In one respect, Tuesday’s game between the Red Sox and Blue Jays was treated merely as the backdrop against which David Ortiz returned to the lineup.
The epic slump of Boston’s designated hitter, a man responsible for an incredible 231 homers in his first six years as a Red Sox, has now reached nearly a quarter season. He sat out all three weekend games in Seattle to clear his head, and his return to the No. 3 spot in the Sox lineup against the Blue Jays seemed like a major event.
And yet Ortiz was actually nothing more than a giant red herring for the real drama of both Tuesday night’s contest – a 2-1 Red Sox victory over the first-place Blue Jays – and this moment of the season.
Right now, the Red Sox and their fans hope that David Ortiz might still be capable of being Big Papi, rather than the frustrated and fallen star who, after going 0-for-3 with a pair of bad strikeouts, is hitting .203 with a .317 OBP and a .293 slugging mark. They hope that he can awaken from a stretch of the season that has been painful to watch.
But uncertainty surrounds what Ortiz might be able to provide, and when he might provide it. He may well be able to impact the Sox lineup at some point, but that notion cannot simply be taken for granted.
That being the case, the far more significant reshaping of Ortiz’ club will occur today when Kevin Youkilis will make his return from a trip to the 15-day disabled list that was prompted by an oblique injury. The first baseman will insert his gaudy .393 average, .505 OBP and .719 slugging mark into the heart of the lineup, immediately injecting a degree of credibility that has not existed in his absence.
In the 13 games since Youkilis last played, the Sox have averaged 4.8 runs, but that number is a bit deceiving, since it is mostly based on a couple of stranger-than-fiction rallies, one involving a 12-run inning, another that featured a five-run explosion.
Over their last nine games, the Sox have scored just 34 runs (3.8 per contest), and have failed to plate more than five runs in any one of those games. It is the team’s longest run of games without notching at least six runs since a 12-game spiral during the lost days of August 2006.
In that 2006 campaign, a year when he set the Red Sox single-season home run record with 54, Ortiz felt responsible for shouldering an immense load and single-handedly trying to pull his team from his rut. There may come a point where he is once again that player, but it is not immediately in sight.
Youkilis, on the other hand, has produced at such a level since the start of 2008 that he is capable of hiding some of the deficiencies of his lineup. On Tuesday, he concluded his two-game rehab assignment with Triple-A Pawtucket by serving as designated hitter and going 0-for-4. In his two rehab games, Youkilis went 0-for-6.
"I asked him if he wanted to go to Double-A," joked manager Terry Francona. "He said no."
Middle infielder Gil Velazquez confirmed after Tuesday’s game that the club has informed him that he is returning to Triple-A Pawtucket on Wednesday to clear a roster spot for the returning Youkilis. The Sox avoided sinking without their All-Star first baseman, going 7-6 since his last start, but they are a different team by virtue of his return.
“Jeff Bailey did a capable job of I guess holding the fort down, but Youk’s one of our main bats in the lineup, a big average guy, basically that big bat in the heart of the order,” said Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. “To get him back only adds to our depth and our offensive weapons.”
Here are five other things that we learned on a day when we received a reminder of Sox manager Terry Francona’s philosophy of patience:
THE RED SOX NEED TO PRACTICE THEIR POP-UP DRILLS BEFORE TIM WAKEFIELD’S STARTS
The knuckleball is always a pitch that is prone to induce fly balls, a notion that Tim Wakefield demonstrated to ridiculous extremes on Tuesday. Wakefield elicited a whopping 16 flyball outs in his eight innings of work against the Blue Jays.
“It seemed like every time you looked up, there was a pop-up on the infield,” said Francona.
Of those, only one – a fly to the warning track in left-center by Adam Lind – was well struck. Otherwise, most of the Jays’ pop ups would have stayed within the dimensions of a Little League field.
“You know when he’s getting that many pop-ups, the ball is doing something,” said first baseman Jeff Bailey. “He was unbelievable.”
