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Duquette benefiting from inheritance in Baltimore

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 14, 2012 10:48 AM

With the Red Sox playing the Orioles in Baltimore get ready for a round of paeans about the renaissance of former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette and his resurrection of the previously awful O's, possessors of the second wild card and poised for their first winning season since 1997.

These stories may mention what has become popular and pervasive revisionist history -- that former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein won the 2004 World Series largely with and because of what Duquette left behind. They may also mention that Duquette built the Zakim Bridge, spurred development in the South Boston Seaport and solved the MBTA's budge crunch.

Not only is crediting Duquette for '04 ignoring the fact Epstein was responsible for the acquisitions of David Ortiz, Keith Foulke, Curt Schilling, Bill Mueller and Kevin Millar and made the most significant trade in franchise history this side of Babe Ruth to New York to set the stage for Red Sox Nation's deliverance. It also stands in direction contradiction to the idea that Duquette deserves plaudits for rebooting baseball in Baltimore right now.

If Epstein, who became Sox GM in 2003, won with Duquette's players in '04 then Duquette is definitely benefiting from a hefty inheritance now.

I've always found this winning with somebody's else's players argument to be a selective and insidious debate. Why should a GM be penalized for talent that is already on the roster? Rarely do people mention that Patriots coach Bill Belichick inherited Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law and Troy Brown, but Epstein is supposed to share co-billing with Duquette for the two World Series wins on his watch?

The Duke devotees can't have it both ways. You can't say Epstein only won because he was bequeathed Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe from Duquette, and then turn around and say Duquette is the best thing to happen to baseball in Baltimore since Camden Yards.

Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy, Chris Davis, Jim Johnson, even wunderkind Manny Machado all belong to previous Orioles regimes.

Duquette has made some significant moves to bolster the Baltimore pitching staff, trading Jeremy Guthrie to Colorado for Jason Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom, importing Taiwanese lefthander Wei-Yin Chen, who has emerged as the Orioles' ace, from the Japanese Central League, and in classic Duke fashion picking righthander Miguel Gonzalez off the minor-league scrap heap. (Gonzalez was in the Red Sox organization last year and went a combined 0-7 with a 5.40 ERA.)

I always thought this was Duquette's greatest strength -- taking baseball's lost souls and turning them into talent found. Duquette was into sustainability long before it became a corporate buzz word. He would recycle players discarded or discounted by other teams. Nobody could spot a baseball bargain like the Duke, who put the defibrillator paddles to the career of Tim Wakefield and unearthed finds like Troy O'Leary, Brian Daubach and Rich Garces during his Red Sox days.

Duquette was also the original stolid, laconic, unsentimental organizational leader around here. He was stonewalling the media long before a certain hooded football coach made it a managerial meme. Whether it was to placate then-manager Jimy Williams or not, it was Duquette who ordered Johnny Pesky out of the Sox dugout in 1997.

It is possible for a general manager to come into an organization and effect change by overhauling the culture and not necessarily the roster. Duquette has done that with the Orioles, although manager Buck Showalter began the attitude transplant by challenging and in some cases insulting the big boys of the American League East.

Duquette deserves consideration for Executive of the Year for what he's done with a previously feckless franchise, but he might not even be the best executive in the Beltway, never mind all of baseball. Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has turned the Nats from a national laughingstock into the team with the best record in baseball.

He might not even be the most deserving Amherst College alumnus of the award. Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington, an Amherst graduate like Duquette, has the Pirates holding down the second wild card slot in the National League and on the verge of their first winning season since 1992, an act of personnel prestidigitation so miraculous it should draw the interest of the Vatican.

Don't forget the guy who was the original choice to succeed Duquette in Boston, Billy Beane.

Beane has the Moneyball mojo working again. The A's, baseball's perpetual paupers, are nipping at the heels of the Orioles for the second wild card slot, despite dealing their top two starters, Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, and All-Star closer, Andrew Bailey, in the off-season in cost-cutting moves; not getting a single inning from established starters Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden; and seeing Opening Day starter Brandon McCarthy miss a month and a half with shoulder soreness.

Duquette's best argument for Executive of the Year is that he's upgraded the Orioles starting staff. Still, Baltimore ranks 24th in the majors in starters' ERA. The Nationals lead the majors at 3.22. The A's are seventh at 3.84 and the Pirates are 14th at 4.08.

Duquette didn't deserve to be exiled from baseball after guiding the Red Sox into the modern era and three playoff berths during his nine-year tenure. He's too shrewd an evaluator. Like so many of the reclamation projects he plucked, Duquette never gave up on his dream of returning to the big leagues. Bravo.

His perseverance has paid off for the Orioles, and he has done an excellent job with the O's. But hailing him as the architect of the baseball revival in Baltimore while lavishing him with retroactive primary credit for the Red Sox' World Series wins is hypocritical.

Like Duquette's infamous "More days in first place" line, it simply doesn't compute.

Kevin Garnett and David Ortiz are age-old partners

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 22, 2012 03:51 PM

During the Celtics' gratifying playoff run, Kevin Garnett has become a basketball version of David Ortiz. Counted out, Garnett has staged a remarkable revival, evoking some of his best days.

The Big Ticket and Big Papi are kindred souls of Boston sports. Both are 36 years old, both came to Boston from Minnesota, both have been doubted, dismissed and labeled diminished -- or worse -- as they approach the final straightaways of their distinguished careers.

Garnett is never going to average 24 points or 13.9 rebounds per game again, as he did during the 2003-04 season. Ortiz is never going to drive in 148 runs, as he did in 2005, or slug 54 home runs, as he did in 2006. But that's not the point.

The point is that both KG and Big Papi are performing at a level that few thought they would be able to reach at the advanced stages of their careers. They are defying aging with open defiance of both Father Time and those who had written their epitaphs.

They are also redefining what it means to be past one's prime, their excellence in lockstep with their contempt for their naysayers.

KG and Big Papi's renaissance fare was on display Monday night at roughly the same time, as they helped propel their teams to important victories, separated by 404 miles and a few channels on the cable box.

Garnett, who has hopped in the hoops Delorean to become the go-to scorer for the Celtics in the postseason, dropped 20 points on the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday evening, as the Celtics took a 3-2 series lead with a 101-85 victory that put them one win away from a place few thought they would be three months ago -- the Eastern Conference finals.

With the Red Sox trailing the first-place Baltimore Orioles, 5-2, in the sixth inning, Ortiz jump-started a Red Sox rally with a mammoth home run that sailed out of Camden Yards, landing on bordering Eutaw Street like an artillery shell with seams.

That was the spark for a three-run sixth that allowed the Sox to tie the game. The Red Sox went on to claim an 8-6 victory -- their 9th in 11 games -- to pull back to .500 for the first time since April 30. Suddenly, a season on the brink may be on the brink of turning the corner.

Perhaps, then it was fitting that after the big win in Baltimore, Ortiz channeled his basketball counterpart in vituperating his detractors.

Ortiz was asked by ESPNBoston's Gordon Edes about the team meeting he called on May 11, a season-altering assembly in which the law was reportedly laid down to the team's laggard starting pitchers. It came the same night that Josh Beckett was boxed around by the Cleveland Indians in the wake of his ill-timed tee time.

Ortiz, the longest-tenured Red Sox, was indignant at the notion that up until that point anyone questioned his leadership -- or anything else.

"I don't get no respect," he told Edes. "Not from the media. Not from the front office. What I do is never the right thing. It's always hiding, for somebody to find out."

It was hard to read those words and not think of Garnett's public censure of the media 11 days earlier, after he dropped 28 points and 14 rebounds in the clinching-game of the Celtics' first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks.

A rejuvenated KG admonished his doubters, the ones who thought such dominant performances by him were only found on YouTube or NBA Classics on NBA-TV.

"...It's almost like you guys are shocked," said KG. "Like this ain't what I do every day, like this ain't what I was made for. It does come off disrespectful at times. I put a lot of work and time into this, and there are certain levels I expect from myself.

"I take this very seriously, so you guys calling me old...you have no idea what you are doing when you say those 'old' comments. I appreciate that. I don't read your columns, but it gets back to me."

You're welcome, Kevin.

Both KG and Big Papi turn the slightest questioning of their ability into a personal affront. Despite the difference in their public demeanors they're both intensely proud men. It's part of what makes them great, and has allowed them to thumb their noses at athletic actuarial tables.

It's obvious from his comments that Ortiz is still embittered by the fact the Sox have resigned him to playing for his contract each year and the way he was treated in 2009 and 2010, when glacial starts had commentators dancing on his grave and NESN asking fans if he should still be the DH.

He's not only still with the Sox, but atop the American League leaderboard. Ortiz ranks in the top 10 in the American League in batting average (.333), runs batted in (30), home runs (10) and on-base percentage (.402). Only Josh Hamilton has a better AL slugging percentage than Ortiz's .616 and his 1.019 OPS is third-best in the AL.

The once-declining DH leads all of major league baseball in extra-base hits with 25, and since the start of the 2010 season, only five players have more extra-base hits.

Garnett has averaged 19.3 points and 10.5 rebounds this postseason. The rebounding total matches what he put up during the 2007-08 playoffs, when the Celtics won Banner No. 17. He has twice as many blocks this postseason (18) than he had all of last postseason, and is just two blocks shy of his total from the 2009-10 postseason. That was accomplished in 23 playoff games.

Usually, in sports if something is too good to be true, it turns out it's not. We've learned that disappointing lesson too often, too many times.

Hopefully, Garnett and Ortiz are age-old exceptions in every way because it's too enjoyable to watch them buck the odds and carry their teams.

Sox have a chance to restore order with Bard

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 24, 2012 02:01 PM

Daniel Bard is right. He can't make eight guys in the bullpen better, but what he can do is provide relief that goes beyond pitching.

He can soothe the battered psyche of a baseball team and its fed-up fan base simply by being a familiar face performing in a familiar late-inning role.

Bard's return to a relief role was triumphant, both for him and the Red Sox last night in Minnesota, as Bobby V's Rock Bottom Band bounced back from a Hindenburg weekend by ending a five-game losing skid with a 6-5 victory. Bard entered a tie game in the eighth with one out and a runner on third. He didn't do anything spectacular, inducing a lineout to third and a popup to shortstop to end the inning, but you could hear an entire Nation exhale when he walked off the mound.

The obvious question is where do the Sox go from here? Do they act like nothing significant happened Monday night and allow Bard to make his regularly-scheduled start in Chicago on Friday? Or do they recognize that Bard is just the ballast a rudderless team and listing bullpen so desperately need?

What the Sox decide to do is going to provide keen insight into the culture and commitment to winning of the Red Sox in 2012.

If the reluctant reliever is returned to a starting role then the message is that nothing has really changed since last September for the Red Sox. They're still coddling and empowering players, like helicopter parents.

It obvious that Bard prefers to be a starter. It's obvious that general manager Ben Cherington has made assurances to Bard that he'll be given every opportunity to start, in part because Cherington recognizes the cost-efficient value Bard could provide in the rotation if he develops into a front-line starter.

But if the manager or the general manager being worried about offending, alienating or upsetting a player prevents him from doing what is in the best interests of the team, then the Red Sox' problems go much deeper than a raft of injuries to key players and poor pitching.

It speaks to an organizational fatal flaw of pandering and capitulating to players. It makes last September a painful flashpoint for a more pervasive issue.

The old bromide about a happy employee being a productive employee is true, and the Sox should want to create a welcoming work environment for their players, especially in this city. But at the end of the day, the players work for Valentine and Cherington, not the other way around.

If that fundamental work place hierarchy isn't established you end up with a pitching staff where guys get to choose their own role and their own receiver, even if it's to the overall detriment of the team. It sure seems like Josh Beckett has tabbed Kelly Shoppach as his personal catcher, so the red-hot Jarrod Saltalamacchia will likely take a seat Tuesday night against the Twins. Great.

Someone has to be the adult here -- and it's unfair to ask for it to be Bard -- and point out the obvious change of circumstances since the plan to make Bard a starter was approved. If not, the message that gets sent is either that satisfying a player's wishes are more important than the team's success, or that forced to make a choice, the Sox value long-term developmental and financial gain more than winning this year.

Either rationale is utterly disheartening.

If the decision is strictly a baseball one and has nothing to do with interpersonal fallout then it should be an easy one -- Bard goes back to the bullpen. Nothing undermines a team, a manager, and a season faster than an unreliable bullpen, as the Sox have witnessed.

Maybe Cherington and baseball operations remain convinced that Bard can be Jered Weaver. He has done nothing in his first two starts to be yanked from the rotation on performance. In an ideal world, we would all get to see how this Grand Experiment turns out. However, the experiment has now become a luxury the Sox simply can't afford.

It could be an opportunity for the Red Sox to resurrect another Grand Experiment though -- Bill Jamesian bullpen philosophy. In 2003, the Sox had the novel idea that using your best relief pitcher just in closer situations was an inefficient deployment of talent. This idea got boiled down to the ill-fated Closer-by-Committee calamity, but it was fundamentally about using your best reliever in the most important juncture in the game, which isn't always the ninth inning.

It wasn't last night. The most important juncture was the eighth, when Bard came in with the go-ahead run on third base and one out.

It could be more valuable to have Bard extinguish rallies than ring up saves. He is the only guy on the staff who has a proven track record doing that. Last year, he allowed just 5 of 34 inherited runners to score, 15 percent. For his career he has allowed 24 percent of inherited runners to score. The 2011 major league average was 30 percent.

Closer-by-default Alfredo Aceves allowed 38 percent of inherited runners to score last season and is at 34 percent for his career.

Franklin Morales, the presumptive eighth-inning guy, allowed 38 percent of inherited runners to score last season and 33 percent for his career. Vicente Padilla is at 35 percent for his career. The Sox bullpen has allowed 41 percent of inherited runners to score this season.

While it's always going to be necessary to have the defibrillator nearby when Aceves, who apparently attended the Heathcliff Slocumb School of Closing, is in a save situation, Bard doesn't have to collect saves to be the bullpen savior.

Plus, putting Bard in the bullpen permanently wouldn't just allow the Sox to restore order to their season but to their organization as well.

Playing four-on-four

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 20, 2012 01:13 PM

Four is an integer of interest these days on the Boston sports scene.

The Bruins are tied, 2-2, after four games of their playoff series with the Washington Capitals, thanks to a 44-save performance Thursday night by Washington goalie Braden Holtby, playing in just his fourth NHL playoff game. Four is the number of wins the Red Sox have in their first 12 games under manager Bobby Valentine headed into Friday's Fenway Park centennial celebration. The Celtics are set up as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, and the Patriots have four picks in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft, which will take place next week.

So, here are four sports musings for Friday:

1. The Bruins are being beaten at their own game -- No one from Washington has blocked this many attempts at passage since last year's polarizing debt-ceiling budget debate. The Bruins, who tied for second in the NHL in goals during the regular season, have scored just seven in four games in a series that is tighter than a pair of skinny jeans. The Capitals have found hockey religion in the form of defensive-minded play, and a stingy netminder in Holtby.

Before the series, the feeling was a low-scoring, tight-checking, goal-starved series would benefit the Bruins with Tim Thomas in net and coach Claude Julien's dedication to defensively responsible hockey. But that grinding style of play, coupled with the Bruins usual playoff power-play ineptitude (0-12), has allowed a team with lesser overall talent and depth than the Bruins to turn a first-round formality into a hard-fought series.

The only way for the Bruins to shake off the Capitals is to get some of their big guns to stop shooting blanks. None of the Bruins' top five goal-scorers during the regular season -- Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron -- has found the back of the net yet. The quiet quintet has one measly point in the playoffs, an assist belonging to Bergeron. That's an express ticket to an unwanted and unexpected tee time.

2. Ray Allen's ankle situation is concerning -- Allen didn't make the trip to Atlanta, and Friday night will miss his seventh straight game and 13th out of the last 18 due to a balky right ankle. The Celtics' resurgence has been a feel-good story, and with Dwight Howard hors de hoops for the season thanks to a back injury, Boston's path to another NBA Finals got even clearer.

But Allen's condition is worrisome. Either the ankle is not coming around and has reached a stage where it's a chronic ailment that could affect him in the playoffs, or Allen, a free agent after this season, is making a business decision to protect himself and his marketability this summer by not playing hurt. Neither Allen injury scenario bodes well for Banner No. 18.

The former is the dreaded and anticipated breakdown of one of the Celtics' vaunted Big Three. The latter is Allen being miffed about nearly being traded by the Celtics to Memphis at the trade deadline and confirming the rumblings that he's not in love with his new role as a sixth man. In the last two days both the Globe and Herald have had stories implying that Allen feels slighted by the organization and hinting that he could be playing elsewhere once he hits free-agency.

3. The Red Sox' unsettled bullpen is contributing to the hysteria surrounding the team -- The most disconcerting thing about the Red Sox -- besides the fact they would play "Sweet Caroline" in the eighth inning even if Fenway were engulfed in flames -- is the bullpen, a unit that is a conflagration in the making.

Here are the relievers with corresponding ERAs that the Yankees used on Thursday night in a 7-6 win over the Minnesota Twins after starter Phil Hughes was tagged for six runs in 5 1/3 innings: Boone Logan (1.23), Rafael Soriano (1.80), David Robertson (0.00) and Mariano Rivera (4.15). There is a better chance of Terry Francona returning as Red Sox manager this season than Rivera finishing the season with an ERA above 4.00.

The Sox' farraginous bullpen simply can't compete with the arms the Yankees have. It's a complete mismatch and the lack of proven, reliable options undermines Valentine far more than any careless words he utters to the media.

It may be unfair to Daniel Bard, but to give Valentine and this team a reasonable chance to succeed the Sox will have to consider moving him back to the bullpen at some point.

4. Likes and dislikes of the 2012 NFL schedule -- What any Patriots fan has to like about the schedule is the paucity of high-end quarterbacks on the team's slate. Three of the Patriots' four losses last season came at the hands of Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Their porous pass defense struggled against elite QBs. The two best quarterbacks on the schedule this year are Peyton Manning (Denver) and Joe Flacco (Baltimore). Houston's Matt Schaub would also be on the list, but he's recovering from a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot, an injury that can have long-term effects.

What I don't like about the schedule is the placement of the two Jets games. Everyone is talking about how easy the Patriots schedule appears, but the difficulty of their slate will be determined in large part by whether the Jets resemble the dysfunctional, bickering bunch from last season that missed the playoffs or the team that advanced to two straight AFC title games.

The first Jets game comes on Oct. 21 at Gillette Stadium. The week before the Jets have a nice cushy 1 p.m. home game against the rebuilding Colts. The Patriots meanwhile have to fly to Seattle and play the Seahawks in a 4:15 game, ensuring jet lag and a wee-hours of the morning arrival home, which could mean losing a half-day or more of preparation time. The second clash with the Jets comes on Thanksgiving and is on the road, which means already limited time to prepare, truncated even more by a travel day. Granted, both teams are playing the prior Sunday at 1 p.m., and the Jets are on the road (Rams) while the Patriots are home (Colts). But such a pivotal divisional game shouldn't have its game-planning compromised.

My biggest issue with the NFL schedule overall is the expansion of the Thursday night television package. It seems hypocritical for commissioner Roger Goodell to go on a player safety crusade and then have the league increase the number of games that are played on Thursday nights without building in byes.

How is this for player safety? The Ravens will host the Patriots on Sunday night football on Sept. 23, and then turn around and host the Cleveland Browns the following Thursday. Inexplicably, not a single one of the 14 Thursday night games this season features a team coming off a bye week. That could do more damage than Gregg Williams and his bounties.

Evaluating Bard as a starter should be an open-and-shut case

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 11, 2012 01:27 PM

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There has to be parameters set for Daniel Bard to continue as a starter for the Red Sox. (Brad White / Getty Images)

If Daniel Bard's first major league start was supposed to provide conclusive evidence of how his right arm can best be deployed for the Red Sox this season then what was submitted was like the outing itself -- open to interpretation.

Bard did nothing to sway public opinion on whether he should be a starter or a reliever. Those lined up on either side of the debate like Republicans and Democrats before his first big league start are likely entrenched in the same spots after Bard pitched five uneven innings in Toronto on Tuesday evening, credited with allowing five runs on eight hits while striking out six.

Proponents of Bard's conversion to a starter will point out that he only allowed one extra-base hit, at one point set down seven in a row, generated enough swings and misses from the Blue Jays to lobby for a wind farm subsidy, and had his final line inflated when Justin Thomas allowed a two-run single.

Bullpen backers will point out that Bard's effort wasn't better than that of Felix Doubront. That he still looked like a two-pitch pitcher (fastball, slider) who intermittently had difficulty putting hitters away. That Aaron Cook probably could have given you a similar start, and that another reliever-turned-starter, Texas's Neftali Feliz, tossed seven shutout innings on the same night.

Evaluating whether Bard's switch to the starting rotation was a worthwhile undertaking is not going to happen after one night in Toronto. It's going to take some time, but we should at least set some parameters. If it turns out Bard is basically your average No. 4 starter then his days as a starter need to end.

For Bard's move to the rotation to be a success he has to show that can he can be a top three major league starter. Anything less and he belongs back in the bullpen.

The Yankees showed last year that you can exhume No. 4 and No. 5 starters. What really matters is your Big Three. The Red Sox learned that lesson the hard way last year when Buchholz was sidelined by a balky back and the Sox were starting the likes of Kyle Weiland, Andrew Miller and a broken-down Erik Bedard in September.

Even if Alfredo Aceves, who lowered his earned run average from infinity on high to a mere 27.00 with his first save, proves he can close, the Sox still might need Bard in the bullpen as the eighth-inning guy because not all late-inning pitching is equal.

Not all saves or holds are equal. Not everybody can pitch or produce in a late-inning role in a city full of fervent, emotionally invested fans like Boston. Preserving a late-inning lead in Oakland or Kansas City isn't the same as doing it in New York, Boston or Philadelphia.

If you disagree with the geographical premise then you have to allow for the psychological one. Saving Game 91 isn't the same as trying to save Game 6 of the World Series, just ask Feliz or Calvin Schiraldi.

It was exactly the kind of flawed thinking that dismissed the human element of pitching late in games that led to the Sox' ill-fated Closer by Committee catastrophe in 2003 -- a pitching theory so pernicious that it created a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder for manager Grady Little that proved fatal in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

Mark Melancon, Bard's successor in the eighth-inning role, has already experienced more pressure in the Motown Meltdowns than he did all last season saving 20 games for a horrific Houston Astros team (56-106). Closing out games for a team where victories are a pleasant surprise is different than doing it for a team that is expected to win.

As bad as Bard was last September -- 0-4, 10.64 ERA, three blown saves -- he has proven he can pitch in Boston in a pressure, late-inning relief role, which is no small feat.

The only time Bard pitched in the playoffs, 2009, he pitched three scoreless innings across two appearances and struck out four without a walk. In Game 3 against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of Orange County of Southern California, he entered in the sixth inning, inheriting a bases-loaded, no outs situation and induced a run-scoring double-play grounder and a pop-up. He then set down the side in order in the seventh.

Any pitcher who can pitch in the cauldron of noise that is Red Sox Nation and not allow a run over a span of 25 consecutive appearances, a team record, and toss 26 1/3 straight scoreless innings of relief, as Bard did last season, is more valuable than an average No. 4 or No. 5 starting pitcher.

That's because nothing eats away at the morale or the psyche of a team like a blundering bullpen.

Sox general manager Ben Cherington is right to be bullish on making Bard a starter because the righthander has flashed the stuff to be a top three starter. So, if Josh Beckett is thumbs down or Clay Buchholz proves too frail, Bard can be an inexpensive insurance policy.

Bard's transformation into a top-of-the rotation pitcher would also give the Sox the flexibility to part ways with the peevish Beckett and the remaining $31.5 million on his contract after this season, if now in their coupon-clipping days they deem that money better spent nowhere.

But if a month or two into this grand experiment the Sox bullpen is still undermanned and unreliable, and Bard is not out-pitching Doubront, never mind Buchholz or Beckett, the plug has to be pulled.

The Sox will have other options for fourth and fifth starters like Cook, the still-unsigned Roy Oswalt and the rehabbing Daisuke Matsuzaka. This is not even taking into account the fact the Sox told us one of the justifications for the team's frugality this offseason was so they could sock away money for in-season acquisitions.

Bard will continue building his case to be the starter on Marathon Monday, but what it takes to make it in the long-run should be clear.

Forwarding four April thoughts on Celtics, Sox, Bruins and Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 3, 2012 03:49 PM

T.S. Eliot said April was the cruelest month, but there is a lot to look forward to in the fourth month of the year in the foremost sports city in the country.

We have the recharged Bruins ready to defend their Stanley Cup crown in the NHL playoffs, the reconfigured Red Sox, replete with a new general manger, manager and closer, hoping to erase the grease stains of last season's epic collapse, the revitalized Celtics appearing ready to make one last championship run, and everybody's favorite rite of April, the Patriots trading out of the first round of the NFL Draft. Seriously, it's a fascinating draft for the Patriots, who have two picks in both the first and second rounds and are an impact defender or two away from Lombardi trophy No. 4.

With the foreword out of the way, here are four thoughts on each of the Big Four sports teams in town.

1. The Celtics are making Danny Ainge look smart -- It looked like Ainge had erred when he failed to pull the trigger on a trade at the deadline that would jumpstart the inevitable rebuilding process. But now Danny the Dealer looks shrewd for standing pat. The Celtics have won five straight and nine of their last 12 to jump from seventh in the East to fourth with a real chance to catch Orlando for the third spot.

The best part of the Celtics' recent renaissance has been the emergence of guard Avery Bradley, who has been a revelation while Ray Allen has sat out with an ankle injury. In his last five games, Bradley is averaging 14.6 points per game while shooting 52.8 percent from the field and playing defense better than a White House press secretary. He has given the Celtics a much-needed boost of athleticism in the starting lineup and a running mate for Rondo.

Even if the Celtics don't get beyond the second-round of the playoffs this stretch has been of enormous benefit, as it has turned Bradley from an NBA unknown into an asset. This is what Ainge does best -- turn late round picks into assets he can either hold on to (Rondo) or dangle out to attract better players (Al Jefferson).

Since taking over in 2003 here are the late-round players that Ainge has obtained through the draft either by selection or draft-day deal: 2003 -- Kendrick Perkins (trade with Memphis); 2004 -- Jefferson, Delonte West, and Tony Allen; 2005 -- Gerald Green and Ryan Gomes (second-round pick), both part of the Kevin Garnett deal; 2006 -- some guy named Rondo in a trade with Phoenix; 2007-- Jeff Green, the centerpiece of a deal for Ray Allen; 2010 -- Bradley (19th pick).

Not dismantling his team has been a strategic success for Ainge. It has made the pieces on his roster look more enticing to other teams, and it has made his team look more enticing to potential free agents, who may look at the Celtics now and realize that they could be a quick-fix, not a tear-down.

2. The Red Sox' standard operating procedure hasn't changed -- So, I created quite a stir with my piece on the dynamics between new general manager Ben Cherington and new manager Bobby Valentine. I think some may have missed my point, which wasn't that Cherington and Valentine were stabbing each other in the back with every sharp object they could find, only spoke to each other to spew invectives and were locked in a "The Hunger Games"-style battle for control of the team. (By the way, why is it "news" that a manager and general manager text and talk to each other frequently?)

The point was that the decisions on how to employ Daniel Bard and Jose Iglesias were going to tell us something about the Sox' organizational structure and whether it had changed with Theo Epstein's departure. It would appear not. It's still a collective process spearheaded by the GM.

Perhaps, making Bard a starter was a move that Valentine unwaveringly supported all along, but that seems even more dubious when taking into account the thumb injury to closer Andrew Bailey. This nugget from colleague Peter Abraham in which Alfredo Aceves, who really should think about starting his own Red Sox blog since he seems to break every story, said that Valentine told him Bard got his spot because the organization wanted him to is particularly telling.

Testing out Bard as a starter this season has always been particularly important to Cherington. It was something he was committed to. That's fact, not opinion. A first-year manager on a two-year contract at risk of losing the closer from an already suspect bullpen to injury wouldn't be leading the charge to turn one of the game's best late-inning relievers into a starter, not when he has other viable options for the rotation. He has to win now. Nothing undermines a team faster or produces more second-guessing of a manager than uncertainty in the late innings.

Valentine knows how much Bard can help him the back end of the bullpen. No one knows yet how much he can help him in the back end of the rotation. Yes, Valentine is on board with the idea of Bard being a starter, but that train had already left the station. He hopped aboard, but he'll claim he was the conductor.

3. The Bruins' hibernation is over -- Perhaps, the Spoked-B on the Boston sweaters stood for boredom and that was the explanation for the two-half month malaise --16-17-2 -- that culminated in an ugly four-game losing streak. Whatever it was, the Bruins are back and at the perfect time. They've taken points in five of their last six games and are 7-1-1 in their last nine.

It's not a coincidence that the Bruins renaissance dovetailed with that of their goalie, Tim Thomas. The Bruins stingy netminder hasn't allowed more than two goals in his last seven starts and has a .941 save percentage during that time. Which happened first, better defensive play in their own end or stouter play in their own net? Either way this is the type of hockey the Bruins are going to need to defend their Stanley Cup crown against a much tougher field than last year.

What is a little bit concerning about the Black and Gold this season though is that despite their propensity for scoring goals -- 251, trailing only tonight's opponent, Pittsburgh, and the Philadelphia Flyers -- they're front-runners.

The Bruins are 3-15-1 this season when going down 2-0 and 4-20-1 when trailing by two goals at any point in a game. The Bruins are unquestionably built to play with a lead, but two of their signature wins last spring came when they trailed by two goals, Game 4 of the first-round against Montreal and Game 2 of the conference semifinals against the Flyers.

You would think a team with six 20-goal scorers would be a little bit better at digging out of holes. They might have to be because they're not going to have the same distinct goaltending advantage they enjoyed last season.

4. This draft should be about quality not quantity for the Patriots -- Over the last three drafts the Patriots have selected 33 players. The draft is seven rounds, so a team with one pick per round would have taken 21 players. This year the Patriots have only six picks, but all are in the top 126. The Patriots have done an excellent job of building depth, but what the Super Bowl proved was that high-end talent on defense takes the day.

It's time to find the Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez of the defense. Along those lines they might have to take some chances. Some teams didn't even have Gronkowski (back injury) and Hernandez (off-field behavior) on their draft boards.

A player like cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who was booted out of Florida, spent last season at Division II North Alabama and has four kids with three different mothers, is a risk, but he could also be a Revis-like factor. Jenkins was the best corner in the Southeastern Conference in 2010.

He held A.J. Green, now of the Bengals, to four catches for 42 yards and a touchdown. Julio Jones, the player the Falcons gave up a bounty to move up and draft last year, got four catches for 19 yards against Jenkins. Alshon Jeffrey, considered one of the top half-dozen receivers in this draft, had two catches for 17 yards against Jenkins.

It's a familiar refrain, but the Patriots need pass rush too, and as old friend, Mike Reiss, has often pointed out they spent 60-plus percent of last season in the sub defense. No one would call Mark Anderson, part of that package, a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker, but he was a significant part of that package and the Patriots' defense.

The Patriots tend to go for tall, long-limbed types on the outside (Shawn Crable, Jermaine Cunningham) that can set the edge against the run, but to get an impact pass rusher they have to consider stepping outside of their prototypes and comfort zone.

Power struggle may weaken Sox right off the bat

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 24, 2012 06:00 AM

The division of the Red Sox isn’t limited to Saturday’s split-squad games against the Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies.

A wedge appears to be forming between new manager Bobby Valentine and new general manager Ben Cherington on the best way to employ Daniel Bard, starter or reliever, and the best place to employ shortstop prospect Jose Iglesias, Fenway Park or Pawtucket.

Valentine reportedly told scouts from outside the Sox organization he wants Iglesias, not utilityman Mike Aviles, as his starting shortstop. The Sox manager believes Iglesias is ready to play in the majors, which runs counter to the organization’s belief that Iglesias, who is batting .200 this spring with one extra-base hit, is greener than Fenway’s fabled Wall with the bat.

Valentine has been lukewarm, bordering on openly cynical about Bard’s conversion from setup man to starter, a centerpiece of Cherington’s team-building blueprint, and a second CSNNE.com report, citing an anonymous Sox staffer, said Bard would be returning to the bullpen when the games begin for real.

We have the first sign of discord in this shotgun marriage. Whose evaluation wins out, Valentine’s or Cherington’s, is going to signal how the Sox are going to be run and who wields the power in baseball operations.

The Sox can talk about collaborative processes and multifactorial reviews all they want, but at the end of the day someone gets the final say.

Don’t forget that Cherington didn’t choose Valentine. He was foisted upon him by Sox president and CEO Larry Lucchino, the man who runs the Red Sox, after ownership was underwhelmed by Cherington’s choice of onetime Sox third base coach Dale Sveum. Ownership did to Sveum what he used to do to Sox base runners - sent him home without a chance.

Disagreements between a manager and a general manager happen all the time. Terry Francona and Theo Epstein had them.

They’re inherent to the jobs. Managers, on a shorter leash and timeline for success, tend to look at the short term. What can help them win right now? General managers, charged with having a vision for sustained success and prone to basking in their own planning, often take a more long-term view.

But what makes this one different is that it could define the influence that each man has in the Sox decision-making hierarchy and who has the ear of Lucchino.

When Epstein was here, it was clear the team worshipped at the altar of the GM’s office. Francona’s job was to manage personalities, which until last year he did brilliantly, and to execute the overall plan that Carmine the Computer and Co., devised.

Valentine is not that type of manager, which was why his hiring was a bit of a surprise.

Thus far, Valentine has been everything we expected him to be - engaging, energetic, outspoken, entertaining, and cunning.

He is a man of bold ideas and uncommon self-assuredness, so much so that he regards his own observations about the game and players as facts, not opinions. Lest you accuse him of being a bit too critical of his players this spring in games that amount to practice.

If Cherington is a disciple of Moneyball, Valentine’s baseball philosophy could be summed up as Bobby Knows Best.

During his last managerial stint with the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan, Valentine had authority that extended well beyond that of a typical manager, as revealed in a 2007 Sports Illustrated profile.

He chose the roster, hired executives and, in typical Bobby V fashion, designed the uniforms. Yes, the Marines wore Valentine, not to be confused with Valentino.

He also played amateur architect, having Chiba Lotte cut a slot in the right-field fence for autograph signings, add seats, upgrade luxury boxes, and revise concession stand fare in the team’s stadium. (No word if that meant selling more wrap sandwiches.)

He had total control, and he won.

After it took Valentine nearly 10 years to get another major league managerial job and the Sox handed him only a two-year deal with a pair of club options, he’s going to do everything possible to make sure he puts himself in the best position to succeed in what is probably his last, best chance to be a big league manager.

Truthfully, that would mean Iglesias, who has more range than a Prius, at short and Bard, who remains a two-pitch pitcher, buttressing Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon at the back of the bullpen. Nothing short-circuits a team faster than bad defense and an untrustworthy bullpen.

Word of the differing views about Bard and Iglesias going public is Bobby looking out for Bobby.

If he doesn’t get his way, and Bard struggles in the rotation or the bullpen is so bad it needs to be fumigated, or Aviles starts channeling Edgar Renteria, he has it on record that these failings aren’t his fault.

Disagreeing with his GM is nothing new for Valentine. In 2000, Valentine made an infamous appearance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, where he was critical of some of the decisions of Mets general manager Steve Phillips, whom he feuded with in New York.

Sometimes the gap Valentine creates is the one that contains his tongue.

But disagreement isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as there is compromise. Hopefully, Valentine and Cherington can bridge the gap better than Valentine and Phillips.

Playing in baseball’s toughest division and coming off their hardball Hindenburg finish to last season, the last thing the Sox need is a power struggle between the two men entrusted with putting the faith back in Fenway Faithful.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

Wakefield a walk-off loss for Red Sox

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 18, 2012 10:40 AM

It’s not often in sports that you get to say with a reasonable measure of certainty, “Well, we’ll never see that again.’’ But it feels safe to say that we’ll never witness another Tim Wakefield. He has sui generis status in Red Sox history, Knuckleballer Emeritus.

Nudged out the door by the Red Sox’ nonroster (non-) invite to spring training, the noble knuckler called it a career yesterday at age 45 after 19 seasons, the last 17 with the Red Sox. He joined the Sox in 1995 as a reclamation project and exited as the longest-serving pitcher in club history. There is some cosmic mischief in a man who threw the knuckleball, the most asymmetrical pitch in baseball, ending his career with a tidy 200-180 record.

Wakefield is like a Boston sports time capsule. When he was plucked off the scrap heap by then-general manager Dan Duquette on April 26, 1995, Cam Neely was still playing for the Bruins, Curtis Martin, voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this month, had been drafted by the Patriots days earlier, Dominique Wilkins was the Celtics’ leading scorer, and TD Garden was five months away from opening.

His longevity achieved by throwing a pitch so capricious and fickle is a testament to his resiliency and fortitude. No Red Sox pitcher has recorded more double-digit-win seasons than Wakefield’s 11. Roger Clemens had 10. No Sox pitcher tossed more innings (3,006) or made more starts (430). Only the Rocket struck out more batters.

Wakefield so endeared himself to the Fenway Faithful that not even serving up the second-most-painful home run in Red Sox history could sully his career. Wakefield surrendered the stake-in-heart homer to Aaron Boone of the Yankees that decided Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series. But no one turned Wakefield into a Buckner-esque figure of scorn, instead all the blame went to manager Grady Little for letting Pedro Martinez wither on the vine.

Yes, sometimes watching Wakefield pitch was like getting a root canal without anesthesia, but if it was that tough to watch, imagine what it was like to be the one on the mound. People always got it wrong, the knuckler didn’t make Wakefield’s career easier. It made it harder. Throwing the knuckleball for a living should enhance Wakefield’s legacy, not diminish it.

The converted first baseman pitched his entire career with a chip on his shoulder because of his signature pitch, his successes attributed to the flukes of a fluttering ball and his failures presented as condemning evidence of why a knuckleball pitcher couldn’t be relied upon.

But even knuckleballers run out of gas eventually.

Sox fans will be spared watching Wakefield, who had 186 wins in a Boston uniform, wheeze his way toward the team’s career wins mark of 192, held by Clemens and Cy Young.

The Sox obviously didn’t want a repeat of last year’s laborious and joyless climb to 200 wins, when Wakefield took eight starts to reach the milestone and turned the Sox into his hardball hostages to history.

Wakefield made it easier by taking the hint and the high road.

Wakefield, known for his altruism off the field, appeared self-centered when in Baltimore last September in the midst of the Sox’ epic collapse, he said, “I think the fans deserve an opportunity to watch me chase that record.’’

You always got the sense that Wakefield felt a bit underappreciated. Think of all the ink that has already been devoted to the conversion of reliever Daniel Bard to a starter this spring. Yet, no one thought much of the Sox bouncing Wakefield back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen most of his career.

He was huge in the 2004 ALCS against New York. In the 19-8 massacre in Game 3, Wakefield sacrificed his Game 4 start and saved the bullpen by going 3 1/3 innings and throwing 64 pitches. Two days later, he came out of the pen again and saved the Sox in Game 5, pitching the final three innings of Boston’s 5-4, 14-inning victory that kept the series alive. Wakefield held the Yankees to just one hit, clearing the way for more heroics from David Ortiz.

There was a palpable sense that Wakefield felt his grip on success was as tenuous as his grip on the knuckleball, a pitch that is thrown by clenching the ball with just your fingernails. That if he just dug his nails in a little deeper he could hold on longer, probably borne of his first taste of success.

Wakefield burst onto the scene in 1992 with the Pirates. He went 8-1 with a 2.15 earned run average, and pitched complete-game victories in both of his starts in the NLCS.

But after that, Wakefield was thrown a career curveball. Released April 20, 1995, by the Pirates, he was washed up at 28, a knuckleball cautionary tale.

The Sox saved Wakefield’s career, but he saved the Sox, too.

Red Sox Nation will always owe Wakefield for his role in helping restore the Joy of Sox after the acrimonious 1994 strike. Even diehard fans were left with a distaste for the game after the strike. Enter Wakefield, an improbable ace who helped the Sox reach the playoffs in 1995.

Wakefield put together a stretch that season worthy of Luis Tiant, Clemens or Martinez, winning 14 of his first 15 starts. After beating the Orioles in August, his 10th straight win, he was 14-1 with a 1.65 ERA. Wakefield ended up 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA, and placed third in the Cy Young voting.

Most took Wakefield for an oddity or an anomaly, but he tacked on 16 more seasons in a Red Sox uniform and two World Series titles.

Like the pitch he threw, Wakefield will be missed a lot.

Sox had to take Ortiz at face value

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 14, 2012 04:22 PM

This has been an offseason where the Red Sox have become almost unrecognizable. Change has come to Yawkey Way not in droplets, but in torrents, washing away the identity of the Olde Towne Team.

If last offseason created great expectations, this one has created great uncertainty.

The Sox have exchanged the familiar for the unfamiliar since their epic September collapse. Three of the positions most crucial to the success and stability of a baseball team have been swapped out like a light bulb -- general manger, manager and closer. If the departures of Theo Epstein, Terry Francona and Jonathan Papelbon weren't disorienting enough, the Sox have also done a 180-degree turn in their financial approach to building a team, going from lavish spenders to luxury tax tightwads.

In an offseason characterized by departures from past leaders, players and ways of doing business, the last thing the Red Sox needed was for the longest-tenured player on the active roster, David Ortiz, to arrive at spring training with the slings and arrows of an arbitration hearing ringing in his head, steam coming from his ears, and resentment rolling off his tongue.

That's in part why the Sox settled with Big Papi yesterday on a one-year, $14.575 million deal, hours before his arbitration case was to be heard.

An appeased Ortiz is good for the Red Sox, both as a baseball team and as a product that needs a pitchman besides the manager. Every day has been Valentine's Day for the Sox with the voluble Bobby V since upper management foisted him on new GM Ben Cherington.

After a season that ended in disarray and disharmony, the last thing the Sox needed was to start this season on a contentious note. If there is one player on the Red Sox you don't want to go to arbitration with it's Ortiz, who as sensitive as a sunburned supermodel.

This is a guy who barged into Francona's press conference last season with an obscentity-laced tirade over a run batted in -- one RBI -- with the indignation of someone who had just been told he was fired. He's the same player who was incensed with the media and Francona after he was pinch-hit for in Toronto in April 2010, when he was batting .154. He's the same player who was enraged by a NESN post-game poll that season that asked whether he should remain the designated hitter.

Real, imagined, or somewhere in between, Ortiz is finely-tuned to every slight or insult, and he usually holds a grudge longer than he does his follow-through on a home run. Taking his case to arbitration was like taking a bottle of kerosene to the clubhouse and waiting for Ortiz to provide the spark.

The Red Sox were in a lose-lose situation with Big Papi in arbitration, which the Sox have avoided assiduously (the team hasn't had a case decided by arbitration since 2002). Either they had to pay him more than they wanted or pay for not paying him enough.

The Sox were offering $12.65 million to Ortiz, essentially no pay raise since the charismatic DH earned that amount last season between his base salary and $150,000 in bonuses. Ortiz, who was angling for a multi-year deal all offseason, was requesting a one-year deal at $16.5 million.

Both sides had good cases. The Sox could point out that the market was extremely limited for Ortiz because he's only a DH and a 36-year-old one at that. Ortiz could point out that he had the eighth-best OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) in all of baseball last season and that his .953 OPS was higher than Albert Pujols's and four points behind Adrian Gonzalez.

If the Red Sox won the arbitration case, then Ortiz would have shown up to spring training disgruntled and feeling disrespected. Perhaps, he would have gone all Peyton Manning passive-aggressive with digs at the new general manager and ownership. His discontent would have hung over and beat down Valentine's first spring training like the Southwest Florida sunshine.

If the arbitrator ruled in favor of Ortiz, a real possibility after he finished in the top 10 in the majors last year in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, then the Sox would have had to shell out more precious luxury tax money. Who knows, maybe they would have felt compelled to deal starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and his $2.5 million salary to fit Ortiz into the "budget" we've heard so much about this offseason.

Is anyone else mystified that all offseason the rationale for the Red Sox' new found frugality was that they wanted to avoid paying the 40 percent tariff for exceeding the $178 luxury tax marker and get it to reset next year at 17.5 percent; then team president and CEO Larry Lucchino defended the Sox' austerity measures by saying the team is going to "fly by" the tax threshold?

That's pretzel logic worthy of a federal budget debate.

A happy Big Papi is an ambassador for a team that could really use one right now.

Plus, despite being written off more times than a soap opera character, Ortiz is still a productive player. He has averaged 29.6 home runs and 99 RBIs over the last three seasons. The counting stats are about as en vogue in baseball analysis as cassette tapes, but power and run production still resonate in this corner.

Yeah, Ortiz is probably overpaid for a DH, but he's been underpaid most of his Sox career, and you can't put a price on stability and brand recognition.

Ortiz represents a constant and a comfort in an offseason defined by volatility and new approaches. His instantly-recognizable, smiling face is a necessity for a team with new faces and a new attitude.

It's a taxing offseason for Red Sox

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 15, 2011 04:53 PM

This offseason for the Red Sox is about a shadow cast by a different type of Green Monster, although this one too stands as a baseball barrier.

This Green Monster is made of greenbacks because major league baseball's new collective bargaining agreement provides incentive -- literally -- for big-market clubs that can control their spending habits.

How many different ways can team impresario Larry Lucchino and new general manager Ben Cherington euphemize the idea that the Sox aren't opening up the coffers this offseason? Apparently, Christmas at Fenway is a luxury tax-free holiday.

If Theo Epstein had the infamous "bridge year" remark then Cherington has his oft-repeated automobile analogy -- "This offseason is going to be more about fixing what's under the hood than it is about buying a new car."

One of the luxuries of being the Red Sox and having the ability to monetize the fanatical and unwavering fealty of your fans is that you can afford to pay for your mistakes. It's the great competitive advantage that the Yankees and the Red Sox have. It's the original Moneyball, and the impetus for the version that turned Billy Beane into a hardball cult-hero for finding a formula to even the playing field.

But suddenly exceeding the luxury tax in future years is a luxury the Sox can't afford.

The more cash-conscious approach has been reinforced by the Sox' splash moves this off-season being the acquisition of could-be closer Mark Melancon and itinerant utility man Nick Punto -- unless you're a Kelly Shoppach fan. It's possible that Melancon, who racked up the first 20 saves of his career for an abhorrent Houston Astros team (56-106) last season, is the heir apparent to the greatest closer in Red Sox history.

But rote recitation of the $178-million luxury tax threshold as a reason for not making a play for Carlos Beltran or Roy Oswalt, veteran players who will command high average annual values but not long-term deals, is a bit deceiving.

