No complaint with his bench
Francona lauds reserves' efforts
Many of them are in the final year of a contract. There is no guarantee they will be back, no assurance of big dollars with another team. And yet unlike in years past - Jay Payton, anyone? - those who ride the bench in Boston this season have been a key though generally unheralded piece of a team that is playing in the American League Championship Series.
No sniping from this crew. Not much complaining. But it has contributed a series of memorable moments and important plays, and has provided support when the team has needed it. Though backup infielder Alex Cora and super prospect Jacoby Ellsbury both will return next season, the rest (infielder/outfielder Eric Hinske, catcher Doug Mirabelli, outfielder Bobby Kielty), face far more uncertainty. But that is for later.
For now, it's about contributing when they can, like Kielty Friday night. Subbing for right fielder J.D. Drew because of superior numbers against C.C. Sabathia, Kielty broke open the game with a two-run single in the fifth inning, knocking out Sabathia.
"We had a pretty veteran bench for most of the year, Ellsbury now I know is young," manager Terry Francona said. "I don't remember one time, not one time all year, either putting out a fire or putting out a perceived fire. I mean, think about it. Hinske, Cora, Mirabelli, everybody's been on that bench, Kielty when he came . . . they have all put our team's goals ahead of their own, and that's not easy to do all the time."
Not for a guy like Hinske, who is a former Rookie of the Year. Or a guy like Cora, who started most of his time in Los Angeles with the Dodgers.
"We've got a bunch of professionals," Francona said. "The batting average isn't always where everyone wants it; that happens. But they're professional and they'll do anything you ask them. They come out on offdays to hit. Way back in Kansas City [the first series of the season], they had to face whoever was throwing a simulated game on the second day of the year. They've made my life a lot easier."
It hasn't always been that way. Two years ago, Payton requested to be traded in July, then forced the team's hand when he confronted Francona in the dugout in Texas about playing time. He was dealt to the Athletics soon after.
Though the Red Sox can't know entirely who they are getting, especially in a trade, they do their best to determine whether a particular player will fit in on the bench. That wasn't the case with Payton, who was acquired from the Padres in the deal for Dave Roberts after the World Series win. But they have gotten lucky with their current crop, players who don't carp publicly, and who don't make Francona's life more difficult with demands.
And sometimes they come up big.
Hinske had one of the best - and most surprising - catches of the season May 17 in the second game of a doubleheader, slamming his head into the ground while keeping hold of the ball, then hitting a game-deciding home run later in the game. Cora supplied steady defense (and a nearly .400 batting average) in April while Dustin Pedroia struggled. Ellsbury has provided some electric moments, including his second-to-home dash on a wild pitch. Mirabelli has played steady defense while catching Tim Wakefield. And Kielty added his bat to the cause Friday night.
All Kielty would offer, after his statistics against Game 4 starter Paul Byrd came up, was that maybe he would get an opportunity. There were no demands to play based on his .333 career average against Byrd, his .800 slugging percentage, his 1.155 OPS. He just seemed happy to contribute.
"You don't always win," Francona said. "We talk all the time about handling [the bad things]. Even a team that wins 96 games, there's a lot of down; three-game losing streaks, four-game losing streaks. Our bench guys were always a help - Hinske, Cora - they were always out there building, not tearing down. As a manager, I'm telling you that happens. You get guys on the bench and they're tearing away at what you're doing . . . it doesn't help. And our guys don't do that.
"You know, we have guys that handle what we ask them to handle. They should be commended for that."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.