It wasn’t exactly a bolt from the blue for J.D. Drew. The Red Sox right-fielder had 12-career multi-homer games before he repeated the feat on Thursday against the Blue Jays.
And so, perhaps, Drew can be forgiven if he didn’t exactly seem effusive on his way out of the clubhouse following the culmination of a three-game sweep in Toronto, the finale by an 8-1 count (recap). His comments about the accomplishment were matter-of-fact, confirming that it was no great shock to go deep a couple of times in a game.
“Today was just one of those good nights where my swing felt well and I was able to hit a couple of balls out of the park,” Drew told reporters.
The shock was less that Drew went deep twice than it was where he resided in the lineup when he did so. Drew was inserted into the eighth spot in the batting order, a reflection of a Sox lineup that suddenly looked stacked.
Thursday marked just the third time since 2004 that the Sox had a multi-homer game from a hitter in the No. 8 spot in the lineup. Catchers Jason Varitek (5/20/09) and Doug Mirabelli (4/21/04) were the last two to accomplish the feat.
A shorthand depiction of Thursday’s lineup:
1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF – He is growing into the role of leadoff hitter quite comfortably, and is not hitting .300 with a .347 OBP and 53 steals. He is showing that he is capable of driving the ball – as when he tripled against Roy Halladay on Wednesday – and using his legs, as he did when dropping a bunt single on Thursday.
2. Dustin Pedroia, 2B – Reigning American League MVP, and new proud parent, he’s made the adjustment to pitchers’ handle with care strategy with a solid line (.295/.371/.437/.808) that represents above average contributions from both a No. 2 hitter and a second baseman.
3. Victor Martinez, C – Hitting .324 with a .398 OBP, .581 slugging, .979 OPS and five homers in 17 games since the Red Sox acquired him from the Indians on July 31.
4. Kevin Youkilis, 1B – Second in the A.L. in OBP (.421) and OPS (.975), tied for fifth in slugging (.554). Simply one of the best hitters in the majors since the start of 2008.
5. Jason Bay, LF – The average dropped like an anchor to its current point (.256), but he has rediscovered his power stroke in August, and is tied for the A.L. lead in homers (7) this month. One of 10 players with at least 25 homers in five of the last six years.
6. David Ortiz, DH – In a tumultuous season in which he has been inconsistent, Ortiz remains a power threat. Since June 6, his 18 homers are the second most in the A.L.
7. Mike Lowell, 3B – Though his hip has been an impediment in the field and on the bases, it has not affected him in the batter’s box. He is hitting .297 with an .832 OPS and 14 homers. Since the All-Star break, he is hitting .345/.960 with 19 RBIs in 24 games.
8. Drew, RF – When on the field, there can be few questions about his talent. Even in an inconsistent year, he is getting on base and delivering above-average production (.375 OBP, .844 OPS, 15 homers). “We really are a different team when he’s healthy,” manager Terry Francona told the Boston Herald.
9. Alex Gonzalez, SS – Expected to be a non-factor in the lineup, he is hitting .263/.263/.316/.579 in five games with the Sox.
It would be premature to examine the Sox’ eight run outburst against the Blue Jays and rookie starter Brett Cecil – or even the three-game sweep against Toronto that featured runs totals of 10, 6, 8 – and anoint the Sox one of the game’s best offenses. Nonetheless, the potential clearly exists for the team to rank among the top offenses going forward this year.
The best indicator of that possibility came when the team knocked Roy Halladay – usually an unmovable force on the mound – from Wednesday’s game after five innings. It is a lineup that should have the components to produce against any pitcher in baseball.
That proposition, of course, will be tested in the coming weekend series between the Red Sox and Yankees. The Sox will face Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia in the next three games at Fenway, the same trio of starters who allowed a combined 11 hits in 22.1 shutout innings during the Yankees’ four-game sweep in New York earlier this month.
When the Yankees dispatched the Sox, the offense was in a state of near crisis. The team endured a 31-inning stretch without a run, and finished by going hitless in 17 at-bats with runners in scoring position. Now, the team arrives in its rematch against the Yankees emboldened, with a lineup that is as impressive as it has been at any point this year.
Here are four other lessons from the Sox’ farewell to the city of Toronto in 2009:
WHEN OTHER PITCHERS WILT, JON LESTER GROWS MORE POWERFUL
It is a stage of the season when a dip in velocity and a decline in stuff is natural. Young pitchers, especially, can often endure dead-arm periods when their fastball looses some of its finish.
Jon Lester, on the other hand, is now in his second straight year in which he has seemingly sustained – or even increased – his power as the year progressed. It was around this time last year that Lester began popping fastballs that registered around 96 and 97 mph for the first time in his major-league career.
In 2008, the young left-hander made a joke of suggestions that a huge jump in innings would wear him down. This year, he is showing that he is capable of sustaining a load across seasons, without any evident impact from the 237 regular-season and postseason innings he logged a year ago.
On Thursday, Lester looked vulnerable against the Jays in the early stages of the game. The first three batters of the game went singled, double, walk, and suddenly Lester was pitching with the bases loaded and no outs. The lefty escaped, allowing just one run on a double-play grounder by Rod Barajas and a strikeout of Kevin Millar on a 96 mph fastball.
That was impressive enough, but Lester – after appearing on the ropes early – became truly dominant. He lasted through eight innings, allowing just one hit and one walk the rest of the way, and his 105th and final pitch of the night was a 96 mph fastball that clipped the corner for a strikeout of Travis Snider. At that stage, Lester barely appeared to be sweating.
