Monday, September 29, 2008

Beckett's Impact on the ALDS

Well, the Red Sox' 2008 season has a clear theme. Reliable starting players get injured and the Sox rely on minor league call-ups, bench players, and trade acquisitions to step up, contribute, and keep winning. The injuries did have a toll, but they just kept bouncing back (unlike our lovable rivals from the Big Apple). That theme will have to continue through the playoffs if the Sox want a shot at back to back World Championships.

While Terry Francona was carefully manipulating his game lineup to do his best to minimize the risk of a last minute injury to a key player, the injury demon attacked Tito from the rear in the safe confines of the bullpen. Josh Beckett experienced a pull in his side on about the 40th pitch of his bullpen session on Sunday. The injury appears to be a fairly mild oblique strain, and that is enough to knock a pitcher out. After all the radio debates on who should be the Sox' #1 pitcher, and who should be the #4, the situation has forced Terry's hand. Beckett will not start until Game 3 in Boston on Sunday the 5th. That is a full week after the injury happened. If it is indeed a mild strain, that may just be enough time. But, Beckett will not only need to be much improved physically, he'll also need to have solid mental confidence that he can let it loose without worry. That is the real trick. If he is tentative, he'll get eaten alive.

Which brings us to an interesting question. How devastating is the move of Beckett to the #3 spot against the Angels? In the end, it might possibly be a good move. We think of Beckett in terms of what he did last year. Based on that, we practically want him pitching in every single post season game! But, if we get rational for a minute, we have to admit that he is NOT pitching like he did last year, especially in the second half. that doesn't mean he won't have a good playoff run, it just is something we have to admit. Second, Beckett has faced the Angels twice this year, with poor results both times. Overall, he is 0-2 with a 7.43 ERA in those starts, a 4-2 loss on the road when he gave up 4 runs in the 7th inning, and a 9-2 loss in Fenway when he gave up 7 earned runs in just 5 1/3 innings.

Maybe this year's Beckett is not cut out to beat the Angels. Many fans have argued that Jon Lester is currently our best pitcher, and Dice-K is right up there with him. Oh, and the 4th starter? We should not need one, based on the current plan. Lester will open the series in Anaheim on Wednesday, and then will be ready to pitch in game 4 in Boston on Monday the 6th. Dice-K will pitch game 2 on Friday in Anaheim and will be ready to start game 5, also in Anaheim, on Wednesday the 8th. Beckett gets the hump game - right in the middle.

So, this series, unlike last year, rests not on Beckett's shoulders, but on Lester's and Matsuzaka's. The injury theme also plays out with the position players. Mike Lowell may not be able to play in game 1 of the series, and if he plays at all, he certainly won't be 100%. JD Drew appears ready to play, but a herniated disc in his back will surely keep him from being 100% either. With Manny Ramirez slugging for Joe Torre these days, and Lowell and Drew either out or not 100%, the Sox are packing much less punch than they had planned.

Especially against the Angels, the Sox may need to put a little more emphasis on small ball. If Drew can't go, having both Jacoby Ellsbury and Coco Crisp out there will not only create a solid outfield, but also put some speed on the bases. Get these guys on, run aggressively, and hopefully have men in scoring position when the big guns, like Dustin Pedroia, come up to bat.

So, we have what we have to deal with. We still have good starting pitching to throw at the Angels, a rested bullpen, and some pretty serious players who have proven all year they are ready to step up and contribute. On Wednesday, the battle begins. This year, the Angels think they can finally get past Boston, but the Red Sox are out to make them work for it.

More great stuff coming up, including a look at an interesting Fenway Park character - a Rational Sox Fan exclusive.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Next Stop, Anaheim

This my be the first time in history where the Red Sox were eliminated from contention for the Division Title by Mother Nature. With the terrible weather, late start, and iffy field conditions, Terry Francona opted to NOT pitch his intended starter, Daisuke Matsuzaka. Now, if you do not want to risk harm and wear to a valuable pitching commodity, who do you send out to the mound? David Pauley, of course.

Mother NatureEven though the Yankees have already been eliminated, they are still a dangerous team, and sending David Pauley out there was a little bit of sending David to face Goliath, but taking David's slingshot away first. As you might predict, Pauley did not even get past the 3rd inning, allowing 7 runs (6 earned). It went downhill from there. The way I look at it, Tito may possibly have subtly informed us of which pitchers are either NOT going to be on the post-season roster, or at least the pitchers who are on the fence. Check out who pitched yesterday:

David Pauley, 2 2/3 innings, 6 hits, 7 runs
David Aardsma, 2/3 inning, 3 hits, 5 runs
Mike Timlin, 1 2/3 innings, 3 hits, 1 run
Chris Smith, 1 2/3 innings, 3 hits, 3 runs
Devern Hansack, 2 1/3 inning, 5 hits, 3 runs

Sounds like we just weeded out all the pitchers who are not ready to help win in the playoffs. Had Mother Nature not interfered, Dice-K would have started, and the results, while not necessarily a win, certainly would have been better. But, regardless of pitching, Tito was already pulling back on the reins. Dustin Pedroia, Jason Varitek, and David Ortiz were all given the night off to recharge.

As we head into the playoffs, I reiterate that Mike Lowell and JD Drew are the keys to watch. Lowell tried to DH last night but re-aggravated his hip with just one at bat and had to leave the game. Lowell's absence weakens the offensive lineup, and it jumbles the infield. Sean Casey and Mark Kotsay are simply not the defensive gems at first that Youk is. And Youk, while adequate, has been away from 3rd too long to field the position as well as Lowell. The best move is to put Jed Lowrie at third, but that leaves Alex Cora at shortstop. Cora fields short reasonably well, and while he has his hot moments at the plate, he is not a big offensive threat.

JD Drew's defense is very good in right, but using our backup outfielders, we do not get a big drop off in defense. What we miss is the bat Drew was swinging in June. Imagine the JD Drew we saw in June along with the Mike Lowell we saw in last year's playoffs added into the lineup with Big Papi, Youk, Pedroia and Jason Bay. Pretty solid lineup.

I think the Sox' pitching is in good shape, and should be able to keep the Sox in contention. But, with both Lowell and Drew out, we may find them struggling to score enough runs to win a series. Wednesday it all begins out in Anaheim.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Lester Wins 16th in Final Outing

Jon Lester looks primed for the playoffs. In what will end up being his final outing of the regular season, Lester pitched 6 innings only allowing one run on two hits. I imagine the Sox wanted to give Lester a good quality start, but not have him go too deep or get his pitch count up too high. They must have been sweating that strategy a little bit as Lester was carrying a no hitter into the 6th inning. It would be pretty tough to pull your starter out of the game in the middle of a no hitter. But, Lester allowed a double to the first batter of the 6th, probably eliciting a sigh from Terry Francona.

