The Red Sox have always been a big-picture team, and so it comes as little surprise that team officials were frank in their assessment of the rest of the regular season. Their ticket to the postseason already punched, the Sox felt little need to pretend that any contest will matter between now and Game 1 of the playoffs.
On Wednesday, the Sox dealt with the hangover of clinching their entry to the playoffs by fielding a skeletal lineup against Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay. The team’s only regulars were David Ortiz and Alex Gonzalez. The results were predictable: The Sox got creamed, 12-0, with Halladay logging a complete-game, three-hit shutout that looked almost effortless. (Recap.)
But before the Sox endured their sixth straight loss and eighth in 10 games, manager Terry Francona broke down the numbers in analyzing what the final week of the season means. So just what is that?
“Zero,” said Francona. “Nobody probably wants to hear it, but the next five games are kind of cosmetic. Our record? I hope our record’s better than it is worse, but these games will have no bearing on what we do next week.”
General manager Theo Epstein was equally blunt.
“If you look at all the data that's out there, even finishing strong over the last week, two weeks, month, it actually has no bearing whatsoever on how the team performs in October,” Epstein said. “It feels better when you finish strong. I want to finish strong. We all want to finish strong. It feels better.
“But the difference between how you feel and what actually matters, if you look at it, I'm sure there's evidence of teams finishing strong and going on to win the World Series. But for every one of those examples, there's an example of a team finishing strong and getting swept, or a team that lost 15 of its last 18 going into October and winning the World Series. So, if you break down the numbers, there's simply no correlation.
“So we're not going to pull our hair out about it. We're going to try and get as healthy as we can, try to scout our butts off and try to have our players feel good about themselves down the stretch and try to win a World Series.”
To Epstein’s point, it doesn’t take much digging to identify both cases. Certainly, there are examples of teams that rode hot streaks to postseason glory. In recent seasons, the 2008 Phillies finished the regular season on a 13-3 kick en route to their championship, and the 2007 Rockies charged all the way to the World Series (before getting swept by the Sox) after going 14-1 down the stretch.
But the counter examples are similarly compelling. The 2006 Cardinals finished 3-9, a stretch that included a seven-game losing streak, and they played 25-36 ball (.410) for more than two months to end the season. They were considered road kill. They won the World Series.
The 2000 Yankees, likewise, finished the year by losing seven straight and 13 of their final 15. They were widely accused of having backed into the playoffs. They, too, went on to win the World Series.
There are plenty of reminders that the regular season and postseason are two different beasts. Prior to this year, there have been 19 teams to win 100 or more games under the current playoff format. Of those, just one won the World Series (the 1998 Yankees), and nine failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs.
All of that gives the Sox reason to believe that their faltering play down the stretch will prove irrelevant once the lights go on against the Angels next week. Of course, that didn’t make it any easier for the team to watch itself get creamed by a dozen runs in a game that concluded with catcher Dusty Brown on the pitcher’s mound in the top of the ninth inning.
“Terrible night,” rued Francona. “Any time we get to Dusty Brown pitching, it’s a tough night.”
Here are four other lessons from the Sox’ lopsided loss:
WAKEFIELD’S ONCE-BRILLIANT YEAR CAME TO ITS LIKELY END
For Tim Wakefield, the likely end of the 2009 season was almost difficult to watch. The knuckleballer, who was enjoying one of the finest seasons of his career and earned a long-deserved note of national recognition thanks to his All-Star nod, endured a tremendously challenging second half.
In his start against the Jays, his weakened left leg — which Wakefield estimated to have roughly 60 percent of the strength of his right — simply didn’t permit him to stay on the mound. Wakefield allowed five runs in just three innings, the latest in a series of starts with progressively worse line scores since the bulging disc in his back started pressing on the sciatic nerve:
Aug. 26: 7IP, 6H, 1R, 1ER, 1 BB, 3K
Sept. 5: 6IP, 6H, 4R, 4ER, 3 BB, 4K
Sept. 21: 5IP, 5H, 5R, 4ER, 7BB, 2K
Sept. 30: 3IP, 7H, 5R, 5ER, 2BB, 2K
At one point, the Jays dropped a sacrifice bunt. Wakefield tried to field it but pulled up lame. From there, his physical struggles became worse.
