All season long, the baseball world has marveled at the depth of the Red Sox’ pitching staff, extending from the 12-man pitching staff across levels of the minor-league system. The offensive options, on the other hand, have not been nearly as far-reaching.
Before continuing down that trail, it is worth acknowledging that two-hit shutouts – such as the one thrown by A’s starter Brett Anderson against the Sox on Monday – can lead to dramatic and even misguided conclusions. That being the case, it seems worth offering a bit of context to the Red Sox lineup’s recent slump, which continued in a 6-0 home loss to the Athletics on Monday.
The Sox entered Monday having averaged 5.3 runs per game, third most in the majors (though, it is also worth noting, third in the American League East, behind the Yankees and Rays). The team was also third in OBP (.351), fourth in slugging (.447), third in OPS (.798) and fifth in homers (99).
In other words, the team’s offense should not be described as a liability. But that doesn’t mean that it is not vulnerable.
“We’re in a little bit of a rut,” said Sox outfielder Jason Bay. “It’s not going to be there every time where we get 10 runs. You’ve got to give [opponsing pitchers] credit, but I think we definitely can be and need to be a little bit better.”
Of course, A’s starter Brett Anderson was primarily responsible for the continued lineup lethargy on Monday. Sox catcher Jason Varitek suggested that the 21-year-old “absolutely abused us” with a mid- to high-90s fastball and a killer slider in becoming the first pitcher to shut out the Sox since Rays pitcher James Shields did so last April 27.
Even so, third baseman Mike Lowell’s time on the disabled list has underscored the vulnerability of some of the Sox’ offensive components. The team has now scored three or fewer runs in eight of its past 17 games, with the offense dealing with unusual instability, the lineup forced to change almost everyday depending on available personnel.
The Sox have been forced to scramble to plug roster holes, with the team calling up Aaron Bates on Monday because, as Sox manager Terry Francona put it, “we had nobody else” to play first base.
Mark Kotsay is hobbled by a calf injury, and besides, he is primarily an option against right-handed pitching. Jeff Bailey had been the Sox’ first baseman against left-handers, but he suffered a high ankle sprain on Saturday that landed him on the D.L. yesterday.
Ever were they available, though both Bailey and Kotsay are considered solid professional hitters, neither is considered a force. Meanwhile, the minor-league options are even more limited.
Bates was called up because he represented the most mature right-handed hitter among the corner infielders in the system. Bates deserves plenty of credit for the strides he made in adjusting his plate approach this year, something that translated to a .340 average and .910 OPS in Double-A Portland.
But the 25-year-old has struggled to adapt to life in Triple-A Pawtucket, hitting just .182 with a .568 OPS. He represents something of a place-holder meant to help the Sox bridge the gap until the All-Star break.
This lack of depth might be resolved in the second half, when Lowell is scheduled to return and infielder Jed Lowrie should do the same. But coming off of surgeries with little precedent, it is all but impossible to know what to expect from the players in their returns.
The Sox also face questions of whether David Ortiz’ re-emergence since the beginning of June is real or a mirage (most signs point to the former), whether Jason Bay’s June swoon (.230 average, .701 OPS) is short-lived and whether the oft-injured J.D. Drew and Kotsay will be able to remain reasonably healthy.
It is a significant collection of vulnerabilities that suggests a likelihood that the Sox will need more depth than they currently appear to have. The case for the team to acquire a corner bat is growing.
That said, the Sox remain hopeful that this is no more than an almost unavoidable bump in the road that every team hits at a certain point in the season.
“We haven’t gotten a ton of offense. That’s the way the game goes,” said Francona. “We actually love our team. I don’t think you see too many teams win 125, 130 games. It doesn’t always go perfect. You get beat up, you don’t swing the bats, the bullpen gives up some runs. But we just need to fight through it. It’s been a stretch here. We haven’t gotten on track swinging the bat real well.”
Perhaps this is just the normal offensive rhythm of a season. But with just over three weeks remaining until the deadline for non-waiver trades, the Sox may not have the luxury of waiting to find out whether that is the case.