Jon LesterAs it was, that allowed Lester to come out after 6 innings, get the win, and keep his pitch count to a reasonable 86. Yes, the Sox won, but they are playing the Indians you know. By the end of the game, the Sox had Gil Velazquez at shortstop, Van Every was in right field, and Chris Carter was in the DH spot. But, a win is a win, and with the Rays losing last night, the slim hopes for a Division Title stayed alive for one more day. We all know that is more than a long shot. The Rays would have to lose all 3 of their final games, all against Detroit, and the Sox would have to win all three of their remaining games against the Yankees. Could happen I suppose, and the Sox should keep doing their best to win, but without reducing their readiness for the playoffs.

I am supposed to be attending tonight's game, but the weatherman is telling me that won't happen. 100% chance of rain between 9 and 10:00 does not sound good. But, if it does get played, Daisuke Matsuzaka will have a chance to win his 19th game of the season, which would be terrific! Not sure what JD Drew's plans are, but Mike Lowell expects to play this weekend and be ready for the playoffs. I imagine Lowell will practically do and say anything to ensure he is on that playoff roster.

While the AL East and West are nearly all sewn up, the Central is still a tense battle. The Twins and White Sox are virtually tied (even in the loss column). The Sox have 3 games remaining against the Indians, and the Twins, who just beat the White Sox last night, have 4 games left against the Royals. This may come right down the the last day.

In the NL, the Cubs and Dodgers (yes, Manny Ramirez, Joe Torre, Nomar; those Dodgers) have clinched Division Titles. The Phillies have a 1 game lead over the Mets with both teams having 3 remaining games. The Wild Card Race is also truly wild with the Brewers and Mets in a dead even tie. I love playoff races! More to come!

(Photos Courtesy of ESPN)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Playoff Prep Begins for Red Sox

With the Rays winning their game against the Orioles last night, the Red Sox are down to an elimination number of just 1. The next Rays win or Red Sox loss will officially hand the AL East crown to Tampa Bay. The good news is that, with 4 games remaining in the season, the Red Sox do not need to scratch and claw the rest of the way, only to limp into the playoffs worn out and exhausted. Instead, they can calmly and strategically give everyone enough work to keep them sharp, give anyone a rest who could benefit from it, and get some work in for anyone coming off an injury.

Paul ByrdThat is just what we saw last night. Paul Byrd started and got 5 decent innings in. Probably his last start, but I would not be too surprised if he pitched an inning or two in the final game of the season in preparation for the playoffs. Mike Timlin, David Aardsma, and Manny Delcarmen all pitched in relief, and all three shut down the Indians and allowed the Sox a chance to win the game. Definitely an encouraging outing for all of them. Their success allowed Terry Francona to give Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon the night off.

Who could benefit from rest? Coco Crisp has been dealing with a nagging foot issue, and he got the night off. Jed Lowrie has been experiencing recent struggles at the plate. He also got some rest, but came in late in the game to pinch hit. What about Jason Bay? Don't forget, he and his wife just had a baby LAST WEEK! Any parents out there know what that is like. He is probably feeling stressed, a bit overwhelmed, and not getting much sleep. During Tuesday's game, there were a couple of times he seemed to be in a daze. The fans around me started to get on his case, then I reminded them all that Bay just had a baby, and they all thought about that, and realized that these guys are not robots, they have real lives like all of us, and he probably has a lot going on right now. They instantly got off his back, and giving his a rest last night was a good idea.

JD Drew has made enough progress with the herniated disc in his back that he started the game last night. He only played 3 innings, but it got him out there to get some live work in. He looked understandably rusty, but if he can use these final games to tune up and get back to near 100%, that would be a big boost to the lineup. If JD (and I do mean IF) can get hot in the playoffs and start hitting like he did in June, I'd love to see him batting fifth and creating havoc for opposing pitchers. Think about that. Ellsbury leading off, followed by Pedroia, Papi, and Youk. Pretty goof top four. But then, the pitcher sees Drew, Bay, and Lowell (not necessarily in that order) coming up? I like the sound of that. That also puts Lowrie and Varitek in the 8 and 9 spots, taking pressure off of them. Meanwhile, you still have some weapons coming off the bench in Sean Casey, Crisp, Alex Cora, and Mark Kotsay.

That all sounds like a potential Championship team to me. BUT, it relies on JD Drew and Mike Lowell to get well. not barely well enough to drag themselves out there, go 0-4, and play meekly on defense. It relies on them going out there and playing hot. Lowell is even more pivotal than Drew, because his absence not only collapses the lineup a bit, but it also throws the infield into a spin. Our best backup 3rd baseman also happens to be a gold glove caliber first baseman. Replacing Youk at first with Casey or Kotsay is a downgrade. Plus, Youk is not as sharp at 3rd as he once was. But, if we keep Youk at 1st, now we need to move Lowrie to 3rd and bring in Cora at short.

So, I think if Drew and Lowell can heal and recover in time to play well in the playoffs, the Sox will be very tough to beat, even by LA. If these guys are still hobbling, or have not gotten their timing back yet, then it is going to be a struggle.

Well, hopefully the weather does an about-face tomorrow. I am looking forward to my final regular season game, and a chance to watch a relaxed, meaningless game against the Yankees.

(Photos Courtesy of ESPN)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Papelbon Steals Second Base!

That's right, I saw him do it! Only moments earlier, Alex Cora hauled in a harmless infield fly ball for the final out of the game. The Red Sox defeated the Indians 5-4, and in doing so, clinched the American League Wild Card spot, while simultaneously eliminating the Yankees from postseason play. Then, the celebration ensued! Knowing this would be fun, I worked my way around from right field down to the first base line and found a spot a rows off the field right by canvas alley. Players were celebrating, champagne was flying, and smiles were readily found.

Jonathan PapelbonThen, we looked out and Jonathan Papelbon, doused in champagne, wearing a ladies-pleasing sleeveless Red Sox jersey, marched over to second base, bent over, and started tearing it from the ground. From the look of it, it was not easy. Like King Arthur once drew Excalibur from the stone, so did Papelbon extract second base from the very foundation of hallowed Fenway Park (not being frivolously torn down any time soon, by the way). With the base held in one hand high overhead, Papelbon marched directly towards where I was standing. A huge cheer went out, and as he approached, he reached out and handed the base to someone in the front row. Yes, Papelbon did indeed steal second base. I never saw what happened to the base after that. I wonder if they actually let the fan keep it?

