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Posts Tagged ‘World Baseball Classic’

The good signs continue.  We’re battling some soreness and whatnot, but the performance is good.  Victorino’s got some extra-base hits, and the pitchers continue to make a strong showing.  Drew left camp to see a concussion specialist; he resumed baseball activities, but the timetable for his full return is unclear.  Papi made his return to the batting cages.  Congratulations to the Dominican Republic; Team DR won the World Baseball Classic.  And last but most certainly not least, we and the Yanks have decided to dedicate Opening Day by honoring the community and memory of Newtown, Connecticut.  It’s going to be a beautiful ceremony, and the two teams are really doing the right thing.

We lost to the Pirates on Monday, 4-3.  Buchholz ruled the day; in five innings, he made one mistake in the form of a solo shot while walking two and striking out four.  Carpenter took the blown save and the loss; he gave up two runs.  Nava went two for three, and Victorino tripled.  On Tuesday, we lost to Baltimore, 8-7.  Dempster went five innings, giving up three runs on six hits.  Tazawa turned in a scoreless inning, and Bard gave up three runs on two hits.  Middlebrooks went two for three with a double, and Victorino doubled as well.  Unfortunately the Yanks shut us out on Wednesday; better in Spring Training than in the regular season.  Doubront pitched four and one-third innings and gave up four runs on seven hits.  Bailey finished the rest of the inning.  Hanrahan and Mortensen each pitched a scoreless frame.  We beat the Phillies yesterday, 6-1.  Lackey looked pretty sharp; he tossed five innings and gave up only one run on four hits while walking none and striking out one.  Bailey pitched a scoreless frame and picked up the win.  Pedroia went two for two with a double; Middlebrooks doubled, and Victorino tripled.

In other news, the B’s lost to the Jets and beat the Sens.

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It’s the middle of March.  The roster is thinning down, and the team’s performance is moving up.  As Opening Day nears, the pitchers especially are the players to watch.  Wins and losses means nothing in Spring Training, when regulars routinely don’t complete games, but a game is a game, and you can watch a pitcher’s motion and see how comfortable he is with certain pitches and certain situations.  Also pay attention to defense and injury in the field.  These things won’t necessarily predict our performance this year, but at least we’ll be able to tell how ready this year’s team is to face the music when the season starts.  Honestly, I have to say, it looks pretty good.

Nava is surely going to win a spot on the bench now that he’s proven himself at first, where he’s seen playing time this spring.  Drew has been out with a concussion that he sustained after getting hit by a pitch.  Papi started running the bases a bit but, due to soreness in his right foot derived from his Achilles injury, he’s had to take it easy as well.  While he’s sat out, Farrell’s been rotating the DH spot.  Unfortunately, he may very well start the season on the disabled list.  So will Breslow, due to problems with his left shoulder, and Morales, due to problems with his lower back.  Napoli actually saw action in consecutive days and managed to survive, which was a very good sign.  Aceves returned to camp after Team Mexico was eliminated from the World Baseball Classic.  Fortunately, he wasn’t injured in the significant brawl that broke out between Team Mexico and Team Canada when the former got upset because the latter bunted with the game practically won already.  Team Mexico didn’t know about the Classic’s tiebreakers, which use run differential, and thought it was bad form.  So several Canadian players ganged up on Aceves and dragged him to the ground.  Like I said, we’re pretty lucky he wasn’t injured.  Victorino will also be heading back to camp now that Team USA is out.  Steven Wright, the knuckleballer who may not be, since he’s having some trouble getting a handle on the pitch, got cut along with Deven Marrero, Drake Britton, Justin Henry, Alex Hassan, Mark Hamilton, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Juan Carlos Linares, Pedro Beato, Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, Christian Velazquez, Daniel Butler, and Alex Wilson.  Ryan Westmoreland, once considered one of our best farmboys, is retiring.  We traded cash to Baltimore for Mike Flacco, who plays first base.  Yes, he’s the brother of Joe Flacco.  Yaz made his annual visit to camp, making the rounds with current Sox and former teammates.

Now let’s talk action.  We beat the Rays on March 4, 5-1.  Doubront made his debut and tossed 1.2 shutout innings including a hit, two walks, and two K’s.  Carpenter also tossed a shutout frame to end the game.  Iglesias went two for two with two doubles; Salty also had a double to his credit, and Overbay tripled.  We were back in action Wednesday opposite the Pirates, who beat us, 9-3.  On the bright side, Lester looked especially sharp; he hurled four comforting and relief-inspiring innings, during which he allowed one hit on two runs while walking three and striking out three.  I wasn’t a fan of the three walks, but it’s more important that he slowly but steadily lengthens his starts without also augmenting his run total.  Wright took the loss and gave up five runs on five hits; Tazawa pitched a shutout inning to end it.  Ciriaco went two for four, and Gomes and Salty both doubled.  We beat the Twins on Thursday, 12-5.  For the first three innings, it was all Buchholz, who dominated with a shutout performance and issued two hits, no walks, and four K’s.  Hanrahan delivered a deflating fail of a third of an inning, during which he gave up four runs on four hits, but Bard pitched a shutout inning.  Meanwhile, Pedroia and Napoli each collected two hits; Pedroia doubled and Napoli smacked a home run that seemed like he could really get used to the power again.  The Twins bested us the next day, though, with a shutout performance.  Dempster took the loss and gave up the game’s only two runs.  We lost to the O’s on Saturday, 5-2.  Doubront gave up two runs on four hits over three innings with a walk and five strikeouts; Hanrahan and Bailey both delivered shutout frames.  Salty had himself two hits, and Overbay doubled.

