At the end of last week, it had the makings of a flop. The Red Sox had lost four of their first six contests during their three-city, 10-game road-trip, in the process moving from a first-place tie to a 1.5 game deficit in the division.
The remainder of Boston’s tour included a game against the Blue Jays, owners of an 18-6 home record that was the best in the American League, and three contests against a surprising first-place Tigers squad that was 15-7 at Comerica Park. The Sox, who owned an 11-16 road record entering Sunday, seemed in danger of falling well out of first by the time they made it home.
Four games later -- including Thursday’s odd 6-3 victory over the Tigers, in which the Sox did most of their damage without benefit of a hit -- the Sox had reversed their potentially dire circumstances. After a lineup reorganization, the team finished the road trip with 29 runs in those final four contests, all wins.
As a result, when the Sox finally have their Fenway Park homecoming today, they sit in a first-place tie. The team’s 6-4 road trip improved its overall record away from Fenway to 15-16.
That road mark (fourth best in the American League) may not seem terribly impressive, but the ability to play roughly .500 ball outside of Fenway is sufficient to put the Sox in position to reach the playoffs. A year ago, the Sox were 39-42 on the road en route to a 95-win season that ended just one game short of the World Series.
Now, the Sox return to Fenway for the coming week, where they not only enjoy the best home record in the American League (17-6) but where they have more home games remaining than any other team in the league. In a matter of a few games, the Sox achieved a potentially critical reversal in their season, moving from a position of vulnerability to one of strength.
Along the way, they offered five things to mull:
TIM WAKEFIELD HAS DOMINATING STUFF THIS YEAR
The knuckleball is typically a feast-or-famine pitch. If it remains up while crossing home plate at a velocity that would be permissible on most highways, the expected result is an assault on the bleachers.
Tim Wakefield, entering this year, had allowed an average of 1.2 homers per nine innings. This year, following a 6.2 inning effort in which he allowed just three runs on 80 pitches on Thursday, he is getting taken deep at roughly half that rate. Wakefield has kept the ball in the yard in seven of his 11 starts this year, and has allowed 0.7 homers per nine innings.
Wakefield did not allow a homer on Thursday in Comerica, a park in which he once got taken deep six times in a single game. (No one else has ever given up more than four homers in a contest in Comerica’s nine-season history.)
He narrowly avoided getting taken deep on Thursday, as Jeff Larish of the Tigers hooked a ball down the right-field line that drifted foul just in front of the foul pole (a determination that was confirmed after a video review by the umpires). That was the only time all day that a member of the Tigers threatened the fences against Wakefield.
Opponents are slugging just .356 against Wakefield, the 10th lowest mark in the American League. The nine pitchers who are ahead of him in that category fall into a who’s who of the most unhittable pitchers in the league: Zak Greinke, CC Sabathia, Edwin Jackson, Jered Weaver, Erik Bedard, Justin Verlander, Matt Garza, Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez.
Wakefield seems an unexpected name to enter a conversation with such a group. All the same, there is a lesson for his place among those peers. The knuckleball, when located well, is as dominating a pitch as there is. In 2009, Wakefield (7-3, 4.50) has offered a fairly consistent reminder of that notion.
A couple weeks ago, some members of the Blue Jays marveled at how well Wakefield seemed to be locating his signature pitch, suggesting that he was staying on the outer edges of the plate more consistently than they’d ever seen. As such, he has been a solidifying force in the Red Sox rotation.
“He's been a blessing for us,” Sox manager Terry Francona told reporters. “You look at his numbers from the regular season the last couple of years, he probably ranks second on our staff in a lot of categories -- wins, innings. He's a good pitcher. Maybe a little unconventional, but that's OK -- it doesn't matter.”
THE RED SOX BULLPEN IS FILTHY GOOD
Hideki Okajima didn’t have much heavy lifting to do. Because Wakefield left just seven outs for the bullpen to record, the left-hander was able to enter with one out in the eighth and, after sandwiching a pair of outs (a strikeout and groundout) around an infield hit, his day was over.
It was the latest in a long line of zeroes posted by Okajima. The reliever has now gone 15 appearances and 16.1 innings without a run. His shutout streak -- the longest current run in the American League -- is impressive enough in its own right. But it is perhaps even more startling to think that Okajima’s current stretch is merely part of a conversation about the best by a Red Sox reliever this year.
Ramon Ramirez started the year with 15 scoreless innings spanning 13 appearances. Manny Delcarmen delivered 14 shutout frames over 11 games. At one point, Jonathan Papelbon (who labored while allowing a hit and a walk in a scoreless ninth for his 14th save) put up zeroes for nine straight games and 9.2 innings. Takashi Saito is amidst a run of seven straight scoreless outings.
