For Tim Wakefield and most of the raft of six Red Sox who will head to St. Louis next week, selection for the All-Star game represented validation for a season of excellence. For Dustin Pedroia, the honor came with slightly more complicated emotions.
The reigning American League Most Valuable Player was grateful for his second straight election as an All-Star starter. Even so, there was nearly a hint of apology, and certainly one of modesty, as he accepted the honor.
“It’s great to be voted in by the fans,” Pedroia said. “Obviously, my numbers aren’t as good as some of the other guys, but it’s an honor to be voted in by those guys, so I’ll go out there and play as hard as I can.”
Pedroia entered Sunday’s game with modest numbers across the board. He was hitting .285 with a .365 OBP, .377 OPS and just two homers. All of those marks ranked among the lowest for the position players who will represent the American League. (See chart.)
And so it was that, while Sunday was notable to Wakefield, Jason Bay, Kevin Youkilis, Jonathan Papelbon and Josh Beckett for an honor they received before the game, it was significant for Pedroia based upon what he did during the contest.
In the bottom of the first, the second baseman jumped on a 94 mph fastball from Brandon Morrow, sending a ball screaming over the Wall and off a sign at the back of the Monster Seats. While that blast broke a 124 at-bat streak without a longball, by itself, the round-tripper would not have been a major event.
“It feels like I haven’t felt good up there (more than) one time,” Pedroia said after his team’s 8-4 win over the Mariners (recap). “I’ll have a good at-bat and the next at-bat is not good. But that happens.”
On Sunday, it was different. Pedroia lined a Morrow slider into the left-field corner for a double in the fifth, and then helped set up the game-winning five-run rally in the seventh with a single to left.
It was Pedroia’s American-League leading 12th three-hit game this year, and just his third game of the year with multiple extra-base hits (and his first in a game when he homered).
“To be honest with you, this is the best I’ve swung the bat all year – today,” said Pedroia. “I’m kind of a streaky hitter. When I get going, you guys see what happens. We’ll keep it rolling.”
Indeed, Pedroia was hitting .326 with a .416 OBP and .851 OPS following a huge May before he slumped to marks of .222 / .282 / .569 while batting leadoff in June. During that month, it seemed as if two different things were weighing on him. First, Pedroia admits that his low home run totals crept into his thought process.
“I tried to do too much. That’s human nature. I’m not a home run hitter. I hit 17 last year – hit some up into the wind, hit some in homer-friendly ballparks,” Pedroia demurred. “I’ll hit around 10. I hit home runs on accident. I’m just trying to go up there trying to have a good at-bat.”
But in his new spot in the batting order, he seemed to struggle about whether he could assume his normal attacking style at the plate.
“It seemed like he was trying more to be a (leadoff) hitter, instead of being himself,” said teammate Nick Green. “It seems like he’s a little more comfortable as a two-hole hitter. Sometimes you change what you do in a different spot. He stayed confident, but sometimes you need a change of scenery. Now, he’s swinging at good pitches to hit.”
On Sunday, Pedroia offered a sign that he may be preparing for liftoff on what has been a pattern of scorching summer streaks in his first two big-league seasons. At the least, the three-hit game offered a chance for some of Pedroia’s teammates to reminisce about what he is capable of when comfortable at the plate.
“It was almost otherworldly – three, four hits were the norm when I got here,” said Bay. “He probably hasn’t even played his best baseball yet and he’s still hitting right around .300. Scary.”
Here are four other lessons from Sunday’s contest:
DAVID ORTIZ CAN STILL DO THE CLUTCH THING
It had been a long time since David Ortiz was a force in the late innings.
The Red Sox designated hitter has been fairly Ortiz-ish since the beginning of June. Since the start of last month, he is hitting .303 with a .388 OBP, eight homers and a 1.006 OPS.
Yet even with his uptick in performance, he had done little in the most critical moments of games – the very stage on which his status as one of baseball’s most feared sluggers was founded. He entered Sunday with just a .125 average, .419 OPS and two runs batted in when hitting in late-and-close situations (defined as a situation in the seventh inning or later when his team is leading by one run, tied, or has the tying run at the plate, on the bases, or on deck).
And so it was intriguing to see Ortiz at the dish in perhaps the most important moment of Sunday’s game. With the Sox trailing in the bottom of the seventh, 4-3, and runners on first and second and two outs, Ortiz – who had crushed a homer into the right-field bleachers on a 96 mph Brandon Morrow fastball in the first – came to the plate against Mariners reliever Miguel Batista.
Ortiz went ahead of Batista, 3-0, and then ripped a 94 mph fastball through the shift and into right field for a game-tying single. The Sox went on to plate four more two-out runs against Seattle’s bullpen, but the significance of Ortiz’ smash was apparent.
“We got our staple back in our lineup,” said catcher Jason Varitek. “We don’t take it for granted.”
Ortiz is now 1-for-2 in 3-0 counts this year, and .529 (18-for-34) in his career. The Sox had been hitless on the two occasions when they put 3-0 pitches in play this year, one of five teams without a 3-0 hit.
The last time that Ortiz got a hit in the seventh inning or later on a 3-0 count was on July 13, 2006. Since then, he was 0-for-1 with 34 walks.
