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The (Rally) Monkey Is Off LAA’s Back

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Red Sox Record for the Week of October 5: 0-3

It took them five tries, but the 2009 ALDS is when the LA Angels of Anaheim finally beat Boston in the postseason. Game 1 was no fun (5-0 loss), nor was Game 2 (4-1 loss), and Game 3 ended in agony (7-6 loss). What more needs to be said?

Angels starting pitchers John Lackey and Jered Weaver out-pitched Jon Lester and Josh Beckett respectively in Games 1 and 2 in Anaheim), combining to go 2-0 and allowing just one run in 14 2/3 innings to a strong and – compared to last year fully – healthy Boston lineup. In his duel with Lackey, Lester knew he couldn’t afford to make one big mistake but in the fifth, that’s exactly what happened when he left one pitch up in the zone to Torii Hunter, who crushed it for a three-run bomb, the only runs he surrendered and the only ones Anaheim would need. It was a solid outing otherwise from the Sox co-ace.

But for the second postseason in a row, Beckett did not pitch like an ace, allowing four runs in 6 2/3 innings in Game 2, with the likes of Bobby Abreu, Maicer Izturis and Erick Aybar doing the bulk of the damage. Unlike 2008, he doesn’t have lingering health issues to blame. He just got beat.

In Game 3 in Boston, the youngster Clay Buchholz, with the season on the line, made his playoff debut and not only pitched better than Lester and Beckett, but out-pitched Anaheim’s Scott Kazmir, allowing two runs to the latter’s five. The Sox offense, led by Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez and J.D. Drew’s two-run shot, finally erupted after two games of relative silence. But an unexpected bullpen collapse by veterans Billy Wagner and Jonathan Papelbon in the eighth and ninth innings cost the Sox the game and eventually the season, as they combined to surrender five runs and blow leads of 5-2 and 6-4 before losing one final time, 7-6.

In a scarily ironic coincidence, the Angels had a 5-2 lead over Boston in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS, but blew the lead, the game by a score of 7-6 and eventually the series in seven games.

The Angels bullpen, despite its relative lack of playoff experience compared to Boston’s was just as dominant as its starters and out-performed Boston’s. Once forgotten veteran reliever Darren Oliver and the younger Kevin Jepsen were both outstanding for the Angels, with Oliver in particular pitching 2.1 scoreless innings in the three games he appeared in while earning a win and a hold to boot. Closer Brian Fuentes was nearly untouchable in his 2 1/3 innings, earning two saves, no hits, and one walk in his two save opportunities.

Shipping Papelbon Out of Boston? Not so Fast

Papelbon, who was 38 for 41 in save opportunities in 2009’s regular season, had his worst career outing – postseason or regular – Sunday, and he’ll be losing sleep over it for a long time. It happens to the best of them. Remember that all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman (591 saves) cost his former team San Diego a postseason berth by blowing saves in two of the last three 2007 regular season games, which forced a one-game playoff between San Diego and Colorado that Colorado won. San Diego forgave him.

Mariano Rivera is truly in a class by himself but remember he too blew saves that gave the 2001 World Series to Arizona and the 2004 AL championship to Boston. Yankees fans, looking at the four World Series rings he earned before then, forgave him as well.

Pap too should be given a break by Boston fans, as he has been one of the best closers in the game over the last four years, posting a 1.84 ERA for his career, over 150 saves and a 1.00 ERA in the postseason in 27 innings. He’s been pivotal and nearly flawless in Boston’s last three postseasons, including its championship run in 2007.

In fact, from the 2005 postseason through Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS he impressively held opponents scoreless in 26 career innings. Only on Sunday in inning 27 did that Orel Hershiser-esque streak (for a closer) come to an end via the bats of Bobby Abreu, Vladimir Guerrero and other Angels.

Papelbon will continue as Sox closer for at least the next two full years, depending on whether or not contract extension talks succeed in the off-season since he is not a free agent until after the 2011 season. If they don’t, he’ll be happy to collect millions in arbitration cases over the next couple of years like he did for 2009 when he got over $6 million, a record for a first time eligible pitcher. Until then, ignore the nonsensical predictions that Pap will be a Yankee in 2010, that Bard will close next year and instead stay used to seeing Pap close games in Boston for the foreseeable future. After 2011, all bets are off.

Red Sox 2009 Season: Success or Failure?

