It’s been a popular topic for sports talk radio over the last few days:
Why the lack of local fan outrage over Jacoby Ellsbury’s free agent move to the Yankees?
Seems, to me, pretty easy to understand, and it all ultimately revolves around the money.
Ellsbury is a good player and one who’s well worth a long-term commitment, but an average of nearly $22 million over seven years is absurd for a man of his skill set and checkered health history. Had he left for, say, $17 million or so per year, Red Sox supporters would likely be up in arms over the team’s decision not to shell out some of that Dodgers money rather than creating what’s currently a massive uncertainty in center field – one that I’m guessing won’t be a mystery for long – but those dollars were almost universally deemed ridiculous.
I fully support Jackie Bradley Jr. as the club’s Gold Glove-caliber, modestly compensated middle outfielder, but it would be a surprise if the Sox didn’t add a veteran (Carlos Beltran would be nice, but may be too pricey) or an inexpensive complement in the event the youngster gets off to another rough start.
Getting back to Ellsbury, why have the Johnny Damon comparisons and traitor accusations dissipated so quickly? Partially because, even though he came up through the system and was a World Series hero, he never quite felt like one of Boston’s own. As Chad Finn appropriately wrote, the Oregon native seemed far more of a mercenary or hired gun for the last seven years – when he was actually on the field.
That brings me to the other reason, which centers on the cash and length of the signing. That deal from the Yankees is viewed as so laughably bad from the outset that few people, folks in New York included, believe the contract won’t blow up in the Bombers’ faces. Ellsbury may be very good for the next few years if he’s healthy, but how about the second half of the agreement? Looks like another nine-figure Yankees pact waiting to go bad.
Some other thoughts…
- Sticking with the Red Sox, I hope to be chastised in about 10 months for being wrong, but I don’t like the A.J. Pierzynski addition. As I’ve written about for weeks, I’d much prefer Boston stuck with known and improving commodity Jarrod Saltalamacchia for three more years at very reasonable money. Miami’s $21 million deal with the now former Sox catcher will prove to be a steal. In saying that, I’m more comfortable with Pierzynski than Ryan Lavarnway getting the starting nod.
- Edward Mujica? I like it. He’s exactly the type of player I wanted to see the team add to help bridge the gap to Koji Uehara at the trade deadline last season, not that they wound up needing the bullpen help down the stretch. Of course, he couldn’t even help his own team in October. Still, he’s 29, has pin-point control (5 walks in 64 2/3 innings in 2013), and had a tremendous first five months of the season (1.73 ERA) before a painful September hiccup (11.05 ERA). Mujica made only two postseason appearances.
- Robinson Cano reportedly reached a 10-year deal from the Mariners for $240 million on Friday. The Yankees opted to overpay Ellsbury instead. Time for some “man on the street” interviews in Queens. This could get ugly fast.
- There was obviously a certain irony in Max Pacioretty’s injuring of Johnny Boychuk in last night’s Bruins loss, since the Canadiens forward was on the receiving end of a Zdeno Chara thumping nearly three years ago. Montreal fans wanted Chara imprisoned for that hit. Something tells me the Boston faithful will be a little more understanding, especially if the defenseman’s supposed lower back injury isn’t serious, as reported by CSNNE.com.
- Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said in a radio interview with 98.5 The Sports Hub on Thursday that Rajon Rondo isn’t close to a return and is at least a few weeks away. In other words, we’ll see the All-Star point guard in 2014. For those rooting for a high lottery pick, that’s good news. Brad Stevens’ crew is in first place – at 8-12! – in a terrible Atlantic Division, and would currently host a first-round playoff series in an even more miserable Eastern Conference. If it makes fans on the Tank Train happy, though, a C’s loss coupled with a Sixers win would drop Boston all the way down to ninth in the conference. But, really, the season still has 76 percent of its games remaining. Bit early to scoreboard-watch.
- The Patriots should be 10-3 by Sunday evening. Then again, the Texans – now losers of 11 straight after allowing the once 0-8 Jaguars their fourth win of the year – weren’t supposed to give New England much of a scare either. Here’s what I’d like to see from New England this weekend: Don’t trail at the half, efficiency on third-down defense, stop the run, and play Stevan Ridley. Josh Gordon won’t beat the Pats all by himself, even if Jason Campbell is back instead of a trick-shot fill-in.
- Alfonzo Dennard was in a Nebraska courtroom Thursday and had his jail time doubled and his probation extended after a drinking and driving incident last July. I still can’t figure out how this guy’s mind works.
- It was a big day for FSU’s Jameis Winston Thursday. The moment he was cleared of rape charges, he was given his freedom and won the Heisman Trophy.
- Good luck to all the high schoolers playing for Super Bowls at Gillette on Saturday. Tom Brady might be watching. No pressure.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
Back on Sept. 11, a few days after the Patriots' narrow season-opening win in Buffalo, New England coach Bill Belichick was asked in his weekly interview on WEEI about the future of Stevan Ridley, who was benched after a second-quarter fumble against the Bills.
“Stevan’s a good player,” a matter-of-fact Belichick stated. "I thought he ran well. We have a long way to go. We’re going to need him. I’m sure he’ll contribute a lot for us this year.”
A lot has seemingly changed in the last few months.
When the 9-3 Pats host the 4-8 Browns on Sunday in Week 14 of the NFL season, it’s unknown at this point if Ridley will be in the lineup.
Asked on Monday if he was sending his back a message, Belichick said, “If I have a message to send to somebody, I’ll just sit down and talk to them and tell them what it is. There’s no sending a message.”
The coach added that his team just tries to win games and that the 46 active players represent the group best capable of making that goal a reality.
So, do you buy it?
It’s easy to say Belichick isn’t attempting to send Ridley a message by holding him out because he was already benched twice before enduring an inactive on his resume. If the message to hang onto the damn ball needed to be sent, that happened some time ago.
But does benching Ridley help the Patriots or actually hurt the team?
On one hand, the carelessness, butterfingers, bad luck, good defense or however we’d like to label his four fumbles have cost the Pats points on each and every occasion. The team is admittedly 3-1 in those games, but the job isn’t any easier with free points or possessions for grabs with every loose ball. His ability to produce aside, he’s a liability if he’s losing control before helping his teammates to first downs or the end zone.
On the other, there’s no debating that Ridley is the club’s most talented and explosive option in the backfield. The Patriots are missing his quickness, consistency, and overall skillset when he’s not on the field. The former LSU star is not necessarily the game-changer Shane Vereen is, given his versatility as a pass-catcher, but that option exists with or without Ridley, who’s more of a first and second-down back.
Historically speaking, it’s been a down-year for Ridley, though his ball-security issues have obviously played a direct role in his numbers. As a sophomore in 2012, he rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in 16 games. He carried the ball for at least 70 yards on 11 occasions. This season, Ridley has eclipsed 55 yards in only three of his 10 games while rushing for 576 yards and seven scores.
However, his average gain has been consistent from 4.4 yards per carry last year to 4.3 currently.
Alternative options LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, and Vereen have rushed for six scores and 860 yards on an impressive 4.7 yards per carry, but much of that success has come as a complement to Ridley.
In a Week 6 loss to the Bengals, which Ridley missed with a knee injury, Blount and Bolden combined for 55 yards on 17 attempts on the ground, an average of 3.2 yards.
Last weekend, when the Patriots rallied to beat the lowly Texans, Blount and James Develin both scored TDs, but the running-back-by-committee quadrant managed just 88 yards on 27 carries for a 3.3 average effort.
Any number of facts can affect a running game from week-to-week, whether it’s the opposing defense, the weather, the game plan, or a host of other elements, but efficiency is the bottom line.
Even in a passer’s league with a top-tier quarterback like Tom Brady, a quality second option from the backfield provides balance and is often instrumental to a team’s success when the games matter most.
Ridley may see limited playing time in the regular season’s remaining four games (represented by a relatively light schedule) and subsequent postseason. Despite the year left on his contract, the third-year back may also be looking for a new home next season.
But, maybe, just maybe, he’ll get another shot at the starting gig. The Patriots are a better team with Stevan Ridley and, eventually, they’re going to need him again. Holding him out until that time is only a detriment to his rapidly-depleting confidence as the pressure he puts on himself continues to mount.
Hopefully he won’t drop the ball if his name is called.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury is the latest long-time member of the Red Sox to join the hated Yankees, courtesy of a seven-year, $153 million contract. An eighth-year option could bring the deal to a jaw-dropping $169 million.
My advice to Boston fans before swearing off his existence: Take a deep breath, let the anger subside that your Gold Glove center fielder, proven playoff performer, and speedy leadoff hitter is off to the archrival, and recognize as you exhale that this is good news.
Though it may initially feel like the Sox are being spurned in the same way they were when Damon left for the Bronx nine years ago after the Hub’s first World Series championship since 1918, begging the obligatory Jesus-to-Judas jokes and subsequent apparel, this situation is entirely different – as long as you ignore the ground they patrolled at Fenway.
The Red Sox desperately wanted Damon back and offered him comparable money to return. Ellsbury was never, not for one single second, going to get the kind of dough he’s on the brink of receiving from New York once he passes his physical. In the last few years, he turned down multiple opportunities to ink an extension with Boston, once reportedly for nine figures.
It’s really not all that surprising that he landed in pinstripes, either, since their need for a leadoff hitter, center fielder, relative youth, speed, and his ability to thrive for power in Yankee Stadium always made New York a logical destination. The only shock is the money.
When healthy, Ellsbury is an elite player. In his seven-year career, the 30-year-old has a .297 average, .789 OPS, 65 home runs, 314 RBI, and 241 stolen bases (with an 83 percent success rate). He was damn near an MVP in 2011.
The problem for his new team is that staying injury-free has been a challenge, essentially every other year of the star’s career.
The debate as to whether Ellsbury is tough with bad luck, or soft and fragile really doesn’t matter at this point. Broken ribs, a separated shoulder, hand and foot ailments, and a bruised ego have all been issues at one time or another, but the only fact that matters there is he’s missed 264 games over the last four seasons. Now, the outfielder is about to be paid $21.86 million annually. It’s hard to imagine there’s a rationally-thinking baseball fan in all of Boston who would have liked to see the Red Sox shell out that kind of money for his services, even after watching him firsthand all of these years. Give us Jackie Bradley, Jr., Shane Victorino, Carlos Beltran, or a slew of other suitors for a fraction of the cost.
Heck, hanging on to Carl Crawford would have been marginally cheaper, not that he’s nearly the player Ellsbury is.
After a playoff-less 85-77 season in 2013, the Bombers have locked themselves into two more massive contracts this offseason – including catcher Brian McCann’s five-year, $85 million pact – with reports that deals with Robinson Cano, Shin-Soo Choo, and a starting pitcher could follow. In the process, at least two compensatory draft picks are on their way out the door for a team that continues to build externally while simultaneously diminishing any hope of rebuilding a strong farm system.
As for all that talk about spending less in 2014? Well, if the $189 million luxury-tax threshold were a pair of pants, the Yankees are the dieting obese guy who opted for one more round at the all-you-can-eat-buffet. And, if Alex Rodriguez – with his $26 million in tow – isn’t suspended for his alleged transgressions, the belt might downright snap given all their remaining needs.
Ask yourself: Would you want Jacoby Ellsbury in Boston, potentially until he’s 38, for more than $22 million a year?
Before rushing to a decision, consider how Mark Teixeira’s dismissal of the Red Sox has worked out in the grand scheme.
If not, join me in wishing Ellsbury well and thanking him for playing an integral role in leading Boston to two World Series championships since 2007.
Odds are, by the end of the term, he’ll be counting his money at the bank while the Yankees are wondering what they were thinking on that chilly December evening in 2013. Historically, that’s how the story almost always ends, and that’s typically for the players without a history of being hurt before signing their big deals.
See you at Fenway on April 22, Jacoby. And don’t forget to shave that beard.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
The 2013 Patriots are 9-3 and on the cusp of their 11th AFC East title in 13 years. They’ve already guaranteed themselves a 13th straight winning season, and it’s not unreasonable to think they’re capable of running the table against the Browns, Dolphins, Ravens, and Bills – all teams with six wins or fewer – to finish a surprising 13-3.
Over the summer, a 13-3 record and the first-round playoff bye that would come with it probably wouldn’t have been so unthinkable. After all, in Tom Brady’s 10 full seasons (thus excluding 2001, 2008, and this year), the Pats have averaged only 3.6 losses.
But this has been no ordinary year.
Brady’s top targets out of the gate were an injury-prone receiver most everyone doubted and an established NFL kick returner that nobody else wanted. His all-world tight end (the one without handcuffs) was absent, his pass-catching back was injured for half the season in the opener, and New England’s top rusher has proven the only place he can confidently hold onto the football is on the sidelines. The future Hall of Famer was instead surrounded by a collection of eager but unproven rookies, who were destined to make an awful lot of mistakes while transitioning to the pro game.
The defense was poised to be the difference in Foxboro for the first time in a long while and, for a handful of weeks, it was. Led by Aqib Talib and an incredibly effective secondary, the Pats shut down prominent receivers week after week on the way to a 4-0 start. Even in a Week 5 loss in Cincinnati, New England only surrendered 13 points. It was easy to argue the team was winning in spite of Brady, amazing as that was to behold.
It was enjoyable to think the Patriots were turning back the clock to the defensive supremacy that made them so successful back in their Super Bowl glory years of the early 2000’s, but that’s not who this team is anymore.
The sample size is large enough. We know who the 2013 Patriots are and will be for the remainder of the year, and they should look familiar.
In the two seasons entering this campaign, the Pats lived by their offense and survived their defense. Over the last seven weeks, during which time New England is 5-2 with an overtime loss, the club has scored 32.4 points per game while giving up a staggering 27.3.
Both totals are remarkably different from the 19 and 14 respective averages of the opening five weeks.
There are a host of discernible reasons for the change, but most of them involve the health of the Pats’ stars.
As Brady’s offensive weapons have returned to the lineup, they’ve developed a rhythm and started to steamroll opposing defenses like in years past. Rob Gronkowski has put any concern over his multitude of injuries to rest and been the difference-maker everyone hoped he’d be, Shane Vereen has given offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels options on third down, Julian Edelman is doing his best Wes Welker impersonation, and Danny Amendola is, well, on the field more often than not. Even a depleted offensive line hasn’t been able to slow down their production.
