NEW YORK – “Are we in the lead for the wild card? What’s the deal?”
Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia had just seen his team suffer a devastating defeat that concluded the chaotic final innings of a four-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees. Boston had wasted a brilliant outing from Jon Lester and likewise failed to take advantage of a two-run homer from Victor Martinez that snapped a 31-inning scoreless streak and gave the Sox a 2-1 lead in the eighth.
With two outs in the bottom of the eighth, the Sox saw a game – and potentially, their season – coming apart. The Yankees plated four straight runs, the Sox whiffed on their chance to salvage a single game in New York, and suddenly, Boston was looking at a monumental 6.5 game deficit in the American League East.
And so, after his team suffered a sixth straight defeat, this one by a 5-2 count on its way out of the Bronx (recap), Pedroia asked about the wild card. Yet even that picture had gotten a bit bleaker for the Sox.
The surging Rangers have gone 14-7 since July 19, a span in which the Sox have gone 7-13. Those performances have led Boston and Texas to a common point, tied for first in the wild-card race with identical 62-48 records.
Pedroia was informed of the fact that his team’s lead in that playoff race had been eliminated. He responded with resolve.
“Good, so we’ll start over. We’ve got a new season. Fifty-something games (52, to be exact). We’re excited about it. It’s a good opportunity,” said Pedroia. “We were winning the East, what, a week and a half ago? Anything can happen. We just need to find ways to win. It’s been tough, obviously the last six games, but we’ll grind it out.”
That they must. The Sox are amidst a startling stretch in which the season has rapidly slipped from their collective grasp.
A team that held a five-game lead in the division on June 24, and that owned a three-game advantage over New York as recently as July 17, is now desperately looking for a toehold to keep from falling behind in the wild-card race. On a nightly basis, the team is left with befuddled expressions, trying to figure out what is going wrong and how to fix it.
“When that ball gets rolling downhill, sometimes it’s tough to stop,” said Sox outfielder Jason Bay. “We’ve been on the other side of this where we’ll be the benefactor of a certain play or call, and then all of a sudden we get momentum and we’re winning a ton of games. Right now, we’re on the backside of that.”
In a stark reminder of that fact, Sox manager Terry Francona called a brief team meeting prior to Sunday’s game. Francona typically sees little value in such events, but amid a season-changing skid, he felt compelled to address his team as a whole for a couple minutes.
Francona downplayed its significance.
“It was real quick. There was no throwing stuff. Sometimes it’s important to just talk to our guys,” said Francona. “It was not a big deal. I don’t know that I believe in ranting and raving for the sake of one game. Maybe if it was the last game of the season, but I just wanted to remind guys how we felt about things. It was just all kind of reminders. It was nothing earth shattering.”
Yet for a manager who typically steers clear of such addresses, the meeting represented a concession of the team’s rather urgent state of affairs. It was the first team meeting (or at least the first publicly disclosed one) called by Francona since he did so last Aug. 1, following the July 31 trade involving Manny Ramirez and Jason Bay.
Why call one now? Simply put, the Sox have little time to figure out how to reassert themselves. Though they can look forward to their brief return to Fenway, they are amidst the buzzsaw portion of their schedule. The A.L. Central-leading Tigers will arrive for a four-game series on Monday, after which the Sox must fly to Texas for a potentially enormous three-game series against the Rangers.
The Sox will then travel from Texas to Toronto for a three-game set, followed by a return to Boston for a three-game series against the Yankees and four contests against a still-contending White Sox team.
That means that the Red Sox will play 14 of their next 17 games against teams with records over .500. For a team that is now 0-9 in the second half against such competition, the prospect is a daunting one.
Put simply, the Sox are at a point where they must either reverse course or risk the disintegration of a once-promising season. Boston has lost six in a row (its longest skid since Aug. 25-30, 2006) and 12 of 17, bringing its season to a pivotal moment.