The wealth of exceptional performances has allowed Francona to ride the proverbial hot hand. At different points, Okajima, Ramirez and Saito have all served as the primary set-up man for Papelbon, but the results have typically been unwavering.
The Sox bullpen, after 2.1 scoreless innings on Thursday, now has a 2.82 ERA that is by far the best in the majors. Since May 10, the group has a 1.90 ERA in 23 contests. Six of the seven pitchers currently in the bullpen have an ERA under 3.00.
A case can be made that the bullpen’s biggest “concern” right now is Papelbon, a pitcher with a 1.89 career ERA and 2.25 mark this year. All things considered, such a problem merely underscores the unbelievable depth of the team’s relief corps through the first third of the 2009 season.
DAVID ORTIZ IS LOOKING – QUITE LITERALLY – FOR ANSWERS
David Ortiz does not hide from the fact that he is searching for answers in a season that has been, to date, abysmal. He is hitting .187 with a .570 OPS, marks that are more befitting a pitcher than a designated hitter.
He received a day off against left-handed starter Dontrelle Willis on Thursday, but will likely be slotted in the sixth spot in the batting order at Fenway on Friday. He last occupied that lineup position in a game in Boston on May 11, 2004. (That day, Ortiz went 3-for-4 with a homer against the Indians.)
The slugger has made no secret of either how much his struggles have weighed on him or of how desperate he is to find an answer to them. And so, perhaps it should not come as a surprise that Ortiz is now looking for answers where he doesn’t even necessarily see a problem.
“I've been thinking about getting my eyes checked -- for real,” Ortiz told reporters in Detroit. “My vision has always been 20/20, and I'm not feeling anything crazy, but I'm going to get it checked out.”
It remains to be seen whether Ortiz will find any solutions to his season-long woes. But there is no doubt that he is searching with something between urgency and desperation.
KEVIN YOUKILIS IS STRUGGLING TO STAY HEALTHY
For the second straight game, Kevin Youkilis had to leave a game early. He was replaced by pinch-hitter Mark Kotsay in the top of the fourth inning of Thursday's game against the Tigers. Youkilis, who left Wednesday's game after Josh Anderson of the Tigers stepped on the back of his right ankle, was left with an injury that the Sox described as tightness of the right calf, almost surely related to the run-in with Anderson.
There is little question that health has been a source of frustration for Youkilis thus far. In spring training, he had to leave Team USA during the World Baseball Classic due to an injury to his left ankle and calf. He went on the disabled list for half of May with an oblique strain. And now, he is dealing with issues in his left foot.
After Thursday, Sox manager Terry Francona told reporters that it was uncertain whether Youkilis would be available on Friday for the start of the series against the Rangers. Obviously, the Sox have a vested interested in getting their first baseman healthy for the long haul. At the same time, the question of his availability underscores just how significant Youkilis’ presence in the lineup has been this year.
Youkilis has played in 40 games this year; the Sox have scored at least five runs in 22 of those (55 percent). When he has been out of the starting lineup, the Sox have managed five or more runs in just five of 14 contests (35.7 percent). Considering that the Sox are now 25-3 this year (.893) when scoring five or more runs, the difference is a palpable one.
THE SOX AND TIGERS HAD A CHANCE TO REVISIT A TRADE THAT WASN’T
During the offseason, the Tigers and Red Sox at least contemplated an exchange of players whose contracts seemed to represent dead weight. The notion of a trade that would send Julio Lugo (and the remaining two years and $18 million on his contract) to Detroit for Dontrelle Willis (and his two years, $22 million) was considered by the two sides early in the offseason.
Nothing came of the notion, of course. It’s hard to say whether either side would have benefited from such a deal, though it does seem difficult to imagine that a change of scenery could have made things worse for either player.
Lugo, whose place on the Sox is increasingly uncertain now that he has been relegated to a backup role behind shortstop Nick Green, made his first start of the week on Thursday, going 0-for-3 with a walk. He is hitting .167 with just one double since May 15, dropping his season average to .266 with a .695 OPS, marks that make all the more glaring his poor defense.
Willis, meanwhile, struggled in a fashion that was almost difficult to watch on Thursday. Though he did not allow a hit, Willis (now 1-3 with a 6.84 ERA) was pulled after just 2.1 innings after walking five Sox and hitting a batter.
It is not clear how or whether Willis might have been able to help the Sox, or whether Lugo might have been a boon to the Tigers. But one gets the sense that the best scenario for both players would involve a change of venue.