October 2009

What Could Have Been, and What Is.

Before I start endlessly analyzing and fretting over the Hot Stove rumors, I want to talk about what is right before us: the League Championship Series. We have plenty of time to talk about the former–the void between the end of the postseason, and Spring Training. I have enjoyed watching these series even though the National League Championship Series didn’t end the way I wanted it to. 

I was completely surprised that the Dodgers lost in only five games. To be honest, I didn’t think they would get past the powerhouse of the Cardinals, let alone sweep them. With guys like Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, and Albert Pujols, I thought that the Cardinals would have gone a lot further than they actually did. They had the caliber to be in and to win the World Series, but fate just didn’t have it that way. I thought they had Game 2 (I think it was?) in the bag when there were two outs and an easy fly ball was hit to Matt Holliday, but instead of catching it to win the ball game (and perhaps instill some confidence in the Cardinals), it hit him right in the crotch. 
The Dodgers seemed to have luck on their side, and it was a 2008 NLCS re-match. The Phillies may have an emerging postseason legend in Cliff Lee and the ego-maniacal Cole Hamels whose pride from winning the World Series last season seemed to cloud his ability to pitch well, but the Dodgers have a deep lineup, a good starting five and a fabulous bullpen. I really wanted the Dodgers to advance to the World Series as well because I knew that regardless of whomever won the ALCS, the World Series would be enticing as long as the Dodgers were there. 
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Had the Dodgers advanced, they would have played either the Angels or the Yankees. If it was a matchup between the Dodgers and Angels, we would have had the first “subway series” since the one in New York in 2000. This subway series would have meant that I would have been up until roughly 2 am every morning, sleepwalking my way through school. Yet the intensity that arises from a series like this is so alluring, that a lack of sleep would have been well worth it. It’s almost like a civil war, and it will augment the rivalry between the two teams like nothing else can. 
Not that I would ever root for the Yankees, but if the Dodgers were representing the National League, I can’t say I would have minded too much if the Yankees were to advance. It would have been Joe Torre vs Joe Girardi. The Yankee manager that was fired for his supposed inability to advance the Yankees to the World Series despite their winning four World Championships under his leadership. 
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I’d like to talk about that for a second. I thought that whole scenario was completely ridiculous. I may be a Red Sox fan, but I have no problem admitting that Joe Torre is one hell of a manager. The same way that I can admit that I cheered for Derek Jeter when he surpassed Lou Gehrig, and the way that I consider Mariano Rivera a God; I consider Joe Torre a superb manager. I understand when managers are fired because their teams play miserably and are in last place, but I don’t understand when managers are fired despite their team getting to the postseason. Getting to the postseason is an honor–only 8 teams out of 30 do it a year–and a manager should be honored for that (most of the time) not scolded for their team’s failings. *Note: the whole Grady Little leaving Pedro in is another story*
Anyway, the Dodgers vs Yankees would have been a great matchup, and of course I would have been rooting for the Dodgers even though it hurts me to see Manny Ramirez’s postseason heroics. 
Instead of dwelling over what could have been, I suppose it’s best to look at what we have at hand: the Phillies advanced to the World Series, and Game 6 between the Angels and the Yankees is tonight. I don’t like the Phillies. I root for the Marlins because I live in South Florida, and the Phillies are the Marlins’ division rivals. I may be a bit jealous because the Phillies did what the Red Sox failed to do last year–advance to the World Series for the second year in a row (please don’t hate me Phillies fans, I respect your team nonetheless). They could be the first team since the Yankees to repeat World Series victories, and the second team this decade to have two World Series victories (the first, of course, was the Red Sox). I guess it’s just that having the Phillies in the World Series doesn’t excite me as much as the Dodgers would have. 
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Tonight, I’m rooting for the Angels–just like I have been for the entire ALCS. Although it’s hard to admit, they played better baseball than the Red Sox did. I know that they are a good team, and I know that they have what it takes to beat the Yankees. It is so foreign to me to be rooting for Bobby Abreu since I’ve always had something against him for taking Juan Pierre’s spot in the All-Star game a couple of years ago (the fact that he played for the Yankees only augmented this feeling). Torii Hunter’s ego may bother me, but I know that he’s a fabulous center fielder, and a great team leader. Lackey pitched his heart out in Game 5, and Mike Scoscia made a huge mistake in taking him out (for the record Scoscia is probably my least favorite manager in the Majors). Out of the teams that remain, I want the Angels to win. I want them to win it for Nick Adenhart, because that would be beyond baseball. 
The one interesting thing about having the Phillies in the World Series is that whoever wins from among the three teams that remain, that team will have two World Series victories in this decade. The Yankees won it in 2000, the Angels won it in 2002, and the Phillies won it last year. The question is, who will it be? And it is that unanswered question that keeps me watching baseball. 

