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The Sox offensive slump continues but a new bat is in town. Plus, Smoltz struggles to find his way.

Sox Fall Out of First Place, Add LaRoche, Drop Kotsay

Before getting started, I must acknowledge and congratulate two former famous Red Sox left fielders who were inducted into Cooperstown, New York’s Baseball Hall of Fame: Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice. Henderson was one of my idols growing up (as an Oakland A’s player) as the stolen base king provided much inspiration to me during my playing days in local youth baseball leagues.

And for Jim Rice, who was the key part of the best Red Sox outfield in team history (with Fred Lynn at center and Dwight Evans in right), and who’s #14 will be retired at Fenway tonight, his induction is long overdue but much deserved. In fact, it should have been a no-brainer but the baseball writers finally got it right in Rice’s last year of Hall eligibility. Ironic fact: Jim Rice has more career triples (79) than Henderson (66).

Red Sox Record for the Week of July 20: 2-4

With the New York Yankees playing some of the best baseball in the AL (along with the Angels) and the Red Sox struggling to win games, the hometown team has seen its three-game AL East lead at the All-Star break disappear and is now looking at a two-and-a-half game deficit going into tonight’s action.

Through Sunday’s game against Baltimore, the Red Sox had an AL-worst .215 batting average since the All-Star break. That average climbed a bit higher after the Sox pounded out 14 hits last night in an 8-3 win over Oakland to start this week, but such offensive explosions have been few and far between lately.

With this in mind, GM Theo Epstein made a surprising but very much welcomed move last week in bringing first baseman Adam LaRoche to Boston from Pittsburgh for a couple of mid-level prospects. LaRoche, who has hit at least 20 home runs the last four seasons doesn’t have an impressive batting average (in the .250 range) but definitely adds power, solid defense and a fresh face to the lineup. He will and is seeing familiar faces in Boston as well, which should make his transition to a new home a little easier, as his former Atlanta Braves teammate J.D. Drew is providing housing for him and he is now reunited with former Pirates slugger Jason Bay.

There are a couple of minor drawbacks to this acquisition however, including losing the versatility of part-time outfielder/infielder Mark Kotsay, whom Epstein designated for assignment to make room for LaRoche. In addition to LaRoche seeing reduced playing time, his presence will also take some at-bats away from Mike Lowell, as manager Terry Francona has to move Kevin Youkilis to third to make room for LaRoche. This means Youkilis will see his starts at first diminish a bit as well, as was the case last Saturday when he got the day off so LaRoche could start at 1B.

So far, no one is complaining about playing time. Plus, LaRoche is hitting well in his first week in Boston and is saying the right things about doing whatever Tito asks of him. Kotsay was a valuable part-timer, but was limited offensively and injury-prone. LaRoche is clearly the better hitter of the two and so Sox fans should see more of him in the lineup than you would Kotsay if he was still here.

Now, with the non-waiver trade deadline set for this Friday, you should expect the Sox to make another move. It could be a relatively minor move (such as a veteran lefty bullpen arm to help out Hideki Okajima) or if the rumors are true, a big acquisition like San Diego’s power-hitting 1B Adrian Gonzalez. Such a move would shake up the Sox infield in a major way – Mike Lowell would likely be the odd man out of town as part of a three-team deal, as I don’t see him playing in San Diego.

It would bet upsetting to see Lowell leave but if it means getting younger, healthier and adding more power to both infield positions, it would by all means be a brilliant move to have Gonzalez at first and Youkilis at third for the next several years. But Epstein would likely have to give up a highly touted major-league ready pitching prospect or two in addition to Lowell to pull such a deal off. Who knows if such trade talks are serious at this point but don’t expect Epstein to stay quiet this week on the trading front, that’s for sure.

While the Sox hitters have struggled, the mighty Sox bullpen has been impressive since the All-Star break and collectively haven’t allowed an earned run in the second half (in 24 innings) through Monday night’s action. The starters have had mixed results, however. Wins for John Smoltz and Brad Penny have been hard to come by lately and both have had similar problems, though Penny has clearly been the more successful of the two and for a longer period of time. Whether the pitchers have two strikes on hitters or two outs and two strikes, both pitchers have had a hard time getting that third strike or out.

For Penny, such troubles have mainly led to high pitch counts and thus, five to six innings of work. For Smoltz, he is having “the big inning” problem Jon Lester had early in ‘09, giving up a bunch of runs in one inning in contrast to quieter innings.

The slumping Sox offense provided no help for Smoltz on Sunday in its 6-2 loss to Baltimore. A tumultuous third inning did him in as the Orioles, led by Nick Markakis, had a three-run rally to take a 4-0 lead. And Smoltz was one strike away from getting out of it unscathed. In the end, John Smoltz gave up six earned runs. It marked only the second time in the 42-year-old veteran’s career he has given up six runs in consecutive outings.

Smoltz (1-4) has said it would take about five starts to get his legs under him, so-to-speak, but Sunday was his sixth start and the Sox are 1-5 when he pitches. Terry Francona is calling for “patience” with Smoltz, who says that despite his high ERA (7.04) that his “stuff” is getting better with each outing. And despite the struggles of the Sox recently, I’m sure most Sox fans are willing to give the future Hall of Famer time to find “it,” the boos at Fenway on Sunday notwithstanding. Besides, if starting doesn’t work out, there’s always the bullpen. But I’m not sure the Sox need him there.

As for Brad Penny, Sox fans should take comfort in knowing that it’s late July and Penny is still healthy, pitching well for an end of the rotation starter and still throwing 96-97 mph. However, Penny earned only his first win in a while (when he won his 100th career on June 17) last Friday night vs. Baltimore. It was also one of the few times this year and first since mid-May that Penny pitched into the seventh inning as he went 6 1/3 innings and allowed zero runs or walks while striking out four on 108 pitches. More performances like that will be needed from Penny, whether the Sox are hitting or not.

And finally, if Clay Buchholz doesn’t get traded this week as part of a package for a big name player, he will have the eyes of Sox Nation on him until Tim Wakefield comes back from the 15-day DL. Buchholz is a 3-4 pitch pitcher: fastball, changeup, curveball (which he doesn’t always trust throwing), and slider (which he is using now with more confidence). Interestingly, he didn’t throw a slider at all in 2008, when he admittedly pitched scared to go back down to the minors as he told the Boston media last week. He also admits to taking his brief time with the Sox in ’07-’08 for granted and thus better prepared himself physically for the 2009 season.

Hopefully, for the Red Sox’s sake, Clay Buchholz continues to develop and mature as a pitcher because he has front of the rotation-type of stuff. Whether we see him prosper in a Boston uniform or elsewhere is an open question and it may be answered by the end of this week.

About Charlie Doherty

Senior Music Editor and Culture & Society (Sports) Editor at Blogcritics Magazine; Prior writing/freelancing ventures: copy editor/content writer for Penn Multimedia; Boston Examiner, EMSI, Demand Media, Brookline TAB, Suite 101 and Helium.com; Media Nation independent newspaper staff writer, printed/published by the Boston Globe at 2004 DNC (Boston, MA); Featured in Guitar World May 2014. Keep up with me on twitter.com/chucko33

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