ARLINGTON, Texas — Do with the three-game losing streak what you will. View it as cause for alarm or as a normal part of the rhythm of the baseball season, a false first step in a marathon that offers plenty of time to recover.
The reality is that a three-game losing streak at the start of a season is no different than a three-game losing streak in the middle of the season, except for the perception of it. And yes, while it’s true that only one team since 1980 (and what a team: the 1998 Yankees) won the World Series after opening a campaign with three straight defeats, every World Series winner in that time has lost three straight contests at one point or another.
That the Sox happened to endure such a rut as the curtain lifted on 2011 likely has little bearing on their playoff hopes. What matters is not the 0-3 record in the standings, but what happens going forward.
“What do you want me to say?” Clay Buchholz mused after he took the loss in the Red Sox’ 5-1 dispatching by the Rangers on Sunday. “We’ve played three games. We’ve got 159 left.”
Fair enough. Step away from the magnified (distorted?) view of the standings based on the season’s early stage and it seems fair to suggest that the first three games were more interesting for the lessons they offered about where different players stand than for the outcomes.
In that vein, here are 10 things we learned about the Red Sox during the first three games of the year.
HOME RUN DERBY: ISSUE OR ILLUSION?
Certainly, the most noteworthy occurrence of the weekend was the fact that the Rangers were swinging from their heels and clubbing one ball after another into orbit.
Sox pitchers currently are on pace to give up nearly 600 homers in the season. They won’t, of course, but that extreme total highlights just how ridiculous the Rangers’ power show was. At times, the Ballpark in Arlington felt like it had the dimensions of a Little League field with Sox pitchers on the mound.
The Sox allowed three homers on Opening Day and four round-trippers in each of the next two games. It was just the 10th time in team history (dating to 1919, as far back as records go) that the Sox allowed three or more homers in three straight games. The 11 blasts by the Rangers were also the most ever permitted by the Sox in a season-opening three-game series.
So, what to make of the power surge?
For now, based on track record and stuff, one would assume that Jon Lester suffered from a somewhat random event when he allowed a career-high three homers on Opening Day. In each of the last three years, he has ranked among league leaders in lowest home run per nine innings rate.
The four homers permitted by Clay Buchholz -- second most in his career -- were slightly more curious. In 2010, Buchholz was one of the best in the majors (better even than Lester) at keeping the ball in the yard, permitting just nine homers in 28 starts and 173 2/3 innings, giving him the third lowest homers per nine innings rate (0.47) of any starter in the American League. That, in turn, played a huge role in his sterling 2.33 ERA.
But in 168 innings over the previous two seasons, he’d allowed nearly three times (1.29 per nine innings) that many homers per nine. That included a 2009 season in which he unveiled his two-seam fastball.
Certainly, he made tremendous progress with the two-seamer in 2010, as he transformed himself into one of the top groundball pitchers in the American League. But, Buchholz does not have the same track record as Lester when it comes to keeping the ball in the park.
And then there is John Lackey. Lackey allowed seven extra-base hits in just 3 2/3 innings in his first start of 2011, permitting three doubles, two triples and two homers. He’s actually done a commendable job of keeping the ball in the park throughout his career, finishing in the top 10 in homers per nine innings in the American League in four of the last six years (2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009).
That said, last year, Lackey gave up 83 extra-base hits, tied for third most in the majors. Part of that was a credit to the big right-hander’s durability (his 215 innings were most by a Sox starter), but a good measure of it was a byproduct of him getting hit early and often last year.
His home run rate last year was, however, entirely reasonable at 0.75 per nine innings. All the same, he has yet to avoid consistent, hard contact in his Sox career, making his first outing of 2011 an eyebrow-raising affair, even if not yet a cause for outright concern.
SPEAKING OF THE ROTATION, THE SOX ARE HOPING THAT JOSH BECKETT CAN SHOULDER A LOAD
Josh Beckett will be making his first start of the season at Progressive Field in Cleveland, the same venue in which he made his most important start as a Red Sox. In 2007, he took the mound in Game 5 of the ALCS, with the Sox one game from elimination, and dominated the Indians, sending the series back to Boston where the Sox swept a pair of games in route to their second title in four years.
“It was a pretty good one,” Beckett recalled of that contest on Sunday morning. “Our backs were definitely against the wall.”
