Monday, July 10, 2006

Thunder Road

Games 84 through 86 – Red Sox

Red Sox 7, White Sox 2
Red Sox 9, White Sox 6
White Sox 6, Red Sox 5 (19)
Record: 53-33

Despite yesterday’s blown tire of a loss to the Pale Hose, the Soxwagon pulls into the pits for the All-Star break with just about every cylinder firing. After rebounding to take 2 of 3 from Chicago, the Sox lead the Yankees by 3 in the division race. While that’s assuredly not a massive gulf, the alternatives posed by parallel Sox/Sox and Yankees/Rays series’ were much grimmer than the actual outcome. Psychologically, the Sox (or, more accurately, the mental cases that make up the Nation) are on solid footing heading into the break.

Through the season’s first “half”, the Sox’ motor hummed along as well as most observers would have expected, aided substantial by the high-test octane of interleague play. Aside from a handful of speedbumps (noted below), the backseat drivers of the Nation have very little about which to complain. Here’s what the season looks like from this passenger’s viewpoint:

The Lamborghinis

Sox fans have become very, very spoiled by David Ortiz’ ongoing heroics, so much so that we’re in danger of losing sight of Manny Ramirez’ continued excellence. Papi’s walk-off theatrics and team-record 31 pre-break homers are well documented, but Manny’s quietly posted a better OPS (1.049 to .997) and not fallen prey to the usual Manny passion plays that dominate some part of every season. (Despite, I might add, Tim McCarver and Joe Buck’s best efforts on Saturday to convict Manny of a capital crime for not wanting to play in the All-Star game.)

The biggest story of the first half, and the most important in both the short and long terms, is the emergence of a new generation of talented young arms from the Sox’ farm system. Rookies Jonathan Papelbon, Craig Hansen, Manny Delcarmen, and Jon Lester have combined to shore up both the bullpen and the rotation when such fortification was desperately required. Papelbon’s been spectacular – the run he allowed to the White Sox in yesterday’s game was the first he’s given up on the road all season – but he was at least expected to contribute meaningfully this season. Hansen and Delcarmen have stepped in to earn important setup roles in the ‘pen, while Lester filled a gaping breach in the rotation in June, going 4-0 and keeping the Sox in all his starts despite marginal command. The heat of the pennant race will test the both the poise and the stuff of these 4, but the early returns commend the youngsters’ preternatural mental makeup nearly as much as their power arms.

Aside from the kids on the pitching staff, the emergence of Kevin Youkilis as a consistent weapon from the leadoff spot and an above-average defender has been one of the season’s most pleasant surprises. Youks’ Moneyball-aided celebrity had outpaced his on-field production during his first 2 big-league seasons, in part because of Terry Francona’s allegiance to Kevin Millar (a reliance that, in hindsight, sure may have cost the Sox the division title last year as Youks languished in Pawtucket while Millar told funny jokes and sucked donkeys at the plate and in the field). Now, with an opportunity to play every day, Youks has posted a terrific .407 OBP, chipped in with a plethora of clutch hits, hustled his ass off, and played Gold Glove-caliber first base. On top of all that, he’s a goofy-looking, unpretentious Everyman who’s quickly becoming the next in a long line of blue collar Fenway heroes.

Finally, the Sox’ defense has been a revelation. I remember writing something in the precursor to MLC that decried the Sox’ ham-handed approach to glovework and suggested that they’d be equally effective with pots and pans on their hands. Trust me, it was comedic gold. Now, though, the Sox have the fewest errors in the American League, and are making the difficult look routine, especially on the right side of the infield. Hell, the defense has been so good that it convinced Theo Epstein that Jason Johnson could be rehabilitated – and that’s one hell of trick.

The Beemers

Just a step below the ultra-performance vehicles listed above, mostly because of age, Curt Schilling and Mike Lowell have been reliable, steady contributors over the first half. The Nation expected Schilling to bounce back from last year’s injury-riddled campaign, and the loquacious right has done just that, leading the staff in both performance and presence. All we asked from Lowell, though, was that we wouldn’t have to release him and eat his $8m contract. Far from it, with his 31 doubles putting him close to record pace and his spectacular defense. Lowell and Alex Gonzalez combine to give the Sox the majors’ best right-side glove tandem

The Pickup Trucks

Steady and unspectacular for the most part, these guys are nonetheless doing their jobs and carrying their share of the load.

Mark Loretta started abysmally at the plate, but he’s quietly brought his average up over .300 and his OPS to an acceptable .738. He’s an All-Star, for what that’s worth, but he’s also been rock-solid in the field and turns a quick double play. Another in a long, long line of unassuming pros at second base in Boston.

