These sort of games are frustrating enough in the innocuous setting of May or June, when the season is just starting to find its rhythm. But when they come at a time like August 15, against your most direct competition for postseason play, swallowing the results becomes appreciably more difficult.
Saturday night’s 7-2 loss to the Rangers had to have left Red Sox manager Terry Francona with one of the most unappetizing feelings he’s experienced this season.
The Rangers drew within ½ game of the Red Sox in the wild card standings (the Sox are 7 ½ back of the Yankees in the American League East), and there was little Francona could do about it.
The manager was forced to watch his starter, Brad Penny, not only amp up his pitch count to 96 pitches through the first four innings, but allow 10 baserunners through the stretch. And what that led to was six stolen bases, and ultimately an early three-run deficit.
When it was all said and done, Red Sox pitchers and catcher Jason Varitek had allowed eight steals, tying the major-league high this season, previously set in another Penny start against Tampa Bay on May 3.
It could be pointed out that just three runs were plated after Rangers’ steals, but, nonetheless, the inability of Penny to deter the running game, and Varitek’s continued problems in finding a solution to cut off the thefts from his end of things, led to part of the helplessness surely felt by Francona and Co.
Nobody in baseball has allowed more steals than the Red Sox, and no pitcher in the majors has been victimized by the stolen base more than Penny. Of the 29 attempted steals on the Red Sox pitcher, 27 have now been successful, six more than the second-most guilty pitcher, Carl Pavano.
“I’m kind of in-between now,’’ Penny told reporters. “I’ve got to pay more attention to it, not let the coaches take care of it. I’ve got to put that on me and not let them give me a sign. I’ve got to go out there and do it myself. I’ve been paying more attention to it.’’
Then there is Varitek, who has now been stolen on 92 times while throwing out nine runners, allowing a major league-worst 91.1 percent success rate.
There is no question that Varitek isn’t solely to blame for opponents running wild, and might actually be less of a culprit than some of his battery-mates, but the statistical history he is making is nonetheless unappetizing for a team as it heads through the stretch run.
“I have two things: try and get hitters out and make a good throw,” he said. “The rest is out of my hands. That’s some of the best throws I can make. They might not be good enough.”
And don’t the Rangers, who have stolen 18 bases on the Red Sox this season, know. Texas has won each of the four games it has swiped at least one bag against the Sox this season.
“Well, yeah,” Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus told the Boston Herald after stealing three bases and scoring three runs. “You have those teams you always want to run on. Varitek, he’s not that fast to second base. Penny, he’s pretty slow to home plate. So those are the little things you’re looking for as a runner.
“You get on base, you go and get the other base, because they’re going to give it to you.”
But the frustration didn’t stop with just the basestealing, which was one of the five things we learned in the latest Sox’ loss…
YOUKILIS’ MOUND-CHARGING IS BEGINNING TO HURT
What once was considered a motivating moment, the instance where Kevin Youkilis charged Detroit pitcher Rick Porcello that led to the first baseman’s current five-game suspension, is starting to take a toll on the Red Sox.
Saturday night one could make the argument that Youkilis’ absence hurt in two respects. First, with a bottom of the order (Brian Anderson and Alex Gonzalez) that isn't going to be perceived as offensive threats -- and David Ortiz hitting in the No. 6 spot against a tough lefty in Derek Holland -- the Red Sox needed all the offense it could get. Yet with Youkilis out, there was no other choice but to play Victor Martinez at first and continue to insert the bat of Jason Varitek in the lineup’s seventh spot despite his offensive struggles.
The likelihood was that Varitek would probably have played anyway, even though his average is now .241 against left-handers compared to .215 vs. righties. But with Anderson and Gonzalez hitting behind the captain, it wasn’t a formidable bottom of the order by any stretch of the imagination. After an opposite field single Saturday night, Varitek is now hitting .118 (4-for-34) in August without a home run.
Other evidence of the pain the Red Sox have to endure without Varitek came in the later innings, when Francona’s hands were somewhat tied when it came to pinch-hitting down the stretch.
Casey Kotchman did ultimately pinch-hit for Anderson in the ninth inning, but Gonzalez had to bat in both the seventh inning – when he hit into a double play following a leadoff single by Anderson – and for the game’s final at-bat. If Youkilis is around the Red Sox have at least one more viable option.
Of course, the absence of J.D. Drew – who figures to be out until Wednesday with a sore left groin – also hindered the substitution process. If the Red Sox did decide to pinch-hit for Anderson, who was hitting .259 in 16 games with Triple-A Pawtucket, Nick Green was your backup outfielder, also taking the chance to sub for Gonzalez off the table.
SPEAKING OF GONZALEZ…
Defensively, the Red Sox got what they were looking for when acquiring their 2006 starter. This was evidenced throughout the game, and especially on Andrus' grounder to lead off the sixth inning in which Gonzalez adeptly swallowed up the ball, spun around and threw to first without a hint of awkwardness.
But with Drew out for the short-term, the light-hitting Anderson filling in, Varitek continuing to struggle and David Ortiz still battling his inconsistencies, living with a shortstop who has little hope of supplying offense might be tough to take.
Saturday night Gonzalez went 0-for-4 and is hitting .189 with a .244 on-base percentage since June 1. As WEEI.com stat man Gary Marbry points out, coming into his first game with the Red Sox Gonzalez was 4-for-40 this season against pitchers with an ERA of 3.50 or under, third-worst in the majors.
(By the way, even though it was primarily with the Reds, Gonzalez’ teams have a 12-23 mark since that June 1 jumping off point.)
Even one of Gonzalez’s strengths, not hitting into double plays, went out the window against the Rangers. Entering the contest he had grounded into just one double play since April 19 despite being put in 27 double-play opportunities. But with Anderson on first and the Red Sox still only trailing by a pair of runs, the shortstop killed any potential rally with a 6-4-3 twin-killing.
PENNY HAS ROAD WOES
As uneven as the Red Sox’ starter’s performance was Saturday night – now averaging 18 pitches per inning for the season, having thrown 50 in the first two frames against the Rangers – he still gave his team somewhat of a chance.
When it was all said and done, Penny had gone 5 2/3 innings, allowing four runs on eight hits, while striking out six and walking four. He finished throwing 121 pitches (just 68 strikes).
He also finished strong, showing a live fastball in striking out the side in the fifth.
“He gave us every single thing he had,’’ said manager Terry Francona. “They made him work. We didn’t help him a lot. Again, he gave every ounce of everything he had.’’
But some of Penny’s struggles can’t be overlooked, especially at this point in the season. He now has a 2-5 mark with a 5.79 ERA on the road and has seen his monthly ERA go from 3.18 in June to 5.93 in July to 6.11 in August.
AT LEAST WAKEFIELD PITCHED WELL
In his first rehab start since battling both back and calf problems, Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield turned in a solid performance for the Pawtucket Red Sox against Gwinnett County. Wakefield went 3 2/3 innings, allowing two runs, while throwing 63 pitches (40 strikes). He allowed three hits, struck out three and walked one.
Also progressing was Paul Byrd, who pitched in his second start with the Gulf Coast Red Sox, Friday, going four innings and giving up two runs on seven hits. In his first outing the 38-year-old allowed a pair of runs in three innings. He has still yet to walk a batter.