The Red Sox received the right tonic at the right time.
The Orioles may have come into Boston with a 6-3 record, having won series against the Yankees, Rays and Rangers, but that mark was something of an illusion. Baltimore arrived in the series having permitted 69 runs in nine games, an average of 7.7 per contest that ranked as the worst in baseball.
The trend has continued. In the first two games of the three-game set in Fenway, the Sox have crossed the plate 16 times, an average of eight per game. Amazingly, the Orioles have already allowed 15 unearned runs this year, or 1.4 per game. The Sox have received a gift of four unearned runs in the two games against the Orioles, scoring three on Friday and one more on Saturday.
“We didn’t lose (Friday) because of our pitching,” Baltimore manager Dave Trembley said before Saturday’s game. “We lost because we didn’t field the ball.”
In truth, it was a little from Column A, and a little from Column B. All of that suggests that, while the Sox offense has indeed been impressive after a slow start, its accomplishments need to be taken with at least a small grain of salt.
Even so, the Sox should offer no apologies for their accomplishments over the past two games. At the least, after Saturday’s 6-4 win (which featured a four-run third inning), the offense seems to be using the Orioles to establish confidence in place of the frustration that characterized the first three series of the season.
Since learning never stops, here are five other lessons from the Red Sox’ third straight victory:
1) KEVIN YOUKILIS IS A FORCE, NO MATTER THE COUNT
The exceptional start to Kevin Youkilis’ season continues. He collected four hits in five at-bats, slamming a homer, two doubles and a single while driving in four runs.
Through the first 11 games of the year, he’s been exceptional. Youkilis is hitting .467 with a .529 OBP and .778 slugging mark. He has three homers and has driven in nine runs. Still any questions about whether he can bat cleanup?
“He’s swinging it as good or better than anybody in the league,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “Last year he grew into one of the premier hitters in the league and he’s just picking up where he left off.”
All of that is now understood. Youkilis features an elite power and plate discipline combination, and is the most dangerous hitter in the Sox lineup right now. Red Sox starter Josh Beckett pointed out one of the aspects of the Sox first baseman’s game that has made him so good in 2009.
“He's pretty special,” Beckett said. “I've played with some really good hitters, and I don't think I've ever seen anyone that's as comfortable. It doesn't matter the count, he trusts his hands so much…He gets a lot of hits with two strikes. He battles those bastard pitches as good as anybody I've ever seen."
Youkilis reached two-strike counts in three of his at-bats last night. In those situations, he hit a double on a full count in the second, crushed a 2-2 changeup for a three-run homer in the third and struck out swinging on a 1-2 slider.
All three of Youkilis’ homers this year have come in two-strike counts. He is hitting .400 (8-for-20) in those situations with a .429 OBP, .900 slugging mark and 1.329 OPS.
To appreciate how good he’s been in those situations, it’s worth comparing those numbers to those of his team. Prior to last night, the Sox were hitting .170 with a .255 OBP, .267 slugging mark and .522 OPS with two strikes this year.
2) JOSH BECKETT TOOK A WALK ON THE SLIGHTLY WILD SIDE
Josh Beckett looked like an ace for five of his six innings. Even so, for the second straight game, he lapsed just long enough to permit his opponent a big inning.
Armed with a seemingly insurmountable 6-0 lead entering the top of the fifth, Beckett gave up four runs to the Orioles. He proved uncharacteristically wild, walking a pair including one to force in a run with the bases full.
In his other five innings, Beckett cruised. Even so, it was odd to see him with a yield of four walks in his six frames. Both Beckett and catcher Jason Varitek insisted that the pitcher was not missing by much, but all the same, it was the most walks he had given up since his first start of last season.
Over the past two years, he has average 1.8 walks per nine innings, among the lowest totals in the American League. At this stage of 2009, he has given up nine walks in 19 innings (4.3 per nine innings).
If he improves his command slightly, then Beckett may well be looking at a return to his 2007 form. He showed his usual plus-fastball and curve on Saturday, and also fired off a few excellent changeups. His change now appears better than it was at almost any point last year. If he can command all three of his pitches for strikes, he will deliver some dominant games.
3) HIDEKI OKAJIMA IS TIRELESS
Left-hander Hideki Okajima delivered an outstanding inning of work, recording a pair of strikeouts while throwing eight of nine pitches for strikes in a scoreless eighth inning. The outing was all the more impressive considering that he entered Friday’s game in a crucial two-on, one-out situation and escaped the jam.
As it turns out, Okajima is ridiculously good when pitching on back-to-back days. Most pitchers suffer under such circumstances. Okajima thrives.