Papelbon Steals Second BaseSo, I did get my wish after all, being present at the playoff clinching game. My friend brought both his father and father-in-law to the game, which turned out to be pretty fun. His father-in-law confided in me that it had been a long, long time since he had been to Fenway Park. When I asked him how long ago it was, he thought for a moment and answered, "I really can't remember exactly, but I do remember that I saw Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle both hit home runs in that game. Ted's landed right around where we are sitting but Mantle's [he said pointing up towards the Dunkin Donuts sign] landed way back there". My jaw dropped, just for a second, and I realized someday that might be me, telling a grandchild that I sat here the day David Oritz hit two home runs in the first inning, or the time Papi hit a home run that broke my friend's thumb, or the time, in 2008, when we watched the Sox clinch a playoff birth.

Final OutAnother fun moment in the celebration was when 3 players jogged out of the dugout, all soaking wet and carrying fresh bottles of champagne. They were (if I recall correctly), David Aardsma, Javier Lopez (who is really tall up close), and Manny Delcarmen. The three of them headed out to right field, towards the bullpen where the Boston policeman (who bumps knuckles with Papelbon each time Paps gets called in from the 'pen) was standing. We all watched as they got closer and closer. I felt like that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when Arthur and his men (hmm, another reference to King Arthur?) were charging the castle and the two guards just stood there watching, and the shot of them charging kept repeating as if they were never getting any closer. Suddenly, they reached their target, still standing rock still, and proceeded to douse him with champagne amid hugs and high fives.

So, that's it. The Rays won both halves of their double header yesterday to reduce the Red Sox' elimination number to a mere 2 for the Division Title. If the Sox lose just one more game, and the Rays win just one more game, the Rays take the title. So, I think, while it is not technically over, we can relax, and concede the Rays have earned that one. Now, continue to play hard, and try to win every remaining game, but rest everyone who needs it, get work in for everyone who needs it, and line up the rotation so that we'll head in to LA with all guns blaring.

My next game to attend is Friday, against the Yankees, the night the Red Sox have announced they will retire Johnny Pesky's number! We'll also be able to say a sad farewell to the Yankees for 2008. Way back in 2002, sports radio host, Eddie Andelman, tried to organize a Yankee Elimination Party. That party got canceled, and no such party has been possible until last night. The Yankees have had quite an amazing run. Understand this. Derek Jeter has never, up until now, played in a game that had to playoff meaning. Never. Pretty impressive.

(Photos Courtesy of Boston.Com)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Can Wakefield Secure Playoff Spot?

The Red Sox, somewhat surprisingly, lost to Cleveland 4-3 last night, even with Josh Beckett on the mound and a case of champagne hanging in the balance. Certainly not the result we were looking for. While Dice-K turned in a "playoff ready" performance the night before, Beckett was unable to register his own readiness with the fans. Beckett looked sloppy at times, hit 2 batters in one inning and walked in a run with bases loaded in the second. I don't think there is a reason to panic, I think Josh just had a less than stellar night.

Josh BeckettThe loss turns out to be fortuitous for me, however, as I have tickets for tonight's game. This will be the second game I've attended when the Sox would be able to clinch a playoff spot with a win. The last time I had this opportunity was a game I went to with my Dad on October 2, 1990. The Red Sox were playing the White Sox, and a win would clinch the AL East. Both teams scored in the first inning and held the 1-1 tie until the 7th, when Chicago went up by one. In the bottom of the 8th, the Sox rallied to tie the score at 2, and the game went all the way into the eleventh inning. The crowd was getting exhausted, but we cheered and pleaded the team to score just one little run and unleash the euphoria we had bottled up inside.

Alas, the White Sox were the ones to score in the 11th inning, and the red Sox were unable to answer in the bottom of the inning. We all went home frustrated, and pondering whether there really was a curse. The next night, as you recall, we all got to see Tom Brunansky make his historic diving catch in right field to end the final game of the season and send the Red Sox to the playoffs in dramatic fashion.

I missed that play by one day in 1990. Eighteen years later, I'm back for redemption. The Sox loss last night was simply a sign that it is meant to be. Tonight, Tim Wakefield's knuckler will behave itself and dance the night away. Big Papi will continue launching bombs into the Red Sox bullpen, and it will be the new guy, Mark Kotsay, who will be called on to make the improbable head first dive into the right field corner (right in front of my seats), to save the day and unleash a downpour of champagne over Fenway Park.

Sound Good? Certainly sounds better than clinching the Wild Card thanks to a Yankee loss. As far as the Division Title goes, the Red Sox lass last night combined with the Rays' win puts it ever further out of reach. In order for the Sox to not be mathematically eliminated from the Division Title, the Rays have to lose AT LEAST 4 of their remaining 7 games. If the Rays do go 3-4 to finish the season, the Red Sox would have to sweep all their remaining games, going 6-0. Hmm, can you see how unlikely this is looking? Not impossible, no, just tantalizingly close, yet just at the end of your fingertips. Like trying to get that last pickle slice from the bottom of the jar. You fingers can touch it, but can't quite snare it.

(Photos Courtesy of ESPN)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Matsuzaka Peaking at the Right Time

Dice-K looked completely ready for the post season last night. He pitched seven shutout innings to help the Red Sox clinch at least a tie for the Wild Card. There is but one team left to smite before their spot in the playoffs is secure. Yes, the Yankees are that very team. Unfortunately, the Red Sox don't play the Yankees until later this week, and by then, amazingly, those games will truly be meaningless.

Dice-K MatsuzakaThe Yankees packed up their venerable old park last night after completing the final game ever to be played there. With two outs in the ninth inning, Derek Jeter was replaced by Wilson Betemit, presumably to allow Jeter one last moment in the spotlight to be cheered by his adoring fans. However, we all know the real reason is they were scared he'd make an embarrassing error on the final out of the game, right?

So, enough of the crying and tears over poor Yankee Stadium. If it was so sad, then why tear it down? If it means so much to everyone, what was neither George or Hank Steinbrenner at the glorious final game? If honoring the historic players and coaches was so important, why was neither Roger Clemens nor Joe Torre acknowledged during any of the ceremonies? And, if this was such an important event, why was the closing of Yankee Stadium held on a Sunday night, in a meaningless game against the Orioles? I'll tell you why. It was not supposed to be that way. The Yankees think they are automatically in the playoffs every year. The true hope and expectation was that they would indeed have a farewell game, but it would be in celebration of a World Championship. They were so confident they would at least be in the playoffs, that no thought was given to the event that the final game would be a regular season game against Baltimore. No wonder the vocal half of the Steinbrenners did not show. They were embarrassed.

Now, back to real baseball...