The ‘D’ is just too banged up to have any dependable success and that’s not going to improve. Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Tommy Kelly are long done for the year, and the secondary doubles as an infirmary. Talib is back in the lineup after a brief absence, but his hip ailment has made him a shell of the player he was in the first six games of the season. At full or even relative full strength, the unit had the potential of being a Top 5 defense in the league. Absent so many key contributors, however, few people would dispute that it’s not a championship caliber crew.
Fortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything in a balanced and often unimpressive AFC.
The Patriots are good enough to return to the Super Bowl in a couple of months. With their 24-point comeback win over Peyton Manning’s Broncos before Thanksgiving, they might even be the favorite to represent their conference – as long as they avoid further serious injury.
With a dozen games in the books, we know the themes.
The Pats can run the ball when they want (123 yards per game), but they sure can’t stop a ground-attack (an average of 138.2 yards allowed, which ranks 31st in the NFL).
Though they’ve found offensive success on third-down and in the red zone in recent weeks, defensively, opponents have converted nearly 44 percent (29th) of their third-effort tries and found the end zone in 58 percent (21st) of their trips to the red area.
And, of course, the Patriots are regularly tasked with battling from behind. In fact, they’ve trailed in 10 of their 12 games and nine have been one-possession ballgames. The early deficits have become a dangerous pattern, but they’ve at least shown the ability to make in-game adjustments as well as anyone in the league – even if those modifications are jokingly viewed by some as cheating when scratching back to defeat a now 10-loss team. That cheating may as well be known as having Tom Brady.
All things considered, this may be Bill Belichick’s finest job as head coach. Maybe someone will ask him about it at Media Day in the Meadowlands.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
It used to be easy.
Thanksgiving Day in Massachusetts signified high school football. It was a day for decades-long rivalries, where undefeated seasons, roughly 70 playoff spots, and dozens of league titles potentially hung in the balance for hundreds of small communities across the Commonwealth.
For many towns, and most especially the seniors on the field, it was the biggest day of the year; their version of The Game, without the Ivy League exclusivity.
Now, things aren’t so simple.
As a result of the state’s new playoff format that kicked off this season and is in the first of a two-year trial period, the significance of the Thanksgiving game isn’t quite the same. The postseason began for 160 teams early this month and is now over for all but 12, who are set to clash in six Super Bowl title contests at Gillette Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 7. One true winner will represent each of the state’s divisions, a stark contrast to a previous system that awarded an unnecessarily-high 19 schools as champions.
The new system – with its seven-week regular season and four-week playoff (or exhibition season for non-qualifiers) – isn’t perfect, but it’s a large step in the right direction. Changes to the prior configuration needed to be made, and this new one has its flaws as well, whether concerning the standings-driven points-structure, the need for automatic entrants, late-season scheduling, playoff seeding, or division alignments.But the discussion revolves around Thanksgiving.
Coaches with teams still fighting for Super Bowl glory are questioned regularly by parents as to whether they’ll play to win on the holiday, or sit their key players to save them for what’s largely considered a bigger game. The other numerous teams preparing for their final games, though, have no reason not to dress their starters, leading to a potential varsity versus junior varsity showdown in a handful of contests.
In most towns, the Thanksgiving Day game is all that’s left, but there’s nothing on the line to fight for other than pride. The common criticism is that it renders the game meaningless, or turns it into a glorified scrimmage.
And, not to be lost in the debate, many schools in the new system played their rival already this year with the thought that beating the top teams in their leagues early in the season would help cement playoff berths, since the top two squads in each division were guaranteed a spot.
“A lot of athletic directors and football coaches [in the East] didn’t believe this plan had a chance to pass a vote, so they didn’t read the proposal,” he said sternly. “These leagues could have chosen a formula for which you’d choose your playoff teams. You didn’t have to play your full league schedule and play your Thanksgiving opponent twice, possibly three times. A lot of athletic directors don’t understand that if you’re playing in a league of five, you’re still gonna have three non-conference games that should get you into the tournament. You don’t have to be the first or second team in your league; you just really needed to have a winning record.”
Plymouth South and Plymouth North are among the squads preparing to clash for a third time on Thanksgiving.
“We’re not going to play any of our starters,” revealed South coach and athletic director Scott Fry, whose team trails its rivalry with North, 14-5. “In talking to our kids, the chance to play in Gillette is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I owe it to those kids to put them in the best position for that game.”
Fry noted his decision will take away from the annual importance of the Thanksgiving contest, but his younger students are excited to have the experience to play in a game they otherwise would not have, and the upperclassmen are content with having already played and beaten North twice to secure a league title and set up a playoff matchup with Stoughton. Those two South-North games, he said, had more magnitude than any Thanksgiving confrontation they’ve ever had. The next challenge for 9-1 South is a Division 3 Super Bowl against Tewksbury next month.
“We’re not going to have one practice,” added Fry. “We’re getting ready for Tewksbury, not North.”
Fortunately, that’s not the consensus.
Brian Aylward is in his 17th year as head coach of 11-0 Tewksbury. Before he took over the bench, his father, Bob, led the school’s program for two decades. Having been to every Thanksgiving game in his lifetime as a fan, player, or coach, he sees things differently heading into Tewksbury’s first matchup of the season with long-time foe Wilmington.
“It’s an 80-year tradition [led by Tewksbury, 45-29-7], and I think for anybody who plays football, it’s a rite of passage to play in the Thanksgiving game,” Aylward stated, acknowledging that no one associated with his school or student body is looking beyond the holiday to the Super Bowl. “It’s our next game, and that’s the way we’re treating it. Then we’ll get ready for the next game.”
Aylward confessed it’d be nice to have the depth to sit his starters, but quickly said he’d never do so since the game provided an opportunity to get ready for the Super Bowl.
“To hold off for two full weeks from playing at game-speed is crazy, in my opinion.”
Central Catholic coach Chuck Adamopolous, a teacher and a member of the 9-1 Raiders’ staff for 30 years, also plans to play his starters against 40-year rival Andover, despite a Super Bowl appearance waiting with Xaverian. Division 1 schools had one fewer playoff round than the other divisions, so not doing so would result in a three-week gap between games. He said his biggest obstacle is preventing everyone from glancing ahead.
“We had parent-teacher night and I had parents coming up – I don’t have their kids in class – and all they wanted to talk about is December,” laughed Adamopolous. “In the past, people would stop by and say, ‘Are we ready for Thanksgiving?’ I had to keep saying, ‘We’ve got a game on Thanksgiving.’ That’s our focus. It’s Andover’s last game and they’re on a three-game winning streak. It would make their season to beat us on that day.”
Bishop Fenwick coach and athletic director Dave Woods will lead his 11-0 team against 9-2 Northbridge in the Division 5 Super Bowl. Though his school doesn’t have a traditional Thanksgiving rival, he hasn’t lost sight of what it means to have a game on that day.
“I can’t even imagine – a couple of our kids – if I tried to take them out of the game or tell them they couldn’t play, they’d rip my head off,” Woods chuckled. “For our seniors, it’s their last chance to play at Donaldson Stadium. We’re gonna play to win.
“People have made the comment that this system turns Thanksgiving into an exhibition game, and I just don’t buy that,” the 16-year coach continued. “Any person who’s ever played high school football will tell you Thanksgiving is a special, special day, whether you have a rival or not. When I played, we didn’t have a win, we had no chance of going to the playoffs, and it was still the most special game of the year. Players, once the whistle blows and the game starts, they’re not thinking about the Super Bowl or anything else other than playing football that day.”
Dembowski took it a step further, saying his players in Swampscott were more interested in winning on Thanksgiving back in 2007 than emerging victorious in the Super Bowl.
“We had already clinched a playoff spot, Thanksgiving’s outcome didn’t mean anything to us [in the standings] and we were playing on Tuesday no matter what,” he said, “but my kids wanted to win the game. When asked what their favorite game was, it was Thanksgiving.”
The most common complaint about the old playoff method from Dembowski and his peers, outside of having nearly two dozen state champs, was the jam-packed nature of the season’s most important games. Just as the coach mentioned, teams would play on Thanksgiving, in many cases already with an indication of their postseason futures. That was followed five days later by a playoff outing and, if they won, a Super Bowl bout on Saturday.
To have to play three games of that magnitude in a span of 10 days was simply too much, and it was unlike anything they ever experienced during the regular season. Now, for the remaining teams, there are nine days to recover. More time to enjoy the togetherness and unity of readying themselves for a big game, and unquestionably better as it pertains to players’ physical well-being.
The popular opinion is that the adjustments have sent the system in the right direction.
Woods considers the new plan to be “outstanding – 100 times better than it was before – and I would say that even if we weren’t in the finals,” and said he’s heard very few criticisms.
“I think it’s going to be a good system over the course of years,” added Aylward, who teaches American government and certainly recognizes the value of change. “They needed to do something to get more participation in the playoff system, and I think they did a good job. If you look at the excitement level around the state, the way the papers have covered it, the Internet, I think it’s been great and exciting for us to be part of.”
Still, not everyone is sold.
“I’m still not sure how I feel about it,” admitted Adamopolous, whose school was one of the 131 dissenters in the 30-vote defeat. He’s been around long enough to remember when there were no Super Bowls, and only a ratings system determined the state winner. There wasn’t even one championship game, let alone the 19 that have taken place in each of the last dozen seasons.
The Central coach recently went to scout Andover and Chelmsford in preparation of his team’s Thanksgiving game and observed the crowd only consisted of about 150 people, whereas it would have had playoff or league implications in the past. Adamopolous said his school’s first playoff game also stood out, since the opposing team only brought about 20 people, as compared to the late-season interest there would have been previously, like when all of the league games came in the second-half of the year and each one had a postseason atmosphere.
“In a perfect world, the playoffs would take place after everyone’s regular season is done,” said the coach. “If you lose in the playoffs, your season is over and you’re not playing afterward. That would be my one negative but, if you asked my kids right now, they’d say they love the new system.”
As with anything new, more change is inevitable.
But the biggest mistake any outsider, coach, or player could make is diminishing the value of the Thanksgiving game. Rivalries may not have those playoff spots or league titles on the line like they once did, but the singular day still matters to those players on the field as much as it ever has. And, for the communities, filled with week-long celebrations and pep rallies, that view should be the same.
There’s a buzz in the air on Thanksgiving, fueled by the return of thousands of locals who have since moved elsewhere or may only journey out for one game a year to sit among the masses and catch up with old friends and classmates. It’s a big town reunion, one that transports a person back in time to place where the boys in the uniforms were different, but the names on the front of the jerseys were not. A time when defeating that same opponent in enemy colors meant just as much. For one day, an entire community is a close family.
We can all agree it would be lunacy to not play on Thanksgiving, and that feeling couldn’t be replicated by moving the game up on the schedule to, say, homecoming, when the turnout wouldn’t be nearly as substantial. Unfortunately, reigniting the importance of the holiday in the standings by pushing off the playoffs is no answer either on account of the start of winter sports.
In the end, only a dozen teams could possibly view the Thanksgiving game as something less than it once was because they have another challenge in front of them. Rest assured, most won’t.
There can be both Super Bowl glory and the romance and pageantry of tradition. There is, in fact. You’ll be reminded of that on Thursday. Just don’t forget it, as I did when wishing Coach Adamopolous well next month.
“See! You just did the same thing everyone else is doing,” he bellowed with a laugh. “You didn’t say, ‘Good luck on Thanksgiving!’”
Good luck, coach.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
Independently, Stevan Ridley’s red zone fumble that seemingly robbed the Patriots of at least three points and maybe seven in a 24-20 Monday night loss to the Panthers was just one play, and one of a handful of heavily dissected moments from an evening that might have New England sitting at 8-2 had it gone the other way.
On the whole, it was the running back’s second straight week with a squandered possession, his sixth fumble in his last 15 games, and the 10th mishandle (7 lost) in 44 career contests. Two have come in the playoffs.
There’s no disputing the durable and energetic third-year back’s production and ability when he hangs on to the ball – he has rushed for 2,439 yards and 21 touchdowns, missing only one regular season contest – but that carelessness and lack of a grapple hook or stickum for his gloves has resulted in turnover after turnover, with increasing regularity. And it’s been going on since training camp.
It’s fair to consider, given coach Bill Belichick’s popular distaste for giving up possessions, will Ridley be around in 2014?
That all depends on what happens the rest of the season, of course, and how forgiving the coach is along the way.
At this point, despite a slew of “RIP Ridley” tweets and others of that ilk following his latest gaffe, it appears Ridley is safe. Not his job, necessarily, but certainly his roster spot in 2013. Giving credence to the fact that it might not even take much to regain a heavy workload, the running back spent only 18 plays on the sidelines before returning for six snaps after his most recent miscue. That he returned at all says something, and it’s not because Belichick was in a good mood.
In the end, the game was defined by a penalty flag that wasn’t – a statistical figment of our imaginations, if not for the video evidence – so Belichick’s focus in his postgame session with the media was not spent on Ridley.
The former LSU back, however, did have to answer for his error.
“We had to play mistake-free football and me, myself, personally, I didn’t do that,” Ridley stated. “I gave it up down in the red zone and they turned that into three points, I think, and you look at how close the game ended up, so every drive is critical.
“Their defense has been driven all year off of turnovers, and that’s something that coach stressed to us coming into this game,” he continued. “To go out there and put it on the ground is unacceptable. I’m not happy about that, but that’s the game of football and it’s why we play the sport. I just have to keep going from this and try not to make the same mistake.”
He’s spouted similar sentiments before. How many chances does he have left?
Ridley’s contract is a bargain next season, and hardly a factor. The 24-year-old is due just $939,750 in his final year before hitting unrestricted free agency. But, he’s also a mere cog in a pass-first offense.
Laurence Maroney, a more acclaimed back as a first-round selection out of Minnesota but with a less productive NFL career, lasted four seasons in New England before the Patriots shipped him to the Broncos along with a future sixth-rounder early in 2010 for a fourth-round draft pick. It wasn’t just his injuries and inconsistent production that got him moved, though; he fumbled the football four times in his final year with the team in 2009.
This isn’t to say Ridley has to be his direct predecessor, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who didn’t relinquish the ball even once in his four years with the Pats – though he surprisingly has four times in less than two seasons with the Bengals – but ball security isn’t a subject taken lightly in Foxborough, especially when the problem becomes a growing concern, and not a shrinking one.
Belichick absolved the hard-running Ridley of blame for his fumble earlier this month against the Steelers, crediting Troy Polamalu for making a “tremendous play” and saying that “sometimes turnovers are a result of a real good defensive play.” It couldn’t have hurt either that New England thumped Pittsburgh by 24 points in its best offensive showing of the year. Admittedly, Ridley was a big part of that success with a season-best 115 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels added of Ridley, “If you didn’t make mistakes, this game would be a lot easier. But everybody does and it’s more important how we handle that going forward as opposed to trying to keep track of all these different things and penalize guys during the course of the game.”
