In all likelihood, when the Division Series against the Angels opens this week, Jon Lester will be the Game 1 starter for the second straight season. But the reason for that alignment in 2009 is dramatically different from the one in 2008, explaining part of the reason for the Red Sox’ optimism as they head into the postseason.
A year ago, on the final weekend of the season, Josh Beckett strained the intercostal muscles under his rib cage while throwing a side session. The scheduled Game 1 starter whom the Sox intended to spearhead their title defense would be unavailable until Game 3 of the ALDS.
“There was a major question mark on him a year ago,” said pitching coach John Farrell.
Beckett managed to pitch, but when he did, the right-hander was a shell of his dominating best, resulting in Sox losses in two of his three postseason starts. Beckett did manage to grit his teeth and pitch through immense pain in order to deliver the pitch six shutout innings in Game 6 of the ALCS.
Nonetheless, he was a far cry from the hurler who asserted himself as one of the great postseason pitches of all time with overpowering runs in 2003 and 2007. Some members of the Sox remained convinced that they would have won another World Series had Beckett been healthy.
This past week, it seemed easy enough to conjure doomsday scenarios for the Sox when Beckett missed his Monday start due to upper back spasms that required three cortisone shots. On Saturday, in the Sox’ 11-6 win (recap) it became clear that no such concerns remained.
Beckett’s line was unimpressive. After a nine-day layoff, it took him a while to find a rhythm on the mound. Beckett (who finished the year with a 17-6 record and 3.86 ERA) allowed four runs on six hits in the first two innings, struggling with his command for a simple reason. After such a long wait between starts, he found himself overly excited by the return to the mound.
“If they ever go to a nine-man rotation, I’m not in,” Beckett joked. “Every pitch I tried to throw harder than the one before that. It caused me to miss location.”
But from that point through the end of his outing, Beckett settled. Catcher Victor Martinez observed that he stopped overthrowing the ball, and relied more on a two-seam fastball that he employed effectively against both lefties and righties to get weak contact.
The results were impressive. Beckett finished with three shutout innings, allowing just one hit, and concluding his final outing of the regular season in the sort of rhythm that he hopes to carry into October.
“At some points, I thought he was, like, too strong, trying to overthrow his pitches,” said Martinez. “After the second inning, he made the adjustment. He was trying to throw strikes. He was great.”
Beckett finished with five strikeouts, in the process setting a new career high with 199 punchouts but coming just one whiff short of a defining number for power pitchers. Beckett shrugged off the development, saying that he takes pride in pitching to contact.
He also expressed no dismay at the likelihood that Lester will be the Game 1 starter in the Division Series against the Angels. Given that a Game 2 assignment will reflect not on Beckett’s poor health but instead on Lester’s emergence as the most dominant pitcher on the stuff, Beckett has no qualms about the postseason alignment.
“I don’t want to limp in this year. Everything is good and everything is in place,” said Beckett. “I want to do whatever would help us win. … We’ve discussed everything and I’m OK with whatever they decided to do. That’s [manager Terry Francona’s] job. I’m glad I don’t have that job.”
While Beckett may have sympathized with his manager, his performance this year – and his health after Saturday – solved, rather than created, dilemmas. A year after he endured an injury that represented a significant blow to his team’s playoff hopes, Beckett showed the kind of power that the team hopes will help to propel it in the coming weeks.
Here are four other lessons from the penultimate game of the regular season:
VIC CAN CLICK WITH THE BASES JUICED
Victor Martinez is considered one of the top power-hitting catchers in the game, and one of the great overall run producers in baseball. And yet, throughout his career he had been a Punch-and-Judy hitter with the bases loaded.
Entering Saturday, he had a deceiving .308 career average with the bases at full occupancy. Martinez’ production came in the form of singles and sac flies, as evidenced by his .295 average, .369 slugging mark and .664 OPS with the bases loaded.
More tellingly, of Martinez’ 110 career homers, not a single one was a grand slam. Among active players, Martinez had the second highest homer total of a player without a four-run homer (Orlando Cabrera was – and is – the standard bearer with 113; Glenn Davis is the record holder with 190.)
“I know I hadn’t hit a grand slam, but it wasn’t something that was killing me, you know?” said Martinez. “I hit one grand slam in the WBC against Puerto Rico, but for me it doesn’t count like in my big-league career.”
Well, Martinez now has his first big-league grand slam. After Indians first baseman (and former Red Sox property) Andy Marte dropped his two-strike foul ball near the Sox’ dugout, Martinez unloaded on Aaron Laffey’s 85 mph changeup, and drove it into the Boston bullpen.
“My very first grand slam, definitely, I’m pretty happy about it,” Martinez said.
After going 1-for-3, Martinez now has collected at least one hit in each of his last 29 starts. It is the longest such streak in the majors since Johnny Damon collected hits in 29 straight games for the Sox in 2005. The last player with a longer run of hits in starts was Ichiro Suzuki, who hit in 32 straight starts in 2001.
MARTINEZ DID NOT HAVE THE BIGGEST 'FIRST' BY A RED SOX PLAYER
Dusty Brown was a 35th round draft pick out of Yavapai Junior College (Curt Schilling’s alma mater) in 2000. The Red Sox made Yavapai’s catcher/closer a draft-and-follow, and signed him in 2001, when he made his pro debut in the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League, on the same team on which Manny Delcarmen started his pro career.
Brown showed early promise in his pro career, but in part due to a succession of injuries, his progress was up-and-down, and his movement up the ladder was thus deliberate. He saw one Sox prospect after another zoom past him on the way to the majors, playing with such talents as Delcarmen, Brandon Moss, Hanley Ramirez, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia and Jonathan Papelbon as they marched towards the majors.
