With just over a month left in the season, the Red Sox are poised to cruise into the playoffs. While the team remains focused on maintaining its advantage (now one game) in the AL East over the Yankees, the team is in a position where it can use the final stages of the regular season to make sure its roster is properly aligned for the postseason.
Yet as the final stages of the season near, a few roles on the team are subject to re-examination. Some key players who have been relied upon throughout the year are dealing with struggles that could lead to a re-examination of their playing time for the duration of the season.
It is, of course, part of the natural rhythm of a baseball season. Players are not metronomes. They do not perform at the same level over the full expanse of a 162-game schedule.
Moreover, it would be a mistake to portray the Sox as being amidst some sort of crisis. The core of their team is clearly good enough to march easily into the playoffs, a group so talented that it can permit some players the luxury of having time to struggle without jeopardizing the team’s competitive ambitions.
Nonetheless, Friday’s 15-5 tattooing at the hands of the Athletics highlighted a few positions that appear increasingly unsettled going forward.
THE WAKE WATCH
The long pursuit of career win No. 200 has now reached a somewhat uncomfortable moment for Tim Wakefield. Even Wakefield himself acknowledged being “a little bit” uncomfortable with the fact that attention to his personal accomplishment in some ways overshadows what his team does on nights when he is pitching.
There has been some bad luck involved in the fact that he has yet to reach the milestone. Prior to Friday night, he had pitched respectably in his first five attempts at reaching 200, posting a 4.50 ERA and averaging almost seven innings a start, marks that should have been good for a victory somewhere along the road.
But on Friday night, Wakefield was battered for eight runs – albeit just four earned – and lasted just four innings. The workload was troublesome to the knuckleballer, given his awareness that the Sox pitching staff faces the daunting task of a doubleheader on Saturday.
“I want to please the fans as much as I want to please myself and my teammates. They’re all thinking about it, too,” said Wakefield. “I just try to block that out. … My biggest disappointment is not being able to go into the seventh and not being able to give the bullpen the day off knowing what we have in store for us [Saturday].
“I’ve got to take my personal numbers and throw them out the window right now. We’re trying to hold onto a one-game lead in the East. The thing coming off a long roadtrip like that is to try to win the game for us as a team, not for me personally,” Wakefield added. “That win will eventually happen, hopefully. The thing I pride myself most in is to try to give myself quality innings, get deep in the game and not have to use the bullpen like we did tonight.”
Yet that, in its own right, has been a problematic undertaking for Wakefield. Though he had pitched consistently into the seventh inning in his first five attempts at his 200th win, he has struggled acutely in the later stages of the game.
According to the indispensible baseball-reference.com, here is how Wakefield’s performance had broken down by pitch count entering Friday:
Pitches 1-25: .230/.261/.412/.673
Pitches 26-50: .269/.322/.438/.760
Pitches 51-75: .269/.319/.446/.765
Pitches 76-100: .346/.400/.679/1.079
Put another way, once he gets beyond pitch 75, opposing hitters have performed at a level that has been bettered in the American League only by Jose Bautista. With Wakefield now at 130 2/3 innings for the year, then, it is natural to wonder whether he might benefit from refilling the tank and getting some measure of rest.
Yet Wakefield suggested that he feels good at this stage of the year, a result of his offseason workout program with strength coach Dave Page, and manager Terry Francona dismissed the idea that the pitcher needed a respite.
"I bet you every pitcher might be able to benefit from a little of downtime. I just think Wake had a tough night,” said Francona. "He’s OK. He’s worked hard so he can do this. I think he’s OK."
Even so, with Andrew Miller amidst an interesting string of three starts (2-0, 2.08 ERA, 17 strikeouts, 5 walks, 17 1/3 innings) and the Sox unlikely to need six starters in the next tour of the rotation, the Sox are reaching a point where they must ask, whether Miller or Wakefield should be the one to lose starts.
Wakefield has typically been good enough to keep the Sox in games and permit them a chance to win. The knuckleballer has served a meaningful stabilizing function on the rotation for much of the year. And right now, Friday represented more of an aberration than a trend, a very bad outing that followed a string of solid performances that simply did not net the long-awaited victory.
