For the second time in as many nights, the Red Sox entered the sixth inning having done next to nothing offensively. And then: boom.
One night after the Sox scored 12 runs in the sixth inning before recording an out, turning a 2-1 deficit into a 13-2 lead, they rallied for five runs in as many batters on Friday against the Tampa Bay Rays. In the process, Boston turned a 3-0 hole into a 5-3 advantage in an eventual 7-3 win.
For the second straight night, it was Jason Bay who wielded a bat like a sledgehammer to strike the key blow for the Sox. After Dustin Pedroia led off the inning with a single off the glove of pitcher James Shields and David Ortiz walks, Bay jumped on an 0-2 belt-high fastball, lining it off the Sports Authority sign above the Monster Seats.
The homer tied the game, and left Shields dazed. Mike Lowell followed with a double, and J.D. Drew then barreled a hanging changeup, driving it into the visitor’s bullpen for a two-run homer and 5-3 lead.
Bay’s homer was his second in as many games, and fourth in five games. Of his nine homers, seven have come in the sixth inning or later. He has 21 RBIs from the sixth inning on.
“Jason Bay’s carrying us,” said Pedroia. “He’s been awesome all year.”
Of course, the fact that Bay has extraordinary, game-changing power is well-known…even if Bay himself sometimes doubts his pop.
Even his two-year-old daughter Addison, after all, is aware of his thump. During games, she has learned to say, “Da da home run.”
“She says it 50 times a day when the game is on,” said Bay. “She’s bound to be right some of the time.”
It would seem far from sporting, then, to detail something from last night’s game that a two-year-old is able to discern. That being the case, here are five things unrelated to Jason Bay’s phenomenal start to the season that we learned on Friday:
1) BRAD PENNY WAS GOOD. CLAY BUCHHOLZ WAS BETTER.
Red Sox starter Brad Penny has yet to look like a dominant starter for the Sox this year, but in the majority of his starts, he’s given his team a solid chance to win. He ranks second on the Sox with four quality starts in six outings.
On Friday, he allowed single runs in the first, second and fourth innings, but limited the damage. Even though he allowed 10 baserunners in a season-high 6.1 innings, he limited the damage and kept the Sox close enough that they were able to rally for a win.
“These guys, it’s amazing,” said Penny. “Anytime you can keep the game close with this team, you’ve got a chance to win.”
All the same, his early returns have been modest. He is 3-1 with a 6.90 ERA, and he has permitted almost as many walks (15) as strikeouts (16).
The Sox can afford to be patient to see whether he can reclaim his form of 2006-07, when he won 16 games in consecutive seasons. Nonetheless, the team is closely monitoring the dominant start by Clay Buchholz this season in Triple-A Pawtucket.
The 24-year-old allowed one hit in seven shutout innings on Friday while striking out eight and walking one. He has now allowed just 12 hits in 27 innings while striking out 26, and is 2-0 with a 1.33 ERA. Opponents are hitting .126 against him.
On Friday, Buchholz was painting both sides of the plate with a fastball that touched as high as 96 mph and a nasty slider. He did the two things that the Sox have asked him to emphasize, namely:
A) Slowing down the game between pitches, and making sure that when he falls behind in the count, he immediately gets back ahead rather than allowing one misfire to snowball; and
B) Working off of his fastball.
“Those are the two nuances that we talked to him about. We are talking about nuances at this point, which is a good thing,” said farm director Mike Hazen, who was in Columbus for the outing. “I’m pretty comfortable saying that he would have been pretty successful (in the majors) with the stuff I saw (Friday).
“Clay has done everything he needs to do in terms of putting himself in position,” Hazen added. “He needs to continue to do that. Nobody knows the timeframe. You just can’t predict those things. But he’s taking care of his end of the bargain.”
The Sox are in no rush to return Buchholz to the majors. Their current rotation -- even without Daisuke Matsuzaka -- has been good enough to lead them into a tie for first place. Even so, while there is not currently a major-league opening for Buchholz, at some point, the pitcher could force the club to make one.
In spring training, G.M. Theo Epstein said that the Sox are committed to their prospects, and do what is necessary to avoid blocking them in the talent pipeline if they are ready to advance a level. Asked last night whether Buchholz was ready to knock down the door to the majors, Epstein—who watched the pitcher’s outing on television—said simply, “Those things have a way of working themselves out.”
2) WHETHER OR NOT ANYONE IS NOTICING, DUSTIN PEDROIA IS WHITE HOT
Ho-hum. Four hits for Dustin Pedroia.
Since the start of the 2007 season, Pedroia has collected four or more hits 11 times, most in the majors. He’s collected at least three hits on 44 occasions (second most in the bigs), and seven times this year.
With his 4-for-5 night on Friday, Pedroia is now hitting .336 this year. Yet somehow, the run barely registers, in part because Pedroia has set the bar for himself.
“He got four hits today?” reserve Rocco Baldelli noted with some surprise. “He does it all the time. When you’re consistently doing things like that, getting four hits all the time, it’s probably not even a big deal to him.”
It’s not. Pedroia treated the accomplishment with little more than a shrug, belying how rare it is to collect four hits in a night. Kevin Youkilis, for instance, was more than 450 games into his big-league career before he had more than three hits in a game.
“I’m just trying to do my job – get on base for the guys behind me,” said Pedroia. “I think everyone knows I just want to get on base. There’s no secret to it.”
Right now, Pedroia is doing that by lining the ball all over the field. His four singles on Friday were either up the middle or to the right side. Manager Terry Francona said that the Rays are actually partly responsible for that pattern.
