Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Games 159 through 162 – Red Sox

Red Sox 4, Orioles 3
Orioles 5, Red Sox 4
Red Sox 9, Orioles 0
Final Record: 86-76, 3rd place, AL East

If 2005 was cast in the warm, gauzy afterglow of the epic 2004 season, 2006 found the the Nation groggily waking up next to a moderately cute, but wildly overpriced hooker with creaky joints and worse teeth and spending the better part of 8 months trying to figure out how to get her to leave.

The Sox’ final game was a fittingly unsatisfying cap to an enormously unsatisfying season. Devern Hansack pitched a no-hitter against the already-on-the-golf-course Orioles, which is pretty cool, save for the fact that a Biblical rainstorm halted the game after 5 innings. Not for nothing, but the mere happenstance that Devern Hansack took the hill for the Sox in an October contest pretty well encapsulates the donkey punch that was 2006.

At the risk of trudging once again over much-traveled territory, the Sox were undone in 2006 by the twin travails of extremely ill-timed, inordinately extensive injuries and related underperformance by key personnel. On August 4, a scant 60 days (or so) ago, the Sox stood at 65-43, their patchwork pitching staff still hanging in, and the impacts of losing Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek yet unfelt. Over the next 5 days, they dropped 5 consecutive games to the Devil Rays and Royals, and the bottom just kept falling out, not stopping until the Bostons skidded to a 21-33 mark over the season’s final third. By August 12, I was reduced to arguing with myself and Whitney over my mental status, and by August 23, I was scouring retrosheet.org for classic contests – anything to take my mind from the gruesome train wreck the Sox’ season had become.

From contenders to roadkill in less than 3 weeks. How did this team fail? Let us count the ways, falling back once again on the musical theme that’s made this season moderately bearable:

Play Deep – the Outfield’s 80s classic fits the Sox’ twin bullpen terrors, Julian Tavarez and Rudy Seanez perfectly, as they yielded rocket after rocket to opposing batters when not walking them at inconvenient times. The 2 veterans were counted on to stabilize the back of the Boston pen, and coming off strong 2005 campaigns, looked like solid offseason pickups by the Sox front office. It was bad enough that Tavarez’ 3.43 ERA, 2.6/1 K/BB, and 1.32 WHIP turned into 4.47, 1.27/1, and 1.56, but when Seanez followed suit, going from 2.69, 3.8/1, and 1.18 to 4.82, 1.84/1, and 1.65, the wheels catapulted off the Sox bullpen, leading directly to…

Sweet and Tender Hooligan in the forms of Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen, both talented but probably thismuch too green to be learning their craft in the midst of the Boston maelstrom. Hansen, still only 17 month removed from his college graduation, showed flashes of extreme promise in the season’s early stages, but as Tavarez and Seanez proved unworthy, the young righty was thrust into situations for which he was clearly unprepared. On July 26, Hansen’s ERA stood at 4.12, courtesy of scoreless outings in 5 of his previous 6 appearances. From that point on, as the load and expectations increased, he posted a 9.34 ERA in 20 games, earning a demotion to Pawtucket and leaving the Sox’ bully in an even bigger predicament. Delcarmen was generally more consistent than his youthful compadre, but posted an 11.25 ERA in September as the Sox watched their hopes slip completely away.

The hope here is that both pitchers use 2006 as a learning experience – the fear is that their confidence will be irreparably damaged, because the Sox had no choice but to let them learn on the job. Tavarez and Seanez strike again.

High Hopes could probably describe the outlook for the entire franchise entering the season, but Josh Beckett was the most obvious personification of that sentiment. The former World Series MVP arrived with a Yankee-killer rep, a wicked curveball, and a sick heater. We close the door on the season with Beckett trailing a string of gopher balls, a hardhead label, and a plus-5.00 ERA in his wake. Ebby Calvin posted 7 outings with 7 or more earned runs, which is both a testament to his extreme inconsistency and Terry Francona’s complete lack of trust in all members of the bullpen not named Papelbon. The good news – Beckett’s only 26 and he gave the Sox 204 innings with no health issues, which is so very much more than I can say about…

…Matt Clement, David Wells, and Tim Wakefield, Three the Hard Way. Clement, Wells, and Wakefield, three-fifths of the prospective rotation as the Sox broke camp in April, combined to pitch 252 innings in Boston uniforms after averaging 578 innings as a group over the last 4+ years. Jon Lester took up part of that 326-inning slack, giving the Sox 81 innings of mostly effective, always competitive effort. The remaining 265 innings went to the likes of Royals castoff Kyle Snyder, Indians reject Jason Johnson, AA callups David Pauley and Kason Gabbard, never-was Kevin Jarvis, afterthought Lenny DiNardo, and the aforementioned Devern Hansack. Almost makes you wonder how many innings Bronson Arroyo threw for Cincinnati this season. Oh, 240. Interesting.