“It was tough. I think we all saw on the bunt, trying to reverse direction, you can see how much it’s hurting him or limiting him,” said Francona. “I thought after that play he was dragging a little bit in his delivery. He’d thrown a lot of pitches. He wanted to stay in and pitch, which I respect a lot. I didn’t think that was in his best interest.”
Wakefield said afterward that because of the weakness in his leg, he fatigues quickly. He refused to use that as an excuse, however, insisting that no matter his physical state, he is responsible for executing pitches. Moreover, the pitcher made no apologies for his presence on a mound.
“I don’t want to give up on the team. Regardless of if I’m 60 percent or whatever, I feel like I’m needed. The staff has made it clear that I’m needed,” Wakefield said. “I’m going to go out there at 40 percent if I have to. That’s just the type of player that I am.”
Indeed, that has been one of the significant lessons of Wakefield’s 2009 season. The pitcher has spent more than two months doing everything in his power to pitch through immense pain. He was a key contributor in the first half — and indeed, without his 11-3 start at a time when the rest of the rotation was in shambles, the Sox might not be enjoying their postseason berth — and a study in grit.
“You can tell he’s just not right,” said catcher George Kottaras, who worked with Wakefield in all of his first-half starts. “If his delivery is not right, then the action on the ball is not going to be there. When he’s healthy, he can throw against his front side. His leg isn’t strong enough.
“He’s putting out a great effort to try to compete. It’s not easy to go out there. He’s trying to do his best,” Kottaras continued. “At the same time, you’re trying to compare him to when he’s healthy. He’s not 100 percent right now. He’s battling and he’s trying to do his best for the team to win.”
Because he cannot field his position, it is difficult to imagine Wakefield pitching against the havoc-wreaking Angels. Moreover, the questions about his leg strength make it difficult to envision him in a postseason role.
Given that he was arguably the team’s steadiest presence for the first few months of the season, the development is no doubt disappointing to all around the Sox. Nonetheless, the 43-year-old insists that he will accept any role in the postseason — whether on or off the roster — without bitterness.
“I don’t make those decisions. Those decisions will come down in the next couple days,” said Wakefield. “If I’m on the team, great, I’ll give them everything that I have whether it’s in relief or in a start. If I’m not, then I’ll be the biggest cheerleader in the dugout.”
The mere fact that Wakefield is pushing to make himself available to his team is observed with universal admiration in the Sox clubhouse.
As a teammate, you look back and say, ‘If it weren’t for a guy like him, we wouldn’t be in a situation like we are today,’ ” said reliever Billy Wagner. “A guy like him, I think you respect him more for what he’s trying to do.”
THE BLUE JAYS GOT THEIR POUND OF FLESH
One day later, the Blue Jays made little effort to mask their displeasure with the fact that Jonathan Papelbon drilled Adam Lind in the elbow in the ninth inning of a game in which the Toronto slugger had smoked three homers. With two outs in the top of the ninth on Tuesday, Papelbon — pitching for the first time in six days — zinged Lind on the elbow with a 94 mph fastball.
Papelbon recognized that the circumstances made the incident look bad, which is why he approached Lind to say in no certain terms that it wasn’t a purpose pitch. Clearly, Toronto wasn’t buying the reliever’s claim.
Jays skipper Cito Gaston said before Wednesday’s game that he felt that home-plate ump Ron Kulpa should have ejected Papelbon immediately. But since the umpires didn’t police the inside pitch, which left Lind’s elbow swollen and prevented the him from playing on Wednesday, the Jays seemingly took it upon themselves to do so.
Toronto starter Roy Halladay drilled Sox designated hitter David Ortiz in the right elbow with a 91 mph fastball on the first pitch of the second inning. Halladay said the pitch simply got away from him, but his teammates suggested that the 17-game winner was offering a statement that opponents couldn’t target his club.
“You never want to see anybody get hurt on the field, but you appreciate that you’re protected,” said Jays shortstop John MacDonald. “It’s the way the game’s been played for a long time, and if that’s the way it’s played, then it’s over and done with.”
None of the Sox suggested otherwise. Ortiz, for one, shrugged off the incident.
“It’s over. I don’t care. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do, right? That’s how the games go,” he said of getting drilled. “I don’t care.”
Though Papelbon had made the effort to tell the Jays that there was nothing intentional about his plunking of Lind, the Sox closer recognized that his words might not hold weight in the Toronto clubhouse.
