BALTIMORE – It was a weekend of introductions and debuts for the Red Sox, whose activity surrounding the trading deadline was as furious as any team’s in baseball. When the dust settled following an explosive 18-10 victory to complete a three-game sweep over the Orioles (recap), the Sox emerged as a team that appeared stronger for both the short-term and the future.
The signature event of the weekend, of course, was the arrival of Victor Martinez. The unofficial captain of the Indians was emotional after his trade from Cleveland on Friday, finding it difficult to fathom leaving the only franchise for which he had ever played.
But by Saturday, when he was greeted by a standing ovation from the Red Sox throng that invaded Camden Yards over the weekend, he seemed ready to embrace his new club. Suddenly, spared from the wreckage of a lost Indians season, Martinez was reinvigorated by the chase of a ring.
“What I felt (Saturday), it was something special for me. I’m really looking forward to going to Boston,” said Martinez. “It’s not the same when you’re playing and you fall way back i n the standings like we were. Just come over here to a team that’s competing and competing every year, that’s what makes you go out there and play your best.”
Martinez did just that on Sunday. He matched a career high with five hits (in six at-bats), an accomplishment that he had achieved twice before in his career, most recently while helping to spoil George Steinbrenner’s birthday on July 4, 2006, against the Yankees.
The addition of Martinez, coupled with a lineup that is suddenly enjoying a revival from season-long staples such as Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis and Mike Lowell, has suddenly changed the complexion of the Sox offense. An offense that appeared to be hemorrhaging outs suddenly looks like it won’t give opposing pitchers a chance to catch their breaths thanks to the arrival of a player who was immediately placed into the third spot in the batting order.
“Boy, he swung the bat great. Immediate impact,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “I think you’re seeing one of the better hitters in the league, with some renewed excitement. He’s nervous, and hopefully, because of that, maybe we’ll see the best of him. His swings have been phenomenal.
“One hitter can make a lot of difference,” he continued. “He’s a switch hitter. I know we’ve had our struggles offensively. We like our hitters. But this will certainly help our lineup.”
Yet in some respects, Martinez’ Red Sox debut may not be the most significant one for the team this weekend. The arrival of Josh Reddick, who was called up from Double-A Portland on Friday, has perhaps even greater long-term implications for the club.
In his first career start on Saturday, Reddick collected a pair of doubles and a walk, and offering a glimpse of the progress he's made as a hitter this year. On Sunday, Reddick notched his first career long ball during a day of impressive at-bats. Leading off the top of the third, he fouled off three straight 2-2 pitches before going with a 93 mph fastball over the outer half of the plate. Reddick put an easy swing on the ball, and it jumped off his bat, sneaking over the low fence in left-center for a homer.
“It’s very exciting,” said Reddick. “I had a feeling they were going to try to pitch me away just from having pulled the ball so much (on Saturday). I got lucky – he gave me a fastball on the outer third and just stepped to it and put it that way.”
He also lined to first, singled, and had deep fly-outs to right, left and center. The two starts served as a showcase for his unusual ability to square the ball with impressive backspin, a staple of his 54 homers in just 282 minor-league games (an average of 31 homers per 162 games).
“He did about everything. He squared up about six balls. He had a bloody nose (an apparent reaction to the heat and humidity of Baltimore). I think you can see why guys in the organization have kind of raved about what he can do,” said Francona. “He’s got some thunder in his bat. He’s got a real quick bat.
“Kind of the cool thing from where we are is, you see a kid come up from Double-A and the atmosphere is bringing out the best of him. Obviously, he’s nervous. But you’re seeing that excitement translate as some good at-bats and playing good as opposed to going in a shell and playing safe. He’s helped us win a couple games.”
Despite the excellent performance over the weekend, Reddick still has more development in front of him in the minors. He has made major strides in an overall plate approach that has seen him develop his plate discipline significantly this year. Further seasoning in Triple-A will help him to solidify that approach. The Sox don’t want to risk those gains by pushing him too quickly.
But in the future, the Sox view Reddick as a player with above-average power, an above-average arm (he has 41 assists in his relatively brief minor-league career) who plays above-average defense. He looks, in short, like a player with the skill set to become a starter for the Red Sox.
In another organization, in fact, Reddick might already be knocking on the door of a starting job in the majors, or at least making a case to take over a starting job in 2010 (particularly given the potential free-agent status of Jason Bay). The Sox, however, are likely to proceed at a slightly more deliberate pace.
