BALTIMORE – It is a simple case of the whole being less than the sum of the theoretical parts.
The Red Sox have a loaded roster. But they have not been able to perform at a consistently excellent level. Even during the recent run of eight wins in nine games, that was largely a credit to a remarkable run of starting excellence. The team won in spite of, rather than because of, various lineup members expected to be key contributors.
Wednesday’s 5-4 loss to the Orioles (recap) served as a microcosm of a Sox team that, through the first 23 games of the year, has rarely been in sync. Here are five elements from the game that show a team that is still searching for its stride at the conclusion of a month.
HARMLESS FLY BALL TURNS HARMFUL
Through three innings, it appeared the Josh Beckett was prepared to sustain his remarkable recent run. He entered the game with three straight games of having permitted five or fewer baserunners, forging a 1.13 ERA in one of the better stretches of his career.
Beckett entered the fourth having allowed just one hit, an infield single by Derrek Lee. And it was Lee who set in motion the sudden unraveling of Beckett’s night wth one out in the fourth.
Beckett jammed Lee on a cutter, resulting in a lazy fly ball to shallow center. Jacoby Ellsbury broke the wrong way, but the ball was high enough that he appeared capable of catching it. However, Dustin Pedroia had also run near the spot of its descent.
Both players appeared to pull up on the ball. There was no evidence of either playing calling it. Typically, such a ball is the center fielder’s, something that Pedroia seemingly assumed. But with neither player claiming responsibility for it, the ball fell between the two Sox fielders for a cheap double.
Two batters later, Beckett left a cutter over the plate that Luke Scott assaulted, driving it far into the Baltimore night for a two-out, two-run homer. Adam Jones then followed with a solo homer on a fastball over the plate.
Beckett could have escaped the inning unscathed. But the error prolonged the inning and created the baserunner to set the rally in motion. No one was charged with the error, but it was a misplay nonetheless.
“It’s got to be caught,” seethed a frustrated Pedroia after the game, without identifying whose responsibility it was to catch the ball.
“Neither of us got to it,” said Ellsbury. “It fell in there. That’s about it.”
That a game-changing play occurred on a high, lazy pop-up was all the more painful for the Sox. Balls hit in the air, after all, are supposed to stand little chance of finding grass in the Sox outfield thanks to the presence of three outfielders – Carl Crawford, Ellsbury and J.D. Drew – who cover tremendous ground.
“It’s nice knowing that if [hitters] get a little air under it, most likely we’ll be able to run under it,” Ellsbury noted before the game.
Coverage on fly balls has been a team strength. Crawford, in particularly, is covering tremendous ground in the gap in left-center. But at a critical moment, that trait betrayed the Sox, playing a key role in defeat.
ALL-OR-NOTHING IN THE CLEANUP SPOT
The Sox had an opportunity to set the tone for the game in the first inning and immediately put the Orioles in a position where they were playing from behind. Ellsbury led off the game with a single and then advanced to third when Adrian Gonzalez lofted a double to right. (Ellsbury had to hold to make sure the ball wasn’t caught; otherwise, the jackrabbit would have scored easily.)
That brought Kevin Youkilis to the plate, arguably the player whom the Sox would most want up in that situation. Entering 2011, Youkilis had a career .433/.459/.675/1.134 hitter with a runner on third and less than two outs.
But this year, Youkilis is now 0-for-7 with five strikeouts, two walks and a sac fly when batting in such moments. The fifth strikeout came against Orioles starter Jeremy Guthrie in that first inning situation.
Youkilis later did his best to atone, hitting a game-tying three-run homer in the eighth. Even so, from at-bat to at-bat, he has struggled to maintain consistency this year.
“In the end, [the homer] didn’t matter because we lost the game,” said Youkilis. “In my first at-bat, I need to drive in runners there and I didn’t. That was a big part of the game, too. [The homer] doesn’t make up for it.”
Youkilis is amidst an uncharacteristic stretch. In his last 11 games, he is hitting just .243 with 13 strikeouts in 37 at-bats. But he is crushing the ball when he does make contact, with seven of his nine hits going for extra bases, including five longballs.
But on Wednesday, he missed an opportunity that he almost always has taken advantage of in the past.
