Saturday, April 14, 2007

Mighty Mighty Bosstones

Game 9 - Red Sox

Red Sox 10, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 1
Record: 5-4

As far back as MLC's inaugural post in April 2003, we've understood and cautiously embraced the Epstein/James high-leverage bullpen construction model. Cautiously embraced in theory, anyway, because the Sox never had the overall depth to make it really work in practice. The model says that the game's final three outs may not always be the most important, and that a manager should be willing to use the best arm(s) available in non-traditional closer situations.

Last night was one of Terry Francona's shining strategic moments as the manager of the Sox, and a repudiation of sorts of the nattering ninnies who decried the new-fangled bullpen thingy when it collapsed under the weight of too many Chad Foxes, Bobby Howrys, and Brandon Lyons back in 2003. The Sox led the Angels 4-1 in the top of the 8th, but found themselves in a tense spot when Brendan Donnelly hit old friend Orlando Cabrera to put runners on the corners with one out and the menace of Vladimir Guerrero digging in at the plate.

Tying run at the plate in the form of the opponent's most dangerous bat, and Francona wasted not a moment in going to the pen to get Jonathan Papelbon. Six pitches later, Guerrero had whiffed to end a mano a mano showdown and Garrett Anderson had lined to left to end the inning. The game was saved in that sequence.

The Sox plated 6 in the bottom of the 8th and Francona lifted Papelbon, saving his most explosive weapon for another day. No save for Paps, which might impact the ego of a more fragile or less team-focused closer. Managers don't often win or lose games, but you could argue that Francona's prudent and decisive deployment of his best bullpen arm weighed heavily in the final tally last night. Even more importantly for the long term, he sent a clear signal to his team that wins are more important than individuals - and Papelbon boosted his skipper by going right along with the decision. It's worth highlighting, by the way, the balls Paps showed in staring down Guerrero and beating the Angels' stud strength-on-strength. I've analyzed this in some detail, and I've come to the conclusion that Papelbon can pitch the baseball.

Tim Wakefield turned in his second sterling outing in as many chances, and was finally rewarded with some offensive support. Wake scattered 5 hits in 7 innings with only 2 walks on his ledger, and only Mike Lowell's wide throw on Maicer Izturis' leadoff grounder in the top of the 8th kept Wake from going deeper into the game.

Papi shook off consecutive strikeouts to start the game to drive in 3 clutch runs on roped liners to right. J.D. Drew continued to endear himself to Sully and Murph, driving in 2 runs on 2 hits and smoothly handling a tough chance on a liner by Casey Kotchman that kicked crazily off Fenway's unique walls. In fact, in what's becoming a mournful and increasingly bitter refrain, the only part of the offense that underperformed was Coco Crisp.

The Sox' centerfielder had real and viable excuses for his struggles in 2006 - he was burdened with high expectations and huge shoes to fill as he replaced the beloved Johnny Damon, and Crisp's early-season broken finger impacted him for the rest of the year. The Nation was unusually patient as Crisp turned in a .702 OPS, more than 100 points below his 2005 mark with the Indians, partly because the rest of the team wasn't very good, and partly because his performance could be written off to the injury. This year, though, that patience has already begun to wane. Crisp's 0-for-5 last night dropped his average to .121 and his OPS to a pitcher-like .353. As bad as that sounds, it looks even worse - the newly bestowed Coco Pops nickname testifies to his inability to drive anything and the overmatched presence he's carried to the plate thus far in 2007. Francona's next miracle: to lift Covelli from the depths of this slump, because the Sox haven't much in the way of options behind him in center.

After last night, though, in Terry We Trust, at least for now.

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