“It’s nice to see David feel good about himself, where he feels good enough to commit like that,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “When he feels good enough to (swing 3-0), we’re glad. We want him to, any time you think you are going to get a fastball, especially good major-league hitters, it’s a good time to hit.”
JACOBY ELLSBURY IS GUNNING FOR A SEVEN-TIME MVP
After both Ortiz and Pedroia hit solo homers in the first, the Sox offense went silent against Mariners starter Morrow. The Mariners scored four unanswered runs before Jacoby Ellsbury jumped on a changeup and smoked it over the Seattle bullpen and into the right-field bleachers.
“He’s hitting bombs,” said Pedroia. “He said he’s like Barry Bonds. He’s a speed guy to start, then he’s going to turn into a power hitter.”
Ellsbury pleaded ignorance about the remark, but he made no secret of the fact that he is pleased with his current approach at the plate. The speedy centerfielder – who also took a bases-loaded walk in the seventh that pushed across what ultimately proved the game-winning run – believes that he is now identifying good pitches to hit and attacking them.
“When I’m aggressive, I’m a better hitter,” said Ellsbury. “Everyone wants me to walk, but when they’re throwing me strikes, I can’t walk, so I’ve got to be aggressive in the zone.
“When you swing at good pitches, you get good results,” he added. “When you’re too patient, too relaxed, they just get up in the count on you and you have to battle from there. That’s when you have weak groundballs in play and your at-bat is a lot tougher than it should be.”
Ellsbury now leads the Sox with a .303 average. More tellingly about the way in which he is driving the ball, his slugging mark has gone up in every month of the season, from .351 in April to .383 in May, .488 in June and now .563 in July.
JON LESTER IS BUILT TO LAST
Jon Lester threw 122 pitches on Sunday, the most he’s logged in a regular-season game since the 130 he accumulated against the Royals during his no-hitter last May. And so it seemed fair to wonder: how did pitch 122 (which Ken Griffey Jr. took for a walk) feel?
“I felt fine – like I did the first pitch, I guess,” said Lester. “That’s a testament to the work we put in every five days in between starts to go out and perform. You don’t want to get to that mark and all of a sudden have your stuff fall off…It’s nice to be able to carry my stuff throughout the game.
“It’s hard to miss (the pitch count). Every time you turn around, it’s in big white letters in centerfield,” he said. “I knew I was up there. I knew I had a lot of pitches. I was still trying to execute the pitch.”
Though Lester earned a no-decision, by and large, he was able to execute throughout the day. Though he gave up eight hits and four runs, just one was earned (an error by Pedroia sustained an inning for Ronny Cedeno to bloop a two-out, three-run triple down the right-field line). He featured a swing-and-miss fastball (regularly registering 97 mph), curve and cutter, and for the most part, overmatched Seattle hitters.
Lester lasted 6.2 innings, allowing one earned run. He has now allowed three or fewer earned runs in each of his last seven starts, going 4-1 with a 1.74 ERA in that span. He also punched out nine on Sunday, and his 123 first-half strikeouts are the most by any Sox left-hander prior to the All-Star break since at least 1954.
The 25-year-old entered the year with questions about what kind of toll his enormous workload in 2008 might have taken. To this point, there is little evidence of any kind of limitation. Lester felt strong enough to pitch even past the 122 pitches that he threw on Sunday, but is also aware that there was benefit to stopping when he did.
“I don’t need an extra out right now,” he said. “I need an extra out in October.”
THIS LINEUP WILL NOT BE SETTLED ANYTIME SOON
On Wednesday, Jason Bay hit cleanup and David Ortiz was the No. 5 hitter. On Friday, Ortiz and Bay flip-flopped. On Saturday, Ortiz sat against a left-handed starter. On Sunday, the Sox once again had Ortiz hitting cleanup and Bay behind him.
Francona believes that consistency of a lineup typically is of some benefit to the players. That said, the Sox are in a period where that goal will be difficult to achieve.
With Mike Lowell on the disabled list and Kevin Youkilis having crossed the diamond from first to third, the Sox have been mixing and matching with role players Jeff Bailey and Mark Kotsay. Coupled with some recent games in which Ortiz has sat against lefties, the Sox are in a period of some slight lineup unrest.
The phenomenon can be exaggerated. Ortiz and Bay are shuttling between two adjacent spots in the batting order. All the same, the Sox are enduring a period in which they actually have to take a peek at the lineup card to determine where they are hitting on any given day.
“If you can get some sort of consistency, I think the players appreciate that. I do think it makes it easier for them,” said Francona. “I think there are times when you just can’t do that…I don’t think that until we get Lowell back after the break that we’re going to be able to have the same lineup everyday. We’re playing Kotsay, Bailey, Baldelli. You’re trying to mix rest and production.”
Yet the problem is likely to become increasingly complex in the short term. First baseman/outfielder Bailey seems likely to land on the 15-day disabled list due to a high ankle sprain that had him wearing an inflatable cast on his left foot after Sunday’s game.
Bailey said that doctors told him it would be roughly a couple of weeks before he would be ready to play again. The timing was particularly unfortunate for Bailey since he would have been likely to start on Monday and Tuesday against a pair of Athletics southpaws.
Kotsay, meanwhile, is dealing with lingering discomfort in his right calf, an injury that first hampered him while he was trying to rehab from back surgery. Kotsay is hoping to play through the issue.
Lowell is slated to start hitting off a tee on Monday.