In a recent interview in a Japanese magazine, Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka admitted to hiding a leg injury from the Red Sox prior to last year’s World Baseball Classic. That leg injury ended up being responsible for changing Matsuzaka’s mechanics and essentially costing him most of last season.
While the idea that a pitcher they have made a huge financial investment in hid a significant injury is sure to bristle the Sox brass, I doubt this new revelation will damage the relationship between the front office and their Japanese import. That’s because their relationship hit a low point last summer, when Daisuke complained about the Sox, while the Sox questioned Daisuke’s work ethic. Once the relationship bottomed out, it seemed to then get better, with Daisuke apologizing for his remarks and then adopting the Sox training regime. When he returned at the end of the season, he was the best Daisuke Sox fans have seen.
And that’s a point that gets overlooked as we prepare for the 2010 season. Ten months from now, we might look back and say the most important acquisition for the 2010 Red Sox was the addition of . . . Daisuke Matsuzaka.
During his first two full seasons, Matsuzaka was good, but he was never the dominant pitcher Sox fans expected him to be. He had great stuff, but he nibbled too much around the corners, walked to many hitters, and always seemed to have the one-inning implosion. Then, after his terrible start to last season and his lost summer, Daisuke and the Sox finally seemed to get on the same page. And when he returned, he dominated major league hitters like never before. He was finally the Daisuke Matsuzaka Sox fans expected when we signed him.
And then the Sox got swept out of the playoffs. Season over.
As Sox fans reflect on last season, it is hard to see through the glare of the team’s disappointing playoff performance, offensive ineptitude, and Daisuke’s own injury-plagued season to remember just how good he was down the stretch.
Should Daisuke be able to carry that performance over to the 2010 season, the Sox will have a rotation for the ages.
Is it me, or are the clouds beginning to break?
I don’t want to do this. After the way this rollercoaster season has gone, after all the streaks of joy followed by streaks of gut-wrenching disappointment, my brain warns not to get too invested in this team again. But my heart . . .
The fact is, however you want to slice it, as we stand here today things are starting to look mighty good for these Boston Red Sox. After most of us wrote off his 2009 season as a bust (and many wrote him off all-together), Daisuke Matsuzaka last night turned in the most dominant performance of his Red Sox career . . . and against the team Boston will face to start October. That was the Daisuke we had expected to come to Boston a few years ago (minus a 96-mph fastball, which looks like it will never come). And it’s a performance that comes at a time when Boston’s ace – Josh Beckett – looks like he’s starting to gets his legs under him again, and two other pitchers – Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz – are now pitching like aces. I know it’s just one start, but if the Daisuke we get the rest of the year is anything close to the one we saw last night, a rotation with that guy, Beckett, Lester and Buchholz will be untouchable.
These Sox have now won 6 in a row, and they’ve put 5 1/2 games between them and the Rangers now, all but wrapping up the Wild Card with last night’s win. Meanwhile, Papi is doing his best to make us all believe that he really is Papi again. And, with the addition of Wagner, the Sox now have superior arms to close out opponents for the last three innings of the game. In fact, as Tito makes out his playoff roster, his biggest challenge will be squeezing all that bullpen talent onto the team. Some will be left off, but it’s a nice problem to have.
The bottom line is, as we wake up this morning, the Boston Red Sox all of a sudden look like the best team in all of baseball again. And, being the middle of September, they got here just in time.
Step away from the ledge, Red Sox fans. It is April 15. I know the Sox are 2 and 6, and Papi and co. are struggling. But take a deep breath and consider these points:
- Two Aprils ago, people wanted to ship Pedroia back to Pawtucket.
- Two Aprils ago, people thought J.D. Drew was the second-coming of Carl Yastremski.
- Nine Aprils ago it looked like Carl Everett was the next Ken Griffey Jr.
- Nine Aprils ago we thought Wilton Veras was the Sox thirdbaseman of the future. Remember him?
- During their 86-year championship drought, how many April championships did the Red Sox win? Lots.
