The hottest hitter on the Red Sox was not in the lineup on Thursday. It didn’t show.
J.D. Drew, a wrecking ball in recent weeks, was on the sidelines with Rays left-hander David Price on the hill. But Boston suffered little for his absence, thanks to the presence of arguably the best fourth outfielder in the American League, a player who helps to make the Sox’ outfield as a whole the most productive in the A.L.
Players’ performances often suffer from sporadic playing time, but Rocco Baldelli continued to defy that notion on Thursday. In the top of the second inning, he unloaded on a knee-high fastball from Price, slamming it well into the stands in Tropicana Field in Boston’s 6-3 victory over the Rays. (Recap.)
It was Baldelli’s seventh homer in just 125 at-bats this year, yet another instance in which the former Ray has been an effective supplement to the Sox lineup. Baldelli is hitting .264 with a .326 OBP, .480 slugging mark and .806 OPS.
Both his slugging percentage and OPS are the tops in the A.L. for outfielders with at least 100 but fewer than 200 plate appearances this year. In short, in a role in which production often borders on non-existent, Baldelli has impacted the Red Sox lineup. He has delivered the kind of production that offers a reminder of his immense talent, and the fact that he would not be in a reserve role but for a medical condition (channelopathy) that limits his availability.
“Boy, he’s a good offensive player. I think we knew going in that there were going to be times when he wasn’t going to be available,” Sox manager Terry Francona said recently. “When he does feel good, he’s a good ballplayer. He’s a good hitter, strong kid.
“We wouldn’t have him if he hadn’t gone through what he did. He’s too good a player. We got a little bit fortunate that we were able to get him because of the struggles he’s gone through physically.”
Because of Baldelli’s contributions, the Sox have been able to sit key players without fearing a black hole in the lineup. On Sunday, he started in place of Jason Bay against Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay and blasted a homer, then crushed another ball on Thursday.
Thanks in part to the presence of such a valuable reserve, the Sox outfield has been the most productive in the American League this season. As a group, Boston’s outfielders have given the team a significant advantage compared to the rest of the league.
On Thursday, Baldelli (1-for-3, homer), Drew (1-for-1), Bay (2-for-4, 2 doubles, walk) and Jacoby Ellsbury (1-for-3, 2 walks, 2 steals) each contributed, continuing a season-long trend. Sox outfielders as a whole this year are hitting .277/.363/.480/.844 with 65 homers and 226 RBIs. The group leads the A.L. in OBP, slugging and OPS, with major roles being played by all three regulars and Baldelli.
Despite the fact that he has pinballed around the lineup – getting at least one start in every spot of the batting order except leadoff, cleanup and ninth in his past 21 games – Drew has been a constant source of production over the last few weeks.
Since August 9, Drew – who singled as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning on Thursday – is hitting .385 with a .481 OBP, .754 slugging mark and seven homers. Among all American League outfielders, he now ranks near the top of the list in OBP (.385, 5th), slugging (.496, 6th) and OPS (.881, 4th).
Bay, meanwhile, has rebounded from his mid-year slump to resume slamming the ball. Since hitting his first homer of the second half on August 5, he’s now hitting .291/.396/.733/1.129 with 10 homers and 22 RBIs in his last 23 games. For the year, he is hitting .260/.385/.537/.922. He leads A.L. outfielders in OPS, and is second in slugging and sixth in OBP.
Ellsbury, meanwhile, has continued to serve as an impact table-setter. He is hitting .299 with a respectable .346 OBP, .414 slugging mark and .761 OPS, as well as his major-league leading 58 steals.
In short, the Sox are enjoying a period in which both their outfielders and lineup as a whole are surging. The two developments would appear to be closely related.
Here are four other things we learned on a night when the Red Sox claimed their first series win in Tampa Bay since Sept. 21-23, 2007:
BUCHHOLZ DOESN’T DISCRIMINATE AGAINST THE BLUE JAYS
Clay Buchholz beat Toronto last Saturday to improve to 3-0 with a 1.35 ERA against the Jays. Members of the Blue Jays mused that Buchholz must have something against them, since the pitcher was 0-3 with a 6.32 ERA against the rest of baseball.
