The development was one that the Red Sox could seemingly ill afford.
Kevin Youkilis’ teammates understood why their cleanup hitter charged the mound on Tuesday, even as they understood that his bull rush, tossed helmet and attempted takedown of Tigers pitcher Rick Porcello would result in punishment. The verdict came down swiftly.
On Wednesday, Youkilis learned that he had been assessed a five-game penalty by Major League Baseball. The player and team accepted the ruling, with Youkilis forgoing the opportunity to appeal and instead commencing his sentence on Wednesday.
The absence of Youkilis offered every possible reason for disaster. He is now in his second straight season as one of the elite hitters in the American League. This year, Youkilis ranks second in the American League with a .424 OBP, fourth with a .564 slugging mark and second with his 1.088 OPS. He has been scorching of late, hitting .411 with a .515 OBP, 1.140 OPS and three homers in his last 15 games.
“I don’t know that there’s a good time not to have him,” said Sox manager Terry Francona before the game. “We can outthink ourselves. There’s never a good time to lose a good player.”
While there may never be a good time for the Sox to be without an MVP candidate, the sting of his absence can be lessened if his teammates assume some of the load that he normally manages. And that is precisely what happened in Wednesday’s 8-2 win over the Tigers at Fenway. (Recap.)
After scoring just two runs in 33 innings, the team continued to show that it is designed to be something other than entirely dependent on one hitter. In the three games since returning to Fenway, the Sox have scored, in succession, six, seven and now eight runs, the last total being the most impressive considering the absence of Youkilis.
That output has occurred in no small measure due to the continued production of Mike Lowell and the sudden about-face by Jason Bay. Lowell went 3-for-4 with a homer (his third in two games) and two singles, including an enormous infield single with two outs in the fifth that scored the first of five two-out runs en route to his team’s 8-2 victory over the Tigers.
Lowell is now hitting .393 with four homers and 18 RBIs in 18 games since coming off the disabled list. With Youkilis out of the lineup for five games, Lowell will occupy third base on a daily basis for the Sox. If he can sustain his outstanding second-half production, it will help to diminish the sting of his teammate’s suspension.
So, too, would the resurgence of Bay. On Thursday, Bay went deep for the fourth time in his last five games (and 24th time this year) on a night when he went 3-for-3 with a pair of doubles and two walks. He looked very much like the hitter who, along with Youkilis, helped to carry the Sox for the early months of the season.
“Mikey Lowell, with some intermittent starts, has really swung the bat well. Jason Bay looks like he’s trying to get hot again, and that’s very welcome,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “When Jason gets hot, as you can see, it’s not just singles. He starts driving the ball all over the ballpark and boy, what a different team we look like. Then you get both of them, it’s part of the reason we won (Wednesday). It’s good to see.”
Lowell, Bay, Victor Martinez, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and J.D. Drew have all produced at All-Star levels at some point in recent seasons. If just a couple of them prove capable of performing to that standard over the coming few days, the absence of Youkilis will be far less acute.
Here are four other lessons from the Sox’ cleanest win in quite some time:
JOSH BECKETT IS A FORCE OF A HORSE
Perhaps the best way to explain the dominance of Josh Beckett is to suggest that his line on Wednesday – seven innings, two runs, three hits, six strikeouts – was somewhere between routine and slightly below average compared to performances in recent weeks and even months.
Beckett (14-4, 3.10) gave up just three hits, the fifth time this year that he has allowed no more than three hits while lasting seven or more innings, the most such starts by a major leaguer this year. A fifth-inning homer by Carlos Guillen snapped an 18-inning scoreless innings streak, as well as a startling 47.2 inning run without allowing a longball.
Beckett has become a pitcher whose day on the mound has become an expected win for the Sox, and with good reason. Following Wednesday’s victory, he leads the majors with 14 W’s, and he has been all but unstoppable for the past few months.
“You go out there and expect to win,” Bay said of watching Beckett pitch. “It’s definitely not a slight to anybody else, but there are those days when Josh pitches and you really feel like you have a chance. Sometimes it might only take one run.
“That’s the way he’s been going. Save two, maybe three, starts early on, he’s been unbelievable. It’s a blast to play behind Cy Young stuff. Every team needs that guy – that stopper, that ace. Right now, he’s that.”
