In this, the second installment of my brand new Red Sox column, you’ll find the latest on John Smoltz’s expected Sox debut as well as my take on the dicey Dice-K situation, how the Sox upped their AL East lead over New York, and the low down on infielder Nick Green’s unexpected overnight success.
Red Sox record for the Week of June 15: 4-2.
Picking up where I left off last week, it’s now official that John Smoltz will indeed make his Red Sox debut on the road against an NL East foe, the Washington Nationals on Thursday. Who will be bumped off the roster to make room has yet to be decided, but the just called up Triple-A catcher Dusty Brown is the likely candidate to head back down to the minors since he just took Dice-K’s spot on the 25-man roster. More on that later.
Although the Nats have terrible pitching, they’re a decent hitting team, so Smoltz, who hasn’t exactly been lights out in his minor league rehab starts, shouldn’t be expected to pitch much beyond five innings, let alone a shutout, just yet.
Speaking of shutouts, Josh Beckett, believe it or not, pitched only his third career shutout and first as a Red Sock Saturday night in a 3-0 pitching duel against Atlanta and former Sox playoff hero Derek Lowe, who got a standing-O from the classy Fenway faithful for his performance of three runs over 6+ innings.
On the past week as a whole, the Sox, behind continued solid starting pitching and timely offense (especially from Nick Green on Sunday), won both series they played in, going 2-1 against both Florida and Atlanta. Meanwhile, a “tired” A-Rod and the New York Yankees went 1-2 against mediocre Washington and Florida each in mostly close and relatively low-scoring games. The Sox thus picked up two games on their arch-rivals and now hold a season-high four-game lead over them going into Tuesday.
But not all is well in Red Sox land, as Daisuke Matsuzaka continued to struggle last Friday night vs. the Braves, showing poor location of his fastball and giving up six runs in just four innings of work. Terry Francona can blame the WBC all he wants for his struggles, but Dice-K has insisted as recently as two weekends ago in Philly he is healthy. An MRI over this past weekend revealed no “structural damage” to his right pitching arm. And now he’s on the 15-day DL and not expected back for at least a few weeks? What’s going on here?
Dice-K apparently has some unspecified “weakness” in his arm or shoulder, and according to pitching coach John Farrell he will soon go on a program to strengthen it. I think Dice-K himself realized he just didn’t have it this year – no quality starts in 2009 – and had to find a way out. After talking with Francona, this was it and quite frankly, it’s a “weak” reason to shut him down, since he’s not really injured. But I welcome it. The best news that his (second) DL stint ends talk of trading Brad Penny out of town (at least for now) or sending down a young bullpen arm like Daniel Bard to make room for Smoltz, who will practically replace Dice-K in the rotation for the time being.
Nick Green, who is on his fifth team in his fifth season in the majors, has never been an everyday player and before this season, never started more than 10 games at shortstop, having spent a majority of his career at second base. But with Julio Lugo not getting the job done defensively at short and Jed Lowrie still rehabbing from his early season wrist injury, Green’s versatility came into good use and he has taken full advantage of it.
Defensively, Green has so far started in a career-high 41 games at short in 2009 and though he’s made nine errors there, most came early on and he has since become a reliable infielder – no errors in his few games at second or third base as well.
Offensively, Green has surprisingly been a solid bat in the nine spot for much of the year, batting .293 through June 21. And his production has steadily increased as the season has gone on. After hitting .275 with seven RBIs in April, this career .250 hitter batted .321 for the month of May, knocking in eight runs, while with eight days to go in June, he’s already driven in 10 runs — including Sunday’s game-winning homer against one of his former teams, the Atlanta Braves, in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Nick Green has been so hot at the plate of late that as of today, his .459 SLG is three points better than A-Rod’s. And though no one would say he’s an MVP candidate — that would go to Jason Bay — in the 44 games he has started, the Sox have a 31-13 record. With a record like that, one could say Nick Green is on his way to becoming the next Alex Cora, who also was steady at multiple infield positions and a solid contact hitter. But it’s much too early to give him that title.
Terry Francona will have some interesting decisions to make when Lowrie finally returns from the DL. Between Lugo, Green and Lowrie, who stays and who goes? And when Dice-K returns, the same question can be asked of Smoltz and Penny.
With the Sox owning one of the best records in baseball as of now, there is no rush to permanently settle issues at shortstop or in the starting rotation. And with Big Papi hitting five HRs in June and batting over .300 for the month, worries about him and the DH spot are starting to subside as well.
But Sox fans, don’t count on a smooth ride to the AL East title just yet. With 93 games to go in the Red Sox regular season, the rollercoaster carts are just now getting warmed up.