Presuming that he continues along his current developmental track in the Sox system, he seems more likely to become integrated into the major-league roster in the second-half of next season, with the potential to assume a starting role either by late 2010 or the start of the 2011 season. Even so, that status represents something of a coup for the Sox’ scouting and player development system.
Reddick recalls being scouted by only two teams (the Sox and the Angels) at Middle Georgia College. The Sox, on the recommendation of area scout Rob English and cross-checker Mike Rickard, took him in the 17th round of the 2006 draft, and signed him for what now seems the extremely modest sum of $140,000.
Now, he looms as the Sox’ position playing prospect who is closest to a starting role in the majors. Given his strong first impression and the fact that he is on the 40-man roster, he will almost surely spend September in the majors and, depending on a series of factors, has at least a chance to sneak onto the postseason roster.
For now, however, he is merely trying to make a positive first impression. He has certainly accomplished that.
Here are four other lessons from the Sox’ biggest offensive outburst since an 18-run, 23-hit performance against the Twins last July 8:
KEVIN YOUKILIS IS NO TED WILLIAMS…BUT HE’S NOT A BAD ALTERNATIVE
In his first at-bat of the three-game series in Baltimore, Kevin Youkilis flied to right. In his last trip to the plate, he struck out swinging against Cla Meredith.
And in between?
Youkilis reached base in 13 consecutive plate appearances, collecting eight singles, two homers and three walks.
“Is that a major league record?” wondered Mike Lowell.
Lowell could be forgiven his curiosity, but remarkably, Youkilis set neither a major-league or even a Red Sox record, since Ted Williams holds both of those milestones after having reached base in 16 straight plate appearances in 1957.
However, Williams did so mostly through his willingness not to put the ball in play. He got six hits, walked nine times and, for good measure, was plunked by a pitch. Youkilis, on the other hand, pounced on strikes and did consistent damage.
“I understand if they walk you eight straight times. But I think at one point he was 9-for-10 or something, that’s pretty crazy,” said Lowell. “He’s swinging a great bat, with power and using the whole field. Combine his bat with the day Victor had today and the middle of our lineup, we’re going to have a lot of guys who have the ability to change the course of a game with a swing. I think we have a lot of power and RBI guys.”
REST SUITS MIKE LOWELL
The Sox have now played in 15 second-half games; Mike Lowell has been a participant in 10 of them. He has typically made back-to-back starts, followed by one or two days of rest.
Ordinarily, one might expect to see a player grimace about newcomers whose arrival was intended to diminish the need to keep putting a mainstay in the lineup. But Lowell, after finishing the first half of the season on the disabled list, sees the broader picture. As his first half concluded not just with an injury but also with a sharp dip in production, the veteran sees the benefit of having regular days off, something that becomes much easier to implement with good lineup alternatives.
“Rest is a double-edged sword. I understand with my hip situation, I’m OK with it,” said Lowell. “That was the plan after I got the injections. I prefer not playing 59 in a row like I did the first two months…Keeping guys fresh, winning ballgames, that’s a pretty good cure for everything.”
Part of the reason why the Sox commenced their mid-year roster overhaul in July was in an effort to give Lowell and others – including Jason Varitek, David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis – enough rest to keep them productive. With the additions of Adam LaRoche, Victor Martinez and Casey Kotchman (who replaced LaRoche) – all of whom can play first – and the diamond-crossing versatility of Kevin Youkilis, the Sox have the flexibility to rest Lowell without creating a lineup void.
When in the lineup, meanwhile, Lowell has produced. He went 3-for-5 with a double and drove in three runs on Sunday, giving him a .415 average and 1.057 OPS with a dozen runs batted in since the start of the second half.
“He’s a good player. Again, I think our responsibility, our goal, is to make everybody have (the roster additions) help, not hinder,” said Francona. There has to be some cooperation. I agree that he has done a good job. He’s done a great job. On the days he hasn’t played, rather than sit around and complain, he’s trying to help us win, which is what everybody is doing.”
THINGS CAN GET UGLY FOR CLAY BUCHHOLZ IN A HURRY
Throughout his career, Clay Buchholz has almost always had the devastating curveball and changeup in his pocket. But his fastball has been a slightly different beast altogether, as the pitcher has struggled at times to command the pitch. When he has lost the ability to locate the pitch, he has been prone to big innings.
Sunday was no different. A mess of a six-run third inning occurred when Buchholz’ fastball either lost the plate entirely or found too much of it.