Wakefield’s outing on Tuesday was as good as any he’s had this year. He gave up a solo homer to Kevin Millar (the fourth he’s given up to his former teammate), but otherwise was incredibly efficient, needing just 97 pitches for eight innings of work.
At the most crucial moment, he worked out of a jam created by his team’s defense. With one out in the eighth, a pop-up dropped between Bailey and Dustin Pedroia to put runners on first and second with one out and the Jays’ third and fourth hitters due up. Naturally, Wakefield escaped the jam by getting both Alex Rios and Vernon Wells to fly to left.
Wakefield has now produced 80 flyball outs this year, second in the majors to Jered Weaver of the Angels (82). Among qualifying starters, his 1.7 air outs for every ground out is the fifth highest ratio in the majors, behind only Koji Uehara, Chris Young, Justin Verlander and Johan Santana.
Over the last 10 years (the duration for which the statistic is available on mlb.com), it is the highest ratio of Wakefield’s career, topping the 1.33 air outs he recorded for every ground out last season.
“The popups, the nubs, it's amazing what Wakefield can do to major-league hitters," Millar told mlb.com after the game. “To me, he's been the most underrated pitcher in the last decade.”
Certainly, he’s been one of the better pitchers in the American League thus far this year. He is tied for fourth in the A.L. in wins (5), ranks fifth in opponents’ batting average (.216), is tied for third in quality starts (6) and tied for 12th in ERA (3.59).
He has also helped the Sox to a 4-1 record while turning in a 2.83 ERA when his turn has come after a loss.
“He’s been huge for us,” said Lowell. “I don’t think we could be any happier with the way he’s been pitching for us this year.
THE IMPACT OF KEVIN YOUKILIS IS NOT JUST ON THE LINEUP
The pop-up that dropped between Bailey and Pedroia offered an exaggerated reminder of how much the Sox have missed Kevin Youkilis in the field. The 2007 Gold Glove winner changes the dynamic of Boston’s infield defense.
The unspoken comfort between Youkilis and Pedroia is one aspect of the impact of his absent glove. But Youkilis is also expert at picking balls out of the dirt, and may have been able to spare Julio Lugo an error on a throw that he bounced to first base.
The Sox need all the above-average defensive contributors they can find. Entering Tuesday, the team ranked 27th in its defensive efficiency (i.e., the percentage of balls in play that it converts into outs).
MIKE LOWELL IS A SAVVY BASERUNNER
Mike Lowell will never make a run at 10 steals in a season, let alone 100. But even with his speed diminished in the aftermath of hip surgery last October, he remains a smart enough baseball player to make an impact on the bases.
That was the case in the second inning of a scoreless game on Tuesday. Lowell reached on a single, then advanced to second on J.D. Drew’s nine-pitch walks. Lowell had scouted Jays starter Brian Tallet, and saw something in the video of the pitcher that convinced him that he would have a chance to steal third should the opportunity arise.
On a 1-2 pitch to Jeff Bailey, Lowell took off for third, and Drew followed his teammate. Bailey lined a single to left, and because they were moving on the pitch, Lowell was able to score and Drew advanced to third, from where he scored on a sac fly to left.
“I know I’m not a burner on the bases, but you don’t have to be fast to maybe see things and try to take advantage of the situation,” said Lowell. “We do a lot of film work and looking at things. I saw a little something. I thought it was a good time. It actually paid off very well…It’s early in the game. It’s an opportunity where we could gamble a little bit and it worked out.”
Lowell clarified that this was not a hit-and-run situation, and that he felt he had a read on Tallet to the point where he could get on third with one out. Though the idea of the third baseman as a base thief seems improbable (“I have another gear,” Lowell said. “It’s called second.”), it is far from unprecedented.