The Sox paid the luxury tax in 2010 and were taxed at 22.5 percent. John W. Henry had to shell out -- $1.5 million -- or as someone of Henry's abundant wealth calls it -- pocket money. Where have I heard that phrase before?

The luxury tax bill from 2011 is sure to be higher because the Sox were taxed at 30 percent. It jumps to a 40 percent tariff if they're over the tax this season, which they're likely to be even without any major additions. It would increase to 50 percent in 2013.

Let's say the Sox' spending bill from last year was $188 million, putting them $10 million over. With the 30 percent tax, that's still only $3 million, which should hardly be a deterrent for a club with the financial resources of the Red Sox, unless Liverpool is planning to make a big splash in European soccer's January transfer window.

The real reason the luxury tax matters, and we're being told that Daniel Bard can simultaneously close, set-up and be the No. 4 starter like it's some sort of Bugs Bunny cartoon is because under major league baseball's new collective bargaining agreement it pays to stay under the luxury tax.

The rate that a team is taxed on the dollars it goes over the luxury tax can be reset to 17 percent if it is below the luxury tax for one season, but the real savings come in revenue sharing reimbursement.

The new CBA decrees that 15 large-market teams, including the Sox, are prohibited from receiving initial revenue sharing dollars -- MLB teams must put a percentage of their local revenue (it was 31 percent under the old CBA) into a pool that is distributed evenly to all 30 MLB clubs. Beginning in 2013 the large-market clubs that don't exceed the luxury tax threshold will be "rebated" some percentage of their revenue sharing contribution, with the percentage rising to a 100 percent in 2016.

So, the Sox aren't doing much buying this offseason, and I'm not buying the idea that it's only because this team requires just a few minor tweaks. September's Sons of Anarchy lacked organizational pitching depth most of the season. They had three relief pitchers they could count on -- Jonathan Papelbon, Bard and Alfredo Aceves -- and three starters -- Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, whose balky back didn't allow him to make a start after June 16.

The Sox can't have it both ways. On one hand they want to tell us the beer and fried-chicken-fueled exploits of a few players weren't that bad. It was poor starting pitching (4-13, 7.08 earned run average) that sunk the Sox in September. On the other hand they want to say that the listless play last September was not a reflection of the team's talent, and that it had the necessary parts to win in the playoffs.

Which is it? Or does the answer depend on whether the question is about spending or clubhouse comportment?

If the Sox had such great starting pitching depth then why did Kyle Weiland and Andrew Miller combine to start five games in the month of September?

The bullpen was not a source of glory either. Bard was awful in September, going 0-4 with a 10.64 ERA, and post-All-Star break recently re-signed reliever Matt Albers had an ERA of 7.36 and surrendered six home runs in 29.1 innings pitched.

The example of the Tampa Bay Rays building a bullpen at cost each season is often raised, except there's a big difference between having the pressure of closing out games in sleepy St. Petersburg, Fla., and doing it at frantic Fenway.

The Sox need at least one more proven starter and a proven closer.

The Red Sox can win with low-cost acquisitions. Cherington and his lieutenants are savvy enough to pull it off, but they shouldn't have to be building a team on a budget.

Even after bottoming out last September, the Sox are still focused on the wrong bottom line.

Choice of Cherington as GM signals more of the same for Sox

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff October 26, 2011 07:45 AM

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If you were in the State Street Pavilion yesterday at Fenway Park and you closed your eyes and listened to the timbre and verbiage of the new Red Sox general manager you would have sworn that it was the old general manager. It felt like Theo Epstein had never left, and in a way he hasn't. Theo has left the building, but his influence hasn't.

Epstein told the media in Chicago after his coronation as Cubs president of baseball operations that he wouldn't have departed the Red Sox if his assistant general manager and friend Ben Cherington weren't taking over as Red Sox GM. That makes sense because Cherington sounded an awful lot like his buddy, former boss and baseball ops frat brother during his introduction. Cherington resembled a colonial viceroy repeating the decrees of a far away monarch. It was clear that while Epstein is no longer here to run the Red Sox his imprint on the organization remains in spirit, along with a lot of his baseball philosophies.

"What he left with me was certain values we will carry forward as a staff," said the 37-year-old Cherington, who was co-general manager of the Red Sox for 38 days the first time Epstein left the Sox in 2005.

More of the same in a slightly different package might not be what Red Sox fans want coming off back-to-back third-place finishes in the American League East and the baseball equivalent of the 1929 stock market crash. It's probably not good public relations right now, but for once the Red Sox made a decision without trying to curry the favor of the public. In the face of turmoil and turnover, the team needed stability and Cherington looks like a level-headed, methodical, analytical hand at the helm, just like Epstein.

The easy thing for the Sox would have been to signify change by choosing a new general manager who didn't have a hand in building last year's roster and wasn't as Cherington declared himself yesterday, "one of the strongest proponents of signing Carl Crawford," a courageous admission considering the Sox' track record of collecting toxic assets in free agency.

There certainly could be a case made that the Sox should have at least inquired about Tampa Bay's Andrew Friedman if for no other reason than to pick the brain of a rival and get an external view of their operation, which is always helpful.

But the Sox have a proven model of success over the last eight years. A September swoon for the ages and a few tales of clubhouse beer guzzling and team disharmony should lead to some organizational self-evaluation, but it should not result in a total repudiation of the principles or the approach that have allowed the Sox to win the second most games (regular-season and postseason combined) -- 873 -- of any franchise from 2003 to 2011. Only the, you guessed it, Yankees have won more games during that time span (909).

More of the same isn't a bad thing on Yawkey Way. I'll take more Jon Lesters, Dustin Pedroias, Jacoby Ellsburys, Jonathan Papelbons, Clay Buchholzs and Daniel Bards. What the Sox need fewer of are free agent busts like J.D. Drew and John Lackey and unaccountable players (paging Josh Beckett).

Listening to Cherington it didn't sound like any major shakeups were in store for the Sox. He talked about finding a few more Alfredo Aceves types for rotational depth, said that Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick would compete for the right field job and made it clear that Beckett, the alleged ringleader of the Brew Crew, isn't going anywhere.

"He was one of the best pitchers in the American League this year," said Cherington. "He is someone we're counting on being a huge part of the team. If there were things that happened in the clubhouse this year that don't fit our standard of behavior and he was a part of then we got to address that with him and we will. ...I don't believe -- this is not specific to Josh; this is the whole team -- that any of our players should be judged on one month, or one moment, or one, perhaps, lapse in behavior. You got to judge them on the bigger body of work."

Cherington said he was sure Beckett would publically address his clubhouse transgressions at some point. We'll take him at his word.

Cherington was going to be a big league GM someday. If Epstein had stayed a succession plan was in place for Genteel Ben to take over sooner rather than later. He certainly has more experience then Epstein did when he took over as an energetic 28-year-old in the fall of 2002. That worked out pretty well.

All you have to do to realize how far the Sox have come since 2002 was witness the championship-starved Cubs fans and media throwing themselves at Epstein. His press conference was like Pearl Jam groupies interviewing Eddie Vedder. That palpable desperation used to belong to us, pre-Theo.

Ultimately, Cherington's most difficult task may not be restoring the Sox to the playoffs, or hiring a new manager, or unlocking the talents of Crawford or making the Sox' farm system fecund again. It may be differentiating himself from his forerunner enough to get credit for doing any of that.

Like Epstein, the Meriden, New Hampshire-bred Cherington is an affable, articulate, polished 30-something with New England roots who grew up rooting for the Red Sox and reading Peter Gammons in the Globe. Like Epstein, he believes that the shrewdest baseball evaluators combine statistical analysis with traditional observatory scouting. Like Epstein, he lapses into bureacratese -- more than once Cherington dropped "multifactorial" into a response.

The Amherst College-educated Cherington made light of delineating the differences between himself and Theo with bon mots about not playing guitar or owning a gorilla suit costume, but ultimately strained to provide a substantive answer to a fundamental question.

"I think we do share a lot in common as far as our general philosophy of putting a team together. ...The basic principles are largely the same," Cherington said. "But I'm a different person. I have a different management style."

Time will tell if Cherington finds his own voice. He isn't Theo Epstein, but he got his job because he's the closest thing the Sox have to him.

Red Sox ownership needs to get priorities straight

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff October 13, 2011 10:45 AM
The Evil Empire isn't in New York. It's here in our own backyard.

A Red Sox team that collapsed under the weight of expectations, excuses and country-fried indolence in September was simply adopting the persona of its employers -- unlikeable.

If the 2004 Red Sox were memorialized by the movie "Fever Pitch" then the current Sox' cinematic portrayal would be "Horrible Bosses."

From milquetoast principal owner John W. Henry to chuckling chairman Tom Werner to imperious team president and CEO Larry Lucchino, who sees a "kick me" sign on the back of every employee who departs Yawkey Way, the approval rating of this ownership group is lower than the old Filene's Basement. The Occupy Boston protests should move from the greenway to the Green Monster, because this ownership suddenly has a despicable mien.

They have lost their way and the franchise is headed in the wrong direction with general manager Theo Epstein absconding to Chicago.

In a span of 12 days this team has undergone more bloodletting than Curt Schilling's famous stocking, as both the most successful manager and general manager in its modern history have departed. How is that good for business, if your business is winning baseball games and not monetizing the unwavering fealty of the Fenway Faithful at will?

Manager Terry Francona jumped before he was pushed, but Epstein took his plunge willingly and had a golden parachute to pull courtesy of the Cubbies. If Hall of Fame baseball writer/Epstein confidant Peter Gammons is to be believed, Epstein didn't want to return, and he didn't want to be this team's general manager long-term. That is troubling.

No matter who the general manager and manager are, you have an organizational fatal flaw -- to borrow a favorite Epstein phrase -- if you've cultivated an environment in which talented people feel unhappy, underappreciated and unsupported. You don't need Carmine to figure out that one.

Even ownership's favorite son, David Ortiz, is questioning if he wants to collect his paycheck from these guys.

You can't blame him when Henry, the Punxsutawney Phil of owners, goes on WEEI last week and says that he doesn't "engage in encouragement," when asked about Francona saying he didn't feel he had the full backing of ownership.

“I don’t engage in encouragement," Henry said. "My way of encouraging the manager is generally, if we win, I’ll go down and say hello."

How magnanimous of you, Mr. Henry. No one wants to work for a disengaged, dispassionate boss who deems it beneath him to offer face-to-face encouragement to his employees. I wouldn't have blamed Theo if he simply tweeted Henry that he didn't want to be "GM of the BRS". That's far more expedient than another gorilla suit getaway.

By the way, stay tuned for the inevitable Theo rip job. Having your reputation dragged through Boston's dirty water on your way out of town is a rite of passage under this ownership. From Grady Little to Nomar Garciaparra to Pedro Martinez to Johnny Damon to Manny Ramirez to now Francona being portrayed in a less than flattering light, it's a go-to play in the Sox public relations playbook.

Regardless of how many wash cycles the Sox run Epstein's departure through, he will be missed.

There are those who will contend that Epstein's departure for Wrigleyville is addition by subtraction. They'll point to a bloated payroll littered with free agent busts and a breakdown in his player development machine. They'll cite the fact that he never could find a long-term answer at shortstop (Epstein has no such problem in Chicago with Starlin Castro installed).

Epstein certainly isn't going out on top, after back-to-back third-place finishes and a historic September freefall, but that shouldn't mar his body of work here during nine years, which included one large curse kicked to the curb, two World Series titles, three American League Championship appearances and six playoff appearances.

Yes, Epstein can come off as condescending on occasion. He was very fortunate in finding a face-of-the-franchise player (Ortiz). He has made poor free agent decisions of late, not done a good enough job drafting and developing players, hasn't won a playoff game in three years and won his championships in part because of players he inherited.

Wait, that all sounds familiar, Patriots fans.

I doubt anyone is running Patriots coach Bill Belichick out of town. Belichick is an amazing all-in-one package of genius coach and astute team builder, but combined Theo and Tito were a comparable model of success.

The idea Epstein is easily replaceable is a message dipped in organizational arrogance, the fragrance of choice for Sox ownership.

Perhaps, Henry was right six years ago when he pronounced the first time Epstein departed as GM that "maybe I'm not fit to be principal owner of the Boston Red Sox" in the wake of the power struggle between Epstein and Lucchino that hastened Theo's three-month holiday.

It was a startling bit of sincerity from an earnest and heartbroken owner. Now, it appears prescient.

The irony is that the 2005 version of Henry was absolutely fit to be principal owner because he was as emotionally invested in the team as the fans. That no longer appears to be the case, with a new wife, infant daughter and soccer team (Liverpool FC) tugging on his heart strings.

For all the talk about being stewards of a civic treasure and sharing a sacred oath with the fans, it's clear that the treacherous trio of Henry, Werner and Lucchino now value building a brand more than a baseball team. Winning isn't their business. It's simply better for business.

This was best exemplified by Henry declaring Lucchino a "tremendous revenue generator" in the WEEI sit-down.

The revenue generator trumps the World Series-winning GM. That says it all about the Sox.

Good luck, Ben Cherington. You have your work cut out working for these guys.

Terry Francona ends up as the fall guy

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 30, 2011 02:05 PM

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After their season went down in flames, a plume of white smoke has emerged from Yawkey Way, and according to multiple reports, manager Terry Francona will be the fall guy for the Sox' epic September freefall.

Barring a drastic reversal, the most successful manager in modern Red Sox history will be relieved of his command after 744 wins, eight seasons, five playoff berths, and two World Series titles. So much for nobody blaming Tito for September's end.

In the end, Francona's greatest strengths -- what made him ideally suited to manage in the cauldron of noise and negativity that is Red Sox Nation -- his ability to shield his players from scrutiny and to bond with them on a personal level were his undoing. This team needed a kick in the pants in September, and Francona provided a reassuring pat on the back.

What Francona, who never got the credit he fully deserved from Sox fandom, regarded as the consistency and stability his players needed in the face of adversity and an unraveling season, the organization has come to view as the complacency at its root. No one will ever confuse Francona with Dick Williams. It's simply not his way, and to his credit -- and ostensible detriment -- he was true to himself to the very end.

After witnessing yesterday's CSI: Fenway with general manager Theo Epstein as candid coroner for the 2011 Dead Sox and Francona as uncomfortable and reluctant tag-along, this is the only possible outcome. It makes no sense to go into next year with an uneasy partnership and a lame duck in the dugout.

You didn't need to be a Navajo code talker to decipher that Epstein and upper management felt this team suffered from an acute lack of accountability. No matter how many times Epstein tried to fall on his sword for that fatal flaw, the general manager is not responsible for comportment in the clubhouse, or conditioning, or preparation. Those are all responsibilities of the field manager, always have been, always will be, whether it's Joe McCarthy or Joe Kerrigan.

To whom else exactly could these players have been more accountable on a daily basis: principal owner John Henry, Epstein, Jerry Remy, fans who purchased commemorative bricks? No, it's their direct supervisor -- Francona.

Requiring Francona to be present at that press briefing yesterday was the equivalent of asking him to attend his own funeral and then give the eulogy. But what became clear is that there is a fundamental disconnect between Epstein and the man he hired in 2003.

Epstein had a laundry list of work-ethic issues for the Sox to fix.

"The way the clubhouse culture has evolved ... we need to be more accountable," Epstein said yesterday. "If we require our players to be in first-class physical condition and to look out across the field and we want to be in better shape and better condition than our opponents, and if that's not happening consistently, 1-through-25, on the roster, then it's a problem. We need to get it addressed."

"If we're not better prepared than the other team, 1-25, when it's game time then it's a problem. It has to be addressed. If we're not doing the little things on the field, playing fundamentally better -- 1-25 -- than the other team that's a problem."

Francona acknowledged the team's character and chemistry shortcomings, but stopped short when it came to critiquing effort, which would have amounted to self-incrimination.

It's hard to blame Francona for this team's inability to bond. The Sox have reverted to the 25 guys, 25 cabs days, except now it's 25 guys, 25 cliques.

But where Francona is at least partially at fault is being allergic to criticizing his players publicly, which is sometimes necessary for accountability. Francona obviously has an affinity for John Lackey the person. But that shouldn't have prevented him from vituperating Lackey the pitcher when warranted.

The prime example was in a 7-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 9. A lackadaisical Lackey failed to cover first base on a hot shot that should have been the third out of the inning. Instead, two more runs to scored, and the Sox were down 5-0 after three.

Francona said Lackey was "a little late getting over." That's like saying Greece is a little late paying its debt.

Contrast that to the reaction Francona had when Jacoby Ellsbury, the team's MVP and one of the few players who manned up in September, got picked off trying to steal third base with two outs and Dustin Pedroia at bat during the fifth inning of a 4-3 loss to the Rays on Sept. 17.

Francona called Ellsbury's decision "ill-advised," which it was, and said though the center fielder's intentions were good, that to run in that situation you have to be certain you'll make it. Hardly scathing stuff, but by Francona's standards it was a stoning.

The guy who leads the majors in total bases but keeps to himself gets a public admonishment for an effort error. The worst starting pitcher in baseball who is friendly with the manager essentially gets a pass for an egregious mental error defined by a lack of effort. It doesn't take Carmine or any other piece of proprietary software to know that doesn't add up to accountability across the board.

Even yesterday, Francona went to bat for the fractious Lackey one last time, absolving his eye-rolling histrionics.

Francona did an excellent job here, and he won't be out of work long if he wants to manage this year. Only Joe Cronin (1,071) won more games as Red Sox skipper. Among managers who kept the job for five seasons or more -- a notable feat in and of itself -- only Don Zimmer (.575) posted a better winning percentage than Francona (.574).

Perhaps, Francona, who managed Michael Jordan for the White Sox' Double A affiliate, will simply change Sox, going from Red to White.

But sometimes the only way is to part ways.

"There was a lot of talent in that clubhouse, and we didn't get results commensurate with that talent," said Epstein.

Someone has to take the fall for that, and it's usually the manager.

Red Sox remain out of order

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 29, 2011 01:48 PM

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Way back in spring training there was a feeling that this Red Sox team could be one for the ages. Now, it is -- for all the wrong reasons.

The February rallying cry of 100 wins was replaced by the September requiem of 20 losses (in 27 games), as the Sox stumbled and bumbled their way out of both Baltimore and the playoffs, failing to win consecutive games in the final month.

While the infamous 1978 crew once held a 14-game lead on the fourth-place Yankees in July, the largest advantage it enjoyed over a second-place holder that season was 10 games on July 8. At the start of September, the Sox of '78 led the Pinstripes by 6.5 games. They won eight straight to force a playoff.

No team in baseball history had ever entered September with a nine-game hold on a playoff spot and failed to make the postseason. Until last night. It was only fitting that a wild night dictated which team won the wild card. The Tampa Bay Rays are a team of destiny. The Sox are a team of ignominy, crashing to earth like a ton of commemorative bricks.

Last night's remote-control ping-pong series of events was a microcosm of the closing month of the American League wild card chase. The Rays and their $41 million payroll refusing to say die, down seven runs with six outs remaining and down to their final strike before Dan Johnson's pinch-hit, game-tying homer in the ninth. The Red Sox shoveling dirt on their own grave, one strike away from prolonging their season with a win over the Baltimore Orioles.

The harsh reality is that the Sox didn't restore order in the AL East. They repeated it. After spending approximately $300 million last offseason to boost their lineup and their ratings, the Sox are right back where they started last autumn before they were the dollar-spending darlings of the Hot Stove circuit. They are a third-place team that has its nose pressed against the playoff glass.

Boston baseball fans are back to a familiar past time -- the blame game. Sox fans are enraged and re-engaged in the team. Pink hats have given way to red faces. The afterglow of two World Series (2004 and 2007) has officially worn off now that the team will sit out the postseason for two consecutive seasons for the first time in the Theo Epstein era. Someone is going to have to take the fall for this freefall.

There is plenty of responsibility to go around. The pitching staff is to blame for its reckless abandonment in the final month (5.84 earned run average). The starters posted an ERA that looks like it came from a Romanian figure skating judge -- 7.08.

Manager Terry Francona is at fault for cultivating a clubhouse culture of complacency and not reining in the eye-rolling, arm-raising, foot-stomping histrionics of pitcher John Lackey. Epstein bears some of the burden of blame for not procuring effective reinforcements for his $161 million roster, leaving the Sox to run Alfredo Aceves into the ground and forcing them to start rookie Kyle Weiland three times this month. Someone in baseball ops still has to explain to me the never-ending infatuation with Andrew Miller.

The medical staff gets a slice of blame pie for failing to diagnose the stress fracture in Clay Buchholz's back until Aug. 1, a month and a half after he last pitched against the Rays, leaving him unavailable down the stretch.

But once culpability is doled is out, the reality remains that there are no easy fixes or decisions. There is no magic sabermetric wand the team can waive to make all right on Yawkey Way.

How different is this team really going to be next season? There is not much in the upper levels of the farm system, which was apparent this season, and they're an aging team handcuffed by the lucrative, long-term deals they've handed out the last two offseasons. They can bid Francona adieu, but that's like changing your socks when you think you have a hole in your shoes.

Lackey has to go, but after his lack of effectiveness and decorum this season, why would another team want to take him and any portion of the $45.75 million he's owed over the next three years?

Whether you like it or not, Carl Crawford, who didn't evoke Yaz with the way he played left field this year, is coming back. He is due to make $19.5 million next year. With six years remaining on his contract, no one is going to take on the toxic asset of Crawford, and if they do it's going to be at a liquidation-sale price. Boston is better off not writing off Crawford as a loss and hoping he reverts to the terrorizing player he was in Tampa Bay.

Kevin Youkilis is a sneaky 32 years old. Like Alex Rodriguez, his body can't take the abuse of playing third base everyday, but there is nowhere else to put Youk, if you bring back David Ortiz, ownership's favorite son. Before anyone declares third base prospect Will Middlebrooks the next Evan Longoria, he hit .161 in 16 games after being promoted to Pawtucket. Plus, Youkilis and Pedroia are the only righthanded power bats in your lineup.

Catching reclamation project Jarrod Saltalamacchia showed promise, but wore down while catching in a career-high 101 games. From Aug. 1 on, Saltalamacchia had the lowest on-base percentage in the majors of any player with 130 at-bats or more, posting a .220 OBP, while batting .191. During that time he had 52 strikeouts and four walks. That's why Ryan Larvarnway got the start last night.

Just like the Sox were not as good as they appeared to be on Aug. 31, when they were in first place and 31 games above .500. They're probably not as bad as they look now, post-cataclysm. That's really the best hope the Sox have for next season because winning the offseason championship again is meaningless.

"I think it's nice that those guys feel good about themselves and their teammates and what we have here," Epstein said back in Fort Myers in February. "But let's be honest we haven't done anything yet. ...We got a lot to prove. We got to prove we're not a third-place team in this division."

They didn't.

Red Sox: Still they believe?

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 22, 2011 03:50 PM

The good news is that the Red Sox can't possibly lose again tonight. You can't lose a game if you don't play one. Had to look that one up on Fangraphs.com to be sure.

That's about as positive as Red Sox rooters can get after watching their team turn a playoff spot into a playoff race with a calamitous 5-16 September.

Ace Josh Beckett, the man who in spring training insinuated this version of the Sox could win 100 games, provided the latest letdown last night, blowing a 4-1 lead to the woeful Baltimore Orioles, who took three of four from the Sox to win a four-game set at Fenway Park for the first time since 2003.

The stumbling, bumbling Sox are idle (haven't they really been all month?) tonight before heading to the Bronx for a three-game series with the Yankees, who have become unlikely, if still reviled, allies in the Sox' pursuit of a playoff berth. The American League East-champion Yankees are blocking the Tampa Bay Rays from pulling into the passing lane in the wild card chase, but suddenly the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who have joined the Rays at 2.5 games behind Boston, are closing fast in the rear-view mirror.

Speaking of rear-view mirrors, that beeping sound you hear is the Sox backing into the playoffs.

The Best Team Ever and the undisputed champions of the Hot Stove circuit has been reduced to chiming its bell and hoping for some charity. So pray that old friend and former Sox pitching coach John Farrell, now the manager of the Blue Jays, helps out his former team tonight with a win over the Angels, and put pride and spite aside and pull for the Pinstripes one more time against the Rays.

But of more concern than the Rays and Angels is the mental state of the Sox. Even if they moonwalk their way into the playoffs they have the aura of a dead team walking. Where is the energy, the leadership, the defiance, the spunk that has marked previous Sox playoff entries?

Eleven days ago, David Ortiz said it was time to panic after the Sox were swept in Tampa. Last night, he ratcheted up the rhetoric.

"I’ve been here nine years. We’ve never collapsed that bad," Ortiz told the media. "Trust me, we've been through some tough times. But this is bad. No matter what we do, things are going to be bad. Right now, it’s depressing."

Between the time of Ortiz's call for panic and his pronouncement last night the Rays, who were 3.5 back at the close of play on Sept. 11, have made up exactly one game.

But you wouldn't know that listening to the talk that came out of the Boston clubhouse last night. As the defeats pile up it appears the Sox have adopted a defeated and defeatist attitude. Confidence has given way to diffidence, as the ground disappears beneath their collective feet. Perhaps, it's just frustration seeping out or blunt assessments of a September tailspin, but it's not encouraging or becoming of this team to wallow in self-flagellation.

Cocksure second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who is never at a loss for confidence, was reminded of the team's abysmal 5-16 record this month and instead of offering a flippant quip, simply said, "That’s a sign of a [expletive] team. Good teams don’t go 5-16 in any month," said Pedroia.

Instead of Cowboying Up or playing like oblivious baseball Idiots, it appears the Sox are assuming the fetal position and passing the Prozac.

Where is lovable loudmouth Kevin Millar when you need him? Back in 2004, when the Sox were down 3-0 to the Yankees and had just gotten their teeth kicked in 19-8 on a sepulchral Saturday night, Millar defiantly said the pressure was on the Yankees to win Game 4.

"Don't let us win tonight," said Millar. "This is a big game. They've got to win because if we win, we've got Pedro coming back in Game 5 and Schilling in 6. ...Don't let the Sox win this game."

If you didn't know any better you would think these Sox have already been eliminated from the playoff chase, instead of still being in the driver's seat with Clay Buchholz ostensibly about to come along for the ride.

Tonight is a crucial if the Rays or Angels are going to catch the Sox and at least force a playoff for the American League wild card. If the Rays and/or Angels win then they're two games behind the Sox with six to play. But if one or both of them loses they're three back with a half-dozen games remaining, a Randy Johnson-esque tall task, even with the way the Sox have been playing.

You get sense that even if the Sox make the postseason they don't expect to go very far. The psychological damage has been done.

A team that overcame an 0-6 road trip to start the season and a 2-10 start overall and didn't reach .500 until its 40th game should have a deep reservoir of resolve to draw upon, but the Sox appear as dry as the Depression-era Dust Bowl in that category. Reliable starting pitching and bullpen depth aren't the only attributes the team is lacking. There could be a deficit of intangibles, a missing component in its DNA that has prolonged this slump and turned it into a spiral.

The odds are still in the Sox favor. There is still time to turn this around. This team is too talented -- even with its shocking paucity of pitching and without Kevin Youkilis in the lineup -- to continue playing this way. They still lead the majors in runs scored (851), on-base percentage (.349) and on-base-plus-slugging (.810). Even with a ghastly 23 errors in 21 games, they're still in the top 10 in baseball in fewest errors made.

Those numbers don't add up to a team that is watching the playoffs on television. The errors should cease, the timely hits should resume, the 100-win swagger should return.

But if they don't believe that, why should we?

Five thoughts on the Fenway Nine

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 20, 2011 05:09 PM

The Red Sox are clutching tight to their playoff spot like a T passenger clinging to the handrail on a herky-jerky jaunt on the Green Line. September has brought a fall from grace for the Sox, who are just 5-14 this month and have the Tampa Bay Rays nipping at their spikes for the American League wild card, two games in arrears.

With eight games remaining for the Red Sox here are a Nomar-esque five thoughts about the direction of the team, both in the short-term -- and it could be very short -- and the long-term.

1. Let's go Yankees? -- A playoff race makes for strange bedfellows and nothing is weirder than Red Sox fans having to root for the arch-rival Yankees the next three days to help protect Boston's playoff berth. Then of course they'll shower them with the usual vitriol when the rivals meet at Yankee Stadium on Friday, before resuming Yankee-rooting position for the final three games of the season.

The Rays, who have a day-night doubleheader tomorrow, open a four-game series against the Bronx Bombers tonight at Yankee Stadium. Tampa Bay plays seven of its final 10 games against the Pinstripes. The Maddon Men are a mediocre 5-6 against the Yankees.

Yankee broadcaster John Sterling's mawkish signature game-closing call for Yankee triumphs will practically sound like "Sweet Caroline" the next few days. It's time to pass the Pepto-Bismal and root, root, root for Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and even Alex Rodriguez. Here's hoping CC Sabathia finally gets that 20th win tomorrow.

2. Papi knows best -- David Ortiz is right. Alfredo Aceves should have been starting for the Red Sox, who have had the worst starting pitching in baseball since Aug. 30 (6.64 earned run average). Kyle Weiland shouldn't be thrown into the crucible of starting crucial September games. Aceves is already stretched out enough to go five innings -- he pitched four innings in relief against Tampa on Sept. 10 -- and is one of the five best pitchers currently on this staff.

The problem, however, is that the Sox shallow pitching staff is a shell game. If you remove Aceves from the bullpen then you have no reliable bridge to get to Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon, and you're only letting Aceves effect one game every five days instead of two or three. So, Terry Francona is doomed if he does and doomed if he doesn't with Aceves. But can the Sox seriously use John Lackey as a postseason starter if he continues to pitch the way he has this month (31 hits in 17.2 innings pitched and a 10.70 earned run average)?

3. Rotation formation -- Speaking of a possible playoff rotation, whether the Sox hold on to their precarious playoff lead or not this collapse could inflict damage. The schedule for each American League Division Series has the first games set for Friday, Sept. 30, two days after the end of the regular season. If the Sox go into Baltimore needing to stave off or catch the Rays, then both Josh Beckett and Jon Lester could be pressed to make full-effort starts, instead of truncated tuneups.

Even if Beckett pitches the first game of the Baltimore series next Monday, he would not be available to pitch Game 1 of the ALDS on regular (four days) rest. He would either have to go on three days or pitch Game 2 on Oct. 1. Lester, who pitches against the Yankees this Friday, could end up having to pitch the regular-season finale. That would make him off-limits until Game 3 and relegate him to one start in the series. Such a scenario primes the Sox for a Patriot-like departure from the playoffs.

4. The right thing to do -- This will be longer than it should be for general manager Theo Epstein with a $160-million payroll. First up is rebuilding the bullpen, which is reliever roulette. Second is acquiring another starter to stabilize the back end of the rotation. But on that list should be acquiring a righthanded-hitting outfielder who can play right field and spell Carl Crawford in left.

The Sox lead the majors in batting average against lefthanders (.282) and extra-base hits (177). They are second to the Yankees in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) at .810. Dustin Pedroia terrorizes portsiders, but the Sox are also lucky that the top lefties in their lineup -- David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury -- have all hit well against lefthanded pitching this season.

I'm not sold on handing right field over to Josh Reddick next year. The Sox need a switch-hitting or righthanded hitting alternative. It would not be a bad idea to give the Kansas City Royals a call and inquire about either Melky Cabrera, who has hit lefties at a .303 clip and has the fourth-most hits in the AL, or Jeff Francoeur, who leads the American League in doubles (46) and has a .958 OPS against lefties. More costly options would be free agents Michael Cuddyer (1.019 OPS against lefties) and Carlos Beltran.

5. Out of leftfield -- Looking back, the Sox's decision to hold the line with Matt Holliday during the offseason following the 2009 season was a costly one. Holliday got a seven-year, $120-million deal to return to the Cardinals. The Sox had offered him around $85 million over five years, and then took that money and spent it like a profligate celebutante on John Lackey (five years, $82.5 million). Last offseason to fill the gaping hole in front of the Green Monster they emptied the coffers for Carl Crawford, inking him for seven years and $142 million.

The Sox could have saved themselves $104.5 million and gotten a better fit for their lineup by getting the right-handed Holliday. As bad as things have been with Crawford it could have been worse if the Sox signed Jayson Werth instead. Werth, who signed with the Washington Nationals, is slugging a paltry .287, compared to Crawford's .402, while batting .230 with 19 home runs and 56 runs batted in. Talk about wasteful spending in Washington.

For starters, Sox have a problem

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 15, 2011 03:16 PM
The seasons have not officially changed yet, but perhaps the Red Sox are taking the idea of fall a bit too literally.

The Rays are in town for a four-game set that will go a long way to determining whether the Sox miss the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time during the Theo Epstein administration.

The juxtaposition of play yesterday for the two presumptive spring training World Series favorites couldn't have been more jarring. On the same day the Philadelphia Phillies clinched a playoff spot with a complete-game, 1-0 win by Roy Halladay, the Red Sox' postseason dance card fell further into doubt, undone by yet another Daniel Bard blow-up in a 5-4 loss to Toronto.

Philadelphia is on cruise control after riding its stellar starters to a playoff berth, while the Red Sox are scrambling to protect their spot and scrounging around for pitching like someone looking for a missing mitten in the back of a musty coat closet.

That's why when the teetering Sox, losers of six out of seven, take the field tonight against the Rays with a four-game advantage over the Maddon Men in the American League wild card, they're sending rookie Kyle Weiland to the mound.

It was either Weiland or wildman Andrew Miller. Talk about a Hobson's choice, and we don't mean Butch. Where's Bobby Sprowl when you need him?

You can blame Bard and the back end all you want for the Red Sox September dip, but this swoon starts with the starters. Due to injuries, underperformance, ineffectiveness, inconsistency and whatever you call John Lackey forays to the mound, the rotation that looked formidable in February has left the Red Sox vulnerable in September. Since Sept. 1, the Red Sox have the worst starters' earned run average in all of baseball -- 6.56. The Boston bullpen ranks 27th (6.14).

The search for a No. 3 playoff starter has been like the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, fruitless and frustrating. The outside chance that Clay Buchholz could return from the stress fracture in his back and tag-team a playoff game with Alfredo Aceves looks better every day. If the balky ankle of Josh Beckett, who returns to the hill tomorrow, isn't healed then the Sox are the Celtics without Shaquille O'Neal.

Trade deadline acquisition Erik Bedard, who came to town with an achy left knee, is now sidelined by a strained lat muscle, his return TBA. The next time he makes it into the seventh inning as a Red Sox will be the first. Lackey offered a respectable outing yesterday. But he is the only starter in baseball who qualifies for the ERA crown with an ERA over six (6.19), and the team is 12-14 when he pitches. The only other starters with losing team records are Weiland (1-2) and Aceves (1-3). Tim Wakefield finally got his 200th win, but he's 45, and even 45 year-old knuckleballers show their age.

Bard has picked a most inopportune time to falter, especially after Matt Albers turned back into a pumpkin. Despite all the offseason additions in the 'pen, the Sox remain essentially a two-man operation in winning time with Bard and Papelbon. Aceves is valuable, but his best work has come in long relief, not as a seventh-inning set-up guy.

Bard was outstanding for most of the year. He had a streak of 25 scoreless appearances and 26 1/3 scoreless innings earlier this season. He didn't suddenly become Calvin Schiraldi, although there remain long-term concerns about whether the cerebral Bard, who has blown 15 of 20 career save opportunities, has the personality or mentality to close.

What is happening with Bard may have started out as mechanical, but it appears mental now.

However, for all the panic about the suddenly skittish pen, the Sox still have a lower bullpen ERA (3.78) than the Rays (3.83) and both their potential first-round playoff opponents -- Detroit (4.00) and Texas (4.24). Their bullpen OPS of .670 is lower than the Yankees' (.671) and they have one fewer blown save than the Bronx Bombers.

Perhaps, the bullpen has pulled into the breakdown lane late in the season because it was taxed by a rotation that bows out earlier than a No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Call it trickle-down ergonomics.

Boston has two complete games all year. Philadelphia has 18. Tampa Bay has 15. Texas has 10. The Yankees have five, and Detroit has four.

From July 15th, when the Sox opened the second half in Tampa Bay, until today, their starters have thrown 332.2 innings in 58 games. Only two teams have had their starters stay on the mound for fewer innings, the Cleveland Indians and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Indians have played two fewer games than the Sox. Chicago Cubs starters have also tossed 332.2 innings, but in 56 games.

The leaders are the Rays (398.2) and the Phillies (368.2). The Yankees and their patchwork pitching rotation rank fourth (359).

The Red Sox have gotten 68 quality starts this year -- a starter going six or more innings and allowing three runs or fewer. Only Kansas City, the Cubs, Colorado and Baltimore have fewer. Outside of Colorado (70-78) those teams would need the Hubble telescope to see what .500 looks like, never mind competing for a playoff spot.

This paucity of pitching is both a short-term and long-term concern.

While the Yankees have gotten a big boost from starter Ivan Nova, the Sox have gotten no bump on the bump from their internal arms. Felix Doubront has been sidetracked by injuries. Weiland has not been effective. Boston's marquee pitching prospect, Anthony Ranaudo, is only at Single A. The Yankees have top starting pitching prospects Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos at Triple A.

The Sox are simply holding on for playoff life. Forget 100 wins, that is a preseason notion that now seems as presumptuous as the idea that the Red Sox rotation was a match for Philadelphia's.

Throwing out 10 throwaway thoughts

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 24, 2011 09:43 AM

Every once in a while you have to clear away some of the clutter in your basement or up in your attic, the accumulation of objects, articles, and artifacts that are stacked on top of each other like Jenga pieces, just taking up space. Many of us possess that stockpile of stuff that is overflowing, overwhelming, and needs to be tossed out.

That’s how my sports-observing conscious feels. So, I’m uncluttering my mind by throwing out 10 thoughts. Then it can be empty as usual. Beat you to the punchline, didn’t I?

1. Let me get this straight, Adalius Thomas and Shawn Springs are unforgivable scofflaws because they dare suggested Patriots coach Bill Belichick wasn’t infallible. But Albert Haynesworth, who since May has dealt with a road rage assault case that was dismissed after he reached “accord and satisfaction” with the accuser and groped a waitress, is a good guy who deserves a clean slate here, no questions asked? This just proves my theory that there are certain aspects of life -- sports, politics, and parenting -- where people override logic and fairness based on unwavering fealty.

By the way, the no contest plea Haynesworth entered to a charge of simple assault to make the sexual abuse case disappear was essentially offered to him back in May. He rejected it. I guess he applied innocence the same way he did effort in D.C. -- conveniently.

2. It raises a red flag that the Red Sox feel the need to bat Carl Crawford seventh consistently -- behind the likes of rookie Ryan Larvanway -- with David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis out of the lineup. Big Papi is supposed to come back tonight, but Youkilis is still out. The aim may be to protect Crawford's fragile confidence, but it prompts deeper examination of it. What is Crawford supposed to think knowing that even decimated by injuries the team doesn’t think batting him higher than seventh gives it the best chance to win? Crawford’s numbers against lefties are abysmal this season (.180 batting average, .281 slugging) and batting him behind Lavarnway Monday night made perfect sense because Crawford entered the game with a .111 career average against Rangers starter C.J. Wilson. But hitting him seventh against righties, like he did last night and Saturday night, is disconcerting. Crawford needs more at-bats to get untracked, not fewer.

3. If Sir Isaac Newton had been a baseball fan he might have named the law of gravity after Josh Reddick. Reddick’s batting average has plummeted like the Dow Jones since the start of the second half, from .393 at the All-Star break to .291. He is 5 for his last 40 after his walk-off hit against the Yankees on Aug. 7. Reddick is a nice player -- although his defensive prowess has not come as advertised -- but J.D. Drew still has a role on this team.

4. Remember way back at the beginning of the season when the Sox intentionally aligned the rotation so Josh Beckett didn’t have to pitch against the Rangers? Now, he is reason to believe the Sox can win two straight at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, which is a baseball Bermuda grass triangle for the boys from Boston. Beckett has regained his ace card this season. Only Justin Verlander (5.97) is allowing fewer hits per nine innings than Beckett (6.42), and Beckett is fifth in fewest baserunners allowed per nine (9.11). With more run support (3.73) he'd be in the Cy Young discussion.

5. Should the Sox have any non-buyer’s remorse on Oakland A’s righty Rich Harden? They struck a deal to obtain Harden and then reneged after reviewing the pitcher’s medicals, which were voluminous and ominous. The team didn't think Harden's arm, held together by duct-tape, paper clips and Juicy Fruit, would last until October, and didn't want to part with Lars Anderson and a better prospect for damaged goods. Instead, they made a deal with Seattle for Erik Bedard, who was coming off a knee injury.

In his last start, Harden mowed down the Blue Jays, striking out a career-high-tying 11 in seven scoreless innings. He has gone seven innings in two of his last three starts, while Bedard has not gone more than six in any of his four outings. Boston's medical evaluations have been off the mark before. The Sox will be watching with interest -- and possibly regret -- when Harden faces the Yankees Thursday in the Bronx.

6. Inimitable colleague Bob Ryan once famously asked Sox general manager Theo Epstein what the fascination was with J.D. Drew. I’d like to know what the fascination with Andrew Miller is. The Sox have contorted themselves like Nadia Comaneci to keep Miller on the roster until Sept. 1 roster expansion. He is too unreliable to relieve and too unsteady to start. Is there a third kind of pitching I'm not aware of? Mothballed as a starter since July 31 before he took the bump against the Royals last Friday, Miller is going to start again tomorrow in Texas. He has a 5-1 record, but hasn’t beaten an opponent with a winning record. The lithe lefty has big-time upside, but it's possible that might be all he has.

7. Don’t blame Scott Boras if Jacoby Ellsbury walks away from Yawkey Way after the 2013 season. It’s supposed to be baseball gospel that Boras always takes his clients to free agency. Well, Boras client Jered Weaver, who would have hit free agency after next season, signed a five-year, $85 million deal to stay with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of Orange County of Southern California. At the end of the day, Boras still works for his client, not the other way around. We saw that here with Jason Varitek. If Ellsbury really wants to remain with the Red Sox, he will. If following Rib-Gate last year, his feelings are as bruised as his back or he wants top dollar he will hit the market, with Boras as eager auctioneer.

8. The best save Jonathan Papelbon has made this year is that of his free agent value. Pap has been on the money all season, and now he’s going to get some of it in the offseason. Papelbon has converted 24 consecutive save chances and tossed 14 straight scoreless innings. With his next save, the quirky closer will become the first fireman in baseball history to record 30 saves or more in each of his first six seasons. He is making $12 million this season. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is making $15 million. Papelbon’s asking price should split the difference.

9. All you have to do is look at the Indianapolis Colts quarterback quandary, sans a healthy Peyton Manning, to understand the idea of trading Patriots backup QB Brian Hoyer and turning the reins over to rookie Ryan Mallett makes little sense now. The Patriots have invested too much in this season. While Hoyer playing means the season has detoured in a dyspepsia-inducing direction, he is the type of backup the Patriots could survive with for three or four games if Tom Brady got hurt. That could be the difference between making the playoffs or watching them on TV.

10. This could be a tough season in Kansas City for old friend Scott Pioli. His No. 1 pick, wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin, allegedly got served a knuckle sandwich by veteran Chiefs running back Thomas Jones. Then his abrasive, thin-skinned coach, Todd Haley, had a hissy fit about the Ravens scoring too much on the Chiefs in a preseason game.

Plus, Charlie Weis, largely responsible for the development of Matt Cassel, fled to the University of Florida in the offseason. Coming off a 10-6 season, a division title and a home playoff game, expectations are high in KC. But so is the tension. That’s a recipe for Humble Pie.

Sox should play long ball with Ortiz

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 18, 2011 03:06 PM

David Ortiz is in a walking boot, but it’s the Red Sox offense that is limping along without him.

With bursitis in his right heel keeping Ortiz out of his customary fifth spot in the batting order for a Fenway Park pit stop against the Tampa Bay Rays, a Red Sox lineup that has relied on its top five all season was shallower than an episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians."

The Sox scored just five runs during the three-game set and were shut out yesterday. For the first time in franchise history the team was held to three hits or fewer in three consecutive home games.

Thanks to the anemic offensive output, the Red Sox ceded the major league lead in runs scored to the Yankees. The Bronx Bombers have scored 652 runs to the Sox’ 649.

With his contract drive in full swing, a wear-and-tear injury like the heel -- estimated to keep Ortiz out about a week -- would seem to buttress the case that the 35-year-old designated hitter is not a wise investment beyond this season. But his absence is actually making the opposite argument – that Ortiz is an essential piece for the Sox beyond 2011.

This is not an opinion based on teary-eyed nostalgia or mawkish sentimentality. It’s based on the pablum of the baseball world -- cold, hard stats. Big Papi's this season are a .300 average, a team-leading 24 home runs and 79 runs batted in. Those are not easy numbers to replace.

So, if it takes more than a one-year deal to bring Ortiz back for 2012 then the Sox should warm up John Henry’s checkbook. How about a nice two-year, $24 million-$25 million deal with a vesting option for a third?

If Ortiz walks on such a deal to take three years from say the Yankees then he’ll get the Johnny Damon treatment when he returns to the Fens. Unlike Damon, he will deserve it, especially after ownership went to bat to get his $12.5 million option picked up this year.

Two years is too much for a designated hitter that turns 36 in November you say? There is no such thing as too much money on Yawkey Way. Like the Yankees, the Sox have deep enough pockets to absorb risky or unsuccessful investments. It’s simply the cost of big boy baseball.

If the Sox can afford to pay on-base percentage poster boy J.D. Drew an average of $14 million dollars a year for five years, or give John Lackey $16.5 million per season for five, or write a $142 million check to a player who has never hit 20 home runs in a season, then they can afford to go more than a year for Ortiz.

It’s just a few more Fenway commemorative bricks to broker to the masses.

Ortiz will be a productive player next season. The worry is beyond next season, when he is 37. But if Big Papi goes bust in 2013 then the Sox can simply write it off as the tariff of having him – and the best chance to win -- in 2012.

Being written off is nothing new for Ortiz. Writing off the Dominican designated hitter has become as much a ritual of the Red Sox season as the insipid crooning of “Sweet Caroline.”

For Ortiz DH once also stood for designated hero, recently it’s been Doubted Hitter.

He was supposed to be done three years ago when he had one home run through the end of May, or last year in April, when Terry Francona pinch-hit for in Toronto and the Sox were reportedly considering releasing him.

But here he is in August with a better slugging percentage (.557) than Adrian Gonzalez (.542) and Miguel Cabrera (.554).

Even as he entered the presumed twilight of his career (cue Dan Duquette voice) Ortiz was basically a 30 homer, 100-RBI guy. He had 28 long balls and 99 RBI in ’09 and went 32-102 last season.