David OrtizBrilliant game yesterday to defeat the Blue Jays 3-0. The pitching worked like last year's formula. Dice-K (the starter) went 7 innings, Hideki Okajima shut down the 8th, and Jonathan Papelbon mopped up the 9th. Nicely done! On offense, Jacoby Ellsbury led the charge going 3-4 with 2 doubles and a triple. That allowed him to save his 50th stolen base of the year to take place during the final 7 game home stand. Thank you Jacoby! Ellsbury's triple in the 1st inning was quickly followed up by a sacrifice fly by Dustin Pedroia to give the Sox the game winning run from the second batter of the game. Pretty cool. In the third inning, with Ellsbury on second base, David Ortiz crushed his 22nd home run of the season to give Dice-K a little cushion. Papi has been hitting with more power lately. Either his wrist is no longer an issue, or he's decided to ignore it until November.

Yes, Tampa Bay lost last night, and at first glance, it looks like an exciting race developing for the final week. Tampa holds a mere 1 1/2 game lead over the Sox, and there are still 7 games remaining for Boston, and 8 remaining for the Rays. But, before you get too excited, overtaking Tampa is still a long shot, although not mathematically impossible. There are two keys. First, the Sox do not play Tampa, so no chance at taking them down head to head. Second, Tampa Bay holds the tie breaker, and are 2 games ahead in the loss column.

So, if Tampa Bay goes 6-2 in their remaining games, that would eliminate Boston. If they go 5-3, Boston has to finish the season 7-0. All the Rays need to do is to go 4-4 to force the Sox to go 6-1. So, yes, the Sox are only 1 1/2 back, but it is a VERY long 1 1/2 games.

I will be going to the game tomorrow night (Tuesday). And, just like earlier this month when the Sox set the new consecutive sold out games record on Monday, and I went to the game on Tuesday, it looks like I may miss by one game again. A win by the Sox tonight, or a loss by the Yankees, and the Sox clinch the Wild Card. Oh well, as long as they clinch!

(Photos Courtesy of ESPN)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Playoff Picture Getting Clearer

The Red Sox' 6-3 loss to Roy Halladay and the Blue Jays last night was no big surprise to me. The big surprise was that Halladay only lasted 6 innings. I was hoping that would open a door for the Red Sox, expose a weakness in the Toronto bullpen, and result in a late game win that would eliminate the Jays and the Twins from playoff contention while keeping pace with the juggernaut that Tampa Bay has become.

Roy HalladayAlas, the Sox were unable to pull together a late inning rally. They scored their 3 runs all in the 3rd inning on an RBI single by Big Papi that sent Dustin Pedroia home from second, and a 2 run home run from Jason Bay. They had another two chances to score, but they both fell short. In the 5th inning, they managed to load the bases with 2 outs, only to have Jed Lowrie strike out. In the 8th, they had runners on 2nd and 3rd with two outs, only to have Alex Cora ground out to end the threat.

Jon Lester had a rough start to the game, but settled in after that. In the 2nd inning, I was not sure if Lester would even be back out for the 3rd inning. The Jays sent 9 batters to the plate in the 2nd, and would still be going if Lyle Overbay had not, mercifully, grounded into a double play to end it. But Lester not only came back for the 3rd, he lasted to the 7th inning holding the Jays scoreless in that span.

Jason BaySo, where do we stand today? The offense is weakened with Mike Lowell and JD Drew still out with injuries. And if I hear you griping about Drew not playing, come over here so I can slap you in the head. Where was your griping when Papi was out, or Lowell, or Lugo (okay - never mind about Lugo)? Drew has been clinically diagnosed with a herniated disc in his back. He has been in consultation to consider season ending surgery, which he has passed up on to be in position to contribute to his team, and has been in constant work to get thought it. You can play with a sore arm, achy knee, etc. But you simply cannot play when your back is out. Just try swinging at a 95 mph ball with your back out and you'll get the idea. Do you really want him out there when there is no way he can hit the ball?

Okay, now that you've realized how foolish your frustrated thoughts have been, where was I? Oh yeah, offense. With Lowell and Drew, the offense definitely drops down a notch, and that hurt last night. The worry is more for the playoffs. Can these guys BOTH get back to near 100% in time for the playoffs? For playoff action, as close to 100% as possible is what we need. Alex Cora as starting shortstop throughout the playoffs with a decent rookie at third does not feel like a championship waiting to happen.

With the Division Title all but out of sight, I think we should start resting our pitching. Jon Lester, last night, exceeded the most innings he's ever pitched in a season. Josh Beckett and Tim Wakefield have both been out with injuries late this season. Let's give them all an extra day off, take them out of games early, keep pitch counts under 100, and build up strength for the Angels.

Face it, the Rays are just about out of reach. If the Sox finish the season 8-0, the Rays would have to go 5-4 for the Sox to take the title. For the Wild Card, the Sox need but win two games and they can coast the rest of the way in. At this point, I vote for coasting, healing the troops, building strength, and coming out like gangbusters.

P.S. Did you hear the rumor that Joe Girardi was going to be fired by Hank? No? Me either, but why don't we start one???

(Photos Courtesy of ESPN)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Why Do We Know Players' Contracts?

A friend posed the question to me over the weekend, "Why is it we know how much baseball players make?". It is a good question. Knowing how much players make alters how fans feel about them. A player making $10 million a year who strikes out with the bases loaded gets much more anger directed their way than a player making league minimum. Knowing how much they make skews our perceptions of players. We don't just look at them as simple ball players and just look at their physical talents. Instead we scale our opinion of them based on their paycheck.

But why is that? Aren't employment contracts private? I don't know what my friends and neighbors make, so why should I know how much baseball players make? Is there a legal reason these contracts are made public?

Well, the question mark key on my computer is starting to wear out, so I'll stop posing the questions and start answering them. But first, I want to give a thanks to Jeff at Cot's Baseball Contracts for helping with this investigation. If you have not visited Jeff's site, you should - it is the best source for MLB contract information I've seen.

The first answer is, no. Baseball players' contracts are not public. All of MLB's financial information is private, but certain information inevitably leaks out, and in some cases, is offered up. Teams are required to share player salary information and supply that information to both MLB and to the Players' Union. This process puts the information in the hands of numerous people, too many to keep it under wraps. Many people consolidate this information and publish it for us, like the USA Today Salaries Database. They indicate this data comes from the MLB Players Association, club officials, and documents files with MLB's central office.

There is a strong public desire to know this information. So, rather than fight a losing battle, MLB actually makes public all players' salaries on opening day rosters. So, while technically the information is private, no one is bothering to keep it private. Another leak comes from agents. Agents who sign players to big contracts are very excited to share their success with the world. Makes them look good, boosts their client's ego, and helps attract more business.

The one thing we do not generally know, unless it too is leaked, are any particulars unique to a player's contract. There is a standard contract that is used for all players, but teams are free to add additional clauses to the contract. For example, Mike Lowell's current contract has a clause that states that he gets a suite in any hotel the team stays at while on the road. How do I know this? Mike actually tells us that in his autobiography, Deep Drive, which is a very good read!

