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Breaking down the Sox

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  May 26, 2010 08:06 AM

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Traipsing around the diamond as the Red Sox invite themselves back into the cluster of legitimate American League playoff contenders…

  • Last night marked Jon Lester’s 101st career major league start, which standing alone does not mean a great deal. Lester’s career really is just beginning. Nonetheless, Lester’s 2-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rays improved his career record to 47-18, a winning percentage of .723 that ranks first all-time among pitchers with at least 100 starts.

    Let’s say that again: after his first 100 career starts, Jon Lester has the highest career winning percentage of all-time, a statistic that points to his competitive nature as much as anything else. Anyone who watched Lester at the start of his career knows this. Lester struggled with command and efficiency early in his career, but he nonetheless found ways to win games.

    Though nothing is ever guaranteed in baseball, there is every reason to believe Lester has turned the corner for good. In 2008, after a rough start, he went 15-4 with a 2.82 ERA over his final 27 starts. Last year, after what has become a typically rough April, he went 13-4 with a 2.48 ERA over his final 24 starts. In his last seven outings this year, Lester is 5-0 with a 1.45 ERA.

    Is there really any doubt that he is the true Boston ace?

  • The Red Sox’ decision to move Jacoby Ellsbury back to center field should hardly come as a surprise, especially after Cameron told The Providence Journal a while back that he would need surgery after the season to repair an abdominal issue. Cameron is 37. If he needs surgery – now or later – he is operating at something less than 100 percent. Once that was clear, it should have been evident to everyone that the Sox were better off with Ellsbury in center.

    So what should the Sox do with Cameron, whom they curiously signed to a two-year, $15.5-million deal over the winter? Make him a reserve. Jeremy Hermida has been a nice surprise and should be far more effective against righthanded pitching than Cameron would be. If and when Hermida starts, as he did last night, the Sox also can use Cameron as a defensive replacement. (Darnell McDonald replaced Hermida last night because Cameron was in center. Ellsbury was unavailable.) Left field is one place where every team can sacrifice defense.

    Of course, if the Sox settle on this arrangement – and last night suggests they will – the obvious question concerns why the Sox didn’t just re-sign Jason Bay and pass on Cameron in the first place.

  • Last night’s win was the Sox’ fifth straight by multiple runs, only supporting the theory that efficiency in one-run games is not important for any successful team. When current Sox owners and administrators took over the team in 2002, they suggested noted that success in one-run games was arbitrary. Bad teams frequently won the most one-run games, they argued, because they were incapable of blowing anyone out. Good teams frequently win by larger margins, a reality on which the entire concept of run differential is built.

    So far this season, the defending world champion New York Yankees have played fewer one-run games (five) than any team in baseball. (The Yankees are 1-4.) Meanwhile, the Seattle Mariners (17-28) are among the teams to have played the most (17, 5-12). Last year, the wretched San Diego Pares were among the most successful teams in baseball in one-run games.

    Earlier this season, the Sox had a stretch during which five consecutive wins were decided by one run. Again, this is proof that they were notplaying well.

  • Manny Delcarmen is what he is at this stage – a middle reliever best suited for the sixth inning – but he pitched the most important inning for the Sox in last night’s win. Because Hideki Okajima pitched two innings Monday – and because Lester’s pitch count escalated – the Sox needed someone to bridge the gap to set-up man Daniel Bard. Delcarmen did so by pitching a 1-2-3 seventh in which he retired B.J. Upton (strikeout), Dioner Navarro (groundout) and Gabe Kapler (groundout) without allowing a ball out of the infield.

    Many Sox followers have little faith in Delcarmen, who got off to a fast start last season before imploding in the second half. (His ERA in his final 24 appearances was 8.59.) But given Okajima’s struggles this season, Delcarmen’s performance in games like last night are a huge boost for a tea that clearly could use another late-inning reliever.

  • As colleague Peter Abraham points out in today’s print and online editions, the Red Sox have yet to allow a steal in this series after allowing a whopping 10 to the Rays in the four games at Fenway Park in April. The cynic would point to the fact that Jason Varitek has caught both games of this series, but the truth is that there are other factors far more important.

    First: unlike the series in April, when the Sox never held a lead in any of the four games, the Sox have not trailed through the first two games of this three-game set. Additionally, Boston’s starters in this series – Clay Buchholz, Lester and John Lackey (tonight) – are the club’s three best at deterring opposing running games. So far this season, the Sox have thrown out 8 of 24 base stealers with Buchholz, Lester or Lackey on the mound, a rate of 33 percent that is quite good. With Josh Beckett, Tim Wakefield or Daisuke Matsuzaka on the mound, the Sox have thrown out just 2 of 27 base stealers, a rate of just 7.4 percent.

    For Beckett, in particular, one cannot help but wonder if his early-season struggles with regard to the running game contributed mightily (or caused entirely?) his problems from the stretch. In Beckett’s first four starts this season, opponents went a perfect 9 for 9 against him in steal attempts. Since that time, Beckett has gone from bad to worse, posting a 9.90 ERA while failing to allow a steal.

    Pitching coach John Farrell has since confirmed that Beckett has too frequently lapsed into the slide step, which has clearly affected the pitcher’s ability to focus on -- and retire -- hitters.

    Keep this in mind the next time someone suggests that a base runner cannot help a hitter.


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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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