The Rays, more than any team in baseball, position their infielders according to spray charts, and so in Tampa Bay last weekend, they shifted to the pull side against Pedroia. Since then, he has defied that pattern.
“(The Rays) overshift a lot of guys. When they did it in Tampa (against Pedroia), it looked like it really helped him feel good about his right-field stroke. Now he’s using the whole field,” said Francona. “He has a way of covering the plate on pitches that a lot of good hitters don’t hit. He get’s rewarded.”
Since the second game of last weekend’s series in Tampa, Pedroia has 16 hits, 10 of which have been to the opposite field, in eight games. He’s hitting .485 (16-for-33) with two doubles, six walks and a .564 OBP.
3) CARL CRAWFORD COULD STEAL 100 BASES THIS YEAR…IF HE WANTS TO
Carl Crawford knows his career-high in stolen bases.
“Fifty-nine,” he said. “I wish it was more.”
This year, the Rays’ dynamic left-fielder seems intent on turning that wish into reality. On Friday, he stole his 21st base of the year (and 10th against the Sox) without getting caught.
He is a marvel. Francona noted that on one occasion last weekend in Tampa, the Sox held him on second base. Despite a flat-footed start, Crawford still managed to steal third by a healthy margin. Like Jacoby Ellsbury, he is capable of beating pitchouts or perfect throws.
“I don’t know how you throw him out,” said Sox shortstop Nick Green, who played with Crawford in Tampa. “Even when he steals bases, it’s almost like he accelerates through the base, which is huge,. A lot of people slow up and lessen it. But it’s like he goes through the base and accelerates.”
Though any projections must be tempered by the early stage of the season, Crawford – who has stolen at least one base in 10 of his last 11 games – is on pace for 110 thefts this year.
Only four players in modern baseball history (Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, Vince Coleman, Maury Wills) have stolen 100 or more bases in a season. In the last 20 years, no one in baseball has swiped more than 78 bags in a season (a total achieved by Marquis Grissom in 1992 and Jose Reyes in 2007).
Could Crawford join that club?
“I would never say no—I’ll put it like that,” said Sox (and former Rays) outfielder Rocco Baldelli. “I think Carl can steal as many as he wants to. I don’t know if he wants to steal 100…If that is a priority for him throughout the season and fits into winning games, I think he can do it.”
So, does Crawford want to join the century club?
“I’ve never thought about that number (of steals),” said Crawford. “I always thought that was Rickey’s number, so let him have it – but it’d be nice to try. I won’t say I won’t try. I’ll put forth the effort.”
Many have suggested that the 27-year-old Crawford has a chance to contend for a batting crown. If he were forced to pick between that feat and triple digits in steals, the outfielder — who went 3-for-5 and was a homer short of the cycle against the Sox on Friday — felt that the choice would be easy.
“I think 100 steals, because people said it’s something that can never happen again. You know there’s going to be a batting title every year,” said Crawford, who at one point had reached safely by walk or hit in nine straight at-bats against the Sox. “That’s an elite class right there. That’s why I think 100 steals would be a little more special, even though both of them would be nice. I wouldn’t complain about either one.”
4) FOR THE SOX, THE SIXTH INNING HAS BEEN THE KEY
It hasn’t just been the last two nights.
Yes, the Sox pieced together a pair of incredible rallies in the sixth inning on both Thursday (12 runs without recording an out) and Friday (five runs without an out). But the sixth inning has actually been the most significant one for the Sox all year.
They have now scored 32 runs in the inning — their most in any frame — while permitting opponents just four runs — the fewest they’ve permitted in any frame. So the team has gotten its biggest competitive advantage from the sixth inning.
Moreover, the team is now 15-0 when leading after six innings, a reflection both on the fact that the team is tacking on insurance runs when ahead in the sixth and on a dominant bullpen that has a 2.99 ERA (third best in the majors, second in the A.L.).
5) THE SOX AWAIT THE RETURN OF KEVIN YOUKILIS AND THE REAL DAVID ORTIZ
One of the more remarkable elements of the Sox’ two monumental sixth-inning rallies have been the players who have been absent for them. Kevin Youkilis has been out for both, and while David Ortiz returned to the lineup on Friday after sitting out Thursday with a stiff neck, he is still searching.
Ortiz did offer a significant contribution to the five-run sixth on Friday. Rays starter James Shields had not gone to a three-ball count to any of the first 20 batters he faced, but Ortiz managed to negotiate a critical seven-pitch walk.
“We’ve been talking about (the struggles of Ortiz),” said Francona, “but you can still see the way they pitch him, his presence, and him laying off the 3-2 pitch, working the walk, set up the inning.”
Several members of the Sox lauded the at-bat as a pivotal one, no doubt, in part, because the team is so eager to see his confidence restored. Suffice it to say that the Sox will enjoy few celebrations this year so much as the one that accompanies Ortiz’ first homer of the year.
As for Youkilis, the first baseman is likely to miss his fifth straight game on Saturday due to what the team is describing as muscle spasms from a deep bruise and what the first baseman has characterized as a “left side” injury.
“I don’t think (Youkilis will be able to play Saturday),” said Francona. “I wish it was yes.”
Before the game, Francona said that the first baseman was making progress in his return, having begun rotational exercises. Still, the first baseman is not yet pushing to make his way back into the lineup.
“If he barks at me, I’ll put him in,” said Francona. “The update is he’s better. He’s just not ready to play. He is really improving today, which is good…In that area, you don’t want to make a mistake and come back too quick and set a guy back where he ends up being a D.L. candidate. We don’t want to do that. We are trying to use good sense.”