And so, Beckett was asked, what would he do if the Sox’ backs were once again against the proverbial wall come Tuesday? The pitcher was incredulous.
“Our backs are going to be against the wall on Tuesday?” he scoffed.
That would be an exaggeration of circumstance, but make no mistake -- the Sox are hungry for a win, and for a starting performance to reverse the Texas tide. At times in his Sox career, Beckett has thrived on that sort of circumstance. But it’s been a while, thanks in no small part to the 2010 campaign that turned into an injury-riddled source of frustration for Beckett.
Now, a strong outing against the Indians on Tuesday could help to re-establish Beckett as that pitcher upon whom the Sox feel that they can rely. The stakes are nothing compared to those he faced in Cleveland in 2007. All the same, it will be a good test of Beckett’s readiness to respond to a challenge when his team needs him.
THE SOX MAY NEED TO PAY ATTENTION TO THE LINEUP CARD
One of the reasons why the Sox are expected to feature such a formidable lineup is because they have so many interchangeable pieces. They have several players – Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Carl Crawford, J.D. Drew, Marco Scutaro -- with the skill sets to hit in the top two slots. The same can be said of their middle of the order options in Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz and, at times, Drew.
Yet while manager Terry Francona promised relative lineup stability entering the year, that wealth of options can also lend itself to experimentation depending on how players are performing. And already, in the opening weekend of the season, the Sox engaged in some intriguing maneuvers.
Most notably, the decision to drop Carl Crawford from third to seventh in the lineup on Sunday (after the Sox newcomer had spent all of spring training hitting either second or third) was a surprisingly aggressive tactic. It seemed to work, with Crawford collecting his first two hits of the year on Sunday, but Francona’s willingness to alter his lineup blueprint on the fly was unexpected.
For that matter, the decisions to sit J.D. Drew in favor of Mike Cameron in the opener and Darnell McDonald in Sunday’s contest, and the decision to sit Marco Scutaro in favor of Jed Lowrie against Rangers left-hander Matt Harrison on Sunday, offered evidence of a willingness to shift the lineup.
It is worth noting that Francona does typically like to employ most members of his bench early in the year, so it might be a mistake to read too much into his maneuvers. That said, the decision to shift Crawford and the presence of so many interchangeable lineup parts suggest that, even though the Sox prefer a stable lineup, the team won’t shy from making changes and adapting to circumstance.
ADRIAN GONZALEZ MADE HIS PRESENCE FELT ON, AND OFF, THE FIELD
The initial returns on Adrian Gonzalez were strong. Though he suffered through an 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in the series finale, his swing was a thing of beauty in the Sox’ season-opening series. Gonzalez showed off his ability to hit to all fields, lining balls to left-center, center and right, in going 5-for-13 (.385) while handling both left-handed and right-handed Rangers pitchers.
But that part was expected about Gonzalez. What was unexpected was that he proved a voice of conviction in the Red Sox clubhouse. Sometimes newcomers are uncomfortable assuming the responsibility of speaking for a team after a tough loss or losses. Gonzalez did not shy from doing so.
Dustin Pedroia was the voice of the Sox’ aggravation and candor about their poor play in the season’s first weekend. Gonzalez, on the other hand, went further than any other player to say that the team’s poor first three games would eventually be forgotten.
“I'm fully confident,” said Gonzalez, “that, come September, we'll be either in first place or right in the middle of everything."
THE RED SOX ACQUIRED A DYNAMIC, MULTI-DIMENSIONAL PLAYER THIS OFFSEASON … AND THEY SIGNED CARL CRAWFORD, TOO
Carl Crawford admitted that on Sunday, he finally had the opportunity to relax and play his game. Francona had dropped him to seventh in the order, a spot where the 29-year-old flipped a single the opposite way, just inside the third-base line, and then lined a hard single to left-center in the seventh for the Sox’ only run.
No doubt the Sox are now hopeful that with his initial success in a Sox uniform (following a dreadful 0-for-7 performance with four strikeouts in his first two games), Crawford will begin to show his versatility of his talents, the ability to impact the game as a player who hits for average and surprising pop, someone capable of making an impact in the outfield and on the bases.