So, we are not generally privy to a player's contract outside of the basic salary structure. Any additional information, such as incentive clauses, and extra perks, are either offered by a player or agent, or leaked by an insider. So, contracts are "private", but kept about as private as gossip at the local coffee shop.

Hope that answers your question, Bill!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Rays Give the Red Sox the Old Rope-A-Dope

If you are a boxing fan, you are surely familiar with the "rope-a-dope" strategy that Muhammad Ali used in defeating George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle fight. In using the rope-a-dope, Ali would simply lean back against the ropes, put up his gloves in defense, and allow Foreman to hit away. In the process, Ali suffered minor damage while puffing up his opponent's confidence and tiring him out at the same time. Then, when the time was right, Ali jumped off the ropes and put a beating on the suddenly unsuspecting Foreman. The result, like the Rays' series win over the Red Sox, was a knock out.

Granted, the comparison is not perfect, but the parallels are there. Monday night, the Rays let the Red Sox pound away at them, and suffered a 13-5 loss. They took the damage, knowing it was not enough. Then the Rays came back and beat the Sox, and Josh Beckett, 2-1 on Tuesday, and completed the knockout against a reeling Red Sox team last night with a knockout 10-3 victory.

Why is it a knockout? Because a critical Division Title tie breaker was on the line. The Red Sox and Rays faced each other 18 times this season. Going into last night, the Rays were ahead 9-8. A win by the Red Sox would even up the season series. Then, in the event the Red Sox and Rays ended the season in a tie, they would be forced to play a one game playoff, winner take all. Instead, the Rays won, and now, should the two teams end up in a tie, there will be no playoff game, the tie will go the Tampa Bay. That means to win the Division, the Red Sox need to finish ahead of the Rays, not tied with them.

The Red Sox are 89-63 with 10 games remaining, which the Rays are 90-60 with 12 games left. Since the Rays have lost 3 fewer games, the Red Sox need to win 4 fewer games the rest of the way. Mathematically, that means the Rays have to lose AT LEAST 5 games. If the Rays go 7-5, the Sox would need to go 9-1. If the Rays go 6-6, the Sox need to go 8-2. Not easy feats. Last night's win may have just knocked the Sox out of contention for the division.

The Wild Card, on the other hand, has become a near certainty with the Twins losing to Cleveland last night. The Sox are 7 games ahead of the Twins with both teams having 10 games left. The Red Sox have to lose at least 7 of their remaining 10 games to give the Twins a chance.

So, enjoy the rest of the regular season, but start gearing up for a first round in the playoffs as the Wild Card facing off against the Angels. Not such a bad place to be, just ask New York.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Fish that Got Away - Rays Win 2-1 in the 9th

I have to say, last night's game was more like it. The night before, a 13-5 cake walk, was embarrassing. But, last night the Rays regrouped and put up a proper playoff fight. Their players shaved their heads into Mohawks and lined up to do battle against Josh Beckett. They knew their chances were slim, but they went at it anyway.

Josh BeckettBeckett had a brilliant night, only making one mistake on a pitch to Carlos Pena leading off the 7th inning, that turned into a solo home run. That erased the Red Sox' 1-0 lead and was the only blemish on Beckett as he went 8 complete innings only allowing 3 hits and one walk while striking out 7. For a while, it felt like Beckett might even make a run for a no hitter, until Cliff Floyd registered the Rays' first hit with one out in the 5th inning. Unfortunately for Beckett, the Red Sox offense was silent, which is pretty typical the game after scoring runs in double digits. The Red Sox only run came on a sacrifice fly by Kevin Youkilis in the 6th inning. Otherwise, Rays' starter Andy Sonnanstine, was able to match Beckett's outing.

Other than brilliant pitching in general, Rays' catcher, Dioner Navarro, was the hero last night, twice. In the 8th inning, with one out, Jacoby Ellsbury singled. This was big for the Sox. If Ellsbury steals second with one out, the sox would have a great shot at scoring a run and taking the lead. That would put Papelbon on the mound in the 9th inning. So, Ellsbury took off for second, and Navarro fired one of the more perfect throws to second I have ever seen. A laser of a throw that landed perfectly in Akinori Iwamura's waiting glove. Iwamura did not have to even move the glove, he simply had to close it around the ball as Ellbury slid in to it. if the ball had been throw just a foot off, Ellsbury probably would have touched the base before being tagged out.

Jacoby Ellsbury thrown out stealingSo often in baseball, the guy who makes the big defensive play comes up later and gets the big hit. I don't know if it is adrenaline, or a self confidence from the big play, but you can almost always count on it. Last night was no exception. With the score still tied, Justin Masterson was sent in to get the Rays out in the bottom of the ninth inning. The first batter, Jason Bartlett, barely got the bat on the ball, but ended up on first base as the looping fly ball landed in that spot behind first base that no one can reach. Then, Masterson dug himself a deep hole. He walked Carlos Pena, struck out Evan Longoria, and then plunked Cliff Floyd on the knee to load the bases. That brought up Navarro, who smashed a 2-2 fastball deep to center field, easily bringing home the winning run from third.

Dioner NavarroSo, faced with the prospect of losing possession of first place outright, the Rays stepped up and showed some life. I tip my hat to that. But, even though the Sox lost, they still moved forward in the playoff race as the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Twins all lost last night. The losses reduce the Yanks and Jays elimination number to a mere 3, while the Twins' elimination number in the Wild Card race dropped to 5. With 11 games to play, the Sox are more solidly entrenched as a playoff entrant. The question that is becoming the only remaining question, is who will be the Division Winner, and who will take the Wild Card spot between the Red Sox and the Rays?

The Sox were without Jason Bay last night, who flew quickly back to Boston to be present for the birth of his daughter, Evelyn Jane, last night. Word is Jason got there with only 45 minutes to spare. Ah, the life of a major league family. I'm Bay is already on a plane back to Florida to play in tonight's game. But, there will be plenty of time this off season to play with the baby.

I am concerned about Mike Lowell. Having been forced to retire from baseball with a bad hip myself, I cringed last night as Lowell came up limping after making a barehanded grab of a softly hit ground ball and making the throw to first. It was a nice play, but the twisting motion clearly aggravated Lowell's right hip, which has been diagnosed with a torn labrum. The right hip is also the center of a right handed batter's strength. A hobbled Lowell will still be able to contribute, but not at the levels he is fully capable of. Bad timing for that injury, but Mike has been there before, barely recovering in time from a broken bone in his left hand prior to the 2003 playoff with the Marlins. Let's hope he still has some magic healing powder left.