In fairness, the numbers were somewhat deceiving, since the pitcher had absorbed a couple of hard-luck losses in which his outstanding performances against CC Sabathia of the Yankees and Justin Verlander of the Tigers had nonetheless resulted in defeat due to a lack of run support.
At any rate, the notion of a vendetta against the Blue Jays would now appear to be dated after Buchholz recovered from a two-run first inning to limit the Rays to three runs in six innings en route to a victory on Thursday. Buchholz (4-3, 4.40) finally had a win against another team.
“That was the first thing that went through my mind when (closer Jonathan Papelbon) got that last out," Buchholz told reporters. "I finally got a win in the States. We can go after whatever team I have next and try to just keep the train moving."
The 25-year-old has now delivered quality starts in five of his last six outings, a span during which he has a 3.55 ERA. If he keeps this up, then Buchholz’ outings soon will be evaluated on their own merits, rather than in comparison to the 2008 season.
Nonetheless, the pitcher’s continued maturation was noteworthy in two instances in his victory. Foremost, he recovered from his first-inning stumble to limit any further damage.
“After a tough start, he really started pitching,” Francona said. “The way the game started, if he doesn’t hold it together, we’re going to get into our bullpen early. Not only did we not get in there early, but he holds them down.”
Secondly, Tampa Bay had another rally against the pitcher in the fourth. Evan Longoria (now with 27 RBIs against the Sox this year) led off with a double, and scored when Gregg Zaun bounced a turf double over the head of third baseman Mike Lowell. But Buchholz did not allow any further damage, stranding Zaun at second and beginning a run of nine straight outs.
There are several variables in play in the Sox rotation. The Sox have as many as four starters who represent uncertainties down the stretch.
Tim Wakefield is now the scheduled starter for Saturday, and the Sox are hoping to see whether he will be able to remain healthy enough to pitch.
The Paul Byrd reclamation project will have its second chapter on Friday. Daisuke Matsuzaka, coming off a poor two-inning outing for Double A Portland on Sunday, will pitch for Triple-A Pawtucket on Friday on what Francona said would be a pitch limit of “75-ish – hopefully not all in the first inning.”
But while the Sox face several questions about the shape of their rotation going forward, Buchholz is not among them. He seemingly has solidified his role as the team’s third starter.
JASON VARITEK’S ROLE CONTINUES TO CHANGE
The most telling instance of the new world order came on Tuesday. Jon Lester, a pitcher whom the Sox suggested they typically wanted to work with Jason Varitek, was on the mound for Boston. Andy Sonnanstine, a pitcher whom Varitek had hammered (6-for-13, HR, .462/.533/.692) and against whom Victor Martinez had struggled (1-for-7, .143/.250/.143), was on the hill for the Rays.
Martinez got the start, marking the beginning of a three-game series that offered reminders about how the Sox catching dynamic no longer consists of just Varitek and another guy who catches knuckleballs. Further evidence of the notion was to come.
In the second game of the series, Varitek was behind the dish to work with Josh Beckett, but was replaced by pinch-hitter Casey Kotchman in the seventh inning of a game the Sox trailed 5-4. Francona’s decision to turn to Kotchman marked the first time this year that the manager had pinch-hit for Varitek in a close game.
The Sox skipper suggested that the move reflected on a match-up (the Sox captain is 0-for-11 in the regular season and 0-for-4 in the playoffs against Rays reliever Grant Balfour) than on broader concerns about Varitek at the plate.
“I told (Varitek) last night, the only situation I was going to hit for was Balfour,” said Francona. “That’s a pretty obvious one for me. I told him, just give me a look if Balfour is in. if anything else, you’re hitting. The at-bat before, he actually came close to hitting a homer. It’s a little different when you have more bodies.
“Again, I think you have to be somewhat realistic when the season takes a toll on him. That’s not a shot. That’s being realistic. He bears the brunt of a lot of physical – he just gets beat up. But I also don’t want to run to start hitting for him because I don’t know if that always helps us maybe as much as other people do.”