“We’re going to keep on fighting. There’s nothing else you can do but play,” said David Ortiz. “We’ll try to change things around. Everything’s going really bad right now but the next day, we’ll come to the field and turn the page, come back and play.
“Things are gonna change,” he added. “It can’t get any worse, right?”
The fate of the 2009 season may well lie in the answer to that question in the coming few series.
Here are five other lessons from the end of a four-game dismantling:
IF HISTORY IS A GUIDE, THE DIVISION RACE MAY HAVE BEEN DECIDED
Naturally, the Red Sox were not about to concede that they had lost the American League East with 52 games left to play. But history suggests that they might have done just that.
New York is 6.5 games up in the division. That last time that the Yankees blew a division lead of that size was…actually, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Yankees have never lost a division lead of more than six games.
It’s not merely that the Red Sox are amidst their longest losing streak of the season (or, for that matter, their longest since the lost month of August 2006). It is perhaps even more noteworthy that the Yankees are a behemoth.
The Yankees are now a whopping 27 games over .500. If they merely go 25-26 over the rest of the season, they would finish the year with 94 wins. With a 69-42 record, New York is on pace for 101 wins this year. They are dominating in clinical fashion.
The Yankees have now reeled off seven straight wins. That’s impressive in its own right. But it’s far more startling to realize that New York is now amidst its FOURTH separate winning streak of at least seven games this year.
As pathetic as the Sox lineup was, Yankees starters also deserved credit for their excellence. In each of the final three games of the series, Yankees starters A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte threw at least seven shutout innings. It marked the first time the Yankees had three straight regular-season starts of at least seven innings without allowing a run since 1973.
New York’s offense continued its penchant for timely success. The Yankees now have 36 come-from-behind wins this year. That suggests that few leads are safe against a lineup that leads the majors in runs (619), OBP (.359) and slugging (.475), is second in runs per game (5.6) and is on pace for 245 homers.
At the end of games, Mariano Rivera now has converted 28 straight saves. And, of course, the team now has a sturdy bridge to get to the ninth thanks to the emergence of Phil Hughes as a dominating force (1.45 ERA in relief) out of the bullpen.
In other words, while the Yankees haven’t technically clinched the division or a playoff berth, their four-game dissection of the Sox has put them in a fairly secure position to start planning for October. So, too, has the team’s performance overall.
IF THE SOX MAKE THE PLAYOFFS, NO ONE WILL BE CLAMORING TO FACE THEM
It started the day after John Smoltz’ disastrous start. Josh Beckett fired seven shutout innings on Friday, setting in motion the 15-inning marathon that remained scoreless up until the end.
That was followed by Clay Buchholz, who in one of the gutsiest performances of his career, looked like the pitcher who dominated in spring training and Triple-A by allowing just two runs in six innings. Finally, Lester spent most of Sunday looking overpowering. The 25-year-old allowed just one run in seven innings, striking out seven and walking none.
That’s three starts in which the Sox got 20 total innings of work and allowed just three earned runs, good for a 1.35 ERA. Had the offense shown a hint of its normal life, the Sox would have been in position to win each of those three games.
“We’ve done very well against a really good lineup,” said Francona. “We come into a ballpark where guys feel really good about themselves and had gotten to a very manageable point in the game. If we’re swinging it like we feel we can, it’s a lot different mood in the clubhouse.”
What would the Sox have thought if offered such a dominating collective performance prior to the series?
“I’d say we’d win. I feel we have a good offense. We just need to score runs,” said Pedroia. “(The pitchers) have been great. If they continue to do that, we’ll be fine.”
Beckett now has a 1.85 ERA in his last 14 starts dating to May 23. Lester has essentially been his equal, with a 6-2 record and 2.05 ERA in his last 13 starts since the end of May. Both demonstrate not only the ability to dominate, but the ability to dominate great teams.
Lester, in fact, has turned in six straight quality starts against the Yankees dating to the start of the 2008 season. He is 3-0 with a 1.90 ERA against New York in that span, and 2-0 with a 1.52 ERA while pitching in the Bronx.
