Suddenly, the Red Sox stood in position to claim a huge win that could change the shape of the playoff race. Just one run down in the eighth inning against the Rangers, in a game that would determine who left the Ballpark in Arlington with the lead in the wild-card race, the Sox were mounting their uprising.
Mike Lowell delivered a one-out single, then reached second when Casey Kotchman walked. Nick Green came on as a pinch-runner for the painfully slow Lowell, and the Sox seemed very much in business: the tying run stood 180 feet from home, and the go-ahead run was just behind him on the bags.
The Sox would have two shots to tie the game or even push ahead. But the Sox’ fate was place squarely in the hands of two players – Brian Anderson and Alex Gonzalez – who had been members of the roster for less than 24 hours.
The pitcher was Rangers left-hander C.J. Wilson. Sox manager Terry Francona had suggested earlier in the weekend that outfielder Anderson would be a useful piece against southpaws. But nothing in his major-league career to date has suggested as much.
Anderson’s career numbers against lefties (.206 average, .277 OBP, .644 OPS) are worse than they are against righties (.239, .295, .658). The same has held true this year, with Anderson turning in terrible numbers against lefties (.175/.299/.579) and righties (.267/.333/.669).
Gonzalez, acquired on Friday in a trade with the Reds, is hitting .206 with a .254 OBP and .545 OPS in 2009. He’s hitting .222 with a .236 OBP and .496 OPS against lefties this year, and his career suggests he’s equally (in fact, almost freakishly identically) incompetent at the plate against pitchers regardless of their handedness.
Anderson went down looking at a fastball that clipped the inside corner. Gonzalez similarly stood watching when a curve snuck over the outside corner. The threat was over, the Sox went on to suffer a 4-3 loss (recap), in the process slipping a half-game behind the Rangers in the wild-card standings. For the first time since April 21, the Sox awake today on the outside looking in at the playoff hunt, and perhaps wondering how on earth Anderson and Gonzalez were the men at the plate in the most crucial situation of the game.
But the Sox, quite simply, had no options thanks to a unique collection of events that has raided their depth and left them without adequate late-game options.
Green was the team’s only infielder on the bench. He could enter the game either as a pinch-runner for Lowell – who requires two hits to score from second – or as a pinch-hitter in place of Gonzalez. (Even if a pitcher ran for Lowell, the Sox would need to use Green as a defensive replacement at third. Effectively, there was no way to run for Lowell and hit for Gonzalez.)
Aside from Green, the only other bench option was Jason Varitek. But the Sox desperately try to give the catcher his rest on his off-days, and his recent struggles (.118 average, .231 OBP, .378 OPS) don’t exactly smack of a player who represents a great pinch-hitting option.
Kevin Youkilis was serving the last game of his five-game suspension on Sunday. J.D. Drew is out until the middle of the week with his sore groin. Rocco Baldelli (foot) and Jed Lowrie (wrist) are both on the D.L.
(The impact of part-timer Baldelli’s absence has been overlooked, but should not be, since he is a force against left-handers. If healthy, he, and not Anderson, would have gotten the at-bat against Wilson.)
At a time of year when the attrition of the season tests a team’s depth like no other, the Sox have found themselves scrambling for bodies. On Sunday, that scramble played a major role in the fact that the Sox are now looking up in the wild-card race.
The Sox went 2-3 without Youkilis, scoring 21 runs in the five games without him (4.2 per game). Clearly, they will need him back, and they will also need reinforcements to give them the options needed to reassert themselves in the playoff race.
Here are four other things we learned on a day when the Sox’ record dropped to 17-15 in one-run games:
THE ROAD HAS BEEN CRUEL TO THE SOX
The Red Sox could be forgiven if they sat in the dugout in Texas daydreaming of the Green Monster. The team’s performance outside of Fenway Park has been singularly dreadful, particularly since the start of the second half.
The Sox are now 5-13 on the road in the second half, and have a 1-5 record in series while living out of suitcases since the All-Star break (the lone victory a three-game sweep in Baltimore, the team’s unofficial home away from home). The Sox have a seemingly poor 28-33 road record, though it is worth qualifying that suggestion.
First, only two teams in the American League (the Yankees and Angels) have winning road records. Secondly, the Sox have, at times, this year, looked like a team capable of winning on the road, especially when they closed the first half by taking four straight road series in Washington, Atlanta, Philadelphia and then Baltimore.
Moreover, road struggles are not uncommon among even elite teams. The 2008 Rays won 97 regular-season games and reached the World Series despite a 40-41 record outside of Tampa Bay. The 2006 Cardinals won the World Series in a year when they were 13 games under .500 on the road. The 2003 Marlins lost five more road games than they won en route to a World Series.