Ridley, benched in the season-opener in Buffalo for his poor handle, was rewarded with another shot in Carolina, and fumbled again.
What will happen against the Broncos this weekend, and in the handful of games that follow? What will the running back’s fate be for next season? Moreover, can the Pats afford to be short-sided with him?
That’s for us to speculate, and a wonder he’ll try to alleviate.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
Free agent second baseman Robinson Cano and his hip hop mogul agent, Jay Z, are reportedly seeking a Major League Baseball-record 10-year, $310 million contract. Seemingly, New York has no intention of paying such a ridiculous fee for his All-Star services.
"We want Robbie back; we think Robbie is terrific," Yanks president Randy Levine told ESPNNewYork.com on Tuesday. "But we have no interest in doing any 10-year deals and no interest in paying $300 million to any player. Until he gets a little more realistic, we have nothing to talk about.''
It’s nice to know the Bombers are learning their lesson, since they’ve been burned once already by this type of deal. How could we forget when they handed Alex Rodriguez a guaranteed $275 million for a decade of work in 2007? Currently, that accused steroid user, think-for-himself’er, and diminished version of his former self is on the books for another $90 million through 2017. Moreover, like Cano now, A-Rod was also 31 when he began his new deal. This discussion might be a little different if Cano was, say, 27, but probably not much.
The Yankees do want Cano and are reportedly willing to pay him in the neighborhood of $165 million over seven years, which is more than I’d advise a team spend when it might be buried in the American League East for at least the next couple of years on account of existing bad contract commitments, a lack of a good farm system, and a desire to get under the $189 million luxury tax threshold. But, I don’t think general manager Brian Cashman will be soliciting my advice.
The news that the two sides are roughly $150 million apart is laughable. How many players can even command $150 million talks, let alone such a discrepancy? But, market value, a modest free agent talent pool, and a surplus of funds in the game has given the durable and consistent Cano the opportunity to attempt to name his number, while simultaneously thrusting the Yanks into the position where they have to make a difficult decision with the Steinbrenner family trust.
Now, perhaps most everything that could have broken right for the 2013 Red Sox did, but they’re the World Series champs and that means, lucky or otherwise, Boston has a model worth acknowledging.
No member of the Sox earned even $16 million last year, though new fan-favorite John Lackey checked in close at $15.95 million. That ranked him 36th in MLB. Fewer than 10 members of the team reached eight-figures.
In fact, offseason acquisitions Mike Carp ($508.5K), Ryan Dempster ($13.25M), Stephen Drew ($9.5M), Jonny Gomes ($5M), Joel Hanrahan ($7.04M), Mike Napoli ($5M), David Ross ($3.1M), Koji Uehara ($4.75M), and Shane Victorino ($13M) earned a combined $61,148,500 in base salaries in 2013, which is essentially twice what Cano is eying per year in free agency. Pick any combination of that group to get the total down to $31 million, and you’d still consider taking that package over one Cano. Well, I would.
The Yankees – without Cano – have four of the highest-paid players in baseball in Rodriguez, Vernon Wells, CC Sabathia, and Mark Teixeira, who all earn at least $23 million annually. The regularly contending Tigers possess two of the game’s Top 10 earners in Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, but many others are on bad teams. And, no matter the organization, very few of those high-priced players would be considered to have good contracts for their ball clubs.
As has been popularly discussed, most long-term, big-money deals don’t work out for more than a few years and are later viewed as bad contracts. Manny Ramirez is an exception, maybe the only one, and his was an eight-year deal (that arguably wouldn’t have held up in a 10th year). Still, teams keep signing these agreements, whether to keep fans coming to games, to market top-tier talent, or because they believe it’s what’s necessary to win. More often than not, however, the latter has been proven incredibly unreliable.
Who would blame Cano? If you could earn $30 million a year at your job, would you take $20 million? It’s a boatload of money no matter how you slice it, but the discrepancy is significant.
Unfortunately, particularly with new television money coming in for each club starting next year, teams aren’t suddenly going to stop paying lump sums of dough to the perennial MVP candidates, especially if someone like Tim Lincecum is able to command a two-year, $35 million extension following two sub-par seasons with the Giants, simply because of his past successes and the potential that remains at age 29.
That’s not to say teams should behave like the Marlins (who are cheap) or Astros (who are rebuilding) – two clubs with a combined payroll in 2013 of about $53 million – or even that franchises should target staying under $100, as 16 did last year. Many of those squads are ultra competitive, yes, like the Rays, Athletics, Pirates, Braves, and Indians, but the idea should be geared toward striking a balance.
Have a few stars, develop a farm system – where perhaps some of those players become underpaid superstars (Mike Trout or Giancarlo Stanton, to name a couple of extreme cases) before they reach free agency – and, as important as anything, acquire depth.
The Red Sox could have viewed Carl Crawford or Adrian Gonzalez as improper fits in Boston for one reason or another, though Gonzalez did generally perform when he wasn't whining about the schedule, and then gone ahead and targeted the likes of Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke with their Dodger-money. They could also hand Jacoby Ellsbury a giant deal this offseason, or make a competitive run at catcher Brian McCann. But they won’t.
For the time-being, that is no longer their business model. The Monster is taking a snack-break. Until it proves unreliable, the Sox appear content with short-term, reasonably-priced deals with (often veteran) talent who can help in a variety of ways. As Jay Z might say, Ben Cherington has changed the game.
Credit the Yankees for at least considering a more realistic view to rebuild their operation, even if that means handing fewer big dollars to Ellsbury, Drew, McCann, Jhonny Peralta, Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Beltran, or Jarrod Saltalamacchia. It’s a small step in the right direction. Of course, until they get the underperforming Rodriguez – among others – off their books, Cano’s future salary in the Bronx, in Flushing, or anywhere else may be the least of their problems.
In the end, expect Cano to remain with the Yanks, but not for 10 years or anywhere near $300 million. In turn, anticipate another playoff-less year for the clean-shaven crew in pinstripes, as well. That’s not Cano’s fault, but there’s only so much money left in the piggy bank. At least his agent can mention him in a hit single with Kanye West. Maybe he can get in on the royalties?
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
Can we maybe dial back the fawning over the Carolina Panthers?
They’re the Carolina Panthers – a team with six wins, and a franchise that hasn’t won in excess of eight contests in a single season since 2008.
Suddenly, the talk since the Panthers’ impressive 10-9 road win in San Francisco last weekend would have you think they’re the ’76 Steelers or the ’85 Bears. Carolina’s a good team with a strong defense, but if you’re waiting for “Mean Joe” Greene, Jack Lambert, Mike Singletary, or William Perry to take the field, you’re nuts.
New England visits Charlotte Monday for its first in-person look at a team surrounded by a boatload of hype.
The praise is easy to understand. The Panthers’ stoppers lead the NFL in both points (12.8) and yards (283.3) allowed per game. Their opponents have converted just 33.9 percent of the time on third-down, landing Carolina at fifth in the league. The 21 takeaways and 29 sacks (matched by the Patriots, by the way) are awfully impressive as well. Plus, they’ve surrendered only 37 points in four outings at Bank of America Stadium.
But how about some acknowledgement of the teams this vaunted ‘D’ has faced?
Carolina’s won five straight, capped by that narrow victory in the Bay Area against the now 6-4 Niners. Of the Panthers’ six wins, five have come against teams with losing records – and these aren’t just a collection of squads sitting a game under. 500. The Giants started 0-6. The Vikings began their year 1-7. The Rams? They dropped six of their first nine. The Buccaneers lost their opening eight matchups. And the Falcons have won only two of 10. Combined, the six are 20-40.
Every one of those six clubs has an offense ranking in the NFL’s bottom 10 in yards per game, with the exception of the Falcons, who are 14th.
Oh, and they also lost to the Bills.
Congrats, Panthers. Awfully intimidating.
Now, obviously, teams have no choice but to play their schedules. The Patriots have certainly beaten some bad opponents on their way to a 7-2 start and what would currently be enough for a first-round bye.
Still, the Pats are actually 3-point underdogs for this game? Let’s get serious.
I’ve been saying all year that it would take until at least Week 11 to get a good idea of what New England’s offense is capable of, and here we are.
Why? The injuries.
Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Stevan Ridley, and Shane Vereen haven’t shared the field all season. But, either because of a few unsung heroes or the early play of the defense, the Pats have managed to stay well above water.
Even short-handed, the Patriots have scored no fewer than 27 points in each of their last four games and they’ve averaged 34.8. That 55-31 pounding of a bad Steelers team helped pad the stats, but it doesn’t define them. Amid accusations of inconsistency, the attack has been balanced and moderately better than the previous five games with 383.3 offensive yards a game, including 145 on the ground (up from 343.4 and 116.4, respectively).
Moreover, they’ve been able to score on the ground with nine touchdowns in those last four contests. Considering Ridley’s erratic production and difficulty holding onto the ball throughout the season, this may be a trouble area against the NFL’s third-ranked run-defense (82 yards allowed per game), but the anticipated return of the speedy and multi-faceted Vereen is immense.
Vereen was tremendous in the season-opener in Buffalo with 101 yards on 14 carries, along with seven catches for another 58 yards, and he did it all with a broken bone in his wrist. His reemergence would provide New England with something it hasn’t had since that Week 1 victory – a reliable third-down pass-catching back option. That’d be an instrumental addition for a club that's 26th in the league with a 34.6 percent third-down efficiency.
Add to that the fact that Gronkowski and Amendola are as healthy as they’ve been all season, and even rookie Aaron Dobson has collected nearly 200 yards and three touchdowns over his past two games. Finally, Brady has a number of formidable weapons at his disposal, far more than most of Carolina’s previous challenges.
If this is a litmus test for the experienced Pats against a young and talented Panthers defense, it’s a very passable exam.
Again, that’s not to say it won’t be tough.
Though the Patriots’ defense should have key component Aqib Talib back in the fold, his secondary-mates Alfonzo Dennard and Steve Gregory have been ruled out. That leaves versatile quarterback Cam Newton with some flexibility against a severely hampered New England ‘D’ already missing three veterans for the season, but you can count on Talib to eagerly await Steve Smith with open arms if he plays. After all, Talib seemed to handle Stevie Johnson, Santonio Holmes, Vincent Jackson, Roddy White, A.J. Green, and Marques Colston pretty well and, all things considered, Julio Jones, too. Before a hip injury cost him essentially his last four games, he was a defensive player of the year candidate. It’s a difference-making arrival against a limited passing attack (the Panthers rank 28th in yards in the air per game).
Newton should benefit, however, from the Pats’ spotty run-defense, which is fourth-worst in the league in yards allowed at 128.2 per contest. But can he really be expected to be a one-man show?
The Patriots have seen Newton before, and players with his skill set, like less-developed rookies EJ Manuel and Geno Smith. Also, the young QB has never appeared in a playoff game. In his three years, the 24-year-old has suited up for only one Monday night contest (to Brady's 17), in an otherwise meaningless season. Prime time is not his specialty.
Do the Pats have their flaws? Of course. Inconsistency, third-down conversions, red zone efficiency, and so on. But they’re rested, undoubtedly prepared, and I wouldn’t expect any rust from a Bill Belichick squad that’s had two weeks off. Lest we forget, the Pats have won nine of their last 10 games that have followed bye weeks.
Please, don’t let one good Panthers win and a few numbers scare you. The Patriots sure won’t.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
However, a report surfaced on Wednesday that the feeling isn’t mutual on account of what the soon-to-be handsomely-paid free agent shortstop may receive on the open market.
For fans and media clamoring for Xander Bogaerts to get his everyday turn at short in 2014, that’s good news, but it’s far from official.
Should Drew fail to obtain what his agent, Scott Boras, believes is available to him, either in terms of years or dollars, the door surely isn’t closed on a homecoming at the Fens. Somehow, in the face of all the adversity that existed from the moment another Drew wearing the number 7 arrived in Fort Myers, J.D.’s younger brother managed to enjoy his time with the Red Sox. That whole winning a World Series thing probably had a bit to do with it.
But, if Drew returns and Bogaerts suddenly becomes Boston’s third baseman, what happens to Will Middlebrooks?
First base, for a number of reasons, isn’t the preferred option.
For starters, the team wants (as it should) to re-sign Mike Napoli. Given how many local sporting events he’s attended since the Duck Boat Parade, the bearded slugger seems to genuinely feel the same way. Somewhere, bar patrons are raising their glasses in agreement.
Second to that, Middlebrooks has only played the position one time in his two-year major league career, and not once in six minor league seasons.
“Having a young third baseman with Will’s ability, power, athleticism, ability on both sides of the ball is a really important thing for the organization,” general manager Ben Cherington said earlier this month. “I think you only consider moving someone like that off a spot if it’s driven by the need of the team, and we’re not there yet. We see Will as a third baseman, and that’s certainly what he’ll be focused on this offseason.”
So what do you do with him?
First instinct: Don’t give up on him…
Middlebrooks is a power-hitting righthander – not something the Sox have a surplus of, especially if Napoli does leave. He’s amassed 32 home runs, 32 doubles, and 103 RBI in 169 career big league contests. Essentially, that’s one full season. He also strikes out in bunches (once every 3.7 at-bats) and walks very infrequently (once every 20 plate appearances). Together, that’s 5.1 wiffs per free base. Not the Sox’ model for plate discipline.
There was a point in time, as a 23-year-old rookie in 2012, when he had the look of a surefire cornerstone franchise player for years to come. He burst onto the scene with 15 homers and 54 RBI, plus a .288/.325/.509 slash line in only 75 games. The early returns quickly made fan-favorite Kevin Youkilis expendable.
The problem was that sophomore slump. His .227 average and .696 OPS in 94 games last season marked a stark drop from his first campaign, though he still managed 17 long-balls (third on the team) and 49 RBI. Those numbers, though, were sandwiched around a lengthy demotion to Triple-A. While in Pawtucket, Middlebrooks appeared in 45 games and hit .268 with 10 homers and a .790 OPS, but he also displayed some issues with entitlement.
Fortunately, once he finally did earn his way back to the majors, the former fifth-rounder was considerably better in August and September before flaming out again in October. In Middlebrooks’ 10 playoff contests, he batted just .160 (4-for-25) with one RBI and a .490 OPS. As a result, he lost his job prior to the World Series and was limited to two plate appearances and a game-ending obstruction call in that final round.