Those guys don’t grow on trees in MLB, at least not any more, now that the Steroid Error has been nipped by Bud.

The other death knell for Ortiz’s career was that he was Big Putty against lefthanded pitching. Way back in spring training Ortiz admitted he had to prove to himself that he could hit lefthanders.

Check.

After hitting just .217 with eight home runs, a ghastly .286 on-base percentage and 101 strikeouts in 350 at-bats against lefties the last two seasons, Ortiz is batting .320 against southpaws this season with seven homers.

His on-base percentage (.424 vs. .371) and slugging percentage (.578 vs. .547) are actually higher against lefties.

Look, locking up Ortiz to more than a one-year deal is not without downside or potential pratfall. Anytime you’re signing a 36-year-old there is an element of caveat emptor due to injury or decline. And Ortiz comes with an additional warning label.

It was two years ago this month, that Ortiz held a press conference in New York with the Major League Baseball Players Association at his side to explain why his name was on the list of players who tested positive for performance-enhancing substances in 2003.

Except there has never been a sufficient explanation from Ortiz or anyone else as to why his name was on this list if, as he maintained, he has never used steroids. Ortiz said he was going to find out why he was on the list. We're still waiting.

However, Ortiz has tested clean ever since.

Ortiz said he hopes to play at some point during the Sox’ eight-game road trip, which commences tonight Kansas City. That’s good because Ortiz was the Sox’ hottest hitter before his injury, carrying a seven-game hit streak during which he was batting .500 with three home runs.

But the longer he is cooling his heel in the walking boot the stronger the case gets for the Sox not to let him walk.

Video: Gasper on Ochocinco, the Patriots 4-3 and the Red Sox

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff August 10, 2011 12:34 PM
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Christopher L. Gasper provided the answers to the three biggest questions in Boston sports, including Chad Ochocinco, the Patriots 4-3 defense and the red hot Red Sox.

Dustin Pedroia has a foothold at the plate

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 19, 2011 02:59 PM

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There is no confusing Tom Brady and Dustin Pedroia. One throws footballs and the other fields grounds balls. One takes hits. The other delivers them. One has famous tresses and the other a receding hairline. One stands 6-feet, 4-inches tall. The other is listed at, ahem, 5-9. One appears in the pages of GQ and the other now goes by the dreggy sobriquet of "the muddy chicken."

But despite their differences, Brady and Pedey walk on common ground. They're both inveterate competitors. They're both league MVPs. They're both essential to their teams, and they both had screws surgically inserted into a broken foot after fracturing the navicular bone -- right foot for TB12 and left foot for Pedroia. That's why Pedroia's splendid performance for the Sox this season bodes well for autumn for both teams.

In case you haven't noticed, Pedroia is getting more hits than Google these days. He is hard-wired in at the plate, batting a ridiculous .410 with six homers this month. His OPS (on-base-plus-slugging) this month looks like a low introductory interest rate -- 1.289.

The Laser Show has never been brighter or better. The slugging second baseman is riding a 16-game hitting streak and a 28-game on-base streak. He drove in the winning run in the Sox' 16-inning marathon win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday night and then had a go-ahead two-run double to right field last night against Baltimore. He can tie his career-high on-base streak of 29 games, set during his MVP-season of 2008, tonight.

Don't bet against it.

Few players are as enjoyable to watch or seem to enjoy the game as much as Pedroia, who busts his butt in between the lines and busts chops in the clubhouse, whether you're manager Terry Francona or a media member.

He is a player with an inimitable style, all maximum effort and energy. It always looks like he's straining to reach first base with his throws. You wouldn't teach a Little Leaguer his swing, which often looks like he's trying to chop down a Douglas Fir with his eyes closed. But his production is a thing of beauty.

Pedroia's recent torrid stretch is simply Pedey being Pedey, which wasn't always a sure thing this season coming off the foot injury he suffered last year in June, when he fouled a ball off his foot in San Francisco. In retrospect, that basically marked the end of any shot the Sox had at making the playoffs last season, a sign of Pedroia's importance.

One of the questions about the Red Sox heading into spring training was whether Pedroia, who had surgery in September, would be the same player he was before the foot fracture. Ask Bill Walton how foot ailments can derail a promising career. In late January, Pedroia told WEEI.com he was still feeling some discomfort in the foot and a foreboding allusion to Yao Ming, whose career was ultimately ended by foot injuries, was made.

There was cause for concern after a slow start this season (.255 in April and .227 in May) and a couple of incidents where the foot went numb during games. But it's mid-July and the sweet-swinging Pedroia is currently the best hitter in baseball and has stolen 17 bases in 20 attempts for good measure.

Pedroia's podiatric status is an afterthought. That's good news for Brady, who had his foot operated on in January and will test it out in training camp at the end of the month with the NFL lockout nearing the end of days, thankfully.

These days when Pedoria and maladies are discussed, it is his right knee that is referenced, not his surgically-repaired left foot. Pedroia has been doing a bang-up job at the plate ever since he discovered that his right knee was bothering him due to a deep bruise and some displaced cartilage and not something more sinister or serious.

Pedroia departed the Sox' series in the Bronx against the Yankees on June 9 to have team medical director Dr. Thomas Gill take a look at his right knee. Gill reassured Pedroia, who was batting. 247 with four home runs at the time, that there was no serious structural damage.

Since June 10, the day he returned to the lineup, Pedroia has been hotter than Roy Halladay doing hot yoga in the Mojave. He is batting .379 with nine home runs in 32 games since.

The .379 average is the second-highest in the majors during that time period, trailing only Nick Markakis of the Orioles (.390). That's about the only major category the Sox' No. 2 hitter isn't No. 1 in since June 10. Since Knee Day, he leads major league baseball in on-base percentage (.471), slugging percentage (.697) and naturally OPS (1.168).

Of his 36 extra base hits this season, 23 have come after he had his knee examined, including nine homers. He has raised his average from .247 to .295 and is sporting what would be a career-high .401 on-base percentage. His single-season best is .380 during his AL Rookie of the Year-campaign in 2007.

But it's not just Pedroia's presence at the plate that assures you he is footloose and fancy-free. If you're a believer in UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) as a defensive metric -- full disclosure, I am not -- then Pedroia is as valuable with his glove as he is with his bat. According to Fangraphs.com, Pedroia has the fourth-best UZR of any defender at any position in baseball (11.2) and the best of any second baseman. That means Pedroia is going to save 11 more runs per season with his defense than an average second basemen.

With Gonzalez on his team, it's unlikely that Pedroia will win another MVP this season to join Brady as a two-time MVP winner. But after being underestimated early in his career, it's nearly impossible to underestimate the importance of Pedroia returning to form after the most serious injury of his career.

Crawford needs to pay off in second half

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 15, 2011 02:30 PM

Riding high at 55-35 in first place in the American League East, the Red Sox start the second half of the season tonight on the road against the Tampa Bay Rays, Carl Crawford's former team. But Crawford, the Red Sox' lavishly-paid left fielder, won't be in St. Petersburg, Fla., to take in his old hardball haunts.

The $142-million man, who has been out since June 18 with a hamstring strain, will commence his second-half in Pawtucket, R.I., tonight making the first of two rehab appearances at Triple A before he (hopefully) returns to action Monday in Baltimore. Too bad. Familiar surroundings may have been exactly what Crawford needed to make sure he played like an All-Star, post-All-Star break.

For all the gushing and gasping over Adrian Gonzalez instantly boosting the Sox lineup with his batting exploits, it's easy to forget that Crawford was supposed to be just as significant an addition as A-Gon. He was AL-East battle-tested. He was coming off the best season of his career, a season in which he hit a career-high 19 home runs, drove in a career-high 90 runs and won his first Gold Glove. He was going to continue the tradition of superb Red Sox left fielders. He said his biggest adjustment to playing in Boston would be the cold weather.

We can debate the sagacity of handing a seven-year, $142-million contract to a corner outfielder who has never hit 20 home runs in a season later, but what is without debate is that the Sox are still waiting for the player they thought they signed to arrive. Crawford is batting .243 with six homers and 31 runs batted in, numbers that actually look good after he hit -- using the term generously -- .155 in April.

Perhaps more mystifying than his slow start at the plate is his slow pace on the base paths. A four-time AL stolen base champion, Crawford, who always ran against the Red Sox with impunity, has half as many steals (eight) as Dustin Pedroia, the guy with screws in his surgically-repaired left foot.

But no one will remember Crawford's forgettable first half-season as a Red Sox if he plays like the swashbuckling force on the base paths who tormented teams for the last nine seasons in the second half, and the Sox end up playing deep into October. Forget Carlos Beltran or Matt Garza, the Real Carl Crawford could be the biggest second-half addition for the Sox. And he won't cost a thing because he's already paid for.

While the Red Sox lead the majors in just about every significant offensive category, the lineup is a bit top-heavy. Sixty-percent of the Sox' MLB-best 482 runs have come from the top five batters in the order -- Jacoby Ellsbury, Pedroia, Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis and Ortiz. The percentage from the Yankees is even higher. Their fab five of Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez have combined for 61.7 of New York runs.

That would indicate that if Crawford can return to his usual All-Star form in the second half that he could help tilt the balance of power in the AL East towards the Fens by lengthening and strengthening an already potent lineup. Crawford, whom the Sox played lineup roulette with earlier in the season, has done best this season in the No. 6 spot. He is batting .344 there in 16 games with a .972 (on-base-plus-slugging) and three homers. He has batted in every position in the order, except cleanup, fifth and ninth.

The Red Sox issues in right field have been well-documented. With J.D. Drew struggling (insert Joe Namath voice) and his mystical on-base percentage powers lagging, the Sox are 28th in the majors in right field OPS. But due to Crawford's injury and early-season ineffectiveness, left field -- historically one of the most productive positions in the franchise's history -- has become unproductive territory as well.

In 2010, the Sox ranked 23d in left field OPS at .698. This year they're 18th, but the OPS is lower at .683. Crawford's current OPS is .659, which would be his lowest ever in any season, including his rookie year, when he played in 63 games. Last year, he had an .848 OPS, which was sixth among major league left fielders

For all the consternation that the Red Sox had a lineup that was too lefthanded, they've hit higher against lefthanders (.281 batting average) than righties (.277). Crawford is a notable exception. He has been vexed by lefties this season, batting just .151 with a .207 on-base percentage and a .267 slugging percentage.

There is reason to believe Crawford could be primed for a big second half, though. Since May 1, Crawford has batted a combined .295 with 16 extra base hits, including five home runs and four triples. Crawford has three four-hit games this year, which is the same amount as Gonzalez. Only Jose Reyes (four) has more.

Also, statistics indicate that Crawford has been the recipient of some bad luck. His percentage of pitches swung at (51 percent) and contact percentage (81 percent) are identical to last season. But his batting average on balls in play is .274. That's the lowest of his career in any season. In each of the last two seasons his batting average on balls in play was .342, and in his nine seasons with the Rays his combined batting average on balls in play was .331.

If there was a poster child for the Red Sox' false start in April it was Crawford. He looked as lost as an out-of-town driver trying to navigate Central Artery road closures. But the Red Sox have found their way and reached their talent level. Crawford looked like he was on his way to doing that before he got hurt.

When he returns he has do something that most speedsters are capable of -- make up for lost time in a hurry.

Sox depth will be tested starting now

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 7, 2011 03:48 PM

The Red Sox have been lucky thus far. Lucky that Josh Beckett, who started the season as a fourth starter, has reverted to ace form. Lucky that Tim Wakefield is defying Father Time one knuckleball at a time. Lucky that Andrew Miller, a reclamation project of Big Dig-proportions, is panning out. Lucky that Alfredo Aceves is as flexible as a Cirque du Soleil performer in his use.

That's a lot of good fortune in the Fens so far, and you wonder how long it can last as the injuries pile up and the starting rotation, the biggest advantage the Sox were forecast to have over the Yankees, gets pulled apart at the seams. The bats get top billing, but the American League East is an arms race.

Even with the injuries and seven starts by Daisuke Matsuzaka, the rotation has given the Sox a chance to win more often than not. Red Sox starters have posted a 4.04 earned run average -- an uninspiring 18th in baseball -- but that number is Zeppelin-like inflated by John Lackey's 7.47 ERA. Take his numbers, 60 earned runs allowed in 72.1 innings, away and you have a combined starters' ERA of 3.49. The Yankees starters have a 3.63 ERA this season.

Can the Sox tread water for the next three weeks if four-fifths of their rotation is Wakefield, Miller, Lackey and Aceves/a mystery guest (Kyle Weiland or Felix Doubront)? They might not have a choice.

Maybe the Sox won't have to go that long with patchwork starting pitching, but that would be another fortuitous development on Yawkey Way. It's looking increasingly likely that Clay Buchholz, who hasn't pitched since June 16 due to a balky back, won't return until August. Even when Buchholz heals, he has missed enough time that he likely will require a rehab start or two.

Jon Lester, who was put on the disabled list yesterday with a strained left latissimus muscle, is eligible to return to action on July 22, when the Sox start a three-game set against the Mariners at Fenway. But look for the Sox to be conservative because this is the type of injury, like an oblique strain, that can linger for a pitcher if not given proper time to fully heal. Rushing Lester back to face Seattle or the Kansas City Royals simply isn't the Sox' medical style.

The milieu of maladies make tonight's start by Miller -- suddenly your No. 3 starter --against Baltimore even more intriguing. He has eased back into the big league mix at the back end of the rotation, but for the next couple of weeks the Sox need him to pitch like the front-line starter he was billed as coming out of the University of North Carolina.

The Sox have been infatuated with the 6-foot, 7-inch Miller dating back to spring training, when manager Terry Francona said: "There is some pretty special stuff coming out of that arm." The former No. 6 overall pick by the Detroit Tigers started the season in Pawtucket to try to resurrect his game and his confidence. With the PawSox, Miller found a pre-start routine that allowed the lanky lefthander to stop starting games like he was throwing darts blindfolded.

He is 2-0 with a 3.06 ERA since a promotion to the big league club. But he hasn't faced an American League lineup until tonight and pitched twice in National League ballparks, where the designated hitter wasn't used. Miller has faced the San Diego Padres, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Houston Astros, all teams that rank in the bottom half of baseball in run production.

As Lackey has learned, it's a little bit different pitching in the American League East, which is a Darwinian experiment for pitchers. Bottom-feeding Baltimore isn't exactly the 1961 Yankees. The Birds are 20th in the majors in runs scored, but they have some pop. The Orioles have hit 95 home runs this season, one fewer than the Sox.

The National League placebo phase is over for Miller. We'll learn more about him tonight than in his other three starts combined.

Then tomorrow it's Beckett, the only start-of-the-season Sox starter who has not gone on the disabled list. Who had that in the preseason pool?

Saturday it's Lackey, who if not for the rash of injuries might have already been ejected from the rotation. In a NESN interview with Peter Gammons, Sox general manager Theo Epstein made it clear that the Sox would not wait indefinitely for Lackey to turn it around.

Epstein also said that Weiland had "dynamic stuff." It wouldn't be a surprise if Weiland, who last pitched on July 4, got a major league audition on Sunday against the Orioles, taking Lester's turn, to see if he can contribute this season.

After Sunday, the Sox catch a break with the All-Star break.

The All-Star hiatus and the scheduled off-day the Sox have next Thursday that doesn't have them starting the second half until July 15 couldn't be coming at a better time because it buys some extra time for Lester, Buchholz and limping left fielder Carl Crawford, who is on track to return from his hamstring injury on July 18 in Baltimore.

The Sox have made due with the Drew Suttons, Yamaico Navarros and Josh Reddicks so far with Crawford and Jed Lowrie out and Kevin Youkilis nicked up. But replacing frontline starting pitching is an entirely different enterprise, and if last season taught us anything it's that organizational depth and mid-season Cinderellas can only mask major wounds for so long. Remember Daniel Nava?

Luckily, the Sox have not suffered anything on the scale of Dustin Pedroia's broken foot or Jacoby Ellsbury's fractured ribs or Youkilis's torn thumb muscle to a key pitcher (sorry, Daisuke) or position player -- yet.

The Sox are good. We know that. But they need to keep being lucky on the pitching front until Lester and Buchholz return.

Four for thought

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 5, 2011 03:53 PM

Now that the hamburger, hot dog and fireworks-induced haze of the holiday long weekend has lifted here are four post-Fourth of July declarations while wondering what happened to the plague that was surely going to befall Adrian Gonzalez in right field.

1. John Lackey is pitching for his season on Saturday: Lackey has an earned run average that only Boeing could love (7.47). He has allowed five or more earned runs in four of 13 starts this season and 16 of 46 since joining the Red Sox while compiling a 19-19 mark and 5.17 ERA. It's enough to make one long for Matt Clement.

The only reason the struggling righthander is even in the rotation at this point is because of Clay Buchholz's balky back. But if Lackey blows up again against Baltimore the Sox have to remove him from the rotation. Alfredo Aceves and Pawtucket pitchers Kyle Weiland, Felix Doubront, and Kevin Millwood are options to fill the spot. It's not fair to Lackey or to the team to keep sending him out there.

You feel for Lackey because his wife, Krista, was diagnosed with breast cancer during the offseason and he has endured a horrendous season on the field that included an elbow strain that has generated speculation about eventual Tommy John surgery. His frustration with his current lot in life is palpable, and it boiled over following a water-logged whipping by the Padres on June 22. His next start, against the Phillies, offered a flicker of resurgence that was doused yesterday, when he was lit up by Toronto.

If Lackey falters against the Orioles, the best thing is to put him on some sort of sabbatical before his Red Sox career spins irrevocably and irretrievably out of control. This season might be a lost cause, but he's on the books for three more.

2. Jacoby Ellsbury equals Carl Crawford: After being tagged with the pusillanimous label last season because fractured ribs reduced him to 18 games, Ellsbury is making a lot of people eat their words . He has been exactly what the Sox thought they were getting with Carl Crawford at a fraction of the cost. The first-time All-Star has been the Sox' best offensive player after Gonzalez and David Ortiz.

After being restored to the leadoff spot April 22, Ellsbury has the third-most hits in baseball with 93, trailing only Gonzalez (100) and Jose Reyes (97). He has batted .336 during that time with a .391 on-base percentage and been on base as many times as Reyes (119). With a career-high-tying nine home runs and an American League-leading 27 stolen bases, he has been the most dynamic leadoff hitter in baseball this side of media darling Reyes. Joke about Ellsbury missing a game over the weekend with the flu, but he has played in 83 of the Sox' 84 games this season.

There was a school of thought that Ellsbury was a bit overrated because baseball observation has devalued batting average and the stolen base to convince you of the "value" of Jack Cust. He can't steal first base, they said of Ellsbury. But Ellsbury's .370 OBP this season would be higher than any Crawford has ever posted in a season.

3. The Bruins are spending the offseason shining their Stanley Cup: Am I the only one underwhelmed by the Bruins' offseason? Benoit Pouliot is the big signing. Would it have been too much to ask for Simon Gagne, who went to the Kings for Michael Ryder money? I understand the Bruins have to re-sign Brad Marchand and plan for next season when David Krejci is a restricted free agent and Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley and Gregory Campbell are all unrestricted. But the Bruins came into the offseason with approximately $12 million to play with and NHL teams pawn off unwanted salaries on other clubs all the time (see: Chicago and Brian Campbell).

The Bruins run to the Stanley Cup was magical and memorable, but it's a mistake to assume you're going to be able to duplicate it without improvements, especially when you were one goal away from a first-round exit and you won it all in a year that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were hors de hockey.

The Bruins need a top-four defensemen because outside of the Zdeno Chara-Dennis Seidenberg pairing and Andrew Ference they were bailed out by an unconscious Tim Thomas a lot this postseason. Blueliners are a pricey commodity, and Steven Kampfer is cheap labor. Perhaps, Tomas Kaberle returns at a discount (gritting teeth, now). Kaberle cashed in with the 'Canes.

Carolina then traded defenseman Joe Corvo ($2.25 million cap hit) to the Bruins. Truthfully, I don't know Joe Corvo from Jose Cuervo, but this seems like a shrewd, if unspectacular, move for a cost-effective puck-mover. But now is not the time for the Bruins to pocket their winnings and push back from the table.

4. The All-Star game should not be like a cruise -- all-inclusive: It's ridiculous that Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates and CC Sabathia of the Yankees didn't make the All-Star game. It's even more absurd that baseball is still sticking to the edict that every team must have an All-Star representative, or as I call it the Scott Cooper Rule.

As colleague Nick Cafardo pointed out it's antithetical to say that the All-Star game is meaningful because it determines home field in the World Series, but then not let the American and National Leagues take their best players regardless of team. This time it counts...as long as the Royals have Aaron Crow in Arizona.

Are Nationals fans going to make the game appointment viewing because Tyler Clippard might take the mound for an inning? No. It's been 10 years since the Midsummer Classic scored a double-digit rating. The 2001 game in Seattle pulled an 11.0. That was the first All-Star game for Ichiro and the last for Cal Ripken Jr., who retired at the end of the season. Last year's game scored a 7.5 rating, the lowest ever.

My brother, Stephen, had a great idea. Change the rules so only the team hosting the All-Star game must have a representative. Outside of that, it's strictly the best of the best and not some Little League-esque enterprise.

Sox need to make the right move with Gonzalez

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 28, 2011 02:49 PM

If this remarkable month in Boston has taught us anything it's that the implausible and unimaginable are not as far-fetched as we've assumed. In a June that's been anything but jejune, we've seen two historic Hub happenings that most deemed inconceivable -- the Bruins won a Stanley Cup and the FBI found fugitive gangster Whitey Bulger.

So is Adrian Gonzalez playing right field for the Red Sox for a game or two in interleague play that unbelievable a notion? It's time for manager Terry Francona to toss Gonzalez an outfielder's glove, get David Ortiz back in the lineup at first base, and hope for the best.

It's the right move.

It's now or never for the Sox, who open a three-game set against the Philadelphia Phillies tonight, with the great Gonzo debate. If you're not going to move the chess pieces against the best pitching staff in baseball, then don't do it during the following series with the Houston Astros, who have the worst record in baseball and the second-worst earned run average.

The assumption before the Sox began this nine-game traveling interleague interlude was that their lineup was strong enough without Ortiz to beat up on the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Houston Astros. No need to risk Gonzalez in right against lightweights that the Sox could beat with Craig Grebeck in the lineup. This still may true of the latter, but it clearly was not of the former.

Maybe if both Carl Crawford and Jed Lowrie were in the lineup and not on the disabled list then Big Papi's absence would not have seemed as glaring in the Steel City. The Sox lineup without Ortiz, who got three plate appearances total, looked less offensively inclined than Bismack Biyombo, as they dropped two out of three.

The Sox scored a total of nine runs during the three-game set and stranded 29 base runners. In Sunday's game -- the only win -- the play-it-safe Sox scored four runs. They crossed home plate via a groundout, a throwing error, and two sacrifice flies. Not exactly the work of the 1927 Yankees.

But it followed a theme for a Sox lineup manacled by having to play by National League rules -- no designated hitter. In Saturday's 6-4 loss they scored via three solo homers and a ground-out by Gonzalez. In last Friday's 3-1 loss to the Pirates, the lone run scored on a ground-out.

If that's all the offense the Sox could muster against the Pirates with Ortiz relegated to Matt Stairs impersonations, then don't expect much more against the Phillies armed and dangerous staff, which has allowed the fewest runs in baseball this season and tossed the most shutouts (11).

The Sox face left-hander Cliff Lee tonight, and all he has surrendered is a single run over his last four starts, including back-to-back shutouts. Thursday, it's lefty Cole Hamels, who has a lower WHIP than both Lee and Roy Halladay at 0.96 and is third in MLB in fewest baserunners allowed per nine innings (8.84). Even Philadelphia's fifth starter, rookie Vance Worley, who will face the Sox on Wednesday, has a 2.83 ERA.

If the Sox are okay sacrificing these interleague games for the greater good and betting they'll still get their 95 wins, then continue to park Ortiz on the pine. But if they believe these games matter, then they have to at least give Gonzalez a shot in right field.

It's risky, and the team has every right to express trepidation about doing it. But unless the Sox plan to encase Gonzalez in bubble-wrap and tissue paper for the rest of the season, they can't get a guarantee that's he's not going to get hurt. That is impossible.

He could get injured fouling a ball off his foot at the plate like Dustin Pedroia did last summer, or he could break a bone in a collision at first base like Albert Pujols recently did. Or he could throw out his back carrying the Ortiz-less lineup.

Gonzalez himself has said that he feels he's less likely to get hurt in right field because he'll be more cautious.

The sum of all fears is that Gonzalez could, gasp, pull a hamstring chasing a fly ball and be out a few weeks. How is that different from the regular right fielder, J.D. Drew?

One admirable trait of the Sox during the Theo Epstein administration is that they have blocked out the babel that comes with baseball in Boston, making decisions on merit instead of public opinion. The talk radio backlash and incessant second-guessing from a Gonzalez injury in the outfield shouldn't be a factor in this decision.

Now, the easy out for the Sox is to point out that they're facing a pair of lefthanders in Lee and Hamels, and say that they'll keep Ortiz on the bench for those reasons. The counter for that argument is that Ortiz has hit .346 against lefties this season and is a decent .240 against Lee (6 for 25).

Plus, lefties (.258) have actually fared much better against the changeup-tossing Hamels than righties (.197) this season. Gonzalez rakes against both Lee (7 for 10 with a homer) and Hamels (8 for 22, two homers), so he's not sitting to make room for Ortiz in either of those two games.

The real issue here is that baseball, which has integrated everything else about the American and National Leagues from umpires to office administration to scheduling, continues to allow the leagues to play under two different sets of rules. That has put the Sox in this Procrustean predicament.

The DH was introduced in 1973 and 38 years later it's absurdly an AL-only feature. Spare me the talk of purity and the patriotic splendor of the double switch. I have as much interest in watching pitchers hit as I do in watching Rafael Nadal play Wimbledon with a wooden racket.

The Sox are boxed in. All the more reason to think outside the box.

This is Beckett's year

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 21, 2011 04:02 PM

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Perhaps it is an act of mercy that the Red Sox are not sending Josh Beckett to the mound tonight against the San Diego Padres, who score runs with about the same frequency as Adrian Gonzalez plays the outfield.

Ok, that's a slight exaggeration, but the feckless Friars are last in baseball in runs scored and slugging percentage. Sending the major league baseball leader in earned run average out against them would have been just cruel. It's bad enough they have to watch their former franchise first baseman, Gonzalez, tear it up for the Sox.

The official explanation for Beckett missing his start tonight is "intestinal turmoil," which has been traveling around the Red Sox clubhouse; "Always ready" Alfredo Aceves gets the nod in his place. His own stomach-churning aside, Beckett has chewed up and spit out opposing batters all season long, going 6-2 with a 1.86 ERA in 14 starts.

Remember when Beckett, who won six games all of last season, began the season as a fourth starter, the Sox so concerned about protecting his confidence after an awful 2010 campaign that they made certain he avoided pitching in the season-opening trip to Texas? That's as relevant now as the Sox' 2-10 start.

He is the Red Sox version of Tim Thomas, a presumed to be declining and overpaid player -- Beckett is in the first season of a four-year, $68-million extension -- who is responding to doubters with a career year. Who knows if Beckett can carry this into a possible postseason like Thomas did, but his renaissance has to be one of the primary storylines of the first half of the season.

Beckett has been Boston's best pitcher and arguably the best in all of baseball to this point. In addition to his microscopic ERA, opponents have an anemic .241 slugging percentage against him and a .498 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging). Both numbers lead the majors.

You never know what you're going to get with Beckett from one season to the next. The cantankerous Texan is as unpredictable as he is profane in his post-game press conferences. One year he pitches like a Cy Young candidate, and the next he pitches like a right-handed Matt Young. He is Jekyll and Hyde with cowhide.

But there seems to be a somewhat predictable numerical pattern to Beckett's behavior. It is odd-numbered years that bring out the best in Beckett. He is a biennial ace.

He made his major league debut in 2001. In 2003, he pitched the clinching game of the World Series for the Florida Marlins, capping a stellar postseason run (2.11 ERA) and was named World Series MVP. In 2005, he hit double-digits in wins for the first time in his career, going 15-8 with a 3.38 ERA in his final season in Florida. In 2007, he won 20 games for the first time, and he reprised his postseason dominance to pitch the Red Sox to a World Series. In 2009, he won 17 games, pitched a career-high 212 1/3 innings and struck out a career-high 199 batters.

In between, he had major blister issues surface in 2002, limiting him to 21 starts. In 2004, he was a pedestrian 9-9. In 2006, his first season with the Red Sox, he was the anti-Felix Hernandez, surrendering 36 home runs and posting an ERA of 5.01, yet still winning 16 games. In 2008, he went 12-10 with a 4.03 ERA, but a right elbow injury in August and an oblique injury prior to the playoffs robbed him of his postseason dominance.

In 2010, Beckett was 6-6 with a career-high 5.78 ERA and missed two months with a lower back strain. Channeling John Wasdin, "Way Back" Beckett served up 20 home runs in just 127 2/3 innings.

Return to 2011 and the 31-year-old Beckett might be having the most dominant season of his career and has reclaimed staff ace status. The zoom is back on his fastball. He has harnessed his cutter, and lefties aren't teeing off on him. Lefthanders hit .310 last year off Beckett with 15 home runs. This year, they're batting .176 with two homers.

In his last start, Beckett threw a complete game, one-hit, shutout against the Tampa Bay Rays, retiring the final 19 batters he faced. That pushed his record against the American League East this season to 5-0 with a 1.47 ERA in six starts.

By comparison, Beckett often looked like he was tossing batting practice to the Sox' AL East brethren last season, going 1-4 with a 6.95 ERA in 10 starts and allowing 11 home runs.

Beckett has surrendered just four home runs this year, and his 0.39 home runs/per nine innings pitched is tied for third-lowest in baseball. Beckett had surrendered four home runs by his fifth start last season, which came against Toronto on April 26th, 2010. He has not allowed a home run yet this season at Fenway Park, as all four homers he has served up have come on the road.

The biggest difference is that there have been no blow-ups this season from Beckett. He has been consistently excellent.

Beckett allowed five or more earned runs in eight of his 21 starts last season. He has not done it once this season in 14 starts. His 8.90 baserunners allowed per nine innings pitched is fourth in baseball, behind Tigers ace Justin Verlander (7.91), Jered Weaver of the Angels (8.36), and Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies (8.57). Good company.

Making Beckett's season even more impressive is that he has gotten an average of 3.82 runs per game during his starts. By comparison, Jon Lester leads the majors in run support at 7.77, which in part explains his nine wins in what has been by Lester's lofty standards a bit of an uneven season thus far.

If history holds up then so should Beckett's performance. This is his year.

Ellsbury taking it from the top

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 6, 2011 05:43 PM

The Red Sox reacquaint themselves with their eternal enemies, the New York Yankees, Tuesday night in the Bronx with American League East eminence in play during the three-game set. When the Sox last left Yankee Stadium, they had finally clawed their way to .500 by virtue of a three-game sweep of the Pinstripes. Now, they're seven games above sea level at 33-26 and just a game back of the Yankees for first place.

If you want to know where the Red Sox fortunes took a U-turn after their road-to-nowhere beginning you have to rewind beyond the Bronx. Take it from the top. That's where you'll find Jacoby Ellsbury, the once injured-rib-ridden and ridiculed frontman for the Sox batting order. Instead of absorbing a big impact like last season, Ellsbury is making one.

With an American League-leading 22 stolen bases, a .299 average and an .813 on-base-plus slugging (OPS), Ellsbury is making a serious push for All-Star consideration, and at the same time has helped push the Sox from declension to contention.

Exiled to the bottom of the lineup when the Sox lost their first six games of the season, Ellsbury was reinserted into the leadoff position on April 22 against the Angels (you know where they're from). Entering that game, the Sox were 7-11, last place in the American League East, and Ellsbury was batting .186. Neither the player nor the team were enjoying anticipated redemptive seasons. Both were stuck at the bottom.

Since No. 2 started batting first, the Sox have gone 26-15 and scored a major-league leading 214 runs. During that same time span, they also lead the majors in OPS, (.804) and slugging (.460). Their on-base percentage of .344 is second only to the St. Louis Cardinals.

After regaining his leading role, Ellsbury has batted .337 and posted a .391 on-base percentage in 41 games. His 19 stolen bases and 17 doubles since April 22 are tops in baseball.

If the basepaths came with a loyalty rewards program, Ellsbury would have platinum status for his frequent visits. Only Jose Bautista, and reigning National League MVP Joey Votto have been on base more times than Ellsbury, who has reached base 75 times since April 22. That's three more than Adrian Gonzalez over the same time period. Ellsbury has scored 30 runs since returning to the top spot, fourth-best in baseball since April 22.

Not all of the offensive outpouring is attributable to Ellsbury. Since April 22, Gonzalez has batted .360 with 11 home runs and 41 runs batted in. David Ortiz, who was just named the American League Player of the Week, has hit .344 with 11 homers and 21 RBI.

But Ortiz and Gonzalez have to be driving in somebody.

Still, you might think too much credit is being given to Ellsbury for the Sox' success. But the statistics, which are now the pablum of seamheads both sabermetrically-inclined and diametrically opposed to new-age numbers, spell out Ellsbury's importance in pretty plain terms. When he scores they usually win. When he doesn't they usually don't.

In the Red Sox' 33 wins, Ellsbury has scored 31 runs. In the 26 losses, he has crossed the plate just eight times. In Sox' wins, Ellsbury's on-base percentage is .401. In defeats, it's just .302.

This is a better version of Ellsbury we're seeing this season. Coming into this season his career OBP in the lead-off spot was just .330, prompting the usual bromides about how no matter how swift a player is they can't steal first base. This season, Ellsbury's .374 on-base percentage in the leadoff spot trails only Kosuke Fukudome of the Chicago Cubs (.411) and Jose Reyes of the New York Mets (.386) among players who have spent at least 30 games in the top spot.

If anything Ellsbury's evolution is a reminder of why Sox fans were so upset that he was not in the lineup last season. While railing about Ellsbury's slow return from five fractured ribs, it was easy to forget that in his last full season of play, 2009, he led the majors with 70 stolen bases. He was the first American Leaguer since Kenny Lofton in 1996 to bat .300 and swipe 70 bags.

Ellsbury inspired a lot of discussion and derision in these parts for not returning with enough alacrity, and then when he did return (twice by the way) he wasn't able to stay on the field very long.

He was labeled fragile, his character was questioned, and he became fodder for sports talk radio ranting that included uncouth allusions to the feline species. This was all exacerbated by a rift that existed between him and the Sox medical staff over the diagnosis of the rib injury (initially after Ellsbury was cross-checked in Kansas City in April by Adrian Beltre the Sox said he had simply suffered bruised ribs).

Rubbing salt in the wound was that Ellsbury was hurt playing left field, the position the Sox shifted him to so they could make room for Mike Cameron in center. Beltre broke the ribs of another Sox left fielder, Jeremy Hermida, in similar fashion two months later.

The rift became a gaping chasm when Ellsbury retreated to Arizona to convalesce under the auspices of Athletes Performance Institute, not the Red Sox, after his first comeback failed. In July, Ellsbury returned to the team in Toronto after about a month in Arizona and tried to defend himself, but offered a clumsy, rambling 11-minute (front and) backstory on the injury that only led to more mockery.

By the time he got to spring training this February, Ellsbury had learned his lesson. There was no explanation that was going to change the tidal wave of public opinion. He decided to let his play do the talking, and it's answering questions for him.

Now, Ellsbury is back on top of his game, and so are the Sox.

For starters, Sox in a familiar place

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 16, 2011 04:36 PM

The false start (2-10) has finally been erased, and the Red Sox are right back where they started before they had Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and a save the date for a 100-win season. Facing Baltimore tonight to begin a seven-game homestand, they are Fenway Park's .500 club at 20-20.

As Yankee great Yogi Berra would say, "It's deja vu all over again." The Sox' 20-20 mark is exactly the same record the bridge year bunch had after 40 games last season. It was accomplished in the same fashion, beating the New York Yankees in the Bronx. It was on May 18 of last season that the Sox rallied from a 5-0 fifth-inning deficit to defeat the Pinstripes, 7-6, and finish the first 40 at .500.

They then won 29 of their next 41 games to wake up on July 4th independent of their bad start at 49-32, just a half game out of first place at baseball's halfway point. That was a flawed team that didn't have Josh Beckett pitching like an ace or pitching at all, lacked Jacoby Ellsbury's presence in the lineup or in the eastern part of the United States and was eventually undone in large part by a disastrous three-game series in San Francisco, where Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz and Victor Martinez got injured in three successive days in late June.

That team lost five of seven before the All-Star break and eventually fizzled to a third-place finish, but it had zero to do with their .500 start.

That's why the agita over the Sox' 0-6 and 2-10 starts was always overblown. Baseball is a marathon and how you do in Hopkinton doesn't dictate your place of finish on Boylston Street. Was the Sox' bad beginning disappointing and disheartening after they spent money like one of the Real Housewives of Orange County and offered us an offseason full of order-restoring promises? Absolutely, but it was never condemning, despite the talk-radio furor (both callers and hosts) otherwise.

A bad start was never going to cast the die for where this team ended up, just like it ultimately didn't for last year's Red Sox. Hype gave way to hysteria. Now, we can do without both.

Despite their failure to launch, the Red Sox are only a game behind the second-place Yankees and three games arrears of the first-place Rays (23-17), a team that like the Sox lost its first six games of the season, further proof that a baseball season isn't like a car engine -- starting up quickly and without trouble isn't the most important trait.

The Sox are actually in better position to make up ground this year than last; last year after the first 40, they were 8.5 games back. There is no question that they are a more talented team, and better equipped to overcome their start.

The Sox have actually been playing pretty good baseball for about a month. Since April 16th the Red Sox have the second-best winning percentage in baseball, going 18-10 (.643). Only the Rays, playing at .667 clip (18-9), have done better.

The offense has come alive and the rotation is rounding into form with a Big Three of Jon Lester, Beckett and Clay Buchholz, who has gotten back on track this month by going 3-0 with a 1.93 ERA.

During the last month, Terry Francona's team has seen more pitches than any other team in baseball, ranks first in extra-base hits with 90, third in OPS at .768 and fourth in runs scored with 127. The pitching staff has posted a 3.26 ERA, the sixth-best in baseball during that span.

Check the American League leaders and you'll see that Gonzalez, who had his four-game homer steak snapped last night, leads the league in RBI with 34. He is no longer hitting like Jody Reed. The power surge is in effect -- eight homers this month. Or to put it in the terms Gonzalez will always be measured by, he now has as many homers (9) on the season as Mark Teixeira.

"Fourth starter" Beckett hasn't allowed a run this month, is working on an 18 1/3-inning scoreless streak and is first in the AL in ERA at 1.75.

It's early but Jacoby Ellsbury has a higher OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) than either Adrian Beltre or Alex Rodriguez. Since being re-inserted into the leadoff spot on April 22, Ellsbury has batted .367 with a .404 on-base percentage, 12 extra-base hits and nine stolen bases.

I haven't even mentioned that David Ortiz, whom many thought was beyond the point of no return, is batting 295 with 7 home runs so far.

While Carl Crawford's average is still just above the Mendoza Line, the idea that he was going to hit .135 all season was beyond ridiculous. Yes, $142-million for a No. 8 hitter is profligate, but if it's working who cares. That's the advantage of printing money on Yawkey Way.

There are still questions for this team if it is going to leave .500 in its rearview mirror and live up to expectations. The bullpen has to find some reliable late-inning options outside of Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon. The Sox rank 24th in all of baseball in bullpen ERA (4.55).

John Lackey can't keep treating home plate like a turnstile, and 40 games with one home run and 12 RBI from the catching position isn't going to cut it, not if Jarrod Saltalamacchia doesn't stop getting beaten five-hole and glove side by the baseball and/or lower his catcher's ERA from a John Wasdin-esque 5.49.

The Red Sox have done everything possible to distance themselves from last year's disappointing team, but it would be good if for the next 40 games these Sox followed the path of that maligned squad and then broke away.

The Sox might be right back where they started, but the important thing is to not end up finishing in the same place.

Sox have Rays of hope

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 11, 2011 02:19 PM

The worst is over, Sox fans.

The Red Sox vicious and viscous start to the season has left an ugly mark (2-7), but like any shiner it's starting to fade. Oh, there are still some very real concerns about this team -- Carl Crawford's somnambulant bat chief among them -- but the figurative storm clouds over Fenway are lifting.

The staggering Sox took two out of three from the Yankees to regain their equilibrium. Now, the only team in baseball with a worse record than the Red Sox, the Tampa Bay Rays, comes wobbling into the Fens for three games. The Rays, 1-8, are reeling from the unexpected retirement of Manny Ramirez, an oblique injury to franchise third baseman Evan Longoria and the aftermath of the free agent defections of Crawford and closer Rafael Soriano.

The defending American League East champions have scored 20 runs in nine games -- nine of which came in their lone win -- and are batting an anemic .163. The Rays are playing so poorly, manager Joe Maddon might have to take off those stylish frames he's famous for and avert his eyes.

While the Rays are looking for positive signs, the Sox already have some.

Three of the most important question marks entering the season were answered positively over the weekend against the Yankees. Is Josh Beckett still capable of being an ace? Check. Can the Sox count on Jonathan Papelbon to close out games. Check. Can you leave David Ortiz in the lineup to face lefthanded pitching? Check.

As with any baseball-related commentary at this point in the season, those answers come with the caveat of sample-size. But they remain reason to swap some derision for optimism.

Beckett looked like the best fourth starter in baseball last night, holding down the Alex-Rodriguez-less Yankees with eight shutout innings, while allowing just two hits and striking out 10. He provided a General Motors-sized bailout to Sox batters, who left 16 men on base.

"He located every pitch. He threw the ball where he wanted to. His velocity was great. He was Josh, man," said Dustin Pedroia.

The general consensus was that we would learn more about Beckett's bounce-back season from his second outing, against the Yankees, than how he pitched in his 2011 debut against the Cleveland Indians. That's still true. Who cares what Beckett does against the Indians, Mariners and Royals, all bad teams he beat last season? It's about the heavyweights.

It's obvious after last night that Beckett is still capable of being an ace-like pitcher. There was a serious and legitimate question as to whether he still possessed the raw stuff to produce an outing like last night's. Now, we know he still has the arsenal of an ace.

That was as good a start as Beckett has had against New York... ever. The 10 strikeouts tied a career-high against the Yankees, set in Game 3 of the 2003 World Series. He retired the last 15 batters.

Part of Beckett's injury-related decline last season was marked by his ineffectiveness against the American League East. The cantankerous Texan got turned inside out like a cheap umbrella by AL East opponents -- 1-4 with a 6.95 ERA. His ERA's against the Yankees (10.04) and Jays (9.90) looked like 100-meter dash times. Last night was a huge confidence boost for Beckett and the Sox.

Speaking of confidence, you have to have some now in Papelbon, who closed out the Yankees again without breaking a sweat. In two opportunities against New York he didn't allow a batter to reach base. The much-maligned closer has recorded nine outs this season; seven have come via strikeout.

Like any closer, Papelbon is going to have his hiccups, but like Beckett what's encouraging is that the stuff appears to be there. Hitters are swinging and missing at the big lug's pitches again. According to fangraphs.com, when swinging hitters have made contact only 43 percent of the time on Papelbon's pitches this season.

Nothing kills a contending team faster than instability and uncertainty in the back of a bullpen. If Papelbon can be a reliable option again at the end of games then it allows the Sox to set up the bullpen around him with Daniel Bard, Bobby Jenks, Dan Wheeler, etc., instead of trying to figure out how to use those pitchers to compensate for their closer's decline.

Decline is the state that David Ortiz has been in for about three seasons now, although there are several major leaguers who would take a decline of .270, 32 homers and 102 runs batted in, which is what Ortiz posted last season. Still, some rolled their eyes when the Sox picked up Ortiz's $12.5 million option for this season, especially with the club-friendly market for designated hitters and Ortiz's well-chronicled struggles against southpaws (.222 last season).

So far, it looks like Ortiz was a sound investment. He's not off to his usual glacial April start. In the series against the Yankees, Ortiz was 4 for 13 with a walk, a pair of doubles and two RBI. He had an RBI double off Yankee lefty Boone Logan in the home opener and singled in three at-bats against CC Sabathia before blasting a long double to the triangle against righty Freddy Garcia.

In spring training, Ortiz said he had to prove to himself he could still hit lefties. He is hitting .385 against them so far. The quick start means that manager Terry Francona doesn't automatically have to yank Ortiz from the lineup against a tough lefty or risk having a black hole. Francona doesn't have to choose between loyalty to Big Papi or what's best for the team, as he did last season. Something that was painful for both men.

Fixate on the negative, if you must -- it's kind of a lifestyle in these parts -- but 2-7 and all there are some positive signs from the Sox. Enough to believe this signals the end of a bad beginning.

Opening thoughts on Sox' home opener

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 8, 2011 06:38 PM

On a team where hype sprung eternal, there's finally a reason to believe it.

The Red Sox won their 111th home opener -- and 100th at Fenway Park -- 9-6 over the Yankees today to score their first victory of the season after an 0-6 start. Instead of a seven-game losing streak, the Sox can now celebrate winning a club-record seven straight home openers.

Many thought these Sox would channel a version from the 1940's. Most predictions pegged it as the 1946 Sox, the last inhabitants of Fenway Park to win 100 games. Instead it was the 1945 entry, which began the season with eight straight losses. The Red Sox avoided the ignominy of potentially matching that start yesterday and put down the Pinstripes in the process, making the day doubly sweet.

It was a reminder that it's far too early to evaluate what the 2011 Red Sox are going to be or where they're going to end up at the end of the season. That in part is why all the fretting by the Fenway Faithful about the $161-million Sox entering today's home opener without a win was a bit overblown.

You can't even begin to draw any substantial conclusions about the fate of a baseball team until you reach the 40-game mark. Anything else is premature evaluation. The 2003 Kansas City Royals opened the season with a 9-0 start. They were 17-4 on April 26. Forty games in they were 24-16. Fifty games in they were 26-24. They finished third in the American League Central with an 83-79 mark, which for the Sons of George Brett is like making the playoffs.

But the point is their fast start didn't ultimately prevent them from reverting to being the Royals, just as the Red Sox bumper-to-bumper traffic slow beginning doesn't doom them to failing to live up to lofty pre-season expectations.

Remember, last year the Sox were 20-20. By July 4, they were 49-32 and a half-game out of first place.

Among the highlights of this day of new beginnings were Yaz throwing out the first pitch, and Adrian Gonzalez beating out a bunt single against the shift. It's just a shame that Manny Ramirez couldn't have retired a few hours earlier so the Sox could have brought him in for the festivities. Oh, well.

