Three batters into Thursday’s game, the Red Sox had runners on the corners with one out in the bottom of the first inning, and so Tigers ace Justin Verlander dialed it up. The right-hander reached back to pop fastballs into catcher Gerald Laird’s mitt at 98, 99 and even 100 mph, racking up consecutive strikeouts of Jason Bay and David Ortiz in the process.
Verlander first hit triple digits on his 15th pitch of the game. He would repeat that trick five more times on Thursday afternoon, the last on his 123rd and final pitch of the night, a fastball that he blew by Jason Bay to end the eighth with his eighth strikeout of the game (and third of Bay).
Verlander logged eight shutout innings in a 2-0 victory over the Sox. (Recap.)
He was remarkable. Few starters in recent memory at Fenway Park have featured such an overpowering fastball.
As Jacoby Ellsbury pointed out, Verlander was firing the ball like a top closer for all eight of his innings. Ellsbury punctuated his point by doffing an invisible cap, an acknowledgement of a truly excellent performance. He was not alone in doing so.
"You take pride in being able to defeat good pitchers," said third baseman Mike Lowell. "There are days when I think you have to give that guy credit. You can just chalk it up to he was on his A-game today and we'll move on to the next series tomorrow."
Again, Verlander had amazing stuff. That has also been true of several other pitchers whom the Sox have faced -- and been dominated by -- in recent games.
Nonetheless, there is only so much hat-tipping that a team can do. To reach the playoffs, and certainly to get through them, teams require an ability to score against elite starting pitching.
“You don’t want to use it as an excuse, as a cop-out, and say, ‘Hey, everyday we faced good pitching.’ You’ve got to beat those guys to be a good team,” said Bay. “Right now, they’re just beating us.”
The Sox have been overpowered of late by top-tier starters, doing nothing against the likes of A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Matt Garza. Such offensive struggles against elite pitchers represent a season-long issue, rather than being a byproduct of a recent slump.
The Red Sox have faced 10 starters with ERAs of 3.50 or lower this year. Of the 14 starts turned in by that group against Boston, 13 have resulted in quality starts, the lone exception having come on Monday when the Sox jumped on Tigers starter Edwin Jackson for four runs in four innings.
On the year, the 10 starters in question (Brad Bergeson, Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, Jackson, Jair Jurrgens, Cliff Lee, Kevin Millwood, Johan Santana, Javier Vazquez, Justin Verlander) have a combined 3.00 ERA. Against the Sox, the group has a combined 2.15 ERA.
That suggests that elite starters are having their way against Boston even more than has been the case against the rest of the league. According to Nuggetpalooza master Gary Marbry, the Sox had a middle-of-the-pack .661 OPS against all pitchers with ERAs of 3.50 or lower through Monday, a mark that ranks seventh in the A.L. and 11th in the majors.
Among regulars, the team has been led by Mike Lowell, who is hitting .344/.403/.492/.895 against such pitchers. The team’s shortstops (Nick Green and Jed Lowrie) have struggled the most against that category of pitcher, joined by Ellsbury, Jason Varitek and David Ortiz in that category.
Here are four other things gleaned from the Sox’ lone loss of the four-game series against the Tigers:
ONE TIP OF THE CAP ASIDE, THE SOX FOUND REASON TO FEEL MUCH BETTER ABOUT THEMSELVES
There was a lot for the Sox to herald from their four-game series. Their starting pitching continued its recent excellence, with four straight quality starts allowing the team’s rotation to post a 2.00 ERA over its past seven games. Until Verlander overmatched it, the lineup, too, showed signs of life, led by three homers each from Mike Lowell and Jason Bay.
Perhaps even more important was a returning sense of order following a chaotic road-trip that began on the day of the trading deadline and continued through a six-game losing streak in Tampa Bay and New York.
From July 31 through Aug. 9, the Red Sox had 10 transactions in 10 days. Victor Martinez and Casey Kotchman arrived, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty about playing time. Almost everyone in the Pawtucket bullpen seemed to roll through the Sox clubhouse, many with what seemed like a same-day round-trip ticket.
It was one of the more bizarre periods in recent Red Sox history, something that G.M. Theo Epstein admitted in his visit to the Dale & Holley Show on Thursday. (Listen to the complete interview here.)
“It’s right up there with a few other hectic fortnights we’ve had in the last seven years. It’s been pretty crazy,” said Epstein. “We were going through a stretch there where we had at least one roster move every night, trying to get enough healthy bodies to field a team, playing worse than we normally play at a bad time against the wrong team. Things were getting a little out of control.
“We’re a good team. When things start to go wrong all at the same time, you can get destabilized in a hurry,” he added. “In the American League, there really is no margin for error. Your whole season can be compromised by a few weeks of instability if you’re not careful.”
The Sox seemed to emerge from the madness during their series against the Tigers. The team took three of four games to reclaim a lead (albeit a narrow one of just a half-game) in the wild-card race.
After going 0-9 against teams with winning records to start the second half, the Sox could finally claim some W’s against a team that has a shot at the playoffs. The team did not make a roster move on any of the four days. The bullpen workload achieved some normalcy. The crushing weight of the team’s losing streak lifted. In short, everyone was permitted a chance to breathe.
“What we were looking for and what we found, the way we played these last few games heading out into this road trip now,” said Epstein, “is stability.”
SOME DILEMMAS ABOUT DAVID ORTIZ MAY LOOM
Initially, it appeared that David Ortiz might react to the swirl of controversy following the revelations about his positive test for a performance-enhancing substance by finding sanctuary on the field. On July 30 (the day of the New York Times report) and then again on July 31, he homered as part of a multi-hit game.