There’s a lot of raw power and promise in this kid’s future, but he is still so young and inconsistent that even the Red Sox don’t know who the real Will Middlebrook is yet.
Since he won’t be a free agent before the 2019 season, they should take the time to find out.
Second thought: …Unless it’s for the right deal.
With some turnover expected in their outfield this season, it’s hard to imagine the Sox not at least inquiring about the services of Miami stud Giancarlo Stanton – if they haven’t already.
I wrote back in July that there was only one player in baseball for whom it would have been worth surrendering Bogaerts at the trade deadline, and that’s Stanton. He’s the real deal, proven, powerful, and young.
In four major league seasons, admittedly a little hampered by injury, the righthanded-hitting rightfielder has batted .265 with 117 home runs, 294 RBI, and an .889 OPS. Oh, and he just turned 24 last week.
Middlebrooks is 25.
Whoever owns Stanton’s services has him under control for at least the next three seasons at reasonable dollars. Of course, trading for that production would require a haul, and Middlebrooks would likely be part of the package. Talented youth on the cheap screams Marlins, a team with no interest in taking on substantial salaries. Plus, the Fish have already acknowledged they like him, even if they claim Stanton’s unavailable.
Other viable deals could also present themselves elsewhere, as long as the return is significant.
You have to give something to get something, and Middlebrooks could absolutely fetch some significant value. Some players are worth letting go while still wondering what their ceilings will be, and he’s no exception.
In the meantime, the possibilities swirl.
Should both Drew and Napoli re-sign, unlikely as that is, that would leave Middlebrooks on an island as a man without a position. Without Drew, he should play his natural third base. No Napoli, and Boston may need his strong swing in the lineup wherever it makes the most sense on a night-to-night basis.
This much is certain: Whether at third, first, or with another club, the only place Middlebrooks shouldn’t be next season is on the Red Sox bench.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
This much, you know: The Red Sox are in need of a starting catcher for the 2014 season.
It won’t be World Series favorite David Ross, though the soon-to-be 37-year-old veteran will see more than his fair share of time behind the plate if he avoids injury.
Ryan Lavarnway? No chance. He hit .299 with a .768 OPS (both well-above his limited career averages of .208 and .585, respectively) in just 25 games as a fine complementary piece, but he’ll never be more than that in Boston’s organization for the foreseeable future, if ever.
So the question becomes, who’s the answer?
Also on the verge of turning 37, it’s easy on the surface to understand why Pierzynski would merit consideration.
The lefthanded 2005 World Series winner is a career .283 hitter with a .750 OPS and he’s coming off of a healthy and productive year with the Rangers in which he hit .272 with 17 homers and 70 RBI in 134 games. For that matter, Pierzynski hasn’t appeared in fewer than 128 games (or 118 behind the plate) since 2001, and he’s only spent 35 days on the disabled list over the last decade.
Plus, the Sox wouldn’t have to surrender draft pick compensation for the power hitter’s services and could sign him to a one-year deal in the seven-figure range (he earned $7.5 million last season) to potentially serve as a nice bridge to Vazquez or the more highly-touted, but less advanced first-rounder, Blake Swihart.
Ignoring the fact that he walked just 11 times in 2013 and doesn’t take many pitches – not exactly the Red Sox’ formula for success – he’s also regarded as a world-class jerk who is routinely featured among baseball’s most-hated lists. Opponents don’t like him, and one of his old teammates in San Francisco once called him a cancer.
Said Ozzie Guillen, who managed Pierzynski for seven seasons with the White Sox: “If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less.”
Sure, it’d be easy to argue that Ross, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, and the rest of the defending World Series champs have more than enough personality in their reinvented clubhouse to squash the threat of any incoming controversial personalities, but why invite the potential distraction to the Fens? Especially after the personality-cleansing rebirth provided by the Dodgers.
Other, less embattled options are available.
The only reason Pierzynski’s name is even mentioned is his performance-for-cost benefit – and that’s dependent upon an aging backstop continuing to produce offensively while also being at least tolerable defensivly.
McCann, a perennial All-Star and a good friend of Ross from their time together in Atlanta, appears to be the team’s preferred option, but some reports have him commanding as much as $100 million over six years. He’s not remotely worth that, in dollars or time.
The Red Sox should stick to their new philosophy, which guided them to a far-earlier-than-expected title. Short-term deals, even if they require a little extra money.
For that, in part because of his improved performance and familiarity with the team and partially because Ruiz will be a 35-year-old righty, the switch-hitting Saltalamacchia is the answer.
Personally, I would have extended him a qualifying offer, though I understand why Boston did not. If you might be able to re-sign a guy for two or three years at $10 or so million per (a big might on the open market), why give him a nearly $10 million raise and surrender $14.1 million for one? I suppose that depends how far off the prospects are. The difference now, however, is that other clubs will be interested in his services and he’s free to negotiate with each and every one of them.
For now, the return of Saltalamacchia remains a possibility, and hopefully it will become a reality. Either way, I hope we’re done hearing about Pierzynski.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
Here's a preemptive strike:
No, this column will not be about how the Celtics beat the Heat to improve to 3-4 and are therefore a good team. They're not, at least not by the definition we've come to get used to around these parts.
The C's aren't a contender and their odds of even creeping into the playoff hunt are slim – unless Rajon Rondo really does return in the next month or so, then maybe the latter is possible. The Eastern Conference really is that bad. But even as a purgatory-housed eight-seed, all that would wait is a first round throttling by the two-time defending champs. If there’s to be a ninth rolling rally in June, it’ll belong to their Garden roommates. No 2013 Red Sox magic to be found here.
Still, seven games into the Celts' season, the discussions about tanking the season for a high-lottery pick have grown louder and louder while the club's compete level has risen to be equally off the charts.
If we've learned anything, above all else, through these first contests, it's this:
The C's are playing to win. Whether fans like it or not, these players are going to bust their butts to no end to prove they aren't the on-court embarrassment we'd all said they would be, or should be.
And, you know what? It's gonna be mighty fun to watch.
Hell, it already has been.
After a four-game skid to open the year, the Celts are winners of three straight. If only there had been fans in Miami to notice their team’s first home loss.
Boston has held a lead in the fourth quarter of every single game and, more often than not, very late. Conceivably, these Rondo-less, Paul Pierce-less, Kevin Garnett-less, Doc Rivers-less Celtics could be 7-0, just like the Pacers. Not a single game, no matter the deficit has been out of reach in the late minutes.
The reason? That emotionless-looking guy on the sidelines, who didn't so much as pump his fist or crack a smirk when Jeff Green buried his heroic buzzer beater in Miami Saturday evening. I've seen more excitement on someone's face when the signal changed at the crosswalk.
Expression aside, the credit for this metamorphosis belongs to Brad Stevens.
Not Green, the seemingly perfect choice to lead a team to the lotto on account of his inconsistent play and general lack of visible fire.
Not Brandon Bass, the MVP of the team thus far, with a rising and attractive stock to potential suitors.
Not Jordan Crawford, the wild shooter but adept passer, busy eating minutes at the point guard position in Rondo's absence – and in far less erratic fashion than when he was first acquired.
Not the bench, which has grown to be unusually deep – relative to how it appears on paper, anyhow.
Nor the veteran presence of Gerald Wallace or Kris Humphries, neither of whom could be very happy with a reduced role on a rebuilding team, though that didn’t hamper the production for either in the club’s most unbelievable triumph.
Nope. It's the man they all play for. The man they are playing every single one of those 48 won’t-quit minutes for. The man they are playing together for. The man who’s inspired hard-fought, united, egoless basketball.
“I just want to help my team as much as possible,” rookie Kelly Olynyk said following the C’s streak-starting survival of the Jazz last Wednesday. “Whether it’s coming off the bench, starting, whether it’s passing, whether it’s scoring, whether it’s rebounding, whether it’s playing defense…whether it’s cheering on the bench. You want to be able to help your team as much as you can and contribute to every win possible.”
“It’s awesome to see a team-win,” noted the second-year Jared Sullinger after a narrow, two-point victory in Orlando on Friday that featured Stevens’ favorite moment in Boston, when Crawford dove on a loose ball. “It wasn’t just one player. It was multiple efforts and multiple players, and we’re going to build on it from here.”
“We trust each other,” Avery Bradley added the next night in South Beach. “I think that’s the main thing. If you have guys that go out there and play for each other and trust each other, everything works itself out, and that’s how we play.”
Stevens spoke after the game of camaraderie and the importance of playing with high spirits, while also noting the need to immediately get back to work. After all, this is the same guy who said he’d celebrate his first career NBA win for a whole 12 minutes before moving on to scout the Magic.
Had Rivers not wanted out, he’d still be on the Boston bench – but he wouldn't have this team at 3-4. He wouldn't have something to prove the way Stevens does and, frankly, he'd almost assuredly be generally disinterested in the development process.
Stevens is trying to build something of his own while rebuilding something that was great not so long ago. He signed a six-year deal in the offseason to leave Butler. His job is safe, no matter what the Celtics do this year, the next, or the season after, and he expected a bumpy road when he took the gig.
“We’re not gonna have many games where we’re ahead by much at the end,” said the coach before departing Florida. “We’re gonna be in a lot of close games, so it should be a goal for us to pull those out.”
That’s where an abundance of fans disagree. To think many organizational supporters and single-season haters were actually upset when Green hit that shot in LeBron James’ face. LeBron’s. And there was anguish. Amazing.
But it’s the winning culture, self-pride, and motivated attitude that Stevens is cultivating that has his team striving for every ounce of achievable greatness that made the win possible. Well, and Dwyane Wade’s poor decision-making.
If the C’s truly wanted to finish at the bottom of the league this year, Stevens was the wrong hire. He wasn’t automatically bound for the NBA this year. Danny Ainge may have been able to bring him on to start next season, a top college recruit or two already in tow. Less intelligent, talented, or capable replacements for Rivers were available. Even, ehem, aspiring coaches like Antoine Walker.
A Bobby Valentine-like break-it-down-before-putting-it-back-together hire wasn’t preferable, however. Instead, Ainge chose the coach of the future now in Stevens – the man who couldn’t have possibly known how quickly and compelling his influence would be.
Win or lose – and there will likely be a lot of losses – this team has shown it's going to work and play hard. That's what the fans should want: A head coach who demands respect from his players, and the desire to put a championship mentality, if not the wins that go with it, in place.
Moreover, each one of the men on the roster, from the 22-year-old rookies to the veterans of more than a decade, has something to prove. Not one of their jobs is as safe as that of the coach, and that’s unlike most anywhere else in the NBA. Auditions for seats on the next duck boat parade are underway.
The Celts may only win 25 games, turn the ball over too frequently, and get crushed on the glass as players discover and get acclimated to their roles. But damn it if they aren't going to be enjoyable to watch compete night-in and night-out on the way to those inevitable shortcomings.
Embrace it. The C's are playing with house money. They're our new lovable losers, and they deserve your attention.
If they win, they're like that cute new puppy that eats your shoe. It's tough to get mad because, shucks, they don't know they're doing something wrong and they really just want to feel closer to you. If they lose and take you one step closer to Secaucus, well then collect your treat!
In short, wins are wins and losses are wins. And, under Stevens, the Celtics are never going to roll over and play dead.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
The Celtics have won more championships than any other franchise in NBA history. They’re coming off of an exhilarating six-year run in which they hoisted their 17th banner, fell a quarter short of another, and enjoyed a third, inspiring trip to the conference finals.
Now, months later, the C’s are 1-4 and barely a few feet from the starting line of what’s going to be a long and trying road to an 82-game finish.
Ironically, most fans would say the longer and bumpier the 2013-14 road, the better.
I can’t stand those fans.
Then again, depending on the time or day you catch me, I’m one of them.
That’s the miserable and conflicted existence of a Celtics supporter this season. I don’t need to tell you it’s not going to be fun. We knew that the moment those deals were made with the Clippers and Nets in June.
I understand the goal. Lose for the lottery. Sing songs in the halls for ping pong balls.
But, am I really supposed to attend a game and root in good conscious for turnovers, second-chance points by the opposition, and hard-fought defeats in the quest for a 1-81 season? They had to get one, right?
Can I truly embrace some silly slogan like, “Riggin’ for Wiggins,” “Safari for Jabari,” or whatever the latest T-shirt reads outside the Garden?
You want me to be happy that the team got off to its worst start since 1969, while singling out the competitive moral victories in good losses?
Hell, when news broke that Rajon Rondo has been cleared for some contact, my already clouded first instinct was, “Wait! No! He shouldn’t be cleared to walk around a crowded mall!”
While recognizing such a mindset is well-intentioned, stands for the greater good, has the organization’s best long-term interests in mind – blah, blah, blah – actively cheering for your favorite team to lose is impossible. It’s unnatural. The only way to achieve such negativity is through apathy. You’d have better luck pretending the Celts took the year off.
Sadly, though, they didn’t, and so the season will drag on with Tank Talk.
Celtics president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge, joined 98.5 The Sports Hub’s, “Toucher and Rich” program on Thursday morning and, of course, that subject was discussed.
“They’re not paying attention,” Ainge said of the fans who may believe the team is losing on purpose. “They’re not watching all the games. They’re not watching all the exhibition games and they’re not at practice. That certainly is not the case. Anybody that’s informed that sees what goes on day-to-day would not make those conclusions.”
Not for one moment do I believe the C’s are trying to lose games or putting in less than a complete effort so, for that, I agree with Ainge.
However, that doesn’t mean his team is not tanking.
What the Celts have done by allowing Doc Rivers to take charge of the Clippers, trading away the heart and soul of the organization in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, signing a promising but inexperienced head coach, and adding a bunch of players who won’t be in Boston when the team does hit its next window of being competitive, is build a club that isn’t good enough to win.
Sure, every once in a while, they’ll steal a game they shouldn’t but, more often than not, they won’t. It’s the road to…eh, 20 or so wins. Depends if Rondo attends the Derrick Rose School of ACL Recovery.
Either way, that, too, is tanking.
In the ultimate irony, the Celtics could be 5-0 right now, just as easily as they could sit winless.
They led the Raptors in the fourth quarter of their opener before falling by six. They were clobbering the Bucks by 22 in the second-half, and then got outscored by 19 points in the final stanza and lost by seven. The Pistons? Yup, led that one early in the fourth, as well, on the way to a 10-point defeat. Same story against the Grizzlies, though it still wound up a seven-point loss.
In a twist, their only triumph – a 10-point victory against the Jazz on Wednesday – came in a game they trailed by 13 early, and barely held on to win after gaining a 25-point advantage.