They Break Your Heart…

As soon as the game ended, I wanted to come on here and write everything that I was feeling. It would have been the most impulsive, scapegoating article you may have ever read. I tend to forget that the emotions following the end of the season (especially a bad end) come in waves. 

At first, I masochistically sat in my room and cried. I could not believe we had lost that game. It didn’t seem possible; I was so sure of a victory. Even when the Angels were right on our tails, I was thinking: “Hey, our closer is in. There are two outs and two strikes. We got this!”. That thought went through my head twice. Then Vladmir Guerrero shattered that thought and replaced it with a single emotion: disbelief. 
Anyway, I felt it wasn’t proper to write when I was crying simply because I could barely see the screen and plus, no one is really coherent when they’re in that state of mind. Then I transitioned to anger, which blinded me for a little while because I was angry at only Jonathan Papelbon, and that’s not fair. I was scapegoating him for the entire series, not just the game, and that’s really not fair. 
Finally, the empty feeling pervades, and that’s the one that sticks. The Red Sox season is over, and without them, well my life is kind of empty. This feeling of emptiness was accompanied with disbelief again, and heartbreak: the same old song and dance. So I feel like I’ve done myself, and you guys a favor by not writing about this until today. 
I tend to scapegoat a lot when the Red Sox lose. Normally, I blame myself for choosing the wrong couch cushion to sit on, or something along those lines. And what some would call “obsessive compulsive disorder” severely augments during the playoffs. 
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I’m sure many of you can guess whom I decided to scapegoat during Game 1: CB Bucknor, the first base umpire–I was absolutely livid. However, regardless of how erroneous his calls were, it didn’t significantly effect the outcome of the game. The offense was dead, practically immobile; we were shutout for the first time since the 1995 ALDS. Our bats simply did not show up that day, similar to the absence of our bats during the first few weeks following the All-Star break. 
I went on to blame the Yankees for choosing Wednesday night instead of Thursday night to begin their playoff crusade. Obviously, they wanted to sabotage us by giving us an extra day off so that we would be rusty. I do think that the Yankees had a similar mentality in choosing which day to begin on, but I don’t think it was as intricately planned as I thought it was. Nevertheless, we were rusty. We hadn’t played a game since Sunday, so there wasn’t a lot of momentum going into the playoffs. Regardless of the outcome of Game 1, it is still ironic and cruel humor to have an umpire whose last name is ‘Bucknor’ umpiring first base. 
The beginning of Game 2 rendered me hopeful when Jacoby Ellsbury hit a triple, and Victor Martinez drove him in. That turned out to be the most amount of scoring we would be doing for that game. Another night in which the lackluster Red Sox offense barely did anything. Both Beckett and Lester had decent outings, but they were out dueled by the stellar pitching from Lackey and Weaver. 
So what was wrong with the Red Sox? We had gotten ourselves in to a do or die situation. Not completely unfamiliar territory, but not the most pleasant to be in either. What had been the remedy in the years past when the Red Sox had their backs against the wall in say 2004 or 2007? To be honest, I think players only meetings were a significant aspect in rejuvenating the team. 
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As far as I know, there were no players only meetings this year. But think about who led those players only meetings in years past: Jason Varitek, our captain. It’s no wonder there were no meetings this year while our captain was sitting on the bench. When Terry Francona took him out of the last game of the season to a standing ovation at Fenway Park, I did not know that it may have been the last time I would have ever seen Varitek in a Red Sox uniform. 