In proving they wouldn't go 0-162 we learned a few things about the Sox:

-- Dustin Pedroia is still going to be Dustin Pedroia -- diminutive, dynamic, demonstrative -- after recovering from a broken foot. Pedey, who entered the day without a single extra base hit, homered in the first for the Sox' first run. He finished 3 for 5 with three runs batted in, including a two-out, two-run single in Boston's five-run second. Pedroia showed his wheels were fine when he scored from second on a single to left by Gonzalez that same inning. With Kevin Youkilis still scuffling out of the gate (2 for 20), the Sox need a potent right-handed presence in the lineup. Pedroia's performance was a good sign that the Sox order can have left-right balance.

-- The Red Sox' bullpen has the potential to be just as good as the Yankees'. The relievers were resplendent after John Lackey labored through five ineffective innings. Freshly-recalled Alfredo Aceves, then Bobby Jenks, then Daniel Bard and finally closer-under-fire Jonathan Papelbon combined to pitch four scoreless innings, allowing just one hit, while striking out five.

Papelbon buzzed through the Yankees faster than the F-16 fighter planes that flew over Fenway before first pitch, needing only 11 pitches to end the affair. He fanned Yankee pest Brett Gardner, who reached base four times, and Derek Jeter on nasty fastballs. Jenks was equally impressive in the seventh, striking out Alex Rodriguez.

-- Jarrod Saltalamacchia might be worth giving a long leash, Sox fans. Salty, who entered today with just one hit had a two-hit day. He collected his second of the game in the fifth and it was huge, a two-out, double off the Wall that scored Youkilis to put the Sox up, 7-6.

-- Beware of the Sox rotation. Is it possible we took too Pollyanna a view of the Sox' starting pitching situation? Lackey pitched with a horseshoe under his hat to get this win. He went five innings, allowing six runs (all earned). After a five-run second gave the Sox a 6-3 lead, Lackey squandered it away. Alex Rodriguez tied the game with a heat-seeking solo shot over the Wall to lead off the fifth.

Here is a question you have to ask about Lackey, the Sox presumptive No. 3 starter, what is his out pitch? I asked a Hall of Fame pitcher in attendance today that question. He could not name it. The scary fact is that 15.58 ERA and all Lackey at this point is still more reliable than Josh Beckett, who pitches Sunday, and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

-- Carl Crawford is a tough fit in the Red Sox batting order. This was the seventh game of the season and it was already the fourth different spot that Crawford has resided in the Red Sox order. In his newest spot, the foundering free agent didn't look any more comfortable with the carmine hose. He went 0-5 with a strikeout.

Crawford is an incredible talent, as evidenced by his sliding catch in the fourth, but the Sox need to find a home for him in the order so he can feel at home here. He doesn't have enough power to hit third. You don't pay $142-million for a No. 7 hitter, and Crawford has never warmed to the lead-off spot.

The logical spot would be second, where he can use his speed. That would require reinserting Jacoby Ellsbury into the leadoff role and moving Pedroia. The Sox have toyed with the idea of hitting Pedroia third before. He has done it for 14 games in his career, and was .255/.316 OBP/.806. OPS. But that is a very small sample size. If the Sox don't want to move Pedroia then Crawford probably needs to be batting fifth or sixth, either in front of or behind David Ortiz.

Red Sox have something to prove

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 29, 2011 02:23 PM

Opening Day for the Red Sox is almost here. These are the final days for preseason predictions, expectations and observations. Then reality takes hold against the Texas Rangers on Friday and the Sox have to prove that we were right to believe the hype.

With that said, here are five returning players with the most to prove this season for the Sox:

1. Josh Beckett -- Where else would you start than with the enigmatic ace-turned-fourth starter? Not only did Beckett not draw the Opening Day assignment, but the Red Sox would rather take team-building advice from Buck Showalter than pitch Beckett against the defending American League champions, pushing him back to the fourth game of the season against the Indians. That speaks volumes about the level of concern for his confidence coming off an injury-plagued and ineffective 2010 season because at $17 million per season you would hope the Sox would feel okay sending him out against the American League All-Star team.

The Red Sox keep trying to Jedi-mind-trick us into ignoring Beckett's lack of spring training success -- 6.64 earned run average in five games, .314 opponent batting average. It's about the process, not the numbers we're told while the results of pitching coach Curt Young's tweak of Daisuke Matsuzaka's routine are trumpeted. Spring training is meaningless, but it would have been a tad reassuring to see Beckett mowing down batters like the good old days, no?

Beckett's second start of the season, scheduled for a Sunday night tilt with the Yankees, will be more telling than his first. In 10 starts last season against American League East opponents, Beckett was 1-4 with a 6.95 ERA. Half of those starts were against the Bronx Bombers, who tagged Beckett for nine home runs and a 10.04 ERA.

2. Jonathan Papelbon -- Papelbon paraded around Sox camp with a T-shirt that said "Doubt Me" on it. Many Sox fans are happy to oblige. The first time Papelbon blows a save this season talk radio and Twitter will blow up with calls for his immediate ouster from the closer's role. Last year was not vintage Papelbon. He had a career-high eight blown saves and posted career-worsts in home runs allowed (seven) and ERA (3.90). With his long-anticipated foray into free agency awaiting him at the end of the season, Papelbon has been provided the perfect stage to prove his worth on a team that could go deep into October if he does his job.

If he loses it, then his big payday becomes a blown opportunity as well. Few managers are as loyal as Terry Francona, so a few blown saves early aren't going to get Papelbon removed from the closer's role. Sorry, Sox fans. But the front office built fireman fail-safes into the bullpen with Daniel Bard and Bobby Jenks for a reason.

3. Jarrod Saltalamacchia -- There are more letters in Saltalamacchia's (14) last name than games he has caught in his Red Sox career (six). Salty is the biggest unknown for the Red Sox, who have coveted his talent for years and anointed him the starting catcher on a World Series contender. Saltalamacchia certainly looks the part, as he is a Josh Hamilton doppelganger. But the 25-year-old switch-hitting backstop began last season with the Rangers as their Opening Day catcher and by the time he was sent to the Red Sox in July he was toiling in the minors trying to combat a throwing disorder.

Sox pitchers complimented Saltalamacchia's receiving skills this spring, and in an extremely small sample size of six games his catcher's ERA of 4.27 with the Sox was very similar to Victor Martinez's 4.28. Of course Martinez was not renowned for his defense, one of the reasons he is no longer with the Red Sox, and Saltalamacchia is not going to hit .302 or slug 20 home runs. The plug could get pulled on the Salty experiment quickly, if the pitching staff is underperforming.

4. Jacoby Ellsbury -- Front and back have different meanings for Ellsbury this season. He is back in center field (what happened to UZR?) and at the front of the Sox lineup. No Sox player has looked better in spring training than Ellsbury, who mentioned prior to last year's lost season that he thought he was on the brink of more power. Limited to 18 games last season by his fractured ribs Ellsbury was a punchline and a punching bag for Sox fans. His desire to play and toughness were openly, often derisively, subject to public debate.

This season, Ellsbury can quiet all his doubters and remind everyone why they were so upset he was out in the first place -- because he is a dynamic talent. Besides proving he's not a durability liability, Ellsbury has to prove he can be an effective front man. No one is expecting him to duplicate his .386 on-base percentage from the Grapefruit League, but he has to improve upon a career .330 OBP in the lead-off spot.

5. Mike Cameron -- The gregarious outfielder has an opportunity to be one of the real feel-good stories of this Sox season. A controversial signing during the infamous "bridge year" offseason, Cameron's debut with the Sox was disastrous. He played 48 games with a torn abdominal muscle, but his speed and defense were severely compromised. His arrival hastened the team to move Ellsbury to left field, and you know the rest.

Cameron starts this season as a reserve outfielder. He's going to have a chance to be the baseball equivalent of a great sixth-man because the Sox have an all-lefthanded starting outfield and David Ortiz, who is bedeviled by lefties, at DH. Signed by the Sox coming off four straight 20-homer seasons, Cameron kills lefties like Glenn Beck. He has a career OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) of .866 against lefthanders. In his last full season, Cameron posted a .954 OPS against lefties. If his body holds up he's could make a big impact off the bench. If not, then the Sox contributed $15.5 million to his retirement fund.

Back from Camp Tranquility

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 1, 2011 02:33 PM

It's good to be back in Boston after spending two weeks at Red Sox spring training. When I left Kendrick Perkins was still a Celtic. Tomas Kaberle was not yet sporting the Spoked-B, and Logan Mankins dissatisfaction with the Patriots over his contract situation had not reached the level of a "travesty."

It was an eventful two weeks on the Boston sports scene during a largely uneventful Red Sox camp -- a.k.a/ tranquillity baseball, or NyQuil baseball. The Sox are steering clear of controversy or intrigue -- although apparently not errant fungo balls in the case of Josh Beckett -- and simply going about their business as they prepare for the April 1 opener in Texas and the march to 100 wins.

Here are five thoughts, observations and opinions from a low-maintenance Sox spring:

1. No Joshing around -- If it weren't for bad luck then Beckett would have no luck at all. Less than 24 hours after speaking about the importance of just staying healthy during spring training he was knocked in the noggin shagging fly balls and suffered a mild concussion. Beckett had already tired of the questions about him carrying extra motivation this spring coming off an abysmal 2010 season that was undermined by a bad back.

Too bad because he is the single biggest question mark on this team and the concussion just amplifies the scrutiny.

The once and perhaps future ace has been the most vocal of the players about the potential for the Red Sox to win 100 games. That's not going to happen if he can't avoid injury and regain his form. It's not a coincidence that the last two times the Red Sox didn't make the playoffs (2006 and 2010) were marked by disappointing Beckett seasons, where his earned run average hemorrhaged above 5.00. Spring training starts are completely meaningless, but you want to see some results from Beckett.

If the occasionally cantankerous Texan is able to give the Sox something resembling his 2009 season (17-6, 3.86 earned run average) then they have a rotation with the depth to reach 100 wins. If he is hampered by his health and/or simply hit-able then the gap between the Sox' rotation and the Yankees' one closes considerably.

2. No more ribbing -- The ridicule that Jacoby Ellsbury took for his slow recovery from fractured ribs was a little over the top. But Ellsbury might get the last laugh. He reported to camp in terrific shape, is back where he belongs in center field, and looks ready to pick up where he essentially left off in 2009.

Ellsbury put a lot of sweat equity in this offseason. "I'm excited for 2011. A lot of hard work went into being ready for Day One of spring training. I feel ahead of schedule."

Perhaps of equal importance, he was amiably chatting it up with teammates, including Kevin Youkilis. Unfortunately, 2010 has left its emotional wound. All the derisive talk has turned one of the team's more accommodating and unassuming players into a Patriot-esque automaton. Ask Ellsbury whether it bothered him that people questioned his desire to play in 2010 and you think he's talking about using his Kindle: "Turn the page."

3. Count on Cameron -- Hopefully, the chatter about Mike Cameron being available isn't true because Cameron could be an important piece of this team -- and not just for clubhouse chemistry. Cameron looks great after offseason surgery for an abdominal muscle tear/groin tear that limited him to 48 games last season. He showed no problems twisting and turning to track down a fly ball on Sunday against the Twins.

The Red Sox starting outfield is all lefthanded and with David Ortiz's well-documented issues hitting lefties there is a place for Cameron, who had four straight 20-homer seasons before signing with the Sox, on the bench. If he wants it.

The 38-year-old outfielder, who averaged 140 games per season from 2006 to 2009, seemed amenable to the new role, has a reputation as a tremendous teammate and a relationship with manager Terry Francona that goes back to his formative days in pro baseball. That lessens the possibility of him going Jay Payton on the Red Sox and blowing up over playing time.

4. Miller Right -- Before it is all said and done we will see Andrew Miller take the mound at Fenway this season. Miller had an auspicious spring training debut yesterday, but the Sox had been buzzing about the 6-foot-7-inch lefthander before that.

"There is some pretty special stuff coming out of that arm," said Francona, earlier in camp. You don't often hear such praise for a non-prospect, non-roster invitee. The Sox are clearly smitten with the 25-year-old Miller, who flamed out in Florida, and his vast potential. They feel that by not trying to change his unorthodox delivery they can tap into his tremendous ability.

It will be interesting to see how the Sox proceed with Miller, who is on a minor-league contract and is out of options.

The team has an obvious need for a situational lefty reliever, a role that Miller could excel in. However, his upside is so great that it might make more sense to send him to Pawtucket and stretch him out as a starter. What is striking about Miller, a former Tigers top prospect and the No. 6 pick in the 2006 draft, is how rail thin he is. Physically, it's unclear if he can take the ball as a starter 30 times a year consistently with such a frail frame. Putting him in relief for now could be a win-win.

5. Papelbon closing... -- His mouth. The big lug has been awfully quiet this spring. He did speak with the media upon arrival, but has pretty much kept to himself after that. The words that resonated the loudest from Papelbon were on his Under Armour T-shirt, which read "Doubt Me" in big letters. It's obvious a lot of people do after a disappointing 2010 season in which he logged a career-high 3.90 ERA and eight blown saves in 45 tries.

Count me among those who still believe Papelbon will bounce back in a big way, especially with a potential payday awaiting him at the end or the rainbow. He seems less playful and more focused.

Crawford is a signing of progress

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 25, 2011 09:38 AM
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Progress is not always obvious. Sometimes what makes it progress is that it is subtle, silent, defined by the absence of discussion at all.

The Red Sox signing left fielder Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142-million deal this offseason is such progress. The significance of one of the premier African-American players in baseball choosing to play in Boston, a city saddled with a checkered racial reputation, for the Red Sox, a franchise that bears the burden of an ignominious history of race relations, has gone largely unspoken and uncelebrated.

The only race issue that has come up with Crawford playing for the Sox is who would win one between him and Jacoby Ellsbury (for the record both men said they wouldn't bet against themselves). Crawford said racial climate wasn't a concern in his move to Boston. Actual climate was.

"Nah, the only thing we were worried about was the cold weather," said Crawford.

Now, the cynics out there will say that the only color that really matters to professionally athletes is green. This is true to some degree, but it is also dehumanizing. Any prospective employee is going to consider the ramifications of the city he or she chooses to work in, whether it's the climate, the traffic, the nightlife, the school system or diversity. It's human nature.

Spending nine seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, American League East foes of the Red Sox, Crawford is familiar with Boston. He is versed enough in Red Sox lore to refer to Jim Rice as "Mr. Rice" and to know that the Sox were the last team in major league baseball to field an African-American player, 12 years after Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball.

"If there was some kind of feeling that I needed to feel I never felt it when I went up there. I kind of know what that racism feel feels like from being in Texas," said Crawford. "I haven't had that feeling. I never had that feeling. I honestly never experienced it. I mean you know the [Boston] fans they're going to heckle you. They're going to curse you out and stuff like that, but you know never any racial slurs or anything like that."

Crawford's Boston is far different from Bill Russell's and even Rice's. While Boston and the Red Sox have evolved past their pasts, in the words of Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, "perceptions die hard."

"See some of that perception comes from the outside. Even other guys in the majors ask, 'So, what's Boston like?' " said outfielder Mike Cameron, an elder statesman among African-American players in baseball who signed with the Sox as a free agent in 2010. "It's not as bad as everyone thinks. It's a good place to play."

Cameron, who helped recruit Crawford to Boston even though it cost him a starting role, said he has never experienced any racial slurs playing at Fenway in 16 big league seasons.

It was just six-plus years ago that another prominent African-American left fielder, Barry Bonds, proclaimed Boston "too racist" for him to ever play there.

You have to consider the source on that one, but you can't dismiss the sentiment as simply Barry being Barry. Bonds was not the only African-American player that clung to such a negative perception. In 2007, outfielder Gary Matthews Jr., comparing Sox and Yankees fans, said of Boston: "They're one of the few places you'll hear racial comments."

Racial climate never came up in Crawford's courtship, but Epstein said that it had in pursuit of other players. He said it has never been a hindrance to signing a player during his tenure.

"It's come up from time to time because reputations die hard, so dynamics that were real and substantive and present every day 20 or 30 years ago still live on, maybe even in reputation only in some cases," Epstein said.

"Obviously, I'm not naive. There are pockets of racism everywhere, but I think that reputation still lives on in some circles. We embrace [the discussion] because I think there is a lot to talk about in terms of how things have changed. How multicultural a place like Boston is and then how progressive this organization is ... We welcome any closer examination of Boston as a potential destination for players and their families because we think the more they find out the more they'll want to be here."

Epstein had his own brush with racism at Fenway Park as a child. He told a story about going to a game with his father and witnessing an African-American father and son getting harassed.

"I never really forgot that. That was an early lesson," said Epstein. "You couldn't help but notice there weren't a lot of African-American faces at Fenway Park, in the stands and on the field too, really. As I got older I learned more about some of the things that had happened in the 1940s and '50s and how slow the Red Sox were to integrate and just generally the poor record of race relations."

Epstein credited former general manager Dan Duquette and the previous ownership group, led by former Sox CEO John Harrington, for making a concerted effort to reverse the wrongs of the past and build diverse squads. Epstein said current Sox ownership has built on that momentum and that the team preaches "true color-blindness" in regard to roster decisions.

That's why Epstein was wounded and angry when Fox baseball writer Ken Rosenthal penned a piece during the 2008 American League Championship Series that questioned whether the racial composition of that team and the franchise's racially-charged past would make it hard for Epstein to recruit prominent African-American and Latino players. It hasn't, which Rosenthal later acknowledged.

The Red Sox will never be able to fully erase the disgraceful discrimination of the Yawkey ownership (the infamous 1945 tryout at Fenway and the Winter Haven, Fla., Elks Club imbroglio). But they shouldn't be perpetually branded by it either.

"I doubt anyone who takes a close look at the Red Sox organization would find even any hint of racism," said Epstein.

That hasn't always been the case, which is why Crawford's decision to play in Boston is worth celebrating for a greater reason than beating the Yankees.

Repeat of Clay?

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 22, 2011 02:23 PM

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Pitchers are always talking about repeating their delivery. Clay Buchholz is no different.

For Buchholz, it's not just about duplicating his mechanics from pitch to pitch. It's about delivering the same level of performance for the Red Sox this season that he did last, when he made his first All-Star game and emerged as one of the best pitchers in the American League, going 17-7 with a 2.33 earned run average.

It's a season that Buchholz, by his own admission, had been waiting for since he no-hit the Baltimore Orioles in his second big league start back in 2007, a season not everyone was sure would happen in Boston, a season where the young Texan's considerable ability and the patience the organization had shown in him were validated.

When the 2011 Red Sox starting rotation is discussed, Buchholz and Jon Lester, who combined for 36 wins last season, are generally regarded as the absolutes. You can put their numbers down in pen, thank you very much. The pitchers with something to prove and doubters to silence are Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka. But the pitching mound remains a proving ground for the 26-year-old Buchholz as well.

One good season doesn't suddenly make you Roy Halladay. Proving 2010 wasn't a one-time occurrence fueled Buchholz this offseason.

"Last year was a big stepping-stone for me," said Buchholz. "It was a season that I wanted to have, and that's how I sort of visualized it going down. The numbers, it's tough to go by numbers, but the process, I think I can duplicate the process."

That Buchholz is self-aware enough to realize he has not yet arrived as an upper-echelon starting pitcher is a sign of his maturity (that and the fact he no longer throws over to first base in jams ad nauseam). It's also a lesson the lithe Texan learned in humbling fashion after his sterling 2007 major league debut (3-1, 1.59 ERA in four starts).

"You can go out and have a good half-season in the big leagues once you get called up and then you know maybe take it for granted a little bit," said Buchholz. "That's what I always say I did. I took it for granted. I thought the game was a little bit easier than it was. Maybe I didn't work as hard as I could have to get to that point. I used that as a little bit of fuel the last couple of years to go in there knowing that I had to be ready when they did call me up."

If there is a reason to throw up a caution sign regarding Buchholz, the youngest member of the Sox' rotation, this season it has less to do with any change in his demeanor or attitude and more to do with the personnel changes around him.

Gone are catcher/caddie Victor Martinez, who caught 27 of Buchholz's 28 starts last year, and pitching coach John Farrell, who nurtured Buchholz's psyche and talent. They've been replaced by Jarrod Saltalamacchia and new pitching coach Curt Young.

While Martinez's receiving and game-calling skills have been derided in these parts, he was a security blanket for Buchholz. The young pitcher's development coincided with Martinez becoming his primary catcher. In 40 games with Martinez as his catcher, Buchholz had a 2.83 ERA. Last year, Buchholz had a 2.13 ERA with Martinez.

The only time Martinez was not behind the plate for one of Buchholz's starts was a 6-4 loss to the Oakland A's on July 21. Martinez was out with a broken thumb, and Dusty Brown got the call because it was an afternoon game following a night game. Jason Varitek caught Buchholz for just four innings last year. They came when Martinez was forced to leave a May game against the Tampa Bay Rays in the third inning after a ball was fouled off his big toe.

Buchholz called Martinez "awesome" and praised his open-mindedness behind the plate, but downplayed the idea that losing his personal catcher would affect his performance.

"The catcher doesn't call the game. It's the pitcher," said Buchholz, departing from the standard Sox starter script of catcher-as-quarterback. "I mean they have to think and everything with the game, but ultimately the pitcher is going to throw what they want to throw, what they feel is the right pitch at the time.

"Almost every game when we went out last year when everything was going good [Victor and I] were on the same page. I would think of a pitch to throw before I even threw the pitch that I was about to throw. I'd be thinking two pitches ahead, and he would be on the same page for the most part. That's what makes the game flow a little bit easier.

"Your tempo is better. You can get your team back in the dugout and get them into the box and try to score some runs. I think that's just a big part of it. Catching, especially, it's a tough job back there. But when we got guys that we got right now like 'Tek and Salty. It's going to flow pretty well."

Buchholz said he got good reports on Young from two of his former pitching protégés in Oakland, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey. Buchholz spoke with the pair of A's at the All-Star game last year. He said Young is upbeat, outgoing and likes to have fun, which mirrors Buchholz's own guitar-playing personality.

It's not all fun, games and shaggy hair for Buchholz anymore. He became a father last August, as he and his wife, Lindsay, welcomed daughter Colbi. Buchholz said fatherhood has forced him to grow up off the field as well.

Perhaps, it has made him better equipped to deal with the changes around him this year.

Change is inevitable, but the goal for Buchholz is to be a repeat performer.

Sox hoping Saltalamacchia catches on

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 17, 2011 10:41 AM

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- He is long on last name -- 14 letters -- and short on experience, and he is the primary catcher and biggest question mark for a team that has left little left to chance in its quest to return to the playoffs.

If you're looking for an unknown on the 2011 Red Sox, then peer behind the plate, where 25-year-old Jarrod Saltalamacchia has been anointed the team's frontline catcher.

It's a bold move for a big market, World Series-or-bust club to go with such an unproven commodity at such a pivotal position. The spin from the Sox is that "Salty" could be a bargain basement find as the catcher of the future, a position the Sox have struggled to fill like their hockey brethren's never-ending search for a puck-moving defenseman. Catching is at a premium in baseball and switch-hitting catchers with power like Saltalamacchia don't grow on trees like the citrus in Florida.

The Sox believe they can unlock the untapped potential of Saltalamacchia, once one of the game's most promising prospects and part of the package the Braves sent to the Texas Rangers in 2007 for Mark Teixeira. It's a position made easier to take by the fact the Yankees overbid to outbid the Sox for Russell Martin and the Sox made a halfhearted effort to retain catcher Victor Martinez.

Turning the Sox' staff over to Saltalamacchia, who has caught 191 games in his big league career, is like handing the keys to a Bentley to a kid with a learner's permit. In this case the licensed driver in the car would be soon-to-be 39-year-old Jason Varitek, who will fill a backup/mentor role. But the Sox have faith Saltalamacchia will catch on.

"We talked about the opportunity for Salty. I think he has actually earned this," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "He has worked hard. We wouldn't have just done this out of the goodness of our heart. We want to win really bad. He has bought into everything, and the idea that somebody is dropping a 'Varitek' on you I think is a pretty good compliment."

Francona was referring to the fact that Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, who extol the game-calling virtues of Varitek the way Apple enthusiasts worship at the techno-altar of Steve Jobs, have offered Saltalamacchia the ultimate compliment -- that he evokes Varitek.

"I've told a couple of people I think he reminds me a lot of 'Tek," said Lester. "He has that presence about him. When he talks you listen, and I don't know if that's just because he is a big son of a gun or what. ... It's not like he hasn't been around the block a few times. He's caught a lot of guys, and done some things. I like throwing to him so far. I haven't had a chance to throw to him in a game yet, but from what everybody says he's gotten rave reviews, calls a good game. Just the little bit that I've thrown to him in the bullpen he reminds me of 'Tek."

When apprised of the 'Tek talk, Saltalamacchia showed he's quick on his feet when he's not behind the plate.

"I hope not," he deadpanned. "No, to me that's a huge compliment because it's a guy that I've watched over the years, and I would hope that I could do half the stuff that he's done in his career."

So do the Sox. To try to further his education as a catcher Saltalamacchia spent the offseason in Fort Myers at "Camp Tuck," the labor-intensive, catching bootcamp conducted by Sox catching instructor Gary Tuck. He worked on his throwing, footwork and receiving two days a week for three hours a day.

"Tuckster said he's never seen somebody buy in so much as Salty did. Tuckster really rode him pretty hard," said Francona.

But it's foolish to think Salty is suddenly Carlton Fisk after one grueling offseason.

Saltalamacchia caught just six games and played in 10 total for the Red Sox after being acquired from the Rangers in a July 31 trade; a torn ligament in his left thumb truncated his audition and forced him to have surgery. The move to Boston was a reboot for a career that had suffered a system failure in Texas. Due to injuries and a bizarre problem throwing the ball back to the pitcher, Saltalamacchia rappelled down the Rangers organizational depth chart.

He was the Opening Day backstop for the Rangers last year, but was put on the disabled list three days later with back stiffness. The injury forced him to the minors, where his wild pitches to the mound metastasized. In one game for the Rangers Triple A affiliate in Oklahoma City, Saltalamacchia made a dozen errant throws back to the pitcher, including five in one inning.

The throwing problem is believed to be under control now, but there is no guarantee he won't go "Wild Thing" again.

The genesis of the throwing disorder is believed to be traceable back to a 2009 car accident, after which Saltalamacchia began feeling numbness in his throwing arm.

The good news for Saltalamacchia is that no one is expecting him to match Martinez's .302 average or 20 home runs from last year. If the rest of the Sox' lineup is as advertised any offense from Saltalamacchia is a bonus.

Martinez, who is going to DH in Detroit, was not exactly renowned or revered for his game-calling and defense, and base runners treated facing the Red Sox like it was a 4x400 relay race. The Sox allowed a league-high 169 stolen bases last season, and Martinez threw out just 17 percent of 99 would-be base stealers (17 of 99). For his career, Saltalamacchia has gunned down 21.5 percent.

Still, the Sox are clearly taking a leap of faith by counting on Saltalamacchia to put it all together. Only time will tell if it's faith rewarded or unjustified.

Video: 3 big answers

Posted by Gary Dzen, Boston.com Staff February 16, 2011 02:07 PM
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Every week, CineSport's Noah Coslov turns to Boston Globe online sports columnist Chris Gasper to get the answers to the three biggest questions in Boston sports. This week's topics: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, and potential distractions at Red Sox camp.

Five thoughts from the Fort

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 16, 2011 01:19 PM

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- After a few days down in Florida embedded in baseball territory, here are some thoughts, observations and impressions of what is happening here and elsewhere on the Boston sports scene:

1. Zoning in -- What a difference a year makes in terms of spring training talking points for the Red Sox. Last year, all discussion centered on "run prevention" and ultimate zone rating (UZR). Those two terms haven't been uttered at all down here.

Run production was not a problem for the 2010 Red Sox, but run prevention was. The Sox finished second in all of baseball last year in runs scored with 818 runs but allowed the eighth-most runs (744). Defensively, the Sox have a chance to be better this year in the outfield with the addition of Carl Crawford in left field and the return of Jacoby Ellsbury, who arrived in camp today, to center field.

Last year, the Red Sox cumulative outfield defense posted a negative-23.4 UZR, 28th out of the 30 major league teams, according to Fangraphs.com. Boston ranked 23d in left field UZR with a minus-8.6. The Yankees, with speedy Brett Gardner in left field, led the majors at 19.9, followed by the Tampa Bay Rays, who had Crawford patrolling left, at 19.1. Center field was even worse for the Sox. They ranked 27th with a negative-17.9 UZR, down from negative-11.4 with Ellsbury in center in 2009.

"There are not too many balls that are going to find green grass out there," said pitcher Jon Lester. "Those guys are going to run them down."

2. Speaking in tags -- It's interesting that the language the Patriots used in their release announcing they had placed the franchise tag on guard Logan Mankins was nearly identical to the verbiage they used last year in tagging nose tackle Vince Wilfork.

"....Vince is a tremendous player for our team and remains a significant part of our future plans. It is because of Vince's importance to this organization that we have assigned the franchise designation as we continue to work toward a long-term agreement. We are hopeful that Vince will remain a Patriot for many years to come.”

“Logan Mankins is a tremendous player...and he remains an important part of our future plans. Unfortunately, we have not been able to reach a long-term agreement, despite many attempts and proposals by both sides. That remains our objective in utilizing the franchise designation and we are hopeful that Logan will be a Patriot for many years to come."

Let's hope the result of the tags is the same: a long-term agreement.

There has been talk that Mankins would be unwise to stage another sit-out with an estimated $10.1 million pay day. But withholding his services is the only leverage Mankins has, and even the guaranteed $10.1 million is about 40 percent of the easily earnable money he'd set himself up for in the first three years of a new long-term deal, using Saints guard Jahri Evans (seven-year, $56.7 million deal) as a comparison. Evans got a $12 million signing bonus in the first year of his deal and is slated to earn $25.7 million in the first three years of the contract. I wouldn't expect Mankins to show up for training camp on time (if camp starts on time with the NFL labor situation) without a new, long-term deal. If he doesn't, the Patriots could rent Bobby Jenks from the Sox.

3. Trade wins? -- Far brighter hockey minds can tell you exactly what type of player the Bruins are getting in Ottawa center Chris Kelly. What they're not getting is a player who inspires planning of the rolling rally route. There are still 12 days until the NHL trading deadline for Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli to augment his team. Hopefully, Chiarelli can pry puck-moving defenseman Tomas Kaberle from the Maple Leafs. The good news is that Leafs hockey honcho Brian Burke doesn't appear to want Toronto's 2011 first-round pick -- part of the Kessel trade cache -- back. However, Chiarelli might want to consider flipping that possible top-five pick to pick up another major piece because draft analysts like Gare Joyce of ESPN have pegged this as a bit of a down draft.

4. Rooting interest -- Hopefully there is a spot on the 2011 Red Sox for amiable outfielder Darnell McDonald. McDonald, who has been with seven organizations since he was a first-round pick of the Orioles in 1997, was one of the few bright spots of the injury-plagued 2010 season. He played in 117 games and hit .270 with nine home runs. His Sox debut, which came against the Texas Rangers on April 20, was one of the most enjoyable moments of the season. The persevering journeyman hit a two-run, pinch-hit homer in the eighth to the tie the game and then won it with a Wall-ball, walk-off single in the ninth.

McDonald has a better locker (next to Marco Scutaro) this year and a better chance to stick at the start of the season as a fifth outfielder. But as usual there are no guarantees for him. With an all lefthanded starting outfield and 38-year-old Mike Cameron coming off surgery to repair a torn abdominal muscle, there would appear to be a need for a player like McDonald, who hit .294 against lefties last season.

"Yeah, I hope so," said McDonald. "The key is just being here. Everything else will take care of itself. I don't really know as far as the role, but my role, my job is just to be prepared every day and see what happens."

5. Manny being Manny -- McDonald said he spent most of his offseason in Arizona shuttling his oldest daughter to and from school and dance practice. He reported to camp in fantastic shape, and said that among his workout partners this winter were Matt Kemp of the Dodgers and one Manuel Aristides Ramirez. "Manny is good. His swing looks good," said McDonald. "He's motivated. We'll see what happens."

Matsuzaka in need of a change-up

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 10, 2011 02:56 PM

0210daisuke609.jpg

Daisuke Matsuzaka has an opportunity this season to look ahead. (Bill Greene / Globe file)

Daisuke Matsuzaka showed up at Red Sox camp today in Fort Myers, Fla., without much fanfare, at least stateside. It is doubtful that there was a phalanx of American-media members staking out Southwest Florida International Airport awaiting his arrival, like four years ago when he showed up for spring training. People don't bivouac at baggage claim for a No. 5 starter.

At that time Matsuzaka Mania was running rampant. We were all turning Japanese and gleefully so, intoxicated by tales of his ability and intrigued by his culture. His signing with the Sox, following a $51.1 million posting fee paid to the Seibu Lions just for the right to talk, dwarfed any of the buzz generated this offseason by the trade for Adrian Gonzalez or the signing of Carl Crawford.

His first start in the big leagues, April 5, 2007 in Kansas City, the Globe had a reporter in Japan to chronicle Japanese baseball fans' reaction to their exalted hero's American baseball debut, which was a seven-inning, one-run, 10-strikeout outing with, believe it or not, just one walk.

Four years later, neither the man, the myth nor the legend have matched the hype. And like the chimerical gyro-ball, Matsuzaka's career is spinning in the wrong direction. Daisuke's foray into American baseball is at somewhat of a crossroads.

For all the talk about rebound seasons for Josh Beckett and John Lackey and what is at stake for closer-under-siege Jonathan Papelbon, no Sox pitcher has as much to prove as Matsuzaka, who will make $10 million in the fifth season of the six-year, $52-million deal that brought him to the Fens.

His career with the Red Sox has been muddled by communication issues with the team, control issues on the mound, deteriorating conditioning and maddening inconsistency. Matsuzaka can throw a near-no-hitter one game, as he did against the Philadelphia Phillies last season, and then allow seven runs while failing to get through the fifth the next, as he did against the New York Yankees.

A new team, a new league, a new culture, it has all seemed to overwhelm Daisuke's senses and his considerable talent. At this point, most denizens of Red Sox Nation probably wouldn't mind if Felix Doubront were the No. 5 starter, not Matsuzaka, and there are no guarantees that he'll be in that role all season long.

Yet, even with two straight cash-for-clunkers campaign, the 30-year-old Matsuzaka's turn in a Red Sox uniform isn't an abject failure, just a major disappointment.

The ballyhooed import has been a member of a World Series-winning team, has a career winning percentage of .630, and posted an 18-win season in 2008.

Speaking with the media prior to "The Red Sox Town Hall" event on Jan. 31 Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein was asked how he would characterize Matsuzaka's career.

"Well, I thought he performed really well his first two years as a whole, especially that first year," said Epstein. "He had basically what was an injured season in 2009, and last year bounced back to a certain extent."

His first two seasons, Matsuzaka won 33 games, posted a respectable ERA of 3.72 and had a WHIP (walks plus hits/innings pitches) of 1.32. That guy could really help this Sox team, considering that beyond Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz (and I have my questions with Clay) there are no certainties in the rotation.

The last two injury-plagued campaigns, Matsuzaka has won 13 games total, posted an ERA of 4.99 and a WHIP of 1.51. Baseball worships at the altar of statistics. However, Epstein thought Matsuzaka, who went 9-6 with a 4.69 ERA last season in 25 starts, pitched above his statistical performance.

"I thought last year was the first year that he pitched better than his numbers indicated or his stuff was better than his numbers indicated," said Epstein. "I think that gives us a little bit of reason for optimism going forward. But if he can approximate next year what he did in either of the first two years we'll be quite happy."

Such an occurrence is not out of the question.

Last season, Matsuzaka's batting average against opponents of balls put in play was .292, according to STATS Inc., which was actually better than that of Jon Lester (.295) and trailed only Clay Buchholz, who ranked 10th in all of baseball at .266, among Red Sox starters. Matsuzaka's number in that category was the same as Cliff Lee and better than Roy Halladay (.296)

(Updated on Feb. 15 to reflect and correct the misuse of batting average on balls put in play:)

Last season, Matsuzaka's on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) against was .706, the second-lowest of his career and better than 2007, when he went 15-12. His batting average against of .240 was also the second-lowest of his career, and the same number that Cliff Lee posted. Matsuzaka's batting average against was lower than Tim Lincecum (.242) and Roy Halladay (.245), which merely proves the old adage that you can get stats to say whatever you want.

But the point is that Matsuzaka's stuff remains far better than that of a generic fifth starter.

Prior to spring training, Epstein said Matsuzaka had been working out extremely hard this offseason and had been in communication with the team. So, there is progress already on two fronts.

The issue with Matsuzaka is something he's out of -- free passes, especially against left-handed batters. He was fourth in baseball last season in walks-per-nine innings (4.33) among pitchers who tossed more than 150 innings. In his nine wins last season, Matsuzaka had a 52-14 strike-out-to-walk differential. In the six losses it was 28-26, and in his 10 no-decisions it was 53-34.

Last year 52 of his 74 walks came against left-handed batters. For his career he has a 2-to-1 walk ratio for lefthanders (185) to righthanders (93). Perhaps, new pitching coach Curt Young can iron this out, and allow Matsuzaka to revert to the pitcher he was his first two big-league seasons, even if that pitcher was not the one who had been advertised as the Pedro Martinez of the Pacific.

That pitcher may never arrive on these shores, but Matsuzaka's future no longer hinges on hyperbole, even though it will always be attached to his career here. Matsuzaka must leave the disappointing past behind and do something he has struggled with much of his time here -- pitch ahead.

Sox believe the hype

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 1, 2011 03:34 PM

Hype springs eternal for the 2011 Red Sox.

Here is the problem for the Red Sox coming off a disappointing 2010 season that led to a disengaged fan base: As a business entity they need to ratchet up expectations for this season as much as possible to insulate the sellout streak and boost flagging television ratings. However, in doing so they create an environment that makes it even harder for the uniformed baseball personnel and baseball operations to deliver the very product the business side is promoting/promising.

Such is the paradox of feeding the Green Monster the Red Sox have become. As we approach the 10th season of the John Henry-Tom Werner-Larry Lucchino trio, the most competent and successful ownership the team has ever known, the best ways to describe their regime would be creative, competitive and lucrative.

That's why you have events like last night's 2011 Red Sox Town Hall, a televised fan forum featuring team chairman Werner, team president/CEO Lucchino, general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona. It was a made-for-TV shotgun marriage of the Sox' business and baseball interests.

The show was easy to watch and well-orchestrated. It was a nice gesture for the Sox to reach out to their fans and let their voices be heard. It was also a blatant infomercial where Lucchino and Werner did everything possible to disavow the 2010 run prevention Red Sox and promise better days ahead with Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford jerseys now for sale and tickets still available.

"We did not want to struggle through 2011," Lucchino told the audience at WGBH's Calderwood Studio. "We wanted to be as aggressive as possible. ...There was a real meeting of the minds early in the off-season to restore order and get this team back where it needs to be."

He was talking about the standings, but he also could have been talking about ratings and interest level. As brilliant Fox baseball reporter Ken Rosenthal revealed in November, the Sox' appeal waned last season. TV ratings fell 36.3 percent from 2009. The mighty Red Sox and NESN (16.6 percent of which is owned by the New York Times, the parent company of the Boston Globe and Boston.com) had the same television drawing power as the Tampa Bay Rays.

The underwhelming response to the Bridges of Yawkey Way offseason set the tone for the season. Fans were waiting for the team to fail from the outset, and when the Sox got off to a 19-20 start it was only confirmation for most that it was not a team worth investing emotional equity in, even though the same team was 49-32 and a half game out of first place on July 4.

The Sox approached this offseason with checkbooks a-blazing, going out and signing Crawford to a $142-million deal and trading Epstein's prized prospects for Adrian Gonzalez, who is believed to have a tacit agreement with the team for a deal north of $150 million. Upper management also mandated that David Ortiz's option for $12.5 million be picked up.

The idea was to improve the team, which they undoubtedly did. It was also to reset the narrative needle back to fever pitch.

"I think it's important for NESN that the team play well early," admitted Werner. "There have been some comments I know that we made these player acquisitions to increase our ratings. We made them because we need to have a competitive product. It's a tough environment. We root for the Celtics, and we root for the Bruins. But they are very competitive programming in April and May."

It should be an exciting Sox season that kicks off in 12 days when pitcher and catchers report to Fort Myers. But lost in all the euphoria and good-as-new proclamations is this thought: What if this team fails to live up to what Francona referred to last night as its "lofty goals" for the season right off the bat?

Then the hard sell simply makes it hard for Francona, his players and Epstein, who have to absorb the body blows of the angry masses, who were expecting the 1998 Yankees.

Such an occurrence is unlikely, but not impossible. Ortiz has had painfully slow starts each of the last two seasons. The entire infield is either surgically repaired or recovering from injury, although Epstein took pains to explain the weirdness in Dustin Pedroia's foot is related to immobilization for so long and not the fracture.

Starting pitching should be a strength, but that is based on the presumption of bounce-back years from Josh Beckett and John Lackey, who were overpaid and underperformed last season, and the assumption that Clay Buchholz will pitch like an ace again (17-7, 2.33 ERA in '10) without the catcher (Victor Martinez) or the pitching coach (John Farrell) who nurtured his potential into production.

I haven't even mentioned the potential melodrama at closer with Jonathan Papelbon in a walk-year, or what happens if some of those doubles and triples into the gap at Tropicana Field become long outs to right field for Crawford at Fenway.

The above is a fatalistic, border-line masochistic view of Epstein's offseason masterpiece, but the point is that October playoff games while very likely, are not a fait accompli in the Fens.

It wouldn't be the first time the Sox oversold an offseason acquisition. The poster boy for hype-gone-wrong is Dasuike Matsuzaka, who arrived as the Pedro Martinez of the Pacific Rim and is now an afterthought fifth starter whose positive contributions are viewed as a bonus.

Raising the level of expectations is not something that Red Sox fans really need help doing, and at this point the risk of backlash doesn't outweigh the benefits. So, it might serve the team well to let the product just speak for itself.

There is an old business bromide about underselling and overperforming. You can't accuse the Sox of underselling, but overperforming is pretty much out of the question.

Handing out some Boston sports gifts

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 24, 2010 11:18 AM

'Tis the season for giving again, so it's time to hand out some Christmas gifts to our local sports teams. We've made our list and we've checked it twice; we know who has been naughty (What's next, Brandon Spikes?) and who has been nice (You've done it again, Bill Belichick).

Where else would you start then with a team named the Red Sox?

1. Red Sox -- Christmas came early for Sox fans this month when in a span of four days Theo Epstein traded for San Diego slugger Adrian Gonzalez and then got must-have toy, outfielder Carl Crawford. Making it even better was that lefthander Cliff Lee spurned the Yankees, who ended up with a lump coal from the Hot Stove. So, what do you get for the team that seemingly has everything? How about another loss for the Yankees?

The best gift the Sox could get would be Andy Pettitte packing up his pinstripes for good and retiring. Pettitte, who was the Yankees No. 2 starter, is an important piece for the Pinstripes. So important that club president Randy Levine doesn't have dreams of sugarplums dancing through his head, he has Pettitte back in a Yankees uniform occupying his dreams.

The estimable lefty made the All-Star team last season at age 38 and went 11-3 with a 3.28 earned run average. He had an ERA under 3.00 when he went on the disabled list in July with a strained groin, an injury that forced him too miss two months of the season. With Lee in Philadelphia and Zack Greinke in Milwaukee, the Yankees are running out of options to ramp up their rotation.

Stocking Stuffer: A healthy Jacoby Ellsbury.

2. Celtics -- The Celtics are the only Boston sports team playing on Christmas Day, as they bring their 14-game win streak to Orlando to face the extreme-makeover Magic. Celtics coach Doc Rivers gets the gift of being with his family on Christmas Day. But strictly basketball speaking the perfect present for the Celtics would be a healthy center. Hopefully, that is in Shaq-a-claus's sack this season.

The Celtics haven't had any missed games due to injury from the Big Three. But they've already lost an entire season due to injuries -- 82 man games missed. Right now they're making due without Kendrick Perkins, Rajon Rondo, and Delonte West.

But it's in the middle where they've been hurt the most -- literally. Center Jermaine O'Neal (sore left knee/flu) has missed 20 of 27 games. Shaq, who has missed a third of the season, is touch and go with a calf strain. The surprising Semih Erden, soldiering on despite a bad shoulder, is the healthiest center the Celtics have.

Stocking Stuffer: Continued good behavior from Glen Davis and Nate Robinson.

3. Patriots -- It has already been a season of joy for the Patriots. They are the scrooges of the NFL. They never give the ball up and they're always taking it away. Their nine turnovers this season and 29 turnovers forced are an integral part of their success. The only two games the Patriots have lost this year came when they lost the turnover tussle.

There are the obvious presents for the Pats -- a new hoodie for Belichick, a pair of scissors for Tom Brady, a GPS for maligned safety Brandon Meriweather. But what this team really needs for the playoff season is an improved pass rush.

Colleague Greg Bedard had an amazing stat, courtesy of Football Outsiders, last Sunday: just three of the Patriots' sacks have come on third down. The team had five sacks last Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, but none on third down.

That explains why the Patriots have the worst third-down defense (49.2 percent conversion rate for opponents) in the league.

Stocking Stuffer: A couple of losses for the Raiders to bump up that 2011 first-round pick.

4. Bruins -- The spoked-Bs certainly showed some holiday spirit last night against the Atlanta Thrashers in a raucous and rough 4-1 win. Before that the appropriate gift would have been a pulse. But the Bruins showed some pluck in Thrashing Atlanta. So, the ideal gift now for the Bruins would be a return to form for center Marc Savard, who has three points in 10 games this season.

Savvy hasn't been the same since he suffered a concussion at the hands of Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke last March. He's dealt with post-concussion syndrome and depression, which delayed the start of his season. When he's right, Savard is one of the best playmaking pivots in the game and his presence makes the Bruins a deep and dangerous team. My hunch is Savard finding his game will allow Nathan Horton to reappear.

Stocking stuffer: One of these days the Bruins are going to get that premium puck-moving defenseman we hear so much about.

5. Revolution -- I know some of you don't consider soccer a major sport, but 'tis the season to be charitable. The Revolution, who missed the playoffs for the first time since 2001, actually got their gift back in October, when Robert and Jonathan Kraft agreed to open up the coffers. They instructed soccer operations to pursue a designated player, which allows teams to go over the salary cap to bring in star players like David Beckham with the Los Angeles Galaxy and French star Thierry Henry with the New York Red Bulls.