Ahhh, almost went there, down that easy blamecasting path, scapegoating Theo and the front office for trading Arroyo for Wily Mo Pena. Hindsight being what it is, and memories what they are, many in the Nation lay the blame for the pitching woes on the General Manager. Those same people forget that the Sox had a wealth of starting pitching before the season began, even with Wells fighting knee problems in Spring Training. At the time of the deal, as the Sox traded an average AL starter who got killed by lefties for a promising, if raw, 4th outfielder, most of the Nation was pleased as punch. It was only after Arroyo tore through the mediocre NL to post career-best numbers and the Sox staff went down like so many dominos that the recriminations began.

The other easy front office target was the inability/unwillingness to make a deadline deal for a starter. Easy target, with the brickbats again poorly aimed. No significant starting pitcher changed teams at the trade deadline this season, and the ones that were rumored to be available would have cost the Sox dearly over the next several campaigns. The front office was no doubt acutely aware of the breakout successes posted by Freddy Sanchez in Pittsburgh (sent away for Scott Sauerbeck and Jeff Suppan in 2003) and Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez down Florida way (gone in exchange for Beckett and Mike Lowell). Their reluctance to deal for short-term salvation showed marked restraint, and some level of prescience – as no single deal would have likely been able to salve the Sox’ many wounds in August and September.

Theo may have made some mistakes this season (see Tavarez, Julian and Seanez, Rudy, for example), but he gets a pass on this one. Wily Mo Pena had a .838 OPS this season while adjusting to a new league and getting limited playing time, and he’s still only 24 years old (I’m beginning to sense a theme). Arroyo could’ve pitched 400 innings for the Sox this season, and it wouldn’t have been enough. And his arm would’ve fallen off.

One final note on the rotation – in a season with a lot of low points, Jon Lester’s cancer diagnosis may qualify as the very lowest. This is a goofball blog with a seriously unserious mien, so I may be out of place with this, but I’m rooting for that kid as much as I’ve ever rooted for any player, Sox or otherwise.

Hi, We’re the Replacements - From the real world to that of cartoon characters, Coco Crisp just never got off the ground in Boston, and we’re just finding out now how much his finger injury impacted him. Crisp was asked to carry a massive burden, replacing Johnny Damon not only in the lineup and centerfield, but also filling the mythical gap left by Johnny Jesus in the hearts and minds of a once-adoring Nation. Even if fully healthy, his task was immense. As it is, Crisp’s .702 OPS marks a significant dropoff from his previous 2 seasons, and the fits and starts in his season made it tough for Coco to win over the Fenway Faithful. I’m willing to wait and see on Coco, as he showed some flashes of what might be if he can come back healthy in 2007.

Breaking out a little T’Pau now, just ‘cause I know you like it, deep down in places you don’t talk about at sports bars. The Sox were in the thick of it right up until the Heart and Soul went down. Though Jason Varitek had a mediocre season, with his .725 OPS by far his weakest production since 2002 (last time the Sox missed the playoffs – coincidence, I think not), the Sox offense was holding its own until he went out. His departure required the Sox to use Ken Huckaby, Corky Miller, and Javy Lopez’ rotting corpse behind the plate, costing the Sox runs on offense and defense.