The Victor Martinez pickup was brilliant; it was the perfect remedy when our offense was lackluster after the All-Star break, and I think he was a major player in helping the Red Sox get to the postseason. However, it seems to me like we kicked Jason Varitek to the curb. 
I know I lobbied relentlessly for his return in the offseason, and there hasn’t been a single moment this season in which I have regretted that. Sure his offensive numbers are subpar, but as I’ve said countless times, his mere presence on the field is invaluable. I know Victor Martinez’s bat is one of the most formidable in all of Major League Baseball, but we can’t just throw our captain under the bus because of his weak offensive numbers. We didn’t even do that to Big Papi during his horrendous slump. 
Take a look at our pitchers’ second half numbers. Guys like Josh Beckett, Ramon Ramirez, Manny Delcarmen (among others) struggled the second half of the season. By no means do I want to blame their numbers on Victor Martinez, but I do think that familiarity with a catcher has a significant impact on their numbers. With a guy like Jason Varitek, a man who calls the game like no other (who else has four no-hitters on their resume?), pitchers don’t even have to think. Jason Varitek probably tells them when to breathe and when to blink, but he slowly drifted out of the picture by the end of the season. 
He didn’t even see a minute of postseason action–a time when the comfort of the pitchers is essential to success. Varitek is the true leader of the Red Sox, so I wonder how the team feels when they see their captain on the bench. I’m not saying bench Victor Martinez, but I know that there is another lineup where both Varitek and Martinez are present. If we were sitting Varitek because of his lack of offense, than I think it is perfectly justifiable to sit Big Papi. 
One more thing before I progress to the truly heartbreaking game. What about respect? Did the Red Sox treat Jimmie Foxx, Carl Yastrzemski, or Jim Rice like this? I don’t think so. I think we have seen Jason Varitek’s last moment in a Red Sox uniform. 
***
I tried to change this up a little for Game 3. I realized that the Manny Ramirez statue I had made in seventh grade was still in my room, so I launched it into my backyard. Then, another brilliant idea crossed my mind: a hunger strike! What if I was to refuse food until the Red Sox scored? I thought that Kevin Youkilis’ shot (that ended up being foul) signified my lunch, but I was wrong–and I was getting hungry. Jacoby Ellsbury’s spectacular catch almost prompted me to sneak a pretzel, but I refused. Luckily, Dustin Pedroia’s two RBI double allowed me to eat. I thought that the hunger strike was brilliant, and I was already planning on doing it again the next day during Game 4 when the Red Sox were still flying high on a 5-1 lead. 
I forgot Yogi Berra’s famous aphorism: “It ain’t over til it’s over”. I was so proud of my babies/projects that I forgot that Papelbon is human. Clay Buchholz blew me away in his
postseason debut… the fact that he performed the way that he did as a rookie is astounding. Not to mention the fact that Daniel Bard got out of a bases loaded jam with no outs with minimal damage. 
I was so sure we had that game in the bag… just like in years past when Red Sox fans were positive that they had the game won. It was heartbreaking to watch the win slip through our fingers. It was more than just a sweep. In 2005 when the Red Sox got swept by the White Sox, they lost Game 3 3-0. But we had this game. We could have pushed it to Game 4. But as we all know, they break your heart. 
We can’t just blame Jonathan Papelbon–it was the offense that failed to score runs in the first two games as well. So as Red Sox fans, we suck it up. The wound will remain open, but we blink back the tears and look forward to next season. 

