Monday, May 01, 2006

The Real Slim Shady - 25 Games In

Games 23 through 25 - Red Sox

Devil Rays 5, Red Sox 2
Red Sox 9, Devil Rays 6
Devil Rays 5, Red Sox 4
Record: 14-11

Midway through Saturday's game in Tampa, the Sox were on the short end of a 4-0 count, and in the midst of a 3 1/2 game run in which they'd been outscored 31-6. My impending temper tantrum was muted only by a soon-to-be-empty bottle of pinot noir. As the top of the 6th began, I told my wife that this was the Sox' worst 4-game stretch since Whit and I began this collaboration.

And then, thanks to some long overdue timely hitting and the implosion of the Rays' mediocre bullpen, the Sox plated 9 runs in the game's last 4 innings and Jonathan Papelbon capped things off with a dominant 9th inning, whiffing all 3 Devil Rays he faced. And I was just drunk, instead of drunk and angry.

Yesterday, though, Curt Schilling and Rudy Seanez each gave up 2-run homers by grooving pitches on 0-2 counts, and the Sox fell short despite 9th inning solo shots by Mike Lowell and Wily Mo Pena, and despite putting the tying run on 3rd with 1 out. The resumption of my recent irritation was exacerbated by the fact that Schilling's 133-pitch outing against Cleveland almost certainly directly led to his inability to pitch the 7th inning yesterday - which necessitated Seanez' insertion into a close game. Cause, meet effect.

So, 25 games into a season that started in sublime fashion, Eminem's musical question resonates - if a bit paraphrased: will the real Boston Red Sox please stand up, please stand up? The tail end of a 3-7 stretch may not be the best time to truly evaluate this team any more than the middle of their 11-4 season opening spree. That said, there's enough good and bad right now to puzzle even the most ardent Sox-watcher.

Good Shady

As I've detailed at some length in this space, Kevin Youkilis, the Greek God of Getting on Base, is contributing significantly in his first season as a full-time starter. It's gotten to the point where I'm surprised when he fails to come up big in a pinch, as he did yesterday with the tying run at 3rd in the top of the 9th. He's posted an .820 OPS, 5th among AL starters at first base, and has been errorless in 184 chances, rendering J.T. Snow as irrelevant as Tom Delay's ethics advisor.

It's hard not to get all hyberbolic about Papelbon's start, given that he still hasn't given up a run in 13 innings. Setting aside the inevitable regression (not necessarily to the mean, but he's not gonna be perfect all year) and potential that Paps joins the rotation sometime this season, his contribution in the season's first month is hard to overstate. Without Papelbon stepping up after Keith Foulke's early ineffectiveness, the Sox could easily be 3-4 games under .500. Just as the D-Rays how important late-inning arms can be.

Speaking of Foulke, I'm hard-pressed to describe my surprise at including him in the roster of positives for the season's first 25 contests. He was awful during the season's first week, but has suddenly turned into a rock, and arguably the Sox' best reliever right now - even considering Papelbon. Foulke's ability to pitch multiple high-leverage innings will be a huge boost to the Sox' chances, so his health will be one of the major plot lines as the weather warms.

Despite misfires over the recent road trip, Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett have shown the potential to be dominant for the Sox. Beckett still needs to adjust to the American League and stop challenging hitters when he doesn't need to, but his makeup and his stuff are elite. Schilling just needs the manager to step up and use him judiciously, lest his arm and leg fall off in July.

After years of ham-handed defensive efforts (with one magic interlude in late 2004), the Sox have finally gotten serious about fielding the baseball. Despite Coco Crisp's injury, the Sox are tied for 3rd in the AL in errors with 11 in 25 games (and 4 of those came in the D-Rays series). They haven't hit consistently yet, but they have picked it, especially in the infield.

Sox fans were decidedly cool regarding Mike Lowell as the season began, considering him a necessary evil as a part of the trade that brought Beckett to Boston. And while I have doubts about his ability to ever be an elite slugger, the fact remains that his current .882 OPS is higher than his career high (if only by .001).

Trot Nixon's started quickly despite an early injury, Wily Mo Pena's shown promise, especially now that he's been in the lineup consistently for a few days, and David Ortiz has (mostly) been David Ortiz. Manny's starting to swing the bat after a slow start, elevating his OPS to .855.

Bad Shady

As noted above, the Sox have some reasons for optimism. However, they've got nearly as many reasons for the opposite emotion.

Each at-bat Alex Gonzalez gets in the 9-spot is equivalent to that of an NL pitcher, and in the American League, giving away outs puts a team at a disadvantage. As sublime as A-Gon is with the glove, his putrid offensive output (a .518 OPS!) is enough to make me long for the days of Edgar Renteria and his scattershot fielding ways.

The extreme shifts employed by most opponents against Papi seem to be getting into his head. This is purely anecdotal and observational, as I'm not inclined to do any analysis, but Ortiz' body language after grounding yet another bullet to an infielder stationed in right-field has been deflated. He's still leading the team in OPS, HR, and RBI, and he's still fearsome, but I worry about the long-term impact on his swing and his psyche if he tries to change his swing to defeat the shift.

As good as Papelbon and Foulke have been, they're in danger of being overshadowed by the mediocrity of their bullpen mates. Outside of Papelbon, the relief corps has posted a 5.14 ERA, and even more importantly, Terry Francona doesn't seem to trust anyone other than the aforementioned studs and Mike Timlin. And frankly, he's right. Julian Tavarez, Seanez, the recently recalled Manny Delcarmen, Jermaine Van Buren (of the Van Buren Boys) - none of them have been useful in any role other than cleaning up the messes made by...

...the Sox' 5th starters. Lenny DiNardo and David Wells have combined to go 0-2 with a 8.87 ERA in 22 1/3 innings. DiNardo's a nice guy, but as a member of the rotation of a team with playoff aspirations, he's...well, he's a nice guy. Wells, on the other hand, is a prick, but at least he's an out-of-shape, ineffective, and currently injured prick. Help, it appears, is not on the way.

Josh Bard has been, um, not so great behind the plate as Tim Wakefield's caddy, adding one more culprit to the list of guys victimizing Timmy Wake over the season's first month. He's pitched a lot better than his 1-4 record might indicate.

Running down the rest of the list, Mark Loretta's chipped in a couple of big hits, but he's been fairly awful with the stick for the most part leading the team in ABs with a .579 OPS. Jason Varitek looks hurt - he's been well below his usual standards at the plate. WillieHarrisDustanMohr are simply not big-league ballplayers and every at-bat they get makes the Sox a worse team.

Mash all that together and do a little back-of-the-napkin calculations, and you've got...well, I have no idea what you've got. And that's sorta the point. I know these Sox are capable of more, but it sure looks like they're capable of about 85 wins, too.

First of 19 against the Yankees tonight in Boston, with a little 2-game mini-series to ease the Nation into the angst. Bard gets to see if he can track down the knuckler, and Johnny Damon gets to see how he fares in the wrong uniform. I hear that the Sox are planning to sign Damian Jackson just so he can run out towards center in the first inning to scare Damon.

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