Sure, all 162 games mean the same. But if the Sox went through this same stretch in June or July, nobody would be too concerned. Every year, fans magnify the importance of what happens in April, and by Memorial Day people don’t even remember what happened in April. This is a good Sox team with a ton of depth. So talk to me come Memorial Day.
Meanwhile, Daisuke’s health woes have to be cause for concern. But this is where the depth of the Sox could play a huge role in their success this season. If he needs to be out for any length of time, the Sox can turn to Clay Bucholz, who looked like a world-beater this Spring. They also have Michael Bowden in the minors, and, if things get bad, their bullpen is so good they could slide Justin Masterson into the rotation without missing a beat.
BTW, the Beckett suspension is bogus.
Let’s face it: The Sox were banged up, and the Devil Rays were the better team. They’re probably going to win the World Series. Just freakin’ wonderful. I’m not in a good place right now. Let’s stop talking about it.
Anyway . . . . . on a positive note, once we get past this bothersome World Series, we get to embark on one of the most exciting times of the year — the Hot Stove Season. It’s the kind of thing blogging was invented for. So, let’s just get beyond this thing we’re not talking about and move forward. Let’s see what Boston’s current weaknesses are and what we can hope to expect from this Hot Stove Season.
Papi’s Wrist — There’s no offseason solution to this. All we can do is hope and pray that Papi’s wrist is better by next season and he becomes the hitting terror he once was. But the cold hard truth here is wrist injuries are scary things for hitters. There was once a future-Hall-of-Famer named Nomar Garciaparra who won a batting title with the highest average for a right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio. Then Nomar was hit by a pitch and messed up his wrist. Goodbye Hall of Fame title; Hello title of Mr. Mia Hamm.
Jacoby Ellsbury — This is another one of those wait-and-see situations. Luckily, Ellsbury’s offensive struggles this year stemmed from his youth instead of any injury. We know he can play. And we know young players do struggle at times. Eventually, Ellsbury will be fine.
Jason Varitek — Whether the Sox resign him or he leaves in free agency, the team needs to find his replacement now (actually, I believe I said last year at this time the time was last offseason). Even if he stays, his best days are far behind him. And his performance is only going to get worse in the coming years. He is a great catcher, but the he-calls-a-great-game thing only works if he’s hitting +.240 . . . not .220.
Mike Lowell — I will likely catch some serious hate here. I love Mike Lowell as much as anybody. And, sure, everybody gets injured and he’ll probably come back at 100 percent next season and have a great year. But all the more reason to trade him. Lowell has had a great run in Boston, but he’s not a guy you can bank on year in and year out; over his whole career he has had his up’s and down’s. Fact is, he’s not getting any younger, and you can expect more common injuries and declining production the next few seasons. The good thing is Lowell has trade value. He has put up great numbers the past few years, he has two years remaining on his contract, and his salary is manageable. And Theo has long coveted the idea of a power-hitting first-baseman. Which leads us to . . .
Sign Mark Texeira — Texeira is a young, switch-hitting, power-hitting first baseman who could be a huge addition to a questionable Sox offense. Of course, in this situation you deal away Lowell. Sure it hurts, but imagine a lineup with Pedroia, Ortiz, Texeira, Youk, Bay and Drew as your 2-7 hitters. October 2009, here we come. The only question is how insane the Yankees will go this year. They have money coming off the books too, and a Wall-Streetesque situation of the rich getting richer with huge dollars coming in next season from their new ballpark, they could put up insane money to sign every free agent they want. Let’s hope they exercise some sanity.
Trade for Saltalamacchia — The Rangers have too many good, young catchers and need to deal. The Red Sox have the need for a catcher and the goods to offer. Salty has been one of the most highly-touted prospects in recent years. And although he has struggled somewhat at the big-league level, he is still extremely young, and those struggles might just have brought his value down enough to secure a deal. By the same token, thankfully Coco Crisp’s performance in the second-half and October may have upped his value where teams may be interested in grabbing him and a prospect.