Beckett remained undefeated at home, his ERA remaining at 2.58 at Fenway. The fact that he gave up any earned runs at all in his start came as something of an aberration, since he has held his opponents scoreless in eight of his last 15 starts. In his last 10 starts, he has gone seven or more innings nine times, going 7-1 with a 1.93 ERA in that time.
He seems tireless on the mound. The 97 pitches he threw on Wednesday seemed to require little laboring through the end. He more or less sailed through his seven innings, a stage of the game to which Beckett has routinely pitched. He has now thrown at least seven frames in nine of his last 10 outings.
“That’s big for me. I look at that as part of being one of the starters. I think that everybody should look at that and try to do that,” said Beckett. “It’s part of being a starter. You’re supposed to eat up innings. Even on days when maybe you don’t have the greatest line but you get through seven or even you get through six on your bad days, that’s big for the bullpen. The healthier those guys are in September, the more likely they are to be successful.”
Of course, Beckett himself looks primed to remain healthy through September. One year after a succession of injuries prevented him from achieving sustained consistency in 2008, he is on a pace for a career-high in innings. At a time of year when pitchers typically sputter, the dominant fastball/curve/change combination is coming out of his hand almost effortlessly. He is on pace for roughly 220 innings this year (a mark that would represent a career high), and does not seem to be laboring at all in the process.
“I think me feeling stronger that I was last year at this point is probably an understatement. The process is what’s putting it there, being able to do my work in between starts and prepare myself to be successful,” said Beckett. “I think the process is what’s making me successful right now and I just want to continue that.”
THE AL CENTRAL STINKS
The Tigers sit in first place with a thoroughly mediocre 59-54 record. That would be good for fourth place in the American League East, and tie them for third in the American League West.
The A.L. East has an 84-51 (.622) record against the Central, compared to a 53-72 record (.424) against the A.L. West.
The A.L. West has winning records against both the East (72-53; .576) and Central (63-56; .529).
Granted, it’s been a slightly unfair moment to evaluate the Tigers (and to use them as a symbol for a division’s futility). Detroit lost Miguel Cabrera in the second inning on Tuesday. The ejection of Rick Porcello in the second inning on Tuesday and the illness of Armando Galarraga on Wednesday left the Tigers scrambling to find innings.
Even so, a talent evaluator who is assigned to the A.L. Central described it as unquestionably a down year for the division. Clearly, whomever emerges from that division will have endured a very different challenge in order to get to the postseason.
HOME SWEET (DECEIVING?) HOME
It was this very week that the Red Sox appeared to be playing their worst baseball of the year. The team had lost six straight games and was sinking like a stone in the standings.
That, however, was before the return to Fenway Park made that 0-6 run against the Rays and then the Yankees feel like a distant memory. Now, with three straight wins at Fenway, the Sox are once again resting in an increasingly comfortable place in the wild-card race.
Of course, the dramatic reversal is almost unsurprising. The Sox are now 38-17 (.691) at home, and 27-31 (.466) on the road. The team averages an American League-best 5.7 runs per game at Fenway, a vast improvement over its pedestrian mark of 4.6 runs per game on the road (seventh in the A.L.).
“Home is always huge for us. Regardless of who we’re playing, we play well here. Especially coming off that roadtrip, the last six games of it,” said Bay. “We put that behind us, come out and win these three games. Whether it was going somewhere else on the road or coming here, I think getting out of (New York) would have probably been the No. 1 thing on everyone’s mind.”
THE JOHN SMOLTZ ERA IN BOSTON IS OVER
Right-hander John Smoltz, who signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal with numerous incentives to pitch for the Red Sox, informed the club that he would not accept a minor-league assignment with the goal of preparing to pitch out of the bullpen. And so, with the 42-year-old designated for assignment on Friday, his Red Sox career is now over. The Sox have until Sunday to either trade the pitcher of put him on release waivers.
The conclusion of the Smoltz era represents an unmistakable disappointment for the Red Sox. The team was convinced, when watching him work out this winter, that he had enough left in the tank to become an effective contributor at the major-league level.
Instead, Smoltz got battered following his late-June callup to Boston. Indeed, his futility owns a special place in Red Sox annals. Smoltz’ 8.32 ERA is the second worst of all time by a member of the Sox (minimum: 30 innings), besting only John Leister’s 8.50 ERA in 1987-1990.
It remains to be seen whether that horrific performance serves as the awkward coda to Smoltz’ Hall of Fame career. But, regardless of his next step, his Red Sox career will be recalled with little nostalgia.