Every time the Red Sox seem to be on the verge of collapse, they somehow, some way pull off some big wins to keep from falling impossibly far behind a playoff spot – they are currently 5.5 games behind Tampa Bay for the AL Wild Card. With a ton of games coming up, more regulars coming back from injuries, and very little time off, it was crucial that Boston get hot again.
An Unlikely But Clean Sweep In Anaheim
When word came Monday that newly acquired Angels ace Dan Haren would make his first start against the Red Sox, a collective “Uh oh!” could be heard around Red Sox Nation. Then, for once, the Sox caught a break. Haren got injured by a Kevin Youkilis
line drive in the fifth and left the game, which Boston won 6-3 behind Clay Buchholz, who went seven strong innings, allowed one run, and punched out seven Angels en route to his 11th win. David Ortiz hadn’t hit more than one homer in the second half until this night, when he hit two bombs, numbers 20 and 21, and drove in three runs overall.
Another welcome sight Monday night was the return of starting catcher Victor Martinez (from a broken left thumb). He had an RBI single this night, which was a revelation, since the collective output of Gustavo Molina, Dusty Brown, and Kevin Cash never homered, drove in a run, or hit an extra base hit in 65 total at-bats for the Sox this year.
If you thought infielder Jed Lowrie’s 2010 debut last Wednesday, June 21, in which he reached base three times, was unexpected, you weren’t the only one. Much like Daniel Nava this year in the absence of Jacoby Ellsbury in the outfield (and who was sent down to Pawtucket to create this roster spot), Lowrie was a godsend a couple of years ago when filling in for an ailing Mike Lowell at third base. But injuries and, recently, mono sidelined his career. That is, until now. On Tuesday in Anaheim, his double over the head of Angels left fielder Juan Rivera to drive in two runs was the big hit in the game, which Boston won 4-2.
It also helped former Angel John Lackey finally earn his 10th win of ’10. And yes, he was mightily booed by Angels fans when his name was announced, but it never affected his performance. In fact, nothing is slowing him down these days. Since the All-Star break, the Sox are 3-0 in his starts and he has put up a 1.61 ERA.
Yesterday, the Sox caught yet another break, as Angels right-hander Joel Pineiro was scratched just before the start of the game with a left oblique strain, and that forced Scot Shields, who hasn’t started a game since 2003, to get the emergency start. He only lasted 1.2 innings, giving up two runs, both solo shots to Adrian Beltre (17) and Bill Hall (11).
The highlight of the game was shortstop Marco Scutaro hitting the second grand slam of his career, just inside the left field line to break a 3-3 tie in the eighth with no outs. Josh Beckett, in his second start off the disabled list, gave up three runs in seven innings to earn his second win of ’10 and first since April. Final score: 7-3. The Sox swept the series and went 7-0 against the Angels in 2010.
Bill Hall is a versatile defensive player, but not great at any position – he made two big errors last Thursday in Seattle. At the plate, he brings nothing but power, and has he ever brought it lately. In his last four starts, he has hit three homers, scored four runs, and driven in four runs himself. Yesterday was one of his rare all-around days, as he homered and made a great, inning-ending catch to get inconsistent reliever Manny Delcarmen out of trouble in the eighth inning.
Off On The Wrong Foot In Oakland
The Sox posted an impressive 6-4 record on its daunting 10-game West Coast run, its first winning trip since 2004. But the road show didn’t go so well when it started early last week. The local nine ran into a red hot Oakland A’s squad, one that is reputable for playing its best baseball in the second half of a season, and lost two of the three games at Oakland Coliseum.
The series highlight was Daisuke Matsuzaka, who no one in Red Sox Nation seems to want to talk about unless he struggles, being very efficient in his 89 pitches in 6.2 innings. He threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of his 24 batters, struck out six A’s, and allowed just one earned run to earn his seventh win of the season as part of Boston’s only win in Oakland, a 2-1 nail biter. The lowlights included Tim Wakefield blowing a 4-0 Boston lead en route to its 5-4 loss in 10 innings on July 20, in what is likely his last start for a long time, and a rusty Buchholz going only four innings and surrendering five runs in his first start off the DL as part of Boston’s 6-4 loss to Oakland the next day.
The Seattle Split
In four games against an offensively inferior Mariners team that recently lost Cliff Lee in a trade and who didn’t have ace Felix Hernandez pitching in it, you would think that the Sox would win at least three, if not all the games. In the end, they were lucky to split the series at 2-2.
The most crucial and potentially devastating moments of the season came in the first of the contests on Thursday, July 22. John Lackey had pitched his best game in a Sox uniform, going 7.2 innings without surrendering a hit, and would turn the game over to the bullpen after eight innings and surrendering only one unearned run. But poor Sox defense – three errors total – and the bullpen, led by Manny Delcarmen and then Jonathan Papelbon, blew a 6-1 lead in the ninth inning and sent the game into extras. Somehow, Hideki Okajima, who is just a shell of his former self these days, pitched scoreless 11th and 12 innings, and paved the way for unlikely hero Eric Patterson’s game-winning two-run double in the 13th inning. It was obviously the former A’s biggest hit since joining the Sox.
Beckett and his curve ball looked solid in his first start since mid-May, going 5.2 innings with a no-decision as part of Boston’s 2-1 win on July 23, a game that also featured struggling Seattle infielder Chone Figgins fighting teammates in the dugout and thus, being taken out of the game. But the Sox lost the next two games, including what had to be Jon Lester’s most frustrating outing in his career on Saturday. After retiring the first 16 Mariners, Patterson dropped an easy fly ball in the sixth, and then Michael Saunders broke up Lester’s no-hitter with a two-run shot that also gave Seattle a 2-1 lead they would never relinquish. Lester struck out a new career-high 13 batters, but the Sox offense were of no help in this stunning 5-1 loss.
Besides an inconsistent offense, the Sox also split this series due to being outpitched in the bullpen, as Sox relievers gave up six runs in 10.2 innings pitched, whereas Seattle surrendered just three in 16.1 innings.
What to expect: With the trade deadline just a couple of days away and a short home stand against the Tigers and Indians coming up, look for the Sox to make an aggressive push for a quality setup man to help out Daniel Bard and nothing more. Hopefully the team will have gotten a premium reliever like Scott Downs (of Toronto) by my next column and said no to an over-the-hill future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman (who the Sox are supposedly pursuing even though he has a no-trade clause and doesn’t want to come here). But there’s a lot of competition for Downs’ services, and I just don’t see the Sox giving up the type of top prospect Toronto will be asking for in a possible trade.
I have a feeling that Theo Epstein will acquire a solid journeyman setup man when all is said and done, for mid-level prospects. Any arm is better right now than sticking by the likes of Okajima and Ramon Ramirez. For now, strong starting pitching, an ever-impressive bench, and just enough offense and bullpen success is what’s led Boston to win five of its last seven games.
In fact, with Beckett and Buchholz back in the fold and joining Lackey, Dice-K and Lester, Sox starters in these last seven games are 3-1 with a 3.22 ERA. More trends like that and we’ll be talking about a serious playoff run again real soon instead of just treading the playoff waters as they’ve done lately.
Image credit to werbiefitz.mlblogs.com