“He’s a strong young man who seems to get stronger as the year goes,” manager Terry Francona told reporters.
In 15 starts since May 31, Lester now has a 2.12 ERA, the best in the American League in that span.
THE CATCHING CONUNDRUM NOW SEEMS VERY DIFFERENT
For years, the notion of Jason Varitek being unable to play due to injury seemed like the basis for panic. The Sox simply didn’t have a viable alternative as an everyday option to the Boston captain.
That was most dramatically apparent in the 2006 season, when the Sox went into the toilet during a period when Varitek was out following knee surgery. A number of factors went into the team’s collapse, of course, but the scramble for a replacement catcher surely did the Sox no favors.
Now, the scenario is different. The arrival of Victor Martinez at the trade deadline has given the team a pair of catchers with impressive resumes. And so, the fact that Varitek was sidelined for all three games of the Toronto series due to a stiff neck did not seem like cause for derailment.
“Obviously, Jason is the captain of this team. Victor was the captain of the team he came from. He also has great leadership skills. It’s a great luxury to have,” said bullpen coach and Sox catching instructor Gary Tuck earlier this month. “No other team can boast that. No other team in baseball has two All-Star catchers, two switch-hitting catchers and two catchers that are not only highly skilled but highly intelligent. It’s quite a luxury for us to have.”
Even so, there were some questions about whether Martinez could work with starters Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, who have relied heavily on Varitek throughout their Sox careers, without missing a beat. Those questions became all the more dramatic after Beckett allowed seven runs in 5.1 innings on Tuesday, when Martinez was a late replacement behind the plate for Varitek.
But on Thursday, though Lester shook off Martinez more than he typically would Varitek, he worked efficiently, maintained his rhythm on the mound, and was dominant over his eight-inning, one-run outing.
Clearly, there is a learning process for both Martinez and the Sox pitchers. But Lester’s success – coupled with the increasingly effective pairing of Martinez and Clay Buchholz – suggests that Martinez, the primary catcher for CC Sabathia in his 2007 Cy Young campaign, is an entirely viable alternative.
(One point of clarification: 2008 Cy Young winner worked primarily with Kelly Shoppach; Martinez caught just five of his starts.)
“Comfortability is huge for Lester or Beckett,” said Tuck. “They’re both real comfortable with Jason, as everybody else is. They’ll get comfortable with Victor, too. It’s just a matter of time.
“This catcher is obviously different and special being a multi-year All-Star catcher and a major-league veteran,” added Tuck. “It makes the transition much easier because of his intelligence level and experience. Yes, he has to learn personalities. He has to learn pitch selection and pitchers’ stuff. It’s almost like catching someone – as he’s done many times – in an All-Star Game. He’s accustomed to doing that. He’s advanced. There will be some bumps in the road, but it won’t be that big a deal for him.”
And, of course, if the dropoff in Martinez’ work behind the plate is slight, the Sox may well offset that decline with a bump in offense. The Sox are averaging 6.3 runs per game in Martinez’ nine games as a starting catcher. In those games, Martinez is hitting .395 with two homers.
SOMETIMES, THE BEST-LAID PLANS ARE NO MATCH FOR LUCK
Branch Rickey famously described luck as the residue of design. Yet in some instances, baseball luck is the byproduct of pure serendipity, and has nothing to do planning. The Red Sox’ offensive outburst during their three-game sweep in Toronto offered a case in point.
David Ortiz was scheduled to sit on Tuesday against left-hander Ricky Romero. But Jason Varitek’s stiff neck forced him out of the lineup, and so a series of dominoes clattered: Victor Martinez caught instead of playing first; Kevin Youkilis played first instead of third; Mike Lowell played third instead of serving as the designated hitter; and, finally, David Ortiz filled the consequent vacancy as the D.H.
The result? Ortiz hit a two-run double and a homer, walked twice and scored three runs in the Sox’ 10-9 victory.
“It shows you what I know,” Francona sheepishly told reporters. “I didn’t have him in there.”
If they had a full complement of players – most notably, if Rocco Baldelli had not been on the disabled list – J.D. Drew would likely have been out of the lineup on Thursday against Jays southpaw Brett Cecil.
Drew often sits against lefties, and he entered Thursday hitting .221/.343/.349/.692 with two homers against southpaws. Baldelli was acquired this offseason specifically because he can mash against lefties, thus serving as a good platoon complement to the Sox’ regular right-fielder.
But Baldelli was on the D.L. for the last day with a foot contusion, and so Drew was back in the lineup. He ended up hitting two homers against left-handed pitching in the same game for the first time in his career, and enjoyed his first career four-hit, two-homer game.
The Sox likely didn’t care whether luck or design was more responsible for Drew’s presence in the lineup, given the end result.
NOW, HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE COMES INTO PLAY
With their three-game sweep against the Blue Jays, the Sox improved to 31-33 on the road. That .484 road winning percentage, of course, pales in comparison to the team’s .679 mark at Fenway.
For the Sox, then, it no doubt comes as good news that they have more home games remaining this year than any other team in the American League. The Sox have played 56 games in Boston, with 25 remaining. They have just 17 road games left this year.
By contrast, the Rays (.667 at home; .417 on the road) have 21 home and road games left, and the Rangers (.631 at home; .491 road) have 16 home games and 26 road contests remaining.