It’s easy to forget how far the Red Sox came in a stretch of five games. It was less than a week ago that things could have gotten messy in a hurry.
The team had sunk to last place with a dismal 2-6 record. The starting shortstop (Jed Lowrie) and an 18-game winner (Daisuke Matsuzaka) had both landed on the disabled list. The bullpen had been torched. The lineup had been feeble.
That was the backdrop that preceded Tim Wakefield’s last start. Now, five games – and five wins – later, as Wakefield prepares to make his next start on Tuesday, the outlook is very different.
On the heels of a four-game sweep of the Orioles, the blood pressure has dropped considerably inside and around the Red Sox clubhouse. With Marathon Monday’s 12-1 beat-down of Baltimore in the books, Boston has outscored their opponents by a ridiculously one-sided 38-16 margin over their last five games.
True, most of the damage came against an Orioles team that looked, quite frankly, terrible. But the Sox capitalized where some of their A.L. East rivals (Yankees, Rays) did not.
Suddenly, the team that was predicted by many pundits to be one of the best teams in the game looks the part. Whether or not they fulfill that boast remains to be seen, but the significance of righting the proverbial ship at this early stage should not be dismissed.
April success rarely serves as a good predictor of whether a team will reach the postseason. But a poor first month can often prove insurmountable. As one baseball official said this spring, “Pennants can be lost in April.”
The American League East is not a division that is forgiving of sustained lapses. The fact that the Sox were able to pull themselves out of a brief early-season tailspin should not be underestimated.
Here are five other things we learned from a 12-1 win that gave the Sox their biggest margin of victory (11 runs) since the beginning of last September:
JUSTIN MASTERSON CAN BRING THE HEAT AS A STARTER
Justin Masterson delivered an extremely solid outing. Limited to 84 pitches, he still lasted into the sixth, logging 5.1 innings and allowng just one run on four hits while walking two and striking out three.
Aside from the fact that Masterson (1-0) won the game, his outing was noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, he is one of the most unflappable people in Red Sox history.
He does not care whether he is starting or relieving. He remains unbothered by starts at 11:05 a.m. or 7:10 p.m., whether on the East or West Coasts. If other teams stack their lineups with left-handers in order to try to exploit a perceived weakness, it will not affect the pitcher.
“I’ve just kind of been hanging out, enjoying life, getting my running in, some throwing, pretty much keep at what I’ve got going,” Masterson said after the game with his typically enormous grin. “I didn’t even notice (the early starting time). I couldn’t have even told you what time it was. For me, it was time to start and I was ready to go.”
Indeed he was. One of the most surprising elements of his outing was the degree to which he carried his bullpen stuff into a start.
Last year, Masterson’s velocity ticked up from 88-92 mph as a starter to 92-95 mph out of the bullpen. On Monday, Masterson showed an ability to sustain his velocity over the entire course of his outing in a way that caught members of the Sox off guard.
He pumped his signature sinker at 91-92 mph, and unleashed four-seamers that regularly registered at 94-96 mph.
“We were looking at each other (in the dugout) a couple of times. I think he hit 96 a couple of times. I don’t think I’d ever seen that,” said manager Terry Francona. “He maintained the velocity on his fastball, the life on his fastball, the depth on his breaking ball for an eleven o’clock in the morning start. There are a lot of things that he just went out and did. We’re fortunate (to have him). We know that.”
Masterson’s ability to adapt to different roles makes him an incredibly valuable component of the club. He is able to cover holes as they emerge, as with the injury to Matsuzaka.
Clearly, the Sox are comfortable with Masterson remaining in the rotation. Masterson, too, is comfortable with the notion…but, of course, he’s fine with the idea that he might get pushed back to the bullpen.
“I don’t know when I’m pitching next or what’s going on. I’m fine with that,” said Masterson. “I’m just going to hang out and see what happens.”
TOP OF THE ORDER TO YA
The Red Sox offense was jumpstarted almost instantly. In the bottom of the first inning, Jacoby Ellsbury dumped a pop-up down the left field line that fell between three Orioles for a double. He stole third, then sprinted home when Dustin Pedroia lined a single to center.
That started an afternoon when the Orioles found it nearly impossible to keep the top third of the Red Sox lineup off the bases. Ellsbury collected three hits in six at-bats and scored three times.
Pedroia went 4-for-6 with three runs and three RBIs; he is now batting an even .500 (9-for-18) on the homestand. On Monday, he showed his typically ridiculous plate coverage, collecting hits on the types of pitches that few other batters would even think about trying to handle. His first hit, a run-scoring single to center, came on a pitch that was off his shoe tops and outside by several inches.
“I was just trying to hit a ball into the middle of the field and get a run in,” shrugged Pedroia after his season-high four hits and three runs batted in.
