NEW YORK – It is easy to forget that with more than 50 games remaining on the schedule, the Red Sox are still in the driver’s seat to reach the playoffs as a wild card. Of course, that notion is forgettable precisely because the team has done little since the All-Star break to suggest worthiness for the postseason.
For the second straight day, the Red Sox wasted a fine pitching performance on Saturday, suffering a 5-0 loss to a completely dominant CC Sabathia and the Yankees. (Recap here.)
With the heightened scrutiny that typically surrounds series between the Sox and Yankees, it came as little surprise to encounter dire assessments about the state of the Sox. Certainly, the players are aware of the anxiety permeating their home region.
“The bottom line is that everything is blown out of proportion when we play the Yankees. To be honest with you, it’s very tiresome,” said Kevin Youkilis of the Sox. “This is probably the opposite way of a few months ago you were bashing them and now you’re bashing us. It’s going to keep going the same way until the fans and (the media) get over it at some point, I guess.”
Youkilis had a point -- to a degree. By itself, getting smoked by Sabathia would hardly qualify as cause for alarm. Sabathia, after all, received a record-setting, seven-year, $161 million deal this winter for a reason. On Saturday, in a game when he pitched into the sixth before giving up his first of two hits, he offered a reminder of those top-of-the-rotation talents.
“CC was dominant. Obviously, everyone knows how good he is,” said Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. “His fastball, his slider and his changeup -- that’s what he has. He’s dominant with all three of them. He’s tough. That’s why he’s one of the best.”
And so, the Sox were left to begrudgingly salute the opposing pitcher. That said, the defeat spoke to a broader concern for the Sox, namely an inability to match up against contenders.
Even if the Sox do right the proverbial ship and reach the playoffs, they’ve shown little that would suggest that they are better than potential entrants into October. Against American League teams currently in possession of a winning record, the Sox have a 20-25 record this year.
And the only reason why the Sox were that close to break-even against the cream of their league’s crop was because they started the year with eight straight wins against New York. Since the All-Star break, the Sox are 0-8 against teams with winning records (Texas, Tampa Bay, New York) and 8-5 against sub-.500 teams.
The Sox have actually pitched well enough to win against a Yankees lineup that is second in the majors in runs per game. But the offense is forcing a scramble to uncover the sort of history that highlights a deep slump.
The Sox have gone 24 straight innings without scoring a run, their longest shutout streak since 1993. The Sox were last shut out in consecutive games in 2002 (also against the Yankees). It had been more than a year since the Sox -- who mustered just four singles on both Friday and Saturday -- had last failed to record extra-base hits in back-to-back games.
“You go through periods like that. We’re not trying to get out. We’re trying to get hits. Sometimes it doesn’t work out the way we like it to, but we’re going to grind,” said Pedroia. “There’s a lot of heart on this team. Nobody’s going to quit. We’re going to play as hard as we can everyday. I promise you that.”
Certainly, the sort of slump that the Sox are currently in is not uncommon even for the best teams. While the Sox have matched a season-high with a five-game losing streak, the Yankees have also endured a five-game skid at a point earlier this year. Every World Series winner this decade except for one (the 2007 Red Sox) endured at least one five-game hiccup along the way; some suffered through multiple skids of six or even eight games.
Clearly, the Sox remain very much capable of making the playoffs. Even as the division becomes an increasingly distant speck on the horizon (the Sox have never finished in first after trailing by at least five games in August), the team clearly is in need of a sudden and powerful about-face if it is to play meaningful games in October.
Here are four other lessons from a loss in the Bronx:
CLAY BUCHHOLZ PROVED SOMETHING
It seemed like a dramatic mismatch. Former Cy Young winner CC Sabathia, the workhorse of the Yankees’ staff, opposed Clay Buchholz, a pitcher who has searched in vain for big-league consistency ever since he tossed a no-hitter in his second career outing.
But on a day when Sabathia brought no-hit stuff to the table, Buchholz was nearly as good. Even on a day when he couldn’t find the feel for his curveball (a fact made evident when he flipped one behind the head of Alex Rodriguez that managed to clip the bat), the right-hander still featured an outstanding pitch mix.
Buchholz replaced his curve with a tight slider that was reminiscent of the one he used to dominate in Triple-A this year. He also oozed confidence when throwing his two- and four-seam fastballs, generating enough movement on both -- whether down or in on the fists -- to produce a wealth of grounders.
Moreover, he seemed to attack more than in any other start. Buchholz threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 28 batters he faced, including a stretch of 11 straight batters.
“He was pretty much like CC -- strike one, strike two, then he was able to expand the zone a little bit,” said Sox catcher Victor Martinez. “He was making a lot of good pitches.”
The result was Buchholz’ finest start of the year. Buchholz threw six innings, allowing just two runs on six hits against a team (the Yankees) and in a ballpark (Yankee Stadium) that have made football scores the norm this year.
He successfully worked away from the middle of the plate, something that resulted in a high walks total (5) but that resulted in poor contact, most notably in the fact that he got a whopping 11 of his 18 outs on groundballs.
“I threw some good pitches in some quality situations. I either had them off-balance or a couple mis-hits,” said Buchholz. “I felt like I did some little things a lot better than I have been throughout the year. Any other day, either I come out tied or winning. … I wish I could have kept the game where it was it. (The outing) was good for me but not good for the team.”
Even so, in many ways, the outing was good for both the pitcher and his club. For the first time in over a year, Buchholz logged six full innings. And if his pitch mix and confidence in attacking a lineup such as the Yankees proves sustainable, it could help to stabilize a Sox rotation that has been reeling of late.
