Playoff Clinching Fever
Last Monday, September 14, the Boston Red Sox could still see its AL Wild Card competitor the Texas Rangers in its rear view mirror. Since then, the Rangers have all but officially disappeared from the Wild Card race and playoff contention altogether. They fell from 4.5 games back of the Sox at the start of last week to 8 through games ending September 20, as a result of losing five of its last six games against Oakland and the LA Angels, whom they trail in the AL West division by 7.5 games.
Going into September 21’s games, the magic number for both Boston and Angels to clinch a playoff spot is 7. And the way the Rangers have been going, with its inconsistent pitching down the stretch and struggling offense without a healthy Michael Young and Josh Hamilton, they may just hand Boston the AL Wild Card spot and the Angels the AL West divisional title by this time next week.
Red Sox Record for the Week of September 14: 5-1
Boy, did the men from Boston pick the right time to put it all together and play its best month of baseball (so far). The Red Sox have won 10 of their last 11 games, 16 of their last 21 and have the second-best record in the big leagues (89-59) behind the New York Yankees (95-55). This hot streak doesn’t mean the Sox, who as of Monday are just four games back of NY in the loss column, now have a realistic shot of winning the AL East this season, of course, though it’s nice to see them put a scare into the once-extremely safe Yankees division lead.
Angels-Red Sox Series: Playoff Preview?
In a possible preview of the ALDS, two heavyweights, the LA Angels and Red Sox met up again last Tuesday through Thursday at Fenway, with the Sox taking two of the three games, the second of which was wild, entertaining, and highly controversial, to say the least. You could argue whether or not Boston’s ninth-inning two-out bases loaded pinch-hitter Nick Green checked his swing (as the umps ruled) or not with two strikes on him. But most Sox fans, Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy included, knew that Brian Fuentes’ 3-2 pitch to Green, called low for ball four to tie the game 8-8, had plenty of the strike zone for the last strike of the game.
Simply put, that September 16 game should have gone to the Angels 8-7. However, between questionable calls, Jason Varitek’s costly pass ball to the backstop on a Ramon Ramirez strikeout of Kendry Morales that should’ve been the third out but which led to a four-run seventh for the Angels, and left fielder Juan Rivera failing to hustle after Alex Gonzalez’s game-winning blooper that won the game 9-8 in the ninth, there were mistakes all-around. It happens. That’s baseball.
Dice-K Is Dynamite In His Return
I mentioned before that between Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka, I had more faith that Wakefield would be the better option for the backend of the Sox starting rotation down the stretch and into the postseason. This past week’s performances by Dice-K and Wake’s unstable health has made me reverse my beliefs.
Dice-K came back from the DL Tuesday, September 15 to pitch his first game since June 19, earn his first win since June 2 and throw a scoreless outing for the first time since September 2008, impressively shutting out the Angels over six innings as part of the Red Sox 4-1 win. His fastball topped out at 93 mph and amazingly, the crafty righty was able to hold the powerhouse Angels lineup to just three hits, while striking out five and walking three, a low number for him. He went on to win his second start of the week Sunday as well and is now 3-5 in 2009. Dice-K is still not totally back to 2008 form (when he won 18 games) but has shown in two starts that his arm strength, pitching location and control are back to satisfactory levels, at least for now.
Starting A Trend
Dice-K’s win on Sunday marked the 13th game in a row where a Sox starter has allowed three earned runs or less. With Wakefield pitching Monday night that streak may or may not come to and end, but the Sox are a remarkable 11-2 in that 13-game stretch and starters themselves are 8-1 in that span. The streak is even more impressive since the Sox starters (especially Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester) reached this feat not against cupcake offenses but versus the Tampa Bay Rays, LA Angels and Baltimore Orioles hitters. The Boston pitching staff altogether has a 2.27 ERA in the last 11 games through Sunday.
Boston Blows Away Baltimore
Speaking of Baltimore, each year, there is perhaps no team Dave Trembley and his Orioles look forward to seeing less than the Red Sox, who have won 9 of the last 10 season series against his team, 2009 included. Boston dominated Baltimore, 16 games to 2 this year, winning the last 8 games against the lowly O’s, including the final three over the weekend at Camden Yards. 1956 is the only other year the O’s ever lost as many as 16 games to Boston in one season. Trembley also likely has nightmares every time he sees Jon Lester, as he is 10-0 vs. Baltimore lifetime with his win Saturday as part of the Sox’s 11-5 rout. Lester, with the win, became the first pitcher to win his first 10 starts against the O’s since they relocated from St. Louis to Baltimore in 1954.
The Sox (Not The Bronx) Bombers
After its 9-3 win, the 16th versus Baltimore on Sunday, the Red Sox, and surprisingly not the Yankees now have the most homers in the majors since July 30: 79. In fact, 23 different Red Sox have homered this season, tying the mark for the most in Sox team history set in 1996. On the current roster, only catcher Dusty Brown and outfielder Joey Gathright have yet to homer for Boston in ’09.
V-Mart, Pedroia And Bay Lead The Way
Coming into Monday night, Victor Martinez has a major league-leading and career-high 19-game hitting streak, during which he is batting .357 and has knocked in 13 runs – so much for concerns upon his Boston arrival that his bat was slowing down. Meanwhile, Dustin Pedroia is second to V-Mart with a season-high 12-game hitting streak of his own. Jason Bay, sick with flu-like symptoms the last few days, hasn’t slowed down much at all, as he hit two homers over the weekend, including Sunday, his 31st birthday. In doing so, Bay tied his career-high in homers with #35 and set a new career high in RBI, with #110.
Big Papi Passes The Big Hurt
The Sox are 21-2 when David Ortiz homers, which shouldn’t surprise many, knowing the clutch hitter he has been over the years. But the aforementioned September 15 Sox 4-1 win against the Angels not only saw Dice-K make his long-awaited return but Ortiz hit his 24th homer of ’09, the 270th as a DH, passing “The Big Hurt” Frank Thomas to become the all-time leader in homers for a DH. Congrats to Big Papi on this prestigious accomplishment.
Other Player News
Sox infielder Nick Green saw doctors in Boston today who told him the “dead leg” pain he’s been having recently is the result of a “disc issue” in his back – it may cost him the rest of ’09. Rookie pitcher Junichi Tazawa is out for the season now with a sore left groin strain. Utility infielder Chris Woodward will take his roster spot. Tazawa will end his short rookie campaign with a mediocre 7.46 ERA, but should take pride in his finest outing of the year, a six-inning shutout performance August 22 against the Yankees at Fenway.
End Of The Road (Trips) For Boston
Believe it or not, AL teams suck on the road this year, so much so that as of September 20, at 37-37, the Red Sox are tied with Texas (35-35) for the third-best road record in the league behind the Angels (45-33), then the Yankees (43-32). Boston hasn’t been over .500 on the road since August 4 but with seven road games left, four in Kansas City starting Monday night and three more in New York this weekend, it needs to win at least four of those games to guarantee a .500 road record for the season.
A still sore but much rested Tim Wakefield – who was originally supposed to pitch in Baltimore over the past weekend – faces ex-Sox lefty Lenny DiNardo Monday, and Cy Young candidate Zack Greinke will face and likely overmatch Paul Byrd Tuesday. The way Sox starters have pitched and Sox offense has hit lately, the team should find a way to win at least two or three games in KC and at least one in New York to get those four road wins.
If nothing else, the Sox – just as they did with the Angels last week – will get a preview of a possible playoff match-up with the Yankees. And believe it or not, the Sox and Yankees have not faced each other in postseason since the 2004 ALCS. Something to think about, I know.