The Red Sox have endured plenty of criticism for offseason acquisitions that failed to pan out. Most notably, neither John Smoltz nor Brad Penny lived up to the expectations that accompanied their signings. Both pitchers struggling so spectacularly that they were simply released.
But while those winter acquisitions didn’t yield the anticipated dividends, the Red Sox front office’s in-season deals have represented something of a jackpot thus far in the 2009 season. In particular, three separate deals over a four-week span – the acquisition of catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez on July 31, the deal for shortstop Alex Gonzalez on Aug. 14 and the move to bring reliever Billy Wagner to the Sox on Aug. 25 – have played a significant role in keeping the Sox in command of the American League Wild Card race.
In Tuesday’s 10-0 blanking of the Orioles (recap), it was Gonzalez and Martinez who continued to add to their Red Sox resumes. Martinez went 1-for-4 with a run-scoring double, extending his hitting streak to 11 games and leaving him with a very impressive .321 average, .397 OBP and .908 OPS with six homers as a Red Sox.
“What (Martinez) has done speaks for itself,” said teammate Jason Bay.
Martinez has been a middle-of-the-order lineup force, yet on Tuesday, his contributions behind the plate were even more significant. Clay Buchholz dominated the Baltimore lineup, but the pitcher volunteered that a significant amount of the credit for his ability to unbalance the O’s belonged to his batterymate.
“A lot of it’s Victor,” said Buchholz. “He’s calling the game for me and I’m trying to hang in there with him as far as knowing what pitch I want to throw. We’ve meshed well in the last couple of starts, being on the same page and not getting into a steady shake of pitches. It’s definitely worked out for the best.”
Gonzalez, whom the Sox brought in from Cincinnati to provide defensive stability at short, has committed just one error in his 22 games in the field. Such a performance was expected for a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop.
But Gonzalez has added to that a most unexpected contribution from the bottom of the lineup. Quite simply, the free-swinging shortstop has been hammering the ball.
““At a position where we didn’t have a ton of stability with a lot of guys going down, he’s kind of made it a little more stable,” said Bay. “Gonzo’s been huge. Great defender, and he’s probably hit more than a lot of people expected him to.”
On Tuesday, he crushed a homer onto Landsdowne Street, and later narrowly missed a second homer when his liner came within inches of the top of the Green Monster. With the two hits, Gonzalez now has a 12-game hitting streak during which he is hitting .326 with three homers and a .935 OPS. Though he has not walked in that span, he has been making an offensive impact.
“He’s going through a real good stretch right now,” said manager Terry Francona. “Gonzie’s always been kind of streaky. Anybody that doesn’t walk a lot is going to be streaky, but he’s going through a real good streak right now and we’ll take every bit of it.
“The expectations (when the Sox traded for him) were, defensively, that he would do exactly what he’s doing, and he’s really contributed offensively very well. The nice thing is that when he’s not, we have the ability to hit for him when we’re losing, but when we’re winning you’ll never see that. And at the same time he’s also given us a lot of offense, which is great.”
Though Wagner did not pitch on Tuesday, his potential impact has also been apparent. In four appearances, the left-hander has recorded 14 outs, half of which have come by strikeout.
Clearly, the net effect of the three moves is that the Sox have done as much – if not more – to strengthen themselves with mid-year acquisitions as any team in baseball. Whether that will actually allow them to fend off the Rangers is another matter. Nonetheless, it would be difficult to imagine the Sox still in possession of their two-game advantage over Texas without the recent imports.
The Sox are 20-16, have gained a half-game on the Rangers in the wild card and are averaging 5.7 runs per game since acquiring Martinez. Since Gonzalez joined the club on Aug. 15, the Sox are now 14-9 (.609), have been a half-game better than the Rangers and have averaged 6.0 runs per game.
“They’ve done a tremendous job… Everything has worked out pretty smoothly thus far,” said Sox centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. “Everybody’s played well. They’ve helped us out a ton.”
In short, the Sox have received everything for which they could have hoped from their recent additions, with each seeming to contribute to every one of the team’s wins.
