For the second straight night, Jonathan Van Every was called upon to provide the Red Sox with late-inning heroics. But on Thursday, the task facing the outfielder was very different, and far less thrilling than the game-winning homer that he launched in the 10th inning of Wednesday’s game against the Indians.
Instead, Van Every was charged Thursday with the rather unsavory job of stopping the bleeding in the waning moments of his team’s 13-0 loss to the Rays.
The Sox had narrowly escaped infamy when Jacoby Ellsbury beat out a dribbler that slipped past Rays starter Matt Garza, who retired the first 18 batters of the game.
But even though the hit allowed the Sox to avoid an unwanted piece of history, they were far from safe. The team had leaned heavily on its bullpen over the final two games in Cleveland, and so there were no obvious options for relief when Javy Lopez – pitching in his third straight game – served as a batting-practice pitcher while allowing five runs and recording just one out.
And so, with the Sox trailing 12-0, manager Terry Francona summoned Van Every to the hill. It was rare enough to see a position player on the mound (Van Every was the first Sox position player to take the hill since Dave McCarty in 2004). But the moment assumed even more surreal proportions when the Sox’ empty bench (only Jason Varitek had not entered the game by the ninth) forced Lopez to trot rather disconsolately to right field.
One day after his career highlight with a bat, Van Every used a 76 mph “fastball” to passable effect. He got a foul out from Jason Bartlett, gave up a double to right-center to Michel Hernandez on a ball that may have been catchable but for an unfortunate route by Lopez, walked B.J. Upton and then retired Ben Zobrist on a foul out.
Van Every’s moment on the mound was the closest thing the Sox had to a highlight in their final game of what was an otherwise outstanding April for Boston. Apparently, the 29-year-old was better suited to adapt to a position change than was Lopez (though it is worth noting that Lopez, after chasing the ball into the gap, fired a bullet back to the infield).
The Sox also got “Van Every’d,” as they were torched by an unlikely candidate who was formerly a member of their organization. Michel Hernandez, whom the Sox claimed off of waivers from the Yankees in January 2004, was with Boston in spring training prior to that championship season, but ended up getting claimed off of waivers by the Phillies in the final days of that camp.
Here are five other things (unrelated to Van Every) that we learned from the Rays’ 13-0 wipeout of the Sox:
THE SOX WOULD JUST ASSUME THIS PAIR OF FELLOWS RESIDED IN ANOTHER DIVISION
In recent years, no pitcher has been better against the Sox than Matt Garza. He gave up four hitters in seven innings at Fenway Park in his first start of the year. He allowed just two hits while allowing one run in Game 7 of the ALCS.
On Thursday, he managed to outdo those performances, allowing just the lone scratch single to Ellsbury in 7 2/3 overpowering innings. Garza was flat-out nasty, mixing a devastating slider and knee-buckling curve with his mid-90s fastball. He has emerged as the pitcher against whom the Sox have the most difficulty.
Since the start of the 2006 season, Garza’s 2.85 regular-season ERA against the Sox is the lowest of any pitcher to throw at least 30 innings against them, while his five wins are tied for the most in the majors.
And, of course, those numbers fail to reflect the right-hander’s dominance last October, when he earned the ALCS MVP award by going 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA in his two series-defining starts against the Sox.
The fact that Garza is under the contractual control of the Rays through the 2012 season is daunting for the Sox. Yet the fact that a still-improving Evan Longoria can remain with the Rays through 2016 (his contract runs through 2013, with three years of team options) is downright terrifying to the Boston pitching staff.
The precocious 23-year-old, who went 3-for-5 with a double, homer and 4 RBIs on Thursday, is hitting .309 with a .397 OBP, .573 slugging mark, four homers and 15 RBIs against the Sox in the regular season since he broke into the bigs last year.
And, like Garza, he was a dominating force in the ALCS, clubbing four homers in the seven-game ALCS. Clearly, he has continued his role as a wrecking ball this year, going 9-for-19 (.474) with three homers and nine runs batted in against Sox pitchers.
