  Then we get a day off before Lester’s start, and Lackey will make his Boston debut in the third and hopefully final sweeping game in that series against New York.  Then it’s off to Kansas City (a city I’m still having serious trouble thinking of without the 2012 All-Star Game coming to mind), where Wake will open the series, followed by Beckett who’ll be on regular rest due to the day off, followed by Buchholz, who’ll close it out.  After that it’s back to a regular rotation.

If I weren’t a Red Sox fan, I would be shaking in my shoes when I read about that rotation.  Make no mistake: that is, hands down, without a doubt, the best starting rotation in all of Major League Baseball.  If I sound confident, it’s because I am.  With a rotation like that, who wouldn’t be? Beyond that, I really don’t think there’s much to say.  Except to expect us in the World Series, which has “Boston” written all over it.

But seriously, folks: I like this rotation.  Last season was a fluke for Beckett; if he’s right this year, he belongs at the top of the rotation.  The one-two punch of Beckett and Lester has been proven deadly for the opposition, and I like having a lefty between Beckett and Lackey.  Wake is of course tried and true, and we’ll see how Buchholz fairs.  Overall, one of the strengths of this rotation is its versatility.  It includes heat, power, cunning, and some nasty off-speeds.  We’re going to win some games with these arms, trust me.

By the way, we’re officially not offering Beckett a fifth year in his contract extension.  Faced with a right shoulder like his, I agree with that.  That doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t pay him well, though.  We probably will, but for not as much time.

Big news item number two: In what was perhaps the greatest display of loyalty in the last decade, Joe Mauer, born and raised in Minnesota, signed an eight-year contract extension with a full no-trade clause that averages about $23 million a year.  Personally, I was surprised that the Twins can afford that.  It’s the fourth-largest contract in the history of the Major Leagues, but don’t let that fool you: if he pursued free agency, he almost certainly would’ve been able to command more.  It’s safe to say that he would’ve set off a bidding war between us and New York that could’ve raised his total salary to above $200 million.  But he didn’t, and there wasn’t.  I mean, you can’t get much more loyal than an extension with a no-trade clause.  Would I have loved to see the dynamic offensive catching duo of V-Mart and Mauer split time behind the dish at Fenway Park? You bet.  But this is the next-best thing, and not just because it keeps him out of the division.  And not just because it saves us considerable money since a bidding war with the Yankees is now moot.  It means there’s some hope yet in this game for loyalty like that, even with free agency.  You have to be some special stuff to exercise it, but at least we know it’s still there.  His standing ovation on Tuesday was pretty impressive.

What does this mean for us? It means we’re going to have to get ready to shell out to V-Mart when the time comes, provided he spends more time behind the dish than at the bag and still maintains his high level of play.  Keep in mind that we haven’t yet seen him be our starting catcher for a full season.  For starters, he really needs to work on throwing people out.  But even with that current shortcoming, his high offensive output at a position notorious for week hitters makes him worth it.  Besides, he knows he’ll never be able to serve a team at first or DH as well as he can at catcher, and his price decreases significantly if he pursues either of those routes, so either way he has an incentive to improve.

And now for the usual schedule recap.

On Sunday, we lost to Houston, 7-10.  Six of those ten runs were allowed by Paps, and to top it all off, the game was cut short by rain.  Apparently, he had a migraine before he went out there, so he took some medication and felt a bit drowsy.  He had no energy and proceeded to look like he was pitching to, well, not Major Leaguers.  At least it’s nothing serious, but it would be really great if this doesn’t become some sort of recurring problem.

On Tuesday, we lost to Minnesota, 7-2.  This one was on Buchholz.  In a decidedly 2008-esque performance, he allowed six runs, three walks, and three wild pitches in less than two innings.  Only half of his pitches were strikes.  Not that the offense was any help at all; we scored our first run in the eighth.  Paps did pitch a scoreless inning, though, to bounce back.  Delcmaren enjoyed a nice inning of his own, a one-two-three frame, amidst repeated delivery changes.  But Pedroia left in the bottom of the second with a sprained left wrist.  He’s fine; they benched him on Friday to be cautious, and he started yesterday.

On Wednesday, we beat the Pirates by two.  V-Mart smashed his first Spring Training home run.  Beckett completed his longest start of Spring Training: five innings of dominance during which he relinquished only one run on three hits with two walks.  Also on Wednesday, Embree debuted in a minor league contest and threw a scoreless inning.  Eleven of his twelve pitches were strikes.  It’s good to have you back, buddy.

On Thursday, we beat the Marlins, 6-4, and there were plenty of good offensive performances to go around.  Wake threw six frames and gave up three runs on six hits with two walks and five punchouts.  Fifty-one of his seventy-three pitches were strikes.  I think he’s some kind of Benjamin Button of baseball because it’s uncanny how he keeps it up every year.  I mean, he’s a knuckleballer, but still.  The bigger news was Dice-K’s successful two innings of work.  He gave up a run on two hits with no walks or punchouts in twenty-five pitches.  And he looked good! Cue: sigh of relief.  He’ll miss the first few weeks of the season because the Red Sox want pitchers to throw twenty-five innings before beginning regular season work.  But I’ll live if it means he won’t be a total bust this year.