Trade for Peavy — Yeah, I know. We have a boatload of starting pitching. We have Lester, Beckett, Matsuzaka . . . and then a lot of questions. Schilling won’t be back. Wakefield is too much of a wildcard to depend on at this point. And you can never . . . NEVER . . . depend on unproven youngsters to fill out your rotation (ask the Yanks how Hughes, Kennedy and Joba carried them this year). This offseason, let the Yankees throw boatloads of cash at C.C., D-Lowe and Burnett. I’ll take dealing some of our young arms to the Padres for Peavy. If you hate dealing prospects, remember you never know how they’ll turn out. Wasn’t Casey Fossum going to be the next Tom Glavine?
Sing with me now: It’s the mooost wonderful tiiiiime of the year . . .
Welcome to October — a time of year when the leaves change color, the air is crisp, the beer is amber and baseball is at its best. Starting Wednesday, we get to enjoy games carrying the weight of the baseball world from mid-afternoon right on through midnight. Get ready to do nothing but live, breath, drink and eat baseball for the next month.
In the American League, we have our beloved defending world champion Boston Red Sox playing ball along with three soulless franchises. Thankfully, the National League will make for hours of great viewing, with three bigtime franchises in Philly, the Dodgers and the Hated Cubs, plus the new kids on the block, my own favorite National League team (not named the Pirates), the Milwaukee Brewers.
As we gear up to enjoy the playoffs, let’s take a look at what may lie in store in the coming weeks, starting with the American League:
Chicago White Sox/Minnesota Twins Let’s face it, it doesn’t matter which of these teams make it in. They’ll be completely outmatched by the other A.L. teams. Both are good teams. And the Twins are an amazing story this year — contending for the division title in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Ron Gardenhire deserves manager of the year (although Tampa’s Madden will get it). But neither team has the goods to compete with the Angels, Sox or Rays.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays Well, they did not fade. In fact, when they had every opportunity to cave in facing a tough stretch in September, they stepped up. Consider that, then take a look at their talented pitching staff and you’d be a fool not to take them seriously in the playoffs. Sure, they could make a run. I fully expect them to take the Minnesota White Sox in four games, and then face a bruised opponent in whoever takes the difficult Red Sox-Angels series. So that would bode well for Tampa. However, with this team I can’t help but get that feeling that they are like the 2001 Seattle Mariners . . . the 116-win Mariners who wilted in the playoffs. A team – albeit talented team — that overachieved in the regular season and disappointed at crunch time. Expect them to take the opening series, then lose the ALCS in six.
Boston Red Sox and Anaheim Angels This projects to be one explosive opening series. Both of these teams are absolutely stacked. And forget about their October history; these Angels are far better than the 2004 or 2007 versions. The Angels absolutely man-handled the Sox during the regular season. But getting the Halos in the opening series might work to Boston’s advantage. The Angels have essentially been on cruise control since August 1, so there’s always the possibility they could open the series flat. (Remember the highly-favored Tigers who sat a week prior to the 2006 World Series?) Also, the Wednesday/Friday/Sunday schedule for the series’ first three games mean the Sox could throw Beckett and Lester twice should the series go five games. And then there’s The Enigma: Daisuke Matsuzaka, a man who can make an 18-2 record and a sub-3.00 ERA look uglier than anybody else. Still, that’s one heck of a Number Three. Yet over in California, the Angels have an immensely deep rotation with guys like Lackey, Saunders, Santana and Weaver. With Texeira and Hunter they have a lot more thunder in their lineup than in previous years . . . and, oh yeah, that K-Rod guy just saved 60 games. If you think you can pick a winner in this series, good luck to you. But you can bet whoever does take it is the odds-on favorite to win it all.
- One Red Sox win or Yankee loss away from punching our ticket to October, and I can’t help but have mixed feelings about what lies ahead. In 2007, while realizing the Indians and Yankees could both pose a threat, almost everyone in Sox Nation believed the Sox at least had the better team going into the playoffs. In 2004, while we had 86 years of disappointing history and the Yankee aura to overcome, Sox fans believed we had a team that was equal to — if not superior to — the Yanks. But this year is different. On paper, you have to like how the Sox match-up with anyone. With Daisuke as the Number Three starter behind Lester and Beckett, they have deep starting pitching. Their bullpen is flawed, but can still match-up with anyone else’s. And they have a deep lineup. But both Anaheim and Tampa Bay manhandled the Sox this season. And if that doesn’t worry you, their sub-.500 record on the road and their likely spot as the Wild Card team should. Getting to the World Series through Anaheim and Tampa Bay is going to be a tough road.