We beat the Rays on Sunday, 6-2.  Lackey worked three and two-thirds inning and gave up two runs on four hits, one of them a homer, while walking two and striking out two.  It doesn’t seem like much, but that start was better than most of the ones we’ve seen from him in recent memory; granted, it doesn’t take much from him at this point to constitute a good sign, but you have to start rebuilding somewhere.  Overbay went two for three, and Ross had himself a three-run jack.  The Marlins beat us on Monday, 8-7; Lester delivered five beautiful innings, giving up one run on three hits while walking none and striking out four.  Carpenter took the blown save and the loss, giving up two runs on two hits en route to recording the game’s last two outs.  Salty doubled, and Middlebrooks homered for the first time since getting injured! He looked mighty comfortable doing it, too.  Like he could do it again.  Repeatedly.  We beat the Jays on Tuesday, 5-3.  Buchholz kept up his strong performance with four shutout innings during which he issued one K and gave up three hits.  Bailey turned in a shutout inning of his own.  Nava, Napoli, and Sweeney each had two hits; Napoli, Sweeney, and Middlebrooks each hit doubles.

We had Wednesday off and bested the Twins on Thursday, 7-3.  Dempster picked up the win with four innings of one-run, three-hit ball; Bard pitched a shutout inning.  Ellsbury went two for three with a double; Iglesias smacked a double as well.  Friday’s game against Baltimore ended in a tie at three after ten; Mortensen started and tossed three shutout innings of two-hit ball, and no one had a multihit game.  We crushed Tampa Bay on Saturday, 9-2.  Aceves pitched four and one-third innings during which he gave up three runs, two earned, on six hits with one walk and five K’s.  Iglesias and Gomez both had two hits; Iglesias tripled, and Gomez doubled.  We beat Tampa Bay again yesterday, 5-1, on the shoulders of a literally perfect performance by Lester.  Six innings.  No runs.  No hits.  No walks.  Six K’s, or an average of one per inning.  Even Hanrahan got in the spirit and delivered a shutout inning.  It was only Spring Training, but it was a glorious indication of things to come.  Expect him to start on Opening Day for sure.  Middlebrooks went two for three, and Gomes was perfect at the plate; both doubled.

In other news, the Bruins lost to the Caps in sudden death but then beat the Leafs, Flyers, and Sens.  We lost to the Penguins and then beat the Panthers and Caps before losing to the Penguins again.

Boston Herald Staff/Christopher Evans

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Isn’t that a convenient theme for the week.

With all this focus on defense, it’s worth explaining four new fielding stats that helped Theo and other proponents of sabermetrics make decisions this offseason.  Baseball is a numbers-heavy game, so anytime new stats come to the fore, it’s pretty exciting stuff.

First we have a fielder’s ultimate zone rating.  It’s a fielder’s number of runs above or below average.  It’s calculated by adding range runs to error runs.  According to Mitchel Lichtman, the statistic’s developer, range runs are “the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by how the fielder is able to get to balls hit in his vicinity,” and error runs are “the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by the number of errors he makes as compared to an average fielder at that position given the same distribution of balls in play.”

Next is the plus/minus.  This is more straight-forward.  It awards for converting plays that others in the position in question failed to convert and demerits for failing to convert plays that others would’ve made.  Developed by John Dewan, this stat is compiled through extensive research of video footage that maps the location and speed of each ball in play as well as the type of hit that put it into play as well as every other property of a ball in play that you could possibly imagine.

Third is the defensive runs saved.  It’s a complete quantity of runs saved.  Also developed by John Dewan, it’s calculated using plus/minus in conjunction with “double play abilities, outfielder arms, bunt defense by corner infielders, pitcher stolen base defense, catcher stolen base defense and the catcher’s ability to handle pitchers.” Dewan explains it thus in his book The Fielding Bible Volume II, “Let’s say there’s a man on first with one out. The expected runs at that point are .528. The next play is a ground ball to the shortstop. He boots it for an error and we now have men on first and second with one out. The expected runs went from .528 to .919. That’s an increase of .391 (.919 minus .528) runs. The play itself, the error, cost the team .391 runs. We don’t have to follow it through and count the rest of the inning. We know what the value of the ending state is and can use it.”

Fourthly, we’ve got the probabilistic model of range.  This one is my personal favorite of the four.  It’s kind of like the ultimate zone rating but accounts for some additional and very important variables.  This program, developed by David Pinto, calculates “the probability of a ball being turned into an out based on six parameters: direction of hit (a vector), the type of hit (fly, ground, line drive, bunt), how hard the ball was hit (slow, medium, hard), the park, the handedness of the pitcher, the handedness of the batter.” Here’s how it works.  It finds the probability of a ball put in play being converted into an out; this is the number of expected outs.  It divides that by the number of balls put in play; this is the expected defensive efficiency rating.  Compare that to the whole team’s actual defensive efficiency rating, and you’ve got the probabilistic model of range, the idea being that a team has a good defense if it’s actual defensive efficiency rating is better than its expected rating.  I’ll be interested to see how the 2010 Red Sox fare by this metric.

Leaving the world of defensive stats and mathematical innovation to itself for moment, we’re going to take a trip back to your high school hallway.

You’ll never believe the latest news on the Dice-K front.  Apparently, the Boston Globe found out from a Japanese magazine that talked to Dice-K that Dice-K injured his right inner thigh while preparing for last year’s World Baseball Classic.  But he didn’t withdraw from the World Baseball Classic because the rest of him felt fine.  He actually concealed the injury from Team Japan’s trainers.  But the guilt and the physical taxation of his work took their toll, and the rest is history.