The fact that Lester and Beckett were joined by a third pitcher (Buchholz) who gave the team a legitimate chance to win offered the Sox at least a sliver or optimism in an otherwise bleak stretch.
“Every start is a build and a climb. You’re trying to keep that going in the right direction,” said Lester. “I think that as a staff, we’re doing that. We just need to keep showing up and pitching well.”
VICTOR MARTINEZ WAS AND IS A DIFFERENCE-MAKING ACQUISITION
The Red Sox are now 2-6 since Victor Martinez joined them in Baltimore on August 1. But that does not mean that he has been anything less than what the Sox hoped for when they acquired him at the July 31 trade deadline.
He has blended seamlessly into the clubhouse, seemed very much in sync with Clay Buchholz while behind the plate on Sunday, and has added some thump to a lineup that desperately needs it.
Martinez, like most of his compatriots, struggled through most of the series against the Yankees. But when his team simply could not find a way to score, it was the trade deadline acquisition who took matters into his own hands.
After falling behind, 1-2, to Phil Coke, Martinez unloaded on a belt-high 93 mph fastball over the middle half of the plate. For a moment, his cloud-scraping shot seemed like it might be the most significant hit of the series for the Red Sox, and perhaps even the season.
The Sox, after all, were edging towards despondency after Lester’s shut-down outing suffered its only hiccup when Alex Rodriguez smashed a solo homer to left center in the top of the seventh. With the Sox lineup doing nothing, even a 1-0 deficit boded ill.
“I figured early on that it was probably going to come down to one pitch between the two of us,” Lester said of his pitcher’s duel with Yankees starter Andy Pettitte. “The way he was throwing the ball really well, locating to both sides of the plate, I figured it was going to be one pitch that was going to hurt one or the other.”
Yet Martinez allowed the Sox to recover from that single mistake. His two-run homer seemed to represent the lifting of an enormous weight from the Sox, who took their first lead since John Smoltz’ disastrous fourth inning on Thursday, in the first of a four-game set.
“I think that Victor really kind of lifted everybody. We had just been kind of stagnant offensively,” said Sox outfielder Jason Bay. “All of a sudden, it was like, ‘That’s the shift. That’s the swing we’ve been waiting for to right the ship.’ I think it was huge. But then it never really mattered.”
Nonetheless, the at-bat highlighted the strong start to Martinez’ Red Sox career. In his first eight games since coming from Cleveland, he is hitting .324 with a .390 OBP, .541 slugging mark, two homers and eight runs batted in. The Sox threw him into the third slot in the batting order, and he has done nothing to suggest that he will shrink from that role.
Though his team continues its offensive sputter, Martinez has offered early suggestions about the kind of impact he can bring in an effort to recharge his new club’s dormant offense.
NOW BATTING FOR THE RED SOX…ATLAS
The steady stream of zeroes seemed unending, running all the way from the first inning on Friday through Martinez’ blast in the eighth inning on Sunday. That homer snapped an unbelievable 31-inning scoreless spell that ranked as the longest by the Sox since 1974. And the Sox hadn’t come particularly close to escaping that rut, as the team was 36 innings into a stretch without a single extra-base hit.
Ordinarily, the Sox preach the need to maintain a simple approach with reasonable ambitions. But as scoreless innings piled atop each other and the Sox showed little hope of snapping their funk, members of the lineup felt like they needed to shoulder an extra burden. That approach, of course, is rarely conducive to achieving the sorts of results that are desired.
“Everybody feels the weight of not scoring enough runs. Everybody wants to be the guy to come up and get that big hit in that situation,” said Bay. “You want it so bad that you’re squeezing the bat handle harder, whether it’s a conscious thing or not.
“When you’re spiraling down, everyone tries too hard,” he added. “It’s like an extra-inning game. Everyone tries to hit a home run. Then, all of a sudden, you’re 15 innings in.”