(Photos Courtesy of ESPN)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Red Sox Went to Fight, But the Rays Never Showed Up

Someone needs to call down to Tampa Bay and send the message. This is the height of the playoff race. Now is the time to get down to business. The Rays have impressed everyone all season, never more so than taking two out of three games from the Red Sox last week in Boston. Now is the time for them to drive the nail home and take what they have fought for all season long. I was looking forward to a real battle between these two teams yesterday. Scott Kazmir against Daisuke Matsuzaka, both teams vying for possession of first place, late September drama.

David OrtizWhat did we get? We got a spring training game. Kazmir opened the game walking the first two batters on 8 straight pitches, then surrendered a 3 run home run to David Ortiz. That was just the beginning. Mike Lowell hit a solo home run to put the Sox on top 4-0 after one inning. Home runs were the theme, with the Red Sox hitting a season high 6 home runs last night to score 13 runs. By the 5th inning, with the Sox leading 11-1, the game was over. In the 6th inning, Terry Francona started getting all his backup in the game for extra work and gave his starters some rest. The Rays sent Mitch Talbot out to replace Kazmir in the 4th inning. This was Talbot's major league debut - being sent out to take one for the team! Mitch pitched 3 innings, and allowed 4 more runs to score. He save the bullpen some wear and tear, but did not have a distinguished start to his career.

Scott KazmirI guess Terry Francona felt a little sorry for the Rays, and rather than have the gave get too out of hand, he send in a Chris Smith present for them (pronounced Christmas). Chris Smith brought gifts of two run home runs, surrendering one in each of the two innings he pitched. But, driving up the score from 13-1 to 13-5 will not show up on Red Sox radar, so no worries there.

The only real Red Sox concern was Daisuke Matsuzaka, who remains a bit of a mystery. He get the win, setting the single season record for Japanese born pitchers at number 17. He also only allowed 1 run on 3 hits and two walks, and struck out 7 batters in 5 innings. Pretty good, right? Absolutely. But, did you know he needed 101 pitches to do it? 101 pitches to get through 5 innings, but only allowed 1 run? That worked last night, but in the playoffs, I'd sure love to see him get deeper into the game than that!

Mike LowellMaybe the problem for the Rays is a lack of fan support. I am excited at the emerging talent on the Rays, and I would vote wholeheartedly to get them moved to someplace that cares. Maybe the Rays took two out of 3 in Boston last week because they could feel the playoff intensity in the air. Last night, possibly the biggest baseball game played to date in Tropicana Field, only 29,722 fans bothered to show up. The seating capacity at the Trop is 43,772. That means the dome was only 68% full! Of those 29,722 fans, at least 10,000 were Red Sox fans. How can a team truly get into playoff mode in that atmosphere? Just sickens me.

(Photos Courtesy of ESPN)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Red Sox Survive Toronto Visit

With four games to play against a red hot Toronto team that was suddenly very interested in a playoff spot, Red Sox fans were a little anxious. But, four games later, the Red Sox can hold their heads high. They battled well, and only lost one of the four games, effectively driving a dagger into the Blue Jay's hopes of a last minute drive for the Wild Card. As it stands, the Jays and Yankees both are facing an elimination number of 5. That means any combination of Red Sox wins plus losses by them that add up to 5, will eliminate those teams. With the Red Sox having 13 games left, if they go 5-8 in those games, both Toronto and New York are out. That sounds pretty likely.

Jon LesterJon Lester had no fear facing Roy Halladay yesterday. They went toe to toe and Lester faced Doc down. Both pitchers got in a little trouble early on. Lester gave up a solo home run in the first, and Doc gave up single runs in the first and second innings. But then they settled into a rhythm and held the 2-1 score all the way to the seventh inning. The Sox scored an unearned run in the bottom of the seventh, the last inning Halladay would pitch. Lester got through 8 innings before getting a rest. He left the game with a 4-1 lead, allowing only 4 hits, two walks, and producing 6 strikeouts. Terrific night for Lester!

Roy HalladayLester handed the ball over to our recently shaky closer. In two of his last 3 appearances, Jonathan Papelbon has look far from immortal. Last night's ninth inning started with a double and a single to score a run. The next batter, Lyle Overbay, hit a single to left but got thrown out at second trying to stretch his hit into a double. Had he held up at first, Papelbon would have been in deeper trouble. Scott Rolen grounded out, but Adam Lind scored the second run of the inning on the play. The score was now 4-3 and Papelbon was on the brink of a second blown save in a week. Luckily, he induced Greg Zaun to ground out to end the game. Let's hope Papelbon irons out whatever he needs to so we have our guaranteed closer ready for the playoffs.

We'll get a final shot to knock Tampa Bay down a notch or two starting tonight as the Sox open a three game series against the Rays in Fenway South. Tonight's match up should be interesting with Daisuke Matsuzaka facing off against Scott Kazmir. Josh Beckett takes on Andy Sonnanstine on Tuesday, and Tim Wakefield wraps up the series against Matt Garza. All good pitching match ups, no excuses. to the winner go the spoils.

(Photos Courtesy of ESPN)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Red Sox Split Double Header With Toronto

The Toronto Blue Jays, wallowing through most of the season, have come on like gangbusters in September. They have been so hot, tearing through the AL East, that they have even surprised themselves. Suddenly, they looked up at the standings to see they had passed the Yankees to take over third place, and were making ground on the Wild Card spot. This had Red Sox fans worried. Would the Red Sox become the latest team to get steamrolled by the Blue Jays?

Seeing they had an outside chance of capturing the Wild Card spot, the Blue Jays went into playoff mode, all guns blaring. The pitching rotation was juggled, forcing their top 3 starters to face off against the Red Sox, all on 3 days rest. This not only gave them their optimum pitching match ups in this series, but set them up to repeat those match ups in the next series against the Sox in Toronto. Now, if you ask me, the Jays were probably so hot because they were playing loose, no longer concerned about the standings. They were out of contention after all, right? Then, the winning streak put them back in contention, and they got serious, and tightened up.

The Sox, behind a brilliant performance by Tim Wakefield, won the Friday night game, 7-0. Toronto put up their own brilliant pitching performance out there and won the first game of the double header behind AJ Burnett, 8-1. A win in the afternoon game for the Sox would ensure they did what they needed to do, at least split the four games with Toronto.

Bartolo ColonSo, last night, Bartolo Colon faced off against Jesse Litsch. The Jays jumped on the Sox for 5 runs in the second inning, but only two were earned, thanks to an error by Jed Lowrie at third base. It looked bad for the hometown team, and as I left the room, my wife said to my daughter, "I think Dad's giving up on this game". My daughter calmly replied, "Mom, this is the Red Sox, you never give up until the very end". That's my girl! Colon settled down and faced the minimum 3 batters per inning for the next 4 straight innings (thanks to inning ending double plays in two of those innings). That is what the Sox needed. Shut down Toronto and hold them to five runs, while they try and chip away.