Honestly, the whole situation resembles teenage gossip way too closely.  It’s extremely frustrating.  The way I see it, the team shouldn’t have had to find out about an injury that directly affected, its long-term performance from a newspaper that found out from a magazine that found out from the player.  At the bottom of this whole thing is cultural differences.  In Japan, honor is of paramount importance.  So Dice-K felt that his injury was something to hide; he didn’t want to become the center of attention, didn’t want people to worry on his behalf, and didn’t want to make excuses for himself.  But we expect someone like Dice-K to be public about legitimate injuries so he can get help.  Bottom line? Team Japan got a championship, Team Boston got nothing, and Team Dice-K has some work to do.

Theo Epstein deserves a hearty congratulations on never having gone to arbitration with a player.  He signed Okajima to a one-year deal worth a bit less than three million dollars, plus four bonus clauses.  But he’s got four more filings to deal with: Hermida, Ramon Ramirez, Delcarmen, and none other than Jonathan Papelbon, who of course expects a raise.  I think if anyone on that list is going to finally get Theo into an arbitration, it’s going to be Paps.  I mean, he’s still the best closer in the game, but after our untimely exit from the ’09 playoffs, I’m not sure that raise is going to be served on a silver platter.

Mark McGwire finally declared his use of steroids and HGH.  Wow.  I could try to field some sarcasm here, but honestly when I read that, I was so bored that I forgot to yawn.  Next thing you know, Barry Bonds is going to admit using, too.  Oh, wait.  But in all seriousness, I think Major League Baseball needed that admission, even though all of us knew it before Tom Davis chaired that interrogation on March 17, 2005.  But I think Michael Cuddyer said it best when he expressed sorrow for the clean guys who couldn’t hold a candle to all the loaded teams that swiped the championship rings from their fingers.  As far as Joe Morgan’s statement on the matter is concerned, it’s just another reason not to watch baseball on ESPN:

[Steroid users] took performance-enhancing drugs to enhance their numbers and make more money.  And they did it and made more money and enhanced their numbers.

Profound.  Although his main point that we should pay more constructive attention to the clean guys of the era who earned their stats than pay all this sensational attention to the juiced guys who didn’t is spot-on.

Equally profound was Bud Selig’s proclamation that changes would come to baseball this season.  Did he say what sort of changes? No.  Apparently that’s not nearly as important as the fact that changes will take place, period.  The postseason schedule is likely to be addressed first.  Mike Scoscia wants less days off, and Joe Torre wants the division series to be best-of-seven.  Fantastic.  The GMs who, between them, want more baseball played in less time after a 162-game season are on the panel that’s essentially the brain behind the changes.  And last but not least, Major League Baseball has pledged one million dollars in aid to Haiti.  That just makes you feel great about being a baseball fan.

In other news, the B’s lost to the Ducks in regulation, beat the Sharks in a shootout, and lost to the Kings in a shootout.  But that’s not even the sad part.  The sad part is that we have fifty-four points, which is good for second place in the Northeast.  That’s two above the Senators and ten below the Sabres.  Guess how many points the Kings have.  Fifty-seven.  I’m sorry to have to say this, but we’re actually playing worse puck than the Los Angeles Kings.  Of course, life doesn’t look much better from a Patriots perspective.  The Ravens absolutely slaughtered us on Sunday, and that’s the end of that.  I don’t really feel a need to dwell on the subject.

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So, we’ve had a week to recuperate from last weekend’s miserable postseason showing.  I’m not going to sugarcoat it because, quite frankly, I’m still bitter about it.  And I think Red Sox Nation will agree with me that it’s frustrating to make sure you can watch the playoffs in their entirety, only to find out that your playoffs that year consisted of three games during which the team you’d been watching for the entire season didn’t even show up.  I’m just saying.

Evidently we have some work to do, and when I say “we” I especially mean Theo Epstein.  There is a reason why we were swept in the first round.  We had a hitting issue.  If you think about it, we didn’t have a pitching issue.  Lester made a mistake with Torii Hunter on the mound, Josh Beckett had one bad frame in the seventh, and Clay Buchholz, the vindicator of the entire 2009 postseason for the Boston Red Sox, delivered an absolutely stellar performance, and Theo has confirmed his membership in the 2010 starting rotation.  But the hitting issue was glaring and significant.  Even reflecting on the regular season.  In past years, when the team slumped, we were at least able to manufacture runs through walks and small ball.  This year, when we slumped, we didn’t reach base at all.  So let’s discuss how to solve this hitting issue.

Starting with Tek.  This was a hot topic last offseason, and while it’s not going to be as hot this year, it’s going to be just as significant.  After we acquired V-Mart at the trading deadline, Tek became our backup catcher.  V-Mart would’ve had playing time no matter what, given his diversity in the field, but it was his offense that did the captain in.  Theo has confirmed that V-Mart will start next year.  The Red Sox probably won’t exercise their five-million-dollar option for next year, so it’ll be up to Tek to exercise his option, worth three million, and just accept the fact that he’s no longer a starter, which he did this year with composure and grace, teaching V-Mart everything he knows to prepare him to catch each arm.  Will Tek exercise the option? I think he will.  And I would even go so far as to say that Tek may join our coaching staff after he retires.  Meanwhile, Tek’s solid defense behind the plate makes him one of the best defensive backup catchers there is, and having him on the roster would allow V-Mart to play other positions if necessary.  And let’s not forget the fact that Tek is our captain.  And the fact that he was a good soldier this season proves yet again that he deserves that “C” on his jersey.

