Monday, August 17, 2009

On The Outside Looking In

God, I hate Arlington, Texas. At least when it comes to baseball.

The Sox finished off a putrid season series with the Rangers by dropping two of three (including yesterday's 4-3 loss) and falling a half-game back in the wildcard race. Boston will end the year 2-7 against the Rangers.

Last night was another case of a game that Boston could have won if they had just been willing to seize control and take advantage of some key situations. Boston left nine men on base and went 0-5 with runners in scoring position. And I cannot count how many times a Boston batter watched a third strike just sail by them. Actually, I can count it thanks to the power of the Interwebs. It was four times, and all four times occurred from the seventh inning on.

The most brutal occurrence was in the eighth inning when Boston had runners on first and second with just one out and the score standing at 4-3. Both Brian Anderson (in for the injured J.D. Drew) and Alex Gonzalez then proceeded to watch third strikes go right by them. That was Boston's last real chance to put runs on the board as they went down meekly in the ninth.

I thought that big win on Friday was a turning point for Boston, but maybe I was wrong. I thought that was the moment they'd start swinging with confidence like they did in the spring. Instead they came up short...again.

It doesn't help that Youk was suspended for the series. But there are still enough bats on this team that the Sox should have been able to scratch up a couple of extra runs against the likes of Dustin Nippert, Doug Mathis and C.J. Wilson. Instead they just went down.

Well, not all of them. Pedroia and Ortiz each rang up a solo shot, Mighty Mite's blast making in 4-3 in the seventh. But Boston's hits were so scattered that they could never string anything together.

And to be fair, the starting pitching wasn't helpful either. Tazawa got another start and this time everything went wrong for him. His control wasn't as good and he walked three while striking out none. Tazawa ended up giving up four runs on ten hits over five innings. He just couldn't get anything past the Texas hitters. And even though Okajima and Ramirez held down the Rangers over the last three innings, it was all for naught. Now the Sox are 32-15 in games where Beckett or Lester starts. In all the rest they are 34-36.

But let's take that a step further and include Tim Wakefield. After all, before his injury he was 11-3. Wakefield has started 17 games in 2009. In those games the Sox are 13-4. So if you add that to the Beckett/Lester duo you get this: when Beckett, Lester or Wakefield pitch, the Sox are 45-19. The rest of the time they are 21-32. That, combined with the power outage in their bats, is why Boston is out of the playoffs right now.

It's not a coincidence that after Wakefield's last start on July 8 (a 5-4 win over Oakland) the Sox were 51-33. Since then they have gone 15-18. The Sox have a two-man rotation and then it's a whole lot of praying to the deity of your choice. That's simply where Boston is right now. Maybe Paul Byrd can stop the bleeding. Maybe Clay Buchholz can continue to improve and grow into a major league starter. Maybe Tazawa can bounce back from a loss like this. Maybe Wakefield can pitch against Toronto and skip another rehab start. But that is all Boston has right now: Beckett, Lester and a cast of Maybes.

What hasn't helped is poor hitting. J.D. Drew is hitting just .263 since the All-Star break with one homer, seven RBI and a .734 OPS. Jason Bay is hitting .253 since the break and had an awful July where he hit just .192. To be fair, he has bounced back in August (.355 BA, 1.362 OPS). Ortiz has hit .154 in August with a .598 OPS, numbers reminiscent of his horrific May. Varitek is even worse in August, with a .118 average and an OPS of .378, which is mind-blowingly horrendous. This has more than canceled out the relatively solid hitting of Pedroia, Youk, Lowell and new signing Victor Martinez.

You cannot win a lot of games when half your lineup has gone quiet and 3/5 of your rotation is questionable. And since Boston can't create starting pitching out of thin air, it's up to the lineup to get it in gear. They can provide the runs to provide a bridge between the rotation and one of the best bullpens in the majors. That is how Boston has to win games right now. And until that happens, or until Boston gets some reliable pitching in the 3 and 4 slots, then Boston will be treading water and hoping for a statistical miracle where New York, Tampa and Texas simultaneously collapse.

The off day today is an important one. Hopefully the team will just get away from the game for a day and just do anything else to clear their heads and focus. There are 45 games left in the regular season. That is enough time to turn things around. But it has to start tomorrow in Toronto.

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