It's doubtful the Revolution will end up with a name that recognizable, but they should be able to procure an international talent or two -- MLS teams can sign two DPs and can trade/pay to get a third -- who can propel them back into contention. Previously, the Revolution had shied away from the DP, saying they were saving it for a player who would create scoring opportunities for the franchise off the pitch as well, i.e. Beckham.

Stocking Stuffer: The Revolution really need a soccer-specific home of their own.

Merry Christmas.

Yankees off-season off the Mark

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 14, 2010 01:42 PM

There probably isn't an "MT Curse" as Red Sox owner John Henry once overzealously tweeted in reference to Yankees slugger Mark Teixeira, but there does appear to be some sort of hex on the House of Steinbrenner this offseason. The damned Yankees are simply damned after pitcher Cliff Lee spurned them for a return to Philadelphia late last night.

Christmas has come early to New England. It has been an accursed off-season for the Bronx Bombers and a correspondingly blissful one for Red Sox Nation.

The Sox made the two most significant moves of the off-season getting All-Stars Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. Meanwhile, the Yankees have gotten...a cast-off catcher.

Sure, the Yankees re-signed two of their own stars, but even that didn't go smoothly. The return of iconic shortstop Derek Jeter was marred by acrimony and public posturing that angered the Yankee captain, and now comes word that closer Mariano Rivera, who re-signed for two years and $30-millon, rang up the Red Sox before returning to the Bronx.

But nothing is worse for the Yankees than the lefthander Lee leaving them at the altar like a stunned groom. Lee strung the Yankees along all along, using them to boost the price knowing he never intended to sign there. Guess it was a bad idea for Yankees fans to expect the Cy Young Award winner to sign up after they expectorated on his spouse.

I think Red Sox fans haven't liked a curveball from a pitcher named Lee this much since Bill Lee.

The loss of Lee for the Bronx Bombers is akin to the Sox losing out on Teixeira. It's a move that shifts the balance of power in the American League East and one that may have a ripple effect in the rivalry for a few years.

Lee was the perfect countermeasure for the Red Sox additions of Gonzalez and Crawford, and it had more to do with his ace status than being a southpaw. Surprisingly, Lee is not statistically tougher on lefties; for his career lefthanded batters and righthanded batters have an identical on-base percentage (.307) and near identical OPS (.712 for righthanders and .713 for lefties).

However, pairing Lee, who posted the best WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) in baseball last season at 1.003 and led the AL in complete games (seven), in pinstripes with his former Indians teammate CC Sabathia would have given New York the best one-two pitching punch in the AL and much-needed rotational depth. The latter is a trait the Sox already possess with four pitchers who could be considered frontline starters.

Despite having the highest run support per game in all of baseball (5.4 runs), Yankee starters registered only three more quality starts (six innings pitched, three or fewer earned runs allowed) last season than the Baltimore Orioles. Astonishing, considering Sabathia ranked third in baseball with 26 quality starts. It was their lethal lineup, which produced the most runs in baseball, and solid bullpen that allowed them to reach the magical 95-win mark.

The Sox have now equaled or exceeded that New York lineup with Gonzalez and Crawford aboard.

Lee was a player Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had to have simply because there is no one else like him on the market, unless you believe Zack Greinke and his social anxiety disorder will do well in a place that once booed Jeter and still likes to rankle Alex Rodriguez.

It's seems the Teixeira karma has caught up with Cashman, and now the tables are turned.

The Sox and general manager Theo Epstein absorbed a lot of body blows after the team whiffed on Teixeira two off-seasons ago, the Yankees riding in at the last minute to swoop away the switch-hitting first baseman after Boston upper management/ownership got bogged down with outmaneuvering Scott Boras at the bargaining table.

We know the rest. The Sox made the playoffs in 2009, adding Victor Martinez midstream, but got swept out in the first round while the Yankees won yet another World Series. Then "bridge year" and "run prevention" became part of the local sports lexicon.

Failing to close the deal with Teixeira was a failure that recalibrated the rivalry with the Yankees in New York's favor and restored a level of Pinstripe Paranoia that had dissipated following the Red Sox two World Series titles in 2004 and 2007.

But baseball's blood feud has seen the balance of power tip back in Boston's direction during a December to remember.

It started with Epstein orchestrating a trade for Gonzalez without giving up any major league-ready talent. After some tense hours of uncertainty, the shrewd trade went through on Dec. 5. Then came the clandestine courting of Carl Crawford and a seven-year, $142-million deal just past midnight on Dec. 9. Last night came the news that Lee would not be the subject of a Yankeeography or a bad John Sterling sobriquet anytime soon.

Perfect.

Lest we get too gleeful about the plight of the Yankees, remember that Cashman is one of the game's best general managers. Like Epstein, he is creative, resourceful and has a lot of resources. Maybe, he has some sort of ace up his sleeve. But maybe he'll just have to sit tight and wait for his revenge like the Red Sox did.

The Yankees got Teixeira and now the Red Sox are getting the last laugh -- for now.

Time to up the ante with Upton

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 24, 2010 10:21 AM

upton.jpgIt's time for Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein to reprise his "guess who's coming to Thanksgiving dinner" role. He needs to go to Arizona again for Turkey Day, this time to feast with his friend/mentor Arizona Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers.

The same way he wined and dined Curt Schilling seven years ago, he needs to sweet talk Towers until he agrees to send Justin Upton to the Red Sox. Pass the stuffing and Jacoby Ellsbury to Towers. Ask him if he wants dark meat, white meat or Daniel Bard. Whatever it takes before the Diamondbacks come to their senses about dealing Upton.

It's early in the offseason to panic. However, yesterday's news that Victor Martinez is like the Patriots -- Motown-bound -- was greeted with groans and gripes because this third-place team needs to add impact pieces, not subtract them. The virulent reaction to Martinez's four-year, $50 million deal with Detroit from a frustrated fan base showed that this has the potential to be the offseason of our discontent on Yawkey Way. It's probably going to get worse before it gets better on the free agency front with third baseman Adrian Beltre viewed as being likely to bid the Hub adieu too.

That's why it's imperative that the Red Sox make the Upton move. It's bold, it's proactive and it will move the needle for a club that desperately needs some positive spin to sell to a now suspicious fan base. More importantly it could help the team in both the short term and the long term on the field. Yes, the asking price is very high, as the smoke signals from the Hot Stove indicate it would take both Ellsbury and Bard, plus another piece to make it happen. But so is Upton's ceiling.

The 23-year-old, righthanded slugger and former No. 1 overall pick is precisely the type of high-ceiling, power-possessing outfielder the Red Sox have not been able to produce via their farm system during Epstein's illustrious tenure. There is no such player on the horizon, unless you want to count 19-year-old Brandon Jacobs, who played for short-season Lowell this year.

Giving up the 25-year-old Bard is tough. But there is no proof that he'll be a 40-save guy - he has four career saves -- and even the best closers can have shorter-than-expected shelf-lives (see: Papelbon, Jonathan).

I'm a lot more confident that this organization can find another hard-throwing, righthanded reliever who can close in the next three to four seasons than I am that they can somehow produce or procure at a lower cost a player of Upton's immense potential. The last one they had was Hanley Ramirez, and Epstein has been trying to get him back virtually from the day the Theo-less Red Sox sent him away.

Save the trade chips for a certain San Diego Padres first baseman you say?

At this point it makes little sense to trade for Adrian Gonzalez because you're going to have to give up prospects and pieces and then sign him to a $180 million contract. You're better off waiting a year until he's a free agent and pursuing him there, or trying to get him at a lower cost during the season if San Diego falls out of the race. It's certainly possible Gonzalez could be traded elsewhere. But do you really think that would rule him out of a Red Sox rendezvous? He'd be a very bad businessman to pass up free agency knowing that the Red Sox have been saving up for him for a few years now.

Free agent Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth is not worth the dough. He turns 32 in May, has played the last four years in a tinderbox of a ballpark and was in a lineup that featured two National League MVPs in Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard and slugging second baseman Chase Utley. If the Red Sox went five years for Werth, his contract would run as long as the remainder of Upton's. Werth's cost would be $75 to $80 million. Upton has $49.5 million coming to him over the next five years.

Plus, judging by the Sports Illustrated piece on him, his irascible persona would not exactly be a ratings boon for NESN.

Carl Crawford, who has hit . 256, .269 and .248 the last three seasons against lefthanders, would give the Red Sox outfield a very lefthanded look.

That's hardly a replacement in the No. 3 hole for the switch-hitting Martinez, who pounded southpaws last season.

From May 1 on, no one in baseball had a higher average against lefthanders than Victor Martinez, a Red Sox appropriate .406, or slugging percentage (.789). His 12 home runs off lefties, trailed only Albert Pujols (16) and Carlos Gonzalez (14), despite missing a month with a fractured left thumb.

Upton, if healthy, can rake against lefthanded pitching, which, if your chief rival is going to sign a certain lefthander whose last name is Lee, might be a nice countermeasure.

In 2009, a healthy Upton, at age 21, sported the highest OPS (on base-plus-slugging percentage) against lefthanders of any player in the majors with at least 25 at-bats against a lefty. In 122 at-bats against lefties Upton posted a ridiculous 1.208 OPS. He batted .377 with 12 home runs, seven doubles, two triples and an otherworldly .762 slugging percentage. To put that in perspective, that same season, Pujols hit .338 against lefties with 13 home runs and a .696 slugging percentage in 148 at-bats.

Last year Upton's numbers against lefties dipped to .276/.356/.798 in 127 at-bats, with just two of his 17 home runs coming against lefties. I believe he's much closer to the 2009 batter against lefties than what he did last season with his ailing left shoulder.

Epstein has shown that he's not afraid to make bold moves, shipping out Nomar Garciaparra in 2004 and Manny Ramirez in 2008. But the Red Sox seem to be in a bit of a low-cost, no-risk rut, hoarding young players and limiting contract commitments while waiting for Gonzalez to become available.

Sometimes to win you have to go all in. It's time to up the ante with Upton.

Three reasons to watch Red Sox-Yankees

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 24, 2010 02:30 PM

The Red Sox are in the Bronx tonight facing the Yankees. Does anyone care? The Sox are still technically and mathematically alive for a playoff spot, but the surrender flag went up on the 2010 season a while ago for the Sox. So, the arch rivals meet at the Pinstripe Palace in what is essentially an anticlimactic series.

Spare me the idea of the Sox playing spoiler. I'm sure that's not what ESPN had in mind when it booked "Sunday Night Baseball." It's a pretty safe bet that more folks around here will have their HDTVs tuned to the Patriots' AFC East competitors the Dolphins and the Jets square off on Sunday evening than listening to the dulcet tones of Jon Miller and the dull observations of Joe Morgan. If that's not enough to scare you off, it's a Daisuke Matsuzaka start.

This late September three-game set between the Sox and the Yanks kind of feels like the last week of the "Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien." It's necessary but it's just cheapening the brand. However, there is some relevancy to the rivalry for the Red Sox. Here are three reasons not to tune out Sox-Yankees completely, starting with tonight's Sox starter, Josh Beckett.

Is Beckett back? The Yankees were Pedro Martinez's daddy and now they have Beckett crying uncle. It's imperative that he deliver a quality start against the Yankees. The erstwhile Sox ace has allowed five or more earned runs in all four of his starts against the Yankees this season, and has only made it past the fifth inning once. That accomplishment was mired by the fact Beckett was tagged for nine earned runs. Beckett's numbers against the Yankees are ghastly this season (0-2, 11.17 earned run average, .363 batting average against).

Beckett has never been the Yankee Killer he was billed as -- in 2006, his first season with the Sox, Beckett went 2-2 against the Yankees with a 9.45 ERA -- but the previous three seasons he went a combined 7-3 with a respectable 4.38 ERA against the Bronx Bombers.

Tonight's start against Andy Pettitte is an opportunity for Beckett to leave the Sox with a positive impression in a season that was derailed in part due to his injury and ineffectiveness. Beckett should view it as the first start of the 2011 season. It's a chance to restore the Nation's confidence in him a bit and remind us why the team was compelled to give him a four-year, $68-million extension.

Almost as important as showing he doesn't have some sort of psychological block against the Yankees is that Beckett needs to prove he still has the stuff to beat good teams. His five wins this season have come against the Kansas City, the Angels, Oakland, Cleveland and Seattle. Not exactly the Murders' Row of the American League.

Beckett has pitched better of late. He's pitched into the seventh inning while allowing three or fewer earned runs in each of his last five starts. If he can do that against the Yankees, it's a building block for next season. If he gets boxed around again then prepare for an offseason of Beckett angst.

20/20 vision for Jon Lester? If there is a poster child for why Epstein clings to prospects, it's Lester. Everyone was clamoring for the Sox to trade Lester for Johan Santana following the 2007 season. They didn't it, and with Santana having undergone shoulder surgery this month, it's the best move Epstein never made. No team in baseball would swap Lester for Santana now. Lester, who has already won a career-high 18 games, faces the Yankees tomorrow and has a chance to be the first Red Sox lefthander to win 20 games in a season since Mel Parnell went 25-7 in 1949.

Yes, wins are an overrated statistic for a pitcher (see Seattle ace Felix Hernandez, who has eight losses this season in which he gave up three or fewer earned runs) but any time you can accomplish something that hasn't been done in more than 60 years it's noteworthy. Lester only has two more scheduled starts this season, so in order to pull off the feat he's going to have to beat the Yankees tomorrow.

The anti-Beckett, Lester is 2-0 with a 2.95 ERA in three starts against the Yankees this year. This could be as close to a postseason start as the ultra-competitive Lester has this year, so if he's dialed in there is the potential for a memorable performance. Here's betting Terry Francona gives Lester every opportunity to earn the W. What is there to save him for?

Yankee yardwork for Beltre? Beltre is also chasing Sox history. He could join Butch Hobson as the only Red Sox third basemen to ever hit 30 home runs in a season. It's already been an incredible season for Beltre, who leads all major league third basemen in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging). But perhaps what's more incredible is that the pending free agent hasn't homered yet against the Yankees as a Red Sox. In 47 at-bats this year against the Yankees, Beltre is homerless. By comparison, he has four home runs against the Tampa Bay Rays, three home runs against the Orioles and two against Toronto.

Beltre is going to be a very rich man this winter one way or the other, but it wouldn't hurt if the hot corner Hessian were to go deep against the Yankees on Sunday night in front of a national television audience. That would practically be a Scott Boras infomercial. Without the playoffs to showcase his client, Boras will probably make sure Beltre is in the lineup for the Fox game on Saturday and Sunday night's ESPN tilt.

Playing some five-on-five

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 23, 2010 03:19 PM

New York is the city that never sleeps, but Boston is the city where the sports analysis, talk, and speculation never cease. There is rarely a shortage of topics to discuss. Here are five that have been on my mind of late.

1.There are two offensive players who have defined the essence and ethos of the Bill Belichick Patriots. One was Troy Brown, and the other is Kevin Faulk, now out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The laconic Louisiana native is as stand-up a guy as you'll find in an NFL locker room. During the 2007 season, with Spygate swirling, Faulk, a team captain that season, was one of the few players who consistently stood at his locker and faced the barrage of questions. When asked why he did it, he simply relayed he felt it was his job as a captain.

Faulk is one of those players for whom statistics simply don't do justice. An example, he scored just one touchdown during the point-a-palooza 2007 season. It was the game-winner in the Patriots' epic comeback against the Colts, as Faulk willed his way over the goal line for the winning points, squeezing between Colts defenders. It was quintessential Faulk. When Faulk retires there is a place in the Hall at Patriot Place with his name on it.

2. Just curious what all those David Ortiz detractors are saying now. At the start of play on May 9, the last day the Yankees came to the Fens, Ortiz was batting .178 and the discussion was about how long before the Sox gave Big Papi his walking papers. ESPN's estimable Buster Olney wrote: "I'd be stunned if Ortiz finishes the month on the Boston roster."

Now, here we are on Sept. 23, and Ortiz is tied for fifth in the American League in home runs (31), is on pace to drive in 100 runs and has a higher batting average, slugging percentage and OPS than the Yankees Mark Teixeira. To me it's a no-brainer for the Sox to pick up Ortiz's $12.5 million option, especially with Mike Lowell coming off the books. This team is already devoid of power and 30-homer sluggers don't grown on trees, at least not anymore. Ortiz is too proud to take a paycut to stay here. Ortiz is awful against lefties -- .205 and just two homers -- but do the Sox have a better option at DH? Compare Papi's numbers to Nationals slugger, Adam Dunn, long a Fenway front-office favorite. The on-base percentages (.362) are identical, so are the RBI totals (96). Dunn has hit .199 against lefties this year.

3. There has been considerable buzz building lately for Jayson Werth coming to Boston this winter. The hard-hitting and hirsute outfielder would fill the Sox' desperate need for a right-handed-hitting outfielder with pop. This year Werth ranks No. 16 in all of baseball in OPS-plus, which adjusts for a player's ballpark. He is ahead of Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, and Evan Longoria. By comparison, Matt Holliday, last year's hot free-agent outfielder, is eighth in OPS-plus.

The question is whether Werth is worth the cost? Werth has hired Scott Boras as his agent, and SI.com's Jon Heyman, who frequently quotes Boras, guessed that it will take five years and $90 million to sign Werth via free agency. Do you want to give that long a contract to a player who turns 32 in May, when you're only willing to go two years on Victor Martinez, who turns 32 in December?

Anyone who read the recent Sports Illustrated piece on Werth has to wonder how he'd fare in Boston. It's one thing to go from bench player to cult hero in Philly. It's another to arrive in baseball-obsessed Boston as a big-ticket acquisition. The Red Sox haven't exactly hit a lot of home runs in free agency during the Theo Epstein regime. Plus, Werth's home-road splits this season are a little alarming, although he posted a higher on-base percentage away from home in 2009 and boasted more home runs and a better slugging percentage on the road in 2008.

If you have to spend that type of money on an outfielder then the safer investment in my mind would have been Holliday, who turns 31 in January and has a longer track record of success.

4. I'm not sure what to make of the Marc Savard saga, except it just seems like a headache for the Bruins. To me there are three possible scenarios and none of them are really good for the B's, considering that Savard's seven-year, $28-million extension kicks in this season. One, is that the team and Savard are telling the truth and at some point during the summer his post-concussion syndrome symptoms unexpectedly returned. Two, is the grassy-noll theory that Savard is ticked off about his name being bandied about in trade rumors all summer long and is going on a wildcat strike. Three, that the Bruins knew Savard was damaged goods and were trying to peddle him off before it became obvious he wasn't going to be ready for the start of camp. Here's hoping Savard returns healthy and happy.

5. Got to love the Celtics' logic when it comes to losing to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Doc Rivers has said that his team has never been beaten in a playoff series with the entire starting five at the Green's disposal, a point Paul Pierce agreed with. Kevin Garnett was hors de hoops in the 2009 playoffs, and Kendrick Perkins torn ACL in Game 6 of this year's Finals let the Lakers play volleyball on the boards in Game 7. The problem is that when the Celtics beat the Lakers in 2008, LA was playing without center Andrew Bynum, who missed the entire playoffs that year with a dislocated left kneecap, a convenient fact that gets omitted over on Causeway Street. Here's hoping for a full-strength Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals rubber rematch this year.

Sox remain idle

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 30, 2010 03:03 PM

The Red Sox are idle today. That's a state the front office has been in all season.

All you need to know about the Dead Sox' 5-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays last night is that with their season potentially hanging in the balance these are the batters manager Terry Francona sent to the plate in the ninth -- Mike Lowell, Daniel Nava, Ryan Kalish, (a pinch hitter for Darnell McDonald) and Jed Lowrie, who was pinch-hitting for Yamaico Navarro.

An unwanted spare part pressed into action, an overachieving former independent league outfielder, a rookie pinch-hitting for a surprising journeyman and an oft-injured utility man pinch-hitting for a player who had been in the big leagues for 10 days. That's how a $170-million ball club goes quietly into the night.

Lowrie made the game's final out on an uncommitted half-swing. Fitting because the front office hasn't gone full out for this team this season. Francona and his players deserve better for staying within striking distance of the Rays and Yankees and creating the patina of a playoff team for the organization to sell its tickets, concessions and television content.

Last night's defeat at Tropicana Field and the series weren't just lost over the weekend. They were lost in the last month, when fatal flaws went unfixed by the front office. While teams like the San Diego Padres (Ryan Ludwick and Miguel Tejada) and Minnesota Twins (Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes) have addressed needs, the Sox have preferred to stand pat and apply internal patches. The Padres and Twins look playoff-bound, the Sox do not.

Actions speak louder than words. Francona's actions tell the tale of a team that waited for reinforcements from its front office that never came. Besides the batting order in the ninth last night there is this incriminating evidence of fatal inaction from general manager Theo Epstein. In the most important series of the season, the Sox put Scott Atchinson into a tie game on Saturday night and Hideki Okajima, who couldn't get minor league hitters out consistently in his three rehab appearances, into a one-run game last night.

The results were expected and so is Boston's playoff plight, after a 15-12 month of August. People have been waiting since late April to write off the Sox. Now, they finally get their wish.

The Sox loss last night to the Rays in St. Petersburg, Fla., was a microcosm of everything that went wrong this season on Yawkey Way -- an underperforming erstwhile ace, a makeshift lineup forced by injuries, an untrustworthy bullpen outside of Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon.

Not a single substantive move was made to address any of these detrimental defects, and it caught up to the Sox when it mattered the most. The waiver-wire claims for Johnny Damon and now Mike Napoli are too little, too late. Those moves seem as much reactive in trying to block the potential deal of another team as proactive in trying to improve this one.

Tomorrow is the deadline to acquire a player via a waiver wire transaction and still have that player be eligible for the playoff roster. Maybe, Epstein has one last trick up his sleeve, but any addition now looks more like a public relations move than a player personnel one.

At the end of play on July 31 the Sox were 7 1/2 games out of first place in the American League East and 5 1/2 games in arrears in the wild card chase. Today, they're 6 1/2 games behind in both the division and the wild card. With both the Rays and Yankees in action tonight the Sox, who sit at 74-57, could be seven games back by tonight with 31 games to play.

Who knows where the Sox will be when the Rays come to town a week from today, but you don't need an MIT degree to know the arithmetic is not in their favor.

Even if they find a way to win their customary 95 games -- unlikely considering they haven't won more than six games in a row all season and more than four straight in the second half -- the requiem for the Red Sox will be sung. If the Yankees and Rays, both 80-50, merely go .500 the rest of the way they'll win 96 games each.

Some issues were out of Epstein's control, primarily the subpar pitching of John Lackey and Josh Beckett and the debilitating injuries to Opening Day starters Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron. That's not to mention the near month that Victor Martinez was sidelined.

But others like the bullpen lingered on like the plot of "Lost" all year. This is a lost year for the Sox, much like 2006. But even in 2006, when they passed on Bobby Abreu and the $14.6 million per year he was owed from 2007 to 2009, only to sign J.D. Drew for five years and $70 million, there were acquisitions made to attempt to address glaring problems.

The Sox made the emergency trade to usher back Doug Mirabelli after Josh Bard was overwhelmed by the knuckleball. The Sox made a waiver trade to acquire Javy Lopez to catch after Jason Varitek damaged cartilage in his left knee. At the time of Varitek's injury, the Sox were a game ahead of the Yankees in the American League East. When they picked up Lopez they were only a game back. They finished 11 games back.

It seems that Epstein surmised at the trading deadline that this team wasn't likely to make the playoffs, and thus, wasn't worth sacrificing any future assets to aid.

He may be right, but that doesn't make the Tampa series, or this season, any easier to take.

Damon can return or return the favor

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 24, 2010 12:37 PM

This really shouldn't be a difficult decision for Johnny Damon. He should be racing back to Boston, the place where he became a hirsute cult hero and made history by helping the franchise shed the shackles of past disappointment. A place where good times never seemed so good.

Sometimes life is stranger than fiction. The 36-year-old Damon can return to his old stomping grounds, help his former team make a playoff push and further cement his legacy. The erstwhile caveman can be the Calvary for a Sox team devoid of sizzle and healthy outfielders. Yet, Damon seems to be leaning towards staying in Detroit with a mediocre Motown outfit that is below .500 and 10 games out in the American League Central.

I can't really blame him for turning his back on Boston. He's just returning the favor.

If Damon, who was claimed on waivers by the Sox yesterday, is going to return to the Fens then there needs to be some serious fence-mending first because the way he was treated when he returned here as a Yankee just wasn't right.

An enemy uniform, even that of the Yankees, shouldn't have overridden what Damon accomplished here, what he meant here. It shouldn't have erased the memories of citizens of Red Sox Nation, who celebrated a World Series title they never thought they'd live to see in 2004, in part thanks to Damon's two home runs to vanquish the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2004 American League Championship Series.

Those same folks then acted like it all never happened when he stepped into the Fenway batters box as a Bronx Bomber on May 1, 2006.

If you pay for a ticket you have a right to respond to a player however you want, but this was the Idiot Idol, a player who helped change the culture of Boston baseball and break an unbreakable curse. Instead of being granted amnesty and appreciation for one at-bat, just one, he was treated just like any other bum from the Bronx.

Damon seemed genuinely taken aback and stung by the reaction he received that night, which was a smattering of cheers mostly drowned out by loud, lusty booing.

After that game, Damon held court with reporters in the bowels of Fenway, outside the visitors' clubhouse. There were so many media members encircling Damon that some clambered up a fire ladder to pick up his softly-spoken quotes. He said unconvincingly the Fenway Faithful were just booing the uniform.

"People around here are born to hate the Yankees and that's what they enjoy," said Damon that May night. "If it was any other team it wouldn't be as bad, but it's the Yankees and I understand that."

But he really didn't. That much is obvious, based on the quotes now coming out of Detroit. It's not too much of a stretch to think that was the night Damon convinced himself he would never wear a Sox uniform again. Why else would he have the Sox on the list of teams he must give approval to be moved to?

Damon told reporters in Detroit that his treatment by Sox fans "absolutely" scarred him. During the Tigers' one trip to Fenway this season, Damon was out with a back injury, but told reporters he expected to be booed.

Forgiveness is possible at Fenway. We've seen that. Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens were both Sox icons-turned pinstripe pariahs. Their betrayals far worse than Damon's in a lot of ways.

Damon going to the Yankees didn't feel quite like Boggs and Clemens, which was the Sox fan equivalent of Shawn Michaels throwing tag-team partner Marty Jannetty threw a plate glass window.

Yet, they have been welcomed back to Fenway; Boggs is even in the Red Sox Hall of Fame. Both, like Damon, won World Series titles with the hated Yankees. Unlike Damon, they never delivered a World Series title here.

Damon needs to be convinced he could be embraced again in similar fashion. This is more about settling the score with the fan base than the front office.

If Nomar Garciaparra can reach detente with the Red Sox front office then so can Damon. Plus, Damon has always maintained that things would have been different if general manager Theo Epstein had not been on self-imposed hiatus.

Damon didn't really want to leave the Sox. He was trying to do what every free agent does -- get the Yankees involved to raise the price, except the Sox didn't bite or budge. The Yankees' four-year, $52 million offer trumped the Sox' four-year offer by $12 million.

Would any of us turn down such a raise?

The merits of the outcome of Damon's departure from Boston can be argued either way. The Red Sox were right in that Damon's days in center field were quickly coming to an end. He played 131 games there for the Yankees in 2006, and just 86 games there between 2007 and now. Damon won one World Series in New York during that four-year deal. The Sox won one without him in the same time span.

It was in a lot of ways a win-win, kind of like the Sox claiming Damon now. If he comes here, they add a veteran bat who can grind out at-bats, get on base and play left field and first base for a month at low cost. Unless, you prefer Daniel Nava.

If he passes, then the Sox have prevented him from going to American League East rivals, Tampa Bay and the Yankees.

It's a shrewd baseball move.

The question is whether Damon is moved by the opportunity to mend his relationship with the fandom that adored him, then scorned him? Or is the damage already done in Damon's mind?

Unlike a lot of roads in Boston, forgiveness is a two-way street.

Opportunity knocks for the Sox

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 23, 2010 03:17 PM

This is a do-or-die week for the Never Say Die Sox. It's either the beginning of a run or the beginning of the end.

With 37 games to go the Red Sox are not just competing with the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays. They're competing against the calendar. As the conclusion of the season gets nearer and the standings remain stationary -- the Sox trail the Rays by 5 1/2 games and the Yankees by 6 1/2 -- the likelihood of playoff baseball in Boston this autumn begins to fade like a vacation tan.

The odds are already stacked against the Olde Towne Team since Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron are on the disabled list instead of Terry Francona's lineup card. But the Sox, to their credit, have been like one of those inexpungible villains from a hackneyed horror film -- just when you think they're dead they come back for more.

If the Sox are going to do more than just prolong their perceived inevitable demise, they need to make this week in August an august one. The Sox have seven games remaining this month, six between tonight and Sunday. They are 12-9 so far this month, the exact same record as the Rays and a game better than the Yankees. That further highlights the lost opportunities of the back-to-back collapses in Toronto and Texas on Aug. 12 and Aug. 13.

The schedule is an enemy overall, but this week it is an unlikely ally. Opportunity is knocking on the door of 4 Yawkey Way. The Sox have a three-game series against Seattle, starting tonight, followed by an off-day and then a three-game set with the Rays at Tropicana Field. It's a golden opportunity to gain some ground in the playoff chase.

In a star-crossed season, the stars are aligned for the Sox to make a run and make amends for some blown chances.

They close out their nine-game homestand (4-2, thus far) against a Seattle team that couldn't hit their way out of a Starbucks coffee cup. The Mariners, who were held up by the stat-crunching baseball cognoscenti as the model for run prevention, are last in the majors in runs scored, batting average, slugging percentage and OPS (on-base-plus-slugging).

That's a perfect match for scuffling, erstwhile aces John Lackey, who nearly no-hit the M's the only time he faced them this season, and Josh Beckett, who a month ago today came off the DL and held the Mariners to one run over 5 2/3 innings.

Beckett and Lackey have been shaky of late and sub-par all season, but if they can't beat the feeble Mariners then it's sayonara for the Sox' season anyway.

A sweep of Seattle is almost a must leading into the weekend series with the Rays, who finish up a West Coast swing in Anaheim. The only impediment to wiping out the Mariners is their excellent ace, Felix Hernandez, whom the Sox are scheduled to face on Wednesday afternoon.

Now, it's obvious why the Sox tried to trade for this guy. In two of his last three starts, Hernandez has pitched eight shutout innings, striking out 13 one time and 11 the next. He held the Yankees scoreless on Friday in the Bronx, punching out 11 Pinstripes. It's a testament to the offensive ineptitude of the Mariners that Hernandez has a sub-.500 record (9-10), despite ranking behind only Clay Buchholz in the American League in earned run average at 2.51.

But the Sox even catch a break in facing Hernandez because they're scheduled to send Jon Lester to the hill. Lester lost his only appearance against Seattle this season but rang up a season-high 13 Ks in 7 2/3 innings. He can match Hernandez and overmatch the Mariners.

The Sox will need to take at least two out of three from Tampa Bay. No easy task considering the Rays lead the season series, 8-4, and have swept the Red Sox twice this season, including the last time the two teams played at the Trop. But the Sox own a sweep of their own over the Rays at the Juice Joint, and they will have their ace, Buchholz, pitching in the series.

Those games against the Rays are crucial because after that series the teams meet just three more times, Sept. 6-8 at Fenway. For those September games to mean anything the Sox have to win this upcoming series with the Maddon Men.

All you can ask if you're the Red Sox at this point in the season is to have the opportunity to control your own fate. That's what this week represents.

A week from today we'll have a much better gauge on this Red Sox season. Either the season will be nearing empty or the Sox postseason hopes will have gained some more fuel.

Tough to locate Beckett's offering

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 19, 2010 03:34 PM

It goes without saying that if the Red Sox are going to stay in the playoff chase and make it a photo finish they need Josh Beckett to pitch more like an ace and less like Sun-Woo Kim. Beckett, who takes the mound tonight against the Angels, is like the Rubik's Cube of Boston sports. He's just tough to figure out.

Is he an ace or not? Is he hurt or not? Is he a good investment or not? The answers to all those questions are like the New England weather. Give it a minute, and it changes.

Right now, Beckett is not an ace. He has allowed 21 hits and 13 earned runs across 9 2/3 innings in his last two starts. He's not hurt (at least we don't think so). And the four-year, $68 million contract extension the Sox gave him at the start of the season looks like a dubious investment -- cash for clunkers.

In 13 starts this year, Beckett, who missed more than two months with a lower back strain, has had six games in which he allowed five or more earned runs, including his last two outings against Rangers and Yankees, key games for the Sox in this summer of survival.

Beckett is supposed to be the Sox' counterpart and counterpunch to Yankees ace CC Sabathia. Instead some of his numbers skew more like another Pinstripe pitcher, a fellow mystifying former Florida Marlins flamethrower, A.J. Burnett.

Consider this: From 2008 until now, Beckett has allowed six or more earned runs in a start 13 times. That's one more time than Tim Wakefield and ties him with Zach Duke and Bronson Arroyo for the fifth-most in baseball. Burnett and Livan Hernandez are the co-leaders in the category with 17 such occurrences.

Up the margin to seven or more earned runs in a start from 2008 to now, and Beckett is tied for second with Hernandez. It's happened to the cantankerous Texan 10 times, including four this year.

That is an alarming trend or a reality check. Maybe Beckett has been miscast as elite, when he's merely very good. That's not a crime, but it can cause confusion and consternation with a player.

We've seen this before. When Drew Bledsoe was here he was viewed as an elite quarterback. The truth is that the gentlemanly Bledsoe was never any such thing. He was a prolific passer and a tremendous talent who led the Patriots to a Super Bowl appearance, but he wasn't among the creme de la creme of NFL QBs. Joe Thornton skated a similar path in Boston, billed as the savior when he was just a very good player.

I was all for giving Beckett, 30, the dough, based on the premise that you already knew he could pitch against the loaded lineups in the American League East and that he could beat good teams. That may have been a false premise. In seven starts this season against top-hitting teams Texas, Toronto and the Yankees, Beckett is 0-2 with an 11.80 ERA and 59 hits allowed in 34 1/3 innings.

His best effort is an April 16 no-decision against the Tampa Bay Rays, who are third in the majors in runs scored. In that April contest, Beckett went seven innings, allowing four hits and a single run while striking out eight. However, the Maddon Men have also been no-hit twice this season and were one out away from being no-hit earlier this month by Toronto hurler Brandon Morrow, who struck out 17 Tampa Bay batters.

Chalk it up to an off and injury-affected year for Beckett, who does his best work in the postseason anyway.

Except even during last year's commendable 17-6, 3.86 ERA campaign, Beckett had problems pitching in the offense-heavy AL East. He was 2-1 with a 5.34 ERA against the Yankees in five starts. In two starts against Toronto he was touched up for 12 earned runs in 10 1/3 innings. The Rays raked against Beckett too. In five outings, Beckett was 2-1 with a 5.02 ERA.

It's still too early to condemn the contract extension because the fact remains that Beckett is in the last year of the extension he signed with the Sox in 2006. Back then when Beckett was in the midst of as season in which he served up 36 home runs and finished with an ERA above 5.00, few thought that contract was a wise investment either.

A year later when Beckett was winning 20 games and owning October (4-0 with a 1.20 ERA in the 2007 postseason) no one was complaining.

Then he was anointed as an ace, which is one of those titles that is easier to earn than it is to live up to or lose. The ace appellation comes with expectations, perhaps, ones that aren't fair to pin on Beckett any longer. You wonder if the oblique injury in 2008, which Beckett bravely pitched through in the playoffs, was a turning point in his career, or if 2007 was just a career year that set the bar too high.

For now, Beckett remains enigmatic. But what is clear is that it is time for him to stand on the mound and deliver for the Sox.

He might not be an ace, but he's still plenty good enough to help keep the Red Sox in the playoff race.

Sox, Patriots rooted in double-standard

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 18, 2010 09:29 AM

Speaking as a sports fan, I can say that we're not always rational beings. Fan is short for fanatic, and biased emotional attachment and the abandonment of logic is part of the fun, really. But there is a double-standard among Boston sports fans that has always baffled and bothered me.

If you're considered a hardcore Red Sox fan -- not one of those Johnny-Damon-come-lately pink hats who hopped aboard when the Sox became the "Jersey Shore" of baseball -- then you must scrutinize manager Terry Francona's mishandling of the bullpen, point out all the team-building faults of native son general manager Theo Epstein, harp on the fact that principal owner John Henry is charging you for the second-most expensive seats in baseball, and repeatedly rail that for that prodigious price, money should never, ever keep the Sox from losing or acquiring a player.

The Sox cheaped out this season and it shows. They care more about the sell-out streak and making a profit than winning.

Many of those same fans pull for the Patriots, a franchise Forbes recently ranked as the fifth most-valuable in the world at $1.36 billion (the Sox came in 35th -- $870 million). The most dedicated and respected Pats fans know that you never, ever, question any coaching or personnel decision made by His Hoodiness. To do so is perfidious and blasphemous.

In Bill We Trust.

I've never heard a Patriots fan complain about ticket prices when a player gets away or the team stumbles. Yet, they too have the second-highest prices in their sport, and from the opening of Gillette Stadium in 2002 until 2008 the Patriots had the NFL's highest average ticket price. Instead, they're lauded for holding the line during contract negotiations.

They never overpay for a player. They get salary cap value, and when a player leaves the Patriots or an available one elects to sign elsewhere it's not because the team wouldn't pay top dollar. It's because the player is greedy -- no one is above the team or its salary structure.

Logan Mankins should get his butt into camp, and what's the deal with Tom Brady? He already has more money than he can ever spend, so just accept a team-friendly offer and let's get on with our season, okay, Tom?

I've gotten in arguments with my good friend Tony Mazz who says the fan bases don't have much overlap. I disagree. I remember covering a 2003 Patriots game against the Tennessee Titans and a roar going up when they showed Sox-A's playoffs highlights on the Jumbotron. It happened to coincide with a Titans' fourth-quarter touchdown.

It's the same fans, but with a different mentality.

The Sox, who have made the playoffs six of the last seven years and were one-and-done last postseason, get skewered for admitting that this season might be a "bridge year" and for claiming that the offense would be helped by "run prevention," otherwise known as pitching and defense.

Run prevention, you mean win prevention. This Sox team was never built to contend for a World Series.

The Patriots, who have made the playoffs six of the last seven years and were one-and-done playoff participants, meanwhile are projected as Super Bowl-bound with a defense that was last seen getting run over by the Ravens and is going to start a rookie or second-year player at inside linebacker, cornerback and safety. They plan, in part, to aid the young defense by running the ball more.

Makes sense, Belichick knows his best defense is a great offense.

Many hardcore Sox fans paint Epstein, who constructed teams that won two World Series in four seasons, as an Ivy League incompetent. They are upset because the third-place Sox have a $170-million payroll, a bad bullpen and, with Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury hurt most of the year, a makeshift outfield full of Darnell McDonald, Ryan Kalish and Daniel Nava. He overpaid for the overrated J.D. Drew and let Jason Bay get away.

Patriots fans hail Belichick, who won three Super Bowl titles in four seasons, as an infallible genius. Sure, the outside linebacking corps is shallow after Tully Banta-Cain, but the system will fix that. A third-round pick and a fifth-round pick wasn't overpaying for Burgess because he plays so much in the sub-package. That Downtown Crossing-like crater at left corner two-plus seasons after Asante Samuel left is no concern.

It's just presumed that one of the four corners the team has drafted since Samuel's departure will emerge. Even if they don't, it will be just like 2008, when Belichick tried to replace Samuel with low-cost corners Fernando Bryant, Jason Webster, Lewis Sanders and Deltha O'Neal and still found a way to win 11 games -- without Brady no less.

That was unequivocally one of the finest coaching jobs in the history of Boston sports.

Yet, try to compare it to the job Francona is doing this year and you'll draw scorn and ridicule. Francona, who has only averaged 94 wins since becoming Sox manager in 2004, is holding together an injury-riddled Red Sox team that has seen six of its Opening Day starters, including the first four in the batting order, and starting pitcher Josh Beckett go to the disabled list for an extended amount of time.

So, he's costing us games because he won't take Jonathan Papelbon out of the closer's role.

To be a Sox fan is to complain about what might have been. It's how the existence of the franchise was defined for more than eight decades. To be a Patriots fan is to be eternally thankful that the woebegone outfit on Route 1 you once rooted for is now the model football franchise of the new millennium.

Would it be so bad to be a little more forgiving of the Sox and a little more critical of the Patriots?

Neither makes you any less of a dedicated fan.

Without an addition, Sox face playoff subtraction

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 16, 2010 01:56 PM
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Dustin Pedroia is returning to the Red Sox lineup tomorrow night against the Southern California (it's just shorter and more accurate) Angels. Great, any chance Pedey can pitch out of the bullpen?

We know Bill Hall, who has a scoreless inning to his name this season, can. Not to underplay the importance of Pedroia, who is straw that stirs the Sox' Coolatta, but with 43 games left in the season there is a better chance of Bill Belichick signing off on the Patriots being the next team to do HBO's "Hard Knocks" series than the Sox making it to the playoffs with this bullpen as currently constituted.

It's pretty obvious by now that the Sox' plan to solve the bullpen blunders internally is a bust. Michael Bowden might be able to help them down the road in a relief role, but right now he's not ready. Felix Doubront had a save and a vulture win during the road trip, but has a 7.86 ERA since being reincarnated as a reliever.

There are 15 waiver-wire shopping days left for general manager Theo Epstein to try to pull off a sequel to last August's Billy Wagner deal, giving his starting pitchers and manager some relief and this team a real chance.

We already knew the bullpen was a potentially disastrous defect of the 2010 Red Sox, but that point was driven home away from home during an unfortunate .500 road trip that was sabotaged by the bullpen. There was Manny Delcarmen's ill-fated changeup yesterday against the Rangers yesterday, the Tim Wakefield walkoff loss to Texas on Friday night, and of course, Jonathan Papelbon's Canadian collapse last Thursday.

Three winnable games, two in which the Sox held the lead heading into the seventh inning, yielded three losses and one profound lost opportunity. Pedroia or no Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis or no Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury or no Jacoby Ellsbury, the Red Sox are running out of time and real estate to catch the Tampa Bay Rays and the Yankees for a playoff spot. Leaving wins on the table is not an option.

Speaking of options. Don't criticize, manager Terry Francona for the bullpen's woes. He's doing the best he can with the options he has, which could be best described as limited (Daniel Bard and Papelbon) and none. If Francona's name were Belichick, fans would be talking about how this is the greatest managerial job they've ever seen, as winning with Hall and Darnell McDonald and Eric Patterson is the equivalent of winning with Randall Gay, Earthwind Moreland and Hank Poteat.

You want to make Bard the closer, fine. But who is the bridge to Bard? Papelbon is more likely to reprise his joyous jig in his underwear on John Henry's front lawn then embrace a set-up role. If you move Bard to the closer's role now then a bullpen duo is basically down to a solo act.

A quicker hook with Papelbon if Bard is available is a reasonable response. But games like Thursday in Toronto are the exception. There are not going to be many instances where Papelbon is in the game and Bard is still available.

All you need to know about Francona's predicament when it comes to the bullpen is that after he told reporters he wanted to stay away from Manny Delcarmen facing Josh Hamilton and Michael Young he felt he had no choice but to have the erratic Delcarmen pitch to Young.

What is a manager to do when making a pitching change feels like playing Russian roulette? Stick with his starters.

It's not a coincidence that Sox starters are averaging 6.3 innings per start and 103 pitches per start, the highest numbers since Francona became the club's manager in 2004. The 103 pitches per start ties the Red Sox with tomorrow's opponent, the Angels, for the most in major league baseball.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has notoriously been given a short leash by Francona, threw a season-high 115 pitches yesterday in an attempt to just get through seven innings.

Red Sox starters have thrown between 100 and 119 pitches 81 times this season, tying them with the Angels for the most in the majors. All of last season, Sox pitchers threw between 100 and 119 pitches a total of 82 times. In 2008, it happened 74 times. In 2007, it happened 69 times. In 2006, it happened 70 times. In 2005, it happened 95 times. In 2004, when Curt was being Curt, the total was 91 times.

The only other time during Francona's tenure as Sox manager that starters have averaged more than 6 innings per start and 100 pitches per start in the same season was 2005 (6.2 innings per start and 100 pitches per start). That year the Sox managed to win 95 games despite a flammable bullpen that ranked second-worst in the majors in relievers' ERA (5.17) and opponents batting average (.285).

That was the ill-fated season of Curt Schilling-as-closer experiment and Craig Hansen being rushed to the majors to try to help a stumbling 'pen. It was the season Mike Timlin finished as the closer.

You can't blame Theo for not giving up Jose Iglesias and/or Casey Kelly for Scott Downs at the trade deadline. That one had Jeff Bagwell-for-Larry Andersen redux all over it. Yet, you have to wonder what went wrong with Kerry Wood? The Yankees outbid Boston for Wood, whom they obtained essentially for cash by picking up a large chunk of his salary. There is a player-to-be-named later involved as well, but the cash was the key for Cleveland.

Wood has a 1.29 ERA in six appearances with the Pinstripes, and has emerged as a nice seventh-inning option for Joe Girardi.

Pedroia is certainly a great pennant race "addition" for the Sox, but unless they add someone to their bullpen before the end of the month they're destined to be subtracted from the playoff chase.

Ellsbury needs to play the silent card

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 5, 2010 02:10 PM

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Jacoby Ellsbury watches his infield pop out in the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010. Ellsbury returned to the lineup after missing most of the season with injured ribs. (Elise Amendola / AP)

Jacoby Ellsbury has proven to be pretty good at digging himself out of a hole. Last season, he led the majors with a .319 batting average after going down no balls and two strikes.

Now, he's in the equivalent of an 0-and-2 hole with many frustrated Red Sox fans, media and teammates who feel he dawdled in his return (for the second time) from five fractured ribs.

Ellsbury, who had been on the disabled list since May 28, finally made his way back to Fenway last night against the Cleveland Indians, playing his 10th game of the season in the Sox' 108th. He went 0 for 5, but got a warm welcome back from the Fenway faithful, although there were a smattering of boos mixed in.

Before the game, Ellsbury once again tried to dispel the notion that he's unwilling to labor through pain. It's an E-8 that Ellsbury keeps making over and over on the comeback trail. By now, his uber-agent Scott Boras or someone close to him should have figured out and counseled Ellsbury that the more he talks the more he fosters doubt and disdain about his toughness, or lack thereof.

There is nothing Ellsbury can say, relay or explain that is going to change the belief of his detractors that he malingered the last couple of months with the rib injury. That might be unfortunate and unfair, but it's fact. Neither his rambling, 11-minute soliloquy in Toronto last month nor his comments last night about cutting off his own cast to play football are going to change the public perception. Quite the opposite actually, as they open Ellsbury up to ridicule.