But until Crawford is ready to do that, the Sox appear to have quite an understudy in the role. Already, Jacoby Ellsbury has been looking like a player capable of doing everything the Sox signed Crawford to do. Though Ellsbury -- who raked throughout spring training -- ended up going just 3-for-12 (.250) during the opening series, he was taking the sort of aggressive swings and showing an ability to drive the ball that has made his return to the field in 2011 so intriguing.
He drilled a double against left-handed nightmare C.J. Wilson on Friday, blasted a two-run homer on Saturday, jolting a 92 mph fastball, dove all over the outfield, took a couple of walks and stole a base. Following his lost 2010, it was a tantalizing opening act to the 2011 campaign that will do nothing to dissuade those who, for the second straight year, believe Ellsbury is on the cusp of a breakout season.
SOX ARE STICKING WITH SALTY
Jarrod Saltalamacchia could not have had a better spring training. He earned the trust and faith of his pitching staff while being lauded as the hardest worker in camp, and he also appeared to get locked in at the plate by the end of spring training, showing the patience and power (especially towards the end of spring training) that made him an intriguing prospect.
And then the lights went on.
Playing against the team that traded him, Saltalamacchia suffered through a disappointing opening weekend. He went 0-for-10 with five strikeouts and a walk.
The most concerning at-bat of the series for the 25-year-old came in the top of the seventh, with the Sox amidst their lone rally of the day. Crawford had just singled home a run, and the Sox had runners on first and second with one out. And Saltalamacchia -- a player who typically works deep into counts -- swung at a tough first-pitch two-seamer from Rangers starter Matt Harrison (a part of the same Mark Teixeira trade that sent Saltalamacchia from Atlanta to Texas in 2007) and popped it up feebly to shallow right.
That was actually the third straight at-bat in which the switch-hitting catcher swung at the first pitch, following a second inning at-bat in which he fouled off a first pitch curveball (en route to a five-pitch strikeout) and a fifth inning plate appearance in which he dribbled a first pitch changeup but ended up reaching on Harrison’s error.
“It was frustrating this week that I wasn’t able to put any hits together,” Saltalamacchia said. “I was overaggressive. But I’ve just got to slow it down, see the ball a little bit. I’ve got a long ways to go. I’m not going to judge my season on 10 at-bats. I’m going to take the day off tomorrow, come in Tuesday ready to go.”
Perhaps the most interesting at-bat was the one in the seventh inning, if only because it seemed fair to wonder whether Francona would let Saltalamacchia hit. After all, the switch-hitter has historically enjoyed better performance against right-handers than lefties, and the Sox featured a couple of players who mash lefties -- Jason Varitek and Mike Cameron -- on their bench.
But Francona said that he never considered pinch-hitting with the left-handed Harrison on the hill.
“No,” he said of whether he considered doing so. “[Saltalamacchia] has a chance to hit the ball out of the ballpark.”
During a weekend in which Sox pitchers got pounded, Francona also insisted that the Sox remain confident in the catcher’s abilities.
“Results aside, I think Salty does a very good job with the pithers. If a ball goes over the middle, that’s the way the game is,” he said. “A tough three-game series isn’t going to change our view on Salty.”
THE ONE PLAYER WHO DESPERATELY WANTED TO AVOID A SLOW START DID JUST THAT
The image of futility has been a constant for David Ortiz out of the gate in each of the last two seasons. His signature moment in early 2009 was to declare that “Papi stinks” after he went 0-for-7 in an extra inning loss against the Angels in mid-May. In 2010, there was the long, slow march back from home plate to the dugout when Francona elected to pinch-hit for him.
In both seasons, Ortiz started the year in painfully deliberate fashion. This season, that has not been an issue. Quite the contrary.
Ortiz went deep on Opening Day against left-handed reliever Darren Oliver, an eighth-inning blast that tied the game. The next night, he went deep in the second inning against Rangers starter Colby Lewis. He nearly delivered a third homer in as many days on Sunday, clubbing a 96 mph fastball from Rangers closer Neftali Feliz, but the wind appeared to knock down the ball as it expired on the warning track in straightaway center field.
Ortiz was 4-for-12 during the first three games of the season, with three of his hits coming against left-handers. That start -- which may have been influenced by Ortiz’ decision to volunteer to play in more spring training games in order to lock in his timing -- will ensure that Ortiz does not hear the same speculation about his future that existed over the last couple of years.
