Keeping the Faith
Two streaks came to and end today for the Red Sox, but two others remain intact, including the most important streak of all.
Going into tonight's game against Tampa Bay, the Sox had shut out their opponents in three consecutive games. Boston's pitching staff had gone 32 consecutive innings without allowing a run, going back to the 8 inning against the Yankees last Saturday. The bullpen had their own streak going, 30 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings.
Unfortunately, the Devil Rays scored in the first inning of tonight's game, ending the first two streaks. But the bullpen was stellar once again, extending their streak to 32 1/3 innings.
And of course the most important streak remains: 6 wins in a row, comprising consecutive 3-game series sweeps. It's enough to maintain a 2 1/2 game lead in the AL East.
I posted this on the RedSox.com message board yesterday.
In the absence of a game last night, I went to my nephew's first tee-ball game. I learned a lot about tee-ball last night. For example, I didn't previously know that:
BTW, my nephew announced that their team (Worcester Tool and Stamping, better known as "the green team" for the color of their shirts and hats) is now known as the "Green Monsters," and that he is the "leader." My brother informed him that no, he isn't.
It's only April, and not even the end of it yet, but the Sox are looking pretty good so far. Not that there aren't a few reasons for concern. Trot is still out with a nasty lower back problem, Nomar's strained achilles tendon isn't progressing as expected, and now Ellis Burks is heading for knee surgery. On the field, over the last 10 games, the Sox have stranded an average of 9 baserunners per game. The offense isn't on fire the way it was last year; as a team, they're batting just .251 so far, and except Manny, no Sox starter is hitting over .280.
But unlike so many Red Sox teams in the recent past, this one isn't dependent on hot offense to win games. They're doing it with pitching instead. Team ERA is a remarkable 3.36, and they've been better than their opponents in all statistical categories except strikeouts thrown (virtually even) and passed balls (blame it on Wake's knuckleball). Even without the explosive offense, they're winning close games. The bullpen has been superb.
And defense? It isn't the best in the league, but errors are costing less than half a run per nine innings. Even second-stringers Gabe Kapler and Mark Bellhorn have done what's been asked of them.
Four weeks into the season, the Sox are in first place, 1.5 games ahead of their nearest competition, and promising to get better when the wounded heal and the bats come alive. What a far cry from a year ago, when we sat on pins and needles during the late innings of every game. Sure, we could come from behind for a big win, but on the flip side the pen was just as capable of blowing a big lead. With the Red Sox, they used to say, no lead was safeeither way.
Now we have depth and reliability on the pitching staff that I can't remember in my lifetime as a Sox fan. We have two pitchers squaring off in a battle for the #5 spot who could both be reliable #3s on almost any other team. We have a bumper crop of middle relievers, and we have two experienced closers, three if Kim goes into the pen.
It hasn't hurt, of course, that we've already played seven games against the hapless Yankees, whose recent woes prompted the following on ESPN.com:
For the Yankees, it doesn't get easier. Starting on Tuesday, they face Oakland's big three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito.
"Is that who we get?" [Alex] Rodriguez said. "Great news. I'll really enjoy my day off now."
The Red Sox aren't beset with such worries. No one expects it to be an easy season, but there's so much good that the bad seems eminently manageable. This team is built to win, and if they can keep their heads together for the duration, there is no reason to think they won't.
...and rumor has it that Red Sox Head Groundskeeper Emeritus Joe Mooney was seen in the outfield trying to suck up the standing water with a giant wet-vac.
But seriously, folks, after a scheduled day off and two rainouts, the weather radar is looking promising for baseball in Beantown tonight. Pedro and the BoSox will face Sidney Ponson and the Orioles for what has turned into a one-game series. Going into tonight, the Red Sox hold a sliver of a lead over the Yankees for first place.
There's also no rain on the horizon for this weekend's four-game series against said Yankees. By Monday, it should be close to 80°F.
OK, now let's play ball.