While Francona has suggested in the past that he does not Varitek to look over his shoulder while wondering if he will be replaced by pinch hitters, the catcher is clearly amidst a deep struggle. Indeed, there are many parallels between his 2008 and 2009 campaigns.
Just as was the case last year, Varitek put up terrific numbers through May before commencing a steady slide. On May 28 of this year, Varitek was hitting .248 with a .320 OBP and .541 slugging mark. Since then, Varitek has been working deep counts and drawing walks, but he is hitting .197/.332/.330.
Martinez started two of the three contests in Tampa Bay, and the Sox won both times that he was behind the dish. Since he joined the Sox on Aug. 1, Martinez has now started more games (16) than Varitek (15), though some of that dates to a four-game stretch in which Varitek was out with a neck injury. Though the sample is miniscule, with Martinez behind the plate, the Sox are 10-6 (.625); in games started by Varitek, they are 8-7 (.533).
Martinez has already become the regular catcher for Clay Buchholz. He seems likely to play the same role for Tim Wakefield going forward. He has caught two of Lester’s last three starts, to positive effect.
That is not to say that Varitek’s role will be whittled to that of Beckett’s personal catcher. Martinez, after all, seems to benefit from splitting his time at first and behind the plate, and the fact that Mike Lowell is getting regular rest further helps to ensure more days for the Sox captain behind the plate (since Martinez often plays first, with Kevin Youkilis at third, when Lowell is out).
Even so, over the last two weeks, the two have been more or less alternated starts, and it is clear that the long-established rules for the position have changed. For the first time since the late-90s, it is not a surprise when Varitek’s name isn’t in the lineup.
THE RED SOX BULLPEN DEPTH COULD MAKE HISTORY
For most teams, Sept. 1 marks the day to plunder the upper levels of the minor leagues for more bullpen arms. This year, however, the Sox had little need to rush for such additions, summoning only Junichi Tazawa, who likely will serve either as a starter or long reliever.
That role aside, the Sox had little need to reinforce their bullpen, given the number of elite arms they already possess. The addition of Billy Wagner already served as reinforcement enough. Following a scoreless inning in which he struck out a pair on Thursday, the 38-year-old now has recorded three scoreless innings with the Sox, striking out seven in the process.
But Wagner’s electric arrival in Boston should not obscure what the rest of the relief staff has accomplished over the season. The team’s six bullpen mainstays – closer Jonathan Papelbon (1.84 ERA), Hideki Okajima (3.19), Ramon Ramirez (2.93), Manny Delcarmen (3.40), Takashi Saito (2.64) and rookie Daniel Bard (3.40) – have all been excellent over the course of the season.
In fact, the Sox would be the first American League team ever to feature six relievers with ERAs under 3.50 and at least 40 innings pitched.
PAPELBON MARCHES TO THE BEAT OF HIS OWN DRUMMER…AND PAYS FOR IT
Jonathan Papelbon was fined $5,000 by Major League Baseball for taking too long in coming to the mound from the bullpen in Tuesday night’s game at Tropicana Field against the Rays. The Red Sox closer said it was the seventh time he has been fined by MLB for such delays.
“I don’t know why they keep coming after me. It’s probably because I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m not obeying the rules. I’m taking too long getting to the rubber,” he said. “You’re allowed 2:25 and I’m taking too long.”
Papelbon said he hasn’t sought an explanation and the fines don’t figure to alter his approach in the future.
“Nothing affects the way I pitch, man,” he said. “Nothing. Zero.”
Papelbon said the first violation drew a $1,000 fine, and that paying the latest one is going to be unavoidable.
“I don’t feel like I should have to pay them, but eventually I’m going to have to pay them,” said the closer, who estimates his fines now to be well upwards of $10,000.
“I don’t know, man. I really don’t. I know it’s a new rule and everything and they’re trying to enforce it. I guess I’m just the one they decided to enforce it on… A rule’s a rule. I don’t know who else is getting fined. I can’t say I’m being picked on. They may be saying the same thing to everyone else.”
Rob Bradford contributed from St. Petersburg, Fla.