NOTHING GOING RIGHT FOR CRAWFORD
For obvious (blinding speed) and not-so-obvious (he hits the ball in the air quite a bit) reasons, Carl Crawford ranks among the toughest players in the majors against whom to turn a double play. Among players with at least 500 plate appearances in the majors since the start of 2010, Crawford ranked as the most difficult to double up, having grounded into just two twin killings in 749 plate appearances.
So naturally, batting with a runner on first and one out in the second inning, Crawford smoked a cutter for a 4-6-3 double play. He made some solid contact, but his outfield drives were tracked down, as has been the case for most of the year. Crawford went 0-for-4 to drop his average back to .156.
THE BARD’S STRANGE TALE
The Sox make no secret of the fact that they have as much faith in Daniel Bard as they do in any member of their staff. Thus, it came as no surprise that once the Sox rallied for four runs to zoom back from a 4-0 deficit to a tie game in the top of the eighth, the bullpen door swung open with the game being put in Bard’s hands.
“When we got him into that tie game, we want him in that game,” said Francona. “He’s still our guy.”
But Bard, who now typically exhibits remarkable calm and self-assurance in almost all situations (including a bases-loaded, one-out jam that he escaped unscathed last week), admitted that something was off on Wednesday.
He allowed hits to each of the first three batters he faced, and crossed up Jason Varitek for a passed ball. Bard ended up allowing an unearned run (the byproduct of that passed ball) and ended up being the pitcher of record in the Sox’ loss.
“Probably just moving a little bit too fast. Not taking my breath between pitches. I was yanking balls,” Bard assessed after the game. “All three hits were really bad missed locations. That’s not really like me to miss location by two and three feet. I didn’t do it besides those three pitches for the most part, but just really bad missed location. I was yanking the ball up over the middle of the plate.”
Remarkably, though April is not even over, Bard (0-3) has a new career-high in losses. That reflects a number of factors, among them that the Sox are going to him more than anyone else with the game on the line; that Bard has had some bad luck (as when a liner down the left-field line on a good pitch kicked off the foul line for a game-winning double in the first game of the season); and that the pitcher’s execution has been a bit off at times.
The Sox will continue to take their chances with the right-hander with the game on the line, but as is the case for so many Sox right now, even though the raw materials are dazzling, Bard’s year to date has been slightly out of joint.
SUPERMAN FORGOT TO PACK HIS CAPE
Jed Lowrie enjoyed a run of carrying the Sox offense. That theme has not carried into Baltimore.
In the first two games of the series (both Sox losses), Lowrie is 1-for-8 with four strikeouts; three of those punchouts came in his 1-for-4 effort on Wednesday. He nearly drove in the first run of the game in the fourth, but instead David Ortiz got cut down at the plate on a two-out single on a changeup.
Otherwise, Lowrie swung through a slider, cutter and fastball for his three strikeouts, all of which came from the left side. He has struck out eight times in 31 at-bats from the left side of the plate (compared to just two whiffs in 28 plate appearances as a right-hander).
The Sox seem convinced that, even through their recent run of wins, they are a team whose performance has yet to match their capabilities.
“We just haven’t clicked on all cylinders yet,” said Youkilis. “This team has a lot of great hitters who aren’t where they are. That’s the greatest thing we’ve got going for us right now, is the fact that we’ve got hitters who are .300 or .290 hitters who aren’t there. That means they’re going to fall. A lot of balls are going to fall in that haven’t fallen in.”
Perhaps that will start soon. But for now, while the Sox have managed to play their way back into the mix of the tightly bunched AL East, a division where a team can be in last place even though just four games out of first, the parts simply have yet to fit according to the team’s blueprint.
It is vaguely reminiscent of the middle of the 2004 season, when the Sox endured a months-long stretch of playing .500 ball (slightly worse at times) with a roster that had been loaded by a huge offseason commitment of resources. The team seemingly played below its potential for months before turning on the jets over the home stretch in one of the most dominant (and certainly the most important) runs in franchise history.
Whether this Sox team follows that pattern remains to be seen. For now, it is a team about which few conclusions can be drawn, aside from the fact that for almost four weeks, the team’s uneven performance has been a bit of a riddle, resulting in games like Wednesday's that end in frustration.
"It sucks," said Pedroia. "We want to win. We’re upset. We want to win. We want to win every game."