Moreover, there will undoubtedly be opportunities for both pitchers going forward. The Sox, after off days on Sunday and Monday, will play 23 games in as many days.
There is little question that everyone in the Sox organization is eager to see Wakefield get his 200th career victory. Yet they will not pursue that milestone with monomaniacal zeal.
Wakefield has a 5.10 ERA that ranks 122nd among 130 big league pitchers who have thrown at least 100 innings, and at a certain point, the Sox likely need to spend more time figuring out what they have with Miller, both in 2011 and beyond. More outings like Friday’s will make that need all the greater.
A LOW POINT FOR LOWRIE
A compelling case can be made that it was the worst night of Jed Lowrie’s career. The switch-hitter went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts (three against lefties), swinging through his pitch on multiple occasions, and committed an error that he characterized as “silly.”
“It was a horse [expletive] night,” said Lowrie.
But Lowrie’s struggles run deeper than one bad game. Since May 1, Lowrie is hitting .225 with a .279 OBP, .310 slugging mark and .589 OPS. On the year, a player who had been surehanded (8 errors in 168 games) over his first three big league seasons has been anything but, committing 15 errors in just 71 games.
Also since May 1, Marco Scutaro — who started the year delivering little production, thus opening the door for Lowrie to claim the starting shortstop job — is hitting .289 with a .348 OBP, .405 slugging percentage and .753 OPS.
Since his return from a six-week stint on the DL for a left shoulder injury, Lowrie has struggled to impact the baseball, even against left-handers. What once looked like a potential breakout season has instead become one of some frustration to the 27-year-old.
"My approach feels fine. I’m not driving the ball. I’m not really driving the ball the way that I’d like to. When I do, guys are running it down,” said Lowrie. “I’m sure my shoulder has something to do with it, but I’m so tired of having something to say about that. You just strap it on and give what you got that day. …
"I’m not getting the results that I expect from myself. That’s really the only way to put it."
Unless Lowrie starts coming closer to those expectations, based on his performance of the past four months, his playing time could take a hit when Kevin Youkilis returns. It has been noteworthy that Lowrie has primarily been at third base – Youkilis’ position – in August, with Scutaro and newcomer Mike Aviles getting most of the playing time at short.
For now, Lowrie seemingly represents a player who is searching for his form, both at the plate and in the field. There remains time for him to find it. But for now, there is little question that his grip has loosened on a position he worked so hard to claim.
ALBERS TAKES HIS LUMPS
Matt Albers did not give up a run in July. Through the trade deadline, he had permitted runs in just six of his 35 appearances, forging a 2.09 ERA and, in the process, emerging as a vital late-innings relief option.
Then came August. Albers has made 10 relief appearances. He has been scored upon in seven, including a brutal outing on Friday in which he permitted four runs in an inning of mop-up work.
He has a 13.09 ERA this month. His strikeouts are down; his walks are up. He is still showing both velocity (Albers touched 96 mph on Friday) and life on his pitches (in Texas, he threw a pitch that ran so much that Ian Kinsler swung and fouled off a pitch that was about to hit him in the hip.
But the results have been dreadful.
“He’s obviously made some mistakes, and, when he’s made mistakes, they’ve been in the middle of the plate. I know he’s frustrated,” said Francona. “We’ve just got to get him back on that run again. I don’t think he’s tired. His velocity is fine. I know he’s frustrated.
“He’s going through that little rut like a lot of guys do. We’ve certainly come to depend on him,” he continued. “We’ll get there again.”
But it remains to be seen how the Sox get to that point, in particular, whether the Sox can allow Albers to work through his struggles in high leverage situations or if they will find less critical situations for the pitcher. The Sox haven’t played many close games in recent days, but it is noteworthy that Albers’ last three entries into games have come with the Sox down by four, ahead by 11 and down by four.
Again, that may simply be a product of circumstance. Even so, whereas seeing Albers in a tight, one- or two-run game seemed like a given for much of the summer, based on his recent performance, the right-hander’s presence in such contests (over the likes of Alfredo Aceves and Dan Wheeler) cannot be taken for granted at this time.