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Thank goodness for the Orioles?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 19, 2011 08:12 AM

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Adrian Gonzalez's performance lately mirrors the Red Sox -- mired in a slump.

Mathematically speaking, the Red Sox should be a lock. There are precisely 10 games to play and the Red Sox lead by two. Tampa Bay must face New York seven times. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have seven games scheduled against the Baltimore Orioles, the inflatable clown punching bags of the ironclad American League East.

So then why do we all feel as if we’re hanging from our fingernails as the 2011 regular season enters its final full week?

And is there really the chance that the Yankees could submarine the Red Sox by tanking games in the final 10 days?

Continuing a flat spin that began in the final days of August, the Sox lost to the Tampa Bay Rays yesterday by an 8-5 score at Fenway Park, Boston’s sixth head-to-head loss in the last seven games against the team nipping at its spikes. The Sox are now 5-13 in their last 18 games and have not won two straight since defeating the Oakland A’s on Aug. 27. Every game seems losable. The $180 million Sox are unraveling like a cheap ball of yarn, their experience and price tag proving utterly worthless.

“I love the fact that it comes down to being intimidated or not being intimidated,” Rays manager Joe Maddon told reporters following yesterday’s win. “We are not intimidated by this venue or this moment.”

Wish we could say the same for the Sox, who made five official errors in the series and countless other unofficial ones, among the most egregious being Jacoby (Psycho) Ellsbury’s ill-advised attempt to steal third base on Saturday.

How do they choke this? Let us count the ways. Adrian Gonzalez went 0 for 12 in the Rays series and struck out six times. Ditto for catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. In the series finale against David Price, left fielder and $142 million man Carl Crawford inspired such confidence that manager Terry Francona started Conor Jackson in left field. In the four-game set, the Sox had almost as many strikeouts (28) as hits (30) while going 7 for 40 (a .175 average) with runners in scoring position.

Meanwhile, in the last two weeks, Ellsbury and Mike Aviles have ended innings (or games) with ill-advised steal attempts, all from a team that stresses the importance of giving away nothing.

Unless, of course, we happen to be talking about a playoff spot.

But wait.

Here come the Orioles!

Incredible as it seems, the dreaded Yankees can indeed undermine Boston’s season over the final 10 days, though it would take a near-miracle. If the Yankees defeat the Twins today and sweep the Sox later in the week while losing all seven remaining games against the Rays –who then must also sweep Toronto along the way – the Yankees would finish with 95 wins, the Rays would finish with 95 wins … and the Red Sox would be finished, no matter how they fare against the Orioles.

Of course, such a scenario is wildly improbable, leaving us with a relatively simple cause and effect.

If the Red Sox take care of business against Baltimore, then there will be playoff baseball in Boston this fall.

For all of their complaints about the scheduling this year – from interleague play and beyond – the Red Sox are now being dealt a gift from the scheduling gods. This season, the Sox are 8-3 against the Orioles, whom they will face seven times on the next 10 days. Since the start of the 2005 season, the Red Sox are 82-37 against Baltimore, a .689 winning percentage that is their highest against any American League team. (That translates into a 112-50 record over a 162-game schedule.) For the Red Sox, the Orioles have been the ultimate piñata, Baltimore posting a major league-worst 4.96 ERA during that span.

Grab your bats, fellas.

The uh-O’s are here.

Just the same, the Red Sox are now facing a potential worst-case scenario with regard to the playoffs, if and when they get there. Thanks to the events of the last 10 days, the Sox may be forced to play meaningful games at the start of next week, which could thrust their already scrambling pitching staff into a state of last-gasp emergency. Josh Beckett is scheduled to pitch Wednesday and Jon Lester on Friday, and if the Sox are required to pitch either (or both) next week, it could alter their pitching plans for a potential first-round playoff matchup.

In 2005, the Sox suffered precisely such a fate and were forced to start Matt Clement in Game 1 of the playoffs against the Chicago White Sox. Clement promptly allowed seven hits and eight runs in 3.1 innings of an eventual 14-2 loss, and the Red Sox were on their way to a first-round sweep at the hands of the eventual world champions.

Maybe the White Sox were simply the better team that year. Maybe they weren’t. But we’ll never really know because the Red Sox failed to give themselves the best possible chance.

In the end, ultimately, isn’t that why these last two weeks have been so maddeningly frustrating? Thanks to 2004 and 2007, we understand what it takes to win a World Series here now. It takes talent, heart, guts and health. And yes, it takes a little luck, too. The Red Sox were in prime position to prepare themselves for the postseason, something that would allowed them to rest everyone from Gonzalez (shoulder?) to Daniel Bard, all with the idea of going full throttle come playoff time. Now the Red Sox have exhausted much of their reserves and there are still 10 meaningful games to play, beginning with today’s doubleheader against the doormat Orioles.

No matter the outcome now, this has gone on far longer than it should have and is far closer than should be.

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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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