Since joining the Sox for the 2007 season, he has entered 27 games with zero days of rest. With Saturday’s shutout inning, his ERA in such affairs is an astonishing 0.38 (one run in 24 innings).
“Right now, I feel very comfortable mentally on the mound. My command is getting better. I was able to attack the zone,” said Okajima through translator Jeff Yamaguchi. “I don’t mind two or three straight days. I can always pitch with the same motion and technique.”
Given that willingness, it will be interesting to see whether Okajima is available to pitch on Sunday. The Sox will likely steer clear of closer Jonathan Papelbon, who looked a bit worse for wear in pitching on the second of back-to-back games (diminished fastball velocity, worse command), and Takashi Saito (whom the team is trying to keep from pitching on consecutive days).
With their top two choices to close likely unavailable to the Sox on Sunday, it will be interesting to see who might be used to close a game should Boston be in such a position on Sunday. If he is willing to take the ball a third straight day, Okajima could be that man.
4) MIKE LOWELL IS PROGRESSING WELL IN HIS RECOVERY FROM HIP SURGERY
Mike Lowell seems to be running a bit more freely, as evidenced by the fact that he chugged into second after doubling down the left-field line in the fifth inning. When he first returned to the field in the spring, he would not have been able to make it the 180 feet to second.
He’s now almost fully six months out from his hip surgery, and is encountering the expected improvement in his movement. Perhaps more significantly, he has been able to play in each of his club’s first 11 games, and is hitting .262 with a .326 OBP and .476 slugging mark that has helped him to drive in 10 runs, a mark tied for the team lead.
“I’m pleasantly surprised in (being able to play everyday). I just feel like if I’m swinging a good bat and I feel good, then I should play,” said Lowell. “I’m happy with the way things are. I definitely feel stronger, but I think it’s definitely more of a grind playing everyday (than it was in the spring).
“I think that’s why we laid out a set of exercises and a protocol to be able to handle this. In that sense, I’m pretty happy with where we are.
Lowell went 2-for-4 with a double and RBI on Saturday. He’s now 7-for-16 (.438) with six runs batted in over his last four games. Though the seventh spot rarely represents an opportunity to be a major run producer, Lowell is discovering that the opposite is true in a Sox likeup that features three players – Youkilis, J.D. Drew and Jason Bay – who are on-base machines in the fourth through sixth spots.
“Last few days, I’ve really been taking advantage of my pitch. If you do that often, you’ll have a good chance,” said Lowell. “Everyone was making a big deal about hitting seventh. But hitting behind Youk, J.D. and Jason Bay, all three of them are getting on base. That bodes well for me and the guys behind me.”
Increasingly, Lowell looks less like a player who is recovering from surgery and more like the player he was before the degenerative condition crushed him last season. In spring training, Beckett jokingly referred to his teammate as “Kirk Gibson” for his wounded trot around the bases following a home run. That title, the Sox ace suggests, is no longer accurate.
Lowell made a key play in support of Beckett. After the O's had plated four runs (without recording an out) in the fifth, Lowell dove to his right to stab Ty Wigginton's smash down the line. The runner on second was stranded, and the rally quickly subsided. The fact that Lowell was able to make that pivotal play spoke volumes about both his recovery and his instincts for his position.
“He looks like he’s Mike Lowell,” said Beckett. “He’s so instinctive that you can’t teach what he’s had. He’s always had it ever since the first time I ever saw him play. He has those baseball instincts on top of being a really bright guy. Baseball-wise, I’d probably consider him a baseball genius.”
5) THE INFIRMARY
The Red Sox offered the following medical updates:
--Jed Lowrie flew to Arizona Saturday afternoon to get yet another opinion on his injured left wrist. "The more information the better," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "I think he may be getting a little bit ahead of himself (regarding whether he might need surgery)." ...
--Pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is on the 15-day disabled list with a mild strain in his right shoulder, will get treatment the next few days to get rid of the inflammation before starting a strengthening program. When he is ready, he will move on to a throwing program. There is no timetable for the pitcher's return, as the Sox don't want calendar dates to impede the goal of "getting him back healthy and staying productive."
--Shortstop Julio Lugo got six at-bats in a minor league game in Fort Myers Saturday, playing four innings at shortstop. Mark Kotsay also had three at-bats, hitting a double while experiencing normal muscle stiffness.
--John Smoltz also threw 20 pitches in a bullpen session in Fort Myers. The pitcher will throw either another bullpen or batting practice session before participating in a two-inning game. Francona and pitching coach John Farrell will talk with Smoltz on Monday to determine the next step. "Obviously," Francona said of a pitcher who hasn't faced hitters since last June, "there is some rust."