Here are four other things we learned on a night when Nomar Garciaparra enjoyed an emotional – and victorious – return to Fenway Park:
FENWAY PARK IS STILL FRIENDLY FOR GARCIAPARRA
In one sense, Nomar Garciaparra’s box score line was immaterial. The significance of the former Red Sox icon’s return to Boston became apparent even before he saw his first-ever pitch at Fenway while wearing visitor’s grays.
It was the sustained ovation that greeted Garciaparra that will stay with the two-time batting champion for the rest of his life. But Garciaparra also received another reminder in his return, namely, that the nooks and crannies of the ancient yard are a magnet for his hits.
Somehow, after he got his emotions under control following his first at-bat, Garciaparra went 2-for-4 with a pair of singles. In his career, he is a .337 hitter at Fenway, the highest batting average of any active player, and the sixth highest by any player with at least 100 games at the ballpark since 1957.
“I’m glad the ballpark is good to me, still,” said Garciaparra, who served as the A’s designated hitter.
JOHN SMOLTZ IS NOT PERFECT AT FENWAY ANYMORE
Amazingly, in five appearances (three starts) at Fenway Park as a member of the Braves, John Smoltz never gave up an earned run. His 20.1 innings without allowing an earned run were the most by any pitcher at Fenway since 1957.
But the streak did not last. Smoltz kept the Athletics at bay for the first three innings, but the fourth slipped away from him. It was an inning in which the 42-year-old all but abandoned his fastball, employing the pitch for just six of his 23 pitches during the inning.
He could do little to mask his frustration during the inning, barking at himself with any pitch that resulted in a missed location or an unexpected outcome. Even so, Smoltz suggested that – on a night when he allowed five runs and 10 hits, and despite the fact that he is 0-2 after three starts – he witnessed continued steps towards his goal of excellence.
“As mad as I get, I have to make sure to realize that I’m making a lot of progress even though the results don’t look like that,” said Smoltz. “I felt in control, I threw the ball rally well and didn’t have much to show for it.”
Smoltz showed a 91-93 mph fastball, and at different times showed a vast arsenal of off-speed pitches that exhibited varying degrees of effectiveness. He featured a slider, splitter, curve and change.
Smoltz’ catcher believed that the pitcher demonstrated tools that will ultimately translate to success.
“He’s adjusting to a new league, new everything, new shoulder. [He needs] just a little bit of time,” said Jason Varitek. “He’s one of the biggest competitors I’ve ever seen. It’s just time. He’s still building his pitching strength. He’ll be better in a month than he is now…He’s starting to get a feel for all his pitches. It’s just a matter of time. He’ll be good. He’ll be real good.”
DANIEL BARD IS MAKING A HOME FOR HIMSELF
Daniel Bard’s residence had suggested an uncertain existence in Boston. For the roughly two months that he’s been in the majors, he’s been in a hotel, ready to check out at a moment’s notice.
But Bard seems to be making himself more and more at home in the majors, both on and off the field. The 23-year-old is about to move from the hotel into an apartment, a small step of greater permanence.
In recent days, he has even enjoyed the opportunity to have seniority over other Sox rookies, first when Dusty Brown was called up a couple weeks ago, and again on Monday with the arrival from the minors of first baseman Aaron Bates.
“That’s kind of nice to have a guy here who’s newer than you,” said Bard. “Two months here, I’m starting to feel about as comfortable as I can feel as a rookie.”
On the field, he is becoming accustomed to his bullpen role and the fact that his appearances have become something of an event. On Monday, Bard hit triple digits with his fastball while working a scoreless seventh inning, drawing plenty of gasps and cheers.
DUSTIN PEDROIA HAS MORE IMPORTANT THINGS TO WORRY ABOUT THAN BASEBALL
Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia left Fenway Park prior to Monday's game against the Athletics to be with his wife, Kelli, who sought medical attention in an area hospital. Kelli Pedroia is pregnant with the couple's first child, which is due in about seven weeks. Dustin Pedroia was told by manager Terry Francona to stay away from Fenway and spend Monday with his wife.
"He came back [to Fenway] after going over for the checkup," said Francona. "He didn't need to be at the ballpark today. He needed to be with her."
Francona said that he did not know whether the second baseman would be available for Tuesday's game. With Pedroia scratched from the lineup, Julio Lugo was inserted into the lineup as the shortstop and No. 2 hitter, while Nick Green moved from short to second.