Trot Nixon’s power numbers are down, but he’s getting on base like a machine (yesterday’s 0-for-9 notwithstanding), posting a .415 OBP. You could make the argument that he’d be a better no. 2 hitter than his current 5 or 6 slot, but that’s a small quibble. He’s even hit lefties semi-decently this year.

Coco Crisp has flashed a brilliant glove and an adequate bat in his first year in Boston, and probably more importantly has not made a peep about being demoted in the batting order after Youks proved his value in the top spot. There’s a little sumpin’-sumpin’ about Coco – I think he’s poised for a big 2nd half.

Although he’s self-immolated twice in the past week, Mike Timlin’s been Mike Timlin for most of the first half, anchoring the bullpen amidst the chaos of Papelbon’s insane start and the veteran arms growing ancient before our eyes. At some point, Timlin’s age has to start to show, but he’s offering no signs that it’ll be this year.

Finally, the Sox reserves have contributed in key spots all season long. Alex Cora’s almost as good as Gonzalez at short and continues to get key hits. Gabe Kapler fought back from a major injury and has been a stud in his short stint. Doug Mirabelli’s struggled a little bit behind the plate and at the bat, but looks to be coming around after a solid performance against the Rays. Wily Mo Pena had some moments early in the season, and will have a chance to play a big role down the stretch. Even Adam Stern, long since back in Pawtucket, saved a game during the season’s first 2 weeks with a sprawling catch. We'll just sweep Willie Harris under the rug here, if you don't mind.

1992 Jaguar

A class all to himself, Josh Beckett has been the epitome of the stylish roadster that can’t stay out of the shop. Soooo much potential, such electric stuff, and so many goddamn gopher balls. 27 homers allowed after another 3-bomb torching by the White Sox (in a game the BoSox won!), including 23 on the road. He’s so close to giving the Sox the league’s best 1-2 punch (okay, 2nd-best after Minnesota’s Santana and Liriano), but he can’t get over the longball hump.

In Need of Jumper Cables

Jason Varitek caught all 19 innings of yesterday’s loss, and in so doing fairly well encapsulated his whole season. Ineffective at the plate (0-for-8 with a walk), and stoic in his resolve behind the plate. I’m starting to seriously wonder if Tek’s hit the wall, careerwise. His numbers have been mediocre, at best (.386 SLG – blech), but even more worrisome is he way he approaches his plate appearances. On more than a few occasions this season, Tek’s just waived harmlessly at pitches as if he has no objective more pressing than to run back to the dugout to put on his gear. In one particularly pitiful display, the lefty Tek’s front foot seemed to be headed back to the dugout before he swung the bat, setting up a particulary nifty pirouette that followed the inevitable whiff. Tek’s been the heart and soul of the Sox throughout the current Golden Era, but it sure looks like they may have to take him out back and shoot him. How do you like that mixture of metaphor?

I hate to include him here, mostly because he doesn’t deserve it, but recent whispers about Tim Wakefield’s potential back injury move him into this category. If he’s okay to go after the break, he takes his rightful place amongst the core of the squad, eating innings and keeping the Sox in nearly every game he starts.

On Blocks, Rusting

For obvious reasons, these guys have been the real lemons in the Sox’ first-half fleet.

The veteran pitching tandem of Julian Tavarez and Rudy Seanez have ceded their high-leverage roles to the aforementioned youngsters, and that’ saying something on a Francona-led ballclub. Sadly, though, neither righthander has been remotely dependable. For every great outing – Tavarez’ 4 scoreless innings yesterday stands out – these 2 have turned in 3 miserable ones.

The black hole at the back of the Sox’ rotation is, to me, the single biggest point of concern for the season’s 2nd half. David Wells begat David Pauley begat Kyle Snyder begat Jason Johnson begat much gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair in the Nation. Matt Clement’s head-scratching headcasery exacerbated the issue – if Clement were capable of holding down the no. 4 role, Jon Lester’s an easy fit into the 5th slot. Theo Epstein’s right to say that the Sox won’t mortgage the future to find a replacement level arm at the trade deadline, but should they fail to figure something out, they’re looking at likely losses every 5th day. And that’s not a winning prescription.

I suppose Keith Foulke fits here, too, but I’ve thought so infrequently about him since he went on the DL that it’s hard to consider him part of the team. Be nice to have another reliable arm in the pen come September, but I’m not counting on it being Foulke.

All in all, that’s a lot more positive than negative – which makes sense, I suppose, for a team that’s on pace to win 100 games despite only playing 43% of its games at home. The Sox play 44 of their final 76 games in Fenway, where they’re 27-10 this season, good for a .730 winning percentage. If they keep that up, they’ll only need to play .468 ball on the road to clinch a 100-win season. Ifs, buts, candy, nuts, blah blah blah, but the bottom line is this: if Tito can keep the car on the road for the next 2 months, the Sox are once again in position to make a serious postseason run. At the end of the day, that’s all any fan can ask.

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