On Friday, we barely beat the Jays.  Tek and Reddick had our only hits until a three-run ninth that included an RBI single by Papi.  Lowell fouled a ball off his knee in the first; x-rays were negative but he’s day-to-day.  He’s confident he’ll be ready by Opening Day, though.  And this just as he was getting comfortable at first base.  Lester gave up no unearned runs over six innings with five punchouts.  Paps allowed two hits and a walk but no runs.

Yesterday, we lost to the Orioles.  Pedroia and Lackey both looked fantastic, but Embree didn’t.  Hermida left with a tight hamstring.

Opening Day is one week away.  Only one week away.  That means that in one week, we’ll be in the process of watching the first win of a season that’ll probably take us all the way to the top.  (Provided everyone stops thinking our offense is non-existent, of course.) After all, we are Red Sox Nation, and that means we gotta believe.  And it all starts on Sunday at Fenway against New York.  Seven days.  Only seven days.

The Bruins lost to the Rangers and Lightning and shut out the Thrashers and Flames.  This means we’ve moved up to the seventh seed and are currently tied with the Flyers.  Savard is still on the injured reserve.

Boston Globe Staff/Barry Chin

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Happy Truck Day, everybody! I’m telling you, nothing warms the soul like an eighteen-wheeler pulling out of Fenway Park to head south in the dead of winter.  It’s been an especially long winter this year, so I’m ready to see some ball.  I can’t even begin to describe how psyched I am.  I don’t care how cold it is outside; Spring Training is almost here! Pitchers and catchers on Thursday! Life is good.  Life, indeed, is good.

Non-roster invitees are right-handers Randor Bierd, Fernando Cabrera, Casey Kelly, Adam Mills, Edwin Moreno, Joe Nelson, Jorge Sosa, and Kyle Weiland; southpaws Kris Johnson and Brian Shouse; catchers Luis Exposito and Gustavo Molina; infielders Lars Anderson, Yamaico Navarro, Angel Sanchez, and Gil Velazquez; and outfielders Zach Daeges, Ryan Kalish, Che-Hsuan Lin, and Darnell McDonald.  Keep your eye on Casey Kelly and Jose Iglesias.  They’re beasts.  And I hope Lars Anderson doesn’t disappoint; he’s supposed to be the first homegrown power hitter we’ve had in a long time, and I’m psyched to see him put up some big numbers this year.

Youk, Pap, Lester, and Delcarmen are already down there, which is a good sign.  Pap and Delcarmen could really use the extra training after the badness they exhibited last season.  Youk has stated his intention to spend the entirety of his career in Boston and retire as a member of the Red Sox.  He stays in Boston during the offseason and loves New England.  Way to be, dude.  Way to be.  And Lester will probably be our Number One starter.  Last season he proved to be way more consistent than Beckett, and don’t look now, but he’s basically turned into one of the best southpaws in all of baseball.

By the way, it’s pretty much official that we’re not resigning Rocco Baldelli.  Guess who’s going to hit for Drew against southpaws: Bill Hall.  This should be mighty interesting.

Congratulations to Clay Buchholz, who’s been named the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Jimmy Fund’s Rally Against Cancer Spokesplayer! Nomar made his debut as an analyst on Baseball Tonight and was absolutely horrible.  He said nothing of consequence and made no sense half the time.  I guess that means he won’t be retiring as soon as we thought.

Spring Training.  Baseball season.  Almost here.  What more can I say? Soon it’ll be Opening Day (and by that I mean Opening Night; thanks again, ESPN), and we’ll get this show on the road!

In other news, the Saints won their first Super Bowl in franchise history last weekend.  The final score was 31-17, and let’s not to forget to mention Peyton Manning’s single interception, nabbed by Tracy Porter for a seventy-four-yard touchdown.  Tracy Porter now has the two most important interceptions in franchise history.  Also, let’s not forget to mention the Peyton face.  Oh, how the mighty have fallen.  Boston College won the Beanpot.  I know; I was surprised, too, because I was expecting the U after the B, not the C after the B.  The final score was 4-3; it was a close game, and a good one, too.  Oh yeah, and the Bruins are actually on a winning streak.  You read right.  We’ve won our last four games; a 3-0 shutout against the Habs last weekend, a 3-2 shootout victory against the Sabres, a 5-4 defeat of the Lightning, and a 3-2 shootout win against the Panthers.  With the exception of the Habs win, which by the way was exceptionally gratifying, those were some seriously close calls, but we are in absolutely no position to be picky.  A win is a win, and I’ll most definitely take it.

Boston.com/Steve Silva

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