Thursday, May 21, 2009

Oh Captain, My Captain!

While Aviv waxes poetic over the Yankees' amazing ability to beat the Orioles and Twins (talk about a low bar to cross...), I thought I'd spend my time rejoicing in Boston's dismantling of the AL East-leading Blue Jays last night. Behind another strong start by Brad Penny, the Boston bats came alive and the Sox crushed Toronto 8-3.

There are so many good stories here I don't know exactly where to begin. But as tempting as it is to start with Papi's first home run since Coke cost a nickel, I think the bigger story is the revitalization of Jason Varitek. 'Tek went 2-3 last night with two solo shots and threw in a walk for good measure. He's sporting an .842 OPS and his seven homers have him in the company of players like Jim Thome, Victor Martinez and Joe Mauer. 'Tek is also having a solid season behind the plate. He leads AL catchers in put-outs (230) and is second in fielding percentage (.996) trailing only Detroit's Gerald Laird. He also has yet to allow a passed ball. So, why this sudden resurgence?

I don't think enough attention has been paid to the fact that Jason Varitek went through a brutal divorce that just concluded in the past couple of days. Brutal enough that the records are sealed and that one of the requirements is that he and his ex-wife act "as if never married to each other." They have three kids.

Now, two of the most stressful things a person can go through is divorce and the illness of a child. I bring this up because I have some experience with the latter; my daughter was recently diagnosed with cancer. There are days when I can barely perform my job, which consists of using a keyboard and monitor. The stress and worry are inconceivable to someone who hasn't gone through a similar event. Now imagine having that kind of burden where your job involved catching and hitting a ball hurled somewhere between 80-100 MPH. A job where so much of what you do is mental, or is physical performance affected by mental conditioning. The miracle is that Varitek was able to play baseball at all last year. And I think I, and a lot of Boston fans, owe him an apology and a lot of slack for riding him last year. I sure didn't understand what he was going through then. I do now. So it was especially enjoyable for me to watch him launch a pair into the bleachers last night. If he keeps this up he could have his best season since 2005, when 'Tek had 22 homers and 70 RBI, and won the Gold Glove to boot.

But the story everyone else is talking about is Big Papi finally notching a home run on his 2009 belt. He added a double to his two-run shot and had a respectable 2-5 night. Whether this is the beginning of a new trend or a dead-cat bounce on a downward trajectory remains to be seen. I'm guessing his problems have been both physical and mental (something he alluded to in a recent story without elaboration). Papi depends on wrist speed and weight distribution to generate his power. Well, a bum wrist and bad knee play havoc with both of those. Papi needs to find a way to do both those things again, either the way he used to do it or a new way. As for the mental...I don't know if it is just the toll of a slump or something worse. I hope for his sake it's just the slump.

Also worthy of notice is Jacoby Ellsbury. Not only does he have a World Series ring and a stolen base title to his name, but now he has also tied the all-time record for putouts by an outfielder in a nine-inning game. Ellsbury's 12 putouts put him in the books alongside the Twins' Lyman Bostock (set in 1977) and a Boston brother from a different mother, Boston Braves' centerfielder Earl Clark who made his dozen in 1929. That's all Clark ever really did of note, so here's hoping Jacoby has a more prolific career. On a lesser note, he also extended his hit-streak to 15 games. The kid has definitely found his groove.

On the pitching side of things, Brad Penny continues to justify Theo's move to get him to Boston. Penny went 6 2/3 innings and gave up just two runs. Yes, that's another quality start for Penny, who now has five quality starts in eight games. He did give up a lot of hits (nine) but scattered them enough to limit the damage.

Then the bullpen stepped up and shut down the Jays...mostly. This isn't to pick on the rookie, but Daniel Bard seemed more than a little nervous. I'm guessing it's because this was his first time in a pro game at Fenway, which can be a little nerve-wracking even for a seasoned vet. But I have seen this kid pitch in Portland and I am telling you, he's the real deal. A couple of more times at Fenway and he'll settle right down. It was good for him to get work last night, even if it didn't go the way he wanted it to. The Delcarmen/Okajima combo did a great job, combining for 2/3 of no-hit ball. They just needed five pitches combined to get their respective batters. And then Saito gave up a couple of harmless singles in the ninth before ending it. Overall, a decent night's work.

I guess that worry I had about the Sox facing a new pitcher was largely unfounded. With five homers and 11 hits, Boston owned Brett Cecil last night. Hopefully that is the standard for them going forward against new pitchers. It's much more enjoyable than watching Boston get two-hit by a rookie, a scenario that is all too painfully familiar to myself and many Boston fans through the years.

So tonight it's Jon Lester and Robert Ray doing battle to see if Toronto can salvage some pride or if Boston can get the sweep.This is a big game for Lester; his last two outings have, frankly, sucked. If he can't find the control that powered him to that 16-6 record last year, it's going to be a long season for Lester. And the Sox.


Aviv said...

In case you forgot, first two wins of this winning streak were against these same Blue Jays ... and come September, you'll have a different opinion of the Twins. They are going to win that division.

Dave said...

Winning the Al Central this year is like winning the AFC West; it only happens because someone has to finish first.

Aviv said...

Isn't it that every year? Yet somehow since 2005 we've the White Sox win the World Series and the Tigers get there. If you want to sleep on the Twins, go ahead, but there is more there than you think.