Here are five other lessons from Tuesday:
DUSTIN PEDROIA HAS A POWERFUL MOTOR
A couple hours before the start of Tuesday’s game, Baltimore manager Dave Trembley – who spent years managing in the minors against Red Sox affiliates – was discussing the remarkable level of talent at second base in the majors. Trembley noted that every team in the American League East has an All-Star caliber player at second. Baltimore has Brian Roberts, the Yankees have Robinson Cano, Tampa Bay has featured Ben Zobrist, the Blue Jays had Aaron Hill and the Red Sox…
“Look over at Pedroia,” Trembley, who managed against Pedroia in the Florida State League in 2004 and Portland in 2005, said of Boston’s second baseman, the reigning 2008 American League MVP. “I think he makes their team go. He’s the guy.”
Trembley’s observations proved prescient. In the top of the first inning, Pedroia jumped on a fastball from David Hernandez and launched it off the top of the AAA sign at the back of the Monster Seats. A couple innings later, Pedroia again went deep, roping a changeup just over the Wall.
The blast gave Pedroia his first career multi-homer game in the regular season. (It is worth noting, however, that Pedroia went deep twice in Game 2 of the 2008 ALCS.) His teammates, after listening to the second baseman crow in the dugout, treated the accomplishment with some amusement.
“He’s got 35 more two-home run games to catch me,” said David Ortiz.
Pedroia is now hitting .294 with a .369 OBP, .443 slugging percentage and .812 OPS. Yet despite that solid line, his offensive numbers are overshadowed by those of some of his league and divisional peers. Pedroia is second in the division in average and OBP, but last among starting A.L. East second basemen in homers (12) and RBI (60) and fourth in OPS.
That is less a commentary on Pedroia’s considerable skills and All-Star stature as it is the remarkable wealth of talent at a position that, in the past, had rarely been associated with offense. Clearly, that notion is undergoing a challenge.
“All of (the second basemen in the A.L. East) are probably at the top or close to it as being the most valuable players on their clubs,” said Trembley. “Nellie Fox doesn’t play anymore.
“Second base, I think people are looking at a top-of-the-order defensive guy. In this division, you can have all the pitching and defense you want, but if you don’t have run scorers, run producers and guys who can hit with a pretty good slugging percentage, you’re not going to win. You’re not going to win.”
AN UNLIKELY PAIR ENJOYED A SPECIAL BIG-LEAGUE MOMENT IN 2009
For a while, it appeared that a night like Tuesday might have been impossible, at least in 2009. Even in spring training, Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden recognized that a snaking line of pitchers with elite big-league resumes might leave them marooned in Pawtucket.
On paper, the Sox featured Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield and Brad Penny, with John Smoltz waiting in the wings and Justin Masterson available as another rotation option. In that world, both pitchers recognized, they might represent seventh or eighth options in the organization’s thinking.
For a while, it appeared that in spite of dominating performances, both pitchers might remain stuck in Pawtucket. Buchholz went 7-2 with a 2.36 ERA in the first half in Triple A, but the Sox couldn’t find an opportunity for him to pitch in the majors.
Bowden was nearly as good, going 3-4 with a 3.32 ERA, continuing a minor-league career in which he had annually ranked among the ERA leaders at every stop. His reward had come in the form of a one-day call-up in April, in which Bowden had pitched a pair of scoreless innings of relief.
Still, for much of the summer, he watched call-up after call-up from Pawtucket spending time on the Sox roster – including Junichi Tazawa, who made four big-league starts in his first year of pro ball. Bowden got only one more day – a disastrous two-inning, seven-run outing against the Yankees in August – in the majors.
But, in the end, Buchholz received his opportunity. Tim Wakefield’s back injury created an opening in the rotation, and the 25-year-old has now established himself as a major-league starter for the duration of the year. With his seven shutout innings on Tuesday, Buchholz (5-3, 3.92) now leads Sox pitchers with five second-half wins.
His most recent victory, moreover, was concluded by Bowden, who has ascended in the Sox system with Buchholz since the two were taken as sandwich picks in the 2005 draft. Bowden, called up from Pawtucket over the weekend, delivered a pair of shutout innings in relief of Buchholz, and afterwards seemed delighted by the opportunity for the two of them to share responsibility for a big-league shutout.