- Bud Selig must be thanking his stars the Sox are in the playoffs instead of the Twins. Imagine an AL playoffs with the contraction-candidate Twins, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and their total of 15,000 fans, the Anaheim Angels of Los Angeles in California and Anywhere Else They Might Be Able To Scrape Together Some Fans (a franchise who didn’t have more than a dozen fans prior to 2002), and the Chicago White Sox, who when they won the Series in 2005 had “thousands” of fans turn out to see the parade (as opposed to “millions”). Who would MLB get for sponsors? Pete’s Tire Barn Discount Outlet?
- While people complained about the final game at Yankee Stadium happening now instead of the end of the season, I think it worked out well. That way people were able to focus on the event, which it deserved. If it was the final game of the season, it would have likely been overshadowed by playoff races.
I was lucky enough . . . then unlucky enough . . . then very lucky enough . . . then finally unlucky enough to attend last night’s game at Fenway.
At first, it was THE game to be at. The red hot Red Sox had pulled within a half-game of the struggling Devil Rays and were poised to reclaim first place. I couldn’t wait to see the Sox place “Boston” ahead of “Tampa Bay” atop the AL East standings on the Green Monster at the end of the night.
Of course, each time I’m at Fenway these days, it just reminds me that I think they should tear it down – cramped aisles, terrible sightlines, obstructed views, and bands of roving drunks taking pictures of the field, chatting on their cell phones, and talking about what they did over the weekend with their backs to the field like there isn’t a game in progress involving your favorite team with the fate of the AL East Championship hanging in the balance. And if that wasn’t bad enough, then Daisuke took the mound.
I don’t know how he does it. I don’t know how a guy with his kind of stuff can suddenly be unable to find the plate. And I have no idea how he can make 16 and 2 look so bad. All night long he threw first-pitch (and often second-pitch) balls, was consistently behind to batters, and walked sub-.250 hitters on four pitches. Being that he is now facing major league hitters instead of Japanese league hitters, I could live with him being less than dominant if he was getting hit. But these are walks. Did he have such horrible control problems in Japan? If so, he never would have been so dominant there. I just can’t figure him out, and it is frustrating as can be. Last night, he looked like was behind consistently, often had runners on, and spent the whole night tip-toeing on the edge of disaster. That being said, we felt pretty good when somehow — SOMEHOW — he managed to slip out of jams and keep the Rays to three runs. They should have had eight runs. And as my brother and I kept saying, you just had the feeling that if the Sox kept it close, they could pull it out.
And that’s when Jason Bay launched his shot into the Monster Seats. The place went nuts. We screamed and yelled like animals. We cheered Bay into Mike Lowell’s at bat, forcing the bashful Bay to quickly step out of the dugout and acknowledge the fans. (Great moment: while everyone waited and waited for Bay, Big Papi at one piont jumped out of the dugout with his hands raised to steal some praise. Hilarious.) Heading into the bottom of the ninth, we continued screaming like it was Game 7 of the ALCS. The stadium gave Bay a Standing O as he came out to left field. We then screamed and yelled when Papelbon came in to shut the door. And then . . .
And then Dan Johnson crushed a Pap fastball. And suddenly Pap wasn’t fooling anyone. Hard to figure out what happened. He seemed fine; was throwing 97 mph. But these nights will happen to every closer. And with first place so close that we could smell it, the game slipped away, and we were left shaking our heads and wondering what the hell just happened.
I doubt it is a season-changing game. The Sox win tonight and everyone is excited again. If not, there is still plenty of baseball left to be played. The Sox have been hot, are in good shape, and should continue to march toward first. The loss shouldn’t crush them. But the win could impact the Rays. Struggling mightily lately, they may have been starting to doubt their own legitimacy. Now, with defeat staring them down, they managed to claw and fight and snatch a win away from the game’s best closer and baseball’s defending world champions. You could see their excitement on the field after the game. This may bave been what they needed.