The C’s have been outscored in the fourth quarter of all five games this season, by an average of 11 points. It’s not intentional, despite what you may read or hear. They’ve battled ball-handling issues (19.8 turnovers per game, 3rd in NBA), inefficiency on the glass (39.2 rebounds per game, 28th), selfishness (15.8 assists per game, 30th), and they lack a true go-to guy offensively and stopper defensively.
There’s some individual talent but no cohesiveness, and roles remain a mystery.
The only area of in-game tanking that could be called into question would be some of coach Brad Stevens’ personnel decisions. Boston’s averaging 89.4 points a game – last in the league – and just might have a couple more wins with Humphries or others seeing additional time on the floor.
The problem for veteran guys like Humphries and Wallace, though, is that they aren’t part of the long-term plan. Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, Jeff Green, Vitor Faverani, Brandon Bass, and perhaps Avery Bradley must be further developed so that they’re either ready to contribute when it matters most, or will provide other teams value in exchange for more assets.
Chips, pieces, and assets are just the quick way of saying Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Julius Randle.
We’ve been through this before, without the top prize.
But, what if the Celtics do land the big fish this time? No one knows with certainty what these kids will be at the next level. Will any of the three be franchise-altering difference-makers like Tim Duncan or Kevin Durant? Or, Greg Oden? Sure things don’t exist, and rebuilding through the lottery is an awfully dangerous way to do business.
Will all this tactical losing that lies ahead be worth it? Unfortunately, when you’re a team like Boston, there’s no other way to find out.
It’s nearly impossible to construct a contender from the middle of the pack. The Rockets have taken steps in that direction, courtesy of a trade for All-Star James Harden and the signing of embattled superstar Dwight Howard, but Houston’s the exception to the rule.
Unlike when the Celts made moves in 2007 to acquire both Garnett and Ray Allen, they no longer have the pieces to bring in game-changing future Hall of Famers, and this city will never be one to attract marquee free agents, at least on the hardwood.
So Ainge is left with no choice but to stockpile whatever resources he can find.
And we fans are forced to painfully root for next season this year. Right alongside the Jazz, Sixers, Suns, Magic, Bobcats, Kings, and any other franchise that thinks, to win, last is fast.
If only it didn’t feel so wrong.
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Monday’s declaration of whether to qualify free agents was an unavoidable evil that butted right up against the Red Sox championship parade and their third World Series title in a decade. That’s what happens when you play until nearly Halloween. Next year arrives … immediately.
But, really, we couldn’t have one blissful week without the rumblings of controversy and pettiness filtering from the Fens?
According to multiple reports, Theo Epstein’s Chicago Cubs are interested in interviewing Boston bench coach Torey Lovullo for their managerial vacancy. You’d think the former minor league skipper (with Triple-A Pawtucket and Columbus) would be pretty keen on that as well.
It appears, however, that it won’t happen. All because of some dirty laundry.
It’s no secret that Epstein didn’t leave his hometown team under the best of circumstances. The Red Sox had just fallen short of the playoffs following that historic and dysfunctional collapse in September of 2011, and he opted to bolt for a new challenge with a fancier title and a bigger salary, not to mention a change of company. In the years prior, he endured a very strained and well documented relationship with team president Larry Lucchino. Not many stories at the highest levels of Major League Baseball involve a gorilla suit.
Now, two years later, a bench coach who wasn’t even in the organization at the time this mess began is caught in the middle because of an arrangement made as part of Epstein’s departure that states the former Sox GM can’t poach employees from his old offices for three years, according to reports.
If we’re talking about a lateral move here, maybe even a front office position in the baseball operations department, that's easy to understand. But a coach being denied the chance to fulfill a presumed career dream as one of only 30 big league managers?
Selfish, trifling, and downright stupid.
It’s commonplace – a courtesy, really – for teams to allow members of their staffs to interview for promotions. Say what you will about the lowly Cubs and their four consecutive fifth-place National League Central finishes but, for Lovullo, this would be a tremendous opportunity. Chicago may not (and probably won’t) win any time soon, but it would provide the coach a great destination to cut his teeth. Even John Farrell, acquired by Boston via trade, you may recall, had to experience a painful two-year tour north of the border.
Ben Cherington, no longer viewed merely as “Epstein 2.0,” told the media on Monday that no requests for Lovullo’s services had been made. Perhaps, or it could be that Lucchino’s fury or that of other members of ownership toward Epstein is standing in the way of a complete answer.
We’re talking about an interview. Not an offer. Should it reach the stage of a proposition, there’s no reason to think the organizations couldn’t once again work out some sort of compensation – and not take several months to do so this time.
To blatantly stand in the way of one innocent man’s career advancement because of a grudge is no way to do business. It’s not unheard of, unfortunately, but it is embarrassing. And, who’s to say what effect that could have on potential employees in the future? A prospective manager may think twice about joining the club with a history of blocking interviews.
For now, the Cubs will seemingly have to turn elsewhere, like to Padres bench coach Rick Renteria or executive A.J. Hinch. Possibly Rays bench coach Dave Martinez, or past MLB managers Manny Acta or Eric Wedge.
Lovullo could do worse than returning to the dugout of a World Series champion. But, maybe, just maybe, he could have done better.
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For casual Boston sports fans or just the ones who get wrapped up and fully engulfed in the biggest stories, it’s the perfect symmetry.
When the Bruins made their nearly two-month run to a second Stanley Cup championship in three years last spring, the scintillating start by the previously down-on-their-luck Red Sox was a mere footnote. Each comeback win for the Sox in May and June was overshadowed by another dazzling save by Tuukka Rask, the hole in James Reimer’s glove, the legend of Torey Krug, Patrice Bergeron’s otherworldly pain tolerance, the domination of the lock-to-win Penguins, Jaromir Jagr’s postgame skates, or the disappearance of Tyler Seguin.
Now, their seasons have come full-circle.
Fresh off a third World Series title in a decade and an eighth rolling rally for Boston in the last dozen years, the Sox are the talk of the town. They party with fans, buy duck boats, tour the city with their own “Cup,” and, pitchers and catchers report in only three months. You’d hardly know the NHL season is underway.
So, what better time to break out your gloves, scarf, and touque, and welcome back Seguin?
Despite a pattern of getting off to slow starts in games and lacking in consistency, the Bruins are 8-5-0 going into tonight’s showdown with their former superstar and his new team from Dallas.
To catch you up for the water cooler, the B’s won seven of their first nine contests before hitting a slide that’s seen them drop three of four, leading to head coach Claude Julien questioning his team’s effort and compete level. That’s basically coincided with the loss of Loui Eriksson, the talented forward acquired from the Stars in the deal that gave Seguin and his dirty laundry a fresh start and simultaneously saved the Bruins a few million dollars on their cap.
Since Eriksson’s concussion, suffered on a blindside hit from John Scott in Buffalo on Oct. 23, the Bruins have gone 2-3-0 and scored just 2.2 goals per game, down from the 3.1 average with the winger in the lineup. Fortunately, he’s back on the ice for practices and could even make his return this evening. If he has any say, you can imagine he will.
Boston’s only other injury of substance is on defense, where Johnny Boychuk is day-to-day with an undisclosed ailment. However, as fans may remember from the postseason, the club possesses substantial depth on the blue-line with the likes of Krug, Dougie Hamilton, and Matt Bartkowski all battling for a regular shift.
Offensively, the usual suspects have picked up where they left off. David Krejci leads the team with 13 points and 11 assists, while Milan Lucic has posted six goals and six helpers of his own. New forward and the once-hated Jarome Iginla has enjoyed a hot streak after a snake-bitten start and now accounts for nine points in 13 games. The typically feisty Brad Marchand is playing with visible frustration and is still trying to find his game. He has just four points and has been a minus-player.
Worthy of note, as well, has been the play of new winger Reilly Smith, who’s chipped in seven points as an integral member of the team’s reinvented third line. In Eriksson’s absence, he’s also seen time on the second unit, though the promotion hasn’t done him much good. Nevertheless, don’t discount him as a valuable part of that deal with Dallas.
Meanwhile, all seven of the B’s power play goals have come from their defensemen, three for Krug and two apiece from Hamilton and captain Zdeno Chara.
In net, Rask is earning every penny of the lofty contract he was handed in the offseason. Through 11 games, he’s 7-4-0 with a 1.73 GAA (second in the league) and .940 save percentage (fourth), while backup Chad Johnson (not that one) has been limited to a pair of starts. Combined, the Black and Gold have allowed 1.9 goals per game to rank third in the NHL. It is Julien's system, after all.
Along the way, Seguin hasn’t skipped a beat with his new squad. After 245 regular season and playoffs games with Boston by the age of 21, not to mention an E! True Hollywood Story’s worth of off-ice rumors and slandering character attacks, the dynamic forward leads Dallas with six goals and 15 points in his first 14 games. He’ll take the Garden ice on fire, too, with five points in his last four games.
It’s a date we’ve had circled on our calendars for months. Thanks to the Red Sox for the perfectly timed segue.
Oh, and if the guys look a little funny out on the ice, it’s not that they’ve taken a bearded cue from their friends in the Fens. It’s Movember, a cause devoted to men’s health awareness and reminding us that Tom Selleck and Burt Reynolds should have their own international holidays.
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For decades, stories will be told of the 2013 Boston Red Sox, the club with the payroll of a behemoth, the chances of David against Goliath, and the spirit of the Little Engine That Could.
We’ll buy hats, T-shirts, pennants, and mugs. Eventually, our shelves will feature one or more of the countless books that will hit stores by the time the team hits the field for its 2014 opener in Baltimore on March 31. And, of course, who could live without that DVD? Not me.
Boston’s latest champions will be remembered like few others. They’re the guys who, with a few new friends, went from loathed to loved. The ones whose chances shifted only from impossible to improbable before doing the unthinkable.
And, now, they’re a memory.
No matter how many local sporting venues the World Series trophy visits, rounds of drinks Mike Napoli buys for his pals on Boylston and Newbury, or rides Jake Peavy may someday offer fans in his new duck boat, it’s officially (and sadly) next season. Our 25 baseball heroes will never be together again. Not at the White House, nor their 2021 eight-year reunion night at Fenway.
General manager Ben Cherington, manager John Farrell, and the other privileged folks with seats at the operations table are well in the works of outlining the roster we’ll see in spring training in just about 100 days. A surprise or two will unfold, whether that’s a trade, a signing, or the loss of a free agent, and that’s where business begins immediately.
Doing so would guarantee each of the men selected $14.1 million for next season. Then, it’s up to the individual to decide within seven days whether to accept the offer and return to Boston, or decline and head to the open market. Should the latter occur, the player’s new team would have to provide the Sox with a compensatory first-round draft pick.
So, what will the Red Sox do? What should they do? And what’s next?
According to the centerfielder’s agent, Scott Boras, nearly half of Major League Baseball is interested in his client. I’m waiting for the news that NBA teams are recruiting him to play point guard, NFL clubs could use a kicker, and NHL squads may…never mind.
It’s as sure a thing that Ellsbury will be qualified by Boston as it is inevitable that he’ll politely say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” The oft-injured All-Star had a great year (.298/.355/.426 with 52 stolen bases and 92 runs in 134 games) and, as a result, he’ll likely be seeking a nine-figure salary over at least five years. That’s going to price out the Red Sox. And, if it won’t, it should.
Ellsbury is remarkably talented and versatile, and has obviously proven in his seven big league seasons that he can thrive in the pressures of a competitive baseball city. But, over the last five years, his ability to stay in the lineup and produce consistently has been an every-other proposition. If teams like the rumored Mariners, Rangers, Mets, Phillies, Nationals, Yankees, Cubs, or Cardinals want to invest $18-20 million annually over several years for the upside of that uncertainty, it’s understandable, but I’d pass.
The Sox have a capable, albeit unproven, Jackie Bradley, Jr. waiting in the wings, and his presence and potential allow the organization to stay true to its revised philosophy of building a winner through the farm system, depth, and short-term deals.
Heart and soul players like Dustin Pedroia are exceptions to that rule. Ellsbury, even with two championships, hundreds of stolen bases, and several jaw-dropping catches, feels more like a “go to the highest bidder” hired gun. At 30, no one would blame him for cashing in elsewhere, but the Sox also shouldn’t be condemned for not wanting to make him their highest-paid player. That’s John Lackey’s title!
Maybe it’s just his city-strolling celebratory exploits or his positive comments about his time with the Sox, but I genuinely believe Napoli wants to stick around, and Boston should make his return a priority. That starts with a qualifying offer, which will surely happen. However, as with Ellsbury, it’s unlikely the righthanded slugger would accept the tender.
The 32-year-old’s numbers from the postseason don’t leap off the page (.217/.308/.435 with 2 homers and 7 RBI), but he had some very big hits – just ask the Tigers – after a show-me regular season. The converted first baseman was snubbed in his bid for a Gold Glove and he set new career-highs in plate appearances (578), runs (79), hits (129), doubles (38), RBI (73), and walks (73) when the Red Sox ripped up his original three-year, $39 million deal out of concern for a previously undiagnosed chronic hip condition.
Pending my medical degree, sure looks like that hip’s okay. But someone should really check out that hole in his swing.
While the qualifying offer represents a modest raise over the $13 million he earned last season, another multiple-year, short-term deal is appropriate. I’d attempt to redo the initial agreement. Change the years, a couple of bonus incentives, and hit reprint!
Reports have circulated that the Red Sox plan to qualify Drew, ensuring a nearly $5 million raise for the 30-year-old shortstop if he accepts.
No, thank you.
Drew was given an opportunity in 2013 to prove he’d recovered from his ankle injury and he did so, despite appearing in only 124 games. By the end of the regular season, he’d put a putrid start behind him to finish with a reputable year (.253/.333/.443 with 13 homers and 67 RBI), but he was abysmal offensively in the playoffs. His saving grace – the only thing that kept him in the lineup outside of Farrell’s loyalty to his veterans – was his defense.
In a bridge year (at his position, that is), a bump in pay to return a hard worker would make sense if not for the fact that Xander Bogaerts has shown he’s ready to play every day. Unfortunately for Drew, he’s a natural shortstop.
Qualifying Drew with the hope that Boras (yeah, he’s got Drew, too) would still pursue a multi-year option and leave the Sox with a compensatory pick makes sense, but I have a hard time seeing a team surrender a high draft selection for this player. That then introduces the fear of him actually accepting the opportunity, which would potentially create a logjam on the left side of the infield.
