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Somebody must hit on something to aid the offense

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 27, 2004
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For weeks Red Sox fans heard, "Wait until Nomar and Trot get back." OK, they're back. Bill Mueller and Ellis Burks are pretty close, and when they return, well, who knows how explosive this team might be? That one has been heard often, too.

Right now there's only one man who can explain the team's hitting struggles. It's time to call on senior baseball operations adviser Bill James. After all, this lineup is, in part, a result of his beliefs and recommendations. Buy him a plane ticket to Boston. Put a uniform on him if you have to. Give him a laptop and let him get to work on a sabermetric formula that fixes things.

How can a team that is first in extra-base hits, first in doubles, third in runs, first in on-base percentage, and fourth in slugging be last in leaving men on base? How can this team hit so poorly with runners in scoring position? Why doesn't the team bunt runners over when it has been so helter-skelter offensively? How can this lineup not be consistent? How can it not be knocking down the Wall all the time? Just one day after a 12-1 win over the Phillies, the same old frustrations returned yesterday. The Red Sox are 26-26 since April 29. They're capable of big outbursts -- eight runs in the sixth Friday night -- and yet in yesterday's 9-2 loss, even though they had 14 hits, they went 2 for 12 with runners in scoring position.

"When you play behind like that, it gets tougher because when you leave runners on, and then you make a mistake, it's more glaring," said manager Terry Francona. "If you play with a lead, you can do a little bit more."

According to statistician Chuck Waseleski, the Sox advanced a runner from first 47 percent of the time last season; they've done it just 32 percent this season. The biggest falloff has come from Kevin Millar, who was 19 for 34 last season and is just 4 for 19 this season. Leadoff man Johnny Damon moved 19 of 34 runners last season and has advanced only 6 of 17 this year. Jason Varitek was 12 for 22 a year ago, only 7 of 18 this year.

The Sox have played in nine games in which they have not had one hit with runners in scoring position and 15 games in which they've had only one such hit. Manny Ramirez is hitting .361 with runners in scoring position and two outs; the rest of the team .229.

Mr. James, do you have an answer for this?

Hitting coach Ron Jackson is also a bit in the dark. It's not as if his lineup isn't hitting. He may possess the best 3-4-5 hitters in the league with David Ortiz, Ramirez, and Nomar Garciaparra. Ortiz is putting up excellent numbers. Ramirez has been consistent all season. Garciaparra has been hitting the ball hard but right at people. So where is it breaking down?

"We're getting the hits, but we just can't get that big hit," Jackson said. "It's hard to explain. We're getting our hits. We're getting guys on base, but we just can't get them in."

Jackson is one of the most positive people you'll ever meet. If there's a candidate for motivational speaking, Jackson's the guy. He preaches positive reinforcement to his hitters, even in these times when the offense is clicking one day and is shut down the next.

"It's time for a meeting," Jackson said. "Just to get them back in the right frame of mind. Our guys know how to drive in runs, but right now it's not always happening. What bothers me the most is the strikeouts. It's about time for me to have a meeting and bring that to their attention and maybe we can come up with a different approach when it comes to driving in runs with two strikes."

The Sox have struck out nine or more times in a game 30 times, 10 more than all last season. They are 14-16 in those games. When they put the ball in play, they're hitting .349.

"My gut feeling is it's come down to guys trying to do too much," said Jackson. "Everybody wants to be the guy to drive in the run and maybe guys are pressing a little bit in those situations. That's what we're trying to find out. I know with Trot and Nomar out in the beginning, once we get everyone hitting together, I think it's going to be all right."

Jackson wasn't high on the theory that based on last season's record-setting offense teams now have better scouting reports on Sox hitters. He points out that the lineup isn't the same as last year because of new players like Pokey Reese, Kevin Youkilis, and Mark Bellhorn.

It's obvious there's been a meltdown on a few fronts. Millar is not the same hitter he was a year ago. Francona said yesterday that the team needs Millar to pound the ball in big situations, as he did last season. The manager said rather than get down on Millar, he's tried to lift him up with more playing time in hopes he'll come out of it. Millar has only 21 RBIs.

The absence of Todd Walker's bat also is a factor. Walker was a streaky hitter, but a clutch one. Mueller was last year's batting champion, and perhaps he will be able to hit at that level upon his return, but even before his knee injury, Mueller wasn't the factor he was a year ago. Obviously, Nixon and Garciaparra's missing production was huge, but both now are back. Both are hitting the ball hard, with mixed results, but they are a combined 4 for 18 with runners in scoring position.

It also seems that the hitting tends to go south on days when Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling are not pitching at Fenway. Martinez and Schilling are a combined 11-0 with a 2.61 ERA here; the rest of the starters are 5-11 with a 5.74 ERA.

Questions, so many questions. Getting answers is the problem. Right now there is a big problem with consistency as the team tries to win a series today against the Phillies and then heads to the Bronx for a set against the Yankees, who are much different since losing six of seven to the Red Sox in April. The Sox are 2-7 against first-place teams other than the Yankees, and they're only hitting .255 in those games.

Something is amiss, Mr. James. Something that maybe you can help solve.

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