We need a shortstop.  There’s no getting around that.  We’ve needed a shortstop ever since Nomar wrote his one-way ticket out of town.  Jed Lowrie needs insurance for his wrist, but that insurance probably won’t come in the form of Alex Gonzalez.  He’s got a six-million-dollar club option for next year, but that’s a steep figure in this economy, and unfortunately Theo probably won’t be picking that up.  It doesn’t look like we’ll be making any blockbuster deal for a power bat at that position, so look for Theo to focus more on defense.  Which Julio Lugo made painfully clear.

We also need to resign Jason Bay.  Let me repeat that.  We need to resign Jason Bay.  He’s an excellent hitter and fielder, walks more than most in the American League, and, oh, by the way, he hustles and he’s drama-free.  To be honest, it’s either him or Matt Holliday, but he’s been here, he’s used to this city, and he’s put up great numbers.

Oh, and we need David Ortiz to be a force again.  None of this one-home-run-in-his-first-forty-plus-at-bats business.  That won’t fly.  We need Big Papi back.  A big part of that will be monitoring his off-season program.

Mike Lowell’s situation is a bit tricky.  Tito expects him to be healthier than ever next year, and indeed he showed flashes of brilliance in the field in Anaheim.  But that’s just it.  We were in Anaheim, where the weather was warm and stable.  In Boston, it’s either hot or cold.  I’m not necessarily saying that we should get rid of Mike Lowell because I think he’s valuable to our club, both as a third baseman and perhaps as a DH when Ortiz gets the day off.  I’m just saying that we need to watch him closely.  Very, very closely.

Even though our pitching was definitely a strong point this season, there are some interesting discussions on that end, too.  Theo is insisting that Dice-K adequately prepare himself for Spring Training this year.  I couldn’t agree more.  And I will be furious if he’s a World Baseball Classic ace at Boston’s expense.

Wakefield had surgery on his back a few days ago to correct a loose fragment in his back that’s been bothering him since July.  It’s been significant; he’s had trouble walking because of weakness in his left leg.  But the surgery has minimal recovery time, so barring any complications, expect him to show up on time for Spring Training.

Billy Wagner’s agent says that he wants to pitch next season, and why not? Dude’s still got it.  The Red Sox agreed not to pick up his option for next season, so he’ll be testing the waters, but he says his family is his top priority.

Sooner or later, we have to start restoring our faith in Papelbon.  I personally am not completely ready to do that yet.  In a broad sense, it’s the lineup’s fault that we’re sitting on our laurels right now with nothing to do, baseball-wise, for the rest of October, but Papelbon just rubbed salt in the wound.  If you’re one pitch away multiple times, there’s no reason to not record the out already.  But I digress.  The point is, he’s still our closer, and he’s obviously shaken.  At some point this winter, we’ll have to remember the fact that he’s got some of the best stuff in the Majors and that he’s one of the elite closers in the game.  Even if he did ultimately play an integral part in our postseason downfall.  On a related note, I think it’s safe to say that the eighth inning has “Daniel Bard” written all over it.

But after all is said and done, I think one of the absolutely most important roles we need to fill this offseason is that of Kevin Millar.  He was the essence of the 2004 World Series champion Boston Red Sox.  He exuded a winning spirit, kept the clubhouse loose, and helped take the team to the top.  Right now, Dustin Pedroia is the emotional leader of this team, but after this year’s ALDS I think it’s safe to say that he needs some help.  Someone to spark the squad when the going gets tough and the tough need to hit.  Someone, ironically and unfortunately, like Torii Hunter.

All of that is to say that our front office has its hands full.  It’s not like last year where we barely didn’t make it.  This year we didn’t make it by a mile.  Something must be done.  I’ll leave it to Theo to ultimately decide what, who, when, and how, but I think we have effectively established the why.  The only thing we as fans can do now is look forward to 2010.  Meanwhile, the Bruins are 3-4-0 in the first seven games of the season.  We’re in third place in our division.  We’ve had some very spotty play, so I’m looking forward to some improvements.

The Future Blog of the Boston Red Sox

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Dice-K has been awful this season.  To put it bluntly, every single one of his outings was an epic fail.  It was like watching a wreck, rewinding it, and replaying it over and over and over again.  Everything that could have possibly gone wrong, did.  It was absolutely downright horrible.  Two DL stints later, Dice-K was down in Florida catching up on all the Spring Training he missed while winning MVP in the World Baseball Classic, but it took three times as long because of all the fatigue that had accumulated in his shoulder.  After he graduated from that, he went down to the farms and had some good and bad outings.  The whole thing was pretty much a mixed bag, so when we found out that Dice-K was returning to the Major League rotation, we didn’t know what we were going to get.

Hold on to your hats, was my advice.  Be prepared to be blown away, or be prepared to turn them inside-out because we may be in desperate need of a rally.  But his first Major League start after his epic fail of an eight-start first half wouldn’t be about just one game.  It would be about his entire 2009 season.  To properly vindicate himself, he would need one seriously dominant, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners outing.  An outing that left no doubt in anyone’s mind that he is back and back with a vengeance.  An outing that effectively proved that he went down to Florida, was a good soldier and trained properly, and is now the better for it.

Last night’s outing exceeded all expectations of whatever outstanding outing you could possibly imagine.  He pitched six impeccable shutout innings.  Three hits, three walks, and five strikeouts, including some very nice no-hit, one-two-three innings.  And all of it on ninety-three pitches, more than half of which were four-seams, and let me tell you: his fastball was on.  He added some sliders and cutters as well as other off-speeds to keep them guessing and topped out at ninety-three miles per hour and going down to about eighty.  His command was sound and he went after the hitters.  Given the circumstances in which this outing took place, I have absolutely nothing whatsoever to complain about.