Each of the five hits (two singles, two doubles and a homer) he allowed in the inning came on fastballs that registered anywhere from 92-95 mph, and in the one-out walk that started the spiral, three of the four balls came on his heater. The problem was not with the quality of the stuff but instead the execution of it.
“Rocky start. I’ve had them before. You’ve just got to learn how to get them out of your head and move on to the next one,” said Buchholz. “It’s just the location of the pitches. If I locate the fastball, throw the fastball over the plate where I want it, it will be an out.
“When you’re not throwing it exactly where you want to throw it, the confidence starts going away from it. You want to stay away from it until you have to throw it. There were a couple of counts where I was behind in the count and had to throw a fastball, and they either hit it or it was a ball from trying to be a little too perfect with it.”
Martinez, catching the pitcher for the first time (a partnership made possible by the fact that the Sox refused to include Buchholz in any of the permutations involving a deal for the catcher), observed a slight mechanical issue that helped to explain the struggle.
“The only thing I saw was that he was a little too quick with his front shoulder, it was flying open a little bit. That was pretty much it,” said Martinez. “He was doing that and he was throwing all his pitches up in the zone. It’s hard to pitch on this level when you throw those pitches high in the zone. The ball was coming out of his hand pretty good. It was just little things.”
Buchholz saw his ERA spike from 3.52 all the way to 6.05. His start-to-start inconsistency attests to a larger overall problem for the Sox.
The Sox currently rank third in the American League with a 4.12 ERA, though since the All-Star break, that mark has drifted up to 4.40, eighth in the league. The team has received quality starts in just five of its 16 second-half starts: two apiece from Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, and one from Brad Penny. Inconsistency has been a hallmark for Buchholz (6.05 ERA), Penny (7.16 in the second half) and Smoltz (9.18 since the break).
With Tim Wakefield’s timetable for returning still an open question, the motives underlying the Sox’ trade explorations of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez become clear.
“We were involved in some talks that could have led to some pretty good starting pitchers becoming available, but it didn’t turn out that way, and I don’t think we’re going to see much impactful starting pitching move in August,” said Sox G.M. Theo Epstein on the day of the deadlin. “We like our pitching staff, and our run prevention’s been pretty good.
“We have to do a better job than we’ve been doing lately, but you’re always looking for an impact starting pitcher if you can find one, especially this time of year, but it didn’t come to pass. We have a lot of pitching and I like our run prevention generally.”
For that to remain the case, the team will need to find something more than what it has received behind Beckett and Lester.
“We gave up a lot of runs today. We’re not going to score 16 or 18 every game. Our pitching has got to be strong from here on out. If our pitching is strong, we’ll have enough offense,” said Youkilis. “It’s all about winning series now. If we win series, we’ll be fine. We’re going to do it through our pitching.”
THE SOX ROSTER WILL REMAIN IN FLUX FOR A FEW DAYS
Make no mistake – all things being equal, the Sox would like to return to a seven-man bullpen. But because of the groin injury to Drew, coupled with a desire to give Jason Bay an off-day on Sunday (something that became even more necessary when he left Saturday’s game due to a hamstring cramp) the Sox were forced to bring up Reddick and risk being short-handed in the bullpen for a couple of days.
With Drew having left in the first inning of Sunday’s game due to the persistence of an injury that sidelined him for the first two days of the series, it remains to be seen whether he is available for the start of the coming two-game set in Tampa. Drew is hopeful that Monday’s off-day will permit him a chance to recover, but the Sox will likely have little choice but to carry an extra outfielder as a hedge.
“I’m hoping it will be fine,” Francona said of Drew. “We’ll take inventory.”
In the short-term, that means that the Sox will also have to take regular inventory of their pitching staff. On Sunday, for instance, the Sox were staying away from both Hideki Okajima and Daniel Bard, both of whom have endured heavy second-half workloads.
Hence, there was some anxiety as to whether there would be enough arms on deck to make it through the game once Buchholz got bounced in the early innings. Going forward, with the Sox scheduled to play 13 straight days following Monday’s off-day, the team recognizes that it likely will become necessary to add a 12th pitcher to the staff in the coming days.
“When you have an 11-man staff, you have to be open to flexibility. Because if we have a rough night, you’ve got to be ready to make a move,” said Francona. “I don’t think that any of us think that we can be at an 11-man staff for a long time. Hopefully we can make it.”