While I absolved the front office of much of the blame for the pitching woes, 2006 wasn’t Theo’s finest hour. As it turns out, the first-half’s most entertaining transaction may well have been the team’s worst. After Josh Bard gave up 10 passed balls in 5 starts “catching” Wakefield, the Sox sent him and Cla Meredith away to bring Doug Mirabelli back from San Diego to much fanfare, and a Boston PD escort from Logan to Fenway. Mirabelli proceeded to suck on ice, posting a .602 OPS – and Wakefield got hurt, completely negating ‘Belli’s value. The fact that Bard went to San Diego and put up a .943 OPS in a pitchers park stings, but the Cherry Bomb on top of this shit sundae was Cla Meredith’s performance. The sidewinder posted a 1.07 ERA in 50 innings as a critical component of the NL West champion Padres bullpen and was absolute murder on right-handed batters, holding them to a .300 (!) OPS. Meredith looked lost in his short stint in the bigs last season, but it sure seems that the vaunted player evaluation machine in Boston whiffed this one.

It wasn’t all plague and pestilence in the Nation, it just seems that way because of the way the season just petered out. The Sox’ very own Supernova, David Ortiz was once again a transcendent force, setting an all-time franchise mark with 54 homers and almost single-handedly keeping the Sox in the race in June and July when his walk-off fireworks went plaid, they were so beyond the pale. Papi put up a 1.049 OPS, and led the AL in both HR and RBI, but even he was not immune to the bizarre rash of ailments, leaving the team for a week with mysterious heart pains. It was almost as if, like the mythical John Henry (the railroad man, not the owner – but try that mental comparison on for size), his heart gave out from the strain of carrying his teammates.

Ortiz’ Dominican pal, Manny Ramirez and his band of media naysayers have perfected the art of turning a Whisper to a Scream. Raise your hand if you knew that Manny had a higher OPS than Papi. Now put your hand down if you’re a SoSH member. Now, punch yourself in the neck if you’re Dan Shaughnessy or one of the other spineless assmunches in the Boston media trying to run the best right-handed hitter in the American League out of town. All Manny did, once again, was hit 30+ homers, drive in over 100 runs, and post a 1.058 OPS. And if you believe the conventional wisdom, he’s played his last game in a Red Sox uniform. That’s a pisser.

Jonathan Papelbon took the hill in a Blaze of Glory in the season’s first week, and kept firing heat all the way through one of the league’s most dominant individual performances. Papelbon’s 4-2, 0.90, 35 save season was probably the only sustained bright spot on the pitching side of the ledger, and even he fell victim to the Mildly Irritable Reaper, shutting down for the season’s final month with a tired arm. Damn right it’s tired – it carried the whole freaking team for 4 months.

Working for a Living fairly well describes the efforts of most of the rest of the roster in 2006. Mike Lowell was surprisingly good, with an .814 OPS and 47 doubles to go with Gold Glove-caliber defense. Kevin Youkilis proved to be a better-than-average leadoff guy, posting a .391 OBP – he’ll need to add some power if the Sox want to keep him at first next year. Curt Schilling turned in another workmanlike year, recording 15 wins to go with his 3.97 ERA. Alex Gonzalez is probably the best fielder ever to grace the shortstop position in a Sox uniform – which is a good thing, because he ain’t winning any prizes for his .698 OPS. Mark Loretta didn’t hit for a lick of power, but he was consistent during a season that mostly went without. Alex Cora was a consummate backup, and Gabe Kapler…well, he looked pretty good in the uniform. Trot Nixon was another of the walking wounded, recording an altogether mediocre 8 HR and 52 RBI. Mike Timlin channeled the Prodigy in the season’s latter stages (and not in a good way), teaching his bullpen mates the chord progressions to Firestarter.

It’s an odd feeling watching the playoffs start without the Sox involved. In some small ways, I’m looking forward to just enjoying baseball, but those ways are really tiny in comparison to how much I’ll miss the pit-of-the-stomach anxiety of a close, late playoff game that matters to me. Somehow, rooting against the Yankees doesn’t provide the same juice.

Looks like we’ll be saying goodbye to some old friends in the offseason, as it’s likely Trot Nixon and Mike Timlin won’t be back in 2007. Manny Ramirez and Doug Mirabelli may well join them, as should Gabe Kapler. It’s the nature of the beast, I suppose. The following quote from A. Bartlett Giamatti is part of Red Sox broadcaster Joe Castiglione’s season sign-off. This is the first time in several years that I’ve felt it deeply – over the last 3 seasons, the exhilaration has taken longer to wear off.
"The Green Fields of the Mind"

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time,
to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days
are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of
rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped,
and summer was gone.

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