Especially since Dice-K started against the Angels.  That’s a very important detail.  We’ll probably face the Angels in the ALDS.  We have facts on our side, namely the fact that the Angels can’t do anything against us in the ALDS, but it’s good to know that that’s still true.  Dice-K made a very strong case for his ability to sustain that tradition.  Not to mention the fact that this lightens the pressure on the staff considerably, now that there’s another starter in the mix.  Wakefield can relax a bit and let his back heal properly.

But for these same reasons, Dice-K’s next start may be even more important than this one, so he isn’t out of the woods yet.  For now, though, Red Sox Nation and I can let out a huge collective sigh of relief.

The final score was 4-1.  The relief corps was solid through Ramirez, Wagner, and Bard, who each got holds, but it hit a stumbling block when we got to Papelbon.  Only six of his twenty pitches weren’t strikes, but two hits and one run later, Dice-K’s shutout was ruined.  Again, not good.

Of course, you can’t win without offense.  Only three of the four runs were earned, but we can thank Bay and Ortiz for those.  And while we thank Ortiz, we can give him a standing ovation as well.  His two-run moon shot with two out in the eighth was his twenty-fourth of the season and the 270th of his career as a DH.  With that homer, he officially passed Frank Thomas in the record books.  David Ortiz has officially hit more home runs in his career than any other designated hitter in the history of the sport.  Congratulations! And the best part is that he’s not even finished.

Ellsbury went two for four and was caught stealing.  Ortiz finished two for four.  Drew tripled.

Youk was out of the lineup with lower back spasms that aren’t too serious.  V-Mart will be in Cleveland probably until tomorrow taking care of some personal matters, but he probably wouldn’t have played anyway after that collision with Gabe Gross at the plate.  Next season’s schedule has been released, and we’re opening and closing by hosting the Yanks at Fenway.  Excellent.  We start off by showing them who’s boss and end by reminding them in case they forgot.  We’re facing some of the National League’s elite during Interleague, which still shouldn’t be a problem because it’s still the National League.  I’m just not happy about the fact that we’re only at home for nine games in July next year.  That’ll be a challenge.

John Lackey really challenged us, I’ll admit.  Most of the game was a very close pitcher’s duel, and for a while the only difference between Lackey and Dice-K was a pair of hits Lackey allowed while Dice-K still hadn’t allowed any.  It was a great contest.  Anytime you see good pitchers get crafty and try to best each other in a battle of wits, so to speak, you witness not just the science but also the art of the game, and those are special.  The important thing is that Dice-K had himself a phenomenal outing; technically, the win was just icing on the cake.  But I’ll take it.  Believe me, I’ll take it.  Especially against the Angels less than a month away from October.  We were in good shape all along, but if Dice-K holds it together, things look even more promising.  Tonight it’s Joe Saunders at Paul Byrd.  That, I’m not so sure about.

In other news, the Patriots had themselves quite the comeback against the Bills on Monday, winning 25-24.  Obviously that probably wasn’t exactly what Tom Brady or Bill Belichick had in mind, but winning is never a bad way to start the season.

Boston Globe Staff/Jim Davis

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We’re more than halfway through the season.  In fact, it’s already August, when more than the weather gets hot.  Each and every Major League club goes into playoff mode, but only a select few will get there.  There isn’t a doubt in my mind that we will most definitely be one of the few.  We’ve dominated our division.  Toronto started the season strong but has since slipped into fourth place and was seriously contemplating trading Roy Halladay to get some much-needed fresh blood into the clubhouse.  The Baltimore Orioles did the usual: fell to the bottom of the pack.  They’re twenty games out now, which is quite pathetic.  The Rays have been nonexistent in third place, even though somehow they just managed to sweep us in a two-game set, and we’ve been wiping the floor with the Yankees and are ready for another go-around.  It’s been fantastic.  We’re currently undefeated against New York.  Let me say that again.  We’re currently undefeated against New York.  Feels good, doesn’t it? So we start the two-month playoff rush in a decent place: two and a half games out and ready to rock and roll.  Not great but it could be worse.

Every year, Boston.com grades the team individually and overall at the All-Star break, with a little help from Tony Massarotti.  You can find Boston.com’s report card here.  I’ll be taking a break for about twelve days, but I’ll leave you with a report card of my own: a late-season grading of that team we all know and love.

Jason Varitek: A

Compare this year to last year.  So far this year, he’s hit thirteen home runs, batted in forty-four runs, scored thirty-seven runs, and has sixty-four hits.  Last year, he hit thirteen home runs, batted in forty-three runs, scored thirty-seven runs, and had ninety-three hits.  And this season isn’t even over yet.  So he’s significantly exceeded his numbers from last year in all of those categories, and he’s thirty-seven years old.  Experiencing a renaissance at the catcher’s position and at that age isn’t easy, but he worked closely with hitting coach Dave Magadan to make that happen with very positive results.  And we still get all of the goodness behind the plate; he’s got a 3.72 catcher’s ERA, the fourth-lowest in Major League Baseball.

Victor Martinez: A

Theo landed him at the trading deadline to add another big bat to the lineup.  Victor Martinez has done that and more, making an immediate impact and finding a groove right away.  He adds his .294 average, sixteen home runs, and seventy-three RBIs as well as a fielding percentage of upwards of .990 at first base.  He hasn’t made an error at catcher all season.  He plays first, he catches, he DHes; he does it all in the field and, as a switch-hitter who bats .307 from the left and a decent .258 from the right, at the plate.  A brilliant acquisition yet again by our general manager.

