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'You see, it would be this mat you would put on the floor . . .'

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  April 12, 2010 05:16 PM

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As I peck away here, the first pitch of Game 7 of the Red Sox season is about to be delivered as they attempt to play the role of spoiler at the christening of the Twins' gorgeous new home, Target Field.

By the time you discover that I've posted this, Game 7 will probably be complete, as will precisely 4.3209876543210 percent of the Red Sox' 2010 schedule. NESN should be running "Soxtober" commercials any day now.

In other words, there is absolutely no better time to play our favorite board game . . . Jumping To Conclusions!

David Ortiz is . . . he's . . . sigh . . . ah, geez, I don't know. I defended him in this space a few days ago, and I meant every word. He's traditionally a slow starter. He was a majestic beast from June 1 on last year. He homered off of better (and harder-throwing) pitchers than he gets credit for (Burnett twice, Sabathia, Chamberlain, Halladay). He was still a viable middle of the order hitter.

Now? Well, let's just say I'd have a considerably harder time writing a Be Patient With Papi piece today. Carl Pavano moments ago whiffed him looking on an 89 mph fastball right in what used to be his wheelhouse. It's his ninth whiff in his past 10 at-bats. His bat is undeniably slow, his wrist may or may not be bothering him, he's clearly mentally drained, and last year's nightmarish start appears to be in the early scenes of a sequel.

hermida041210.jpgI honestly can't tell you with any conviction what Terry Francona should do. Mike Lowell has looked surprisingly spry, but he's no long-term solution, and I'm seriously skeptical -- as you should be -- that he can stay healthy even in a DH role. I've been enamored with 2006 Baseball America Prospects Handbook cover boy Jeremy Hermida since the Red Sox plucked him from the Marlins -- he was rated Florida's top prospect that year, a spot ahead of some kid named Hanley -- but he may get enough at-bats filling in for Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron, and J.D. Drew in the outfield.

I want to suggest they should stick with Papi on a daily basis longer -- out of loyalty and respect, yes, but also because I do not believe last summer's success was a fluke -- but I must admit there is now an expiration date on my patience. There are only two solutions -- he starts hitting pretty much immediately, or his at-bats begin getting divvied up elsewhere.

(And as I'm writing this, a single tear trickling down my cheek, Papi pokes one to left field that Delmon Young -- who has aided the Ortiz cause before with his aluminum glove -- kindly plays it into a double. Yessir, we'll take any sign of hope where we can find it.)

Jason Varitek is baseball's best backup catcher. For those of you who didn't just faint, yes, I do mean it.

While you have to take early season home run leaders with a giant bag of salt -- old friend Alex Gonzalez has four, and you know he won't finish the season with a dozen -- it was extremely encouraging to see Varitek go deep twice against the Royals Saturday. (Particularly since one came off reigning Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, whom I suspect will never get cute with a breaking ball against Varitek again.)

With his knowledge of the staff (you know he'll end up as Josh Beckett's personal catcher), ability to produce against lefties (he had an .807 OPS from the right side last year, with six homers), and the logical assumption that he'll stay healthier with less playing time, the Sox are fortunate to still have him around. He's a tremendously useful bench player.

Now here, let me give you some some smelling salts.

Jonathan Papelbon will be fine. Say it again: Jonathan Papelbon will be fine. And by fine we mean the same mostly dominating self he has been over the first four-plus seasons of his career.

The mewing over the home run he allowed to the Yankees' Curtis Granderson last Wednesday would be amusing if it wasn't so annoying and reactionary. Papelbon threw a decent fastball -- not perfectly spotted, but not a terrible pitch -- to a player in Granderson who hammers the hard stuff and has an .897 career OPS against righthanded pitching.

This was not a meltdown like his performance in Game 3 of the ALDS last October. This was not a sign that Daniel Bard (who has had issues of his own) should really be this team's closer. And this sure as hell wasn't a sign that he should return to the rotation.

It was an excellent pitcher getting beat by an excellent hitter, at least when he's not facing a southpaw. You don't panic. You don't stew. You don't call Ordway. You tip your cap to Granderson and move on.

Clay Buchholz should remain in the rotation even after Daisuke Matsuzaka is ready. It's encouraging that Dice-K looked so sharp in his start in Pawtucket. It's encouraging that Tim Wakefield was his usual self -- a couple of dazzling innings followed by a quick reversal of fortune -- in his first start.

But unless the Red Sox' bullpen is in shambles, there is no reason whatsoever to put Clay Buchholz in a relief role. None.

He'll be 26 years old in August and has the repertoire of a top-of-the-rotation starter. Yes, he works much too slowly, and yes, he worries too much about baserunners who have no intention of even twitching until the ball is in play; he's alternately electrifying and maddening. But there's no need to baby him into mediocrity like the Yankees have apparently done with Joba Chamberlain.

Buchholz is a starting pitcher -- he threw nearly 200 innings between Boston and Pawtucket last season. It is time once and for all to find whether he's capable of becoming all that he should be.

And a couple of non-Sox items for the fun of it . . .

halladay_.jpgRoy Halladay will win 22 -- at least. Common sense (not to mention sabermetrics) suggests one should be wary of projecting a huge single-season win total for any starting pitcher. There are just so many variables that go in to earning a victory, many out of the pitcher's control.

And consider history: It never seems to work out when you do say, "Oh, so-and-so is a lock to win 20 with that lineup behind him." I recall some fairly bold proclamations entering the 2005 season after the Yankees acquired Randy Johnson, who was coming off a season with Arizona in which he had a 2.60 ERA, an 0.90 WHIP, and 290 strikeouts.

Yet he won "just" 17 games in his each of his two seasons in New York, though his bubbly personality and engaging smile probably indirectly resulted in another 3-4 wins.

That disclaimer out of the way, I will now go against everything I just wrote and usually believe.

From my vantage point, there are only two ways that Phillies ace Roy Halladay doesn't have 20 wins by, oh, mid-September.

1) Injury. He will be 33 in May.

2) Spontaneous combustion specialist Brad Lidge gets his closer's job back. I'm not saying he'll make a run at Bob Welch '90, let alone Denny McLain '68 . . . but with his ability and that American League-quality lineup behind him, the wins could pile up at a pace we haven't seen in some time.

Hallelujah, Jason Heyward, the hype is deserved. The Braves' 20-year-old phenom has served as a sweet reminder -- during the first six games of his major league career but especially his first one -- of why we love this game so much.

His three-run bomb off the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano in his first major league at-bat was straight out of the Disney Guide To Sentimental Sports Movies, right down to the proud reaction of aging teammate Chipper Jones, who knows a thing or two about the pressure that comes with being a phenom.

Just a wonderful moment, and there are so many more to come. Heyward, who has three homers and a 1.079 OPS through those six games, is already countering pitchers' adjustments with successful adjustments of his own.

I'm reluctant to compare him to Ken Griffey Jr., the phenom of my generation who grew from a teen idol to a true icon. But the swing, the lanky frame, the joy that comes from playing the game. Heyward has some Dave Winfield in him, a hint of Fred McGriff, maybe some Andre Dawson or Joe Carter . . . but if you don't see him and think of a young Junior, you're probably not old enough -- or lucky enough -- to remember when.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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