Ellsbury's best public relations play is to simply zip it and play. Let his talent do the talking. The only way Ellsbury can change the narrative of his lost season is by reminding everyone exactly why they were so upset by his absence in the first place -- because he is a dynamic, difference-making force on the base paths and in the outfield.

If he does that, the topic of conversation will change from his toughness to just how much the Sox missed his presence in the lineup. Eventually the injury imbroglio will fade away, although the long-term effect on his relationship with the organization, particularly the medical staff, remains to be seen.

There is a segment of the Red Sox-supporting population that believes Ellsbury is overrated. That he is a pink hat pacifier. All flash and dash and no substance. That sentiment is totally discounting the impact he has had since he came up in 2007. The Sox have made the playoffs every season Ellsbury has played.

Last season, he became the first American League player since Kenny Lofton in 1996 to steal 70 bases and bat .300. Sabermetrics frowns on both of those stats, rendering them vacuous or meaningless. In another era of baseball, Ellsbury's average and speed would not be so easily dismissed because his .OPS is not over .800.

There is one stat that stands the test of time. Runs scored. It's the point of the game. It's also something Ellsbury is proficient at when he's in the lineup.

Coming into this season, Ellsbury was ranked tied for 21st among active players in runs scored the last two seasons with 192 from 2008-09. That doesn't sound that impressive, but just ahead of him were Adrian Gonzalez (193) and Derek Jeter (195). He was tied with Joe Mauer and just ahead of Ichiro Suzuki. That's pretty good company.

Ellsbury has earned his share of criticism, but also gotten a bit of a raw deal on the rib injury, his exile in Arizona and his rehab. When Ellsbury was originally hurt on April 11 in Kansas City, it took him 41 days to return to play. He played in three games and then ended up back on the DL on May 28, before starting comeback No. 2 last night.

When Jeremy Hermida got the same Dick Butkus treatment from third baseman Adrian Beltre on June 4, he tried to play through the injury, taking the field on June 9. He ended up on the disabled list and wasn't reactivated until July 22, a span of 43 days. The initial recovery times for Ellsbury and Hermida are almost identical.

Hermida returned, went 2 for 20, and was promptly designated for assignment for the Sox. So, you can't say this is an injury that doesn't affect a ball player's ability to perform, particularly at the plate. That's why Ellsbury wanted another game in Pawtucket on Tuesday.

It was rather ironic that the argument made for Ellsbury foregoing the final rehab game was that his glove was desperately needed in center field, the position which was usurped from him by the Sox in the off-season. What happened to Ultimate Zone Ratings, and the idea that Ellsbury was a defensively deficient center fielder?

That being said, Ellsbury did himself no favors by staying in Rhode Island instead of riding to the rescue, especially when catcher Victor Martinez came back from a broken thumb without any rehab stint at all, and Dustin Pedroia, who would take-out slide his own mother to break up a double play, is chomping at the bit to take the field.

Ellsbury will never be able to explain that away, and quotes like this only continue to deepen the hole.

“I know how my body feels,’’ Ellsbury told reporters before last night's game. "I’ve played hurt in the past. I’ve played other sports, I’ve played football, cut off my own cast to play in the game, broke my collarbone playing basketball."

All he can do to turn the tide of public sentiment is play, play well and help the listing SS Red Sox stay afloat in the playoff race.

That's his best argument of all, and the only one everyone will listen to.

One down and going nine with the Red Sox

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 20, 2010 01:39 PM

The red-eyed Red Sox opened their 10-day, 10-game West Coast swing with a nail-biting, sleep-postponing 2-1 victory over the Oakland A's last night. Opening the trip with a win in Oakland was a good omen for the Olde Towne Team. One game down, nine to go.

So, here are nine thoughts, observations and estimations about the Red Sox with 69 games to go:

1.Tough start -- That's what tonight is for Tim Wakefield, who knows that even if he throws a no-hitter his spot in the rotation is about to vanish with the return of Clay Buchholz tomorrow and Josh Beckett on Friday. Wakefield is the odd man out for the umpteenth time in his career, but it's hard to feel sorry for him on this one. The veteran knuckleballer will make his 16th start of the season tonight, in six of the previous 15 he has allowed six or more runs, including his last two. Wakefield is a class act and a guy you root for but the Red Sox can't afford any more clunkers at this juncture.

2. Forget the Papelbon panic -- So, where are those people now who were calling for Jonathan Papelbon to be removed as closer after he blew back-to-back saves against the Rockies almost a month ago? Papelbon has been lights out since the debacle in Denver. He hasn't allowed a run in seven appearances and during that span has surrendered just one hit, while picking up five saves. Papelbon might not be long for the Red Sox' closer role for contractual reasons, but the hysteria over two bad outings was absurd. Papelbon is the least of the Sox concerns when it comes to the bullpen.

3. Michael Bowden can be the Red Sox' Phil Hughes -- Not the Phil Hughes who is a front-line starter for the Yankees this year, but the one who made a mid-season conversion to a relief role and stabilized the Bronx Bombers bullpen last season. As Mr. Touching All The Bases pointed out in our Red Sox podcast, Bowden doesn't have Hughes high-end stuff and isn't overpowering. However, he does have the makeup (read: mental toughness and approach) to thrive in a relief role. Unlike Hughes in '09, Bowden doesn't have to be the direct link to the closer. He just has to be the on-ramp to Bard, who is the bridge to Papelbon.

4. Daisuke Matsuzaka has the shortest leash of any Sox starter -- This was pretty obvious last night when Terry Francona took out Matsuzaka, who had allowed only two hits and was dealing, with two outs in the seventh and runners on second and third. There was no problem with the manager's move, but you wonder if it would have been the same decision with John Lackey. This season Lackey has been more Daisuke-esque than Daisuke with his inconsistent outings, but the team keeps telling us he keeps them in games and piles up innings. He also piles up baserunners (142 hits and 48 walks and four hits batters in 120 innings) and hitters have a .330 average with balls put into play against him. If one gets a quick hook, so should the other.

5. This road trip could mark the return of run prevention -- The truth is that the oft-cited unofficial slogan of the 2010 Red Sox was a misnomer until injuries reduced their lineup to National League Lite. They still lead the majors in runs scored, but to come out of this West Coast sojourn with a winning record the battered Bostonians are going to have to win games like last night's 2-1 affair. Luckily, that's possible because the A's and the Red Sox next opponent, the Seattle Mariners, are two of the lightest-hitting clubs in the league. Both play in pitcher-friendly ballparks and are in the bottom six in the majors in runs scored. Seattle is tied for the fewest homers in the baseball with 60 and Oakland is tied for second-fewest with 61.

6. Adrian Beltre is one tough hombre -- Beltre's homer was the difference last night, but what was most impressive was watching him clearly hobbling down the line on an eighth-inning single. Beltre's hamstring is not 100 percent, but he's gutting it out and contributing to the Sox. For all the talk about Beltre's defense excellence when he came over from Seattle as a free agent what was undersold is how tough he is. That's valuable on an injury-plagued team. Of course maybe we should have known Beltre was a tough guy. You're either tough or crazy if you forgo, uh, covering all your bases.

7. Would the Red Sox consider bringing Coco Crisp back? -- Remember when Crisp was going to be the next big thing for the Red Sox? When David Ortiz poured milk over his head for a Sports Illustrated shot? Crisp broke his knuckle sliding into third base in Baltimore five games into his Red Sox' career, the first of a few bad breaks for him here. A fractured pinkie finger and a strained chest muscle have limited Crisp to 22 games with the A's this season, and he's hitting just .229. But he would come cheap, can play defense, steal a base and could be reinvigorated by platooning on a potential playoff team.

8. Jeremy Hermida's return is a referendum on rib injuries -- Hermida is scheduled to rejoin the Red Sox on Thursday in Seattle, which remarkably is two months to the day that Jacoby Ellsbury returned from his fractured ribs. It took Ellsbury 41 days to come back the first (some contend only) time, and if Hermida plays on Thursday it will be 48 days since the injury and 43 days since he played in a big league game. If Hermida can play without trouble, then the Ellsbury cynics are right. If Hermida has to shut it down, then Ellsbury will be owed quite a few apologies.

9. Painful reminder -- That's what the Red Sox will face in Seattle on Saturday when the opposing pitcher is scheduled to be former farmhand David Pauley. The last time they were this beat up was 2006, and Pauley came up from the farm to make three spot starts. He went 0-2 with a 7.88 ERA. Pauley, who last pitched for the Red Sox in 2008, has made two starts this season for Seattle. He is still searching for his first big league win. How ironic if it came against his shorthanded former team.

Red Sox still have a say in playoff race

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 19, 2010 12:17 PM

You get the sense that some folks around here are just waiting for these Red Sox to fail. They have been since the season started. Anticipating the moment they could say, "I told you so..." about a team they never wanted to embrace.

Even before they were decimated by injuries and trotting out lineups with Daniel Nava batting sixth, as he did on Friday, a lot of doubt was expressed about the composition of the Red Sox and their ability to compete in the American League East. Some of the nabobs of negativity in the Nation were underwhelmed by the off-season acquisitions, skeptical about run prevention, which has turned out to be a red herring for a run-producing team, and ready to jump off the bridge year before it began.

So, with the Sox sputtering as losers of eight of their last 11 and trailing the Yankees by 6.5 games in the American League East and the Tampa Bay Rays by 3.5 in the wild card chase it seems as good a time as any to sound the overdue death knell for the 2010 Red Sox. Suddenly the 10-day, 10-game road trip out West against the .500 Oakland A's, the 20-games sub-.500 Seattle Mariners and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, one of just two teams in major league baseball with a winning record and a negative run differential, is baseball's version of the Trail of Tears.

I'm not buying it -- yet. The Red Sox may very well miss the playoffs, and perhaps, even without the rash of injuries and the awful start in April and May, they weren't a playoff team. However, it's tough to come to the conclusion in late July with 70 games to play that Boston's playoff chase is reaching its conclusion, especially when the Yankees just lost Andy Pettitte for at least the next month and are replacing him in their rotation with Sergio Mitre.

The Epstein Nine were written off once already this season. How did that turn out? Back on May 17, after a Jonathan Papelbon blown save and a crushing defeat in the Bronx against the Yankees, the Red Sox were 19-20, 8.5 games back of first place Tampa Bay and 6.5 games behind the second-place Pinstripes.

The season was over, David Ortiz's career was over and so was Boston's baseball summer before it had even really begun. Fast forward to the exact mid-way point of the season and the start of play on July 4th and the Sox were 49-32, a half-game out of first place and Ortiz was about to be named an All-Star.

The narrative of a baseball season has a lot of unforeseen twists and turns and the book on these Red Sox hasn't been authored yet because there is still a lot of baseball left to be played. The season doesn't end in East Bay, Seattle, or Southern California.

While that is a bromide as tired and worn as that tattered, pine tar-coated cap Trot Nixon used to wear it's also true. When the Red Sox return from their West Coast trip to take on the Detroit Tigers at home on July 30, the Rays and Yankees will be playing each other at the Trop. Tampa Bay and New York have 10 games remaining against each other. The Red Sox have 10 games to play against the Yankees and six with the Maddon Men.

There remains time and opportunity to make up the six games they ceded in the last two weeks in the AL East standings.

While this road trip is not the Red Sox' Rubicon, there is no question it is a crucial stretch. A 2-8 trip would be disastrous, and the Yankees and Rays certainly have easier schedules over their next 10 games than the Red Sox. However, the Red Sox have been a solid road team this season. They're 22-20 away from Friendly Fenway, tied with Texas, for the third-best road record in the majors behind the Rays and Yanks.

They simply have to tread water until the July 31 trading deadline and give general manager Theo Epstein, who has a pretty good in-season trading track record, a chance to find some help and the team's injured players a chance to heal. Then they can give it their best shot over the season's final two months and let the chips fall where they may.

The reinforcements can't return fast enough.

The Red Sox scored just 11 runs while losing three of four to the Texas Rangers, who, oh, by the way happen to be a pretty good team. It's not like they lost three of four to Baltimore at the Fens. One large problem for Boston is that the bottom of the order has become a barren wasteland. Against Texas the No. 7, No. 8 and No. 9 spots in the lineup were 4 for 41 with a home run, an RBI and six walks. It's tough to win in the American League with two-thirds of a lineup and near automatic outs like Kevin Cash and Dusty Brown.

There are some good signs among the walking -- or hobbling -- wounded. Pitchers Clay Buchholz, who will start Wednesday in Oakland, and Josh Beckett, who takes the mound Friday in Seattle, are back this week, and catcher Victor Martinez was able to gingerly play catch yesterday and squeeze his broken thumb into a mitt.

At the end of the day the demise of the Red Sox might not have anything to do with injuries or road trips or slow starts, it might simply be a matter of geography. Unfortunately for Boston they share a division with the two teams that have the top two records in baseball. Maybe the Sox are just not good enough.

But if they're still in the playoff race a month from now then the race to eulogize them will have been premature and the Red Sox will have every right to say, "I told you so..."

Leaving you with five staycation thoughts...

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 12, 2010 02:04 PM

It's time for a little summer vacation, but before I depart (figuratively but not literally) for my staycation, I thought I'd leave you with a few thoughts from what was an interesting and eventful last five days in the sports world.

1. Has there ever been a worse sports break-up than LeBron James and Cleveland? The phrase, "I'm taking my talents to..." is now part of our pop-culture lexicon. How LeBron announced his decision Thursday night was disgraceful, disingenuous, and downright crass. It was the equivalent of dumping a fiancé or fiancée on national television while simultaneously making out with your new amour. Talk about a jilted lover, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert lambasted the King and accused him of quitting. Mr. Gilbert: Check the box score from Game 6. LeBron took a game-high 21 shots, 12 in the first half. He had a triple-double (27 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists) and nine turnovers. You're just as self-serving and self-centered as Gone Baby 'Bron. You two deserved each other.

For all the LeBron enablers in the NBA talking about how we should praise his decision because it was all about winning, read this excellent piece by Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in which it is quite clear that the Heat's willingness to accommodate LeBron's Boys and conversely Chicago's unwillingness played a role in the outcome.

In a weird way, the Hub is to blame for this hoops spectacle. Don't forget that the final time King James donned a Cavaliers uniform was on May 13 at TD Garden, as the Celtics ushered in the Summer of LeBron and ushered the Cavs out of the playoffs with a 94-85 victory. After losing twice to the Celtics in the playoffs in the last three seasons, LeBron felt the only way to beat the Big Three (plus Rondo) was to form a hoops holy trinity of his own with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

2. The Celtics' offseason plan doesn't look as good now as it did five days ago: So much for luck of the Irish. The carefully cultivated and meticulously executed offseason stratagem of the Celtics unraveled in four days. It was all aboard for Banner 18 last Wednesday after Danny Ainge lured Ray Allen back into the fold, and then things started to veer off track. On Thursday, the Celtics reached an agreement with/exhumed the remains of backup big man Jermaine O'Neal. Hours later, LeBron announced he was going to Miami. Then yesterday, reserve shooting guard Tony Allen moved to the Memphis beat.

Other than the Cavaliers and New York Knicks, the Celtics are the biggest losers in the LeBron Sweepstakes. If the Chosen One had chosen to go back to Cleveland or even signed with the Bulls, the Celtics still would have been regarded as the favorites in the East this year, and possibly next. Now, Miami has formed a triumvirate of its own that on paper trumps Boston's. The Celtics Big Three are in decline, Miami's is in its prime. Simple as that.

The caveat about the Heat is what kind of bench are they going to have? But you can ask the same question about the Celtics now that Tony Allen has defected and that O'Neal has been signed to replace the presumably retiring Rasheed Wallace. With very limited cap space, Ainge is going to have to get creative to replace TA. The Celtics signing Jermaine O'Neal is better than signing Shaquille O'Neal. That's about the only positive spin I can put on the move.

3. Jacoby Ellsbury is not getting a fair shake: Look, Ellsbury did himself no favors with his copious notes and detailed dissertation of the disconnect between himself and the Sox when it comes to the five broken ribs he ostensibly suffered in a collision with Adrian Beltre on April 11 in Kansas City. It helps no one to get into a he said-he said, but Ellsbury clearly felt he had to defend himself against the character assassination that has gone on since he got injured. It's tough to blame him.

While it's difficult to condone Ellsbury disappearing to Athletes' Performance Institute in Arizona for a month, he has a right under the collective bargaining agreement to seek outside medical care, and the Sox signed off on it. Who among us hasn't sought a second opinion when they felt they were not being listened to by a doctor?

Last Saturday marked 36 days since fellow Sox outfielder Jeremy Hermida suffered five fractured ribs in a collision with Beltre in Baltimore on June 4. At that same mark after his injury, Ellbury was making a rehab start in Pawtucket. No one seemed to mention that while throwing a parade for Hermida last week when he took full batting practice. This is not to diminish Hermida but to point out the two players seem to be on similar recovery paths.

After suffering his injury, Hermida actually played in a game, appearing against Cleveland five days later. He hasn't played since. That would indicate both the seriousness and the difficulty in recovery with this injury. Don't forget, Ellsbury, who said that in addition to the ribs he has a lattisimus dorsi strain and inflamed nerves, came back and played in minor-league rehab games and three major league games before the, according to him, previously undiagnosed broken back rib shut him down.

If Hermida returns to action and is able to play regularly, then the Ellsbury bashers have a point. Until then the jury is out.

4. Apologies to Nick Swisher and Tony Mazz: Before the season, I said that one of the reasons I wasn't as bullish on the Bronx Bombers as Mazz and others was that I thought the Yankees would miss Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui and that Swisher would not be able to duplicate his 2009 performance (29 home runs, 82 runs batted in, .371 on-base percentage). Swisher's pinstripe premiere year was a fluke.

I was wrong. Swisher has been better than last year and earned an All-Star nod by beating out fellow "Moneyball" protagonist Kevin Youklis in the MLB All-Star final vote. Swisher is a deserving All-Star (although not more deserving than Youkilis). He is batting .298 with 15 home runs, 49 RBI and a .377 OBP at the break. His .901 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) is higher than both Alex Rodriguez and Mark Texeira and tied with Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford.

5. Welcome reign for Spain: In a lot of ways Spain was kind of like the pre-2004 Red Sox of international soccer. They had a rich history, a ton of talented players, but they just couldn't win the Big One. That changed yesterday with the Spaniards' 1-0 win over the Netherlands in the World Cup final. Andres Iniesta's game-winner in the 116th minute was a magnificent strike following a great first touch to settle the bouncing ball. Think of a one-handed catch by Randy Moss. It was the type of magical technical skill the reigning European champions showcased all tournament long, and why La Roja deserved to return to Madrid as world champions. It also sent an important lesson to the rest of the world, including the US, that ball possession, pinpoint passing and pushing forward, not defensive shells and physical fouls, are rewarded.

No relief in sight for Sox

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 6, 2010 12:46 PM

If this Red Sox team has a potentially dooming defect -- what general manager Theo Epstein famously referred to as a "fatal flaw" in 2004 -- it's warming up in the bullpen.

Outside of Jonathan Papelbon, whose hiccups have been greatly exaggerated by the Nation, and Daily Daniel Bard, relief has been hard to come by for the Red Sox. It was hard to watch last night's 6-5 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays and not notice the juxtaposition between the pens of the two American League East combatants.

The Rays relievers saved the game for them after noted Red Sox killer Matt Garza was bludgeoned for four runs and seven hits in three innings. An Eric Patterson solo homer was all Tampa Bay's bullpen surrendered the rest of the way, and the pivotal sequence in the game was when the Sox loaded the bases with one out in the seventh inning and Grant Balfour and Randy Choate notched back-to-back strikeouts to keep the game tied. The next half-inning, the Rays went ahead against Ramon Ramirez and then Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano shut it down for the Maddon Men, who reclaimed second place in the AL East.

With 25 shopping days left until Major League Baseball's trade deadline it is apparent what Epstein must add to this injury-depleted, overachieving team -- a few good arms to make the 'pen mightier and prevent manager Terry Francona from falling on the sword.

While the brunt of the blame for last night's loss belongs to "Roll of the" Dasuike Matsuzaka, a pitcher whose advanced billing has turned out to be as chimerical as the gyroball, the bullpen is to blame too.

Few things give a manager more second thoughts or get him second-guessed more than a faulty bullpen.

There was a lot of irritation and frustration streaming through Twitter and the blogosphere last night over Francona not giving the maddening Matsuzaka, who couldn't protect a 5-1 lead, the hook sooner. But with the current state of disarray of the Sox bullpen can you really blame him? It's not a coincidence that the last two games Sox starters John Lackey and Matsuzaka have been allowed to throw 117 and 112 pitches, respectively.

Plus, with rookie lefthander Felix Doubront taking the mound tonight at the Trop, Francona couldn't afford to empty what's left of his beleaguered bullpen.

We all know what happens when a manager starts to lose faith in his bullpen, when he believes a tiring or scuffling starter gives him just as good a chance as his flammable fleet of relievers, when tapping your forearm feels like shooting yourself in the foot. Like the games he reluctantly puts his penman into it usually doesn't end well for the team. Just ask a nice Southern gentleman who used to manage the Sox in 2003.

If this were a grade school report card, the Sox would get a not-satisfactory for penmanship so far. The Boston bullpen ranks 28th among the 30 MLB outfits in earned run average at 4.84 (Boston starters sport a 4.08 ERA). Only Milwaukee and Arizona, which recently ousted both its manager and its GM, rank worse. The Rays bullpen is third in baseball at 3.13.

Red Sox relievers are tied for the league lead in home runs allowed with the Diamondbacks (36) and their 12 blown saves are tied for third in baseball with the woebegone Baltimore Orioles.

The Sox' bullpen ranking would be their lowest since 2005, when they were 29th in ERA (5.17) and were also second to last in opponents batting average (.285). In the fateful 2003 campaign, the carmine hose finished 28th in relievers' ERA (4.87).

In both of the team's World Series championship seasons they had bullpen ERAs under 4.00. In 2007, the Sox had the second-best bullpen ERA in all of baseball (3.10) and the best batting average against (.226).

Fixing a bullpen on the fly is about as difficult as making a souffle from scratch. You can have all the right ingredients and follow your plan perfectly, but somehow the mix just doesn't come out looking right. Relievers are like stocks, their performance is both unpredictable and volatile (see: Hideki Okajima and Ramon Ramirez) and if you could find a way to accurately predict it all the time you would be awash in riches. Last season with a similar crew, the Sox were eighth in bullpen ERA at 3.80.

Perhaps, there are internal solutions with pitching prospect Michael Bowden, a starter at Pawtucket, and hard-throwing Portland reliever Jason Rice.

It's caveat emptor -- sometimes caveat empty -- if you try to obtain help from outside. Epstein has tried to bolster bullpens mid-season before with mixed results.

In 2003, he dealt for the Scotts -- Sauberbeck and Williamson. Both posted ERAs above 6.00. Williamson pitched well in the playoffs, going 2-0 with a 1.13 ERA and three saves, but by that time Grady Little had been traumatized. In 2005, Epstein nabbed knuckle-scrapping submariner Chad Bradford, and he went a respectable 2-1 with a 3.86 ERA.

The most memorable of Epstein's relief pitcher pickups was Eric Gagne in 2007. Gagne, who came from Texas with a 2.16 ERA and 16 saves, turned out to be a colossal bust in Boston, compiling a 6.75 ERA and imploding in the playoffs. Last season, Epstein added Billy Wagner in a post-deadline, waiver trade and the flamethrowing lefty was terrific, posting a 1.98 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 13.2 innings.

Perhaps, the best news for the Sox is that the boys in the Bronx aren't too bullish on their bullpen right now. Closer nonpareil Mariano Rivera has been his usual dominant self, but getting to Mo has been a problem for the Pinstripes. Converted reliever/starter/reliever Joba Chamberlain has been more like Craig Hansen than Daniel Bard, and David Robertson still has an ERA hovering near 6.00, despite a June in which he had a 1.00 ERA.

Which teams can find the mightiest 'pens might just tell the tale of the AL East.

Lester has been Red Sox ace in a hole

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 28, 2010 01:44 PM

There were certain assumptions made about the Red Sox before this season that now seem outmoded nearly halfway through the arduous 162-game schedule.

We assumed the Red Sox would be a team that squeezed across runs at the same rate that a World Cup soccer side scores goals, that Jason Bay would be sorely missed in left field and that they possessed an indistinguishable trio of No. 1 pitchers in Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey.

Seventy-seven games into the season, the Red Sox lead the majors in runs scored, slugging percentage and .OPS, Bay's name is rarely uttered, even by Theo Epstein's most vociferous critics, and the Red Sox have one indomitable, indisputable ace -- Jon Lester.

While Beckett nurses a lower back strain that has prevented him from pitching or lowering his 7.29 ERA since May 19 and Lackey does a pretty fair Daisuke Matsuzaka impression, racking up wins and baserunners at an equal rate, Lester (9-3) has as many wins as those two combined, more strikeouts than the two highly-paid Texans (111 to 96) and more complete games (2-0).

His second complete game of the season, which came yesterday in a 5-1 win over the San Francisco Giants, was the epitome of what it means to be an ace, a No. 1 starter, a stopper, or any other appellation you can conjure up for a team's best pitcher.

A day after Clay Buchholz, the only pitcher on the Red Sox staff who could mount any challenge to Lester's ace status this season, pulled up lame running the bases, forcing the Red Sox to use seven relievers, Lester relieved the bullpen by going the distance. He allowed a single run while working with two different Boston catchers and outdueling two-time Cy Young Award-winner Tim Lincecum.

The importance of his economical (103 pitches) and overpowering (nine strikeouts) effort can't be overstated. Lester, who lowered his ERA to 2.86 and strengthened his case to make his first All-Star team, saved what would have felt like a calamitous road trip, from Jonathan Papelbon's collapse in Colorado to the injuries suffered by Dustin Pedroia and Victor Martinez and Buchholz.

Instead of going home with more injuries than wins on a star-crossed sojourn, the Red Sox returned to Fenway with a .500 record and a "we'll manage" mien.

And with an off-day today, Lester allowed manager Terry Francona to give his fried bullpen two days off heading into tomorrow's important series with American League East rival Tampa Bay. It may have been the single most important pitching performance of the season so far, considering the circumstances, and if there was still any debate as to whom the Red Sox' No. 1 pitcher it was left in San Francisco.

If it hadn't been for Jonathan Broxton's implosion a few hundred miles south in Los Angeles, the Red Sox would have left the West Coast just a game out of first place, remarkable considering their start and Lester's. Since April 23, a day that Lester took the mound against the Baltimore Orioles sporting an 8.44 earned run average, he has posted a 1.88 ERA in 13 starts.

The truth is there shouldn't have been an ace argument in the first place, with all due respect to Beckett and Lackey, two top of the line starters. The 26-year-old Lester has been the Sox' ace since the second half of last season. He was Francona's choice to start the opener of the American League Division Series last fall against the Angels. Last season, only Lincecum and Justin Verlander averaged more strikeouts per 9 innings than the electric lefthander.

But there was a debate because of the enduring memory of Beckett's brilliant 2007 season and the uncertainty surrounding his contract status entering spring training. Beckett was awarded a four-year extension, starting next season that will pay him $68 million. He's making $12 million this season in the final season of his old deal, or about three times what Lester, who signed a five-year, $30 million extension last season, will make this season ($3.75 million). The Red Sox doled out $82 million and a five-year contract to bring Lackey to Boston during the offseason.

However, ace status is decided by performance and not pay grade.

Lester has been both durable and dominant since 2008, despite his notoriously slow starts. Lester would be one to agree with T.S. Eliot's words from "The Waste Land" -- April is the cruelest month. He has compiled a 3-6 record and a 4.76 ERA in March/April over the last three seasons.

Even with his early-season woes, his 31 wins the last two seasons were more than both Beckett and Lackey mustered, and among the triumvirate, only the Red Sox sine qua non southpaw had topped 200 innings in each of the last two seasons; Beckett tossed 212 1/3 innings last season, a career-high, a probable precursor to his DL stint this year.

What makes Lester's performance over the last two and a half seasons even more impressive is that it's taking place in the American League East, which is baseball's version of the Bermuda Triangle for starting pitchers. Just ask Javier Vasquez. Lackey has come to learn pretty quickly that it's a little bit different facing the Rays and the Yankees than Oakland and Seattle, a pair of light-hitting teams in pitcher-friendly ballparks.

Safeco Field and the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum just happen to have the two lowest ballpark ERAs in all of baseball -- 3.22 and 3.41, respectively -- this season.

The AL East is home to some pretty good young lefthanded starters in Tampa's David Price and Toronto's Ricky Romero, but none better than Lester.

The Red Sox put themselves in an early hole this season, and Lester has been the ace who has gotten hitters out and gotten them out of it. Now, if Beckett, who should return late next month, and Lackey, who goes for his ninth win tomorrow against the Rays, can live up to their end of the bargain the Red Sox will have pitching in spades.

Boston sports are an 'LA Story'

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 21, 2010 01:35 PM

We just can't escape LA these days. The fate and fortunes of our traditional Big Four pro sports franchises -- the Celtics, the Red Sox, the Patriots and the Bruins -- are intertwined for better or worse with Los Angeles.

New York will always be Boston's chief rival sports city, but LA has become a noteworthy nemesis, a sunny, superficial antagonist that we love to beat and resent.

There couldn't be two more different cities than staid, historic, and compact Boston and capricious, trendy and sprawling Los Angeles. Yet it seems like everywhere you turn there is some Boston- LA link hovering above the sports scene like LA's infamous smog.

Let's start with the obvious LA story. The Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers just concluded a seven-game basketball battle royal to crown an NBA champion, meeting in the NBA Finals for the second time in three seasons. The Lakers outlasted the Celtics to win their 16th championship. Fittingly, dead downtown Los Angeles could be the final burial ground for the Big Three era and the Celtics coaching career of Doc Rivers.

The two storied franchises have accounted for 33 of the NBA's 64 championships, with the Green, who beat LA two years ago for Banner No. 17, holding the slimmest of leads. It would be nothing short of a calamity if the Lakers, who are holding their championship parade today, tied or surpassed the Celtics as the most decorated team in professional hoops history.

Luckily, it can't legitimately happen. The "Los Angeles Lakers" claim of 16 championships rings a little hollow when in their own arena they hang prominent purple and gold banners for each of the LA championships and cram the five titles won in Minneapolis, before LA seduced the Lakers west for the 1960-61 season, with the game's first superstar, George Mikan, on to one measly flag marked "M.P.L.S"

The scoreboard should read Celtics: 17, Los Angeles Lakers: 11.

A Boston sports team did manage to defeat one of LA's beloved teams in a series, replete with "Beat LA" chants. The Red Sox just swept Manny Ramirez and the Dodgers out of Fenway, with nary a word uttered by the mercurial, peculiar and polarizing former Sox slugger, who went 5 for 12 with a home run and one run batted in during his letdown of a return to Fenway.

Manny being Manny has given way to Mannywood. The desperate for a dollar Dodgers have done a great job of marketing Manny's misfit -- and occasionally misanthropic -- personality. This is the final year of Ramirez's contract with the Dodgers and he and the team appear headed for a divorce. That's not a word that Dodgers fans are fond of, as there is prevalent fear in LA that the sticky divorce proceedings between team owner and former Boston real estate magnate Frank McCourt and his wife, Jamie, could leave the team financially hamstrung and unable to add the pieces it needs to reach the World Series for the first time since 1988.

Speaking of separation anxiety, that's what Patriots' fans are experiencing when it comes to their bi-coastal franchise quarterback, Tom Brady. Los Angeles may no longer have a pro football team (according to the NCAA they had one at USC under Pete Carroll), but they do have New England sports' most revered and recognized star.

Tom Terrific has generated some concern among the Foxborough Faithful by spending the majority of his off-season in the Los Angeles-area. Brady's eldest son, Jack, lives in La-La Land with his mother and the QB's former girlfriend, actress Bridget Moynahan. The canonized quarterback is building a home with his wife, supermodel Gisele Bündchen, in the posh Brentwood section of LA, and he was seen yucking it up with Lakers star Kobe Bryant after Game 3 of the Finals.

There have been as many photos of him hanging out at the UCLA spring game with David Beckham as there have been participating in Patriots off-season practices. And the purported "growing disconnect" between Brady, whose contract is up after this season, and the team is both financial and geographical. Brady isn't willing to take a hometown discount this time, at least not if the hometown is here.

LA stole the Dodgers and the Lakers, they won't hesitate to take the greatest football player in New England sports history. Brady could be quarterbacking the Los Angeles Jaguars in 2012.

It's not all bad from a Boston perspective when it comes to the City of Angels. LA could be about to deliver a savior to the most forlorn of Boston's Big Four, the Bruins. The NHL Entry Draft will be held Friday and Saturday in ... Los Angeles. The pick-a-palooza is at Staples Center, so the scene of the Celtics' demise could be the locale of the Bruins' resurrection.

Anybody who has been keeping up with the Bruins knows that the Black and Gold have the No. 2 pick in this draft and are assured of obtaining one of what the ice hockey intelligentsia have promised us are two genuine franchise forwards in winger Taylor Hall and center Tyler Seguin.

The last time the Bruins successfully drafted a face-of-the-franchise player, Los Angeles was involved. The Spoked-B's swapped goalie Ron Grahame to the Los Angeles Kings on Oct. 9, 1978 for a 1979 first-round pick. That pick ended up being used to select a young defenseman by the name of Ray Bourque. Thanks, LA.

See, it's not all bad with Los Angeles, although you do have to question a place where Miley Cyrus is a success. LA has the ultimate sports bar for the Boston sports diaspora, Sonny McLean's. It's delivered us Bourque and produced Paul Pierce, Willie McGinest, Fred Lynn and newly minted Patriots Hall of Famer Sam "Bam" Cunningham.

In return, we gave them Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Fair deal.

As Rodney King famously said while imploring an end to the violent 1992 LA riots, "Can't we all just get along?"

Boston and LA sports fans don't have a choice.

Turning down pitch for Lester was the right move

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 21, 2010 12:37 PM

Sometimes, the best deals a general manager makes are the ones he doesn't.

That thought came to mind last night watching Red Sox ace (there should be no argument at this point) Jon Lester mow down the Minnesota Twins and author the first complete game of the season by a Red Sox starter.

If Sox GM Theo Epstein had capitulated to the sound and fury of talk radio, then Lester would have been the opposing pitcher last night for the Sox and not the superlative starter who needed just 84 pitches to get through the first eight innings against a Twins lineup that features MVPs Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau and ranks second in baseball in batting against lefties (.288 average).

Following the 2007 season, the Twins were peddling another pretty good port sider, a fellow by the name of Johan Santana. It was obvious that mid-market Minnesota wasn't going to be able to pay Santana the $100-plus million he wanted as he approached free agency. One of the shrewdest organizations in the game, the Twins had targeted Lester as a player they wanted in return for Santana.

Even though Lester had overcome anaplastic large cell lymphoma and started the clinching game of the 2007 World Series, it seemed like a no-brainer. Send Lester, a promising yet unproven prospect, to Minnesota for a two-time Cy Young Award winner and nonpareil lefty ace who had won the American League pitching triple crown (wins, ERA and strikeouts) a season before.

People salivated over the thought of a rotation with Santana and Beckett as its anchors. They implored Epstein to pull the trigger.

The Sox appeared open to swapping Lester, but after internal discussion and debate held steady. Santana was sent to the Mets.

It was not an easy or popular decision for the Sox brain trust to pass on Santana, whom many saw as the second coming of Pedro Martinez. You were eschewing a sure thing for a maybe. However, Epstein and others believed that Lester could one day be a pitcher of Santana's caliber at a much more palatable cost.

Two-and-a-half years later, it's pretty clear that the Sox made the right move by not moving Lester. The 26-year-old hasn't reached his prime yet, but he has become every bit the equal of the 31-year-old Santana at this point in Santana's career.

From 2008 until now, Lester has the best winning percentage of any lefthanded pitcher in baseball who has thrown at least 400 innings, posting a 35-16 mark (.686). The next best is Cliff Lee, who is 37-18, a .673 winning percentage. Santana is fifth at .640 (32-18).

But wins are an ancient and inconclusive way to measure a pitcher's effectiveness, agreed? Want to go new age? Let's take WAR (wins above replacement). Lester is tied with the Chicago White Sox John Danks as the lefthanded leader in that category over that time span (11.2). Second is Santana, 10.

Santana is one of the most dynamic punchout pitchers of his generation, baseball's version of a walking wind farm. Yet, among lefthanders who have thrown more than 400 innings during that span, Lester, who set a Red Sox record for Ks by a lefty last season with 225, has the best strikeouts per nine innings rate at 8.37. Santana's during that time is 7.80.

Santana is the lefty leader in quality start percentage with 75 percent of his starts qualifying as a quality start during the past two-plus seasons and his 2.90 is the second best among southpaws, trailing only Lee. Lester is fourth at 3.33. Batters have hit .238 off Santana during this span (third), and .245 against Lester (fifth).

But Lester is pitching in the American League East, where ERAs swell like the Banzai Pipeline. He also hasn't done himself any favors with his season-opening slumps. This year he was 0-2 with an 8.44 ERA in his first three starts.

As Mr. Touching All the Bases, Chad Finn, pointed out if you go to Lester's profile on the indispensable baseballreference.com the player he is most comparable to through age 25 is ... Johan Santana.

The two pitchers are comparable everywhere except compensation, and that is what makes holding on to Lester such a home run. After being traded to the Mets for a package of outfielder Carlos Gomez (since shipped to the Brewers for shortstop J.J. Hardy), and pitchers Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey and Deolis Guerra, Santana signed a six-year, $137.5 million deal with the Mets.

He is making $21 million this season. Lester's entire five-year extension, which is in season two, is worth $30 million. He is pulling down $3.75 million this year. Furthermore, Lester is a safer investment. Santana had to shut it down last August and had offseason surgery to remove bone chips in his pitching elbow. Santana also pitched through a torn meniscus in his left knee in 2008.

In Patriots parlance, that is value folks.

Epstein is too diplomatic and too respectful of Santana to say it, but this might be the best trade he never made.

"The organization put a lot of faith in Jon Lester, and it's quite rewarding to see that faith repaid and then some," wrote Epstein in an e-mail. "To see him come out of our system and reach this level of success is a special thing for the organization, since so many people here care about Jon and provided support or advocacy through his development years and integration period into the big leagues."

Of course there is always a little luck involved as well. The Sox were seemingly ready to deal Lester to Texas following the 2003 season in a trade that also would have sent Manny Ramirez to the Rangers in exchange for Alex Rodriguez.

Sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good. When it comes to keeping Lester, the Sox were both.

20-20 vision: Don't count out Red Sox

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 19, 2010 12:49 PM

300soxwin.jpgThe hope is that last night's never-say-die, nail-biting win in New York becomes a microcosm of the Red Sox season, a horrible start that creates a daunting deficit that is chipped away at and ultimately overcome with resolve, conviction and better pitching.

Last night's comeback in the Bronx was the 40th game of the season for a Sox. The first 40 games for a baseball team are like the first 100 days of a presidency -- they're meaningful and an indication on whether promise has been put into practice, but they don't define the entire term.

The Sox sit today at 20-20, 8.5 games back of the first place Tampa Bay Rays. Many have already declared them a lost cause, as I'm sure they did last night when the Sox trailed 5-0 after five innings one night after closer Jonathan Papelbon got pummeled by the Pinstripes in a loss that felt like it turned back the clock to pre-2004.

Understand this: Bad baseball teams don't do what the Sox did last night. They don't bounce back from losses like Monday night's with wins like last night's. Instead, they simply pack it in and take their ball and go home. Bad teams lack both the talent and the temperament to do what the Sox did to the Yankees.

These first 40 games have tested the fealty of even the most ardent members of the Fenway Faithful. Reading the standings each morning has become as painful as checking your 401K. Both just seem to lose ground.

Despite what you might think of run prevention and Josh Beckett's contract extension, the Sox are not a poorly constructed team, what they are after 40 games is an underperforming and injury-afflicted one, Beckett's bad back the latest woe.

Does that sound familiar? It should because it's the same tag you could slap on the Celtics and Bruins, both of whom were also left for dead, only to be resurrected.

But if we learned anything from dismissing the Celtics and Bruins at multiple points during their uninspiring and injury-prone regular seasons, it's that you count out teams built to contend at your own peril.

If injuries are an excuse for the Celtics' 27-27 play for four months, then the Sox should get some sympathy for 40 games. Two-thirds of their starting outfield, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron, has played more games in the minor leagues (seven) than they have spent together available on the major league roster (six). Both are missed defensively, which was obvious in Monday night's game when Jeremy Hermida and Darnell McDonald botched plays in the outfield, and in the lineup.

Despite lacking Ellsbury in the leadoff spot and Cameron, who has slugged 20-plus home runs each of the last four years, the Sox are fourth in baseball in runs scored with 210 and are averaging 5.25 runs per game, not that far from the 5.38 of last season and more than the 5.22 of 2008. They lead the league in pitches seen per plate appearance, which allows them to take advantage of the soft underbelly of major league baseball -- the bullpen.

Perhaps the poster child for this team is David Ortiz. Big Papi will never be what he was, but he is the Mark Twain of the Sox -- reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Ortiz had two more hits last night and drove in the game-tying run on a near-homer that ended up as a single when he made like a piece of Monument Park at home plate. He's been red-hot this month with a .367 average and six homers in 13 games.

Everyone predicted the Sox would be an inept offensive team that would rely on pitching and defense. Instead, run prevention has become run permission. In 17 games this month, the Sox pitching staff has posted a 5.40 ERA, the second-worst in baseball. Conversely, Sox batters are tied with the Yankees for the most runs scored in baseball this month with 107.

Boston's overall run differential this season is a minus-8. The last time they finished win a negative run differential was 2006 (minus-5), the last time this team didn't make the playoffs.

For this team, any turnaround starts with its starting pitching, which has been abhorrent. It doesn't matter whether you're a devotee of sabermetrics, defensive metrics, or the metric system, no one could have predicted the Sox pitching would be this bad through 40 games. It is what the Bill James crowd would refer to as a statistical anomaly that is ripe for some form of correction. How much might determine how far this team goes.

Only the Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates have gotten a lower percentage of quality starts this season than the Sox, who have gotten 18 in 40 games. It wasn't part of the master plan for the starters to have a 5.18 ERA, 28th among all starting staffs, and have opposing teams batting .270 off them.

Regardless of who the catcher is, the Sox starters are better than that.

The biggest problems for the Sox are external, not internal. They can't control what the Yankees and AL-East leading Rays do. If the Maddon Men continue on their 116-win pace and the Yankees on their 103-win pace, then the Sox have simply ceded too much ground too soon.

However, they're not an 81-81 team, and if it's the usual 95 wins to get a playoff spot then still I believe because this team is capable of playing .614 baseball over its final 122 games.

We might know a lot more about the State of the Sox a week from now, when they will have wrapped up eight games against the division-leading Twins, Phillies and Rays. Six of those games are on the road.

The road isn't going to get any easier for the Sox, but 40 games isn't enough to say the bridge is out in Boston.

This time, it was a welcome change of pace

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 10, 2010 12:30 AM

The Yankees and Red Sox dig the long ball, and that’s not a reference to the three home runs the teams combined for last night at the Fens. It’s an indisputable fact about the interminable games between the teams.

Fox put up a stat during Saturday’s game that dating to 2004 the average time of game in major league baseball was 2 hours 48 minutes, while the average time of a Sox-Yankees game was 3 hours 22 minutes. Last night was the sixth time the teams had played this season; the previous five took an average of 3 hours 34 minutes to conclude, or about the time it takes to fly from Boston to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

That makes for some excruciating baseball, especially when the Sox had lost four of those five and been outscored, 24-6, on Friday and Saturday. Another long, lopsided loss to the Pinstripes and it would have been panic time in the Hub.

But instead last night was time well spent for Sox fans, as the Olde Towne Team salvaged a game of this three-game set with a 9-3 win behind Jon Lester. Oh, and the game was over well before the witching hour, clocking in at a tidy 3 hours 5 minutes. It was a win-win all around, for once.

This game was a far cry from the teams’ Saturday matinee, which clocked in at 3 hours 56 minutes (plus a 1-hour-14-minute rain delay) and ended with the Bronx Bombers laying a 14-3 beatdown on the Sox.

“The last two games we played the Yankees it wasn’t pretty,’’ said Sox third baseman Adrian Beltre. “You know we know we’re going to face them a lot, so we want to make sure [last night] we come out with the win because that wasn’t going to be pretty if we were to lose.’’

You’re right, Adrian, there would have been some very cranky Sox fans this morning if this had been the fifth straight time the Sox lost to the Yankees since winning on Opening Night.

It usually feels like seasons change before these teams finish a game — last night was an autumn-like 47 degrees at first pitch, which came at 8:10 p.m. — but Lester breezed on a breezy night and kept things moving. The lefty was as precise as a metronome on the mound again, going seven innings and allowing four hits and two runs (courtesy of fourth-inning solo homers by Nick Swisher and Alex Rodriguez), while striking out seven.

The Sox also got some timely two-out hitting to blow things open with a five-run third that featured two-out, run-scoring hits by David Ortiz (ground-rule double), Beltre (double), and Jeremy Hermida (single) off Yankees starter A.J. Burnett.

The Yankees couldn’t have picked a better time to start Burnett, who allowed nine runs (eight earned) in 4 1/3 innings and is now winless in his last seven starts against the Sox, dating to 2008. His ERA during that span — 8.35.

The biggest delay last night came from plate umpire Tim McClelland, who paused for dramatic effect on called third strikes. It was a far cry from the teams’ last series at Fenway when umpire Joe West lashed out at the teams, calling their lack of baseball brevity “pathetic and embarrassing’’ and “a disgrace to baseball.’’

It was interesting to note before last night’s game that a few of the participants surveyed on both sides said they hadn’t noticed any concerted attempt by McClelland and his crew to pick up the pace in the last few days.

“None at all,’’ said Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis.

“Nothing,’’ said Yankees manager Joe Girardi.

“I don’t feel like there have been any changes. It still feels like the same game,’’ said Swisher.

If an umpire is going to publicly chastise the Sox and the Yankees for tardiness then one would think his co-workers would at least take the time to try to speed things up.

The truth is there is nothing more classic Americana than a time-consuming Sox-Yankees clash. The beauty of baseball is that there is no time limit. There is time for Ortiz to spit on his batting gloves and clasp his hands together. Time for Derek Jeter to foul off pitch after pitch after pitch. Time for Youkilis to work a walk.

It doesn’t matter, because in baseball time doesn’t.

“That is the whole point of the game is that you’re not fighting time, you’re not fighting a shot clock. You’re not fighting quarters. You’re fighting outs and sometimes those outs take a long time and sometimes they come quick,’’ said Youkilis.

