Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Lucky Penny

Theo Epstein made many, many good moves in the off-season. Adding Saito and Ramirez to the bullpen was big. Rocco Baldelli has been a decent pickup. But the one that is paying the biggest dividends right now is the signing of Brad Penny.

Yesterday Penny went 5.1 innings and gave up three runs while striking out seven and walking none en route to a 6-5 Boston win over the Twins. If it wasn't for a vicious sinus infection that had Penny blowing chunks between innings, he could have gone at least six for another quality start. But for now he'll just have to settle for his fifth win of the year and the 99th of his career.

Penny looked great. His fastball was hitting 96 and he was making his pitches all day. His control was fantastic. He just wore out because of his illness. Still, he left the Sox in a perfect position to win with a 6-3 lead.

That was thanks to an incredibly productive top of the order. Hitters 1-6 all had at least two hits on the day. Tito gave Lowell a day off from the field and moved him to DH for the mega-slumping Ortiz, shifted Youk to third and slotted Jeff Bailey to first. The three of them combined for four RBI and two runs scored. But the big difference was at the top of the order. Ellsbury (now riding a 20-game hitting streak) and Pedroia scored three runs combined. And that had a lot to do with Youk hitting third, Bay hitting clean-up and Lowell in the five-spot.

Let's be blunt here; the Boston lineup looked a lot more dangerous and productive with Ortiz riding the bench. The Sox hammered out sixteen hits and the first six guys hit a combined .500 yesterday. Yes, part of that is because of Liriano having a remarkable slump this year. But it's also, in part, because there was no one to pitch around in that group. When the lineup is clicking it makes Boston's pitching that much better.

And it needed to be yesterday because Papelbon almost let the game escape. It seems that whenever I mention he is slipping, Paps picks it up. And when I mention how well he is doing, he starts to falter. So I'll mention here that he is beginning to falter again and then never say another word about the guy*.

That two-run homer was brutal and almost undid a great team effort. Add that to his recent blown save and, once again, Paps seems to be struggling a bit. I don't think he'll tank; he's still one of the best in the game today. But he has these moments where the effort and the result are completely disconnected. Luckily for Paps, Ramirez and Okajima were lights-out awesome in relief yesterday. A combined 2.2 innings of work with no hits, no runs and two strikeouts for the pair preserved the 6-3 lead going into the ninth. There is not a better bullpen in the league right now. I would put Boston's relief corps up against anyone this year.

But back to Penny for a moment. The Sox now find themselves in an interesting spot, as noted in the Boston Globe this morning:

The Sox are an imperfect first-place team, but they are in a perfect situation. They have resources, a deep farm system, chips to trade, and a lineup that's good enough, even without David Ortiz hitting.

They are in first place even with no reliable shortstop. They have so much starting pitching that other teams are actually awaiting a decision on Penny, knowing that sometime after mid-June John Smoltz will be ready.

Ah, did you forget about Smoltz? He's up for a AA rehab assignment in Portland this Thursday. And the Sox all but promised him a slot in the rotation.

And then there is Clay Buchholz. He has, very quietly, been decimating Triple-A batters down in The Bucket to the tune of 3-0 with a 1.30 ERA, 49 strikeouts and just 12 walks. His last game was a complete game one-hitter. He's pushing for a callup as well, although the more seasoning he gets in AAA, so much the better in my opinion.

And this makes Penny a very valuable commodity. I don't know what you trade him for, but a couple of more wins and his value will boost even higher. The Sox could even been in the position to trade him for more high-end prospects if there was no ready target in the majors, which would be a rarity for a competitive team. All this and first place in the AL East to boot. Can't complain too much if you are a Sox fan.

Tonight is game two of the four-game visit to Minny. Jon Lester goes up against Nick Blackburn. Blackburn was the top prospect in the Twins' system before his debut in 2008, but is best known for Bobby Abreu lacing a line drive off his face last year and not missing any time. Not as tough as beating cancer and tossing a no-hitter, but not bad either. Blackburn has the better record of the two this year, but Lester threw a solid game against the Jays last time out and seems to be finding his groove. It should be a good game.


* We all know this is a lie.

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