The Sox had put 2 runs on the board in the first inning, both scoring on a sloppy Toronto play. A wild pitch, followed by a throwing error scored the first two runs of the game. The Blue Jays were no longer playing loose! Now, if you were scoring this game, I'd love to see your scorebook. By the 6th inning, both managers, knowing they had expanded rosters to work with, started substituting players like this was the All Star Game. The Red Sox scored a run in the bottom of the 6th on a bases loaded sacrifice fly by Jed Lowrie with one out. Then the moves started.

Jesse Carlson went in to pitch, and Terry Francona sent in Mike Lowell to pinch hit for Alex Cora. After Lowell popped out, Brandon League went in to pitch to Kevin Cash, but Francona sent in Coco Crisp to replace Cash. Crisp grounded out to end the inning. Now, how does your scorebook look to reflect the defensive changes in the 7th inning? With Coco in the game, Jacoby Ellsbury moved to right field and Coco took center. Kevin Youkilis moved from first to third base and Mark Kotsay came in from right field to play first. Jed Lowrie slide from third over to short to fill in for Cora, and finally, David Ross replaced Mike Lowell and came in to catch. Phew! If you were at the game and left to get a beer, when you got back it would look like a totally different ball game. By the way, Javier Lopez also came on to pitch (and get the Jays out 1-2-3). So, only Jason Bay and Dustin Pedroia remained at their positions.

David Ortiz was the hero of the 7th inning. With Ellsbury on third, Ortiz walked with one out. Then, Youk hit a ground ball that had double play potential. Ortiz had a good jump, and slid to get in the way of shortstop Mark Scutaro. Ortiz slid cleanly and within the base path, but managed to clip Scutaro and prevented him from making the throw that would have ended the inning. That allowed Ellsbury to score the Sox' 4th run. The score was now 5-4 with 2 innings to go. Ortiz' slide allowed the Sox to inch closer.

Jacoby EllsburyThen, in the 8th inning, the Red Sox fought their way back into the lead, with a little bit of luck. The inning started with a Jason Bay double, then a single by Lowrie that scored Bay and tied the game at 5. A sacrifice bunt and a ground out put Lowrie at third base with two outs. Then, Jacoby Ellsbury came up and battled back and forth with Scott Downs. Downs could not get strike three past Ellsbury, and Ellsbury could not get solid contact. With the count full, Ellsbury swung and again just nicked the ball, but this time it rolled fair down the first base line like a well placed bunt. Ellsbury sped to first and when Downs rushed to get the ball, he slipped and fell. Ellsbury reached safely, and Lowrie scored the go-ahead run. Pedroia followed with a single, and Ortiz hit a double to bring home Ellsbury for the insurance run.

The final score held at 7-5, and the Sox have taken two of the first 3 from the Jays. If the Jays manage to win the fourth, four games would have come off the schedule, and they'd be sitting in the same spot. The clock is ticking. The Yankees, who should be eliminated from the playoffs sometime in the next week, did the Sox a favor by beating the Rays 6-5 last night. The Sox have played 2 more games than the Rays and are 3 behind them in the loss column, 2 games overall. The Sox play 3 games in Tampa starting tomorrow. Those games had better be sold out! They are, by far, the biggest games in the Rays' history. If the Rays take the series, they should be able to easily hold on to their first ever Division Title! However, if they lose, the battle will continue to wage on. The way it looks today, the Division winner will get to play Chicago (or the Twins), and the Wild Card has to play the Angels. The Angels seem like they are the team to beat this year. That Division title is important!

Finally, an interesting story. Catcher, George Kottaras, is one of the Sox' September call-ups. He has never been in a big league game, and there were no plans to use him this weekend. Then, with the Sox being so far down on the first game of the double header, Tito called down to George to warm up. The next thing you know, Kottaras was heading in to the game to pinch hit. His parents, not expecting he'd be playing, were out shopping for a couch at Sears. Sears had the game on their TV's, and while his parents were trying out furniture, they glanced at the screen to see their son stepping up to the plate! Isn't that fun? Kottaras nearly homered down the right field line, but the ball curved foul. He ended up striking out, but the ball got away from the catcher and he reached first base safely. As the inning progressed, he ended up scoring the Red Sox' only run of the game on a sacrifice fly.

Behind me, the rain is coming down hard, but it is supposed to let up. Let's hope the Sox get the game in, we don't need too much schedule juggling this time of year!

(Photos Courtesy of ESPN)

Friday, September 12, 2008

A 9/11 Baseball Story

In the spring of 2001, my wife and I attended a silent auction fundraiser. One of the items up for auction was a set of 4 tickets to a Boston Red Sox game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on September 18th, 2001. Clearly the owner of the tickets felt a September game against the inconsequential Devil Rays would be easy ones to sacrifice for a worthy cause (my how times have changed). My wife and I are big Red Sox fans, and love attending games, but tickets were hard to come by back then (not like now). And these were good seats too, about 10 rows behind the third base dugout! We also realized that our two daughters, aged 6 and 4, had yet to attend a game at Fenway Park. So, we cleverly maneuvered around those tickets, watching the clock count down to the end of the auction. Our plan was to wait until the last minute, and up the final bidder with no time left on the shot clock. We dribbled the ball up the court, passed it back and forth, avoiding a foul that would stop the clock. Finally the clock approached the time limit. My wife drove to the basket, I tossed her the pen, and she hit a perfect swish shot just as time ran out. We had won the tickets!

After the traditional high fives and champagne dousing, our lives went back to the old normal routine. The year passed, and everything was just wonderful in our neck of the woods. That is, until the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I was at a client site in Rhode Island at a big insurance company, and we were taking a break from an all-morning meeting. As we filed out of the conference room, we sensed a sharp buzz in the air. The buzz said something about a news report. Apparently, a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. That's odd, we thought. The image in my mind was of a small two-seater plane that went out of control and hit the building. As we walked down the hall, we saw someone had found a television and had set it up in the hallway where a dozen people had gathered to watch. I thought, "a small single engine aircraft has an accident, and people are watching it on TV in the middle of the work space?". I had to see what these people were up to.

As I approached and peered over some one's shoulder, my whole life changed in a flash. The news report was just beginning to re-run footage of the event that occurred only minutes earlier. As I watched, I saw, not a small single engine aircraft, but a full sized commercial airplane bank across the sky. With the rapidly growing realization of what I was about to see turning my stomach into a knot, the plane plummeted into the tower, slicing into the building in a plume of smoke and flame. My eyes would not blink. Just as I was trying to process what I saw, they showed film footage of the SECOND plane colliding into the other tower. "What the hell is going on?", I thought. Before I could catch my breath, the scene went back to the towers, and as a scream went out from someone near me, we watched in horror as the first tower suddenly began to collapse.