BASE RUNNERS HAVE BEEN BECKETT’S KRYPTONITE
For the second straight outing, Josh Beckett laid an egg. After allowing eight runs on 10 hits in five innings against the Yankees, he got throttled for seven runs on 10 hits in 4 2/3 innings on Thursday against the Rays.
The turn of events in consecutive outings was nearly shocking. Beckett, after all, has turned in just four career outings in which he’s gone five or fewer innings while allowing at least seven runs and at least 10 hits. Half of those have come in the last week.
“I just gave up seven (expletive) runs in five innings,” a rueful Beckett told reporters after the game. “That’s not close to me.”
So what gives? After all, Beckett did manage to strike out eight, and the life on his fastball, curve and change (each of which elicited swings and misses) was impressive.
Nonetheless, after Beckett breezed through the first two innings, his outing took a sharp turn towards terrible once Jason Bartlett led off the third with an infield single. The presence of a threat to steal seemed to alter the rhythm and performance of the pitcher.
Beckett became incredibly deliberate once Bartlett was on base, and remained so against a Tampa Bay team that loves to run. That continued a pattern that has been ongoing throughout the year.
That fact played into the fracas with the Angels, since Bobby Abreu stepped out of the box after Beckett had held the ball for roughly 10 seconds with Chone Figgins on second. On Thursday against the Rays, that behavior once again occurred, especially during an interminable, 43-pitch third inning that saw Beckett allow four hits, two walks and four runs.
Whether related or mere coincidence, Beckett has been terrible with runners on base this year. Of the 136 plate appearances against him this year, exactly half have come with the bases empty, and half have come with runners aboard. The differences are startling.
With the bases empty, opponents are hitting .254 with a .309 OBP and .333 slugging mark while seeing an average of 3.6 pitches per plate appearance. With runners aboard, batters tag Beckett to the tune of a .357 / .456 / .589 line while seeing an average of 4.2 pitches per plate appearance. (See chart.)
In his lone dominant outing, which came against the Rays on Opening Day (7 innings, 2 hits, 10 strikeouts), he spent most of his day pitching out of the wind-up. The only two hits he allowed were when men on base forced him to pitch out of the stretch.
Of course, almost all major-league pitchers (aside from Daisuke Matsuzaka) struggle with runners on base. The average pitcher entering yesterday had a .253 / .324 / .411 line with the bases empty, and marks of .284 / .361 / .446 with runners on base.
But Beckett’s numbers thus far this year with runners on are so strikingly poor that it raises curiosity about whether there is a mechanical issue plaguing him from the stretch.
Worth noting: for his career entering yesterday, Beckett’s numbers were roughly the same with bases empty (.238 / .293 / .382) and with men on base (.248 / .324 / .403).
BECKETT ISN’T ALONE IN HIS EARLY-SEASON SHORTCOMINGS
Beckett’s dud was the latest in a string of sub-par outings by Red Sox starters. The Sox enjoyed an extremely successful first month. The team’s 14-8 record (.636 winning percentage) is the best in the American League.
Nonetheless, while the lineup (Thursday’s shutout notwithstanding) and dominating bullpen have more than lived up to expectations, the team’s rotation has been a riddle in the early going.
Beckett (2-2, 7.22 ERA) has delivered a quality start in just one of his five outings. Brad Penny (2-0, 8.66) has turned in two decent starts and two terrible ones. Jon Lester (1-2, 5.40) has been inconsistent. Daisuke Matsuzaka (0-1, 12.79) was bad when on the mound, and has spent most of the month on the disabled list.
Going into the season, the rotation appeared to be an incredible strength for the rotation. Few would have guessed that after the season’s first month, Sox starters would have a 5.52 ERA, 26th in the majors. Few would have guessed that the staff stabilizers would be Tim Wakefield (2-1, 1.86) and Justin Masterson (2-0, 2.70).