Kevin Youkilis: A

I have nothing to complain about here.  He consistently bats at or above .300 with a .422 on-base percentage and a .580 slugging percentage.  He’s hit twenty home runs this year, so his power numbers are up but not at the expense of his walks (fifty-six) or other hits.  That, plus his defense.  He moves between third and first like it’s the easiest thing in the world.  And these are his numbers with a stint on the DL and a slump during which he batted .194 over twenty-eight games.

Dustin Pedroia: A-

I give the kid an A.  Unlike many reigning MVPs, he’s not having a bad season the year after winning the award.  He’s batting above .300.  His power numbers are down, but he’s batted in forty-six runs and hit thirty-one doubles.  He’s second among Major League second basemen in runs and doubles, third in hits, fifth in walks, third in batting average, and fourth in on-base percentage.  Of course the top-notch fielding can’t be ignored, even though his .987 fielding percentage is low.  Still, he’s a dirt dog if I’ve ever seen one.

Mike Lowell: B

His 2007 season was outstanding.  His 2008 season, not as much.  His season this year will be a test of whether he can successfully rebound from his hip surgery.  He’s done that so far, posting a .296 batting average and .817 OPS, good for fifth in the American League among third basemen.  And after his three weeks on the DL in the first half, he’s really come on strong in the second.  We headed into the All-Star break thinking we needed another bat, and now we have one.  (Actually, we have two, since the acquisition of V-Mart.) As far as his fielding goes, the hip does prevent him from going the extra mile sometimes, but that’s rare enough.

Nick Green: B

Nick Green really stepped up to the plate.  Definitely an unsung hero of the team.  Jed Lowrie was out, and we were looking at a long stretch of errors from Julio Lugo.  Then some non-roster Spring Training invitee stepped in and lo and behold.  Lugo lost his job, and Green made the most of his opportunity to start.  His offense is his weakness, walkoff home run notwithstanding.

Jason Bay: A-

This man is phenomenal.  Theo Epstein hasn’t been able to lock him up yet, but he will.  Jason Bay is too good to let walk into the free agent market.  We’ll sign him.  Anyway, he does the usual.  He hits for average (the .252 is a little low but the .279 career gets the point across) and power (twenty-one home runs).  He fields (no errors at all this season).  He’s seventh in the American League in RBIs and first in walks with seventy-one.  He did go through a rather pronounced slump during which he batted .153 and struck out twenty-five times in seventeen games, but with a strong second half, which may be hampered by his right hamstring issue, he could be in the running for MVP along with Youkilis and Pedroia.

Jacoby Ellsbury: A

Whatever issues he may have had at the plate last year have been solved.  Ellsbury batted .287 in April, then .308 in May, then .313 in June.  He’s now batting .301.  With six home runs and thirty-five RBIs.  He’s gotten really comfortable at the top of the order, and there’s that whole stolen bases thing.  Since the start of last season, only Carl Crawford has more thefts.  And that steal of home against Andy Pettitte will be playing on highlight reels for the rest of the decade.  This speed translates perfectly from the basepaths to center field, where he makes the most difficult and convoluted catches look like walks in the park.

JD Drew: B

Theo Epstein knew exactly what he was getting when he signed Drew to a five-year, $14 million-per-season contract.  He’s batting .248.  With an on-base percentage of .365.  Consistently.  That’s the key.  You always know what you’ll get with Drew: nothing great, but nothing too bad, either.  And get this: the Red Sox are fourth in the American League in OPS in right field.  He’s put those numbers to good use in the leadoff spot, and the one-two punch of him and Pedroia has become something to be feared by opposing pitchers.  With Ellsbury fitting perfectly into that leadoff role now, he finds himself batting lower in the order, but his consistency remains intact.  He mans right field well, which isn’t something you can say for everyone who plays the position in Fenway Park.

David Ortiz: B+

I never thought I’d give that grade to David Ortiz, but you can blame it on his horrendous first two months.  His lowest point was June 2, when he batted .186 with one home run, eighteen RBIs, and an OPS of just .566 in forty-seven games.  Ugh.  But then, what a turnaround.  I want everyone who said he was done to take a good, long look at the following numbers: in his next thirty-four games, he led the team in home runs with eleven, RBIs with 29, and OPS with 1.011.  That, my friends, is Big Papi.  So far he’s batted .225 with fifteen home runs, so the numbers continue to climb.  With a solid second half, the season might not turn out to be so bad for him.

George Kottaras: B-

Let’s remember why he’s here.  He’s here to catch Tim Wakefield.  He’s not here to hit or to take the reins from Jason Varitek; those two responsibilities fall squarely on the shoulders of Victor Martinez.  He’s here to catch knuckleballs every fifth day and give the captain an extra day of rest if he needs it.  And he’s done a great job of that.  Less than ten passed balls and a 5.08 catcher’s ERA.  As far as offense goes, there really isn’t any, but again, that’s not the point.

Jeff Bailey: C

Again, we knew what we were getting here.  Key players were out with injuries, and we needed someone to fill in.  He’s significantly better against lefties (.400) than righties (.111), and the defense is fine enough (no errors).  He wasn’t staying in the Majors anyway, so it’s not a big deal.

Rocco Baldelli: A-

He was signed to provide backup in right field and to handle southpaws.  He hasn’t seen much playing time because of his health concerns, but he’s still batting .261.  Something he’s not usually credited with is a really strong arm.  He practically won the game for us when Lester dueled with Kansas City’s Brian Bannister on July 10; Ellsbury had been ejected for throwing equipment in frustration when called out at the plate, so Rocco Baldelli came in.  He gunned down a Royal at second, something Ellsbury probably would’ve have been able to pull off.  That was key.

