Just minutes before Jonathan Papelbon spoke, his team had finished off one of those nights that made Fenway Park fans believe there would be baseball in October in these parts, beating the Chicago White Sox, 12-8, Monday night. (Recap.)
“We’d be good without Billy Wagner, and we’d be great with Billy Wagner. It’s simple math,” said Papelbon, the lone member of the Red Sox still left in the team’s clubhouse. “Everybody in our pen would (like to have Wagner). That would be absolutely ludicrous not to want Billy Wagner in our pen.”
Moments later, after the team had cleared out of Fenway and the vacuum cleaners were trolling the locker room carpet, word came down via a report on FoxSports.com: According to a source, Papelbon was not going to get a chance to experience what it would be like to have the 38-year-old left-hander as a bullpen-mate.
The report stated that Wagner was invoking the no-trade clause in his contract, forcing the Mets to keep the lefty and not trade or release him.
It went on to state that, according to a source, the Red Sox would have agreed to not exercise the pitcher’s $8 million option for 2010, but wouldn’t agree to not offer Wagner arbitration. Wagner projects to be a Type A free agent after this season, which would allow a team that offered him arbitration to receive two draft picks if the hurler signs with another club. The activation of Wagner’s no-trade clause also prevented the Mets from letting Wagner go to the Sox without any compensation.
The teams have until 1 p.m. Tuesday to complete any transaction, but according to one source in the report, Wagner’s position appears firmly entrenched. Another, however, said that the pitcher was “sleeping” on his decision.
Papelbon was dead-on with his analysis – getting Wagner, who struck out two while walking one in an inning of work Monday, had very little downside.
At the very least, the Red Sox have prevented the Angels and Yankees from securing the services of a potentially valuable reliever. And if Wagner did relent and allow a transaction to be made, the Sox would be adding a pitcher with far more upside than what they currently have at the end of their bullpen.
At the end of the season, if there were no agreement not to offer arbitration, the Red Sox would also have the luxury of gaining two high-end draft picks once Wagner signed with another team. (Because the reliever's goal is to close for a team in 2010, an option that wouldn't be available to him with the Red Sox, he would be unlikely to accept arbitration despite a guarantee of making more than $10 million through that process.)
There would be some breath-holding about the health of Wagner, who has now made just two relief appearances since coming back from Tommy John surgery. Under Major League Baseball rules, it is assumed that any player put on waivers is healthy, thereby not allowing the claiming team to conduct its own physical. But, judging by the reliever’s early returns, in which he has topped out at 96 mph, all signs point to a strong return.
But, at the end of the day, one thing that the Red Sox were reminded of Monday night was something Papelbon said moments after his club’s victory – the Red Sox bullpen is good, even without Wagner. Judging by the latest returns, very good.
After a rough outing by starter Clay Buchholz, who would last just 4 2/3 innings, the combination of Ramon Ramirez, Hideki Okajima, Daniel Bard, and Jonathan Papelbon swooped in to save the day.
Perhaps most impressive was the closer, who hadn’t pitched since the previous Tuesday in Toronto, and exhibited life to the kind of life to his fastball that has come and gone throughout this season. The result was two more strikeouts, giving him 13 over his last eight games.
“For me, this is part of the season that matters, September, October,” he said. “For me, feeling good and making my body be on point and in sync, this is what you put all the work into the first three months of the season, to be ready for the last three.”
Papelbon has already thrown more pitches (937) than he did in the entire ’07 regular season, and is 113 shy of last year’s total. But, as outings like Monday night’s exhibit, the closer has put himself in position for that stretch drive he talks about.
“The basis for (being prepared for the long season) was set by the usage in ’07 to make sure he was fully healthy,” said Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell. “There was a little bit more willingness on our part to put him in four- or five-out saves, and I think he came through that strong. I think in his mind it has freed some things up knowing he is sound and capable. He’s done a good job of keeping himself in shape.”
Papelbon isn’t the only one in the Red Sox’ bullpen positioning himself in good stead for the rest of the pennant race, as the latest Sox win exemplified.
Without the long-relief option of Justin Masterson around anymore, Ramirez adeptly picked up the role against the White Sox, coming on with two outs in the fifth inning after Paul Konerko had brought Chicago within two runs via a three-run homer off Buchholz. The reliever showed he was ready to rebound from his four-run outing against the Yankees on Friday night, getting Carlos Quentin to strike out to end the threat.
Then, in the seventh, with the tying run at the plate and one out, it was Okajima’s turn.
For just the fourth time in the left-hander’s 56 appearances this season, he was called on to get just one out, in this case that being White Sox slugger Jim Thome. The result was a fly out to center, lowering left-handed hitters’ batting average against Okajima to just .152.
Bard was next, experiencing a bit of a hiccup by putting the potential tying run on first when he got too far inside with a fastball on Paul Konerko, hitting the first baseman, but rebounded to get Quentin with a 99 mph fastball that turned into an inning-ending fly out to right fielder J.D. Drew.
But if there was one sign that truly showed the Red Sox bullpen was going to be OK without Wagner, it came from a pitcher who didn’t even get into the game.
With Bard running into a bit of trouble in the eighth – allowing a run – Takashi Saito joined Papelbon in warming up in preparation for potentially saving the day. This was the same Saito who had lived at the end of the Red Sox’ bullpen for much of the season, but, thanks to having allowed just two hits and no runs in his last seven outings, the veteran now finds himself ready to serve a valued role in the Sox’ pen.
While it is true that Wagner’s left-handed presence would have offered Red Sox manager Terry Francona an added security blanket against lefty hitters, with Okajima as the only southpaw among the Sox relievers, it should be noted that Saito has held lefty hitters to a .172 average this season.