There is reason to believe that the Sox can turn around that poor start. The fact that their starters rank ninth in the majors with 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings suggests that they have the stuff to excel.
And, of course, to date, the starters’ struggles haven’t hurt the club. But clearly, if the rotation does not alter its early course, the Sox cannot rely on their offense and bullpen to overcome such deficiencies over the long haul.
JASON BAY HAS REASON TO BE HAPPY HE’S NOT A RAY
Since his first day with the Red Sox, when he led the Sox to a walk-off victory over the A’s, Jason Bay has enjoyed a hand-in-glove fit with Boston and Fenway Park. In some ways, it has seemed as if he couldn’t have picked a more ideal destination than the one to which he was traded.
Of course, the Sox were not the only team that pursued Bay at last year’s trade deadline. The Rays were one of several clubs that pursued the slugging outfielder, and at one point, it was inaccurately reported that Tampa Bay had acquired him.
Based on his adventures in Tampa Bay’s home ballpark last night, it appears to be just as well for the outfielder that he did not land with the Rays. That is not a comment on the club, but rather a reflection on the challenges of their home venue.
Bay nearly lost a fly ball against the roof of the Tropicana Dome in the bottom of the fifth on Thursday. He also misplayed a pair of would-be singles into extra-base hits when he struggled to find both balls in the low-lying banks of lights at the Trop.
All things considered, it seems a safe guess that Bay gets greater enjoyment out of spending 81 games a year patrolling the intimate dimensions of left field at Fenway than he would battling the indoor elements of the Trop.
Offensively, Bay struck out in each of his three trips to the plate, failing to reach base for just the second time in 22 contests in April. In an almost startling development, he did not walk, and so he finished the month with 23 free passes. That number is tied for the most by a Red Sox in April since 1954, and came one short of Bay’s career high for walks in a month.
DAVID ORTIZ IS READY TO LEAVE THE SEASON’S FIRST MONTH BEHIND
David Ortiz finished one of his worst months with the Red Sox by going 0-for-2 with a strikeout, a fly to relatively deep center and a walk. With that performance, he failed to hit a homer in a month for the first time in his seven seasons as a Red Sox. (Disclaimer: that does not count last June, when he did not play a single game due to injury.)
He never appeared to gain a sense of comfort at the plate, resorting to punching the ball to left rather than unloading with his familiar ferociousness. He finished the month with a .230 average and .623 OPS.
The slugger has had bad months before. Last April comes to mind, when Ortiz hit .184 with a .644 OPS. Ortiz recovered with a huge May (.318, 1.026) before landing on the disabled list with the torn tendon sheath in his left wrist.
He has endured full turns of the calendar without clearing the fences, though not since he was a member of the Twins. That year, Ortiz did not homer in either June or July, but recovered from that drought to hit .298 with a .365 OBP, .574 slugging mark and 16 homers in his final 71 games that year.
Despite those precedents for a rebound from a bad month, this struggle has been unlike any other in Ortiz’ career in Boston.
Physically, there is reason to wonder whether he is breaking down following a knee that required surgery after the 2007 season, a wrist injury that diminished his effectiveness in 2008 and a spring training when he was icing his shoulder. Because of those injuries, there are questions as to whether, at 33, the slugger is in a state of career decline.
Since joining the Sox in 2003, Ortiz has always provided a powerful rebuttal from the batter’s box to any concerns about his performance. But in this instance, while opposing managers continue to pay lip service to the notion that he remains a threat, opposing pitchers are not approaching him as such.
Ortiz walked in the eighth inning last night, but it was just his second walk in his last 14 games. He took just eight free passes in April.
As Ortiz himself has pointed out, it would be premature to draw any definitive conclusions and suggest that one poor month is more meaningful than a six-year track record. But the designated hitter has some work to do to prove that the season’s first month was an aberration.