Josh Beckett: A

Obviously.  Quite simply, he is an ace.  He is one of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever seen.  He had a 7.22 ERA to start June, but look at him now.  In his last thirteen starts before the All-Star break, he’s 9-1 with a 2.14 ERA.  Currently, he’s thirteen and four with a 3.27 ERA that just keeps dropping.  This is shaping up to be a Cy Young year.  Again.  Hopefully they’ll get it right this time.

Jon Lester: A

It’s almost the exact same story.  His rough patch was about two weeks longer than Beckett’s, but his turnaround was just as rapid and just as dramatic.  He is now the best southpaw in all of Major League Baseball.  In the middle of May, he was looking at a 6.51 ERA.  In his ten starts before the All-Star break, he was 6-2 with a 2.01 ERA.  He’s now nine and seven with a 3.79 ERA, but don’t let that fool you.  Theo knew what he had here.  Who needs Johan Santana when you have Lester.

Tim Wakefield: A

He’s eleven and three with a 4.31 ERA.  He’s an All-Star.  He carried a no-no bid into the eighth inning on the road against the A’s this year.  By the way, did I mention he’s forty-two years old? He’s the longest-tenured member of the club, and all he does is consistently give us quality innings and put us in a position to win.  It’s not his fault if he doesn’t get any run support.

Daizuke Matsuzaka: F

Fail.  Epic fail.  Without a doubt, this is the lowest grade I gave this year.  Eight starts, 1-5 with an 8.23 ERA.  The Sox’s record is 2-6 in those starts.  Awful.  Just awful.  And we can thank Bud Selig and the World Baseball Classic for that.  Dice-K went hard during the Classic and basically blew his season along with his shoulder.  He finally seems to be receptive to adapting to the Major League way of doing things (but only after airing his grievances), and after a stint on the DL, he’s now down in Fort Myers basically catching up on all the Spring Training he missed while pitching for Japan.  Just a big, huge, epic fail.

Brad Penny: C

He’s a number five starter.  He never pitches less than five innings, and he never pitches more than six.  He usually gives up about three runs per outing.  And he does this every single time he starts.  Consistency has been the name of his game, but it’s withered considerably in the second half.  He’s been struggling lately.

John Smoltz: C

Two and four with a 7.12 ERA isn’t the John Smoltz I was expecting, but then I stepped back and remembered why we signed him.  We signed him for October.  He has more wins in the postseason than any other pitcher, and he’s here to bring some of that success to us.  We can weather regular-season spottiness if it means some major Ws in the postseason, but the problem is that it just doesn’t seem like he’s peaking at all.  If the goal is to peak late, we should see glimmers of brilliance this month.  Maybe we will, starting tonight.  It doesn’t look likely, though.

Ramon Ramirez: A

The bullpen’s unsung hero.  Theo’s trade of Coco Crisp for this man was genius.  During his sixteen-game rough patch in the first half, his ERA was 5.02, and we all know it wasn’t pleasant to watch him during that stretch.  But he’s gotten better.  And he’s one of the best overall.  His ERA is 2.28, and less than ten relievers in the Majors have an ERA lower than his.  One of them being Jonathan Papelbon.

Daniel Bard: A

Daniel Bard has a long way to go, but he’s getting there fast.  As his confidence grows, so does Terry Francona’s.  He’s using him more and more, and Bard is stepping up and delivering.  A 2.25 ERA, and keep in mind that what you are seeing here is our setup man of the future.  Who tops out at one hundred miles per hour.  Imagine that.  The one-two punch of Bard and Papelbon.  Unhittable.

Takashi Saito: C

He was supposed to be our third-day closer, but with the bullpen being the best in baseball and all, he hasn’t really been used that consistently.  Actually, he’s mostly used when we’re losing.  If the bullpen stays healthy, we don’t really need him that much.  He’s been decent; 3.32 ERA.  But we have better.

Manny Delcarmen: B

He’s a workhorse who gets the job done and keeps the ERA low at 3.05.  Delcarmen is consistent, healthy, and can handle more than one inning of work if necessary.

Hideki Okajima: A

We keep talking about his epic season in 2007 while he’s having one of those right under our noses.  Since the start of that season, he’s been among the top ten relievers in the game in ERA.  A 2.98 ERA is not something to be taken for granted.  He’s a fantastic setup man.

Javier Lopez: D

He had a horrible start to the season and was optioned to the minor leagues.  Tito used him when he shouldn’t have been used: against righties.  But now the bullpen is having some trouble handling lefties, and he’s improved in the minors.  If he’s able to works his way back up, we could be all too ready to welcome him back.

Jonathan Papelbon: B

Many of his saves have been sloppy.  The one-two-three inning that’s been his trademark in the past hasn’t been as common this year.  But that’s changing.  Here’s the thing.  Papelbon has to be used every so often whether we need him or not because he needs to get his work in.  But when you put your closer in again where the team is leading, he doesn’t get the same high-pressure, adrenaline-rush-inducing sensation, and he relaxes.  And when he relaxes, he can’t sustain that fierce competitiveness.  I think Papelbon’s experienced that this year, which incidentally is a credit to our lineup.  The point is that recently, in close games, the one-two-three inning has resurfaced and seems to be appearing more and more often.  Numbers-wise, his problem is walks.  He’s giving up many more walks this year than he did last year.

Terry Francona: A

Again, obviously.  We’re almost leading the division again.  We’re set to appear in October again.  We’ll win the World Series again.  All with Terry Francona at the helm.  This is the first year of his three-year contract extension, and he’s the first Boston manager to begin a sixth season in about sixty years.  Sixty years.  Finally.  And rightfully so.  There are a lot of different personalities floating around in that clubhouse, and they all blend together seamlessly without a hitch.  A lot of that has to do with Tito.  Now that the revolving door for manager has closed, it’s time to seal the one at shortstop, too.