Youk adroitly pointed out that one of the reasons Sox-Yankees games take so long besides the patient, pitch-count-inflating approach both teams take (thanks, Billy Beane) is that they’re usually on national television (like last night’s ESPN affair). He said that often the teams are ready to go, but are told to hold up while they wait to return from a commercial.

For years Major League Baseball has been talking about speeding up games, and they’ve had some success. But the days of playing two-hour games have gone the way of wool uniforms, they’re a relic of a different era.

This era belongs more to OBP than ASAP.

“Well, you can’t change the game. That’s the one thing you can’t change,’’ said Girardi, who was ejected in the middle of the fourth inning last night, further delaying proceedings.

“You can’t just start calling every pitch a strike to speed up the game.’’

With McClelland that would have just taken longer. But it’s good to know the Sox are back up to speed against the Yankees.

Slow start doesn't mean they're finished

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 6, 2010 03:58 PM
"We just have not played up to our capability or up to our expectations..."

Those words came on May 5 from an official with an underachieving, overpriced American League East outfit that appeared ticketed for a summer of discontent and disappointment. A grumpy assessment offered by Red Sox manager Terry Francona or a rote admission uttered by general manager Theo Epstein of the 2010 Run Prevention Red Sox?

Nope. That quote came on May 5, 2005 from the mouth of former Yankees manager Joe Torre, following a 6-2 "Stinko de Mayo" loss to the then Tampa Bay "Devil Rays" that dropped the Bronx Bombers to 11-18. The Steinbrenner Nine would fall again the following day, losing 6-3 in extra innings at home to the Oakland Athletics to ensure their worst start since 1966. That put them nine games back of the first-place Baltimore Orioles and 6.5 behind the second-place Sox.

They ended up winning 95 games and finishing first in the AL East -- although not according to the alphabetically listed tie atop the standings on the Green Monster -- taking the division title from the Sox on the final weekend of the regular season by virtue of winning the season series with the Epstein group, who finished with an identical 95-67 mark.

That was the year that the Yankees pulled Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon off the scrap heap to compensate for a dearth of starting pitching.

The point that can be gathered from the Pinstripes false start five years ago is that it's too early to panic about the plight of the 2010 Red Sox. Hysteria is part of our Puritanical heritage here. We tend to assume the worst in this corner of the country, but let's take a step back and consider, just consider, that while this is a flawed Sox team, that doesn't mean it's a failed one.

The Sox won again last night, getting another strong start from John Lackey (2-0 with a 2.57 ERA in his last three starts), to level out at .500 (14-14). They can sweep the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of Orange County of Southern California tonight with Daisuke Matsuzaka, making his second start of the season, on the mound.

A win would give the Sox a winning record for the first time since they opened the season by beating the current edition of the Yankees, who invade Fenway tomorrow for a three-game set.

It's my belief that you can't make any definitive judgment about a baseball team until you're 40 games into a season, which is about one-fourth of the way. Before then the sample size is simply too small. So, we'll learn a lot about the Sox in the next 12 games -- tonight against the Angels, the three with the Yanks, a trio against Toronto at home, three more with the Detroit Tigers in Motown and a two-game drop-in to the Bronx.

The '05 Yankees ripped off a 10-game winning streak after their horrid 11-19 start, but even 63 games into the season they were 31-32.

Only a complete pink-hat Pollyanna would believe the Sox don't have some concerns to overcome -- the continuing decline of David Ortiz, Victor Martinez's glacial start at the plate and behind it, a lack of bullpen depth beyond Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard, and a mix-and-match lineup that has more interchangeable looks than a Mr. Potato Head doll.

However, you also can't ignore that the vaunted starting pitching, which has been the biggest disappointment so far this season, is starting to make a U-turn. In their last eight games, Sox starters have gone 5-1 with a 2.82 ERA.

The cynics out there could joke that the run prevention approach has worked for Epstein, as it has prevented the Sox from scoring as many runs as in the past. Like the Bruins, the Sox are built to play with a lead. The Red Sox are 10-1 when they lead after seven innings; conversely, they're 1-7 when trailing after seven innings.

Currently, the bridge year Sox rank tied for ninth in baseball in runs scored with 139. The Olde Towne Team hasn't finished that low on the run production totem pole since 2006, when they finished ninth and didn't make the playoffs. But that lineup featured Mark Loretta at second base, Alex Gonzalez at shortstop, Coco Crisp in center field and Trot Nixon in right field, none of whom hit more than nine home runs that year.

Say, what you will about the current Sox lineup, but it's better than that top to bottom, even if it lacks the charisma and pop of Manny Ramirez and Big Papi in his prime. We just haven't seen it intact yet.

You can't overlook the fact that the Sox have had their intended starting outfield together for six games, due to the rib and abdominal injuries that have felled Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron. Ellsbury is a dynamic force at the top of the lineup, and it's not easy to replace a 70-steal player. Say what you will about Cameron's propensity for Shakespearean swings -- full of sound and fury, signifying nothing -- but he's hit 20 home runs in each of the last four seasons. Both could boost the offense enough with the current pitching

Plus, the Sox have done some positive things at the plate. They're second in the majors in slugging percentage and third in OPS. They are tied for second in extra-base hits. For all the talk about the vast difference in lineups, the Sox have outhomered the Yankees so far, 39-34.

It's not going to be easy to chase down teams as good as the Rays and the Yankees, but the Sox aren't competing in the 40-yard dash they're running the Boston Marathon. They've just left Hopkinton.

The Sox have proven to be slow starters, but just like the 2005 Yankees it's too early to call them out.

Old McDonald

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 21, 2010 03:41 PM
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For most Red Sox followers, last night was their memorable introduction to Darnell McDonald.

Mine came in February in Fort Myers, Fla., during the drudgery of Sox spring training. While waiting to talk to Kevin Youkilis, I happened to accidentally back into the locker of an unfamiliar, athletic-looking outfielder who, instead of chirping at me to get out of his way, introduced himself and shook my hand.

It was Darnell McDonald.

As a reporter, especially one relatively new to baseball and its byzantine customs and culture, there is a lot of standing around in a major league clubhouse. Sometimes it resembles the courting process at an awkward middle school dance. So, while I waited, I started talking to McDonald, who was both outgoing and easy-going with a complete stranger.

We started to talk about my favorite sport, college football, and he dropped the fact that he was recruited by Texas to play running back behind a fellow by the name of Ricky Williams. As a follower of college football recruiting, his name rang a vague bell, but, honestly,  I didn't know just how big-time a recruit he had been.

He didn't mention that he was arguably the greatest high school running back in the history of the state of Colorado, rushing for 6,121 yards and 83 touchdowns, and was to be the next Williams for the Longhorns.

He just said that he had chosen baseball over football and had no regrets. He started to tell me about all the organizations -- the Sox are his seventh --  he had played for, and how excited he was to be in camp with Boston and around players like Mike Cameron.

The next couple of days he always greeted or acknowledged me when I saw him in the clubhouse and always had a smile on his face.

I asked him after everything he had been through in his baseball career, which at that point some would have labeled a disappointment, what kept him going.

"I just love the game, man," he said.

It took a while, but last night McDonald's romance with baseball was requited, and it couldn't have come at a better time for Red Sox Nation.

It's not often in this job that you can openly root for players. It's frowned upon as unprofessional, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't rooting for Darnell McDonald.

Now, I'm glad everyone else has reason to root for him too. 

Bottoms up: toast needed for Sox offense

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 5, 2010 01:51 PM

For all the concern and consternation expressed about the reconfigured Red Sox lineup, last night's season-christening victory over the New York Yankees was both a reminder and a reality check. Run prevention might be the Boston baseball bromide for this season, but good old-fashioned run production isn't passe at the Fens.

It remains at the heart of the Sox' success in the Theo Epstein era, even if it's not as reliant on the heart of the Sox order.

There will be nights when the Red Sox miss Jason Bay's sock in the middle of the order. There is no denying that. And early on it looked like Opening Night was going to be one of those evenings, as the Sox had put as many balls off The Wall in 4 2/3 innings as hip hop pioneer Dr. Dre had done in pregame batting practice (one apiece). A 5-1 deficit felt like 50-1.

Then it was bottoms up for Boston and their balanced lineup the rest of the way.

J.D. Drew, batting seventh, got a two-out single off Sabathia, and Mike Cameron followed with a solid single to left. Marco Scutaro, batting ninth, connected for the third straight single to push across the second Sox run. The Sox went on to score in each of the next three innings after the bottom three broke through in the fifth on their way to a 9-7 victory.

While the hitting headlines this morning went to Kevin Youkilis (three extra-base hits) and Dustin Pedroia (two-run homer), the bottom of the order got on base seven times. Drew, Cameron and Scutaro combined to go 5 for 10 with two walks and an RBIs, and all three scored runs.

There are few lineups in baseball that are going to present a pitcher with a 7-8-9 trio the likes of Drew (Mr. OPS), Cameron (at least 21 home runs in four straight seasons), and Scutaro (.379 on-base percentage last season).

"I don't think there is any doubt about our offense," said Scutaro, who singled to lead off the seventh to set up Pedroia's two-run blast that tied the game, 7-7. "If you look at the lineup, I think it's pretty balanced. We have some guys who have had success before and been in the game for a long time. I don't think it's that bad."

Cameron, who before last night had batted eighth in a lineup just 97 times in his 1,829 career games, understands that bottom-dweller is his role on a team like the Red Sox.

"I think that is the kind of role I have to take on now, and just use my ability to do the things that I'm capable of doing," said Cameron. "I'm pretty sure [Scutaro] feels the same way. We have a lot of talent in this room. We may not have the best lineup, so to speak, or whatever it may be, but we got some guys here who can play some ball. I'm thrilled to be a part of it."

The bottom of the order is supposed to be a serene place where an ace like Sabathia or Josh Beckett can conserve energy and save his pitch count. But that's not possible with the loaded lineups of the American League East titans. What separates the Sox and Yankees is that they can afford to pay and put players like Drew ($14 million per year), Cameron ($8.25 million payout this year), and Scutaro ($6 million this year) in those spots.

The bottom of the Bronx Bombers' order isn't a picnic either. Curtis Granderson, who hit 30 home runs last year and made a grand entrance into the rivalry with a home run in his first at-bat as a Yankee, was batting seventh last night. He was followed by Nick Swisher (29 home runs last year) and Brett Gardner. The Yanks bottom third combined to go 4 for 11 with a home run, two RBIs, two walks, three runs scored, and another Gardner heist in Boston, as Brett stole home on a double-steal.

And Beckett wants to sign on for four more years of pitching in this division? He deserves every penny.  

The depth of the these lineups is why you can never count either team out of one of these clashes and why any meeting between the ancient rivals should be dubbed the Real Boston Marathon (last night clocked in at a tidy 3 hours and 46 minutes).

Weekend warriors can run the actual 26.2-mile course from Hopkinton to Boston in less time than it takes a game of this revered rivalry to run its course.

It's also why the Red Sox, third in baseball in runs scored with 872 last season, can surprise some of the cynics with their offensive production.

Remember, this is a lineup last year that had Jason Varitek and his .209 average spend the most games batting eighth last season. The No. 9 spot was home to Nick Green, Alex Gonzalez and Julio Lugo for 129 games.

Cameron might strike out faster than Conan O'Brien, but he is a considerable upgrade.

The No. 9 spot will be an even bigger improvement. The diminutive Scutaro scored 100 runs and was second among all MLB leadoff hitters in walks with 90 last season. Scutaro is so good that he might not be long for final spot in the order if Ellsbury gets off to a slow start in the top spot.

The AL average for the No. 9 hole ( in the National League pitchers usually bat ninth, skewing the numbers) was .245, .305 OBP and .654 OPS with 67.5 runs, 56.1 RBIs, and 8.5 home runs. The Sox will surpass that.

Just as they could surpass the lowered offensive expectations many set for them this season.

Ten for the Weekend

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 2, 2010 02:01 PM
It's hard sometimes to just limit the discussion to one timely topic, especially when your sports attention span is short and your mind is flipping through thoughts, opinions and postulations like an iPod Touch stuck on shuffle. Why only listen to Drake, when you can throw a little Carolina Liar into the mix?

So, with that in mind and a bountiful sports weekend on tap, here are Ten for the Weekend (that sounds like a cool name for a band). Unlike when you listen to your iPod, feedback is a good thing here, so feel free to chime in with comments.

1. NCAA men's tournament expansion -- Hate the idea of the men's NCAA tournament expanding to 96 teams. The purpose of the tournament is to crown a champion, not deliver television content. There is virtually no chance that any team on the wrong side of the 65-team bubble was robbed of an NCAA title. With the tournament's TV contract having an opt-out clause, this is a straight cash grab by the NCAA.  It's also completely hypocritical to dismiss the idea of a football Final Four with a "plus-one" because it would increase missed class time and then say expanding the tournament and adding an extra level of games won't result in a significant increase in missed class time. The NCAA has run infomercials during the tournament with the slogan, "We put our money where our mission is." Let's not be naive, the mission is to make money.  

2. Cavalier attitude -- Anybody else think the Celtics need to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers at TD Garden on Sunday to set themselves up for a playoff run? The Celtics haven't beaten a fellow Eastern Conference contender since Christmas Day in Orlando, and haven't beaten a legitimate title contender at home all season. There are some encouraging signs from the Green, mainly that Kevin Garnett looks more like Kevin Garnett, and Celtics coach Doc Rivers has done a great job of keeping the faith. However, his team needs to stop talking like champions and start playing like champions. They need the confidence boost and street cred from beating the LeBrons.

3. It's called Bruins -- Saturday's game in Toronto is mission critical for the Bruins. They need to win to keep pace in the playoff chase and to make sure the first-round pick they have from the Maple Leafs, currently second-to-last in the NHL with 71 points, provides them the best chance of winning the NHL Draft Lottery and landing Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin. If the Bruins end up out of the top two in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft (wonder if there is an exit draft) the Phil Kessel trade could come up empty, like the Bruins offense. The Bruins have Toronto's 2011 first-rounder, but the Internet buzz is the 2011 class of NHL prospects could be one of the weakest in recent years.

4. Go BC -- Ruffled some Eagle feathers at The Heights with my last foray into Boston College basketball, but Al Skinner is no longer in place and the search is on for his replacement. The list of candidates that athletic director Gene DeFilippo has put together is intriguing with Steve Donahue of Cornell, Chris Mooney of Richmond and former BC assistants Bill Coen (Northeastern) and Ed Cooley (Fairfield). Another named should be added to the list, Dayton coach Brian Gregory, who led the Flyers to the NIT title last night. DeFilippo told WEEI he wants a coach like Michigan State's Tom Izzo. Gregory was associate head coach at Michigan State under Izzo and is regarded as a good recruiter and game manager.

5. Opening Night -- The Red Sox open their season and the entire major league baseball season against the Yankees at Fenway on Sunday night. Sure, the Sox and Yankees have opened the season before (2005 at Yankee Stadium), but it seems like a waste of the greatest rivalry in North American sports. Opening Day is always special and so are Sox-Yankees games. Why combine the two? Save some of the AL East's internecine struggle for later, when the baseball season has grown tedious with the Torontos and Baltimores.

6. Line 'em up  -- It's quite interesting that Terry Francona came out and said he'll bat J.D. Drew sixth behind David Ortiz in the Red Sox order to start the season. Francona is traditionally not a fan of grouping lefthanders together for matchup reasons, and the decision to bat Drew and his mighty .OPS behind Big Papi speaks to the uncertainty surrounding what the team can expect to get out of Adrian Beltre, he of one extra-base hit in 42 spring at-bats. But spring stats are bogus. Before the 2007 season, during which he set career-highs for runs driven in (120) and batting average (.324) and won the World Series MVP, Mike Lowell batted .170 in 53 spring ABs.

7. Women's equality -- If you haven't been watching the women's NCAA tournament you've missed some great basketball. It doesn't get much better than the buzzer-beating lay-up from Stanford's Jeanette Pohlen to send the Cardinal to the Final Four. The female Final Four, which tips off Sunday, has great story lines. Baylor, which has 6-foot-8-inch dunking machine Brittney Griner, takes on Connecticut, and Oklahoma, which boasts some famous kin on the court in Abi Olajuwon (daughter of Hakeem) and Carlee Roethlisberger (sister of Ben), faces 35-1 Stanford. But the whole tournament has an air of inevitability thanks to UConn, which has won 76 straight games, and won its tournament games by an average of 47 per game. The women's game needs more parity  to match men's March Madness.

8. Tiger Woods tell-all -- Things just keep getting worse for Tiger Woods as he gets caught in the intricate web of lies he spun to fuel his philandering lifestyle. His mistresses should just get together and do a TV tell-all "The Bachelor"-style and have Chris Harrison host. Monday's press conference at Augusta National is Woods's last chance to really set the record straight. He doesn't have to go into the salacious details, but he needs to stop with the cover-up because his former consorts are more than willing to reveal his dirty little secrets. Take the hit, Tiger and move on.

9. Coaching 'em up -- You often hear about a coach having to coach up his young players, but you wonder if Patriots coach Bill Belichick is doing a little bit of that with his staff. Belichick is going to have a greater role in the defense this season, which, now like the offense, doesn't have a coordinator. Locker room unrest, lack of a pass rush, and a banged-up Tom Brady were among the reasons the Patriots went 10-6 last season, but don't underestimate the role that callow coaches had in the team's tough season. Like the players, the coaches around Belichick must progress this year, especially quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien and secondary coach Josh Boyer.  

10. Kelly green -- It's awfully hard to meet, talk with or watch Red Sox uber-prospect Casey Kelly and not come away impressed. The Sox want to tread carefully with Kelly, who won't turn 21 until Oct. 4, but you have to wonder if Junichi Tazawa's Tommy John surgery opens up the possibility that we could see Kelly in the big leagues this season. Even though the Sox rotation looks stacked now, if Tim Wakefield's back acts up or Daisuke Matsuzaka continues to be plagued by nagging injuries the internal options for the Sox are not overwhelming (Boof Bonser? Michael Bowden? Kason Gabbard?). We might see Kelly, who will begin the season at Double A Portland,  sooner than we or the Red Sox had hoped. 

Time to find out feats of Clay

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 29, 2010 01:08 PM
T-minus six days to Opening Night (thanks, ESPN) and there are a lot of unknowns with the 2010 Red Sox. Will the lineup suffer from "run reduction" minus Jason Bay? Can Marco Scutaro end the Curse of Orlando Cabrera at shortstop? Does Mike Lowell have a role on the team? How long will Lowell even be on the team? Will Adrian Beltre wear, ahem, protection at third base?

But perhaps there is no greater unsolved mystery than what the team can expect from Clay Daniel Buchholz. The guy with the exclamation-point build is a giant question mark heading into the season. Buchholz is either another cog in general manager Theo Epstein's player development machine or the ultimate talent tease. Either way it's time to find out what Clay is made of.

No more hiding behind the prospect label, no more caution, no more trips to Triple A, unless it's a rehab start. He is a big-league pitcher for better or worse, whether he stays with the Olde Towne Team or ends up being trade bait worthy of Bass Pro Shops.

Buchholz's development is the single-biggest reason the Red Sox should entertain a six-man rotation. He has nothing left to prove in Pawtucket and needs to prove himself in the big leagues, for his sake and that of the Sox. Every quality big-league start Buchholz makes would make it a little easier for Epstein, if he can overcome the separation anxiety, to pitch Buchholz as the center piece in a deal for Adrian Gonzalez or Prince Fielder or a slugger-to-be-named later.

Sending the slender Texan back to Rhode Island isn't going to help him learn to limit the damage, maintain his focus, and stop throwing over to first like he's running Dean Smith's four corners offense with the first baseman when the game isn't going his way.

We know by now what Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka are and are not. They're both good, solid major league starters; neither is a top of the rotation starter. We don't know what Buchholz is or can be. With Josh Beckett still unsigned beyond 2010, it's important to find out if Buchholz is capable of being the ace pitcher that Epstein has always maintained he can be. You can only find that out with the him pitching off a big-league mound every fifth -- or sixth day.

The Sox have time and room to let Buchholz work out the kinks. The Yankees are doing the same thing with Philip Hughes, who was named the Bronx Bombers No. 5 starter, and Matsuzaka probably won't be ready until the end of the month.

Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter in his second big league start, has the stuff (i.e. changeup) to be the righthanded Cole Hamels, a nice homegrown counterpart at the top of the rotation to Jon Lester and a counter-punch to the Yankees offensive superiority. He also has the potential to be a righthanded Casey Fossum, a stick-thin, highly-hyped prospect the Red Sox wouldn't part with who never reached his potential.

(Anybody like a do-over on holding onto Fossum instead of shipping him to Cleveland for Bartolo Colon?)

Buchholz looked like the former during the second half of last season, when he came off the pine at Pawtucket to stabilize a rotation gone awry after the meltdowns of John Smoltz and Brad Penny and Tim Wakefield's back trouble. In 16 second-half starts, Buchholz was 7-4 with a 4.21 ERA, including an eight-start stretch in August and September during which he went 6-0 with a 2.44 ERA.

The Sox gave him the nod in Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Angels, and he rewarded them with a quality start -- 5 innings, 6 hits, 2 runs.

After last season, Buchholz came to spring training with more weight on his frame and the weight of greater expectations as well. He has lost a little of both.

Buchholz has been shelled in Florida. His ERA looks like the work of a gymnastics judge. Yesterday's outing against the Minnesota Twins was regarded as a positive step for Buchholz and it was, even though he gave up five hits and four runs in 4 2/3 innings. That actually lowered his spring ERA to 9.53 in four starts.

Baseball's a funny game. Last spring Buchholz was electric, posting a 2.52 ERA in six spring training starts and was sent down to Pawtucket. This season, he gets boxed up like a UPS package, and he's already been penciled in to start the season with the Sox and make his first start in Kansas City on April 11.

Disregard both sets of stats because spring training statistics are among the most meaningless and bogus in all of sports. Coming off starting the clincher in the 2007 World Series, Lester posted a 6.00 ERA in the spring of 2008. He ended up fulfilling his potential with a breakout season (16-6, 3.21 ERA) and now he is arguably the ace of the Sox staff.

That's why you can write off Buchholz's spring and hope you're right.

The truth is that while Buchholz's career is nascent he isn't really a kid anymore. He is much closer to Lester than he is to his successor as Sox "it-boy" pitching prospect, 20-year-old Casey Kelly.

Buchholz is just seven months younger than Lester. He got married in the offseason, and is expecting his first child.

He has matured off the mound. Now it's time to see if he can do it on the mound.

Saving up for Papelbon

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 11, 2010 01:16 PM
The Minnesota Twins season could be over before it started, and it's all because of the way they might have to finish games -- without closer Joe Nathan.

Nathan, who experienced discomfort in his elbow during a spring training outing against the Red Sox last Saturday, has been diagnosed with a dreaded tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right pitching elbow, and is likely facing Tommy John surgery.

The reliable reliever, who endured offseason surgery to remove bone chips from the same elbow, will try to stave off surgery with a regiment of rest and muscle strengthening. But realistically there is a better chance of the Vikings naming Brett Favre offensive coordinator than Nathan pitching the whole season with a UCL tear.

Since the tendency here is to view the world of sports through a parochial prism, let's imagine if this were the Red Sox losing closer Jonathan Papelbon. It could be in 2012, if they don't lock up the 29-year-old Papelbon, due to become a free-agent after the 2011 season, to a long-term deal.

Daniel Bard might be the best bard to work his magic from a pen since William Shakespeare, but there is no proof he is a closer the caliber of Papelbon. He might throw like Nolan Ryan, but close games like Ken Ryan. You just don't know.

That's why lights-out closers like Papelbon and Nathan are one of the most undervalued commodities in modern baseball. Teams try to save pennies when it comes to saves, believing you can get any old Joe to get the last couple of outs. You can, for a year or two.

Last year, David Aardsma, who was eminently ordinary with the Sox in 2008, posting a 5.55 ERA, had as many saves (38) as Papelbon. But no position flames out faster than firemen, and you would be foolish to presume Aardsma is as capable a closer as Cinco Ocho (his Spanish, not mine).

Nothing can undermine a team faster than uncertainty and uneasiness in the eighth and ninth; just ask Grady Little. That's why pitchers like Papelbon, who since becoming the Sox closer in 2006 has 151 saves, the fourth-most in baseball, behind Francisco Rodriguez (184), Nathan (159) and Trevor Hoffman (155), that consistently save the day are just as valuable as quality starting pitchers.

They want to be compensated like them.

There is a salary glass ceiling in baseball for closers and the long-term issue between the Sox and Papelbon, who avoided arbitration with the Sox by signing a one-year, $9.35 million deal, is he wants to be the one that breaks through. Nathan's injury might help him make his case.

Papelbon has repeatedly said he feels a responsibility to raise the bar for relievers' contracts like ageless Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. The pinstripe closer nonpareil will get paid $15 million in the final year of a three-year, $45 million deal that made him the highest-compensated closer in the game's history.

After Rivera, you have schizophrenic Phillies fireman Brad Lidge ($12.5 million per season), Nathan, who signed a four-year, $47 million deal (with a 2012 club option) in 2008 and Mets finisher Rodriguez, who signed a three-year, $37 million deal (with a club option for 2012) in 2009.

Those sound like decent deals, but compare them with what starting pitchers get. K-Rod, coming off a single-season major league saves record with 62 in 2008, signed his deal with the Mets the same offseason starting pitcher Oliver Perez got a three-year, $36 million deal from the Kings of Queens. Perez has a career-record of 58-64 with a 4.54 ERA but will make almost as much as one of the game's great closers while pitching in less than half as many games.

The Tigers are paying three starting pitchers -- Jeremy Bonderman ($12.5 million), Dontrelle Willis ($12 million) and Nate Robertson ($10 million) -- more than Papelbon will make this season, and it's possible that none of them could actually end up in Detroit's starting rotation.

Bronson Arroyo (remember him?) will make $11 million this season.

Before the 2007 season, there was this whole debate about whether Papelbon should stay in the bullpen or become a starter. He had been slowed by a shoulder subluxation that ended his 2006 season, and Papelbon himself was convinced he was ticketed for the rotation.

He remained a closer and the Sox won the World Series. They've made the playoffs in three of his four seasons as finisher.

Arguably, the biggest reason the Yankees have won five world titles in Rivera's 15 seasons is Rivera.

Papelbon affects the outcome of far more games as a reliever than he would have as a starter. He has finished 223 games since '06, the fifth-most in baseball. His save percentage over the same period is 89.9 percent, right near Nathan's 90.3. Rivera is at 93.6.

Papelbon said he learned from last season when his hits and walks rose, he had a couple of Heathcliff Slocumb saves and his 26-inning postseason scoreless streak came to a shocking end -- along with the Red Sox season -- against the Angels in the American League Division Series.

He understands that greatness on the level of Rivera is earned.

"I’m very confident in my ability, but at the same time I understand you can’t just show up and greatness is going to happen," said Papelbon on March 2. "You have to work towards greatness, and I’m excited for the challenge."

Expect to see the return of Papelbon's split-fingered fastball than season and his focus, although he bristled at the notion that last year was somehow sub-par. But that is how high he has set the bar that a 1.85 ERA and 38 saves can be nitpicked.

Nitpicking the work of an elite closer is a great problem to have. Just ask the Twins. 

Ellsbury taking a run at left field

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 5, 2010 09:10 AM

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Jacoby Ellsbury joins a line of fabled left fielders for the Red Sox that includes JIm Rice, Carl Yastrzemski, and Ted Williams. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)


FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Jacoby Ellsbury isn't just quick. He is a quick study, at least when it comes to the historical significance of his new home. The erstwhile center fielder knows that his move to left field this season means he is inheriting some of the most fabled real estate in Red Sox history and North American pro sports.

Long before Dedham boasted a destination called Legacy Place, the Red Sox had one in left. The team has been more left-leaning than the late Senator Ted Kennedy. Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice all served as the primary left fielder for the Sox at some point between 1939* and 1986, the last year Rice was a regular in left. All ended up in the Hall of Fame. The Sox also had the mercurial Manny Ramirez, a future Hall of Famer, as the man manning left for most of the previous decade.

"Obviously, there have been some very good players over the years to roam left field," said Ellsbury, prior to last night's Grapefruit League clash with the Minnesota Twins. "Pretty unbelievable company out there."

Yes it is, but few, if any, of Ellsbury's forerunners were the type of runners who can steal home plate, score from second on a wild pitch or routinely turn routine ground balls into base hits. Ellsbury as the everyday left fielder is symbolic of the outside-the-box 2010 Boston Red Sox and the move should be beneficial for both player and team.

It's easy to slip into hyperbole and say the Sox have never had a left fielder like Ellsbury. That is not quite true. It's just been a while, almost as long as the Bruins' Stanley Cup drought (doesn't look like that's coming to an end anytime soon, huh?).

In 1973, the Sox had another fleet-footed player standing in front of the Wall. Tommy Harper played 140 games, including 138 starts, in left that season and set a team stolen base record with an American League-leading 54, a record Ellsbury broke last season when he swiped an MLB-best 70.  

But Harper and Ellsbury are definitely the exceptions.

Left field has traditionally been ruled by sluggers, not speedsters, for the Sox. Williams, Yaz and Rice were all power guys, so was Manny. Last year's left fielder Jason Bay (remember him?) hit 36 home runs and drove in 119 runs. Even Troy O'Leary had back-to-back 20-homer seasons playing left for the Sox. Mike Greenwell, Rice's successor, wasn't really a power hitter -- he only had one 20-homer season -- but he certainly wasn't a stolen base threat either. Greenwell had 80 career stolen bases, or 10 more than Ellsbury last season.
 
In his first two full major league seasons, Ellsbury has yet to crack double digits in deep balls. As far as left fielders go, Ellsbury is clearly closer to Carl Crawford than Carl Yastrzemski, and he's okay with that.

"You got to be the player that you are. You can't try to be something different," he said. "Nothing changes. I'm basically just the left fielder, not the center fielder. I think everything, your approach, has to stay the same, what's given you success in the past. I think eventually, not even to say it's going to be this year, but I feel eventually I'll hit for more power someday. But it's something I'm not trying to do. It will just happen on its own."

Moving to left field could actually make Ellsbury more of a weapon on the base paths, since it will save him some legwork in the outfield. Ellsbury might be something of an anomaly as a Red Sox left fielder, but there have been other swift leadoff men in left in baseball history.

Stolen base royalty Rickey Henderson, Vince Coleman, Lou Brock, all spent significant portions of their careers as left fielders.

"The Red Sox are not traditionally known for stealing bases, and just that aspect alone brings a little bit different look than what they're accustomed to," said Ellsbury. "But I just plan to go out there and not worry about what has been done in the past and just go out there in the present and compete and play hard and leave it all on the field."

Ellsbury referenced a contemporary dynamic offensive player whose game is predicated on speed and plays a corner outfield spot.

"I just look at it like, and I'm not trying to compare myself to this player, but Ichiro for example, corner guy at what is typically a power position, the same sort of thing -- runs, steal bases, leadoff hitter, gets on base," said Ellsbury. "He is obviously a right fielder, but that's kind of the same mentality. Do whatever you can to get on base, set the tone for the team and it shouldn't change the plan on the field."

It's not as if left field is foreign territory for Ellsbury. He played in 22 games in left field in 2007, making 15 starts. In 2008, Ellsbury started 36 games in left and played there in 58 games.

Plus, playing left has its perks, as Ramirez proved. You can always duck into the Monster for a quick convo, grab a bit of popcorn, check email, or take a bathroom break.

"Yeah, maybe a little quick bite to eat or maybe store some fluid in there or something," said Ellsbury with a smile. "No, you never know what can happen, but I don't foresee myself doing anything like that."

Like the dinged and dented Wall he'll stand in front of this season, Ellsbury hopes to leave his own mark in left field.

*(As astute reader "Clff" pointed out and baseballreference.com confirmed, Williams didn't actually play left field in his first big league season. He played right field before moving to left in 1940. Joe Vosmik played 144 games in left in 1939 and two other players saw time there.)

Richardson shouldn't be left out

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 4, 2010 10:36 AM
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Yes, Casey Kelly looks like a future star and yours truly is as amped about Kelly as anyone, but to paraphrase Bill Parcells, let's not start clearing space for him in Cooperstown yet because he mowed down the Northeastern Huskies. Kelly was certainly the most-celebrated Sox pitching prospect to take the mound yesterday, but he wasn't the one most likely to help the team this season.

Lanky lefthander Dustin Richardson also pitched against the Huskies in the first game of the Red Sox' back-to-school special. Richardson is a name to remember because he is that rarest of baseball species -- a hard-throwing lefthanded reliever who is murder on lefthanded batters.

If you're lefthanded and can get lefties out, there is always a place for you in the big leagues; it doesn't matter if your stuff is as hard as a bowl of Baskin-Robbins ice cream (see: Fossas, Tony). The Red Sox have lefty Hideki Okajima, but he is too valuable as a bridge to Jonathan Papelbon to use as a matchup lefty. So the Sox are searching for another reliever who has the right stuff to retire lefties.

Richardson, who after being converted to a reliever last year skyrocketed through the organization to earn a September call-up, could be just that.

The former Texas Tech Red Raider held lefties to a .170 average in 45 relief appearances last season between Double A Portland and Triple A Pawtucket. Overall, he was 2-2 with a 2.55 ERA and four saves in the minors and struck out 96 batters (while walking 42) in 74 innings. He made his big league debut on Sept. 28 against the Toronto Blue Jays and tossed 1 1/3 shutout innings. In all, he appeared in three games for the Sox and didn't allow a run in 3 1/3 innings.

"Well, they've definitely had talks with me to let me know that there is a spot right now in the bullpen," said Richardson, after a scoreless inning against the Huskies. "Right now, what I'm trying to do is put myself in the best situation and go out there and do what I've always done and just try to have a good spring training and try to finish strong and we'll see at the end."

The 26-year-old Richardson's competition includes lefty Brian Shouse and veteran righthanders Scott Atchison (career .222 opponents' batting average against lefties) and Joe Nelson, who has held lefties to a career .215 average.

Having to audition for a spot on a team is nothing new for the Kansas native and 2006 fifth-round pick. In 2006, the 6-foot, 6-inch Richardson was one of the 16 participants/contestants on the ESPN reality TV program "Knight School" in which all-time NCAA men's Division 1 basketball wins leader Bob Knight channeled Simon Cowell to fill a spot on the Texas Tech hoops team.

If Richardson could deal with the demanding demeanor of the irascible Robert Montgomery Knight, the pressure of pitching in Fenway won't phase him.

"It was a good time. If I could do it all over again I wish I could because the first day I rolled both of my ankles, but other than that it was a great experience," said Richardson. "Coach Knight has always been an idol of mine, and just being on the court with him was surreal. He's one of the smartest men you'll ever meet."

Richardson, who remains a huge Kansas Jayhawks fan ("rock, chalk, Jayhawk basketball, 100 percent") advanced to the finals of the show, but Knight wanted someone who could practice with the team the following season, and Richardson planned to enter the major league baseball draft.

"That was basically what it came down to that I play baseball, and I was going to go into the draft and he needed a guy to work out and practice with the team," said Richardson. "I wasn't coming back so Ty [Tyler Hoffmeister] was the better fit for that program at the time."

Knight, who works for ESPN as an analyst now, is best known for pitching fits -- who can forget his famous chair toss while coaching Indiana? -- but he also has a keen interest in baseball, Richardson said.

"He is a huge baseball fan," said Richardson. "He and Tony LaRussa are friends, really good friends."

How fitting, since it's LaRussa who popularized the type of specialization that could lead to a roster spot with the Red Sox for Richardson.

Outside of short-season Single A Lowell, where fledgling pro pitchers are handled with care, Richardson had done nothing but start in the Sox organization before last year's switch . In 2007 and 2008, he appeared in 49 games in the minors and they were all starts. In 2008, Richardson was 7-10 with a 6.33 ERA at Portland, but he struck out 114 batters in 106 2/3 innings.

Don't ask him if he has developed a reliever's mentality.

"I'll always have one mentality that's pretty much to just attack the hitters," he said. "As far as the preparation, I've come a long ways, and I feel like more of a reliever in that sense. Basically, it's just warm-up and go out there and throw."

Richardson said he still thinks he could be successful as a starter, especially as he continues to work with Sox pitching coach John Farrell to refine his fastball command and harness his hard curveball and changeup. But he's also realistic in recognizing the bullpen is his boarding pass for the big leagues.

"That's the thing that's going to put me on a faster track to the bigs," Richardson said. "It's Boston. You're not going to exactly fit in that starting rotation, and I have no complaints right now being a reliever. It doesn't matter. It's definitely where you want to be."

Going nine with the Sox ...

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 2, 2010 01:14 PM
300dicek.jpgFORT MYERS, Fla. -- As the Red Sox wrapped up the first phase of spring training today and departed the Player Development Complex for City of Palms Park, one has to wonder why the truck transporting the equipment down Edison Avenue has a sign saying, "Place your ad here." Why isn't it being sponsored by JetBlue like the fabled truck that left Fenway?

Here are nine other thoughts, observations and opinions from a near fortnight in Fort Myers:

1. As the rotation turns -- The Red Sox keep saying the pitching rotation will work out, but the math doesn't. They have six full-time starters for five spots. One proud and accomplished pitcher, Tim Wakefield or Daisuke Matsuzaka (left), is going to be peeved that he won't be in the rotation to start the season. Wakefield has made it clear he expects to be in the starting five if healthy, and Matsuzaka being bumped could be an international incident. The Sox aren't just being careful with Matsuzaka and his tweaked back to maintain his health. They're trying to buy as much time as possible.

2. Iglesias a showman -- Shortstop prospect Jose Iglesias is the real deal. He has folks flocking to watch him take infield every day. Lou Merloni, who knows a thing or two about major league infield play, left the Sox clubhouse one day and said, "I'm going to watch the Show." He meant watching the 20-year-old Cuban wunderkind flashing the leather at short.

3. Power on --  Jacoby Ellsbury is going to hit double-digit home runs this year. Think 14 or 15. In his first two full big league seasons (2008 and 2009), Ellsbury went yard eight times and nine times, respectively. He looks more filled out this year. Ellsbury remains steadfast that he won't try to hit home runs, which would be a mistake. However, he feels he has more pop than he has shown.

4. Catching on  -- For those who have their doubts about Victor Martinez starting the season as the everyday catcher, understand that nobody is putting in more time or working harder than Martinez in this camp. It seems like he's always coming and going -- from the batting cage or the weight room or conditioning or a meeting. Martinez will probably never be viewed in Boston as Jason Varitek's equal when it comes to managing a game behind the plate, but it won't be for lack of effort.

5. Lining up on defense -- The Sox position players are already sick of all the talk about the perceived weakness of the lineup and perception of the team relying on "run prevention." They don't think run production is going to be a major issue. The Sox were third in baseball last season in runs per game (5.38), behind the Yankees and the Angels. They don't have Jason Bay and his 36 home runs, but less power doesn't automatically translate to a lot fewer runs. "I think for us hitting-wise if guys get on base that's the whole key, getting on base," said Kevin Youkilis. "There are enough guys in the lineup. We got guys that are hitting seventh and sixth that would be hitting third and fourth in maybe some other lineups. It's a good lineup I think."

6. Protective order -- David Ortiz came to camp in shape and with a purpose. He's never going to be a 50-homer guy again, but as bad as last season was the first two months (one home run and 18 runs batted in during his first 46 games) he still was nearly a 30-homer, 100 RBI guy. That's good enough. But ever since the trade of Manny Ramirez, Ortiz has expressed concerns about protection in the lineup. He did so again here. Last season when Big Papi rediscovered his stroke, he had Bay batting behind him. A perceived lack of protection could mentally mess with Ortiz.

7. Bronx Boomers -- I'm less concerned about the age of some of the Sox' newbies -- Mike Cameron (37), Marco Scutaro (34), Adrian Beltre (turns 31 on April 7) -- when I look at the Yankees. The Bronx Bombers are aging faster than the Baby Boom generation. Mariano Rivera (40), Jorge Posada (38) and Andy Pettitte (37) are all baseball senior citizens. Derek Jeter is 35. Even Alex Rodriguez is 34. You tend to think of A.J. Burnett as a young flamethrower, but he's 33.

8. Bridging the gap -- Much has been made of the metaphorical bridge to 2012, but there is real reason to be excited about the future of the Red Sox. Casey Kelly, 20, will be younger than some of the Northeastern University batters he faces tomorrow but has presence, poise and a command of his pitches beyond his years. Lars Anderson serves as a cautionary tale for "can't miss" Sox prospects and their rapid development, but Kelly looks like he could be the righthanded Jon Lester. Rhode Island's Ryan Westmoreland, the organization's top prospect according to Baseball America, isn't even 20 years old yet, but boasts the body of a major league outfielder.

9. Around the horn -- Sights and sounds of spring training: the elderly fans who repeatedly called out for an autograph from Jeremy Hermida, but kept calling him "Hermidia" and wondering why he wasn't coming over. ... A few of the lighter moments with Francona, like when he said playfully that closer Jonathan Papelbon was scheduled to work in Thursday's game against the Twins because he was "saving him for the Mayor's Cup." ...Dustin Pedroia's boundless energy and daily antics. 

UZR you serious?

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 25, 2010 03:58 PM
300youk.jpgFORT MYERS, Fla. -- More than any other sport, baseball is a game ruled by numbers. Those statistics have become more and more esoteric as the game has evolved to be evaluated less through the lens of a pair of binoculars and more by Bill James and binary code.

Technology has made us slaves to WiFi and DVR and it's rebooted how we follow our national pastime thanks to stats like OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) and VORP (value over replacement player). Sorry, if you just got used to OPS there is a new "it" acronym -- UZR.

UZR looks like the abbreviation for some breakaway Russian republic that you'd see as an Olympic medal count went rolling across the screen, or the measure of how much protection your sunscreen is giving you.

It stands for Ultimate Zone Rating, a complicated and calculated way to quantify defensive prowess, which is the final frontier of Sabermetrics.

UZR has been wrongly cited as the guiding force in the defensive-minded construction of the 2010 Red Sox. The team doesn't even use UZR. It has its own in-house defensive measurement.

While UZR might be all the rage in some fan and media baseball circles it's still a very foreign subject in the clubhouse of the Red Sox. I thought it might be fun to ask a few Sox players if they knew what UZR was while being upfront and telling them this reporter doesn't understand it.

Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis is a Gold Glover, the traditional standard of defensive excellence. What does he think of UZR?

"I don't even know what it is," he said. "Hopefully, my UZR is sick."

Actually, Youk it is. According to fangraphs.com, Youkilis's 5.7 UZR was the third highest in the majors among first basemen with 500 innings or more of play, meaning he is considered 5.7 percent better than an average first baseman.

New Sox center fielder Mike Cameron, a three-time Gold Glover, knows a thing or two about defense. The 37-year-old Cameron is the poster child for the Sox' run prevention philosophy. He has been in the big leagues since 1995, when most of us were still using dial-up Internet.

UZR, Mike?

"Whatever it is. I know I had a pretty good one. It's got to be pretty good," said Cameron.

Cameron is right. Last season, he had the fourth-highest UZR of any major league center fielder who played at least 500 innings (10.0).

Even if you don't understand the methodology behind the defensive metric madness, it does have some merit. We all noticed that Mike Lowell's hip reduced his range at third base last season.

According to fangraphs.com, of the 33 players who played at least 500 innings last season at third base, Mike Lowell tied David Wright of the Mets for the worst UZR at minus-10.4. The best third-base UZR belonged to American League Gold Glover Evan Longoria (18.5). The second was Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals, who won the National League Gold Glove (18.1).

There was some surprise when it was announced that Cameron would take over for Jacoby Ellsbury in center field, but the numbers back up the decision too.

Ellsbury had a minus-18.6 UZR, the lowest among 31 major league center fielders with 500 innings. Still, it's hard to believe a guy who stole home can't cover enough ground in center.

"I still don't really know what it is," said Ellsbury of UZR. What he does know is that he is not sure computer calculations can measure defensive ability.

"I think baseball people can tell who is a good defensive player, who has range," said Ellsbury. "You ask players in the league and they'll tell you. I think it's people that know the game and watch on a consistent basis that can tell."

Youkilis agreed.

"My personal opinion is everything in this world has gotten so technologically savvy. You can break down the game of baseball on a computer 100 times, but the bottom line is people got to go out there and play the game," Youkilis said. "Things are going to happen in games. There is still a human element. There is a human element to everything. Somebody can mess up on one play. There is Mother Nature too, the sun or a rainy day, or a guy slips. There is so much different stuff that you have to put in there, so I don't really go off of those UZRs. Is it UZRs?"

Yes, Youk it is.

Ah, what happened to the simpler days of baseball card stats? Youkilis had some fun with the argot of alphabet soup stats that are now in the game. "My OBPOSTR," he said.

"There are too many stats," said Youk. "I don't know. How do they do defense? If you make an error, you make an error. If you get to a ball, you get to a ball. What if you have a bad hamstring that day, and you can't get to that ball down the line that day? I don't know what they evaluate, but a good ball player is a good ball player. That's all I know."

Don't worry. The Sox know how to use computer calculations and trends without becoming beholden to them. Manager Terry Francona said defensive metrics are "more of a tool to evaluate in the winter. It doesn't come into play in the 7th inning."

That's a relief. The last things fans need is one more reason to second-guess a Sox manager.

Besides, there is really only one stat Sox players are concerned with this season.

"I guess the biggest stat is just wins and losses," said Ellsbury. "We look at at the end of the day do we win or lose."  

That's still easy to measure.

Out call on Lowell the right one

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 25, 2010 10:13 AM
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- As Mike Lowell walked off one of the spring training practice fields yesterday, he received vociferous votes of confidence.

"Mike, you're the man!" shouted one fan. Another bellowed, "Glad to have you here, Mike."

Lowell is a fan favorite and fan sentiment -- and sentimentality -- would dictate that the 2007 World Series MVP, not Adrian Beltre, would be the Sox everyday third basemen.

The vox populi is important to the image-conscious Red Sox. Sox president and chief executive office Larry Lucchino pledged the organization's "obligation is to field a team that is worthy of the fans' support year in and year out."

But giving the fans the team they want and the players they want is not always the same thing.

After listening to Lowell on Tuesday, it's obvious he feels his right hip is stronger than last season and that at age 36 he is still capable of being an everyday player -- either in Boston or elsewhere. He said he is highly motivated and healthier.

But if you're general manager Theo Epstein and you watched a limited Lowell be hampered by the hip last season, particularly in the field, how could you build your 2010 team and count on Lowell to be anything more than a part-time player?

You couldn't, and that's why Epstein tried to ship Lowell to Texas, a deal aborted by the Rangers' cold feet and Lowell's injured thumb, which the Sox botched badly.