This just in (OK, it was just in yesterday, but I just read it) from RedSox.com:
BOSTON Ever since the early part of Spring Training, Red Sox manager Terry Francona has been looking for a way to slot knuckleballer Tim Wakefield between co-aces Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling. Thanks to Tuesday night's rainout against the Orioles, the opening arrived and Francona slipped Wakefield right into it.
Then why didn't he just set up the rotation that way from the beginning?
Derek Lowe, scheduled to pitch Tuesday, will now be pushed back to Wednesday because of the postponement.
Martinez will stay on his previously scheduled day, which is Thursday.
Wakefield, who would have pitched Wednesday if not for Tuesday's rain, will now follow Martinez and pitch the opener of a four-game series against the Yankees Friday night.
Actually, a rainout wasn't necessary for this to happen. Only a week and a half into the season, the team has already had two scheduled days off that could have been used for this purpose.
Instead of opening that much-hyped four-game set against New York, Schilling will take the ball Saturday afternoon.
Wouldn't it make sense to keep Schilling as the starter for the opener and start Wakefield on Saturday? If he needs some work in the meantime, he can pitch an inning or two out of the pen.
"We gave thought to about eight different things," said Francona. "After talking to [pitching coach Dave Wallace], and the pitchers, and factoring in my input, the pitcher's input, and things that we had tried to do from the very beginning, this ended up being, we think, the most practical and it will best suit our ballclub and the pitchers."
Particularly because it enabled Francona to sandwich Wakefield between his two big guns.
"I'm glad about that. I really wanted to do that," said Francona. "We talked about that since early on. I just think it gives us a different look three nights in a row, which, I think, is great. They're going to be good pitchers regardless of when they pitch. I just think it will help. Guys talk about having righty, lefty, righty. This is kind of power, knuckleball, power. This is just a variation of looks."
Great idea, Terry. There's just one problem: Pedro will pitch against Baltimore, while Wakefield and Schilling will face the Yankees. So Francona won't be "sandwich[ing] Wakefield between his two big guns" against the same team. All you're doing is starting your knuckleballer in the first game of one series instead of the last game of another series. I fail to see the advantage in that.
Last Easter, the Red Sox won too. I can't say I remember that, specifically; the particulars of games on certain dates tend to escape me, except games I actually attend. I have vivid recollections of the game against Atlanta during the first season of interleague play, the evening of the day after Princess Diana died, when the Sox lost to local boy Tom Glavine. And I remember details of last year's Father's Day game I attended alone because I bought the ticket without realizing what day it was. We beat the Astros in 14 innings, and I got on television with my homemade sign that read, "Dad is a Yankees fans so I left him at home."
I may remember this one, though, even though I wasn't there. Down by two runs going into the bottom of the eighth inning, I knew that if any team could make a late run and win the game, it was this one. So I wasn't surprised that they scored once in the eighth and once in the ninth to send the game to extra innings. I was even less surprised when David Ortiz won it in the 12th with a walk-off two-run homer.
It's as if we're playing 2003 all over again. Dealing with some pitching troubles early on (nothing compared to those of last year, but troubles nonetheless), the offense and, unlike last year, defense are doing what they must to win games. A week into the season, they are scoring a half run more per nine innings than their opponents, hitting half again as many home runs, and committing only two-thirds of the errors. Though they are stealing fewer bases, they are successful a greater percentage of the time than their opponents. Early rustiness aside, the pitchers are striking out more batters and walking fewer than their counterparts. Their only real deficiency in games played so far is in the high number of wild pitches, three times as many as the other guys.
A co-worker stopped by this morning to complain about Terry Francona and opine that any decent manager wouldn't run out of pitchers in a game in the first week of the season and fail to move over runners at first and second with no one out. I cautioned that it might be a bit early to be hanging the manager out to dry.
The fact of the matter is that it's still so early that the results at this moment don't matter. I really don't expect, for example, that Seattle will continue to play .167 baseball, that Tampa Bay will finish the season tied for first place, or that the Tigers will hold on to the best record in baseball. Francona and a few players have done things that leave me scratching my head, but they've been finding ways to win more than they've lost, and they have lots more time to figure out how to be better.
