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The 1-run conundrum

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 17, 2008 10:18 AM

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But as the Red Sox enter tonight's series finale facing significant ramifications with regard to baseball's tiebreaking procedures, here are an assortment of explanations (in the form of a multiple-choice question) for the team's dreadful road record in one-run affairs:

a.) The ballpark. By now, we all know the importance of Fenway Park in the ball club's success, particularly during the Theo Epstein era. Since the start of the 2003 season, the Red Sox have the best home record in baseball (313-166, .653) and have scored 173 more runs at home than the next closest team (the Yankees). Epstein and his baseball operations staff have done a brilliant job of building their team to their ballpark, which is part of the reason Jason Bay will be a better player in Boston than he was in Pittsburgh.

This year, the Sox have averaged 5.8 runs at home and 4.8 runs on the road, a difference of exactly one run. (A coincidence?) At the same time, Sox pitchers have a 3.61 ERA at home and a 4.24 ERA on the road, which seems to fly in the face of the theory that Fenway benefits hitters.

Could it be that Fenway just benefits Red Sox hitters?

b.) The offensive philosophy and/or the manager. Let's start with the former: Generally speaking, the Sox treat the sacrifice bunt as if it were poison sumac. The Sox like to play for the big inning and the philosophy has suited them well, especially at Fenway. Yet if you believe this team has been significantly altered in the wake of the Manny Ramirez trade, the Sox now may be less equipped to have big innings, especially against good teams. That would seem to put an emphasis on manufacturing runs, which the Sox generally do not do.

How does the manager figure in? Maybe he doesn't. Fans like to beat up the manager, though they always have the benefit of hindsight. Terry Francona has won two World Series here and has been quite consistent in his approach. Last night, the only time Francona might have been second-guessed came in the bottom of the ninth inning, when he allowed Justin Masterson to face both the lefthanded-hitting Cliff Floyd and the switch-hitting Dioner Navarro with multiple men on base.

For what it's worth, here's the necessary data: Masterson has held lefties to a .230 average this year, though their on-base percentage against him is .365; for Hideki Okajima, the respective numbers are .198 and .252. Meanwhile, Cliff Floyd (whom Masterson eventually hit with an 0-2 pitch) is just 1 for 10 with four strikeouts against lefties this year, and Navarro is batting .312 against righthanded pitching (as a lefthanded batter) and a mere .245 against lefthanded pitching (as a righthanded batter).

Sounds like Francona made mistakes, right?

Not necessarily.

With runners at first and second (when Floyd was up) or with the bases loaded (Navarro), the Sox were rightfully hoping for a double play to get them out of the inning. This season, sinkerballer Masterson has induced 14 double plays. Okajima has induced -- get this -- one.

"Justin seemed like our best opportunity to get the ball on the ground," Francona said. "We felt like that was the best thing to do."

It didn't work. But if it did, wouldn't we all feel differently?

c.) The bullpen. Against the Rays this year, the Red Sox are 0-6 in one-run games. The simplest explanation is that Tampa's bullpen is far superior to Boston's, especially with a Sox lineup that has been somewhat diluted in the absence of Ramirez. After starter Andy Sonnanstine left last night's game, Tampa's relief corps neutralized a sensational outing by Josh Beckett and held down the fort until the Rays were able to beat the Boston bullpen.

This year, in games tied after six innings, the Rays are 15-6. In games tied after seven, they're 13-3. Tampa's bullpen is one of the great strengths of its club, helping to explain why the Rays have been so successful against the Sox in the late innings of close games.

Does that explain all of the Sox' problems this year in close games? Hardly. In games tied after six innings, the Red Sox are a respectable 9-7. In games tied after seven, they're 7-9 -- and they would have been 8-8 with a win Tuesday. This suggests that the Sox bullpen has not been poor as much as it has been average (or slightly above average), which has left the Sox quite vulnerable against teams with better bullpens, like the Rays and, perhaps, the Los Angeles Angels.

Of course, in the postseason, most everyone has a good bullpen.

One other thing: Jonathan Papelbon generally does not pitch in tie games on the road because Francona needs him to close if and when the Sox get a lead. At home, Francona has the luxury of using his closer in tie games. Maybe that helps explain why the Sox have the second-best home record in baseball in one-run games with a mark of 15-4.

After all, how many truly reliable relievers does Francona have?

d.) None of the above or all of the above. Let's take last night's game as an example. Jason Bartlett blooped a single into right field to start the inning. Carlos Pena walked on a tough at-bat during which the Red Sox were robbed of a strike when Okajima's warmup pitch trickled onto the field. Floyd got hit on the foot. In retrospect, the entire inning was a succession of peculiar plays.

Overall this season, the Sox are 18-22 in one-run games, a winning percentage of .450 that places them 20th among the 30 major league teams. Among the teams in the top 10 are the San Francisco Giants (who stink), the Cincinnati Reds (who stink) and the Colorado Rockies (who stink). All of this only lends credence to the new school argument that bad teams generally excel in one-run games because they lack the talent or skill to beat anyone by a greater margin.

Here's another variable: Let's say the Red Sox have a 10-0 lead after five innings and Francona starts pulling his regulars. The opponent rallies late against the dregs of the Boston bullpen before Francona summons his frontline relievers to preserve a 10-9 victory. Is that really a one-run game? Is it indicative of anything? Does it suggest some grand problem or is it just a combination of odd events?

You tell us. And let us know as well how you explain the Sox' poor record in one-run games on the road.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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