“It’s not like I tried to start the season slow. Things happen and you just try to get ready for the season and turn the page,” Ortiz said on Saturday. “I think I know I call attention because of the kind of player I’ve been as long as I’ve been here. People expect me to do well. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you expect and you just have to keep on fighting.”
This year, in contrast to the previous two seasons, Ortiz has enjoyed a strong first round in that fight.
JONATHAN PAPELBON HAD AN EVENTFUL UNVEILING
So maybe there is something to this slider thing after all.
The line (1 inning, 2 hits, 1 run, 1 walk, 1 hit batter, 3 strikeouts) will suggest that Jonathan Papelbon struggled on Sunday in his first appearance of the 2011 season. But such a conclusion would be a bit misleading.
The first batter whom Papebon faced, Andres Torres, chopped a fastball over the head of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez for a bad hop double. Papelbon then drilled the next batter, red-hot Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler (who hit homers in all three games of the series), in the shoulder, perhaps a message pitch for a player who was very comfortable at the plate in the series.
Michael Young then managed to turn on a 95 mph fastball that was up and in, off the plate, for a run-scoring double. The pitch wasn’t bad; Young presumably guessed right. The Sox elected to walk Josh Hamilton intentionally to load the bases with no outs, and it was at that point that Papelbon’s outing became interesting.
With the Sox on the cusp of getting their doors blown off, Papelbon shut down the Rangers completely. He pitched backwards to Adrian Beltre (he of the grand slam on Saturday), starting the sequence with a slider for a called strike, mixing in sliders and splitters before putting away Beltre with a 96 mph fastball, up and away.
The Sox closer started the next hitter, Nelson Cruz, with a well-located fastball up and in for a swinging strike, and eventually put away the slugger (who hit three homers during the weekend) on a tight slider that dove under his bat.
Finally, Papelbon struck out David Murphy on three straight fastballs, the last a 96 mph offering that was up in the zone that Murphy could not catch up to. It was an extremely impressive three-batter sequence in which Papelbon had explosive action on his pitches.
“You’ve got to pitch to the situation. Pap is good enough to pitch with three good pitches,” said Saltalamacchia. “Pap was going after them. Conviction with every pitch. His velocity was up there. Pumped up to get in there, I think. We went after them: bases loaded, got himself out of a big jam.”
ON THE RADAR
The velocity readings of some Red Sox pitchers commanded attention over the weekend. Most notably, the widely reported 90-92 mph fastball from Jon Lester on Friday was a bit of a head scratcher for a pitcher who often appears to deliver effortless 94-96 mph heaters.
But there is a caveat. Radar guns remain subject to individual variation and human error. And in the case of the scoreboard velocity readings at the Ballpark in Arlington, the gun is known for being a bit sluggish.
“A couple years ago, they said it was like 3 mph off,” Saltalamacchia, a former Ranger, said of the readings in the stadium. “It was slower: 94 was really 97.”
On Sunday, Pitch f/x data consistently had pitches 2 mph faster than what the Texas scoreboard showed.
That said, it was still rather stunning to see Lester fail to record a strikeout, given that he led the AL in strikeouts per nine innings last year. The absence of swings and misses suggests that the usual outrageous life on his pitches wasn’t present. All the same, it would appear premature to fret about his velocity.
DON’T FORGET THE REIGNING AL CHAMPIONS
The Red Sox entered the season with the acclaim of conquering heroes. All of that overlooked the fact that they were actually playing the reigning American League champions.
The Rangers may have been an afterthought at the start of the series, but they aren’t anymore. Not only did they unveil a ridiculously powerful lineup that put together 26 runs and 11 homers during the three games, but they also showed unexpectedly solid starting pitching in the series. Their three starters (C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison) allowed a total of six earned runs in 18 2/3 innings (2.89 ERA), striking out 18 and walking six.
So, the fact that the Red Sox got jumped by the Rangers out of the gate is in part a commentary on the way that Boston played, but it was also a reflection of the outstanding play of a Texas team that once again has its sights set on October.
“They won the American league last year. They went to the World Series. We know what type of team they have,” said Pedroia. “They came out and put it on us. We’re going to have to play a lot better than that to accomplish what we think we can do.”