Just another piece of what – with or without Wagner – looks to be a pretty complete puzzle. That we learned Monday night, along with four more things…
CHANGE WAS IN THE AIR FOR BUCHHOLZ
Gordon Beckham homered on a Buchholz change-up. And A.J. Pierzynski doubled on a change for the Sox’ starter. Other White Sox hitters took some very good change-ups from the young hurler, while also putting quality swings on the pitch more times than not.
All of it added up to what could be potentially a valuable lesson for Buchholz going forward from this, a 4 2/3-inning, seven-run outing: The league knows how good his change-up is, and might just be prioritizing it going forward.
According to STATS Inc., Buchholz throws his change-up more than any pitch other than his fastball, and when ahead in the count against left-handers he throws it even more than his heater.
That trend, however, might have caught up to the hurler against the White Sox.
“They had some very good looks at his change-up, which is very uncharacteristic when you look at over his past four starts or so,” Farrell said. “A 1-1 pitch to Beckham, who hasn’t swung the bat yet, and all of a sudden he’s sitting on a change-up and gets it. Pierzynski, who hits a 1-2 change-up that was really a pretty good pitch, and squares it up on the left field wall.”
The outing could be blamed on much more than just an ineffective change, especially considering the hit that drove Buchholz from the game – Konerko’s three-run blast – came on a four-seam fastball. That notion was supported by the pitcher himself after the game.
All of it, however, was part of a process that didn’t quite add up for the pitcher many identified as the team’s No. 3 starter heading into the season’s final month.
“It’s tough to swallow whenever the team gives you a six- or seven-run lead and you can’t get through five innings with it,” Buchholz said. “[I threw] too many pitches. They fouled off a lot of pitches when I was already deep in the count, and they battled up there and got some timely hits.”
SO WHO IS THE NO. 3 STARTER?
Before the Red Sox’ win, Tim Wakefield, Wednesday night’s pitcher who hasn’t thrown a big league offering since July 8, sounded cautiously optimistic about his return.
“I hope I pick up where I left off, but I haven’t pitched in a major-league game since the All-Star break,” Wakefield said. “I know I’m supposed to be the savior of the season, but I’m just going to go out and give everything I’ve got.”
Another “savior of the season” also got good reports, as Daisuke Matsuzaka took another step closer to a potential Sept. 8 return by allowing just one hit and no runs while throwing 37 pitches for the Gulf Coast Red Sox.
Matsuzaka, who will report to Fenway Park Tuesday, will next see game action Saturday for Double A Portland before making a Triple A start, Sept. 3, for the Pawtucket Red Sox.
“He’s done a phenomenal job,” Francona said. “Just getting him back at full strength, [having him be] Daisuke will be very welcome. And I think we probably needed to do this. Sometimes you have to butt heads. However, you get there, getting there is what’s important. I think we’ve done that.”
There was also good news from Pawtucket, where another candidate to help in September, starter Paul Byrd, turned in his best outing since signing a minor-league deal with the Red Sox earlier this month.
Byrd needed just 81 pitches to complete seven innings, allowing one run on three hits, striking out four and not walking a batter.
In other starting pitching news, it was learned through multiple sources that Brad Penny, who is being skipped this turn through the rotation, was claimed by a team when put through waivers by the Red Sox earlier this month, with the Sox pulling the pitcher back. With the 48-hour window to cut a deal with the claiming team having passed, Penny cannot be dealt.
LITTLE MISTAKE LED TO BIG OFFENSE
The whole scene seemed harmless enough.
With the Red Sox trailing, 4-1, in the third inning, Chicago starter Jose Contreras (who, by the way, now has an 8.54 ERA in 12 games against the team whom the Cuban rejected in favor of the Yankees in a Nicaraguan hotel prior to the ’03 season) had gotten two outs following one of Alex Gonzalez’ three hits.
Then, however, Victor Martinez drew a walk, which was followed by Kevin Youkilis being hit by his 12th pitch this season. Up came David Ortiz.
Ortiz worked the count to 3-0, but instead of looking for a potential run-scoring walk, the designated hitter swung at a Contreras four-seam fastball. While it was certainly unconventional, it wasn’t totally out of the ordinary for Ortiz, who came into the game with extraordinary success when putting 3-0 pitches in play.
Before the Contreras fastball, Ortiz was hitting .543 (19-for-35) when putting 3-0 pitches in play, and was 2-for-3 in such situations this season.
The results wasn’t exactly what Ortiz was looking for, however, as the slugger’s swing resulted in a slow roller down the first base line that Contreras ambled over to field. But while trying to field the ball before it went foul, the White Sox starter muffed the grounder, allowing Ortiz to reach and a run to score.
After Jason Bay’s run-scoring walk, Mike Lowell stepped up. First came a run-producing wild pitch from Contreras, and then Lowell broke things open via a three-run blast well over the left field wall. By the time the third baseman crossed home plate – pointing to his father, Carl, in the crowd in the process – the Sox had their three-run lead thanks to another two-out rally.
Unbelievably, 28 of the Red Sox’ last 30 runs, scored in the past three days, have come with two outs.
More importantly, the late surge this time around continued a welcome trend for the once-maligned Red Sox offense. Over the first four games of their current 10-game homestand, the Sox’ hitters have combined for a .331 average to go with a .628 slugging percentage and 41 runs. Over their last seven games the Red Sox have collected double-digit runs four times, and have scored a total of 65 runs.
OZZIE GUILLEN NEVER DISAPPOINTS
How did the always-entertaining Chicago White Sox manager describe his team’s loss?
“We didn’t lose the game,” he said, “we gave it away.”
If it wasn’t unpredictable, it wouldn’t be Ozzie.