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Monday, May 26, 2003

  Baseball or Rogerball?

Baseball is a little like the movies. Every interesting story has a sub-plot. The trick is to not let the latter overshadow the former.

The Red Sox took care of the big picture today, drawing first blood on their current road trip against the division rival New York Yankees. In doing so, they relegated the Roger Clemens 300-win sideshow to another day.

As well it should be.

There was important business to be done, such as increasing the Sox' first-place lead in the standings. That couldn't happen if the other team's starting pitcher got the win. Whether that opposing pitcher was playing for his first win or his 300th or his 73rd didn't matter.

Boston kept the focus where it should be even before the first pitch was thrown. After Sox players noticed Clemens was wearing a glove with a non-regulation insignia on it, manager Grady Little successfully challenged the glove. As it turned out, the offending patch was a premature recognition of Clemens' 300th career win.

There had been tremendous hype about the milestone coming against Clemens' former team, the one with whom he lodged the first two-thirds of his 299 career victories. It was fate, many said melodramatically, as if the planets lined up to humiliate the Sox.

But while others talked about the sub-plot (and, apparently, ordered a special glove to commemorate the event that hasn't happened yet), the Red Sox went about playing a baseball game. It's exactly what they've been doing recently, patiently doing their jobs in more than adequate fashion. The batters hit no towering home runs, but they racked up enough hits and walks and baserunning to score eight times. The pitchers gave up more walks than hits, but they also managed to limit what the Yankees did with them. The fielders committed a couple errors, but they atoned with several solid plays to neutralize potential scoring threats.

Great baseball it wasn't. But against these rather hapless New York Yankees, it didn't have to be. The Red Sox took the lead early and never relinquished it. They will try to do the same thing tomorrow, and the next game, and the game after that.

Everyone presumes that at some point this season, the Yankees will stop shooting themselves in the foot and get back to playing baseball. Their losing streak at home will eventually end. They will start winning more than two of every ten games. To stay ahead of them, the Red Sox will probably have to do better than .500 or .600 ball, which is where they've been hovering for the last two and a half weeks.

I for one think they can do it. The bullpen has begun to settle down, the aggressive baserunning continues, and the batters produce when they have to.

Meanwhile, unless some horrible calamity befalls him, Roger Clemens will eventually get his 300th win. But it won't be against the Red Sox, who have more important things to do than participate in sideshows.

Just my opinion.

Cheers of Red Sox triumph so far: 0

Saturday, May 03, 2003

  April Recap

More than 2 1/2 months ago, I wrote in this space about my impending trip to Spring Training and promised an update, which I'll give here, followed by a few words about the season so far.

My trip to Fort Myers was great. The weather was perfect, temperatures in the mid-80s and sunny, every day. I saw six games in six days, seven games if you include the very first game which I left after just a few innings because I was tired from a full day of travel. In those games, I saw every Red Sox major league player except Pedro, who didn't pitch his first game until two days after I left, and lots of minor-leaguers enjoying the thrill of having been invited to train with the big guys. I kept some damn good scorecards, got a few autographs including minor league instructor Luis Tiant, and met Theo Epstein in the concourse after a game.

Frankly, I couldn't have drawn any conclusions from what I saw on the field if I were being paid to do so. I learned that the first week of exhibition baseball is essentially a more organized warm-up for the rest of the spring games, never mind the regular season. Grady had a formula, going with his starters for 2 or 3 innings and each reliever for an inning no matter how they were doing or how many pitches they had thrown. He almost always subbed every position once per game but almost never more.

The ballpark was nice, the people friendly, and excitement palpable. It was a blast, and I plan on making the trip annually.

But first, I have to get through the rest of this season. It hasn't been easy so far.

Let's look at it by the numbers.

Thirty games into the season, the Sox have won two of every three. Not bad. They haven't lost more than two in a row or more than four games of any ten so far. The team is batting a season high .285 and averaging 1.1 home runs per game. They're even stealing bases in four of every five attempts, for an average of seven stolen bases per ten games.

On the negative side is the pitching and fielding. Team ERA stands at 4.89, with the starters coming in at 4.29 and the bullpen an embarassing 5.60. The biggest pitching disappointment has to be Ramiro Mendoza, who ought to get himself to a shrink and fast. As for the defense, fielders are erring close to twice in every three games. They have made errors in almost a full half their games. The booby prize for sloppy play so far has to go to Nomar, who had three errors in last night's game alone.

At this point, the positives are outweighing the negatives. In every statistical category I'm tracking except wild pitches and passed balls, they're doing better than the competition. But that's against competition who, with the exception of Kansas City, came limping into May.

I give credit to Grady Little for having the good sense to abandon the closer-by-committee, which might have worked with two or three reliable relievers. And I'm happy to see more patience at the plate on the part of guys like Shea Hillenbrand, who until this season never saw a first pitch he wouldn't swing at. There seems to be a bit more hustle on the way to first base, even by Manny. I'm loving some of the recent defensive play by Bill Mueller. And the baserunning is a pleasant surprise. Hell, today Jason Varitek stole two bases. Jason Varitek!

So with one month down and five to go, I have to say I'm cautiously optimistic. This team has made some important improvements in the way they're playing compared to years past, but they clearly have some things to work on. Perhaps with the warmer weather will come some improvement.

Just my opinion.

Cheers of Red Sox triumph so far: 0

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