You can feel July 31 approaching in the Red Sox clubhouse.
It is a force that tends to occupy corners and swirl through conversations. What will happen? Who will remain in a Boston uni by Friday night? What new teammates might be coming through the door?
“There's a lot of uncertainty this week. Part of what makes Boston so special -- we seem to be a player in everything," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said on Monday afternoon. "We have great fans, we have great ownership. We have a lot of money than more teams to spend, so good for us. Now saying that, on the other side, for about one week out of the year, it creates a lot of uncertainty in players. There's really no way to get around it until it's over. This has generally been a tough week for us since I've been here.”
This year had been no different. The Sox entered Monday with a woeful 3-6 record since the All-Star break, prompting admissions of disappointment in the clubhouse. The sputtering offense was unacceptable, according to Jason Bay. The team was failing to take advantage of teams it should be beating, suggested Mike Lowell.
The poor second-half play led most of the focus in the Sox’ universe to what the team needed to acquire. There was no shortage of clamor.
With John Smoltz struggling, Clay Buchholz unproven and both Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield on the D.L, the Sox needed another ace – a Roy Halladay, or perhaps a Cliff Lee. With the lineup doing nothing, the Sox needed a bat – back up the truck for Adrian Gonzalez or Victor Martinez. Attention was locked on team shortcomings.
And so it no doubt came as some relief to the Sox to play a game that emphasized team strengths rather than failures. For a night, with an 8-3 win over the A’s, the Sox could remind themselves of why they have the foundation of a contender.
There was Josh Beckett, an ace plowing through the Oakland lineup while amassing 10 strikeouts and improving to 7-0 with a 2.58 ERA at Fenway. There was the bullpen, slapping two more zeroes on the scoreboard to extend its run to 24 straight shutout innings. And there, once again, was the offense, as the Sox tallied 14 hits, including at least one by all nine starters.
“We’ll take runs any way we can get them, but when it’s spread around it gives you more opportunities,” said Francona. “We had chances in a lot of innings, even innings we didn’t really cash in we still had chances. Keep at it, it’s a good way to play.”
Some of it was pure luck, such as Jed Lowrie – after seeing almost every line drive he’s hit in the past nine days get caught – fisting a blooper down the left-field line for two runs.
“Baseball gods,” said Jacoby Ellsbury.
But a lot of it was skill, and a reminder that for all the discussions of the Sox’ limitations in recent days, the team still has a lot of parts that justify visions of contention and that – in all likelihood – will play a larger role in determining whether the team reaches the playoffs than anyone acquired between now and Friday.
“I don’t think the trade on July 31st is always the answer,” said Lowell. “I think everyone kind of gets hyped up because it’s the trade deadline. More often than not, it doesn’t really pan out as this franchise-changing move. We’ll see.”
Here are a few other lessons from the Sox’ win:
JOSH BECKETT IS A HORSE WHO IS DIFFICULT TO REIN IN
Through five innings, it seemed that Josh Beckett might be able to go the distance. He was relentless in pouring strikes into the zone, and needed just 53 pitches to get through the first five shutout innings. Already armed with three complete games and two shutouts on the year, Beckett seemed ready to add on.
It didn’t happen. He gave up single runs in both the sixth and seventh innings, then permitted a leadoff triple in the eighth before giving way to the bullpen. It was just another outing for Beckett. Of course, the fact that his final line – seven innings, three runs, 10 strikeouts – could be classified as routine speaks volumes about his performance in the last three months.
He has now gone at least six innings in 15 straight starts since May 5, going 9-2 with a 2.33 ERA in that span. The last Sox starter with a longer streak of starts of at least six innings was Pedro Martinez, who had an 18-game run in 2004.
Perhaps most noteworthy on Monday was Beckett’s participation in the eighth. After the Sox scored two runs in the bottom of the seventh to extend their lead to 8-2, the team was ready to pull the starter from the game. But Beckett was quick out of the blocks, and so hustled out of the dugout for the start of the eighth before Francona could catch him.
“I really didn’t want him to go back out and he beat me to the punch,” said Francona. “He ran out of the dugout so quick that I think he knew what was coming.”
“I got out there pretty quick,” confirmed Beckett. “If (Francona) is going to tell me that, he probably needs to come down there a little earlier.”
Beckett, now tied for the major-league lead with a dozen wins, is currently on pace to log 225 innings, which would obliterate his previous career high of 204.2, set in 2006.
DANIEL BARD IS UNTOUCHABLE
Daniel Bard is making a compelling case that he should be untouchable in the trade market. That case is built upon the fact that he has been all but untouchable on the mound.
The right-hander came on in relief of starter Josh Beckett last night and once again demonstrated electrifying stuff. He allowed an infield hit in an inning of work, striking out a pair of batters in the process. His fastball exploded through the strike zone at 98-100 mph and his slider broke like a Frisbee.
It’s become an almost routine performance for the 24-year-old. Bard has struck out 16.6 strikeouts per nine innings in July – just under two batters an inning.
He ranks second in the majors to Michael Wuertz of the Athletics in strikeouts per nine innings this month, and is currently amidst a streak of nine straight scoreless outings that have spanned 11.1 innings.
“I’m not trying to strike guys out. I try to induce contact early in the count. That gets me ahead in the count. Then, once you’re ahead 0-2 or 1-2, you throw a pitch for a strike,” Bard explained. “I really wasn’t a strikeout pitcher in college. Then my first year as a starter in pro ball was terrible. I was nowhere near a strikeout an inning.
