Monday, April 28, 2003

Red Sox 25-Game Checkup - The Curse of Great Expectations

We arrive at the 25-game mark with the Sox cruising along at a sparkling 16-9 clip, one game clear in the Wild Card race, 4 games behind the best start in Yankees' history. So why does it feel like they haven't played particularly well? I submit that the Nation expected this team to be very good, and every game that is lost to a Tampa Bay or a Baltimore, or even a Texas feels like a kick in the teeth, while every win - even against the defending World Series champ - is what should happen, so no big deal. That, and the media has spent the first month of the season blasting away at all manner of contrived failings - from pitching to politics to contract squabbles - which has resulted in perception far distant from reality.

Here goes, then - one man's opinion on the season to date:

The Good

1. The offense is really, really good, and several big-time players haven't even hit their stride yet. The Sox are second in the AL in runs scored, averaging nearly 6 per game, and third in the league in OPS, behind only the Yankees and the surprising Royals. They've done this despite Nomar batting .252 with only 13 RBI, Johnny Damon struggling in the low .240s, and Manny only hitting 4 HR and driving in a respectable but not Manny-esque 18. David Ortiz and Jeremy Giambi - brought on board for offense - are hitting .204 and .125 respectively (though Giambi does have an OBP over .300 because he's walked a bunch).

Shea Hillenbrand leads the AL in RBI with 25. Kevin Millar, though cool over the last week, knocked the cover off the ball in the season's first 15 games, and is still batting .299 with 5 HR and 17 RBI. Trot Nixon's been on base a ton, Todd Walker and Bill Mueller have delivered timely hits, and even Damian Jackson has pitched in with four stolen bases in limited action. The Sox will hit with anyone this year and promise to score even more runs as Nomar and Manny pick up the pace in the middle of the order.

2. Pedro es muy macho. Or, better said, Pedro is Pedro. Setting aside for the moment one awful outing against Baltimore, Pedro is 2-0 with a 0.74 ERA. He's given up three earned runs in 36 innings. Even with the Baltimore outing, he's 2-1, 2.90. With just a teensy bit of bullpen support, he'd be 4-1. The Sox have a better than 80% chance to win every time he pitches, which is a comforting feeling.

3. Casey Fossum has shown enough to create cautious optimism. The young left-hander upon whom the Sox placed a great deal of pressure - intentional or not - has a 2-1, 3.94 mark, with 27 strikeouts in 29 2/3 innings. He went 7 shutout innings in his last start, against the scrappy, disciplined Angels. If he continues to progress, the Sox could have a dominant rotation (of course, assuming Mr. Lowe wakes up from his coma - see below).

4. Not to be overly sentimental, but this team's chemistry is worth noting. This team will face distractions from the media all season, and will be under a lot of pressure from an expectant fan base. I am a strong believer in the value of team chemistry, and think that lesser teams can achieve great things if they are focused and believe in one another. Look no further than last year's Angels or the 2001-2002 New England Patriots for evidence.

Watching the game last night, the Sox looked loose (when Millar crashed into Varitek on a foul popup, the catcher pantomimed a handshake to say, "Hi. I'm Jason. Nice to meet you.", and the two laughed heartily. Nomar and Shea, and Damon and Manny were caught on camera laughing easily with each other more than once. Several players gave Manny bear hugs after his first-inning homer, and several players also hugged Pedro after he was lifted from the game (David Ortiz' hug, frankly, was a little too lingering for my taste).

There's a fine line between cameraderie and lack of seriousness, and today's easy laughter may be seen as tomorrow's lack of caring, but I believe that the Sox are a close, focused team that will deal well with pressure. It's interesting that Nomar was in the middle of most of the hugs, because he's been panned by the media for lacking leadership skills. He may not be a rah-rah guy, but I like him as the tactiturn, actions-speak-for-me, judge-me-on-the-field-not-in-the-press-room, leader of this team.

The Bad

1. As much as I hate it, you can't talk about the Sox season without mentioning the bullpen. I'm on the record as supporting the idea of using your best arms when you need outs, and not saving any one guy for specific 9th inning closer duties. And, to be fair, the Sox have only lost one game because the bullpen blew a save (they've had lots of wins after the bullpen blew up, so they've been lucky). However, at some point, the psychological impact of poor bullpen performance has to wear the team down. Starting pitchers will feel more pressure if they don't trust the bullpen; the offense will press harder to score; and fielders will take chances they might not otherwise if they have no faith in the relief corps. The cumulative effect of a 5.95 ERA and numerous shaky outings has to be a negative.

I'm not ready to throw in the towel and advocate a more "traditional" approach with set roles, but the bullpen simply must pitch better or the Sox' chances will be diminished. Alan Embree comes back soon, and Robert Person gets out of extended spring training soon, as well, so all the arms will be in place. Now, they need to get the team's trust back.

2. D-Lowe D-Blows. Derek Lowe was 21-8, 2.58 in 2002. He threw a no-hitter against Tampa Bay, and averaged 6.9 innings per start. After 5 starts in 2003, the lanky (and flaky) righthander is 3-2, 6.04 and averaging just over 5 innings per start. He was shellacked by Texas in his last outing, and has seemed distracted all season. He, more than any other Sox player, has been outspoken about the Great Bullpen Experiment, and, if history is any guide, he is a very sensitive, easily flustered athlete. The bullpen issue may be impacting him in exactly the manner described above. Whatever the issue with our Derek, he needs to right the ship. When he's on, the Sox have the league's best 1-2 starters. When he's off, the Sox get a whole lot more vulnerable.

3. The Yankees are on freaking fire. New York is 20-5, the best start in the history of their storied franchise. Their starting pitchers finally lost their first decision yesterday. They are averaging 6.8 runs a game, and allowing 3.5 (Good Lord). They've done all of this without Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera. All of which shouldn't be an issue, because it's a looong season, and they have a very old starting rotation and some serious question marks in the bullpen. I raise this point, though, because the pinstriped shadow looms large over everything the Sox do. Realistically, all the Sox need to do is make the playoffs, but they will be compared to the Yankees regardless of what happens, so New York's blistering start paints the Sox pretty good start in an unflattering light.

The Ugly

1. The media makes it less and less fun for me to follow the Sox, so I can't imagine how it feels to be a player. Look at the first two paragraph's of Bob Hohler's game story this morning. Totally gratuitous shots at Pedro and the bullpen, reflexive and knee-jerk, and without any redeeming qualities. This will be more and more of a story as the season wears on.

In a nutshell, offense good, pitching bad, chemistry good, media really bad. Fix the pitching, continue to hit, ignore the media and 100 wins are within reasonable expectations.

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