Red Sox manager Terry Francona waited as long as he could. But in the end, there was little choice.
The Sox were 18-7 in the 25 games since they had shuffled the lineup and installed Dustin Pedroia in the leadoff spot while putting J.D. Drew behind him in the second spot. But that team success had come largely despite Pedroia’s struggles in the role: he had played in 24 of those games, hitting .214 with a .264 OBP and .565 OPS as the leadoff man.
The Sox could endure that sort of struggle while other members of the lineup were clicking. But as offensive futility spread like a virus up and down the lineup in recent days – the Sox having scored three or fewer runs in six of their prior 10 games entering Monday – a move seemed timely.
And so, Francona moved Pedroia down to the second hole that he occupied for most of his 2008 American League MVP season. Drew, meanwhile, moved up to the top spot in the order.
The results were almost instantaneous. Drew led off Monday’s 4-0 win against the Orioles (recap) with a triple (just the seventh extra-base hit to lead off a game for the Sox this year), and then scooted home when Pedroia singled back up the middle. Later, Drew capped the scoring by launching a two-run homer to right-center in the fourth. For the night, he had three hits while scoring two runs and driving in a pair. It was one of the most productive night’s by a Sox leadoff hitter this year.
So what was the secret to Drew’s success in that role on Monday? Apparently, it was ignorance.
“Honestly, I had no idea I was (hitting leadoff),” Drew said on the Post-Game Show after the victory. “I was walking off the field from batting practice. (Third-base coach DeMarlo Hale) said, ‘Hey – you’re swinging the bat good, like a good leadoff hitter.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘You’re hitting leadoff.’ I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. I had no idea.’
“I very seldom look up there,” Drew admitted. “I’ve been in the two-hole quite a bit here lately. Really, I don’t know where I’m at until game time most of the time.”
Pedroia, on the other hand, seemed both aware and relieved by his return to his most familiar lineup spot.
"I think I've been trying to do too much, and it backfires, especially when you have a lot of energy," Pedroia told reporters. "When you hit leadoff, you want to get on base so bad. And I'm a little bit of a hacker."
For a night, at least, the top of the Red Sox lineup seemed very much at home. That development served as the backdrop as four other lessons were digested on Monday:
JON LESTER IS A BALTIMORE-SLAYING BEAST
Jon Lester’s recent run verges on the ridiculous.
The 25-year-old tossed seven shutout innings on Monday against the Orioles in which he allowed just five hits (all singles) and no walks while striking out eight. The outing reflected continued excellence, as Lester has allowed one or no runs in five of his last eight outings.
In six starts since May 31, he is now 4-1 with a 1.80 ERA. He is leading the majors in the past 30 days with 52 strikeouts (most in the majors) in just 40 innings. He has been, in a word, overpowering. The Orioles clearly had little idea what to do against him, with their lineup taking some of the ugliest swings imaginable against the pitcher, particularly while flailing at a nasty curve.
Of course, that is nothing new for the Orioles, who have seen Lester at his best. Lester improved to an astonishing 8-0 with a 2.18 ERA in his career against Baltimore. Only three other active pitchers in the majors are undefeated with that many victories against a single club in their active careers:
Randy Johnson is 13-0 against the Cubs
Roy Halladay is 8-0 against the Twins
Jason Schmidt is 8-0 against the Marlins
HISTORY MOTIVATES JONATHAN PAPELBON
Jonathan Papelbon had not even pitched a big-league inning before members of the Red Sox recognized that he had a chance to distinguish himself. Minor-league pitching coach Al Nipper encouraged Papelbon to believe that he could break Roger Clemens’ franchise records.
Perhaps because of those sorts of conversations, the right-hander arrived in the majors and, prior to his first appearance on July 31, 2005, gave teammates the impression that he was not about to shy from any challenge.
"(Papelbon) came in (the clubhouse) and I asked, 'Are you scared?' He said, 'Hell, no.' That's when I thought, 'Okay, we might have something,'" former Sox pitcher David Wells once recalled of Papelbon’s first appearance. "He has a chance to be a (bleeping) superstar."
Less than four years later, Papelbon has fulfilled that expectation. He is a three-time All-Star, has the lowest career ERA (1.85) of any pitcher in baseball history since the end of World War I (minimum 200 innings) and has been a singular force at the end of games.
On Monday, Papelbon was summoned to preserve a 4-0 lead with two on and two out. As he had 131 times before, Papelbon closed out the win, getting a pop-up to shallow left from Orioles catcher Matt Wieters on which outfielder Jason Bay made a game-ending diving catch.
Papelbon’s 132nd career save tied him with Bob Stanley for the most in franchise history. With the same brashness that greeted his journey through the Sox’ minor-league system and then his entry into the majors, the 28-year-old closer pronounced the accomplishment a starting point for the fulfillment of his goals.
“It’s the beginning of my career to try to be something great,” Papelbon told reporters. “(The Red Sox saves record is) something I thought about last offseason, and hopefully it’s something when I’m done with my career it’ll be one milestone I was able to accomplish. Obviously I want to go for a lot more.”
THE SOX OFFENSE IS STRUGGLING
When four runs represent an outburst, then something is clearly amiss with a team’s offense.
Even so, the broader view for the Red Sox lineup is fairly promising. On the year, the Sox are averaging 5.2 runs per game, fourth most in baseball (though, notably, third in the A.L. East). The team is averaging 5.1 runs per game in June, fourth best in the majors.
But it’s almost puzzling that the team has been able to achieve that sort of success. While he was atop the lineup, Pedroia was merely one of several members of the club to struggle.
Of the regular lineup, six members (Jason Bay, Jason Varitek, Nick Green, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Lowell) have averages worse than .250. Four (Bay, Green, Lowell, Pedroia) have OBPs of .308 or less.
All of that suggests that the coming couple of weeks will be significant for evaluating the Sox’ offense. While the team has a remarkable degree of pitching depth, the same cannot be said for its lineup.
Lowell is out at least until Friday while recovering after fluid was drained from his right hip and he received an injection to ease the discomfort in that area. There is a chance that he will land on the disabled list, and it remains fair to wonder what kind of production he might offer over the duration of a season in which he is still recovering from surgery.
Jed Lowrie, who might have represented an option to play third base in Lowell’s absence, remains slowed in his minor-league rehab. Following a surgery without known precedent among baseball players, it remains to be seen what kind of offensive performer he might be down the stretch. Meanwhile, the Sox lack minor-league infielders in the upper levels who can provide reliable thump.
As such, even though the team continues to win, it may be compelled to make a deal for a bat in July, particularly if the team’s recent offensive struggles become more pronounced.
J.D. DREW CAN’T HIT FOR THE CYCLE…BUT HE HAS A SENSE OF HUMOR ABOUT IT
Entering Monday, Drew had come within one hit of the cycle on 15 different occasions in his career. He’d missed the cycle by a double four times, a triple nine times and a homer on two occasions.
So, when Drew dug in at the plate in the eighth inning armed with a single, triple and homer, he had little doubt about what he wanted to do.
“There's not a player alive that wouldn't know that situation,” Drew told reporters. “I was just going to hit the ball and run straight to second, right through the middle of the infield, if I had to."
Instead, Drew grounded out against reliever Chris Ray. And so his brother Stephen Drew, who hit for the cycle last Sept. 1, remains in possession of familial bragging rights.
More importantly to the Sox, however, is the fact that Drew continues to reach base. He now has a .433 OBP in June, fourth best in the American League among hitters with at least 50 plate appearances.