The Sox were more than twice that deep into their funk. In the series, the team went 3-for-38 (.079) with runners in scoring position. That included an 0-for-17 stretch over the final three games of the series.
“We’re trying too hard. I was. I’m not going to lie about it,” said Pedroia. “I want to score more runs, more than anyone in the world. There’s not a guy in the world that wants to score more runs then the other team than me. It’s tough when you don’t score. We will.”
THE SOX HAVE A SHORTSTOP PROBLEM
The drought ended early for Nick Green. The Red Sox shortstop – who has been pushed back into everyday duty thanks to the trip to the disabled list by Jed Lowrie – lined an Andy Pettitte fastball to right for a single. Later, he nearly took off Pettitte’s head with another liner back through the box, ending an 0-for-19 stretch that dated back two weeks to July 25 against the Orioles.
It has been a terrible run for Green, who also committed four errors in that span. Entering last night, his average had tumbled to .232 with a .302 OBP and .667 OPS.
Prior to that rut, Green had spent most of the year vastly exceeding expectations. The man who arrived in spring training as a non-roster invitee and who seemed destined for Triple-A Pawtucket had become such a useful regular that he made Julio Lugo expendable when Lowrie returned after the All-Star break.
In the first half, Green was hitting a respectable .257 with a .721 OPS. He appeared in 35 straight games without an error.
Now, his performance has tumbled back down from the mountain. The development is not entirely unexpected.
“At the beginning of the season, when Nick came into play, he was making some errors and everyone was wondering how we were going to play him. He made a few errors, threw the ball around the field,” recalled Sox manager Terry Francona. “But we kind of said, quite honestly, we thought he was playing a difficult position and actually, some of the errors he made didn’t cost us.
“Then he went on a run where I think he went about two months without making an error. I might be exaggerating, but I bet it was pretty close. I don’t know how realistic that is either, for anybody, whether it’s Jeter or Nick Green. For us to expect him to come in and hit .330, I don’t think is fair to him.
“So again, I think he’s done a pretty good job. I don’t know that in our best interest, we need to run Nick out there every single day. I don’t know if that’s the best way our team sets up. But I still contend he’s done a pretty damn good job.”
Of course, Green’s struggles are compounded by the fact that Lowrie’s season has been disrupted by his left wrist surgery. With Lowrie hitting just .143 with a .438 OPS prior to landing back on the D.L., it seems fair to wonder whether his will be a lost season.
Sox shortstops entered yesterday hitting just .217 (29th out of 30 big-league teams) with a .294 OBP (25th), .322 slugging (27th) and .616 OPS (26th).
All of that might help to explain why the Red Sox, according to a report in the Boston Globe, made a play for Nationals shortstop Christian Guzman. According to the Globe, the Sox submitted a waiver claim on the shortstop. The report said that it was unclear whether the Red Sox had been awarded the claim (which would require nearly every other team in the majors to have passed on him). If, however, the Sox are awarded the claim, they could either agree on a trade with the Nats to acquire the shortstop; the Nats could simply allow the Sox to claim Guzman and the remainder of a two-year, $16 million deal that runs through 2010; or, if a deal cannot be worked out, the Nationals could pull Guzman off of waivers and keep him.
Guzman, after going 2-for-4 on Sunday to extend his hitting streak to 15 games, is hitting .317. His patience remains non-existent (he has just a .337 OBP), but his .774 OPS would represent a vast improvement.
UPDATE: THE GLOBE HAS SINCE UPDATED ITS REPORT TO SAY THAT THE SOX DID NOT MAKE A CLAIM ON GUZMAN.
Of course, the fact that Julio Lugo has been an offensive force in St. Louis (.346 average, 1.001 OPS) can’t offer much consolation to the Sox.
(Tangentially, it is worth checking out Ed Price’s piece on AOL Fanhouse about Green’s therapeutic-use exemption permitting him to use Adderall.)