There were times of frustration. But nine years into his career as a member of the Red Sox, Brown – who had batted just once since making his big-league debut as a defensive replacement this year – ensured achieved a milestone at the major-league level.
In the bottom of the eighth, Brown crushed a changeup from Indians reliever Mike Gosling. The ball sailed over the Wall and crashed in the last row of the Monster Seats for the 27-year-old’s first career hit and first career homer. The Fenway crowd of 37,562 chanted the catcher’s name – Dus-ty, Dus-ty, Dus-ty – until his teammates pushed him out of the dugout to accept a curtain call.
“It’s unbelievable, man,” said Brown. “Not many guys can say that: at Fenway Park, to get a curtain call from the fans, there’s nothing like it. I’ll remember it forever.”
It took time for Brown to have his moment. In all likelihood, he will be the last Red Sox player drafted under former G.M. Dan Duquette to make his major-league debut with the Sox.
Brown’s minor-league career demanded a significant degree of patience. On Saturday, his persistence paid off with an unforgettable moment.
“So many guys blew right by me, but some guys have different paths to the big leagues than others,” said Brown. “It’s been weird being in the same organization for so long and watching all these other guys develop into what they are now, knowing that at one time I was right there with them. They’d keep going; I had a couple setbacks. Now that we’re finally here, all together, it’s great.”
THE SOX HAVE REASON TO BE GRATEFUL
In the final days of the season, the Sox are encountering plenty of minor injuries that have limited the availability of their players. Even so, the team has managed to avoid – narrowly – catastrophic injuries.
First is was Jon Lester emerging with no more than a bruise from a line drive that barely missed his kneecap. Then it was Beckett missing just a game, and then Alex Gonzalez finding out that the Kerry Wood fastball that slammed into his hand had not fractured the appendage.
Mike Lowell joined the ranks of the somewhat injured on Saturday, when he was scratched just prior to the start of the game due to a bone bruise on his right thumb. The condition resulted from getting jammed on a swing on Friday. Lowell said that he could have played through an injury that he deemed “annoying,” but that it made sense for him to sit as a precaution.
Lowell hopes to play on Sunday, but doesn’t think that it would be a problem if he is unable to play until the start of the playoffs.
His near-miss was nothing compared to one by reliever Manny Delcarmen. The reliever was involved in a car crash on I-93 that sent him Hummer into a guardrail. Delcarmen suffered soreness in his back and neck, but suggested that his injuries were not serious.
THE POSTSEASON ROSTER GAINED SOME DEFINITION
Red Sox manager Terry Francona provided a number of updates about potential reserves for the postseason roster. The newest and likely most significant development was that outfielder Rocco Baldelli, after leaving Friday’s game with discomfort in his hip, felt “pretty tender” and “was hurting” when he arrived in the Fenway Park clubhouse on Saturday.
Baldelli will probably have to wait until Monday to undergo further tests, potentially including an MRI, but his availability for the start of the postseason could be in some question depending upon the results. Outfielders Joey Gathright and Brian Anderson will both be traveling with the Sox to Anaheim on Monday night for the start of the Division Series.
Gathright seems all but certain to have a postseason roster spot regardless of Baldelli’s health. The right-handed Anderson, meanwhile, could become an option for the roster if Baldelli is limited. That being the case, it was no doubt encouraging for the Sox to see Anderson go 3-for-3 with a walk and homer.
“Pretty mediocre,” Anderson deadpanned of a night on which he matched a career-high in hits.
Other relevant developments in the formulation of the playoff roster:
–Alex Gonzalez’ X-rays on Saturday revealed that there was no fracture in his right hand. Though he did not swing on Saturday while trying to control swelling in his hand, Gonzalez said there is a chance he could play on Sunday. More significantly, it would appear that he will be available to start at shortstop during the postseason.
–The backup role still seems a bit of an open question, however, with Nick Green seemingly unavailable, Jed Lowrie still somewhat limited (“We don’t want to see too much of Lowrie,” said Francona, suggesting that the team is still trying to measure his playing time) as he continues to rebuild strength following his April wrist surgery and Chris Woodward away from the club to be with his wife after she delivered the couple’s third child.
RIGHT FIELD / LEFT-HANDED OUTFIELDERS
–Sox manager Terry Francona said that J.D. Drew (shoulder) is fine, and will play Sunday. Presuming he comes out of that game without a hitch, Josh Reddick will be sent to Fort Myers to stay fresh in case an injury requires the Sox to add him to the roster later in the postseason. If Drew has a setback, then Reddick would travel with the Sox to Anaheim as an insurance option.
–George Kottaras will travel with the club to Anaheim, but seemingly in a non-roster capacity. Unlike previous years, where the Sox were inclined to have three catchers to maximize their roster versatility, it appears that the team will have just two catchers this year. While Kottaras will travel with the team in the postseason, catcher Dusty Brown will head to Fort Myers to stay sharp.
–On Saturday, Paul Byrd made his first regular-season relief appearance since June 15, 2001, tossing three innings and allowing a pair of runs. Still, he threw strikes with 30 of his 40 pitches, showed decent stuff and – despite allowing a two-run homer to Shin-Soo Choo – offered evidence that he could serve as a long-man in the postseason.
–Michael Bowden will head to Fort Myers to stay sharp in case injuries necessitate the addition of any pitchers. Pitchers Dustin Richardson, Hunter Jones and Fernando Cabrera will all head home.
–Junichi Tazawa will travel with the Sox to Anaheim, spend the first two games with the club (”We want him to experience a little bit of what we’re doing,” said Sox manager Terry Francona, “and what he can hopefully be a part of”) and then fly back to Japan, his first professional season concluded.