It’s fair to ask which Middlebrooks we can expect next season – the rookie who batted Kevin Youkilis right outta town, or the sophomore who spent most of the year in Triple-A – and it’s equally reasonable to consider using him at first if Napoli leaves, but the goal will be to bring Napoli back and hope Middlebrooks returns to form. At that point, the last thing the team wants is to have to creatively find playing time for a young phenom like Bogaerts.
Plus, could you stomach Drew being the third-highest paid player on the team?
Unlike the aforementioned players, Saltalamacchia isn’t expected to be qualified. It’s not that the Red Sox aren’t interested in retaining him; they just don’t want to do so for that kind of money.
If I’m Cherington, unless I’m certain I can bring the catcher back for two or three years at shorter annual dollars, or I’m confident I can replace him with a high-caliber backstop like Brian McCann or a secondary choice like Carlos Ruiz, I’d make the move.
There’s a common thread here: Behind Ellsbury and Drew exist options, youngsters ready for their turns. Without Napoli, there would be suitors, but he’s the ideal candidate. In this case, depth is a problem because a David Ross split with Ryan Lavarnway is probably unrealistic and Christian Vazquez isn’t quite ready. But, if the minor league standout is a year away, it makes sense to gamble on Saltalamacchia hopefully producing another banner season in which he reached career-highs in average (.273), OPS (.804), RBI (65), and doubles (40), among several other offensive categories.
His terrific regular season shouldn’t be overshadowed by a spotty playoff performance. Plus, at 28, he’s still improving, both at the plate and behind it, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s popular in the clubhouse. Have you seen that hair?
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June 13, 2001.
Don’t be alarmed if the significance of that date doesn’t immediately spring to mind, but it is memorable.
On that beautiful summer day at City Hall Plaza, Mayor Thomas Menino and more than 15,000 passionate Bruins fans stormed the streets of Boston to honor longtime legend Ray Bourque for winning his coveted Stanley Cup.
That was what it had come to in Boston sports. Our favorite sons were distinguished for ending their years of futility in Boston by achieving immortality elsewhere. Wade Boggs did it, as did Roger Clemens. Jim Plunkett, too.
Boston wasn’t the place you went to win. It was the place you left.
That all changed just 225 days later, and life has never been the same.
On February 3, 2002, the Patriots shocked the Rams and the rest of the world when they won Super Bowl XXXVI at the Louisiana Superdome on the shoulders of a fresh-faced kid named Tom Brady and the right foot of Adam Vinatieri. Back home, a parade followed.
Saturday, the city of Boston will celebrate its eighth championship parade in the span of a dozen years, courtesy of three titles for Bill Belichick’s Pats, one for each resident of Causeway Street and, now, three for a ball club that was said to be cursed for 86 years until a bunch of Idiots in 2004 altered course.
Contrary to what young fans today can’t help but believe, it’s not supposed to be this way.
Since the turn of the century, which includes the 2000 Super Bowl victory for the Rams against the Titans, one fan base has had all four of its major sports franchises deemed the best in their respective games, and you know who you are.
Only the state of Florida can make the same claim, thanks to the Buccaneers (’03), Marlins (’03), Lightning (’04), and Heat (’06, ’12, ’13), but Tampa Bay and Miami are more than four hours apart.
Saying you root for the Red Sox and Jets would be more regional.
How about the number of titles?
Boston’s eight is matched only by California’s Los Angeles area market, where the Lakers (’00, ’01, ’02, ’09, ’10) have won five times, the Angels (’02) once, and the Ducks (’07) and Kings (’12) hold one apiece. Of course, that includes two hockey teams.
Add in the Giants’ two World Series victories, and that state has garnered 10 titles. Then again, it also has 15 organizations chasing the opportunity.
Wondering about New York/New Jersey? Six championships. Pennsylvania, encompassing Pittsburgh and Philadelphia? Four. That’s the same for Texas, with Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.
Obviously no true fan is a state-wide sports supporter, but only having four teams with a chance in your state magnifies the point.
These are our teams, and we are embarrassingly lucky.
More impressive, while we’ve been fortunate to celebrate eight rolling rallies, four other teams – the Patriots twice, and Celtics and Bruins each once – have fallen just short.
That means that in 12 years, we’ve had 12 teams not just contending but competing for a world championship. Two alone have come since I started writing this column on May 1.
Astoundingly, six others could have joined the fold, had they not been eliminated in their respective conference finals – some of those in more dramatic fashion than we’d care to revisit. Besides, good luck finding someone outside this market who would listen without a tiny violin.
But this time around was extra special.
Brady wasn’t supposed to win when he took over for injured franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe in 2001. The unknown sixth-round pick would have been lucky to win a few games, we thought. In the years since, victories in Foxborough have become the expectation, even to the point where there was disappointment when Matt Cassel couldn’t guide the Pats to the postseason when Brady suffered his own injury. With Belichick as the coach, we’ve decided, excuses don’t matter.
Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen were united to win. Maybe not in Year One, but certainly in general. In fact, many would tell you that a mere one Larry O’Brien trophy in five years with that trio wasn’t sufficient.
The Bruins are young and experienced, and have annually contended in the postseason under the pairing of general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien. With depth at every position, there’s no surprise when that team makes a run – unless it comes courtesy of a three-goal, third period rally in a Game 7.
And the Red Sox of the last decade have largely been loaded because they’ve put themselves in a financial position to compete. Prior to 2004, we often felt they were talented, just unlucky. Tragically unfortunate.
In 2013, though, we thought the bridge-year Sox weren’t good enough. A competitive payroll aside, the roster was littered with capable but underperforming, health-challenged holdovers with questionable attitudes, complemented by other teams’ castaways and spare parts.
Then the Sox defied the odds. Heck, they laughed at them.
No roster of the eight winners, other than that first Pats group in 2001, was more doubted, and that includes the four squads that fell just short. In a heartbreaking coincidence, that New England club reminded a healing country that we are all Patriots, while the 2013 Sox were an on-field version of what it means to be Boston Strong, but the two will forever be linked for so many other improbable reasons.
In between, we’ve had the privilege to watch a pantheon of all-time greats, Hall of Fame caliber or simply in Boston sports lore.
Moments fueled by the Tuck Rule and choosing to be introduced as a team. A steal, a bloody sock, and shots of Jack Daniels. Ubuntu, and a water bottle filled with melted Garden ice.
Other cities and fan bases have their stories, but they don’t have these, and not all within the span of a dozen years.
It’s easy to understand why others hate us. We’d hate us, too. A run like this has never existed in sports history, not when you consider expansion and the parity there is today. To call us blessed would be an understatement.
Amazingly, it’s possible, with a few more years of Brady, a young core of B’s locked up for at least two more seasons, and a financially flexible roster of Sox, that we may not be done celebrating. And that still gives the rebuilding C’s a chance to recover.
For now, our attention turns to Saturday, where a bearded bunch of goggle-wearing, comeback kids who allowed us to have fun again will flock together to board Duck Boats and tour the city while the fake-beard donning, high-fiving faithful look on from the streets. Look carefully at the back of the procession, and you may even see a truck holding Jose Iglesias, Bobby Valentine, Magic Johnson, and Theo Epstein. After all, you’re bound to catch a glimpse of Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey.
If you’re there, thank them all. If you’re not, thank your parents for raising you here or as fans of these teams. Tell your kids who think it’s always been this way and forever will be, “You’re welcome.”
When Bourque spoke to the gathered masses on that June day in 2001, he said, “I really do think you guys are going to experience this, and you deserve one.”
One. Imagine that.
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Even before reporting to spring training in February, the Red Sox were counted out in 2013.
Three years at $39 million to Shane Victorino, on the heels of the worst year of his major league career. Two years and $10 million for Jonny Gomes, a role player with some pop at the plate who had never earned even $2 million in a single season. Two years totaling $6.2 million for veteran backup catcher David Ross, a career .237 hitter who had never made close to that kind of money.
That was the best way to tap into their Dodger-provided lottery winnings?
Sure, they got a good deal on strikeout-prone slugger Mike Napoli when they told the long-time backstop he had a hip problem, and bringing in Ryan Dempster seemed to provide depth to a rotation filled with questions, but the offseason didn’t exactly scream, “Contender!” to the Fenway faithful.
In fact, Boston was picked to finish near or at the bottom of the American League East by most national pundits and a vast majority of the local authorities.
As it turned out, the Sox wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Throughout their worst-to-first turnaround, the increasingly affable Red Sox were counted out at every turn.
A 20-8 record right out of the gate? Just a great start.
The first team to 50 wins? Nice accomplishment, but it’s only June.
The majors’ best team at the All-Star break? Who have they played? They lost three of four to the Tigers!
Boy, this Koji Uehara guy is pretty good, huh? He’s 38, pitching too many innings in too many games, and he’s never really been a closer, either.
Come on, they’re first in the division, and it’s nearly September. Good for them. The Rays are a game back.
Boston ran away with the division. The Rays blew it. Well, those 36 come-from-behind wins are a pretty dangerous way to live in a playoff series. You know that’s not sustainable, right?
The Sox have arguably the best offense in baseball. That’s nice. They also struggled against lefties and top-level pitchers. Even if they get past David Price and Matt Moore, they still have to face Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.
They did it. They survived them all. They’re going to the World Series. Not sure if you know this, but the Cardinals are the banner organization in all of baseball. They’re as good as the Red Sox in nearly every category. Maybe better.
Each step of the way, the Red Sox have been counted out. And yet here they are, their miserable 69-win season deep in the rearview mirror as they sit only one triumph away from a third championship in the span of a decade.
Weren’t we foolish.
Just as they’ve done what seems like a million times before, this Boston Strong group of hairy overachievers will laugh last when they stamp their 108-win season with Fenway’s first title clincher for the home team since 1918.
And could there be a better guy to finish the job than John Lackey?
Once detestable for his on-field results, off-field diet, and surly demeanor everywhere, the veteran hurler is now a fan favorite. Thanks to his friends, Tommy John and Jenny Craig.
The Sox were as consistent as any team in baseball, and Lackey was their most dependable starter from April to October. For both him and the organization, a new season represented a rebirth. A redemption tour.
When the 2012 incarnation of the franchise flopped, it became utterly apparent that changes had to be made, and it was far more severe than anyone would have guessed. And when Lackey posted a 6.41 ERA during that unfavorable 2011 campaign, it was clear that his issues were more serious than an inability to find the strike zone.
No longer should he be traded for a bag of balls, or his contract eaten at the rate he devoured fried chicken and beer.
Now, this bargain pitcher is as healthy and reliable as his team is superior.
Lackey outdueled Verlander – a guy with four top-five Cy Young finishes – in the ALCS, and he’s pitched well in two appearances in the World Series.
Two? Sure. Who needs a bullpen session after a Game 2 start when you can just pitch a pivotal scoreless eighth inning to hold a Game 4 lead instead?
Fittingly, that relief appearance marked the first time Lackey had emerged from the bullpen in the playoffs since he did so in the 2002 World Series, when he also had the opportunity to pitch his team to a title in the clinching game. It was a Game 7 that year, but the then-rookie allowed one run over five innings and, after 3 hours and 16 minutes, the Anaheim Angels were going to Disney Land.
The Cardinals are a great team, just as good as the one they’ll be visiting over the next night or two at Fenway. They believe they can win, they’re good on the road, they trust in their rookie phenom, Michael Wacha, and they’re not unfamiliar with what it takes to win an elimination game. After all, they’ve claimed three in four chances this postseason alone.
But the Red Sox have taken everyone’s best shot in 2013. They've been bruised, battered, and beaten by opponents, media, and fans, and they’re still standing. They refuse to go away.
Why should tonight be any different?
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The walkoffs. The comebacks. The unlikely heroes. The high-fives. The beards. Oh, those beards.
There’s only one bit of information that could possibly counteract the exuberance Red Sox fans are feeling today with this unflappable group unthinkably sitting a mere one win away from a third World Series championship in the span of a decade.
It’s almost over.
With hopefully one and, win or lose, no more than two games remaining in the 2013 baseball season, the hairiest bunch of ballplayers to ever call Fenway home are on the verge of becoming a memory. A city-wide celebration and an eighth parade in a dozen years could dull the pain for a while but, eventually, we’ll only be able to reflect upon one of the most entertaining seasons in Red Sox history rather than bask in a daily unpredictability that’s been around since April.
We all know the story by now. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
When the Sox made a franchise-altering trade with the Dodgers on Aug. 25, 2012, it was impossible to rewrite an agonizingly frustrating calendar year that had caused the organization a public relations nightmare and resulted in significant media mockery and a substantial loss of fan support. But they were blessed with the opportunity to start anew with a core of newly healthy leaders and truckloads of money available for the right mix of character free agents to re-create clubhouse chemistry and remind a few jaded veterans of just how much fun it can be to win.
Under the guidance of well-respected but largely unproven new manager John Farrell, the never-say-die Red Sox put a miserable 69-win campaign behind them by jumping out to a 20-8 start. But, as May arrived, fan attention shifted to the Bruins and their pursuit of a second Stanley Cup title in three seasons. As that reality became more and more plausible by June, the Sox were winning to very little fanfare – at least compared to what you’d expect for a team approaching 50 victories before July.
Along the way, Tim Tebow arrived, and his college teammate, Aaron Hernandez, defamed the ‘Patriot Way.’ The once beloved Doc Rivers left town, and future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett found out first-hand where Brooklyn's at. A fresh-faced Brad Stevens came from Larry Bird country, Tyler Seguin was told to grow up elsewhere, Nathan Horton opted for a change of scenery, and Jarome Iginla developed a thirst for some dirty water.
It was essentially the MLB All-Star Break by the time many of us gave the Red Sox the attention they deserved.
If only we could take that back.
The Sox’ importance in helping our city heal in the wake of the Boston Marathon tragedy was not lost in the shuffle as we casually marveled at their ability to distract us when we needed it most. The symbolic dugout addition of a ‘Boston Strong 617’ jersey followed, and we never felt more connected to David Ortiz than when his five powerful words united our bleeping city.
But, on the field, day-to-day drama elsewhere overshadowed the theater the Red Sox were rehearsing to endless encores.
Fortunately, even if you tuned in late, you had plenty of time to go on one hell of a ride that included 36 regular season come-from-behind wins, 22 final at-bat victories, and 11 triumphs that, by August, had left the Hub with the nickname, “Walk-off City.”
When September came to a close, a bunch of fun-loving, scraggly-looking guys you’d expect to run into at a dive-bar singing, “Don’t Stop Believing,” on Karaoke Night high-fived and beard-tugged their way to a worst-to-first turnaround, 97 wins, and the team’s first division crown since 2007.