Success. The Red Sox won 95 games yet again under GM Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona, despite the revolving door of pitchers this year (at least 26) and an ultra competitive AL East division featuring the Yankees, the machine known as Roy Halladay and the defending 2008 AL champion Rays of Tampa Bay. While some players regressed or had mixed results (Josh Beckett, Jason Varitek, Manny Delcarmen, Tim Wakefield, Dice-K, and David Ortiz), many others remained consistent (Hideki Okajima, Sox savior and my pick for team MVP Victor Martinez, Jon Lester, Kevin Youkilis, Mike Lowell, and Dustin Pedroia) or raised their game to new levels (Jacoby Ellsbury, AL MVP candidate Jason Bay, and Clay Buchholz).

Player Developments

Two young right-handers truly excelled quicker than expected in 2009 and became crucial players in Boston’s playoff run: starter Clay Buchholz and 100-mph fireballer Daniel Bard. After a lousy 2008, Buchholz matured as a pitcher and dominated the minors early in 2009 but didn’t get the chance to pitch again for Boston until the second half when Wakefield hit the DL. And once there, he stayed for good. The young righty went 7-4 in 16 starts, kept his ERA under 4.00 for most of them and as a result, Terry Francona rewarded him with a playoff start (over Dice-K) and he succeeded, even if the team did not.

Bard (2-2, 3.65 ERA) too had a commendable debut regular season, punching out 63 batters in 49 innings. In the sixth inning of Game 3 of the ALDS, he fearlessly got Buchholz out of his bases loaded and no outs trouble by allowing only one of those inherited runners to score via a Juan Rivera DP to make it a 5-2 game. Sox fans should be excited to see more of these two highly touted young arms next year.

Speaking of exciting, perhaps no player on the Sox is more fun to watch nor more important as a table setter for the Sox offense than Jacoby Ellsbury. Though his OBP and walk totals weren’t where Francona wanted them for a leadoff hitter early on, by the end of the season he not only got his OBP above .350 for good but became a .300 hitter and permanent leadoff hitter. Oh, and the exciting part? His gold glove caliber defense and 70 SBs in ’09 (including home plate on Andy Pettitte in May), a new club record. Now if he can add more power to his repertoire in 2010, he could be the next Johnny Damon.

Player News

38-year-old veteran Billy Wagner (385 career saves), knowing Boston will not pick up his services next year has a big decision to make: retire or close again for another team for a chance to join the elite 400-save club. According to the New York Post yesterday, he is considering calling it a career but will talk with his agent (Bean Stringfellow) and family first. Consequently, the BoSox will be left with only one veteran lefty reliever, Hideki Okajima. They will surely need a second one for 2010 and beyond in order to sure up the bullpen.

In a bit of good news, Tim Wakefield (11-5) will have surgery to take care of a “loose fragment” in his lower back that has bothered him since July and caused weakness in his left leg. He will be ready for Spring Training next year and by then, as long as there are no complications, GM Theo Epstein will likely have picked up a $4 million option on Wake, just as he’s done in the previous three years.

Note: Dead Red columns will no longer be weekly but instead be intermittent throughout the off-season. They should start up again during next month’s free agency period – or when there’s news regarding Jason Bay’s future in Boston. Til then, enjoy the rest of the postseason!

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About Charlie Doherty

Copy editor/content writer for Penn Multimedia; print/web journalist/freelancer, formerly for Boston Examiner, EMSI, Demand Media, Brookline TAB, Suite 101 and Helium.com; co-head sports editor & asst. music editor at Blogcritics Magazine; Media Nation independent newspaper staff writer, printed/published by the Boston Globe at 2004 DNC (Boston, MA); Featured in Guitar World May 2014. See me on twitter.com/chucko33, myspace.com/charlied, & Facebook.
  • Tony

    Nice to see things back to normal. The Yankees finish 8 games ahead of Boston, the Red Sox big players falling apart in the most important situations, and Papelbon with that stupid little scowl on his face.

    Every time they showed him with those pursed little lips, glaring in like a parody of Dave Stewart, I just kept thinking about him telling the world about how he, no Rivera, should be closing the All Star game.

    In Beckett’s defense didn’t have like five cortizone shots in his back before the series started?

  • Tony

    By the way Charlie, you’ve done an excellent job with this column all season. Most Red Sox fans are so insufferable arrogant and annoying but you are none of these things. Really great work.

    I don’t know what a compliment from me really means, but its given none the less.

  • Charlie Doherty

    First of all, I’ll take compliments where I can. Second, I truly do appreciate your kind words and compliments Tony. Being a die-hard Yankee fan, you don’t have to read a die-hard Red Sox fan’s column like mine but you do.

    If I’m writing well enough that Yankee fans care to read my material, I must be doing something right.

    So cheers to you, Tony (but not the Yankees, whom I’d love to see lose their third World Series of the decade :)

    And to those of you out there who have read DEAD RED over the last 4 1/2 months, thanks to you as well.