Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Gnashing, Wailing, and Bitching: The Story of the First Half of the 2004 Boston Red Sox Season

Thoughts while still chortling over Roger Clemens' performance in last night's All-Star game, and hoping that Mike Piazza was tipping the Rocket's pitches to the AL batters

Let's get this out of the way early. I'm wicked confused by the 2004 Red Sox. Before the season began, I truly believed that this was the most talented Sox roster in my lifetime - and it may be. I believed that the playoffs were a foregone conclusion, and that the AL East pennant was a strong possibility.

When the Sox started 15-6, including a 6-1 run against the Yankees, I knew I had been right. And then...well, then they just started sucking and only stopped in the last 6 games. The Sox are 33-32 since their stellar early run, which doesn't feed the bulldog, gentle readers.

I posted numerous reactions, then rationalizations, and then temper tantrums during the Sox' 65-game malaise, which finds them 7 games behind the Yankees and nearly out of the divisional race. I accused them of not having any fire, of expecting to win without giving max effort - as if I know what happens in the Sox clubhouse. I waxed emotional about my daughters, for chrissakes, as if their innocent faces could drive from my mind the wrenching mediocrity of my ballclub.

Then I woke up this morning and looked at the American League standings, and this band of underperforming slackers is at the head of the pack in the Wild Card race. As poorly as they've played in comparison with their potential, look at the current AL Wild Card standings:

W L Pct. GB
Boston 48 38 .558 ---
Oakland 47 39 .547 1
Anaheim 47 40 .540 1.5
Minnesota 47 40 .540 1.5

I don't believe it possible that the Sox will play any worse than they have thus far, especially with their whole lineup back in place and healthy (with the possible exception of Nomar's psyche). If they play .600 ball the rest of the way, they'll wind up with 94 wins - good enough at least to be in the mix - and they're capable of playing much better than that, unless Derek Lowe gets to start every game the rest of the way.

The All-Star break came at a great time for this team - they went into the break on a roll and then Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz both hit two-run bombs against the NL (Manny's on an 0-2 slider from Clemens - almost looked like he knew what was coming. Things that make you go, hmmmmmmm.). I expect them to finally rip off the winning streak that I've been asking for the last three months.

Without further ado:

The good stuff

1. Manny's first half has been MVP quality, both on the field and off. He's batting .340 with a league-leading 26 HR and 77 RBI (only one off the lead), and leading the AL in both OBP and SLG - and, needless to say, OPS. He's a legitimate triple crown threat, and he's been really consistent all season long. If needed, he could carry this offense, but it hasn't been needed thus far, because:

2. David Ortiz is a big, giant stud. Tizzle's .954 OPS is sparked by 23 HR and a league-leading 78 RBI. He's a threat to hit the ball out of the county every time he comes to the plate, and his swing is a joy to behold - bat head dropping into the slot, ball just disappearing as if pulverized before reappearing in a majestic arc behind the rightfielder. On top of all that, he's a terrifically silly man who appears to realize that he's playing a little kid's game for an assload of money.

3. Curt Schilling continues to play his role as staff leader, stopping losing streaks, pitching deep into games, and sacking up despite injuries. Schill's 3.16 ERA is second in the AL as are his 118 Ks.

4. Johnny Damon's been as fun to watch play as he is to look at. He's been on a tear of late, with 2 multi-homer games in the last several weeks, but he's been a top-flight leadoff guy all season. He's got an .889 OPS (with a .401 OBP from the top spot) with 10 HR and 46 RBI - a huge first half for our Savior.

5. The bullpen remains among the league's very best, despite Keith Foulke's recent scuffling. The Sox' 3.38 ERA trails the Angels by a mere 0.01 runs, and Foulke, Timlin, Williamson, and Embree are a fearsome bunch for opposing teams should the Sox make the playoffs.