Theo Epstein: A

The man is a genius.  In Theo we trust, and he always comes through.  He’s made two major mistakes that I can recall: Eric Gagne and Julio Lugo, and so far that’s been it.  And even those weren’t that bad in the long run.  He went after bargain pitchers this offseason, and it paid off; we have one of the best rotations and definitely the best bullpen in the game.  All we need to do is work on hitting for the long-term and we’ll be all set.  Theo Epstein is someone Red Sox Nation and I can trust to do that.

The Boston Red Sox Overall: B+

We’re heading into August and we are poised to go on a tear.  The postseason is approaching.  Expect us to win it all.  We have what has to be the deepest team in Major League Baseball.  We have hitting.  We have pitching.  We have fielding.  We have the wherewithal to bring another World Series trophy to the city of Boston.  And we will.  Because we can.

Boston Globe Staf/Jim Davis

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The losing streak is over.  Done.  Finished.  Snapped like the Yankees’ first-place lead will be in a matter of days.  That was exactly what we needed at exactly the right time.  The only thing that would’ve made it better was a Yankees loss, but I’d rather the standings don’t change than they change but in the wrong direction.

I want everybody who called for a trade of Brad Penny to consider this proof that so would’ve been a huge mistake.  I think we can safely say that one thing we’ve learned from our experiences this season is that you can never have too much pitching.  After Theo worked his magic in the offseason, people started dreaming about a six-man rotation.  Clearly that did not happen.  Beckett and Lester are right where they should be, now at least, but Wakefield is on the DL, Smoltz’s return to form is progressing exceptionally slowly (I know, I know, the goal is to peak late), and Dice-K is redoing all of the Spring Training he missed by pitching for Japan in the World Baseball Classic.  So we’ve added Clay Buchholz to the rotation and kept Penny.  And clearly that paid off.

Penny got the win last night, improving to seven and four with a 4.71 ERA, which is still deceptively high.  He went six and a third, gave up zero earned runs on five hits (one unearned), didn’t walk anybody, and struck out four.  How’s that for solid? Delcarmen took care of the last two outs in the seventh with one pitch, Okajima controlled through the eighth with ten, and Papelbon racked up save number twenty-five.  Another less-than-beautiful twenty-four-pitch effort.  He had to work himself out of a bases-loaded situation and did so by fanning Luke Scott and Melvin Mora in order.  Why he couldn’t just get the two strikeouts before the bases became loaded is beyond me.  He was doing so well up to this point; he seemed to have largely gotten over his I-forgot-how-to-make-a-save-in-less-than-fifteen-pitches phase.  Maybe this time the sloppiness will prove to be the exception rather than the rule.  But it hasn’t been pretty.    Only seven of his twenty-five saves have been one-two-threes.  A lot of that has to do with the fact that he’s already allowed nineteen walks, which is already twice his total for last season.  That needs to be fixed.  Definitely before October.  Prefereably before September.  But hey, if he figures it out before August, I won’t complain either.

The unearned run scored because Tek made a throwing error.  That does not happen often.  But it’s all good because he hit an RBI single to plate Drew in the fourth.  Ellsbury went two for four with a theft and a textbook forward diving catch in the third.  I’m telling you, you can bat any ball at him at any speed and any angle and make it travel any distance, and not only will he catch it but also he’ll make it look easy.  Pedroia went two for three with a walk and a repeat performance of that play he made to save Buchholz’s no hitter; a dive to the right, springing up, and firing to first for the out.  Ortiz hit, and Bay and Lowell hit and walked.  Lowrie hit a sac fly to bat in Lowell in the fourth, and who but JD Drew finally got a hit.  And he got an RBI in the fifth.  How ’bout that?

Things to be happy about.  We won.  We may be two and a half games behind the Yankees, but it could’ve been three and a half.  Tampa Bay is not close to catching up to us, even if we were planning on staying in second place.  The only two members of the lineup who went hitless were Youk and Lowrie, and Youk walked and scored and Lowrie hit a sac fly to plate somebody, and if that’s our version of hitless, that’s okay with me.  And that means that the seven other members of the lineup did hit.  And two members of the lineup enjoyed multi-hit games.  We went three for eight with runners in scoring position, but that’s a .375 average.  All in all, not a bad way to break the losing streak and not a bad building point for going forward.

We designated Mark Kotsay for assignment to make room for Adam LaRoche.  That’s fair.  When he wasn’t on the DL this season, he was batting .257 with an on-base percentage of .291, slugging percentage of .324, and home run and RBI totals of one and five, respectively.  LaRoche is posting comparable numbers: a .247 batting average, .329 on-base percentage, .441 slugging percentage, and home run and RBI totals of twelve and forty, respectively.  So the one thing that LaRoche has that Kotsay doesn’t have, offensively speaking, is gap power.  When people refer to LaRoche as a left-handed power bat, they mean more that he hits line drives for extra bases than home runs, but with the abysmal state of our offense over the past few games, I’ll take that.

Jeremy Guthrie at Lester, and Gio Gonzalez at Pettitte.  Speaking of the Yankees, did you know that Eric Hinske’s been tearing it up over the last six games? That’s just poor timing if you ask me.  In those six games, he’s got four home runs and six RBIs to go along with a .333 batting average.  Since when does that happen? And why couldn’t he have just done that with us? That right there is just unfair.  Anyway, unfortunately the A’s are nothing to be feared (unless you’re a Twins fan, in which case you support a team that lost to the A’s, 16-1, in one game only to drop a ten-run lead to lose in another).  But neither are the O’s, and if Lester keeps pitching the way he has been, we’ll have this locked.

AP Photo

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