Two games in, team running on empty
In order to get back in this series with the Yankees, the Red Sox don't need divine intervention or a roster turnover. They need base runners.
I keep looking at my scorebook for Games 1 and 2, and what do I see on the lefthand page? What I see is a whole lot of white space. It's 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, etc. In the first six innings of Game 1 and the first seven innings of Game 2, the Red Sox went down 1-2-3 10 times, and that's not counting the three-batter seventh in Game 2 that ended in a 5-4-3 double play.
And it's not as if the Yankees had to flash a lot of fancy leather in order to get those 39 outs, either. In the case of Mike Mussina Tuesday night, the only reasonably well-struck ball in those first six innings was a first-inning Mark Bellhorn liner to center. All the remaining aerial outs were routine. Most of his outs were pathetically easy. In addition to eight strikeouts -- five in a row and six of seven at one point -- there were two 3-1s and a foul-out to first. He entered the seventh inning with a perfect game, and that's exactly what your mind's eye told you it should have been. He was in complete command.
Jon Lieber was just as good during his first seven innings Wednesday. Orlando Cabrera had a fairly solid single to center leading off the third, but that was it. He only had three strikeouts, but he is not a strikeout pitcher. He's a hit-my-pitch-at-somebody pitcher, and he was at his best.
Pedro Martinez needed 113 pitches to get through his six innings. Lieber pitched into the eighth on just 82 pitches, which is very good. But there's a very big yeah-but at work here. Don't forget that 16 of those 82 pitches were consumed in that sixth-inning epic confrontation with Johnny Damon, who eventully lined out hard to center. "I'm just glad he hit it right at Bernie," sighed Lieber, who needed no other comparable good fortune during the course of his evening's work.
When nearly 20 percent of your evening's pitch count is gobbled up in one at-bat, that speaks to a spectacular efficiency in dealing with everyone else. Lieber was the anti-Pedro. The Red Sox were unable to make him work hard enough for his money.
Were this football, Terry Francona would have been scouring the tapes to see what minutiae he could uncover that might aid his frustrated batters. But that's not the way baseball works. "You can't do it that way in baseball," explains the skipper, "because it changes so radically from night to night, according to the pitcher. I agree that in this case Mussina and Lieber were similar the way they went after us."
People are looking at that low pitch count for Lieber and are automatically drawing the seemingly obvious conclusion that the Red Sox lacked "patience" in dealing with Messrs. Mussina and Lieber. Francona understands that, but, in his professional opinion, it is not that simple.
"Take Lieber," Francona points out. "He was throwing so many strikes [57 of 82], if you're taking and taking, you're 0 and 2 all the time, and that's not what you want."
Somewhere between taking borderline pitches and adopting the Vladimir Guerrero approach (i.e. once it leaves the pitcher's hand I'm swinging), there is a subtle gray area requiring the tough decisions. You can't keep taking your way into a called third strike (Mussina actually had an all backward K inning). Getting behind any pitcher is a bad thing. Getting behind a good pitcher is worse. Getting behind someone working at optimum efficiency is fatal. Mussina and Lieber have been so sharp with their control (Mussina's seventh inning excepted) that the Red Sox have been forced to swing the bats early in the count. All credit must be given to these pitchers. They have authored a pair of absolute clinics.
You don't need a PhD in Diamondology to know what must be done. The Red Sox, starting with their leadoff man, have to get some people on base. "We just haven't been able to get anything started," says Francona. "You've got to take that good pitch and whack it. If you get people on, that's how you get a pitcher back to the middle of the strike zone. You saw what happened in the seventh and eighth innings Tuesday. Once we got a few people on, things started to shake loose."
The man who must get untracked is Damon. Ichiro Suzuki had the record-breaking 260 hits, but Damon was the most productive and valuable leadoff man in baseball this year. He continued his disruptive play against Anaheim, when he had seven hits in three games and scored four runs. In the first two games of this series, he is 0 for 8 with five strikeouts. That aforementioned 16-pitch at-bat against Lieber was the only time he has looked anything like himself.
Could it be the scouting reports? Sure. But this is nothing new. The Yankees annually set the postseason standard in this regard. But Damon must make the required adjustments at the plate. He must find a way to replicate his regular-season play.
Perhaps the change of venue will produce different results. The Red Sox as a team had a higher on-base percentage (.378-.342) and slugged significantly higher (.504-.441) at Fenway than they did on the road. The only principal with comparable home/road splits is Manny Ramirez. The rest are all far more dangerous at home.
Base runners, gentlemen, base runners.
"If you can get guys on base and in scoring position, you can change the complexity," says Bill Mueller. "If we get guys on, if we take advantage of the first good pitch we get, then you won't hear anyone worrying about us being `patient.' "
Call it the white space factor. If, once again, there is too much of it on the Red Sox side of my scorebook, they're going home a lot sooner than anyone around here expected.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.