Aggravation to Rejuvenation

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This past week was not the most fun week to be a Red Sox fan (and I know Indians and Orioles fans are having a tough time too). The Sox didn’t exactly look like a team that had just clinched playoff berth with the way that the pitching was coming apart. In fact, they didn’t even clinch the wildcard with a win, they were merely graced with a Texas loss to secure their spot. 

The Yankees clinched the division on their home turf, against the Sox, which partially fulfills their goal of the 2009 season. With the additions of CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and AJ Burnett, many predicted that the Yankees would win the division, though everyone knew not to count the Red Sox out with what seemed like the best pitching staff in baseball at the start of the season–in fact, many predicted the Red Sox to win it. 
Clinching the division on their home turf would have been satisfying enough, but clinching against the Red Sox? That must have made it even better for them, and I turned off ESPN as soon as Jacoby Ellsbury’s soft grounder to Mariano Rivera ended the ninth. 
This final season series sweep by the Yankees made the season series even. After the Red Sox won the first eight of the season, they either got swept, or lost the rest of the series. In what very well could be the American League Championship Series matchup, all Red Sox fans are hoping that we can pull it together, and make every game in that series unforgettable–all fights to the finish. And with the Red Sox and Yankees, it always is. 
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I was hoping for a bit of rejuvenation against the Blue Jays. I always like going into the playoffs with lots of momentum, and I wanted to secure a spot already! No such luck Monday night. Josh Beckett was scratched from his start with mild back spasms (but he is pitching tonight, so all is well). When I first heard the story, memories flooded back to me of Spring Training 2008. I was excited to finally see Beckett pitch, because I had never seen him live before (and I still have not). He was even warming up with Jason Varitek down in left field at City of Palms Park–but he didn’t make the start. Manny Delcarmen did, and Beckett started that season on the DL, and had a mediocre season according to his standards (as well as my high standards for him). Thankfully, these spasms are nothing to be concerned about. 
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I was very excited to see Michael Bowden take the mound, since he is my favorite pitching prospect. To say that he didn’t have the best night would be an understatement. He lasted only three innings and was tagged for seven runs. Bowden was obviously very disappointed in himself, but he made no excuses. He said that he could have been told five minutes before the game that he would be starting, and still this outcome would have remained inexcusable. I appreciate the fact that he didn’t make up excuses, and I won’t make up any for him either. 
The fact of the matter is though, that we can’t judge September call-ups simply by their one month of play, that would be unfair. Bowden was missing his spots, and he was getting behind in counts–something that can easily be fixed. Plus, he is not used to Victor Martinez, and practice makes perfect. I would like to see him follow a path similar to Clay Buchholz–because look how effective that extra time in the minors was for him: he is going to be a starting pitcher in our playoff rotation. 
In fact, if Bowden works really hard this winter (I am not sure if he will be pitching in the Arizona Fall League), I think that he could be a legitimate contender for a spot in the starting rotation for 2010. Dustin Richardson has impressed me, and I am very excited to see more of him next year in Spring Training. He is a legitimate contender to be a project next year, as is Fernando Cabrera. I think that what we have to remember is that it is a big transition from the minors to the majors, and it would be unfair to expect anyone to flawlessly make that transition. 
The last two games against the Blue Jays weren’t much better. The second game seemed like a recurring dream as Buchholz also gave up seven runs. And if it wasn’t for Joey Gathright in the third game, Halladay could have no-hit the Red Sox instead of just pitching a complete game shutout. 
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Speaking of Joey Gathright, I want to get to playoff rosters. We are less than a week way from what I like to consider the first day of “Soxtober”. While there are many “lock-ins” for the roster, there are still some spots that are up for grabs.
I would like the starting rotation to look like this:
1. Jon Lester
2. Clay Buchholz
3. Josh Beckett
4. Daisuke Matsuzaka
I am so proud of how far Clay Buchholz has come this season. I think that he has truly earned that spot. And who knew that Dice-K would come back and pitch as well as he has? Sometimes, it is worth giving people a second chance. 
As for the bullpen, Papelbon, Wagner, Okajima, Saito, Bard (whom I refer to as ‘Baby Bard’ on twitter), and Ramon Ramirez should be locks. With the way that Manny Delcarmen has been pitching as of late, his spot is no longer secure. 
The possibilities for that eleventh spot could range from guys like Byrd and Wakefield, to guys like Bowden, Cabrera and Richardson. I love Tim Wakefield, but I really don’t think that he is healthy enough to pitch in the playoffs. And even though the bird is the word, I don’t think that Paul Byrd has been consistent enough to earn a spot on the roster. And much as I like Bowden, I don’t think that he is ready for the postseason this season. Next season? I have no doubt. 
I know it may sound crazy, but I think it should be between Richardson, Cabrera and Delcarmen. 
As for position players, most of them are locked in. The main question marks are the utility infielder and the reserve outfielder. Alex Gonzalez was hit in the hand last night and he was forced to leave the game. Not good timing at all, and I think we’re all praying that he is not injured. I would like to see Gonzalez as the starting shortstop with Lowrie or Woodward as the  backup. 
So the question is: Lowrie or Woodwa
rd? This one is the toughest for me to figure out since we have seen so little of both of these guys this season. The second spot to fill is the reserve outfielder, and I think that Joey Gathright has the best shot because of his speed. Think Dave Roberts, 2004 and you’ll know why. 
I am working on playoff brackets this weekend, and what I think should be the roster, so I will do my best to get back to you guys by Tuesday as to who should make the roster. 
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