Since coming to the Sox prior to the 2006 season, Lowell has stolen seven bases. He has swiped third on four of those occasions. Those have been stolen with savvy rather than speed, but sometimes the former trait is more useful than the latter. Jacoby Ellsbury, after all, was thrown out trying to steal third (with no outs) in the eighth inning of Tuesday’s game.
THE BLUE JAYS STILL HAVE SOMETHING TO PROVE IN THEIR DIVISION
Even after their loss on Tuesday, Toronto’s 27-15 record is little short of a marvel. The Jays still own the best record in the American League and a 2.5 game lead on the Sox in the A.L. East.
The 2008 Rays were one thing. That team’s improbably emergence was the result of a slightly earlier-than-expected maturation process for a young team of incredible talent in a year when its pitching staff enjoyed exceptional health.
The Jays, on the other hand, have been without their Nos. 2-4 starters (Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum, Jesse Litsch), lost its closer (B.J. Ryan) to injury for a few weeks and sent him to a set-up role when he returned, and lost one of its young hurlers (Ricky Romero) who was supposed to be the depth option of first resort. The succession of woes should have been devastating.
But the Jays have been nothing if not resilient. Their starters have a 3.98 ERA that is tops in the A.L., and the team has permitted just 4.2 runs per game, second fewest in the A.L.
Even so, in baseball circles, there has been some skepticism, or at least curiosity, about whether the Jays can sustain that position. Their outstanding start, after all, has been forged not only with a patchwork rotation, but also without having faced the cream of the A.L. East.
Of the Jays’ first 41 games before Tuesday, just six were against their divisional opponents: three (all wins) against the Orioles, and three (one win, two losses) against the Yankees. Toronto will soon make up for lost time.
The 2-1 loss in Boston marked the beginning of a 12-game run in which Toronto will play six games against the Sox and three more against the Orioles. Then, interleague will give the team another four-week reprieve.
But, starting on June 29, when the Jays will return to division play against the Rays, Toronto will play more than two-thirds (57) of its final 84 games against members of its division.
That is not to discount what Toronto has done thus far. By all accounts, their early-season run has been extremely impressive. But it is fair to suggest that it won’t be until July that the Blue Jays will truly have the opportunity to prove how well they stack up in the best division in baseball.
JONATHAN PAPELBON IS GETTING STRONGER
The approach was blunt. Jonathan Papelbon pumped one fastball after another into the strike zone, daring the Jays to hit his 93-95 mph weapon of first choice. He started the inning with seven straight heaters (all strikes, getting a three-pitch punchout of Adam Lind and a three-pitch grounder from Scott Rolen).
Papelbon flashed a pair of splitters against Lyle Overbay, but with a full count, the Sox closer went back to the fastball for a game-ending groundout to first. It took Papelbon just 12 pitches to record his 11th save of the year (tops in the A.L.), and his first 1-2-3 outing since April 22. (He had allowed at least one baserunner in each of his previous 10 appearances.)
Papelbon’s ERA is down to 1.00. Amazingly, that only leaves him ranked third among Sox relievers, behind Ramon Ramirez (0.86) and Manny Delcarmen (0.96). Papelbon, who had been laboring to get through the ninth with surprisingly extended at-bats, is once again blazing through his assignments.
“He came in and pumped strikes,” said Francona. “You always feel like power behind (Wakefield) is always good. They get one look at a reliever after facing Wake, it’s got to make everybody’s stuff look a little better.”
That being the case, the idea of inserting Daniel Bard and his 100 mph fastball into the game seemed somewhat intriguing. And the rookie was indeed up, alongside Ramirez, in the Red Sox bullpen, a fascinating turn of events that suggested the possibility that the Sox might summon a rookie with all of two games of big-league experience to help preserve a one-run lead.
But the appearance was slightly deceiving, Francona clarified after the game that Bard was only going to be summoned had the Jays tied the game or taken the lead. Ramirez would have been summoned if the Sox needed a reliever to try to preserve an advantage. The training wheels, it would seem, are not off Bard…yet.