Amazingly, we thought that was the entertaining part.
In a postseason that’s featured a different slumping hero virtually every night and a 37-year-old Ortiz hitting like it’s 2004, the Red Sox have pitched and slammed their way to dominance against the Rays, those oh my Tigers, and, soon, they’ll probably soak Lansdowne Street with champagne to the dismay of the Cardinals.
Years from now, we won’t remember that we mocked such offseason slogans as, “What’s broken can be fixed” and “162 chances to restore the faith.” The problems that existed late in the Terry Francona regime and throughout the abbreviated Bobby Valentine era have surely been fixed, and faith is as high as it’s been in years.
We’ll ignore our cries over handing an oft-injured, aging Ortiz a two-year deal when one certainly would have sufficed. We’ll be shocked to discover that playoff hero Jon Lester boasted a 6.27 ERA over about two months of his season before becoming the best pitcher in the game in the second-half. Even Clay Buchholz’s alleged fragility may be retold as the story of a gamer who gutted his way through a World Series start when his team had nowhere else to turn.
We’ll forget that the practically unhittable emergence of Uehara wasn’t the plan all along, as opposed to a fourth-time's-a-charm stroke of luck. And we’ll positively overlook the abundance of blown saves and the uncertain path to those effortless ninth innings that existed for weeks before everything stabilized in October almost overnight.
Mike Napoli’s historic number of strikeouts? Why those were just part of what made the man so hip.
And who will care or recall what took Xander Bogaerts so long to get in the lineup, since he was there when Farrell’s group needed him most.
No, we’ll remember these men for their oozing and undeniable love for the game and each other. It’ll be viewed as the year that other clubs’ castaways turned in career performances and defied Father Time.
“The one thing that we’ve seen repeatedly throughout the course of this year is their awareness inside of a game, the will to succeed, the desire to compete have been present with this team from Day One,” Farrell said of his Sox following Monday’s Game 5 win in St. Louis. “They find a way. The one thing that we tried to establish in spring training, the most important thing is the game tonight, and how do we put together a game-plan to win.”
In recent years in Boston, we learned that a collection of great talent with a lack of cohesiveness can yield breathtakingly poor results. This year has taught us that good individual talent paired with the right ‘everything to prove, live in the moment’ mindset and perhaps a little luck can accomplish the improbable. Expectations were not simply exceeded for ownership, management, players, and fans of a team predicted to finish near the bottom of the division again – they were redefined.
It’s getting cold outside, November is upon us, and snow won’t be far behind. It seems unfair that this season can’t go on forever but, alas, all good things must come to an end.
While most players are poised to return next season, trades could be made and free agents like Jacoby Ellsbury, Napoli, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, or Drew may wind up elsewhere. When the World Series concludes this week, so too will the run for this group.
So, what will I miss most about the 2013 Boston Red Sox’ bridge year?
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Call it a total team effort. Call it winning by committee. Maybe the Red Sox even took a cue from former Bruin Nathan Horton and brought some of their dirty water to the Gateway City.
Whatever the case, this is a lot of fun.
Once again, Boston was led by a cavalcade of unlikely heroes on the way to a 4-2 win in Game 4 to even the World Series on Sunday night, and the story was as compelling as the outcome.
Jonny Gomes wasn’t supposed to play – or, start, anyhow – but Shane Victorino’s chronic back tightness thrust Gomes into the lineup, where his sixth inning three-run home run broke an 0-for-9 slide at the plate and proved to be the back-breaking difference for the Cardinals.
“All I’ve fought for in this career of mine is just the opportunity,” said Gomes, who learned of his assignment during batting practice. “When my number’s called, I’m stepping up. I’m not dodging any situation.”
An inning prior to that game-changing blast, the Sox evened a 1-0 deficit with a sac fly from Stephen Drew – the same guy who was mired in a hapless 4-for-45 slump and hadn’t driven in a run in 11 games.
Even in the hours before Clay Buchholz took the mound, folks not-so-quietly questioned whether he would pitch and, if he did, how well and for how long. He wasn’t Pedro Martinez in 1999 or Curt Schilling in 2004, but his sore right lat muscle was able to provide four innings of one (unearned) run ball and average velocity before he gave way to the bullpen.
Doubront – the same guy who expressed his disinterest in pitching out of the pen as recently as last month and barely made the playoff roster – toed the rubber on consecutive nights for the first time in his big league career. He was effective, efficient, and arguably should have pitched longer.
Lackey hadn’t pitched in relief in nine seasons and, fittingly, the last time he did so in the postseason was as a rookie in the 2002 World Series. A scoreless eighth inning was a perfect way to spend a typical off-night for Fenway's Game 6 starter.
“I told the manager yesterday that I was available and wanted to help out if he needed me,” the veteran said after the win.
These are your 2013 Red Sox. A different hero or collection of miracle men every night, motivated by winning, an all-hands-on-deck approach, and a complete lack of ego.
There was when David Ortiz changed the fate of the Red Sox with his game-tying grand slam late in Game 2 of the ALCS after failing to record a hit in the series in six previous tries, or when a struggling Jarrod Saltalamacchia ended that affair with a walk-off single. We can’t forget Mike Napoli’s game-winning homer off of Justin Verlander that represented the only run in the next game, or Victorino’s 2-for-23 drought-ending slam in Game 6 of the ALCS.
Those are just some of the highlights among a roster of 25 men who have all received a beard-tug, high-five from Koji Uehara, or a warm dugout embrace at some point in the last few weeks for a hit, a pitch, a defensive gem, or maybe just saying the right thing at the right time.
At its core, the fun is derived from winning. But the not knowing what to expect, where the spark will come from, or who we'll be praising the next morning is arguably as enjoyable.
We love sports for the drama and unpredictability, for the way a simple game will affect our temperament for hours on end. It deprives us of sleep, affects our appetites, and gives us more stress than a mortgage payment. We’ll cheer, yell, or scream at the television while our kids are trying to sleep, or put ourselves through compulsive routines with the hope and belief that we actually make a difference. All for a game that we didn’t play, which features a bunch of guys who most of us have never met. Just because they happen to be wearing our favorite laundry.
And it all starts with rooting for the unthinkable, and then marveling at or chastising the unforeseen.
A game ending in a pickoff with the opponents’ best player at the plate and a chance to end the game, one night after a contest concludes with an obstruction call? Any of us would have predicted at least 100 ways for either game to end before arriving at such a seemingly ridiculous notion.
When the Red Sox and Cardinals take the field for Game 5 tonight, half of the excitement is that almost anything could happen.
Jon Lester could wield a shutout or, heaven forbid, get shelled in a third of an inning. Ellsbury could take Adam Wainwright deep to start the game or make a jaw-dropping diving-catch to save a run. Someone who wasn’t supposed to enter the game may just be responsible for its defining moment. You can’t even count against Drew delivering a three-hit night. Well, at least not with certainty.
“Everyone’s ready on this team,” said Napoli, who hammered a key three-run double in Game 1 but has done nothing in seven at-bats since. “We prepare every day. We go out there and take our groundballs, flyballs, BP, and we prepare ourselves to play and we’re always ready. It’s nothing new to us.”
But what you see tonight, that will surely be new – and hopefully something that will allow us to sleep soundly.
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Contrary to the popular skeptical belief, I fully expect Clay Buchholz to take the mound tonight when the Red Sox match up with the Cardinals in Game 4.
And you know what? At this point, I’m not sure he has any choice.
The much-maligned Boston hurler met with the media on Saturday afternoon before his team’s controversial 5-4 loss in St. Louis, and he all but backed himself into a corner while saying essentially all the right things.
Asked if he’s in danger of doing any further damage to his shoulder, arm, neck, or whatever the exact ailment is, Buchholz said, “I don’t think there’s any risk there. The only thing I have on my mind right now is going out to compete, to go out there for as long as [manager John Farrell] wants to leave me out there, and give the team the chance to win to the best of my ability.”
Does he mean it? Will the same guy who took three months off during the regular season for little more than inflammation really give it his all, rather than have some last-minute cold feet?
“At this level and at this stage, it’s tough to take yourself out of a game,” Buchholz stated, perhaps in an effort to squash concerns over his often questioned competitive nature. “I’ve never done that before. I’m gonna compete and give them the best chance of winning that I can.”
Buchholz opened himself up to an abundance of criticism, fair or unfair, at the All-Star Break when he noted then that there was no risk in his returning to the mound with discomfort, but that he just wasn’t comfortable with the idea even though the team would have preferred to have him out there. He was also pretty matter-of-fact in saying that, if it was September and the team needed him, he’d be trying a bit harder to make it happen.
Well, now it’s October. It’s the World Flippin’ Series. The Red Sox most certainly need him. If I’m being overly dramatic, Boston needs him.
As the once-perceived Cy Young favorite noted, he’s not 100 percent. Fine. No player is 100 percent right now. But even 80 percent of a Buchholz who has pitched three postseason games in the last three weeks (and finished with a 12-1 record and 1.74 ERA during the regular season) is better than any conceivable available alternative.
Much as I’d prefer Buchholz not have the mentality that he’d happily take a five-inning, two-run performance (his totals against the Tigers in Game 6 of the ALCS), simply because I don’t like the idea of him being content with anything less than a nine-inning shutout, he’s not that type of guy. Candidly, I’d take that line, too. Heck, Jake Peavy allowed two runs in Game 3 before he recorded three outs.
It doesn’t matter that Buchholz is fatigued, especially when he says there isn’t much discomfort. It doesn’t matter if his pitch count fails to exceed 85 for the third straight outing. What matters is him being there, taking the mound and trying to lead his team to victory like he’ll never pitch on this stage again because, you know what, he may not.
Buchholz can lean on the environment, the crowd, or his adrenalin to get him through as gritty a performance as he can possibly muster, as long as he isn’t leaning against the dugout wall as a spectator.
“We go into tomorrow thinking he’s going to give us what he’s been in the postseason,” Farrell said of his pitcher on Saturday. “That may be a bit shorter of an outing than maybe we’ve seen back in April and May, but he’s also been very effective, and we’re fully anticipating that will be the case again tomorrow.”
I do, too. And, for once, I believe Buchholz does as well. The season could be riding on it.
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The impact that Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha could make for St. Louis in the long-term was displayed the moment he arrived, when he limited the visiting Kansas City Royals to one run and two hits over seven calm and efficient innings in his Major League debut on May 30.
The impact that the 22-year-old phenom could make on the game itself, however, took center stage eight starts later in his final appearance of the regular season, when he no-hit the Nationals for 8 2/3 innings before allowing an infield single to Ryan Zimmerman – after the ball tipped off his glove.
By the end of that late-September evening, every baseball fan in the country knew who Wacha was, and everyone had made a Fozzie Bear joke at his expense.
Now, Red Sox followers know first-hand that this kid is no joke.
Wacha improved to 4-0 in the postseason after permitting just two runs on three hits with four walks and six strikeouts in six innings of work in Game 2 of the World Series on Thursday night. With that, the rookie’s ERA grew to 1.00 in the playoffs, thanks to David Ortiz’s fifth long ball of the month. Want to hear about his 0.70 WHIP?
We were all aware of Wacha’s potential when he held the Dodgers scoreless over 13 2/3 innings in a pair of matchups with soon-to-be two-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw to garner NLCS MVP honors. But watching the former Texas A&M star’s stock rise in the Fall Classic was a sight to behold.
“The nerves weren’t too bad,” Wacha said after the win. “Just kind of anxious to get out there. I mean, it’s the World Series, a big time game. I just tried to use it to my advantage, to go out there to pitch with some adrenaline and stuff and just try to block out the fans and the crowd.”
It’s a wonder how.
With chants of, “Wa-cha…Wahhh-cha,” the Fenway faithful were all over the youngster from the opening pitch, and all he did was retire the Sox in order in the first inning with help from a pair of strikeouts. His fastball was hot and his changeup was filthy. Equally impressive, he worked quickly and deliberately. Wacha’s first time through the Boston order required 46 pitches, but he struck out four, walked one, and didn’t allow a hit. Did I mention he’s 22?
On the night several champion Red Sox were in attendance to throw out the first pitch, you’d think Wacha was the second-coming of Pedro Martinez – at least if you listened to the game broadcast. You’d also think he invented gravity, and was in line to cure cancer between starts. But, the hysteria aside, all that mattered was what he did on the mound.
The youngster ran into some trouble in the fourth inning when Dustin Pedroia doubled to open the frame and Ortiz followed that with a walk, but his second pitch to Mike Napoli induced a double-play ball, Jonny Gomes popped out, and the threat was over.
It seemed every little thing was not going to be all right.
That raucous “Wa-cha” hymn was never louder than just after he eclipsed the 100-pitch mark (he finished with a career-high 114). Ortiz was at the plate with one down, Pedroia on first, and the Red Sox trailing by one, as fans were on their feet anticipating a full-count pitch. The new Mr. October ticketed that offering into the first row of seats atop the Green Monster to put Boston ahead, albeit briefly, but Wacha appeared unfazed as he followed that game-changing moment with a strikeout of Napoli before he got Gomes to ground out.
A half-inning later, Boston's bullpen and defense put the St. Louis starter in line for the win.
“Kid continues to impress,” gushed Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny. “I don’t know what else you could ask. You put him on any stage and he does a real nice job of limiting the distractions. He and [Yadier Molina] work well together and make good adjustments along the way, but he stuck with his strengths and really went out and was aggressive.”
Short of scoring more runs than the Cardinals, Red Sox batters did their job. As per usual, they worked the pitch count against Wacha and fought their way to the bullpen relatively early, but young flame-throwers Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal were too much to handle.
The evening was fitting in a way. Wacha, the wide-eyed freshman, outdueled John Lackey on the very stage where the sage veteran made a name for himself back in 2002 as the winning pitcher for the Angels in Game 7 of the World Series at the age of 24. In the process, with his parents in attendance, Wacha became the second-youngest hurler to ever start the second game of this round, and he lived up to the hype. Really, he may have exceeded it.
Needless to say, Wacha has our attention. And the Red Sox', too.
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We really shouldn’t be surprised, should we? All year long, we’ve grown to actually anticipate the unthinkable.
Wednesday night at Fenway was no exception as the Red Sox throttled the Cardinals, 8-1, to win their ninth straight World Series contest dating back to the last time these two teams met in 2004. In case you’re curious, the MLB record for consecutive victories at this stage is 14. Want to bet against this franchise right now?
