The stage was set for a familiar refrain.
For the third time in a four-game span, the Red Sox jumped out to a 4-0 lead against a West Coast opponent. That advantage, achieved with a pair of runs in the first and second, seemed slightly ominous given that the team had blown four-run leads on both Wednesday and Friday.
And when Red Sox starter Josh Beckett gave the Mariners a pair of runs in the second (a two-run homer by Yuniesky Betancourt) and another in the third (keyed by Julio Lugo’s third error since coming back), Boston again seemed poised to blow its lead.
But Beckett stopped the momentum shift at that point, shutting out the Mariners over his final three innings of work for one of his best starts of the year. In the process, the right-hander helped the Sox to snap a three-game losing streak with a 5-3 victory in Seattle.
While Beckett delivered the dirty work, logging the highest pitch total (119) of the year by a Sox pitcher, several Sox players excelled in their native stomping grounds. A pair of Sox players who make their homes in Washington – Jason Bay and Jeff Bailey – hit homers. Oregon native Jacoby Ellsbury extended his hitting streak to a dozen games and made an excellent sliding catch.
Those collective efforts allowed the Sox to enjoy an end-to-end victory that was sorely needed after losing three straight winnable contests. Here are five things that were learned in the process:
JOSH BECKETT IS WORKING VERY, VERY HARD
Even when his numbers suggested otherwise, the Red Sox maintained that Josh Beckett looked strong, his pitches potentially dominating. Yet he was getting hit – hard – by opponents.
The reason, the team believed, boiled down to one of real estate: Beckett was leaving too many pitches up, rather than operating in the bottom of the strike zone. On Saturday, Beckett offered a blueprint of what he can achieve by keeping the ball down.
Beckett delivered his best outing since Opening Day, pitching seven innings (tied for his most this season) and allowing just three runs (two earned). Though he left a couple of pitches up (notably, a 95 mph fastball just above the belt that Yuniesky Betancourt deposited over the left-field wall), he spent most of the day at or below the knees.
In that vein, the most impressive element of his outing were the 12 groundball outs he produced in his seven innings (complementing four fly balls and five strikeouts). He has now delivered three straight quality starts, though his effort on Saturday – in which he allowed fewer hits (4) than innings pitched (7) for the first time since Opening Day – was in a different class from the prior outings.
Beckett pitched well enough that he convinced manager Terry Francona to leave him on the mound for the seventh. That development was somewhat surprising. Beckett was already at 108 pitches through six innings. But the right-hander claimed that he had no problems with delivering another frame.
“I feel like personally I owe (the bullpen) a lot of innings,” Beckett told reporters.
The Sox’ starter rewarded the strategy by putting another zero on the board in the seventh to finish his night with 120 pitches. That hefty workload added to a season in which Beckett has been putting in as much work as nearly any other pitcher in baseball.
Through eight starts, he has thrown 876 pitches, second most in the majors and just two pitches behind Yankees ace CC Sabathia for most by any pitcher. Already, he has thrown 113 or more pitches in four of his outings. Moreover, most of that pitch volume has been of the high-stress variety, as Beckett had spent most of his last six starts trying to work through jams.
The fact that Beckett is neck-and-neck with Sabathia in pitches thrown at this point is, at the least, intriguing. In 2007, many around the Sox believed that Sabathia (3,581 pitches in 241 regular-season innings) sputtered during the playoffs while Beckett (3,100 pitches in 200.2 regular-season innings) was ready to dominate in no small part due to the different workloads of the two over the regular season.
That being the case, it will be interesting to see whether the Sox look to scale Beckett back at some point this year.
JEFF BAILEY HAD A NICE MOMENT, BUT WON’T BE HOLDING THE FORT FOR MUCH LONGER
By his own admission, Jeff Bailey has struggled offensively while keeping first base warm for Kevin Youkilis. He entered Saturday hitting just .167 with a .623 OPS, including a .176 average since assuming everyday duties at first since Youkilis injured his oblique.
Against that backdrop, Bailey enjoyed one of the finest moments of his major-league career. Playing in front of what he estimated as roughly 75 friends and family members in Seattle – roughly two hours from Kelso, Wash., where he resides – Bailey clubbed his second homer of the 2009 season.
“It was nice to do something good in front of them,” Bailey said on the Post-Game Show. “I’m struggling a little bit right now, and it’s nice to get one of those.”