“It was really when I was converted to the bullpen at the beginning of last year that I started striking guys out at a higher rate. A lot of it is probably attributable to guys not having seen me before. But whatever it is, it’s been two years.”
Perhaps even more notable is the fact that Bard hasn’t walked a single batter in his current run. Moreover, his current 11.1 inning scoreless streak has featured just three hits.
Already, his relief appearances have become events. Bard’s ability to register 100 mph fastballs on the Fenway scoreboard provokes plenty of enthusiastic reactions from the crowd. Yet while catcher Jason Varitek admits to catching glimpses of the triple-digit readings on the scoreboard, he suggests that it is even more relevant to take stock of a sufficient separation between the pitcher’s fastball and slider.
It would be a mistake to assume that his current run is an indicator that he won’t endure future bumps in the road. As catcher Jason Varitek said, “He’s still developing. He’s still learning.”
Even so, what is becoming apparent is that Bard, when locked in, can overpower opponents in rare fashion. He is currently averaging 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings, a mark that would rank 12th all-time among rookies.
SOMETIMES, JACOBY ELLSBURY PEEKS AT THE STOLEN BASE RACE
He can’t help himself. Jacoby Ellsbury admits that there are times when he takes a peek to check on the gap between himself and Rays outfielder Carl Crawford in stolen base rankings.
“How’s he doing?” Ellsbury inquired.
Ellsbury entered last night just three steals behind Crawford, with the Tampa Bay star clinging to a 47-44 lead. That represents a significant narrowing of the gap, since Crawford was up, 36-23, as recently as June 12. Clearly, Ellsbury has been running amok in recent weeks, stealing 21 bags (in 22 attempts) over his last 34 games.
It is noteworthy that Ellsbury seems to be gaining steam on the bases rather than losing it. In his first full major-league season in 2008, Ellsbury had 34 steals in his first 65 games of the season, but tailed off with 16 steals in his final 80 contests.
Perhaps even more relevant, however, is the outfielder’s ability to sustain his overall offensive approach, rather than simply his base-stealing. On Monday, Ellsbury went 3-for-5 with a triple, and he now has four straight multi-hit games, going 9-for-18 with four extra-base hits in the stretch.
“He’s swinging very well. He’s squaring up some balls,” said manager Terry Francona. “He’s taking a lot of good swings.”
His offensive line in July (.274/.308/.411) is relatively modest, and his season totals (.297/.343/.403) are only slightly better. Nonetheless, Ellsbury looks very much like a player who is getting stronger as the season progresses.
“Last year being my first full season, no matter what you do to prepare for it, you don’t know what your body is going to feel. Experience is the best teacher,” said Ellsbury. “I just tried to take what I learned last year and applied it to this year, to play as close to 100 percent as possible for a full year.”
IT TAKES MORE THAN THREE DAYS TO MAKE MIKE LOWELL FREAK OUT
Adam LaRoche has taken little time making himself comfortable in Fenway Park. After popping a ball just over the Wall in his Sox debut on Saturday, he seemed pleasantly surprised on Monday when he flicked an opposite-field pop-up that clanged off the Green Monster for a double.
The newly arrived first baseman is now 5-for-12 (.467) with two doubles and a homer as a member of the Sox. He has started each of the last three games.
Even so, his playing time has had to come at the expense of the Red Sox’ corner infield incumbents. On Saturday, Kevin Youkilis seemed slightly miffed by a day off. On Sunday and Monday, Youkilis was back in the lineup but playing third base rather than his customary first, with Mike Lowell sitting out each of the two games.
“Rather than just try to make a lineup out to appease personalities, I'd rather just play who I think can help us win tonight,” explained manager Terry Francona, who cited the effectiveness of Oakland starter Trevor Cahill against right-handed hitters (.701 OPS, compared to .982 OPS against lefties) as a factor in the decision.
While it might be natural to wonder if Lowell is antsy about his playing time following the deal for LaRoche last Thursday, he cautioned that it might be premature to obsess about the playing time situation.
“It has been three days,” said Lowell. “The world’s not coming to an end.”
To the contrary, Lowell had already anticipated that he would get more rest with the trade for LaRoche. That was, after all, one of the stated reasons for the deal - to give him more time off in keeping with the plan that was hatched while Lowell was on the disabled list due to soreness in his right hip at the start of July. The idea is to limit the demands on Lowell to allow him to be a more effective player.
On that front, Lowell seemed satisfied. He said that he feels “great…really good,” and that he is pleased with how his hip is responding to the time on the sidelines. So, too, is Lowell satisfied with his results when in the lineup. He’s played six of the team’s 10 second-half games, hitting .381 with a .458 OBP and .935 OPS.
That is not to say he is without concern. Lowell did express dismay about the performance of his club, which is now 3-6 in the second half while averaging just 2.8 runs per game.
“I’m much more concerned with playing teams that I feel like we should be playing against much better than they are. That’s not a one-man thing. I think that’s a 25-man thing,” said Lowell. “If we keep playing like this, there’s going to be major changes in the lineup. We’ve got to start swinging the bats, and we’ve got to start scoring runs.
“Winning determines who plays. We’ve got to win games. It’s simple,” he added. “If we’re not winning games, whether it’s from one aspect or another, we have to find the combination that does. I think we’re all on the same page on that.”