If the Red Sox now hope to leave their troubles behind and to vault themselves into contention, they will have to do so the hard way.
As bad as it was for the team to get kicked to the curb by the likes of the red hot Rays and Yankees in April, the arrival of a three-game sweep at the hands of the lowly Orioles represents not only a low point, but also a giant red flag for the Sox.
“Everyone thought Baltimore was three easy wins, and we got our [butts] kicked three times,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia told reporters after the Sox suffered a 3-2 loss in extra innings. (Recap.) “We’re going to have to play a lot better.”
Typically, the Sox have discovered that their playoff formula rests on producing a roughly .500 record against winning teams and annihilating sub-.500 squads. For that reason, a three-game broom job by the Orioles — who own a 4-2 record against the Sox and a 3-16 record against the rest of baseball — represented an alarming turn of events.
In 2009, the Sox went 44-41 (.518) against teams that finished the year with winning records and 51-26 (.662) against clubs with a sub-.500 mark.
In 2008, the team went 46-49 (.484) against winning clubs and 49-18 (.731) against clubs with losing records.
In 2007, the Sox were 44-40 (.524) against teams that ended the year with at least a .500 record and 52-26 (.667) against clubs that ended below the Mendoza line.
In 2006 — the last time the Sox missed the playoffs — they went 37-44 (.457) against teams with winning records and 49-32 (.605) against clubs with losing marks.
The unforgiving nature of the AL East is such that teams face little alternative but to dominate easy marks. The Orioles clearly represent such a squad this year, at least to the rest of the baseball world. That the Sox could not manhandle them represents a significant missed opportunity, and makes the effort to catch the increasingly distant Rays and Yankees all the more challenging.
Indeed, one could make a case that the sweep at the hands of the O’s was the Sox’ worst since 2006. That August, it was a three-game sweep at the hand of the brutally bad Royals that indicated that the wheels were coming off of the Sox’ playoff bus.
Since then, the Sox have been swept in a series of at least three games just twice by sub-.500 teams. Boston dropped three straight games to Oakland in May 2008, then suffered three straight loses to the Blue Jays in the final week of the 2009 campaign, at a time when the team had already more or less sealed up a playoff berth and was trying to rest its regulars.
Prior to this past weekend, the Sox had not been swept by the Orioles in a three-game series in Baltimore since 1974. That the Sox endured such a humiliating series of games represented not only a dark commentary on the team’s play, but also a huge missed opportunity.
Now, the challenge facing the Sox becomes markedly steeper. The next seven games at Fenway will feature the Angels and Yankees. If the Sox do not turn around their performance, they might find themselves in a hole so deep that it will prove difficult to contend in 2010.
Here are some other lessons from the Sox’ loss:
NO ONE SAW THIS CATCHING SCENARIO COMING
Prior to the season, it would have come as little surprise to see Jason Varitek stealing back some playing time from starter Victor Martinez. Sox pitchers, particularly Josh Beckett, have made no secret of their love of working with Varitek thanks to the years of familiarity that have been forged.
But while Varitek has become Beckett’s de facto personal catcher — Sunday marked the fifth straight game in which Varitek was behind the plate with Beckett on the hill — the game was impacted by a decision that was made because of what appeared to be a desire to keep Varitek’s bat, rather than Martinez’, in the lineup.
In the top of the eighth inning with the game tied at 2, Varitek reached on a leadoff walk and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt. The lumbering catcher represented something of a baserunning liability, given the likelihood that he could not score from second on a single.
Yet manager Terry Francona elected not to pinch-run for his captain with utility man Bill Hall. That decision was somewhat puzzling, given that Martinez would pinch-hit for outfielder Jonathan Van Every with Varitek on second and one out. Martinez flied out lazily and was then replaced in the bottom of the eighth by Hall, who played left field.