“That’s him. He’s got good hand-eye coordination, so he’s going to be able to put balls in play that not everyone can hit,” said shortstop Nick Green. “He hits everything. He hit the one down-and-away, he hit the one down-and-in, the one up-and-away. For a small guy, he’s got a lot of plate coverage, but he also puts himself in a great position to hit it.”
David Ortiz, for an afternoon, resembled himself. He came into the game with one extra-base hit this year, and left with three, scraping the scoreboard in left-field with a double and lining a triple to left-center. The performance may help to calm the reactionary inquiries about whether he was on the back nine of his career.
“That’s what makes us go,” said Pedroia. “If we’re getting on base, then (Ortiz) and (Youkilis) and everyone else is driving us in. That’s our job: we get on base, our offense is going to be really good.”
Indeed, the 12-run outburst on 15 hits on Monday suggests as much. The first three Sox hitters were a combined 9-for-16. The Sox believe that there are more such days to come.
“You know that David’s not going to hit .150. You know that Petey’s not going to hit .180,” said Jason Bay. “They weren’t that good early on, and we were still getting some runs. But they’re at the top of the lineup for a reason. With the guys we have, if we get those guys on, we can put up 12 – like we did – fairly regularly.”
The Orioles cannot be blamed for wanting to have nothing to do with Kevin Youkilis. The Red Sox cleanup hitter went 1-for-2 with an RBI and three walks (one intentional) yesterday, as Baltimore showed no hesitancy about pitching to Ortiz (six walks this year) and trying, as much as possible, to pitch around Youkilis. His average currently sits at .469, and his OBP is .559.
Youkilis, however, is not even close to being the clubhouse leader in walks. That title goes to Jason Bay, who has taken 15 free passes through just 13 games, good for a .474 OBP.
Patience is a part of Bay’s game. He walked 102 times as a member of the Pirates in 2006, following a season in which he took four balls on 95 occasions. Even so, he admitted that his current run of walks seems unusual.
“I enjoy walking. Some guys tend to think of it as a negative thing, but I like it. That’s part of my game,” he said. “When you have good at-bats, if you walk, hey, take your base, and there are good enough guys behind me that I’ll take my chances.
“I walked 100 times before, so obviously you’re going to go through stretches,” he continued. “But I can’t remember a run like this, especially so early.”
As it turns out, Bay is actually extremely patient, especially in April. He wanted 21 times in the first month of last season, and had a career-high single-month total of 24 walks in April 2006.
THE SHORTSTOP SITUATION
Shortstop Jed Lowrie met with Dr. Donald Sheridan in Arizona on Monday morning, his fifth medical consultation since landing on the disabled list one week earlier. Based on the evaluations, it seems likely that Lowrie will undergo surgery to fix the non-displaced fracture in his left wrist.
“I think there’s a pretty good chance that he’s going to have a surgery in the next day or so, but we’re still having some internal discussions,” said manager Terry Francona. “In saying that, I think it’s pretty good news. I think the medical people think even with the surgery that he would be having, he could be palying by the All-Star break. That’s where we’re at today. We’ll obviously know more today or tomorrow.”
Nick Green, of course, has been holding the fort with both Lowrie and Julio Lugo on the disabled list for the past week. Green has been a fine place-holder, hitting .240 with a .321 OBP and playing generally adequate defense (he has two errors).
But Green’s time as a starting shortstop is likely nearing its conclusion. Lugo came through some tests in front of Red Sox medical personnel without incident, and so will begin a rehab assignment at Triple-A Pawtucket on Tuesday.
The Sox will not rush him back to the field, since he’s still rebuilding the strength in his legs, especially while playing defense.
“He’s only played at shortstop five innings. There’s got to be a progression, even when a guy’s not coming off an injury,” said Francona. “When you add a knee injury to it, there’s going to need to be a progression to build up so you don’t just wear him out. If you send the guy out there five days in a row for nine innings, there’s going to be some swelling. It’s inevitable.”
Lugo said that he’s now at roughly 80 percent of full health. He still experiences some slight discomfort when he bends down and to his right, something that he must deal with while playing in the field but not when hitting or running.
He is hopeful that his time in Pawtucket will be relatively brief.
“I’m just anxious to go back,” said Lugo. “It’s just a matter of playing a couple of games, get some swings, see some pitches. I just need to play, get my body ready to play everyday.”
Daisuke Matsuzaka will begin a throwing program on Tuesday. He will throw from 60 feet, though his rehabilitation is currently more focused on strengthening his shoulder. … Rocco Baldelli had to leave the game prior to the fourth inning after suffering a mild left hamstring strain. … When Baldelli left the game, he was replaced by Chris Carter. J.D. Drew has been dealing with a head cold and achiness for the past couple of days, and so the Sox wanted to give him Monday off.
AND A BONUS THING WE LEARNED
Hunter Jones is now a major-league pitcher. The left-hander recorded a scoreless ninth. In a Red Sox system that is stacked with prestigious draft picks, his journey from obscurity to the majors counts as an improbable success story.