Even so, the path to October becomes no easier without strong performances on the road. The Sox would appear in desperate need of either improving dramatically upon their road performance or playing nearly flawlessly at home.
“Ultimately, to be taken seriously, and to get where we want to be, we’re going to have to play better on the road,” Jason Bay said before the start of the series.
That need, apparently, remains as the Sox prepare for a series in Toronto.
JUNICHI TAZAWA CAN COMPETE WITHOUT HIS BEST STUFF…BUT WINNING IS ANOTHER STORY
Junichi Tazawa threw 97 pitches, and got swings and misses on just three of them (two fastballs, one split). He lacked the power on his pitches that he had in his first big-league start, as his fastball registered mostly at 87-89 mph and topped out on a few occasions at 90 mph.
More often than not, the pitch seemed an invitation to hard contact. Of the 10 hits that Tazawa allowed in five-plus innings, nine were on fastballs, including the homers by both Ian Kinsler and Taylor Teagarden.
“I don’t think he had his best fastball,” Francona told reporters.
Tazawa did not strike out a single batter. With his fastball lacking the finish that was present on Tuesday against the Tigers, the separation in velocity between that pitch and his off-speed offerings diminished, making it easier to foul off pitches rather than swing through them.
Even so, Tazawa managed to limit the damage, keeping the Sox within a rally of tying the game. Over his two starts, he has now held opposing hitters to two hits – both singles – in 12 at-bats (.167 average) with runners in scoring position.
It remains to be seen whether Tazawa gets another start. Tim Wakefield’s arm responded well to his minor-league rehab start on Saturday, but Francona told the media before the game that the 43-year-old continues to walk with a limp. Questions exist about whether he might be able to field his position despite ongoing weakness in his leg.
DUSTIN PEDROIA IS HITTING THE BALL WITH AUTHORITY
Through July 31, Dustin Pedroia had five homers in 483 at-bats. After going deep in the seventh inning on Sunday, he now has five longballs in 58 at-bats in August.
Even though Pedroia is hitting just .259 this month, he is drawing his walks (nine, helping him to a .368 OBP) and driving the ball. Eight of Pedroia’s 15 hits this month (53 percent) have been for extra bases.
A year ago, Pedroia entered August with a .451 slugging mark, but bumped that mark up to .585 over the final two months of the season en route to the American League MVP. If his power numbers follow a similar trajectory over the final months of this season, the Sox obviously would be thrilled.
THE RED SOX HAVE NOT MISSED NEGOTIATING WITH SCOTT BORAS
The baseball world is watching with considerable fascination as the negotiations between the Washington Nationals and pitcher Stephen Strasburg (represented by Scott Boras) near their conclusion. The two sides have until the clock strikes midnight and the day turns from Aug. 17 to Aug. 18 to determine whether Strasburg will begin his professional career or trust that his otherworldly talents – a triple-digit fastball and knee-buckling curve – will be able to glean more money in next year’s draft.
But the Red Sox have been in the rather enviable position of being able to watch with detachment while working to secure most of the top impact players whom they selected. The Sox did not select a single Boras client this year. And so, the team has negotiated methodically to lock up a number of the players whom it thinks can make a substantial difference.
In recent days, the Sox have come to terms on, and in some cases finalized, agreements with a number of intriguing prep talents. Among them:
--3rd-round pick David Renfroe (signed for $1.4 million), a pitcher and shortstop who earned some comparisons to David Wright; he will be groomed as a position player with the Sox
--7th-round pick Madison Younginer (signed for $975,000), a right-handed pitcher with a fastball that touches the high-90s and a slider that made his high-school opponents weep
--10th-round pick Brandon Jacobs (signed for $750,000), a powerful running back and outfielder who has what Sox amateur scouting director Jason McLeod describes as “goofy power”
--11th-round pick Justin Thompson (signed for $300,000), a shortstop who can also play second and third and shows a solid all-around game
--18th-round pick Renny Parthemore (signed for $150,000) is a right-handed power arm who shows the potential for an above average fastball and curve
--26th-round pick Miles Head (signed for roughly $325,000) is a corner infielder who showed significant power in several high school showcase events
When the smoke clears on Aug. 18, the Sox will have added a number of young players (mostly high schoolers) whom they hope will one day make an impact at the major-league level. That impact, clearly, is coming at some cost, though clearly nothing like what the Nationals are spending – in time, money and sanity – with Strasburg and Boras.