6. Pedro's finding his way back. 9-3, 3.67 would be sublime for many pitchers. It's mediocre for Pedro, but he's 4-0, 2.35 in his last 6 starts, allowing 26 hits in 36 innings. He's always been a brilliant pitcher, and I think he's figured out how to use his just-slightly-more-mortal stuff to get outs.

7. Several little guys have contributed mightily, including Mark Bellhorn (.831 OPS, 11 HR, 50 RBI, 61 BB), Pokey Reese (not much offense, but gasp-inducing defense), Kevin Youkilis (.831 OPS in his first major league season), and Bronson Arroyo (misleading 3-7 record despite an above-average 4.09 ERA - more importantly, he's kept his team in nearly every game, going at least 6 innings in 10 of 14 starts).

8. And this should probably be at the top of the list, but the Sox are healthy. Nomar's back and beginning to sting the ball (.889 OPS in 107 ABs and coming off a scorching week). Trot Nixon's also back in the lineup and appears to be playing without pain, as is Billy Mueller.

9. With the renewed health comes the sense that the Sox are gamers. I've been ripping them all year for their seemingly laissez-fair attitude towards the season. Last week's 8-7, 10-inning win against the A's turned that upside-down for me. They blew a 7-1 lead before scrapping back to sweep Oakland, giving the A's the briefest hope before snuffing them. Billy Mueller's game-winning double seemed to signal an important change in the Sox' attitude. Of course, I could be wrong. Wouldn't be the first time.

As always, with the good comes the bad. Or, the Derek Lowe Memorial Section of Misery

1. The twice-aforementioned Lowe is the posterboy for disappointing performances this season, though his use of the phrase "Mental Gidget" in a post-game interview in one of this year's highlights. His 7-8, 5.57 is brutal, made worse so by his 5.5 innings per start and 1.62 WHIP. This guy's two seasons removed from a 21-8, 2.58 campaign. Seriously, what the fuck? It's time to consider taking him out of the rotation, which would be an option, except:

2. B.H. Kim is more of a headcase than Whitney's college girlfriends (present wife excepted). I have no idea if we'll ever see Kim in a Sox uniform again, which is a shame because he's got a world of talent. He and Ramiro Mendoza (Hey! The season's first Mendoza mention) are getting quality bonding time in Pawtucket as they cash the team's hard-won checks.

3. To put it simply, the Sox are the league's worst fielding team, and it's not even close. They're 28th in the majors in fielding percentage, and they've given up an astronomical 67 unearned runs - basically, they've handed their opponents .78 runs every game. The Cubs have given up 18(!) unearned runs, or fully half a run per game fewer than the Sox. The Sox don't have bad defensive players; they've just played like ass, which is the basis for my they-don't-care-enough sermons from the first half of the season. It's things like this that make me wish they had a fire-breathing, asshole-reaming, cocksucker of a manager.

4. Nomar's pouting has me ticked off. Yes, the Sox didn't do themselves any favors by so openly courting A-Rod in the off-season, and yes, I'd be pissed off, too, were I Nomar. But it's not the team's fault that he (and his agent) turned down a 4-year, $60 million contract before last year's Spring Training. It's been remarkable (and in many ways remarkably sad) to watch Manny transform into a fan favorite while Nomar's been cast as the gloomy prima donna. I still love Nomar, and I'll always enjoy watching him play the game, but I won't be nearly as sad to see him go at the end of this season as I would have 4 months ago. Just another spoiled ballplayer, which breaks my heart to type.

A final thought for the road

There's been a lot of talk this week about the Sox trying to get Randy Johnson for the stretch run, even about a Nomar/Unit deal. Y'know what? I don't want him. I don't want the Sox to win the World Series by buying it. I don't want to be a Yankee fan. I want my team - my really, really talented team - to strap it on, play up to their potential and smoke the American League over the next 76 games, then roll through the post-season like Sherman through Atlanta. The Yankees or Angels or Twins can have Randy Johnson and his mullet. It'll just make the victory beer taste sweeter.

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