“That was unbelievable. Clay had an awesome outing,” said Bowden. “I grew up in professional baseball with Clay, and him with me. It’s cool that I got to clean it up for the last two innings, and it was a shutout on top of that, which is really neat. It’s just one of those really cool things where you can leave the ballpark smiling.”
An organization that prides itself on contributions from players who come through its minor-league system also was left to beam.
“I’m not trying to get ahead of myself, but it’s amazing how good the organization feels about the future,” said Francona. “You look at (Buchholz) out there putting up zeroes and the way he can do it, it’s very exciting.”
Both pitchers are clearly aware of what is at stake as they get their opportunities in the majors. Bowden, one day shy of his 23rd birthday, was clearly treating the occasion as a gift.
“With the team that broke camp, I knew I had the ability to contribute, but the opportunity, it’s a little tougher to get opportunities when they have the caliber of players that they did to open the season,” said Bowden. “I did feel like I would get a chance to contribute at some point. I didn’t know when. It’s September 8 now, and I’m happy.”
RON BLOMBERG IS NO DAVID ORTIZ
It was June 9, 2000, when 24-year-old David Ortiz took Brewers pitcher Jamey Wright deep in the bottom of the first inning for his 11th career homer, and his first as a designated hitter.
Since then, Ortiz has continued marching to the steady drumbeat of his prodigious shots. On Tuesday, Ortiz unloaded on a 95 mph fastball from Orioles reliever Bob McCrory, blasting it deep into the centerfield bleachers for his 23rd homer of the season.
This shot did more than simply punctuate the Sox’ rout. Ortiz now has 269 homers as a designated hitter, tying Frank Thomas for the all-time lead for longballs at the position.
The record suggests two things: 1) It has long been clear that Ortiz was not a good defensive player; and 2) It has long been clear that Ortiz can destroy a baseball.
There was a time when Ortiz hated the idea of being a designated hitter. Early in his Red Sox career, he protested that he was too young to be a man without a position. But over time, he came to embrace his ability to focus his attentions on hitting, and he used the time between at-bats to review video, to game plan and to make himself a lethal presence in the batter’s box.
Yet for the Sox and Ortiz alike, the milestone was something of an afterthought. Far more relevant was the fact that the Sox slugger, after enduring a 2-for-22 roadtrip in which he seemed constantly overmatched, went 2-for-3 with a homer, single and walk, and took swings with authority.
“(Ortiz) squared up on a couple balls. That was good,” said Francona. “The more balance we have then the better guys are swinging because every night, somebody’s not going to hit and if you have a balanced attack it’s harder for pitchers to navigate through your lineup.”
THE PLOT OF “AS THE ROTATION TURNS” CONTINUED TO DEVELOP
Daisuke Matsuzaka will take the mound for his final rehab start on Wednesday. The right-hander is expected to throw 90-100 pitches for Single A Salem of the Carolina League in their playoff game against the Winston-Salem Dash. The Sox will wait to see how Matsuzaka emerges from that outing before placing the pitcher in the rotation.
On Thursday or Friday, Rob Bradford reports, Tim Wakefield will receive another epidural cortisone injection in his lower back to relieve the pain from the bone spur that is pressing on his sciatic nerve. If all goes well with the injection, the 43-year-old would make a start in Baltimore on either Sept. 18 or 19.
THE RED SOX DEFENSIVE LANDSCAPE COULD CHANGE FOR 2010
The Red Sox announced their signing of 19-year-old free agent Jose Iglesias, a defector from Cuba, to a four-year, major-league contract worth $8.25 million that will come into effect in 2010. Iglesias is considered a sensational defender.
Assessments of his offense range from skeptical (thanks to an absence of power) to promising, as an international scout of an American League team suggested that he could emerge as a legitimate No. 2 hitter in a lineup. A better sense of his abilities will become apparent when Iglesias competes against established pro prospects in the Arizona Fall League this year.
While Iglesias’ defensive talents will be on display in the minors in 2010, Mike Lowell is optimistic that during the offseason, he will be able to reclaim his diminished defensive range by improving the strength in his surgically repaired right hip.