Overall, it's nice to start a season without any glaring deficiencies. If the Sox can build on that, and we really have no reason to believe they won't, we ought to enjoy more dramatic wins like yesterday's. And they won't have to happen on holidays for us to remember them.
Did you hear about the television producer who interviewed lots of Red Sox fans and then ignored what they said? That was my thought as I watched "The Babe and The Billy Goat: Reverse the Curse?" which was presented by MLB Productions. It ran Sunday afternoon on ESPN, Sunday evening on ESPN Classic, and yesterday morning on ESPN2. I might not have watched it but for the fact that I was in it.
I was interviewed for nearly an hour at Fenway Park on a snowy day in January, and while I don't remember everything I said, I know I was adamant that I didn't believe in any curse. My friends Dale and Steve, who were also interviewed at length and appeared in the final program, said they didn't believe in any curse. The gaggle of fans-on-the-street who appeared at the beginning of the program said they didn't believe in any curse. One solitary fan who was interviewed, like I was, "in studio" said he thought the Red Sox were cursed. But besides him, the only people they could get to buy into such nonsense were Yankees: player Derek Jeter, manager Joe Torre, and former coach Lee Mazzilli. Which only proves what I've said all along, that New Yorkers are conspicuously moronic.
It was hard to tell what the point of the program was supposed to be. From the beginning, you got the sense that the fans don't believe in curses. From the end of the program you got the sense that the fans (or at least a rival team) do believe in the curse. From Cubs fan Bryant Gumble you got the sense that Red Sox fans have nothing on Cubs fans in the pain department, and he seemed so proud of it that I wondered how I missed the news that it was a contest. From the choice of "narrators" (a young woman in a Cubs jersey and a middle-aged man in a Red Sox jacket) you got the sense that there perhaps aren't any good actors from Chicago or Boston.
What you didn't get, because it didn't make it into the final cut, was an intense love of the game and the team, a thorough enjoyment of the institution that is baseball in New England, and a striking and realistic optimism that the 2004 Sox are an even better version of the team that came within a manager's brain cramp of the 2003 World Series. You also didn't get a lot of background into the history of the supposed curse.
What is that history, exactly? The Red Sox have lost four World Series, none of which was actually lost on a dramatic final play. The 1946 Sox in game 7 had the Enos Slaughter sprint for home (which never would have happened if their star centerfielder hadn't left the game hurt) to give the Cardinals the lead, but Boston still had the ninth inning for a comeback and didn't get it done. The 1967 team never really had a chance in game 7, starting a tired Jim Lonborg on just two days' rest. The 1975 team, playing game 7 at home, gave up the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth and again failed to regain the lead in their half of the inning. Even in 1986, the most memorable Red Sox loss didn't even happen in game 7.
In fact, what no one remembers is that the '67 and '86 teams weren't even favored to make it to the series, much less get to a seventh game and win. To this day, 1967 is known as the Red Sox' "Impossible Dream" season, a year in which a certain combination of game results on the last day of the season could have just as easily landed the Sox in fourth place. And in 1986, the AL champion Red Sox, though very good, had won only 95 regular season games compared to the Mets' 108. That's a pretty staggering difference. One might ask what was so wrong with the Mets that they fell behind 3 games to 2 in the first place. If game 6 had been a Red Sox win, I doubt anyone would talk about how the 108-win Mets collapsed so badly that they lost the series by two games. As it is, people ought to be talking about how remarkable it was that the Red Sox did so much better than they should have, which is the polar opposite of some alleged curse.
I also wonder why no one opines about a curse causing the mighty Yankees to lose the series on a weak blooper off their supposedly unbeatable closer (2001), miss it altogether to a wild-card team (2002), and then lose again - at home and in only six games, no less - to a ragtag team led by a manager even older than Don Zimmer (2003). All of which they managed to do with the highest payroll in the major leagues. Now THAT's embarassing.
But that isn't what the producers had in mind. And don't confuse them with the facts.
For those of you who want to watch the program and draw your own conclusions, it's scheduled to replay on the following dates: