Carl Crawford has a knack for leaving an impression on the Red Sox.
Back in the first game of 2003, the Tampa Bay outfielder spoiled Theo Epstein's first game as a general manager with a walk-off home run. Dustin Pedroia still talks about the marvel of watching Crawford work out in his group at Athletes' Performance over the past two offseasons. And then there is Jason Varitek's perspective on the man who could have played football at Nebraska or basketball at UCLA.
"It's not fun to sit there and watch people constantly go and be safe," Varitek told the Boston Herald following the Red Sox' 5-3, series finale loss to Tampa Bay, Sunday at Tropicana Field.
But that's the impression Crawford left behind this time around -- four hits and six stolen bases.
So, with the 4.2 40-yard dash speed of Crawford -- who is now perfect in 17 stolen-base attempts this season, and has been thrown out just four times in 54 attempts against the Red Sox in his career -- let's get into the five things we learned Sunday afternoon.
BLAME SHOULD BE SHARED
Red Sox manager Terry Francona was quick to point out that the process of attempting to nab Crawford wasn't totally flawed.
“We had (Brad) Penny at 1.28 (seconds to the plate), and Jason at 1.9 (seconds on his release and throw),” Francona told reporters after the game. “We can’t go faster than that. (Crawford) outran it. At the moment, to throw him out, you about have to be perfect.”
Both stopwatch-clocked times are, indeed, reputable results. Still, it is too easy just to say that Crawford is fast. When it comes to defending the running game, there is some work to do for the Red Sox.
No catcher in baseball has had more stolen bases swiped against them than Varitek, who has permitted 26 thefts in 29 attempts. That of course would make it no surprise that the Red Sox have allowed more stolen bases than any team in the majors (34), seven more than second-place Baltimore and San Diego.
Then you add in the team the Sox were playing against, the Rays, and it was clearly not a good match-up even before Crawford tied the modern-day mark for stolen bases in a game. Prior to stealing eight bags Sunday afternoon, Tampa Bay was tops in the majors in thefts.
In the past two seasons, the Rays have stolen multiple bases against the Red Sox eight times, while notching at least one in 13 of the teams' 25 meetings. Tampa Bay has been successful in all but four of its 35 attempts against the Sox over that span.
This time around it was starter Brad Penny who was on the mound for five of the eight steals. The other three were accomplished off of relievers Ramon Ramirez (2) and Manny Delcarmen. That put the stolen base total at 13 steals in 14 attempts against the Red Sox' relievers, and 21 thefts in 28 tries vs. the starters.
So, how much was Penny (who now has one more stolen base against him (7) than the team's previous leader, Tim Wakefield) to blame? The most Penny ever had stolen on him in one season was in '05, when opponents were successful 20 times, but were also caught on eight occasions. And for his career Penny has seen 43 of his 164 basestealers cut down, not a terrible number.
And Penny also has a history of at least trying to keep runners close, in the past few years usually finishing behind only Derek Lowe as the Dodgers pitcher who throws over to first base the most.
But, other than Jon Lester, Red Sox pitchers really haven't had any success in holding down opponents' running game. Lester has picked off five guys while allowing just one stolen base in six attempts this season. Everybody else? One pickoff (Hideki Okajima) with 33 steals in 36 tries.
It's something to work on, which is exactly what the Red Sox were saying at this time last year when they had allowed 27 steals in 32 attempts (fourth in the majors). And if you're going by history, Red Sox fans might be encouraged considering their team ended up having allowed the 13th-most steals by the time the '08 season was done.
ORTIZ' PROBLEM IS COMPLEX
Prior to Sunday's game, David Ortiz broached the subject of his struggles at the plate this season. After going 0-for-3 on Sunday, the Sox' No. 3 hitter is standing at a .208 average with a .302 slugging percentage.
Of the things he told multiple media outlets, one was a direct admission that he has been pressing: "I was. I'm not going to lie to you. I was trying to get five hits in one at-bat. Right now I'm just taking a walk. If they don't want to give me [anything] to hit, I won't swing. If you give me something, I'm going to try to hit it. If I don't hit a homer today, I'll try to hit one tomorrow."
Well he didn't hit one Sunday, so he's going to have to rely on the launching pad that has become Yankee Stadium.
So, what is it?
Ortiz still believes part of the problem is the way opposing pitchers are approaching him.
"They always pitch me the way I won't hurt them, but I will," he told the media gathering. "You better write that [stuff] down right now, I will. I'll be back."
Some point to the fastballs they see getting thrown by Ortiz as a major issue. That would seem to be a problem, as his .161 batting average against fastballs from right-handers (according to STATS Inc.) would suggest. Last season he hit .318 against such offerings.
Yet looking at how the Rays pitched him Sunday, it might suggest that it is a combination of heaters and soft stuff that has Ortiz befuddled. That might explain why he is swinging at the first pitch -- as he did just once in four at-bats Sunday -- more than ever.
This time around the Rays' pitchers threw fastballs five times in 20 pitches to Ortiz. The game before Tampa Bay hurlers started Ortiz out with the hard stuff before coming back with curveballs and sliders, and finishing off with a stream of Grant Balfour heaters (eight of nine pitches).
Everybody is looking for trends and solutions. The first are a lot easier to find than the second. Just ask Ortiz.
PENNY WAS MISSING BATS
Brad Penny only allowed three runs in six innings, but what might have been most noteworthy was that he struck out eight batters. Despite throwing consistently in the 96 mph range, the righty has never been a big strikeout guy.
Heading into Sunday, Penny had struck out a total of six batters in four starts. The last time he fanned at least eight was July 16, 2007.
Of the Red Sox starters, Penny is still last in regards to percentage of swings and misses. He has gotten whiffs just 13.3 percent of the time, compared to Lester (27.4), Justin Masterson (23.8), Josh Beckett (23.0), and Wakefield (18.6).
"I thought Brad really threw the ball," Francona told reporters after the game. "It was good, it was strong, it was down, it was over the plate. He got some fastballs for swings and misses. He threw a couple of splits, a couple of breaking balls."
DEFENSE AT SHORTSTOP IS NOT THE SOX' STRONG SUIT
Julio Lugo wasn't charged with an error Sunday, but that didn't mean he had a flawless defensive effort.
With one out in the fourth inning, Tampa Bay's Michael Hernandez hit a seemingly certain inning-ending double play grounder to second baseman Dustin Pedroia. But while Pedroia was able to get the first out on a throw to Lugo at second, the Sox' shortstop bobbled the transfer, allowing the Rays' third run to score.
It was reminiscent of Penny's previous start when Lugo opened up a big inning by missing a throw from Pedroia that should have started a frame-ending double play.
Lugo hasn't been alone in his defensive struggles at shorstop, however. Nick Green, who admits that short isn't his natural position, has totaled six errors. The Red Sox shortstop duo leads all of the major leagues with seven miscues, while coming in last in fielding percentage (.929).
Last season the Sox' shortstops finished with 22 errors, and the fifth-worst fielding percentage, coming in at .967.
IT'S YANKEES TIME AGAIN
In case you forgot, the Red Sox take on the Yankees for two games at the new Yankee Stadium, starting Monday.
The Red Sox stand at 15-10 while New York is 13-11, coming off a postponement Sunday against the Angels after losing to LA Saturday. The rain-out pushed starter Phil Hughes' start to Monday. The rookie went six shutout innings, giving up just two hits, in his first start of the season.
Hughes will face off with Lester.