By Alex Speier/WEEI:
In another scenario, Adrian Gonzalez could have been making his first visit to Fenway Park on Friday night. In the first meeting of the Cubs and Red Sox at Fenway Park since the 1918 World Series, Gonzalez could have been donning the visitor’s road grays.
That's because the Sox were not alone in pursuing the three-time All-Star. The Cubs and White Sox, according to major league sources, also tried to pry the first baseman from the Padres.
The Cubs were willing to include a major league component in their package for the 29-year-old (even though, according to one source familiar with the negotiations, they never made an offer that San Diego considered seriously). However, the Padres felt strongly that Boston’s package of three top prospects (Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo, Rey Fuentes) was the best way to position their organization for long-term success.
Gonzalez didn’t spent any time daydreaming about a future in the Windy City during the offseason because he wasn't aware of the different suitors for his services until after the Padres had already agreed to the deal that sent him to Boston.
“Everything happened within a 24-hour period, and then after the fact, I heard that there were other teams involved. There wasn’t anything leading up to it or anything,” said Gonzalez. “In a 24-hour period, it was, ‘You might get traded. You’ve been traded.’ Then a couple days later, the Padres told me these were the other teams involved.”
While Gonzalez wasn’t caught up in his potential destination when the Padres made him available, he has enjoyed significant success at Wrigley Field. In 19 games there, he has hit .320 with a .400 OBP, 1.093 OPS and seven homers.
“It’s a small park, I’ll tell you that,” said Gonzalez. “I know the wind can blow in or whatever, but every time I’ve been there, it’s seemed like a good place to hit even when the wind is blowing in.”
While Chicago was in the mix for the first baseman, the Sox were more focused on the idea of getting a deal done with the Padres and Gonzalez before the start of the winter meetings than they were on the particular competitors for his services. With all 30 teams clustered in a single Disney Resort, the Sox feared anything could happen, and they might see a player whom they’d long coveted slip through their fingers.
That didn’t happen, of course. The Sox sealed the deal, and now, roughly six months later, they are thrilled with the returns. That continued on Friday night, when Gonzalez set new personal bests in his brief Red Sox career by collecting four hits and driving in four in his team’s 15-5 clubbing of the Cubs. (Recap.)
But Gonzalez was not alone in his huge night. He paired in the middle of the order with Kevin Youkilis to pummel the Cubs’ pitchers.
Gonzalez was 4-for-6 (all singles) while driving in four. Youkilis was 3-for-5 with a homer, two doubles and three runs batted in.
Increasingly, the pair resembles precisely what the Sox had in mind for the middle of their lineup when they traded for Gonzalez. The team had first-hand experience with the potential impact that can be produced by an elite left/right slugging tandem in the middle of the lineup.
“The core of our lineup was once anchored by David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. That obviously started to change slowly a couple of years ago,” said a team source. “We feel Youkilis has evolved into a hitter who can be a core of the part of lineup we want to build. We’d been working for some time to find the right complement for Youkilis to project forward as the core of the post-Manny/David lineup.”
Gonzalez was the man for that undertaking, the left-handed masher who seemingly has a better understanding of what opponents are trying to do to him than they do. And Youkilis would flank him as one of the best right-handed hitters in the game, a player who, despite never having hit 30 homers in a season, numbered among the top sluggers in the league (since 2008, Youkilis has a .962 OPS, best in the AL).
There were times in the season where it was fair to wonder whether the blueprint would materialize. Through six games, Youkilis was hitting .105 with a .502 OPS. For much of the season, he was striking out at an alarming rate.
His numbers weren’t horrible – his OPS has been above .800 for more than a month – but his batting average was uncharacteristically low, with ongoing flirtations with .200. Youkilis was going through a stretch as an all-or-nothing player. That, in turn raised questions about whether his timing might have been affected either by his hand surgery last August or by the time he missed as a result of it.
“You can see him starting to really feel better. All along, he’s been productive but there [were] a lot of swings out of the zone that we weren’t used to,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “Now he’s starting to really get locked in. That’s good for us.”
Youkilis suggested that he has moved beyond his early season struggles at the plate. He feels that his approach is where it needs to be for him to thrive.
“I think I’m just trusting myself and my abilities more,” the third baseman said. “Sometimes you press too much early on, or when you’re going through a funk. But now … let’s say there’s a pitch off the plate that I don’t think is a strike, is off the plate, just letting it go and moving on to the next thing. For me, it’s about going pitch-to-pitch and not worrying about the last at-bat.”
Gonzalez also got off to a slow start. He finished his first month in a Sox uniform with just one homer. His .314 average at the end of April was more than respectable, as was his .836 OPS, but he still had yet to live up to the hype that greeted his arrival in Boston.
It’s been another story since the calendar flipped to May. The first baseman is now hitting .351/.378/.711/1.089 while hitting eight homers and driving in 26 through 18 games this month. He has been a wrecking ball in the middle of the lineup.
“The only problem is he cleans up the bases all the time,” joked Youkilis. “He’s a great hitter. He’s special. He’s going to be one of these guys who’s going to be a legend. If he stays healthy and keeps going the way that he is, he’s just getting better as he gets older.”
The Sox would no doubt simply settle for keeping what they’re already getting from both Gonzalez and Youkilis, who are currently supplying the Sox with two of the top five hitters in the American League. For the season, Gonzalez is hitting .326 (4th in the AL), .379 OBP (9th), .564 slugging mark (4th) and .942 OPS (4th). Youkilis is now hitting .271 with a .402 OBP (4th in the AL), .536 slugging mark (6th in the AL) and .938 OPS (5th).
It is a partnership that is flourishing, and with it, so are the Red Sox. It seems like anything but a coincidence that the team’s seven-game winning streak comes at a time when both players are scorching hot at the same time for their most sustained stretch as teammates.
It would be one thing if the two players were performing at superhuman levels. But they’re not. Their 2011 seasons are taking shape in a manner that appears rather similar to what has become standard for both.
“I think they’re doing exactly what we expect them to do,” said shortstop Jed Lowrie. “Nothing more, nothing less.”
And that, in turn, has the Sox thinking big about what might be possible for their offense going forward. The days of Ramirez and Ortiz anchoring the lineup have passed, but the next generation of the team’s three-four core is delivering its own impressive drumbeat.