Nonetheless, despite the accomplishment, it is clear that Bailey’s time as an everyday first baseman is limited. According to mlb.com, Youkilis took batting practice without incident before Saturday’s game, and is scheduled to play a pair of rehab games at Triple-A Pawtucket on Monday and Tuesday. Barring a setback, Youkilis would then likely be in position to return from the D.L. on Wednesday, when he is first eligible to come back.
All of that is perfectly fine with Bailey. As a 30-year-old who has spent most of his professional life in the minors, the mere fact that he’s been in the mix for the majors has been rewarding.
“I’ve been the guy who’s gone up and down. That’s perfectly fine with me,” Bailey said on the Post-Game Show. “Whenever I’m needed, I’m just going to step in there, be relaxed and do the best I can.”
The Sox have gone 6-5 in 11 games without Youkilis.
JACOBY ELLSBURY’S DEVELOPMENT CONTINUES
The at-bat was little short of sensational. Jacoby Ellsbury stepped to the plate in the top of the seventh, his 11-game hitting streak potentially on the line.
He fell behind, 1-2, took a ball, then fouled off three straight 2-2 pitches from Mariners relievers Miguel Batista. Ellsbury then took a ball before lining a full-count fastball into centerfield for a single to extend his hitting streak to a dozen games, the longest active streak in the majors.
During the run, Ellsbury is hitting .357, improving his season-long average to .303. But his other numbers are unexceptional, as he has an OBP of .390 and a slugging mark of .424 during his current hitting streak.
To this point in 2009, Ellsbury’s numbers look very similar to the ones he put up in 2008. His batting average is up (from .280 to .303), but his OBP (.340 in 2008, .335 in 2009) and slugging (.380 to .374) are down slightly.
Ellsbury has walked just three times during his hitting streak, and has taken just eight free passes this season, or one in every 20.6 plate appearances. At the same time, his strikeouts are down this year (15 in 160 plate appearances, or 9.7 percent) from 2008 (80 in 609, 13.1 percent).
All of that would suggest that Ellsbury is amidst his adjustment to the league. He has learned to make contact, rather than swinging through, the fastball up-and-in that was an Achilles heel for months of last season. The improvement in his contact rate has manifested itself in lower walk and strikeout rates.
The development is a normal part of progress for young players. Indeed, Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan suggested this spring that he expected to see Ellsbury’s strikeout rate start to fall this year, and to come closer to his walk rate. Down the road, Magadan suggested, he expected to see Ellsbury taking as many walks as strikeouts.
From that perspective, though Ellsbury’s on-base and slugging numbers remain unimproved from a year ago, there would still appear to be signs of progress in his offensive game.
PERHAPS THE CONCERN ABOUT JONATHAN PAPELBON WAS A BIT MISGUIDED
Judged against the historic start of his own career, Jonathan Papelbon somehow seemed as if he was coming up short through the season’s initial weeks.
He already has given out more walks (10) in 17 innings this year than he did in 69 innings last year (8). His pitches per inning have been up. He has allowed at least one baserunner in each of his last 10 appearances. He’s had his fair share of cardiac saves.
All of those quibbles seem fair, and yet they should not obscure what he is accomplishing. In a bottom-line industry, it would be nearly impossible to argue with the pitcher’s results thus far this year. He allowed a hit in a scoreless ninth on Saturday, locking down the win in just 13 pitches.
The Sox are 16-0 when leading after six innings, in no small part because their closer is now 10-for-10 in save opportunities. His ERA now sits at 1.06, the seventh lowest in the American League by a pitcher with at least 10 innings.
THE RED SOX CANNOT GO THROUGH TWO STRAIGHT GAMES WITH THE SAME LINEUP
The Sox continue to remain in a state of day-to-day flux. On Saturday, shortstop Julio Lugo had to leave in the seventh inning with what the shortstop told reporters was a mild groin strain. He is likely to sit out on Sunday, as the Sox hope to exercise precaution prior to Monday’s off-day to avoid risking further damage. Lugo went 1-for-2 with a walk on Saturday, and is hitting .333 with a .407 OBP and .865 OPS.
The Sox played a second straight day without David Ortiz, and the team plans to sit its No. 3 hitter for a third straight day on Sunday in hopes of allowing him a chance to relax and shake off his slump.
Francona told reporters that Daisuke Matsuzaka, following a five-inning rehab start for Triple-A Pawtucket in which he allowed two runs and struck out nine on Friday, is ready to return to the major-league rotation. His return could come this coming Friday against the Mets, though Francona said that the exact date had yet to be finalized.