Lowell admitted that he lost some explosion going to his left last season because of the hip, which cut down on his once considerable range. He believes he has gained some of it back, along with flexibility and range of motion in the hip. But if you're the Red Sox, you just can't afford to take the chance he's wrong.

One of the qualities that has characterized the John Henry-Tom Werner-Lucchino regime has been the organization's ability and willingness to make difficult and unpopular player personnel decisions, to be almost Patriot-like.

Trading Nomar Garciaparra looks like a Nate Robinson slam dunk now, but it wasn't at the time.

Parting ways with Pedro Martinez when the Mets agreed to give him a fourth year wasn't a popular decision, and there was howling in the Hub when Martinez went 15-8 with a 2.82 ERA in his first season in Flushing. But Petey broke down the next season and needed rotator cuff surgery, which ended his days of dominance. Now, he is a part-time pitcher.

While Epstein was taking his 85-day sabbatical from the Sox after the 2005 season, there was an outcry when Johnny Damon defected to the Bronx via a four-year, $52 million deal.

The Sox believed that Damon was nearing the end of his days in center field.

He played 131 games in center his first season with the Yankees, then just 82 combined the next three. Damon was the same dynamic offensive force during his time with the Yankees, batting .285 with 77 home runs, 296 runs batted in and 93 stolen bases, that he was during his four seasons with the Sox (.295, 56 HR, 299 RBI and 98 SBs), but where exactly would he have played if he couldn't play center for the Sox? Certainly not left field, since the Sox had this guy named Manny manning that position for most of Damon's contract. Ditto for his other Yankees position, DH, the domain of David Ortiz.

The man that Lowell supplanted at third base, Bill Mueller, was a fan favorite. However, the team cut ties with Billy Ballgame following the '05 season, when it acquired Josh Beckett and Lowell, who was then viewed about as favorably as a sub-prime loan.

Mueller inked a two-year, $9.5 million deal with the Dodgers to replace ... Beltre. He played 32 games before a bad right knee forced him to retire.

Shortstop Orlando Cabrera and pitcher Derek Lowe both enjoyed life after Fenway, but the team's decisions not to bring them back had more to do with behavioral concerns than bloodless baseball evaluations.

The Sox already bowed to public pressure once with Lowell, signing him to a three-year, $37.5 million deal following the '07 season. Then the hip happened.

Let's face it, Lowell is easy to root for. He's personable, accountable, intelligent and still productive at the plate (.290, 17 home runs and 75 RBI last season). He took such a high road Tuesday in an eminently awkward situation that he probably got a nose bleed.

His profound professionalism makes it possible the Sox could start the season with Lowell on the bench as a backup at third, first and DH, which Epstein said is a distinct possibility.

Lowell is aware that the fans are in his (hot) corner and that he has become a sympathetic figure in Red Sox Nation. His wife has checked out the online comments from supportive Sox fans and told him, "Do you know how many people are really on your side in all this?"

"That's a very flattering thing, very flattering when the fans feel like there is an injustice being put on you," Lowell said. "That's a good feeling when you have the fans on your side, absolutely."

But he also understands the fickle nature of the Nation.

"I love the fans. ...But I think they'll be more emotional if Adrian Beltre starts off slow, and they'll be much less emotional if he starts off hot," Lowell said. "That's kind of the way it goes. Like I said, I can't believe in '06 that too many people were excited for me to be playing third. Then as the season wore on it worked out great. 'We got Beckett and we got this guy who can play third every day.' "

Lowell remains worthy of your support, but so does the decision to move on from him.

Is Iglesias the One?

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 23, 2010 03:33 PM
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Being a shortstop for the Red Sox has become akin to being a Plymouth Red-Bellied turtle or a humpback whale -- you are an endangered species in Massachusetts. Fenway Park has become the killing field for the careers of major league shortstops.

The shortstop position is known as "6" by the official scorer. For the Sox it should be deep-six. Since 2004, the Sox have used 19 different players at shortstop and had 15 different starting shortstops. Marco Scutaro will be starting shortstop No. 16 -- literally, since that's his jersey number too.

Here are his predecessors: Alex Gonzalez, Julio Lugo, Jed Lowrie, Nick Green, Alex Cora, Royce Clayton, Dustin Pedroia, Edgar Renteria, Ramon Vasquez, Mark Bellhorn, Orlando Cabrera, Nomar Garciaparra, Pokey Reese, Ricky Gutierrez, Cesar Crespo.

Jose Iglesias is his successor.

The future of Red Sox shortstop is the 20-year-old Iglesias, the most exciting Sox prospect at the position since Hanley Ramirez. The Cuban export, No. 76 in your program, has already made quite an impression on Pedroia with the Gold Glove second baseman and one-time shortstop saying Iglesias has some of the best hands he has ever seen.

It's mesmerizing to watch Iglesias take infield. He is downright Omar Vizquel-esque. His fielding is part art and part artifice, the ball transitioning from his glove to his hand like magic. He has a flair to his fielding as well, something the Sox have actually been trying to tone down a bit. Too bad because it's fun to watch Iglesias field a ball between his legs.

It's obvious the Sox think highly of Iglesias -- manager Terry Francona spent 20 minutes chatting with him the other day on the field -- but they're trying to temper expectations, although general manager Theo Epstein allowed with copious qualifiers that Iglesias's development ceiling "is certainly as an everyday shortstop for a first division club."

The Sox don't want the already confident Cuban to get a big head from being in big league camp.

Iglesias, who is rapidly learning English, is well aware why the Sox sunk $8.25 million over four years to sign him last September, more than a year after he defected from Cuba while playing in a tournament in Canada. He knows the Sox have come up short at shortstop recently.

"It's not a secret that that has been the history the last couple of years, but I am just worried about getting better every day, and it's a goal of mine to be the shortstop of the Red Sox," said Iglesias in Spanish, translated by Sox staff assistant Alex Ochoa. "I know I have to work every day and improve."

Iglesias was very measured in his comments. But in a conversation with ESPN's Jorge Arangure last September he said he wanted to be the Derek Jeter of Boston. Before we get all "The Old Man and the Sea," realize that Iglesias also said his father's favorite team is the Red Sox and cited Luis Tiant.

A quick study, when asked what players he patterns himself after he steered clear of the Bronx and mentioned legendary Cuban shortstop German Mesa, known as "The Magnet" and Hall of Fame Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith.

Like I said, the kid is confident.

"That's one of the first things that [international scouting director Craig Shipley] said when he first saw him and he called me, 'This kid has a little Pedroia in him,' " said Epstein. "He didn't have monster tools that jumped out at you. Obviously, he could play defense and he did certain things offensively that we believe in, and he believed in himself. He played with a real confidence. That's hard to fake."

The big question about the 5-foot, 11-inch, 175-pound Iglesias is whether he'll be able to hit at the major league level. In 18 games in the Arizona Fall League, Iglesias hit .275 with two homers and 12 RBIs. (He also learned that in American baseball, it's generally not a good idea to act like Rickey Henderson after you hit a home run or you're going to get drilled.)

Iglesias's ears perked up when he heard a question asked in English about his bat.

"Obviously, no one has really seen me hit or anything like that," he said. "I've been practicing hard on my hitting as well as my fielding, so hopefully I can show there is not that much separation between my bat and my fielding. Hopefully, they talk about both."

Epstein said the Sox believe that Iglesias can be more than just a good glove.

"We like his bat," said Epstein. "We would not have signed him if we thought he was a defense-only guy, if we didn't think he could actually hit big league pitching. We like the swing. We love his eyes, the way he picks up the ball. ...We think the swing plays to all fields. He has the ability to shoot the ball hard the other way. He also has a knack for turning on balls up that he can drive, and lofting with enough pull-power to hit the ball out of the ballpark.

"He is going to get a lot stronger, which is really the most important thing for him now from the offensive perspective, besides just getting at-bat after at-bat after at-bat. We like him as an offensive player."

With Scutaro aboard, Lowrie feeling better about his wrist and Iglesias waiting in the wings, Epstein may have finally found a way to transform shortstop from a shortcoming into an organizational strength.

"I think that there are always going to be areas of great stability and great organizational depth and there are always going to be other positions of weakness, or lack of depth and more turnover, and shortstop just happens to be the one area where we just haven't had stability," said Epstein. "I look now and I see shortstop as an area of strength in the organization."

Taking Matsuzaka for a spin

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 19, 2010 03:34 AM

300dicek.jpgFORT MYERS, Fla. -- The saga of Daisuke Matsuzaka keeps spinning, sort of like that mythical gyro ball that we've never seen.

The latest offering from Matsuzaka is an upper back, ah, condition. Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino yesterday that he "wouldn't go so far as to call it an injury" and that it's "just a little bit of fatigue" from his rigorous off-season training work, part of his plan to tone up and atone for a disastrous 2009.

This time, let's hope Matsuzaka is telling the truth when he downplays a physical ailment, because so much about him has proven to be exaggerated.

The gyro ball is just a small part of the legend of Matsuzaka that followed him from Japan after the Red Sox bid $51.1 million just for the right to talk to the righthander, billed as a cross between Pedro Martinez and Michael Jordan, and spent another $52 million over six seasons to sign him. Just like that chimerical pitch, Matsuzaka hasn't lived up to the hyperbolic hype since joining the Sox in 2007.

How could he have?

Entering his fourth season with the Sox, we know that pitching in the American League East instead of the Far East has shown that the 26-year-old Matsuzaka is not Martinez, and he's not the comic book superhero/cultural icon he was hurling for the Seibu Lions. His starts are painful to watch at times as he piles up triple-digit pitch counts with an inveterate aversion to pitching to contact and he treats the basepaths like a rush-hour commuter rail train -- all aboard.

But don't give up on Daisuke. He might be a cause for concern, but he's far from a lost cause. Matsuzaka is the No. 4 starter on this staff, behind three guys who all have someone in baseball willing to call them an ace -- Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey.

Evaluating him is simply a matter of perspective, a matter of lowering the atmospheric expectations that followed him over from Japan. He is not an ace in America, and most likely never will be, and that's OK because he is still an effective pitcher when healthy, as evidenced by his final four starts last season (3-1, 2.22 ERA). It's almost an insult to a pitcher of Matsuzaka's considerable talent to simply assume that he can't be counted on at all and that anything the Sox get from him this season is a bonus based on one lost season.

Coming to grips with his status in the States has proven more difficult for Matsuzaka than griping a different baseball. However, it seems that Matsuzaka finally realizes things are different in Boston.

Perhaps humbled by a nightmarish 2009 that saw him go 4-6 with a 5.76 ERA and miss nearly three months for re-conditioning, Matsuzaka has been a lot more cooperative when it comes to communicating with the team about his injuries and about following their pitching regimen instead of his own.

Matsuzaka, who hid a groin injury that pre-dated his participation in the World Baseball Classic from the team last year, admitted yesterday in his first spring training meeting with the Sox media that in the past he would have tried to push through the upper back ailment that has temporarily halted his spring training.

"But I definitely don't want to make the same mistakes that were made last year, so right now I think it's important to talk about my condition and share that with the team in as much detail as possible," said Matsuzaka, through Hoshino.

When Matsuzka was asked what his goal is for this season it was telling.

"I want to be able to be the type of player that the team can rely on," he said.

That clearly wasn't the case last season, when he made just 12 starts and you needed the Golden Gate Bridge to span the communication gap between Matsuzaka and the team, which went beyond any type of language barrier. It was a trust issue.

Reliability in terms of taking the ball hasn't been an issue for Matsuzaka, at least during the regular season, since he started pitching in major league baseball. We're not talking about handing the ball to Abe Alvarez or Kason Gabbard here. Matsuzaka is a proven winner in the big leagues. He's just not the force of nature we were led to believe.

In his rookie season of 2007, Matsuzaka, who worked on a six-man rotation in Japan, started a career-high 32 games. He went 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA and struck out 201 batters in 204.2 innings. This staff's de facto ace, Beckett, has never recorded 200 strikeouts in a season.

In 2008, Matsuzaka started 29 games, a figure he reached only once in Japan, and went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA. Matsuzaka started off 8-0 that year and ended it with the lowest hits per 9 innings in the majors (6.8). He went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA.

Wins for a pitcher are the most overrated statistic in baseball -- just look at reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke -- but there are not 18-game winners waiting to be plucked off a bar stool at Game On!.

Matsuzaka is similar to the sporty, gray Ford Mustang he was packing up yesterday -- very nice, but not the best model the class has to offer.

If Red Sox fans are OK with that, then they should enjoy the ride with Matsuzaka this season.

Nothing moving about 'Truck Day'

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 12, 2010 01:31 PM
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This is what being a Red Sox fan has come to -- celebrating a truck full of inanimate objects being transported to spring training.

Yes, today is "Truck Day" across New England. What is the big riggin' deal?

There is not a more insipid pseudo-sports holiday than what has become known as "Truck Day." It's supposed to symbolize the oncoming of spring and the start of baseball, instead it's a symbol of how over-the-top coverage of the Sox has become. People actually come out to watch the truck begin its sojourn down south to Ft. Myers.

Some would have us believe the truck isn't just carrying bats and balls it's carrying the hopes and dreams of Red Sox Nation. Spare me.

Not to be all truculent about "Truck Day," but really is this what we've been reduced to as Sox fans? Only in Red Sox Nation would the simple transportation of equipment to a spring training take on the importance of a Holy Day. Red Sox fans you're better than this. You are the most astute, educated and critical fans in the game. You cheer the outstanding plays of opposing players. You argue endlessly over a manager's decisions, can debate the importance of .OPS vs. UZR and explain why Jose Iglesias has more upside at shortstop than Derrik Gibson.

Yet, somehow you've been compelled to count down the days until a moving truck makes its way out from in front of Van Ness Street and then treat it like Opening Day.

I'm sending out an S.O.S to the Sons of Sam Horn to put a stop to this madness.

It wasn't always this way.

Since 1998, Kevin Carson of Holliston-based New England Household Moving & Storage/Atlas Van Lines has been the Terry Francona of "Truck Day." He oversees the packing of the trucks (one truck has non-baseball items).

Carson, who bears a slight resemblance to Dan Duquette, said today that "Truck Day" wasn't a New England tradition back when he started. The workers quietly did their work and loaded the equipment truck and driver Al Hartz, who is still the man behind the wheel today, simply drove the Sox equipment to Florida without fanfare.

However, like all things Red Sox under the stewardship of the John Henry-Tom Werner-Larry Lucchino ownership group where some saw just a vehicle the Sox saw a promotional vehicle. Many credit, if that's the word you can use, master promoter Dr. Charles Steinberg with being the driving force behind "Truck Day."

Now, other teams like the Cincinnati Reds and the Texas Rangers are also trying to make "Truck Day" a moving experience for their fans. This video is just riveting -- looks like the last time I moved -- but at least the Rangers had a player present.

One year the Sox held a contest to select fans to help pack the truck. You can't make this stuff up. This year, the team, always looking to capitalize on the Sox brand, have gotten JetBlue to sponsor the truck. On both sides of the truck there is a picture of Wally the Green Monster and a JetBlue logo with the slogan, "Bringing a piece of the Green Monster to Florida."

Hartz and Carson are a little concerned about the signage because it makes the truck easily identifiable to Red Sox fans and foes alike for its road trip. Hartz could find drivers honking or waving at him in salute or worse on the road to Fort Myers, which he said will pass through New York.

"Maybe in New York I'll get the old one-finger salute," said Hartz, with a grin.

Doubtful because they probably don't care about a truck in the Bronx, not unless it's transporting the Yankees' 27 World Series championships.

People get so amped up around here for Sox "Truck Day" that you'd think there were actually Red Sox players on the truck. But it's not all their fault. No, we (the media) are to blame for that as well.

Give credit to the intrepid Steve Silva of Boston.com who was out at Fenway at 6:30 a.m. to chronicle the arrival of the actual truck. Yours truly pulled up around 7:30 a.m. and saw two cameramen filming footage of the truck being loaded and a newspaper photographer snapping away. That's means that we in the media are complicit in the hyperbole. We have bought into this fabrication and fuel it along with the Sox.

"Everybody sees it on TV and thinks it's cool," said Hartz, conducting an interview -- gasp! -- inside the actual truck. "It gets a lot of attention from you guys this time of year."

One media outlet even proposed putting a GPS device on the truck to track it a few years back. The idea was nixed.

By the way, you don't think Sox players get excited about "Truck Day" do you?

"The players, I don't think they know," said Carson. "They just want to see their stuff."

Carson and Hartz were both very deferential when talking about "Truck Day" and its spurious significance to Sox fans. But here is the big question, if they weren't working on "Truck Day" would they be one of the fans getting excited about the truck's journey?

"No, not at all," said Carson. "It's a truck. I don't get it. I think it's great that the fans have a great time, but I guess that maybe because we're in the trucking industry we just don't get that excited over a truck."

What about Hartz?

"Probably not," he said. "I don't know what the big deal is. It's a truck leaving Fenway. Me coming out in the middle of winter to watch a truck leaving Fenway, I don't think so."

If you're wondering, the truck is scheduled to arrive in Fort Myers on Monday. The arrival date for the sanity of Red Sox Nation when it comes to "Truck Day" is still unknown.

Sox need to ante up for Beckett

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 4, 2010 12:22 PM
Red Sox pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Fla., two weeks from today. It could be the last time that Josh Beckett shows up to spring training as a member of the Red Sox.

Beckett is entering the final year of his contract, slated to make $12.1 million this season, and along with Mariners lefthander Cliff Lee would be the most sought after starting arm in the free agent class of 2011. For most of his career, Beckett, riding the reputation of postseason performances, has been known as a money pitcher. We're about to find out if the Sox and general manager Theo Epstein see him as one.

They should.

This is a deal that needs to get done before the season, so the occasionally irascible Beckett doesn't have to answer questions about his future after every start, and the Sox can go into the season knowing that if they do indeed have to give up Clay Buchholtz to get Adrian Gonzalez, who doesn't look long for sunny San Diego, they're dealing from a long-term position of strength and not scrambling to replace two-thirds of their rotation next off-season or rushing Casey Kelly to the bigs.

By now, we all realize that Beckett isn't Pedro Martinez. That advance billing was unfair, although not as ridiculous as hailing Daisuke Matsuzaka as the Pedro of the Pacific Rim. You can quibble about what classifies an "ace" in major league baseball today. There is a difference between a No. 1 starter who anchors a rotation and a true ace, which is what Martinez, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, and Greg Maddux all were in their primes.

If you asked me how many proven aces there are today in major league baseball, I'd say less than five. Those worthy of the Big A are Tim Linecum, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, and a healthy (which is a big if) Johan Santana. White Sox hurler Jake Peavy has the stuff, but needs to prove he can pitch outside of the pitcher-friendly confines of Petco Park. If Kansas City Royals pitcher and 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke can put together another transcendent season, he makes the list as well.

Pitchers like Lee, and his Mariners teammate Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander of the Tigers, haven't done it long enough or consistently enough to earn the ace appellation just yet.

Yet, Hernandez got a five-year, $78 million deal from Seattle this offseason, and Verlander just received a five-year, $80 million deal from the cash-strapped Tigers.

Which brings us back to Beckett. What is he worth? Most agree it's as least as much as the Sox shelled out for fellow Texan John Lackey (five years, $82.5 million). I'd say that five years, $90 million is not unfair for Beckett.

He is not worth the bounty that Halladay, who got a three-year, $60 million extension after being shipped to Philadelphia, or Sabathia, who had the Brinks truck backed up to bring him to the Bronx at $23 million per season, but should get more than the $82.5 million over five years that the Sox shelled out for John Lackey.

Whether Beckett is an ace, a No. 1 or something in between is debatable. What is not is that he is a front-line starter who can pitch in Boston and succeed in the American League East. Those guys are hard to find. Carl Pavano, Javier Vasquez (the first time) and Matt Clement all couldn't do it.

Beckett, who turns 30 in May, has a career .609 winning percentage. That is 11th best among active pitchers, but it's really 10th because the list includes Martinez, a time-share pitcher at this point. (Randy Johnson is on the list, but he retired.)

The Red Sox already got a bargain once with Beckett signing him to a three-year, $30 million extension in the middle of the 2006 season (the deal had an option for 2010, which Beckett vested by making more than 55 starts over the past two seasons).

Beckett was struggling then, in his first season with the Sox, posting an ERA of 5.01 and serving up 36 home runs. Their faith was rewarded when Beckett bounced back with a dominating 2007, winning 20 games for the first time in his career and dominating the postseason in a manner Clemens never did with a script B on his cap to lead the Sox to their second World Series title.

It's hard to imagine Beckett, being the latter-day Clemens, running wind sprints in the outfield at City of Palms Park and tuning out Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein with his iPod, but after watching what happened to Jason Bay, he must be leery of waiting until after the season to settle things with the Sox.  

The Sox under Epstein have a little bit of a history of becoming enamored with somebody else's players and overlooking their peccadillos while obsessively fixating and overanalyzing the flaws of their own players.

The Beckett detractors will point to him wilting like a begonia the last two seasons. In the first half of 2008, Beckett was 9-5 with a 3.94 ERA. In the second half, troubled by an oblique strain, he was 3-5 with a 4.19 ERA and opponents' batting average went up from .245 to .276.

In the first half last year, Beckett was 11-3 with a 3.35 ERA and 104 hits allowed in 121 innings pitch. In the second half, he went 6-3 with a 4.53 ERA and surrendered more hits (94) than innings pitched (91 1/3). Opponents batting average against him jumped from .230 to .263.

Before his start in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Angels, Beckett needed cortisone shots to soothe back spasms.

The other question is whether Beckett is even the team's No. 1 starter any more. Jon Lester got the call and the ball in Game 1 against the Angels.

Still, if the Red Sox are serious about run prevention, then they'll prevent from Beckett from testing free agency. 

Boston sports the Hub of Hurt

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 14, 2010 01:32 PM
Ouch.

It's painful to be a Boston athlete -- or sports fan -- these days. Maybe, there is something in the (dirty) water, but it seems like every time you peruse a story about one of the local professional sports outfits, it reads like the waiting list in the emergency room at Mass General.

Welcome to the Hub of Hurt, where the disabled list is only a day away.

We know that Boston has some of the finest medical facilities in the country, but that doesn't mean our local pro athletes have to use them. The NFL is planning to build a stadium to lure a franchise to Los Angeles in a place called the City of Industry, Boston has become the City of Injury. The injury bug has bitten the Hub like one of those vampires from the vapid "Twilight" series.

Let's assess the carnage.

The Celtics are at the point where they're going to have to start scouting local YMCAs to fill out their bench for tonight's game against the Chicago Bulls. Kevin Garnett has missed seven games with a hyperextended right knee and aptly named coach Doc Rivers said last night that the earliest Garnett could return is Wednesday against the Pistons. Rasheed Wallace was doing a bang-up job filling in for Garnett until he got banged up (sore foot). The Celtics ruled him out for tonight's game. Swingman Marquis Daniels had surgery Dec. 9 to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb and won't be back until after the All-Star break,

Let's not forget the mysterious knee infection that rendered Paul Pierce idle for two weeks. By the way, Pierce bruised his knee last night against the Nets. It was an omen for this Celtics season when forward Glen Davis broke his thumb in a fight with a friend on the eve of the season opener.
 
Maybe the Garden needs a triage set up because the Bruins have it just as bad, if not worse, than their arena mates. The Black and Gold are the Black and Blue. The Bruins have been playing shorthanded all year and what's left of the team is skating on the Left Coast.

The B's are without top center Marc Savard (sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee), leading scorer Patrice Bergeron (broken thumb) and defensemen Andrew Ference (torn groin) and Mark Stuart (broken sternum). All you need to know about the current state of the Bruins is that Milan Lucic is one of their healthy players.

The Patriots have plenty of time to heal up after being knocked out of the playoffs by the Ravens last Sunday. They'll need it. Quarterback Tom Brady had as many injuries (ribs, broken right ring finger, shoulder) as he did play-calling collaborators (Bill O'Brien, Bill Belichick, Nick Caserio). That terrible turf at Houston's Reliant Stadium robbed the Patriots of Wes Welker, who suffered torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in the regular-season finale, and won't be ready for the start of the 2010 season.

Even the Red Sox, who haven't played a game since last October, have felt the sting of injuries in recent months. The Texas Rangers rescinded a trade for Mike Lowell after determining that Lowell's thumb injury was more serious than anyone realized. Lowell had surgery on the thumb -- the hands-down winner of the most damaged digit award --  to repair a torn ligament Dec. 30. Last week, pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka revealed he hid from the Sox that he injured his leg while training for the World Baseball Classic. So, technically that's a new injury.

Heck, even owners are not immune. Patriots owner Robert Kraft was spotted after New England's loss to the Ravens on crutches. Per Patriots policy, his injury is undisclosed, of course.

The way things are going around here I think I'm going to get carpal tunnel syndrome writing this sentence. It's a good thing that President Obama is overhauling health care using the Massachusetts universal model.

Injuries are the one great variable that can undermine the best-laid plans of any sports team. You can't see them coming, and you can't control them. The Patriots learned that the hard way in 2008, when Brady was lost for the season just 15 offensive snaps in with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee.

Looking back the turning point for the 1980s Celtics may have been Kevin McHale playing on a broken foot for the last three months of the 1986-87 season. He was never quite the same player and the Celtics never returned to the NBA Finals with the original Big Three.

The Red Sox might not have had to wait 86 years to break the Curse if it weren't for Vern Ruhle. Jim Rice missed the 1975 postseason after the Tigers' Ruhle plunked him with a pitch during the last week of the regular season, breaking his wrist.

Do you think the Bruins would still be working on a 37-year Stanley Cup drought if it weren't for Cam Neely's ossified hip? Probably not.

The team most in danger of having its season undermined by injuries is the Celtics. Unlike the Bruins or Patriots, they're a legitimate championship contender if healthy, but that is a big if. The Green already lost one opportunity to win Banner 18, after Garnett's knee relegated him to the role of spectator for the 2009 playoffs.

Rivers was asked what he'd like to see the team do at the trade deadline to improve. He reminded the media he hasn't seen his team yet.

“I love our team. I don’t think we’ve had our team intact all season, our top eight guys," said Rivers. "So I’m looking forward to actually seeing that group. I think we will, and it’s going to happen really soon and I’m really looking forward to that."

Hopefully, Rivers is right and the Celtics and their Boston pro sports brethren prove to be quick healers or it's going to hurt to be a Boston sports fan for a while.

Holiday Cheers

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 24, 2009 12:56 PM
'Tis the season for giving and tomorrow those of us who celebrate Christmas will unwrap a few gifts from under the tree, but why should our local sports teams be left out of the gift-giving? Whether they've been naughty or nice in our eyes, the teams that bring us joy (mostly) all year long deserve some presents to make the holiday season -- and their seasons -- a little more jolly.

Here are some last-minute gift ideas for each of the five major professional sports teams in town. Yes, Virginia, there is a professional soccer club in town. There is no more appropriate place to start when handing out Christmas gifts than with a team that has red stockings as its emblem.

The Red Sox have already done their holiday shopping, picking up shortstop Marco Scutaro, outfielder Mike Cameron and this year's big-ticket item, pitcher John Lackey. All the focus on improved defense and a stellar rotation is great, but you know deep down on Yawkey Way they'd like to find a big-time, big-name slugger. Let's give the Sox the one gift they really want (well, other than Hanley Ramirez back) --  a trade for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

Last year, the Sox missed out on the "it" toy of the off-season, Mark Teixeira. Gonzalez is in the prime of his career at age 27, wants to play for the Sox, has a swing tailor-made for Fenway and has an affordable contract the next two seasons ($4.5 million this season with a club option for $5.5 million in 2011). The last four seasons he has averaged 33 home runs and 100 RBI playing in Petco Park, which it so unfriendly to hitters it might as well be Yosemite National Park. During that same time Teixeira has averaged 34 home runs and 114 RBI.

The last three seasons, Petco Park has finished last or next to last in the majors in ballpark home run factor. During that time Gonzalez has hit .303 with 70 home runs on the road and .253 with 32 home runs on the road. His away slugging percentage is .595, while his home one is .434.

Stocking stuffer: How about the return of Jason Bay? That would relieve some of the pain of having to give up Jacoby Ellsbury to get Gonzalez.

Green and red are the Christmas colors. We've covered the Red Sox, so let's go to the Green.

The Celtics will be playing a Christmas Day game tomorrow against the Orlando Magic. The one gift they'd like is a healthy roster. The startling news yesterday that captain Paul Pierce could miss two weeks after having a procedure to treat a knee infection -- we all learned from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady how tricky knee infections can be -- added to the C's injury woes. Kevin Garnett, who appears to have recovered from the right knee injury that truncated his 2009 season, missed Tuesday night's game against Indiana with a right thigh bruise.

 Boston is already without a pair of key reserves, Glen Davis, who broke his right thumb in an altercation with a friend on the eve of the season-opener, and forward/guard Marquis Daniels, who is out until the All-Star break after having surgery to repair a ligament in his left thumb.

The Celtics have an Eastern Conference-best 22-5 record, and with Rasheed Wallace and a healthy Daniels, their bench is arguably better than the one they have in 2008, when they won their 17th NBA title with James Posey, P.J. Brown and Eddie House, who is still in-house, coming off the pine. The only thing that could derail this team, which relies on a trio of superstars who are all 32 or older, is injuries. That was the case last season with Garnett. Remember that Celtics team had a 19-game winning streak at one point and was 44-11 before Garnett went down.

Stocking stuffer: A jump shot for Rajon Rondo. That's all that's preventing Rondo from reaching Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Deron Williams territory.

The Patriots are in position to give themselves a belated Christmas gift on Sunday -- an AFC East title -- with a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium. It hasn't always been a merry season for the Patriots, but unwrapping the division title would certainly bring some mirth to the House of Hoodie. But what this team could use is a third wide receiver.

Brady has completed 320 passes this year and 174, or 54.4 percent of them, have gone to either Moss or Welker. But that's not the problem. In 2007, Brady completed 52.8 percent of his passes to the dynamic duo. The third receiver spot has been a revolving door with Joey Galloway, Julian Edelman (really more of a slot receiver than a split end opposite Moss), Isaiah Stanback, and now Sam Aiken.

Stocking stuffer: The six-sack performance against Buffalo was great, but the Patriots still could use an elite pass rusher. Julius Peppers, anyone?

This is the season of light, but the Bruins have a hard time lighting the lamp this season. Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli has admitted he thought the team would score more and Congress has had an easier time hashing out health care reform than Claude Julien has had crafting line combinations.

After their six-goal outburst last night the Bruins are 24th in the NHL in goals per game at 2.53. Before the Thrashers game they were last in the NHL in goals scored with 85. Only Carolina and St. Louis have scored fewer. The Bruins don't have a player among the top 60 in the NHL in goals. Last season the Bruins were second in the NHL in goals per game (3.29), scoring 270. Injuries have sapped some of the juice out of the offense, as top center Marc Savard and left wing Milan Lucic have missed a combined 41 games. Before the season is over, the Bruins need a goal scorer. Atlanta scoring machine Ilya Kovalchuck would look good in Black and Gold, but his price tag is too high.

Stocking stuffer: One more puck-moving defenseman. Still wish the Bruins had gotten Tomas Kaberle in the Phil Kessel deal.

The Revolution are a major pro sports team in this town, even if you don't consider there to be anything Major League about Major League Soccer. What the Revolution need is a soccer-specific stadium, so they don't have to play in front of three-quarters empty Gillette Stadium, which has all the soccer ambiance of the Ted Williams Tunnel. MLS will have nine teams out of 16 with soccer-specific stadia in 2010. The league is adding the expansion Philadelphia Union.

Stocking stuffer: How about a few more people paying attention to the Revs?

Sox moves viewed through Pinstripe prism

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 17, 2009 11:36 AM
Do you feel the Red Sox today are better equipped to beat the baseball club in the Bronx than they were last season? Isn't that really what this offseason is all about, whether the Sox can bridge -- there is that word again --  the gap that opened up last season between them and the World Series champion Yankees?

That's the pinstripe prism through which Red Sox Nation views all of the team's moves, including the signings of pitcher John Lackey and outfielder Mike Cameron. If you're a Sox fan you should feel better about this team pulling even with the Evil Empire today than when the season ended, even with the likely departure of Jason Bay. The Red Sox have a deeper pitching staff, better defense and a clearer ideological path than they did at the end of the 2009 campaign, all while keeping their best trade chips.

Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein has always stressed that the Sox don't weigh every transaction against what Yankees general manager Brian Cashman is planning for the Steinbrenner 9. At Fenway the goal is to construct a team that can win 95 games or more, which is what it takes to make the postseason, Yankees or no Yankees. But Epstein knows that he can't build his team in a vacuum. He has to construct a club that can contend with the Yankees, both in the regular season and in the postseason.

That's why the Sox, flying in the face of their on-base machine ethos, are heading in the opposite direction of the Yankees with their 2010 baseball blueprint, which is predicated on out-pitching and out-defending New York. The Sox, even should they acquire an Adrian Gonzalez or a Miguel Cabrera, can't out-slug the Bronx Bombers. They realize that.

The Yankees went out and added 30-home run threat Curtis Granderson to an already imposing lineup of mashers and bashers that featured seven players who hit 20 home runs or more in the new bandbox in the Bronx. And none of them were named Derek Jeter, who had a legitimate case for AL MVP.

The natural response for the Sox could have been to overpay for Bay or Matt Holliday to try to match the Yanks bat for booming bat. Instead after they surveyed the Bay and Holliday market and made their semi-annual shortstop swap with Marco Scutaro, they sunk $98 million into Lackey and Cameron and turned run prevention into a Boston baseball buzzword.

Epstein admitted that Lackey and Cameron may not have been the Sox' Plan A to compete in 2010, but that doesn't mean it's not a grade-A plan. Pitching is always a valued asset and a short-term deal for an athletic outfielder who can play all three spots (Cameron got two years, $15.5 million) is not anything that will handcuff the Sox financially if they decide to abandon the run-prevention route and go back to their good old OPS-is-best ways.

Regardless of the makeup of their lineup, the Sox are serious about upgrading their defense. That's obvious because otherwise they wouldn't have pursued Cameron, a three-time Gold Glove center fielder who has a career on-base percentage of .340 and strikes out more often than one of the guys on MTV's insipid reality program, "Jersey Shore".

By their own statistical measurements they had the second-worst defense in the majors last year. While the memory of the scoring a combined one run in the first two games of the American League Division Series sweep at the hands of the Angels still lingers, Epstein pointed out that last season the Olde Town Team actually scored more runs (872) and hit more home runs (212) than they did when they won the World Series in 2007 with Manny Ramirez and a healthy David Ortiz manning the middle of the order (867 runs and 166 homers).

The problem was that in 2007 the Sox allowed the fewest runs in baseball (657) and last year they allowed 736, which was 11th-least and 16 fewer than the Yankees. However, the Yankees led the majors with 915 runs scored. The Sox simply can't match that run production.

Remember Bill Clinton's campaign slogan in 1992 -- "It's the economy, stupid"? In baseball, replace economy with pitching.

On paper, the Red Sox top three of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Lackey, three No. 1- or 1A-caliber hurlers in the primes of their careers, is as good as any in Major League Baseball and gives the Sox an edge in the arms race over New York, which after CC Sabathia has the erratic A.J. Burnett and the aging Andy Pettitte.

Throw in a committed and conditioned Daisuke Matsuzaka, who after looking and pitching like Hideki Irabu at the start of the season went 3-1 with a 2.22 ERA in his final four starts, a maturing Clay Buchholz, and the venerable Tim Wakefield and you have a starting pitching rotation that could be the envy of the American League.

Let's be honest, the lineup has less pop than we're used to seeing. We know this already. With David Ortiz in decline -- and a lot of players would like their decline to be 28 homers and 99 RBI -- the Sox as currently constituted don't have a guaranteed 30-home run hitter. There is no A-Rod or Mark Texeira to anchor this lineup.

That's why we'll keep hearing the Sox connected to rumors about acquisitions of Gonzalez, Cabrera or even Milwaukee's Prince Fielder, who could be available as he enters his prime arbitration years.

At some point -- either this offseason, during the 2010 season, or next offseason --  the Sox will have to acquire a power hitter and it's going to hurt to do so. It will cost them either Buchholz, Daniel Bard or Jacoby Ellsbury from the major league roster and prospects, unless Epstein changes course and considers dangling, rather than re-signing, Beckett.

Whether it was just public posturing for his old buddy and former lieutenant Jed Hoyer, now the Padres general manager and Gonzalez gatekeeper, or the truth, Epstein sounded content to start the season with defensive wizard Casey Kotchman at first, see how things go, and only acquire a big bopper when and if he is needed.

Do you know the last team that won a World Series without having a 30-homer hitter? It was the Yankees in 1999; Tino Martinez led them with 28.

A lot could happen in the 108 days between today and when the Sox and Yankees open up the season on April 4 at Fenway; Cashman and the Yankees surely aren't done. But with Cameron and Lackey the Sox have the offseason ball rolling in the right direction and sent a message to the Yankees that the 2010 season won't be one of surrender.

Your move, Yankees. 

Lowell connector

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 10, 2009 01:24 PM
Who says the Red Sox and Scott Boras can't come to an agreement? The Sox have decided to take the insufferable superagent's unsolicited and self-serving advice and trade Mike Lowell.

Fox Sports first reported that, pending physicals -- with Lowell's bad hip, it's no mere formality -- and the commissioner's office signing off on the Sox paying three-fourths of Lowell's $12 million salary for this season, the venerable third baseman will be dealt to the Texas Rangers for 25-year-old catcher Max Ramirez.

Not exactly the answer to the Curtis Granderson trade we were looking for.  

Now, even if they don't end up with outfielder Matt Holliday, the Sox may sign a Boras client, as Lowell's possible replacement at the hot corner is Mariners free agent third baseman Adrian Beltre.

People say that the folks in Foxborough are cold-hearted when it comes to cutting ties with players, but the boys at baseball ops in Fenway can be just as callous when they deem a player no longer useful. Say this for general manager Theo Epstein, he might become unusually enamored with players he covets from other teams, but he never gets sentimental with his own major leaguer roster.

Pedro Martinez, Johnny Damon, Bronson Arroyo, Lowell and possibly Jason Bay are testament to that.

The writing was on the wall for Lowell last season. He was left without a steady seat in the third base, first base, DH, catcher game of musical chairs that began when the Sox picked up Victor Martinez at the trade deadline.

It's been a good and mutually beneficial ride for the Red Sox and Lowell, who took one year, and $14 million less to stay with the Sox following the 2007 season. When the Sox took Lowell as a throw-in to the Josh Beckett trade during Epstein's 80-day abeyance, he was an $18 million albatross (two years at $9 million left on his deal with Florida) coming off the worst season of his career (.236, 8 home runs, 58 RBI).

He leaves Boston four years later as a World Series MVP, a fan favorite and a class act who reclaimed his career. In his four years with the Sox, Lowell, and his tailor-made Green Monster swing, underwent a career renaissance that included a trip to the All-Star game in 2007 and a fifth-place finish in the MVP balloting that year. His average season with the Sox was .293, 19 home runs and 87 RBI.

A former Gold Glover at the hot corner, the torn labrum in Lowell's hip that required surgery following the '08 season rendered him a shell of his former self at third base. The last two seasons it was as painful to watch Lowell try to play the position, hobbling on his bad hip, as it was for him to play on it.

Lowell's total zone fielding runs above average -- the number of runs a player was worth below or above an average player based on fielding plays made -- was a negative 6.6 in 2009.
 
He's being dealt to a contender where his ailing hip won't be an issue -- the Rangers have All-Star third baseman Michael Young -- and he can pick up at-bats as a designated hitter and first baseman, the latter a position that the Sox clearly weren't comfortable with him playing.

Heck, Lowell might have just as good a shot at making the playoffs in Texas as he would have had with the Sox, who are already preparing their AL East concession speech for 2010.

Epstein has lowered expectations so much that the "bridge period" he talked about during the Winter Meetings in Indianapolis seems more like a tunnel time, where the Sox are resigned to travel beneath the Yankees until uber-prospects like Casey Kelly and Ryan Westmoreland see the major league light of day.

Texas won 87 games last year and was sitting at 75-58 on Sept. 2, 2.5 games behind the Sox for the AL wild card and 3.5 games behind the Angels in the AL West, when Young's hamstring injury caused him to miss 23 games over the final month-plus of the season.

The defensive part of potentially swapping out Lowell for Beltre makes a lot of sense, one of the few things in this off-season that does for the Sox.

The 30-year-old Beltre is an excellent defensive third baseman. He won the AL Gold Glove in 2007 and 2008 and even with a bum left shoulder last year that required in-season surgery to remove bone spurs he still posted a plus-5.5 total zone fielding runs above average.

His bat is a bigger question mark. Beltre has never come close to approximating his incredible 2004 season with the Dodgers. That year Beltre led the NL in homers with 48, while batting .334, driving in 121 runs and slugging .629. In five seasons in Seattle, he never slugged above .500 and never drove in 100 runs. His best season as a Mariner was 2007, when he hit .276 with 26 home runs and 99 RBI.

Limited to 111 games last season by the shaky shoulder, Beltre hit as many home runs as Jacoby Ellsbury (8) and finished with a lower slugging percentage than Ells (.417 to .379 for Beltre), while batting an eminently pedestrian .265.

The best overall fix for third would be shifting Kevin Youkilis across the diamond and acquiring a power-hitting slugger like Adrian Gonzalez or Miguel Cabera to play first, but in order to do that, the Sox would have to part with their precious prospects.

For a team whose most pressing off-season need is a big bat -- and that need becomes greater if Bay walks away and the asking price to enter the Boras-concocted bidding war for Holliday is simply too steep -- trading Lowell and replacing him with Beltre is a lateral move in the lineup.

But then again that's what this off-season has been all about for the Sox so far -- making lateral moves while the latitude between them and the Yankees grows wider.   

'Tek issues

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 12, 2009 08:57 AM
Jason Varitek has decided to come back as the Red Sox backup catcher. Now, newly anointed catcher Victor Martinez won't be looking over his shoulder to just chat with the umpire.

This won't end well.

For Varitek, sitting on the bench for at least four out of every five games and watching Martinez handle the pitching staff is going to be like having your Mercedes repossessed and then finding out your next door neighbor bought it at an auction. You'll still see the car every day, and he might even let you take it for a spin for old time's sake every once in a while, but the keys belong to him now, not you.

If Martinez, who is regarded as average defensively at best, is truly going to be the team's everyday catcher, as general manager Theo Epstein proclaimed earlier this week, then it would have behooved him to not have to deal with the shadow Varitek casts behind the plate.

The venerable Varitek would never intentionally undermine Martinez, but his mere presence could have that effect. Tek's return for a 14th season with the Sox sets up Martinez's game-calling skills to be second-guessed at every turn by fans, media and possibly his own pitchers.

Every time Martinez puts down a sign this season and a Red Sox pitcher shakes him off, you'll have to wonder if the pitcher is doing it because he thinks there is a better pitch in that situation or because it's not the sign that Varitek would have put down.

The Red Sox might really be happy to have the 37-year-old captain, who picked up his $3 million player option yesterday, back with the team, as Epstein told reporters in Chicago. But on the other hand, what choice do they have? This was Varitek's call, and it was one that the Red Sox couldn't shake off.

They have too much respect for Varitek to ever speak a disparaging word about him publicly, but if they really wanted him back, they would have picked up the $5 million team option in his contract or negotiated a new one-year deal with Varitek's agent, Scott Boras. Now, they're stuck with the difficult balancing act of moving on from Varitek with Varitek, which is all but impossible.

Can't you already envision a scenario where Josh Beckett, who seemed to be the most obstinate about Martinez supplanting Varitek as the team's best option behind the plate last season, goes to manager Terry Francona and asks for Varitek to be his personal catcher?

Beckett, who in three regular-season starts with Martinez had a 6.19 ERA, would have been forced to adjust if Varitek departed. Now, Beckett, in a contract year, can cling to his security blanket. So, every time the Red Sox send their ace to the mound they'll have to take Martinez's valuable bat (.303, 23 home runs, 108 RBI, .861 on-base percentage-plus-slugging) out of the lineup, a bat that is the primary reason Martinez is valuable as a catcher in the first place.

It will be sad to see Varitek reduced to the role of reserve receiver and catching caddie in the place where he made three All-Star teams, twice was behind the plate for the final out of the World Series, set a franchise record for games caught (1,381) and conducted himself in a manner that inspired the organization to name him team captain in 2004, which was the first time in 15 seasons and only the third time since 1923 that the team handed out the designation.

Varitek got a preview of his diminished role last season. Martinez started 31 of the final 60 games at catcher after joining the Sox in a July 31 trade from the Cleveland Indians and caught all three playoff games against the Angels, while Varitek and his captain's 'C' took a seat.

Varitek's shortcomings at the plate -- .209 average, 14 homers, 51 RBI -- and behind it trying to throw out runners simply became impossible to ignore.

After the All-Star break, he hit just .157 with 1 home run and 13 RBI, while striking out 41 times in 42 games. It was painful to watch baserunners victimize Varitek -- teams stole 108 bases on him against just 16 caught stealing -- especially that night in Arlington, Texas, when the Rangers looked they were auditioning for the Penn Relays with eight steals.

The in-season changing of the (shin) guard at catcher was awkward enough, but the Sox survived it, and Varitek, whose work ethic is only matched by his class, handled his demotion with professionalism. But being marginalized for a whole season is a different deal, especially when you're the captain.

It's hard to find a single pitcher who has worked with Varitek that doesn't revere him for his game-calling ability, which in these parts has become above reproach. It's hard to say that Varitek is overrated as a game-caller because pitchers swear by him, but it's also difficult to quantify the impact his gamecalling skills have.

Varitek can call the right pitch, but if it's not executed properly it doesn't matter. Conversely, he can call a bad pitch and it ends up in the Monster Seats and no one is pointing the finger anywhere but at the pitcher.

Statistically, Sox pitchers were better off with Varitek behind the plate last season than Martinez. Varitek had an American League-best catcher's ERA of 3.87 in 108 games. Martinez had a catcher's ERA of 5.22 in 33 games. The sample size skews the data a bit, but Varitek has a career catcher's ERA of 4.11 to Martinez's 4.41.

The good news is that Beckett seemed to be the only pitcher who was markedly worse with Martinez, and Clay Buchholz actually blossomed with Martinez, who caught 13 of the young righthander's 16 starts. Once and future ace Jon Lester also worked well with Martinez.

Remaining with the Red Sox was obviously important to Varitek. Plus, where else was he going to make $3 million at this stage of his career? You know Varitek will do all he can to help Martinez.

But it would have been best if Varitek had opted to catch on elsewhere.

The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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