ANAHEIM, Calif. -- There was never any question about the Red Sox and their ability to hit. What there was, quite simply, was a question about their ability to hit good pitching.
And there still is.
Shackled by the Tampa Bay Rays in their season-opening three-game series at Fenway Park, the Red Sox opened their 2009 road schedule last night with a 6-3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium. So far this season, the Sox have scored a mere 13 runs in four games while batting a collective .235 with an OPS of .694. In the last three games, all losses, the Sox have batted .220 and scored eight runs.
Cause for concern or early-season aberration?
"This is four games. This is 1/40th of the schedule,’’ said first baseman Kevin Youkilis. "We’re going to have a [rough] spell. We’re not worried about it. I know a lot of people [in New England] might be worried about it, but we’re not worried. We’re going to hit.’’
Easy for him to say.
He’s batting .625.
As for the Red Sox collectively, they are hitting ... not so much. As was the case last October, in particular, the lineup already is beginning to look suspiciously thin, even as the Sox get productive at-bats from their catcher. J.D. Drew is 1 for 11. Jed Lowrie is 1 for 15 with seven strikeouts. David Ortiz is batting .167 with zero extra-base hits. At this stage of the season, one productive game can erase those numbers and replace them with far more encouraging ones, but this is not solely about the results.
With a few exceptions, the Red Sox have looked defensive at the plate. Ortiz in particular still looks like he is cheating to catch up to the fastball, which is why opponents are continuing neutralize him with off-speed pitches that leave him off-balance and disarmed.
In the Red Sox’ defense, they have had three consecutive well-pitched games against them – or at least two-and-a-half. Beginning with the latter stages of Tampa lefty Scott Kazmir’s outing against them on Wednesday, the Sox have encountered starters who have been able to spot their fastball and throw off-speed pitches even when behind in the count. Nobody was a better example than last night’s Angels starter, righthander Jered Weaver, who repeatedly hit the corners with his fastball and then mystified the Sox with his changeup.
Weaver’s changeup was particularly effective against righthanded batters, an approach that is somewhat unconventional. (Most righthanders who throw a changeup use it largely to fade the ball away from lefthanded batters.) Sox left fielder Jason Bay admitted he was somewhat caught off guard by Weaver’s approach, though Bay had faced Weaver in just one previous career plate appearance, that coming in the extra innings of Game 3 of last year’s American League Division Series.
"It was more fastball-slider,’’ Bay, a righthanded batter, said when asked what he expected to see from Weaver. "That [changeup] seemed to be the pitch that was working for him.’’
Said Sox manager Terry Francona, addressing the last three games overall, "Weaver pitched well [last night]. He threw all of his pitches in a lot of fastball counts ... That’s what I’ve seen in [the last] three games -- pitchers are throwing off-speed pitches in fastball counts and we’re still swinging at fastballs.’’
That last statement should not be interpreted as criticism of the Red Sox’ offensive approach. Rather, it is an indication that the Red Sox have run into some good pitchers operating with good command, especially for this early in the season. Kazmir and teammate Matt Garza similarly mixed things up against the Sox, going six and seven innings, respectively. In the last three games, the opposing starter has traveled deeper into the game than the Red Sox starter -- this is called getting outpitched -- which is to be expected when Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka throw a combined 194 pitches to basically get through 10 innings.
This brings us back to the Red Sox lineup and the question of whether it provides the same kind of challenge for opposing pitchers. Last postseason, against these same Tampa and Los Angeles staffs, the Sox batted .240 and scored 46 runs in 11 games. Compare that with, say, the 2007 postseason, when the Sox hit .318 in the AL Championship Series and scored 51 runs (in seven games), or the 2007 ALDS, when the Sox hit .269 (with a .369 on-base percentage and .864 OPS) while scoring 19 runs in three games.
Where once opposing pitchers delicately tried to maneuver through the Boston lineup as if it were a minefield, they are now striding far more confidently.
Even during the regular season, if anyone cared to notice, the Red Sox lineup showed some vulnerability. Though the Sox scored a whopping 170 runs in going 18-9 during August immediately after they traded You Know Who, 56 of those runs came in six games against Texas and Baltimore, the two worst pitching staffs in the league. When the schedule got a little tougher in September, the Sox’ output dropped by more than a full run per game. Then came October.
Again, in retrospect, we recognized all of this way back then. So did the Red Sox. That is a big reason general manager Theo Epstein was willing to throw $170 million at Mark Teixeira for the purposes of fortifying the middle of the Boston lineup. It is also why Plan B centered on building the deepest pitching staff in baseball in front of an excellent defense, which made perfect sense. If the Red Sox weren’t going to score as much, they needed to give up less, which is like weather-stripping your home because of escalating oil prices.
It’s a way to get a little more out of what you already have.
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