“Here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks,” said Papelbon. “It’s what their team thinks and what Halladay or Cito thinks.”
Yet at least one member of the Red Sox made no secret of his dismay with seeing Halladay hit Ortiz with what seemed like a purpose pitch.
“We’re trying to have clean innings. I don’t know what they’re thinking there. If it had been any other pitcher besides Doc, they’d get tossed. I think it’s a little bush league, but it’s the way it is,” said Sox reliever Billy Wagner. "When you’ve got as much experience as Cito and those guys do over there, you can read between the lines and say it was 8-7, we’re not going to hit a guy when we’re trying to win the game. I think it’s pretty cut and dried.
“They handle their business their way. But you bring in your closer to try to get work in. He hasn’t pitched in five or six days. He’s trying to pitch him in because the guy’s been wearing you out away, and then the ball gets inside and hits him,” Wagner continued. “It’s just not knowing the game.”
THE SOX GATHERED SOME INFORMATION FOR THEIR PLAYOFF ROSTER
Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein suggested that player performances over the final week would have very little bearing on the composition of the team’s postseason roster.
“It could impact the 25th spot, perhaps,” he said. “It's one of probably a dozen factors that will go into that decision.”
The implication, of course, was that the team should have enough performance data after a full season to have a good feel for what a player can do. All the same, there are things that the team is monitoring, and there were some opportunities to evaluate during Wednesday’s game. Wakefield was one. A few others:
— Jed Lowrie finally got to hit left-handed, the first time since he returned to the majors this month that he has done so. Lowrie went 0-for-3 with a strikeout and a lineout to center against Halladay while diving all over the field at third base.
“I thought he actually swung the bat pretty well,” said Francona.
Lowrie said that there was both pain and inflammation in his surgically repaired left wrist, but that he is getting stronger as he is further removed from surgery, and he is taking better swings. He suggests that he is trying to put himself in the best position to contribute to the Sox, particularly should the team consider him an option for a backup infield role during the playoffs.
“That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’ve done everything I have to this point. I want to be a part of this,” said Lowrie. “Everything that I’ve been told, the only way my wrist can get better is with rest. If I didn’t want to be here, I wouldn’t [be].”
While Lowrie is still trying to figure out — both for himself and the Sox — what he can contribute in 2009, he did suggest that he is confident that an offseason of rest will restore him to the form that made him perhaps the best hitter on the Sox in camp this spring.
“Going into the offseason, if I do what I did last offseason, I think I’m going to feel like I did in spring training but have a structurally sound wrist, as opposed to having a broken wrist,” Lowrie said.
— Josh Beckett, after throwing a 62-pitch bullpen session on Wednesday that confirmed his readiness to make his start on Saturday, suggested that there were no lingering ill effects from the back stiffness that forced him to miss his start on Monday. Beckett said that the cortisone shots he received have had the intended results.
“I feel great today,” the pitcher said shortly before the start of Wednesday's game. “Everything's back to normal.”
— Manny Delcarmen remains in a dreadful rut, and with the Sox at least contemplating the possibility of a 10-man pitching staff in the playoffs, he could find himself squeezed off the roster. He allowed two runs on a homer, triple and single in his inning of work, and the numbers since July 28 are awful.
Delcarmen has an 8.22 ERA in that time and has walked the same number of batters (17) that he’s struck out. He’s also allowed five homers in that 22-inning span, after not having allowed one in his first 36-2/3 innings this year.
NO ONE HAS ASKED TO INTERVIEW ANY OF THE RED SOX COACHES ABOUT MANAGING JOBS …YET
On a day that Eric Wedge was fired as the Indians manager, the notion that the Tribe might pursue Sox pitching coach John Farrell gained in volume. But Epstein said that the Indians had not yet contacted Boston to seek permission to interview Farrell.
Of course, the Indians likely wouldn’t require much of a chance to do so, given that Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro has been saying for years that Farrell — who spent five years as the Indians' director of player development — has the ability to excel in any job in the game, whether in the front office, as pitching coach or as manager.
With the Indians coming to Boston for the final four games of the regular season, Farrell’s status is likely to be a hot topic of conversation. Even so, Epstein said that he had not been contacted by anyone seeking permission to discuss Farrell or any other member of the Sox coaching staff in conjunction with a managerial opening.