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.
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?
I am so confused. Three days ago the Red Sox weren’t just losing, they were disappearing . . . completely disintegrating before our very eyes. Their offense had long ago left town, and their starting pitching was a train wreck.
And then, just as I told my wife I had given up and was going to bed, they reappeared like the resurrected ghost of the 2007 champions. The Game 5 comeback left me in a volatile state of ever-changing emotions — one minute I was living in the euphoria of the greatest comeback in ALCS history; the next I was enduring the horror of accepting I turned down tickets to that game; and then there was the grief, understanding that while the comeback was fun, it was one game and the chances of coming back from another 3-1 deficit were slim, especially considering we had The Shadow of Josh Beckett going up against James Shields in Game 6.
But the Sox kept plugging along. Beckett — who is at best 80 percent of himself — stepped up like injured Pedro against the Indians in the 1999 ALDS and He Of The Bloody Sock in the 2004 ALCS. He gutted out five innings, our bullpen stepped up, and we managed to score with some clutch hits (although with all the men we left on base, I never felt good about our chances until the game was over).
And now we somehow — SOMEHOW — find ourselves in Game 7, with Jon Lester facing the emotional Matt Garza, and all the pressure of a monumental collapse hanging over the head of the young Devil Rays. And again the Sox have sucked me back in. They have got me staring at another late night, apologizing to my wife in advance for the screaming and cussing I will do in both good and bad spots, and thinking that maybe, just maybe, they can somehow do it again.
ON THE ALCS VERSUS THE RAYS:
Get ready for some serious hate on the Sox. Get ready for them to be painted as the big, evil Goliaths — the New Yankees — by Sportscenter himbos. Get ready to hear the audible disdain for the Sox by Fox broadcasters as they get excited and root-on every Tampa run. Get ready to be overrun by news articles about those spunky Rays, those underdog kids from Tampa (maybe more coverage than the prez race . . . at least the issues). And get ready for the rest of the country to root against your team.
And, unfortunately, get ready for a long, difficult series, because these Devil Rays — even though they have no fans, even though they play in a tomb, even though they’re managed by a nitwit, even though they are a bunch of dinks who gang-up three-on-one and throw haymakers at a guy who is already pinned down (luckily they punch like flowers), and even though they have cheerleaders (yes, cheerleaders in baseball) who hop on top of the dugout when they hit a home run — are a good team.
All the pressure is on the Sox. And the Rays have all the advantage of being the underdog. I like our pitching, but our offense needs to start driving in runs.
ON BEATING THE ANGELS
I’m going to resist pointing out that I was at last night’s Red Sox game, that they are 5-0 in playoff games I attend, or asserting that their success has something to do with me (which seems pretty obvious). Instead, let’s actually talk about the game.
What an amazingly painful and wonderful rollercoaster ride of a game to be at. We got to appreciate seven shutout innings from Jon Lester. But, just when it looked like the Sox had it won, our anemic offense combined with a few walks and a wild pitch to make it look like we were on our way back to Los Angeles (or Anaheim?) to face certain series defeat. And when the Angels got a runner to third with just one out in the top of the ninth, the dread in Fenway was palpable.
I don’t know what Mike Scoscia was thinking calling a squeeze. I can appreciate aggressive baserunning. But when you have a runner on third with just one out, and you are staring playoff elimination in the face, you take the chance that your next batter will hit a sac fly, or one of your next two batters will get a base hit; You don’t take a big gamble with a squeeze . . . otherwise chances are you lose big. Gamble like that in July, not in October, in the ninth, facing elimination.
Given that we were looking at almost certain defeat, the volume at Fenway when we won it in the bottom of the ninth was explosive. The reaction was reminiscent of when Trot Nixon hit a walk-off to beat the Athetics in Game 3 of the 2003 ALDS. High-fiving and hugging the strangers who surround you — equally passionate and insane fans — make you appreciate being a Boston fan instead of what they call fandom in places like Anaheim (or LA?) or Tampa.
ON OUR OFFENSE AND PAPI:
You have to expect our offense will come alive at some point. Pedroia and Ortiz will start to hit. And Varitek has to do something big at some point. He will. But, if they don’t . . .
I love Ortiz as much as anyone. But he looks terrible at the plate right now. He’s a shell of himself right now, and he is almost an automatic out in that three-hole. Give him two games to snap out of it. But, if not, Francona should maybe entertain moving him down (although there is no way — NO WAY — he will). The Sox have a deep lineup. And Youk, Drew and Bay are hitting well. A combo of those three in the 3-4-5 spot is mighty good, and, behind Ellsbury and Pedroia, would likely produce more runs than having an almost automatic out in Ortiz.
I know this is dangerous territory. I know this is close to herecy. Ortiz is my favorite Sox of all-time. I was there at Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. He’s the greatest clutch hitter of all-time, bar none. He should never be booed, no matter what. And, no matter what happens from here on out, his number should be retired. But we’re trying to win a championship. And, by Ortiz’s own admission, he’s not himself. Hopefully he goes 2-for-4 with a double (or maybe a HR) in Game 1, and this talk goes out the window. But, right now, he looks bad . . . and, as a result, the Sox offense looks bad. They need to be better, or Tampa is going to the World Series (a sure sign of the apocalypse).
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 have tix for tomorrow night’s game against Kansas City. I originally thought we’d be seeing Jon Lester pitch, and I whined about it to everyone. I did not want to see him (even though he’s on my fantasy team). He is too frustrating: walks too many, doesn’t make it out of the fifth, we should’ve traded him, etc. . . . . . Oh how I now wish I’d seen Jon Lester pitch.
- How good a catcher is Jason Varitek? He’s now caught four no-hitters — more than any other catcher in history. It was with four different pitchers — Hideo Nomo, Derek Lowe, and the kids Clay Bucholz and Jon Lester. Not a Nolan Ryan in the bunch. And, consider the times Pedro and Schilling each took no-no’s into the ninth. The greatness of a catcher goes way beyond offensive numbers, and when ranking great catchers their whole game needs to be considered, including how good they are at managing a pitching staff and calling a game. Jason Varitek is a great catcher.
- You could just see the stress on Jon Lester’s face in the ninth inning.
- Back to Lester being on my fantasy team. Walks, hits, fat pitch counts. This guy has been a frustrating mess this season. I had him benched for two games recently. I even tried to trade him three days ago. If I had benched him tonight, I’d be playing in highway traffic right now. And my asking price for Lester just went way, way up. (Of course, his stock just went way up, and maybe this is the perfect time for me to trade him. Something to ponder.)
- I was so sweating that last out — with a man on third, a base hit could have robbed my fantasy team of a no-hitter, shutout and complete game. But it all worked out and I’m now right on the heels of my evil brother. I know my fantasy team shouldn’t matter so much . . . . but it does.
- You have to be at least a little concerned about the wear and tear on Lester’s arm tonight. So many times we’ve seen pitchers throw no-hitters, or near no-hitters, only to go on to struggle or hit the DL soon after. It can take a terrible toll on a pitcher’s arm, and with Lester throwing 130 pitches tonight, it is rather scary. But damn, how exciting.
- Seeing how excited everyone on the Sox were for Lester — especially Francona’s really nice embrace afterward — just has to make you really like this team. Does anybody get more excited about this stuff than Big Papi? It’s just a good team that you can really root for . . . a nice change from the Mike Lansings, Mike Greenwells, Jose Cansecos and Jose Offermans of the past.
- Why I love my wife: While watching a highlight of Jacoby Ellsbury’s no-no saving catch, my wife says “You make catches like that all the time, babe.” Sure, it’s for a beer-league co-ed softball team instead of the major leagues . . . just details.