Many people said going into the series that the Sox’ hitters would have to stick to their game plan by taking pitches early, grinding out at-bats, and making starters work, especially because of the depth in the bullpen for the Cards, but did anyone expect them to run over yet another ace in the process?
Much like their triumphs over Rays stars Matt Moore and David Price in the Division Series, the Red Sox abused Adam Wainwright, a guy who’d entered the game with a 1.57 ERA this postseason. He should have known it wasn’t his night when the 6’7” hurler banged his head emerging from that evidently too-small-for-big-people third base dugout to start the game.
As Jon Lester thrived to the tune of 7 2/3 scoreless innings, Wainwright labored. The 19-game winner was forced to throw 31 pitches in the first inning, compared to the 35 Lester tossed through three.
Wainwright’s pain wasn’t limited to his head, though, as he and his teammates endured a frustrating night on the field.
In that first inning, there was a botched ruling at second base when umpire Dana DeMuth nonsensically called Dustin Pedroia out after Pete Kozma failed to catch the ball in an effort to transfer from glove to hand and turn a double play. The call was ultimately overruled, as it should have been, but how often do you actually see a change of that caliber made without the ability to use replay?
Moments later, career World Series standout Mike Napoli – who may be forced to ride the pine when the series shifts to St. Louis – drilled a three-run double and give Boston a cushion that could have sent many fans to bed had any of them been concerned about an early-morning meeting.
The following inning, the struggling Stephen Drew came to the plate and a harmless pop fly that didn’t even make it as far as the mound landed untouched for a base hit when Wainwright and Yadier Molina got their signals crossed. The uncertainty looked like something out of "Angels in the Outfield." When Pedroia singled later in the inning to drive home Drew, the game was effectively over at 4-0, if it wasn’t already. Lester was too good to overcome.
Wainwright eventually settled down, but the damage was done. Five runs, albeit only three earned, in five innings of execution-less, spotty work. His team, one that had made just three errors all postseason, committed as many infractions on the night, and that’s without a ‘mental lapses’ category on the box score.
On the other side, danger was doused on more than one occasion as Lester escaped consecutive jams unscathed after the Cardinals loaded the bases with one out in the fourth inning and then put two men in scoring position with two down in the fifth. His control, command, and composure only increased as the stars above shined brighter over the course of the evening.
In that fifth, Jonny Gomes – who has displaced Daniel Nava in left for reasons that boil down simply to “intangibles” – made a diving catch to open in the frame. Another start for Boston’s newest Dirt Dog and another win for the club that’s 7-0 in the postseason when Gomes’ name appears on the lineup card.
And, wouldn’t you know, Nava made his first appearance in what felt like months when he pinch-hit for his counterpart in the eighth, and the icy-veined outfielder doubled. “Ready whenever you need me, Mr. Farrell,” he must have thought. Nava later scored on a sac fly by Xander Bogaerts, a guy who may not leave the lineup for the next decade.
In the seventh, up to the plate stepped David Ortiz. His would-be grand slam was taken away from him earlier by the championship-starved Carlos Beltran, whose catch over the wall cost him a rib injury, much of the game, and who knows how much time in the series. Wouldn’t you have loved to see Patrice Bergeron’s face when someone shared that news?
This time, Ortiz hit a ball that Beltran may have been able to catch in his Mass General exam room. As you might imagine on this night of the unusual, it came off a lefty specialist, Kevin Siegrist, who had a 0.45 ERA during the regular season and hadn’t given up a long-ball to a lefthander in his young career. What a fitting time.
The Red Sox never trailed the Cardinals in the World Series nine years ago. Could that possibly happen again this time around? It’s early but, after what we saw in Game 1, it sure seems more and more believable by the day.
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It still gives me chills to write the words.
The Red Sox are four wins away from a third World Series championship in a decade.
Fans of the gang from the Fens haven’t been able to make that claim since the 1910s, when Boston won four titles in the span of just seven years. Of course, it’s worth noting that there were only 16 teams in the game at that point.
Fast-forward through seasons of anguish, heartbreak, futility, and expansion and you arrive in the late 1990s, when a place for hope was reasonably restored and ultimately rewarded in the unlikeliest of forms in 2004. Yankees fans still can’t believe what happened, a bigger base may never be stolen and, somewhere today, someone is wearing a “Why Not Us?” T-shirt.
Now, in 2013, that special feeling from nine years ago has been conjured up again for those old enough to remember, in a way that 2007 could not duplicate.
Maybe it’s because that second Series victory came so close to the first, perhaps it’s that the expectations for that club were so high and fans had the newly formed confidence that had never existed, or it could be that we as a fan base had to again experience the pain of a devastating collapse and a briefer-than-anticipated nosedive to rock-bottom.
Either way, a bearded bunch of veteran castoffs, a core of leaders who found full health, the breathlessly impressive and ageless fourth closer in the pipeline, young stars in the making, and a new manager with a spotty resume brought us all back. Bridge year, be damned.
The Red Sox aren’t that likeable team you rooted for in ’07. They’re that lovable bunch of guys from ’04 who, if your heart can take it, you wouldn’t mind seeing them play all seven stomach-turning games of this World Series simply to spend a few more days with them before some inevitably move on.
I could write all about how evenly matched the Sox and Cardinals are this season; Major League Baseball’s two best teams with mirror-like 97-65 records, home dominance, and road efficiency. Clubs on par with one another on nearly every level, from the pitching staffs to the relentless approach of the hitters. From the homegrown talent to the horde of fans in each city whose collective moods hang in the balance of each pitch.
I could detail how Boston has already dispatched the likes of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, David Price, and Matt Moore, and its bats will certainly have their hands full with another dazzling duo in Adam Wainwright and unfazed rookie Michael Wacha. Add to that the Red Sox were baseball’s best regular season team against righthanded pitching by a considerable margin, and the Cardinals have an exclusively righty rotation.
Time could be devoted to the bullpens, which have both demonstrated depth and the stoppage skills necessarily to win in the postseason before getting to their too-good-to-be-true, lights-out closers. Don’t expect another survive-the-starter, punish-the-pen series this time around.
Or, we could break down the lineups, each team with the advantage at one position or another but, in all, looking equally as good as the other side of the card. After all, these offenses were the best in their respective leagues.
We could discuss the veteran holdovers from their last Series meeting, David Ortiz and Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran’s seemingly never-ending pursuit of a ring, or how both managers have won titles, but never as the men leading their dugouts.
How about the base-running game? Surely the likes of Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino, and Quintin Berry will have trouble running against Molina, one of the best defensive catchers in history. Yeah, there’s that too.
I remember sitting nervously at a bar down the street from Fenway on Oct. 27, 2004 with a few friends. As if fate had intervened, I had just finished a job in New York prior to the postseason and returned to Boston for the month of October before shipping out again for nearly a year in Michigan.
The bar was packed to the gills, the Red Sox up 3-0 in their series with the Cardinals and, by the third inning, up 3-0 in that decisive Game 4. No matter how loud the televisions were, it was impossible to hear the game. If it wasn’t the volume of the people reacting to every throw or swing, it was those thoughts in your head that kept repeating, “They’re going to do it. I can’t believe they’re going to do it.”
People decked in red and blue and drenched by champagne erupted into the streets by the thousands as police who may have preferred to celebrate waited in riot gear and gas masks. Some shook trees as others shook their fists, as if the accomplishment was their own. Chants of, “Thank you, Red Sox” were accompanied by tears of joy, Koji Uehara-like high-fives, and hugs from strangers. It was an ecstasy that could be imitated but not matched, even by the first-ever Patriots title in 2002, the Celtics’ first in 22 years in 2008, or the Bruins’ 39-year drought-ending party of 2011. Not for these people.
I was 22, plenty old enough to understand and cherish the moment after having experienced my fair share of disappointment, but I couldn’t possibly relate to what my dad must have felt, or his father before him had he lived to see it. I recall almost every detail from that night, from the anxious discussions at the bar to the blissful walk to the car.
Ironically and unfortunately, I don’t recollect a thing about that clinching night in 2007. Many folks like to say that first championship in 86 years was for everyone who had waited so long or died trying, while that next one was for the new generation of fans. Maybe. The emotion certainly wasn’t nearly the same.
What begins tonight and unfolds over the next nine days is going to return us to that feeling. You’ll always remember where you were when the Red Sox win this time around, whether that’s on Halloween night or sooner. This team has done that for us. What could be more Boston Strong than ending that journey in the city where the sentiment was born?
Enjoy every moment, Sox fans. If you’re lucky – inexplicably blessed, really – you’ll only get to experience this feeling once every 10 years.
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Give Bobby Valentine credit.
The briefly-employed Red Sox manager has said an awful lot of stupid, insensitive, or pea-brained things in his decades in the spotlight but, as it pertains to his time in Boston in 2012, his latest comments to the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo this morning take the cake.
“I’d like to think that if I came back for my second year that, given the changes and improvements, I would have been able to do the same thing,” Valentine said of new manager John Farrell’s ability to guide a new and rejuvenated group to the World Series this year.
Valentine’s Red Sox won 69 games.
Not exactly on the cusp of a playoff spot. In fact, the franchise had its worst mark in nearly 50 years.
Sure, his club endured a catastrophic number of injuries and underperformances among its anticipated key contributors, but that team’s biggest problem was an appalling lack of leadership, direction, and morale.
General manager Ben Cherington did far more than “a great job this offseason rebuilding the team,” as Valentine put it. The second-year GM and the rest of upper management identified the countless condemning issues that took a team with 100-win talent to the division-basement by dealing away some of its turbulent personalities in August and firing the kerosene-for-most-controversies immediately after the season.
“Usually a team will go after one or two free agents and hope they work out,” said Valentine, now an athletic director at Sacred Heart University. “When you’re signing seven or eight guys and they all work out and blend in together as well as they did, that’s amazing to me.”
It is amazing, and there’s certainly an element of luck involved. This year’s assembled Red Sox have led us to believe in things like the stars aligning, fate, destiny, and magic. They injected their fan base with a love that hasn’t existed since the “Idiots” of 2004, and that includes the title winners of 2007.
But could Valentine possibly believe this team would look anything like it does had he been retained?
Would veteran free agents like Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes, or David Ross – all key contributors in 2013 – have elected to sign in Boston following last year’s disaster if there wasn’t new leadership and a healthy degree of optimism in place?
Sure, we’ll never know, but I’d bet most if not all five would be under contract elsewhere today.
Unlike Valentine, who had his anonymous detractors inside the Sox clubhouse at the time of his hire, Farrell was well-respected from the moment he walked through the door on account of his familiarity with much of the personnel and his reputation in the game. One guy diligently prepares as best he can for every conceivable outcome, while the other once arrived late to the ballpark because he had to pick up his adult son at the airport.
Valentine’s reputation may be as a great baseball mind, but just about every other aspect of his character has gradually been stained over time as he’s lost one job after another. There’s a reason he’s called “the village idiot.”
That being said, he was the best thing that’s happened to the Red Sox in years.
If Valentine doesn’t arrive in Boston, neither do the bearded bunch of “scrappy underdogs” that we’ve come to love so deeply.
You might argue that the Sox were spiraling toward destruction after the chicken-and-beer-tainted collapse that occurred under Terry Francona’s watch in 2011, but it took someone of Valentine’s me-first personality to take that destruction to dysfunction and devastation. Another skipper, even Dale Sveum, may have guided a group with that level of talent to a .500 record or close to it but, for mediocrity to take place, Boston needed the genius, wrap-inventing, ballroom-dancing, O.J. Simpson-caliber running back who could have been the best baseball player in the world if not for injury.
Without Valentine’s heavily critiqued arrival, the odds are that Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford all still call the Hub home and we’re complaining about the Patriots’ offense while dissecting the Bruins’ power play. No franchise-saving trade to the Dodgers, and substantially less money available for the lesser-talented, high-character, playoff-tested winners with the ability to thrive in a high-pressure, scrutiny-filled market. For years.
Valentine gave Cherington and company the opportunity to hit the reset button. To rebuild, restart, regroup, refocus … hell, resuscitate. Thanks to Larry Lucchino or whoever may wish to be commended for making the final decision. There should be a brick purchased in that person’s name.
Valentine’s right when he said, “the entire organization should be very proud of what they did. They should take a bow. It was amazing work.”
Work that couldn’t have been done without you, Bobby. Think of it as the real reason you were paid all year. Another feather for your cap.
But if Valentine truly believes his team would be playing in the World Series tomorrow night, that’s a whole new level of delusion.
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A Patriots loss to the Jets is never easy to stomach, but it’s all the more indigestion-inducing when it happens in the form of a third-quarter collapse followed by a game-changing penalty in overtime that’s sparked by a rule that only the folks in the NFL offices can seem to remember.
It doesn’t matter whether any of us believes the unsportsmanlike conduct call on rookie Chris Jones should have been made. As it’s been explained extensively by now, it was the correct decision and it’s pretty cut and dry.
It’s easy to say, “New England would have gotten the ball back, moved into field goal range, and won,” given their experience and the great field position that waited but, really, who knows? Maybe Tom Brady would fumble for a third time of the game, or throw his second interception. Or, imagine the Pats just didn’t move the ball. It’s not as if the offense had an easy afternoon.
Admit it; your biggest frustrations are two-fold:
First, it’s annoying as all get-out and maybe a bit of bad luck that the Pats were the first team victimized by the rule, when it’s an error that’s probably been missed by other teams in other games across the league for weeks.
Second, the timing could not have possibly been worse. We aren’t harping on the refs or a rookie’s mistake had it occurred in the first half.
Neither complaint is the fault of the rule. Like it or not, remember that the guideline exists because the players wanted it for their safety. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t created in that moment merely to stick it to Bill Belichick, Brady, and the three-time Super Bowl champs.
Some might also argue that certain rules are just ignored late in games. Pass interferences aren’t called the same way from the first quarter to the fourth. NBA and NHL officials tend to stop play less frequently in the defining moments of their respective contests. Should the Push Rule be any different? How would you have felt if the Tuck Rule never came to life?
Maybe the blame here really falls on Belichick and his players for not remembering or even being aware of the rule in the first place. It’s all well and good that Jones admitted that the rule skipped his mind, but is that acceptable? We spectators can scratch our heads, but is it tolerable that players had no idea why their team was in the wrong? Shouldn’t coaches be drilling new rules into their players constantly, rather than just reviewing them briefly during training camp and moving on? And, shouldn’t pleading, “Oops,” be deemed inexcusable when it results directly in a loss? Knowing the rules is as important as knowing the playbook.
They know now. The whole league does. But the damage in New England is done.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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