Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Red Sox: Mid-Season Thoughts - Tampa Who?

Well, it's Canada Day - whoo hoo! Am just getting this post done and then off for the day to enjoy our birthday.

What could be more appropriate than navel-gazing about my Red Sox? I dunno. Well, I planned to post this before the Tampa series in anticipation of a W last night - which would have put us back in first place. That's a much better vantage point for reflecting on the season so far, but come to think of it - now that we're 1.5 games out of first - this is a more appropriate place since 2008 has not been the walk in the park we had in 2007.

So, what's different this year? The team's record is about the same as last year at this point, but in 2007, the Yankees were all but buried and we were miles ahead in first. We were 10.5 games ahead of everyone a year ago today! Hmmm.

A few items from last night's loss go a long way to explaining why the Sox have been losing games they should be winning...

- giving up LOTS of walks and runs with 2 outs

- Chris Smith loading the bases in the 8th on 12 pitches - wow

- the Tampa Bay crowd cheering more loudly for the Rays than the Sox - when was the last time that happened?

- Lugo coming up with tying run at 3rd in the 9th with 2 outs - gee, just the guy you want. Actually Sean Casey was going to pinch hit, but the plans changed. To Lugo's credit, he ran the count full, but, well - clutch hitting isn't quite his thing...

- as a team, they continue to struggle on the road - at this time last year, they actually had more road wins than at home

- the offence waiting too late in the game to wake up - yet again, they almost pulled it out in the dying moments, but those get to be long odds when you're playing with a less-than-full lineup

- losing yet another 1 run game - 3rd loss in a row by a run

Overall, though, the Sox are in pretty good shape, but there's more competition this year. They were so-so for interleague play, compared to last year when they were dominant. As usual, they live and die as a team. When they're all hitting, the Sox are the best team in baseball. But there are lots of nights when they look very ordinary and nobody can hit the ball. Lately, they've been sitting quiet until the late innings, but that's not the way to win over a long season.

Anyhow, there are lots of bright spots to build our hopes for repeating upon....

- Dice K seems to be a bona fide top starter. He's been more effective this year, while Beckett has not gotten run support. Their respective records are basically the reverse of last year, where Beckett was pretty much unbeatbable. Dice K seems to have a knack of pitching poorly but not giving up runs, but in the crunch, I'd still go with Beckett.

- Dustin the Destroyah has been the hottest hitter in baseball lately and is finally hitting a great stride - they really need that

- Manny, Youklis and Lowell are all a bit off from last year, but still being very productive, esp without Ortiz

- JD Drew is no longer JD Who - looks like he's gotten himself together and made the adjustments to AL pitching. No doubt he's been the biggest turnaround for the Sox and that's a must-have with Papi being out of service for the foreseeable future.

- the bench is bit deeper this year - a bit like the Celtics - but still could be stronger. Sean Casey is a great addition, for both his bat and glove.

- starting rotation has great balance between experience and youth as well as types of pitchers. They've adapted very well without Schilling, and I don't think he'll be back. I think the starters were more effective as a group last year, but this battery is only going to get better as the young guys mature. I think Lester is for real, but Bucholz and of course Masterson are still a year away.

- Bartolo Colon is another great dark horse move, and he could turn out to be very valuable down the stretch. I would love to see him be switched out into a middle/late inning reliever - that's where the Sox are weakest and could really use his strong arm.

So, what's not to like? A few things...

- Lugo. Did I say Lugo? In case you missed it - Lugo. Why is it when they acquire NL shortstops they bomb here, but then they blossom again on their next teams? Renteria and Cabrera come to mind here. Lugo - I expected more from him - we all did. We can live with a weak bat in this lineup, but not when his defence is this bad. This would be my #1 priority for making a move. They really have no other notable holes in the lineup.

- Timlin - love the guy, but I really think Mike's time is up. He has been completely ineffective and don't see how this will change. Maybe his DL stint is the answer - we'll see. I'd love to see him pitch well again, but am not optimistic.

- Okijama - not so ok dokey. I can't tell if hitters have finally figured him out, or if he's lacking confidence. He's been a real liability lately, allowing almost all his runners to score. That's been costing us games we would have won last year.

- Ellsbury - a great talent, no doubt. Don't think the Sox have ever had a package like this, and he's definitely earning his keep running the bases. Problem is his lack of hitting and getting on base. Like Johnny Damon, his primary value is being the dangerous leadoff hitter. When he gets on base, things happen and the offence really flows from there. I'll still take him over Crisp any day, and of course he'll only improve with time. But for now, he's not being the leadoff guy they need to have those big innings to blow teams out.

- The Captain has got to be a concern. Defensively, Varitek has no peer in baseball, but his bat speed is gone. He will get the occasional clutch hit, but he's now more like a .240 hitter. Together with Lugo and the light-hitting Crisp, this makes for a fairly weak bottom third of the order. He may only have 2 or 3 decent years left, and replacing him has got to be a top concern for Mr. Epstein.

- Manny - his numbers are respectable, and he's finally got the 500 homer monkey off his back. He's not getting the clutch hits, though, and he's striking out more than he used to. And his behavior lately has been odd and worrisome to say the least. Not sure if Papi's absence is putting more pressure on him to be the Man, but I sense that not all is right in Manny Land. Maybe he's thinking too much about his contract???

- Middle/late relief corps has been the team's Achilles Heel without a doubt. Virtually all the games they're losing are unravelling in the 7th and 8th innings. They just don't have a reliable bridge to hold the lead for Papelbon. This was a real strength last year, esp with Oki being so solid in the 8th as a setup for Pap to close out the 9th. They don't have that 1-2 punch this year, and the guys leading up to Oki have been very inconsistent. Guys like Aardsma, Delcarmen, Lopez - they all have struggled. They'll have good runs, but some real crappy runs. Rarely lights-out. So, unless the Sox have a fat lead - which hasn't been the case very much this year - come the 7th inning, all bets are off.

- Papelbon - last year he was The Guy, but this year he's just elite. I still think he's the best, but the Sox have needed to use him more often this year, and that takes its toll. He has been mortal this year, giving up hits and runs where last year this hardly ever happened at all. Am not sure why, but I'd have to say he's a notch or two below 2007. Still very, very good, but not a sure thing, at least so far.

I think I'll stop now. Wakefield pitches tonight - could go either way with him. They would so love to win these next 2 and leave Tampa Bay back in first place, and then head into Yankee Stadium for what could be a crucial series. This road trip is a huge test for the Sox, and the next 6 games will go a long way to setting the stage for the stretch run. If things go well, they'll return home in first place with the Yankees at a safe distance. If the pitching and hitting collapses and there's another Massacre in NY, we could be looking at a 3 horse race by Monday. Nervous? Uh huh. Papi - please get better soon!

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