TARGET PRACTICE IS COMMON WHEN IT COMES TO THESE TEAMS
It was not enough to have a simply pitched game. Because it is the Red Sox and Yankees; and because Joba Chamberlain has thrown at Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay; and because Brad Penny has thrown at Mark Teixeira; and because Mark Melancon has thrown at Dustin Pedroia … well, it doesn’t come as a great surprise that the umpires are on high alert while policing these games.
And so, when Ramon Ramirez came up-and-in en route to walking Mark Teixeira with one out in the seventh, and when Ramirez then drilled Alex Rodriguez in the shoulder with a pitch, home plate umpire Jim Joyce immediately ejected Ramirez.
It was the first time in Ramirez’ career that he had been thrown out, and the situation (a runner on first and one out in a 2-0 game) offered some basis to think that the pitch was unintentional. Still, given the testy history of the clubs, it was not hard to see why Joyce moved swiftly to control the situation.
“It's a tough series. It's tough for everybody. It's tough for the Yankees, it's tough for the Red Sox, it's tough for the umpires,” Joyce told reporters. “In my opinion, I thought that the pitch was intentional. It was very high up on Rodriguez -- too close for comfort for me."
The Yankees endorsed that view.
“Only the individual knows the intent,” said New York manager Joe Girardi. “But we expected something to happen (after the Melancon/Pedroia incident) and I think it happened."
The Sox, on the other hand, were stunned by the quick hook for Ramirez. No one was warming behind the right-hander in the ‘pen, and with a bullpen running on fumes, the team was left to summon Enrique Gonzalez into the game -- a move that was tantamount to a concession.
Ramirez, for his part, steadfastly maintained his innocence. The right-hander, who has been struggling with his command of late (8 walks in his most recent 13 innings before Saturday), said that the ball slipped.
“I’m just trying to get a double play there. It’s the umpire’s decision to make, but I’m not throwing at him at all. I want a double play. It’s a close game,” Ramirez said through translator Alex Ochoa. “I was surprised. I was just trying to go inside, get a double play there. The ball just went up and in. I was pretty surprised.”
Joyce said that he doesn’t anticipate a need for pre-game warnings on Sunday.
DEPTH IS ELUSIVE
With each day, it appears that the Red Sox have more of a seat than a bench. The fact that the team stuck left-hander Casey Kotchman in at first base against Sabathia spoke volumes to the shape of the club.
Jason Bay missed another day (his third straight) due to his hamstring strain. Jed Lowrie landed on the 15-day disabled list with ulnar neuritis in his left wrist. Lowrie is scheduled to fly to Phoenix to visit with Dr. Donald Sheridan, the doctor who performed surgery on his left wrist in April. The Sox are hopeful that Sheridan can reassure that shortstop
“If it isn’t serious, which it hopefully isn’t, then if there’s some pain or some discomfort, he can play not worrying if he’s going to hurt something,” said Francona.
And so the Sox’ bench yesterday consisted of Jason Varitek -- who was probably in a hyperbaric chamber after catching 267 pitches on Friday night/Saturday morning -- Chris Woodward, who had been claimed off of waivers on Friday, and rookie Josh Reddick.
It feels as if the Sox are struggling simply to field a team on a day-to-day basis. That became evident when Terry Francona was asked whether he had considered giving David Ortiz -- a player whom the Sox manager described as “very tired” and “almost spent” -- a day off.
“Who are we going to play?” wondered Francona.
The shape of the pitching staff is little better. With Lowrie on the D.L., the Sox called up Gonzalez from Triple-A Pawtucket, where he had an unsightly 7-10 record and 5.31 ERA. Gonzalez represented a pitcher who could provide the team an emergency long relief option, but hardly represented someone who the team would want in a game.
The Sox are still unsure who will start on Tuesday. Junichi Tazawa, the losing pitcher in his major-league debut on Friday, would appear to be an option, but the club simply isn’t in position to identify a full five-member shape to its rotation.
KEVIN YOUKILIS IS NOT A LEFT FIELDER
Perhaps even more dramatic a comment on the Sox’ body shortage was the presence of Kevin Youkilis in left field. Until Thursday, Youkilis hadn’t started a game as an outfielder since 2006, at a time when the Sox were ravaged by injuries. Now, he’s done it twice in three games.
On Saturday, the results weren’t pretty. A pair of fly balls from Johnny Damon turned into misadventures, one resulting in a two-base error, the second in a double. Both almost surely would have been outs for a player accustomed to the outfield. Youkilis, however, seemed a fish out of water, with poor footwork and bad routes to the ball.
Though aware of his shortcomings at the position, Youkilis bristled when asked about his outfield missteps after the game.
“You were being a little critical, telling me that I took an awkward route to the ball. What do you want me to tell you?” asked Youkilis. “If you want me to tell you that that I took a bad route on the second one, then I’ll tell you that. But I’m not an outfielder, I’m an infielder.
“It doesn’t matter if I go out there and play left field and look like an idiot. It’s about winning ballgames,” he added. “You can use elegant and other awkward routes, but I’m not an outfielder so I can’t tell you. But the first one I missed and the second one the ball just kept carrying and I couldn’t catch up to it.”
Buchholz rendered both gaffes harmless, as he stranded Damon on both occasions. But the consequence of both Bay and Rocco Baldelli being sidelined became very evident, both through the hit to the Sox’ defense and in the shortage of right-handed bats to face Sabathia.