Red Sox Record for the Week of July 6: 5-2
The week began with the much-anticipated return of former Red Sox great and current Oakland infielder Nomar Garciaparra to Boston, his first in an opposing uniform since being traded midseason to the Cubs in 2004.
Boston sports talk radio debated the level of cheers vs. boos he would receive in the days and hours leading up to his return last Monday night, July 6. But much as they did for Derek Lowe’s return to Boston June 20, the sold-out Fenway crowd gave Nomar loud cheers and a standing-O before he took his first pitch of the night, leaving no doubt how appreciated he was for his eight-plus years in Boston. Nomar then went on to knock in the first run of the game, which turned out to be the game winner in the Athletics’ 6-0 win that night at the hands of rookie lefty Brett Anderson, who outperformed veteran John Smoltz with an impressive two-hit shutout.
The Sox took the next two games from the A’s and then three of four games from KC over the weekend. The highlight of the week for me was the 1-0 win Friday night July 10 vs. the Royals at Fenway. The match-up was Jon Lester vs. Brian Bannister. Lester’s previous outing against KC was his no-hitter in May 2008, and after Friday’s eight innings of scoreless pitching, he has given up zero runs in three career starts against them. The Boston southpaw had everything going this night, from a spot-on fastball to his changeup and breaking ball.
Other notable highlights of this game include Nick Green’s gutsy successful bunt with two strikes on him in the bottom of the eighth inning, executed after Terry Francona took the bunt sign off. That set up the eventual clutch game-winning double by Dustin Pedroia off Bannister, who pitched one of the best games of his young career. Jonathan Papelbon, who got a rocky save two nights prior, threw nothing but devastating heat (95-97 mph) en route to a 1-2-3 save, his 23rd of the season. It was one of Pap’s best outings of ’09.
Now, the BoSox head into its extended four-day break playing as well as could be expected for this time of year (recent bullpen woes aside), winning five of the last six games and owning a three-game lead over the Yankees in the AL East. They are also a season-high 20 games over .500, and with 54 wins, end the first half with 50+ wins for the fourth straight year.
As David Byrne and the Talking Heads once sang, “How did [they] get here?” The first two names that come to mind are Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay, who are both having MVP-type seasons (though the former is heating up and the latter is slowing down in this regard).
Youk’s candidacy isn’t a surprise as he was a runner-up to teammate and reigning MVP Dustin Pedroia last year. And though his offense is only now starting to pick back up after a little bit of a lull –- 16 HRs, 53 RBIs, including six RBIs in his last four games –- and his OBP is one of the AL’s best at .419, it’s his defense one should not undervalue. When Mike Lowell needs a day off at third or lands on the DL as he has this season, Youk stresses the “value” aspect of MVP with his better than average defense there (just two errors in 209 innings to date), in addition to being one of the best all-around first basemen in the AL (one error in 50 starts). All this, and Youk only makes $6 million.
Speaking of better than average, Jason Bay has been a very reliable left fielder for Boston -– no errors, nine assists -– and made some memorable late-game-saving diving catches. His solid D, and even more so his clutch HRs (usually with runners on), along with his team and AL-leading 72 RBIs make him extremely valuable and crucial to the Sox’s success. Lucky for him, 2009 is Bay’s free agent year and his (hopefully) continued success can only increase his value at the contract negotiations table, whenever that time comes -– more on this at a later date.
And what about Pedroia? Well, he doesn’t have much power this year but just happens to be one of MLB’s hottest hitters going into the break and one of the best in the AL with RISP (.386 average). And defensively, he is one of the quickest second baseman out there in getting up to throw out runners after making diving stops. Of course, being small may have a lot to do with it, but a strong, accurate arm helps as well, which Pedroia clearly has. His quickness on the base paths should not be underestimated either, with 20 stolen bags in 2008 and 14 bases taken so far in ’09, to go with 65 runs scored (third in MLB).
The sneaky Pedroia, Jason Bay, and super speedster Jacoby Ellsbury (40 stolen bases, second in MLB), are the main reasons the Sox are dangerous on the basepaths in ways they haven’t been in decades. Boston is on pace to steal at least 100 bags this year, a feat the team rarely accomplishes.
On the bullpen side, Papelbon has had more control problems in ’09 than in previous years, but has finished the job when needed most of the time, saving 23 games in 25 chances. Righty Ramon Ramirez has had some recent struggles but mostly dominated in late innings in ’09 the way lefty Hideki Okajima did in 2007 and much of 2008. He has taken over for the retired Mike Timlin in his role magnificently.
Manny Delcarmen (ERA 2.41), who has yet to give up a HR in ’09, is another bright spot, as is reliever Daniel Bard, a young gun who wasn’t expected to kick off his big league career so soon but has been impressive so far (ERA 2.55) in his 24.2 innings, the last 7.1 of which he has given up no runs and K’d 13. This included his relief outing last Saturday, which effectively sealed John Smoltz’s first win in a Sox uniform in a wild 15-9 game vs. KC.
And of course, starters Jon Lester and Josh Beckett have been pitching like aces, while Brad Penny and Tim Wakefield have become reliable and consistent at the rotation’s backend, especially Wakefield, who has only given up seven more earned runs –- or one really bad game -– than Beckett, who (along with Lester) is one of the hottest pitchers in the AL over the last two months. These two all-stars are tied for the AL lead in wins (11), with Beckett earning his last win Sunday in one of his career-best regular season outings, a three-hit shutout vs. KC, which was also his 100th career victory.
Last but not least in importance to Sox success are Mike Lowell, who was a borderline All-Star third baseman before getting hurt, “the captain” Jason Varitek, David “Big Papi” Ortiz, and the emergence of Nick Green. You know by now about the latter’s defensive versatility but probably not that Green is one of the team and league’s best hitters with RISP and two outs (.452 AVG, and 16 of his 30 RBI). And who would’ve thought after the awful start Ortiz had that he would have 12 HRs and nearly 50 RBIs going into the break and that ‘Tek, after a sub-par offensive 2008 would hit 13 HRs and slug .478?
Though Big Papi (offensively until recently), Julio Lugo (defensively) and Daisuke Matsuzaka have been disappointments, so far, the ’09 Red Sox get an A-minus for its efforts and depth -– and an A-plus for going 8-0 vs. the Yankees. Except for perhaps a power bat off the bench, there are no glaring weaknesses right now. Will the second half of 2009 be a different story? This weekend in Toronto, where the Red Sox begin its second half, we will begin to find out.