Since then, his performance has taken a dramatic turn for the worst. Starting on Aug. 1, Ortiz is hitting .114 with a .204 OBP and .136 slugging mark. He has yet to hit a homer in his 10 starts this month.
As was the case at the start of the year, he has once again looked overmatched by good fastballs. Ortiz was far from alone in that characterization on Thursday. Jason Bay, after all, had been swinging as well as anyone in the majors over the last handful of games, but was simply blown away by Justin Verlander, striking out three times, including twice with a runner on third.
But Ortiz’ tough day -- an 0-for-4 with three strikeouts -- seemed more significant since it highlighted ongoing struggles.
“I thought (his swing) was a little bit long today,” said Sox manager Terry Francona, “and against a guy who’s throwing 100, if you’re not perfect…”
At this point, Ortiz has had one great month (June, when he hit .320 with a .409 OBP and .653 slugging mark with 7 homers), one productive month (July: .247/.306/.539, 7 homers) and two and a half months in which he’s been a detriment to the lineup.
The Sox could afford to live with Ortiz’ struggles in the early months, in part because they needed to see what was in the tank, and in part because they didn’t have a bat capable of replacing him. But that’s no longer the case.
As Mike Lowell pointed out on Tuesday, following the trades for Martinez and Kotchman, the Sox have six players for four positions (Martinez, Lowell, Ortiz, Kotchman, Kevin Youkilis and Varitek for catcher, first base, D.H. and third base). Lowell offered a fairly straightforward approach for assessing how to approach the logjam.
“I don’t know why you wouldn’t want good bats in your lineup,” said Lowell. “I think we’re kind of searching for that offensive lineup that will score runs.”
Perhaps Ortiz will return to his June and pre-2009 form in the coming days, just as Bay recently snapped out of his funk. But given the direction of his season, that is far from a foregone conclusion. If Ortiz does not rebound soon, the Sox will face a dilemma about how to use him going forward. Francona has preached -- and benefited from -- patience throughout his tenure in Boston. It remains to be seen whether a slump by longtime lineup stalwart Ortiz challenges that philosophy.
CLAY BUCHHOLZ AND VICTOR MARTINEZ HAVE QUICKLY ACHIEVED A COMFORT ZONE
Clay Buchholz turned in his best big-league start in over a year. The right-hander delivered seven sharp innings, matching Verlander almost pitch for pitch, and earning immense praise from a Tigers team that said that he looked like a completely different pitcher from the one whom they had seen -- and shelled -- a year ago.
For the second straight outing, Buchholz seemed to execute a game plan that suited his weapons quite well. He attacked with four- and two-seam fastballs to both sides of the plate, and flashed a slider, changeup and curveball that effectively unbalanced Detroit for most of the day. (For more on his performance, see "Dazzling in Defeat, Buchholz Makes Major Strides.")
There has been evident comfort for Buchholz and Martinez. The two have now been paired as batterymates in all three of Buchholz’ starts. The results of the pitcher’s last two outings -- a 2.08 ERA in his two losses -- suggests a fit that Buchholz confirmed.
“We’re on the same page, not having to shake off a whole lot. It makes the game run more smoothly,” Buchholz said a couple days prior to his Thursday start. “He caught one bullpen, saw the spin on my pitches. That was basically it. Whenever he wants me to make a pitch, he lets me know, ‘Hey – make this pitch right here.’ It makes you feel good as a pitcher when you have someone who’s confident in you.
“He caught on really quick. It makes the game a little bit easier from my standpoint if you have a guy behind the plate who knows what he’s doing as far as the count, the pitch, instead of having to sit out there and think, ‘I have to do this or that.’ It just eliminates a few of the variables in the equation. It’s been great so far.”
CHRIS WOODWARD HAD THE SECOND GREATEST FENWAY GAME OF HIS CAREER
There was no denying the beauty of the play. Chris Woodward, acquired last Friday off of waivers from the Mariners, ranged to his right, dove, hopped up to his knees and threw to first. The throw was high and wide of the bag, but Kotchman jumped to spear the ball and slapped a tag on Placido Polanco for the out to end the fifth.
The play was impressive enough. So, too, was the fact that Woodward got hit by a pair of Verlander pitches and survived.
But it wasn’t even close to the most memorable Fenway moment of Woodward’s career. Woodward has 33 homers in his 10-year career, but none are anywhere close to as memorable as the one he hit against the Red Sox on April 21, 2003.
Woodward had the good fortune to step to the plate at about noon. Sox starter John Burkett was enduring a terrible outing, trailing 5-0 in the top of the third. With a runner on first and a 1-1 count, Woodward stepped into the box.
Around the time he did so, the Boston Marathon commenced, an event that was announced by a formation of F-16s that journeyed from Hopkinton to Boston. The jets thundered over Fenway as Burkett delivered his pitch, and continued to offer a resounding soundtrack as Woodward blasted a two-run homer over the Green Monster. It seems almost impossible that another home run will ever be so boldly announced.
“That still goes down as the coolest moment in my career,” said Woodward. “That was kind of surreal. I was getting ready to call time out because I could hear them coming, but Burky was so quick (to the plate). He came set, so I figured I just have to wear it. I hear them right as he’s letting go of the ball. I hit it, and I was screaming, ‘Get up!’ I couldn’t even hear myself screaming as I was rounding first.
“My teammates were all shocked when I got to the dugout. They were like, ‘I can’t believe you just did that.’ That goes down as the coolest thing I’ve ever done in baseball.”