Francona easily could have elected to have Hall pinch-run for Varitek and stay in the game as the left fielder, while having Martinez remain in the game to catch after pinch-hitting. Instead, Varitek remained on second, and he was thrown out at home by an ample margin when Dustin Pedroia flicked a two-out single to left.
It is debatable whether Hall would have scored, but he surely would have had a better shot than Varitek.
So, why didn’t Francona pinch run?
“In a tie game, the way the game was going, I wanted to leave Tek catching,’’ Francona told reporters. “I thought that was our best chance.’’
Unsaid and unexpectedly, part of the reason for such a belief is a complete reversal of the 2009 Red Sox catching dynamic: Right now, Varitek represents a far greater offensive threat than Martinez.
Varitek nearly hit a homer in his first at-bat, driving a ball to the top of the wall in left-center that Adam Jones hauled in for an out. Then, in his second at-bat, the 38-year-old crushed a homer deep into the right field stands.
Varitek is now hitting .324/.378/.824/1.202 with five homers and nine RBI in just 37 plate appearances. Martinez has 94 plate appearances, with a .233/.298/.314/.612 line. He’s hit fewer homers (1) and driven in fewer runs (7) than his backup.
In a sense, then, Martinez’ poor offense this season may have been an indirect factor in the Sox’ loss on Sunday. Had Martinez been hitting well, there would have been little chance that the Sox would have removed him from the game after his lone pinch-hitting appearance. But with Varitek representing one of the few legitimate options for the Sox right now, the team felt compelled to leave the captain in the game.
ROUGH RETURNS FOR PAPELBON
In the past, Jonathan Papelbon has thrived in multi-inning appearances. Since becoming the Sox closer in 2006, Papelbon had made 42 multi-inning appearances entering this season, with a staggering 0.83 ERA in them (6 ER, 65 IP).
This year, however, he has allowed runs in two of his three multi-inning appearances, having conceded three runs in 4-1/3 innings. He absorbed the losses both when he permitted two 10th-inning runs to the Yankees in the third game of the year and on Sunday against the Orioles.
Papelbon permitted a Nick Markakis walk, threw errantly to first when catching his spike on a pickoff throw, and then allowed Orioles second baseman Ty Wigginton to hammer a walkoff double to left-center against him. In his second inning of work, he had less life on his stuff, resulting in an inability to put away the two hitters he faced.
Papelbon got ahead of Markakis, 1-2, before issuing the walk. He also jumped ahead of Wigginton, 0-2, before permitting three foul balls en route to the game-winning hit.
Papelbon allowed the game-winning hit on a hanging slider that he left thigh-high and over the middle of the plate. Of his 27 pitches on Sunday, he threw five sliders and no splitters.
MAYBE THE SOX WOULD BE BETTER OFF IF BECKETT KEPT GETTING TAGGED
The biggest highlight of the day for the Sox was the work of Josh Beckett, who was excellent in allowing just two runs in seven innings while striking out six and walking none. It was the second-best start of the season for Beckett, bested only by his seven inning, one-run (none earned) effort against the Rays on April 16.
Of course, Beckett lost that start against the Rays. In fact, the Sox are 1-2 in his three quality starts, and 3-0 in the other three outings in which Beckett was lit up.
RUNNING INTO DEAD ENDS
Manager Terry Francona always has emphasized his desire to have the Sox run smart rather than often. The Sox consider stolen base success rates an important gauge of their running game, feeling that they want to be successful in roughly 80 percent or more of their opportunities.
But recently, the Red Sox have had some instances of reckless and unsuccessful work on the bases. On Sunday, Marco Scutaro became the second member of the Sox in the series (joining Adrian Beltre) to be thrown out on an attempted steal of third.
The Sox — who have been without Jacoby Ellsbury since the first weekend of the season — now are 10-of-15 on the year in stolen base attempts. Their 66.67 percent success rate is 11th among the 14 American League clubs. For a team struggling to produce runs (the Sox now have scored two or fewer runs in 10 games, tied for the most such contests in the American League), wasting any outs is too costly a practice to continue.