The company made an announcement - everybody who is not essential, please go home and attend to your families. As I headed down the highway, I passed two separate military convoys rolling in the other direction. Something was wrong, very wrong. Well, the story unfolded as the days passed. My wife followed all the suggestions and stocked our basement with survival gear. We smile about that now, but back then, no one knew what to expect next. One of the things I will never forget is the odd quiet in the air as we sat on our deck over the next couple of evenings. The government had grounded all flights over US soil. It had been days since our ears had registered the sound of planes high over head on their way to Logan Airport. Once or twice, we sat up straight as a formation of military fighter jets whizzed by, but otherwise, the skies were silent.

Not only were the airlines grounded, but so was Major League Baseball. Days had passed, and folks who were too tired to talk about the horrific events that had transpired began to debate how long we needed to shut down baseball. Wouldn't it be a boost to our morale to bring it back? Well, sure enough, an announcement was made. Baseball would resume again on Tuesday, September 18th. As we heard the news, the date rang a bell. Why does that date sound familiar? Then it dawned on me. I dug out the tickets we had won so many months ago, back when we felt safe in our own country. The date on the tickets matched. Sure enough, we had tickets for the first game back after 9/11.

Friends and family were worried. They were not sure we should go. Security would be heightened, crowded venues like that would be prime terrorist targets. We'd be walking into the face of danger, and doing so with our young children. So, we sat back and thought about it. At first, we were indeed worried. Then, the more we thought, the more angry we got. How could they do this to us? We are cowering in the corners of our homes, peeking out from behind the shades, worried about getting on a bus, afraid to attend a baseball game. A BASEBALL GAME. Nothing is more deeply rooted in the heart of America than baseball (just watch 'Field of Dreams'). That settled it. In our minds, we, along with much of America, saw the light.

Baseball was coming back, and we were going to be there. America was lifting her shades, rising from the corners, coming out of hiding. We brushed aside the loving concerns of those who cared about us, pulled the kids close, and said, "we are going to a Red Sox game - let's get ready". The kids ran for poster board and markers. In no time, we had two signs. They proclaimed, "God, Bless America", and "Go Red Sox".

Yes, we were nervous heading in to Fenway Park, and security was indeed heightened. Were we really doing the right thing? Then, we found where our seats were located, and nervously started up the ramp, worried as if the Taliban themselves may be waiting to check our ticket stubs at the top. But, as we approached the top of the ramp, the bright lights of Fenway had turned night into day. The color green began to grow until I could see the field laid out in all its glory. I glanced quickly down to the children, tightly holding on to our hands, and clasping their posters with pride. I saw their eyes grow wide with wonder and awe as they took in their first sight of Fenway's lawn, the Green Monster, and the heart of America, and I knew we did the right thing.

The game itself had little meaning. The Red Sox had lost 13 out of their last 14 games, and were playing the Devil Rays. Hideo Nomo was pitching, and Manny Ramirez was the DH. Other than that, the lineup was far from world class. We had Isreal Alcantra at first, Angel Santos at second, Lou Merloni at short, Shea Hillenbrand at third, Brian Daubach in left, Trot Nixon in center, Troy O'Leary in right, and Scott Hatteberg behind the plate. That lineup would be destroyed by today's Tampa Bay team. But, it was good enough to win back then.

The game was very inspiring. The Red Sox did a great job - the National Anthem sent chills through us all. The kids got themselves on TV holding up their signs, and we sang God Bless America at the tops of our lungs in the 7th inning. Eerie moment of the night came mid-way through the game. Remember all aircraft had been grounded? Well, they still were on 9/18. Then as the crowd watched Nomo twist into his unique windup, we heard a soft, but familiar sound coming from above. My eyes went up and in the distance, I recognized a helicopter slowly approaching. The sound of the rotors beating through the air was slowly getting louder. I glanced around, and more eyes began to catch on. Thousands of faces, one at a time, turned up. We had all temporarily put the horror of 9/11 out of reach for a little while, thanks to baseball, but suddenly, you could see on all those faces, that it was all coming back.

Smiles quickly faded, and Fenway Park got uncomfortably quiet. No one had heard a helicopter for 7 days, why are we hearing one now? It got closer and closer until it was overhead. I could feel mothers forcing themselves not to grab their children and run, and fathers telling themselves that there is nothing to worry about, we are all safe (right?). Then, the 'copter slowly continued on its way, and everyone realized they had not been breathing. A nervous sigh went out, and everyone glanced at their neighbors with silly looks in their eyes, as if to say "I wasn't scared at all, were you?".

The Sox won that game 7-2. Hideo Nomo was terrific, and Manny Ramirez thrilled the crowd with a 2 run home run, his 40th of the season, in the 6th inning. It was Manny's first year in Boston, and we were glad to have him. Trot Nixon had a nice day, going 3 for 4, and showing us all how to fight like a Dirt Dog to win. We went home, somewhat healed, and proud to have been a part of baseball's (and America's) comeback. My children's first game at Fenway was truly memorable.

That is what life was like in late September of 2001. Never forget.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tampa Bay is for Real

Many people have been strongly questioning whether Tampa Bay would be able to sustain their success long enough to make it into the playoffs and be a true contender. When Tampa ran into a steamrolling Toronto club and lost the bulk of their AL East lead, doubters took that to be a sure sign of Tampa's imminent collapse.

Their next test was to come in to Boston, in the middle of a grueling road trip, and take on their closest AL East threat head to head. Three games later, the Rays stand victorious claiming victory in two of those three games in two tightly fought contests. I think we now have our answer, Tampa Bay is for real, and they will be a serious threat to any playoff contender.

Carlos PenaNow, are you a bit on edge after last night's 4-2 loss in extra innings, and dropping 2 of three at home to the Rays? Don't be. Yes, it was depressing to lose two games in a row to a team we could have overtaken. No question there. But, what are we looking for? We are looking for a playoff spot, and a chance to enjoy some exciting baseball in October, with a shot at a possible World Series appearance. That is still well within the Red Sox' grasp. Remember the Rational Sox Fan formula? 94 wins puts you in the playoffs. The Red Sox have 17 games remaining and are currently 85-60. They need to go 9-8 to hit 94 wins. Yes, Toronto will be a tough opponent, but the Sox do not need to win every remaining game. They only need to win 9 more.

Andy Sonnanstine
Can the Sox take the Division from the Rays? Yes, certainly. They are well within reach, and sliced 3 games off that lead so far in September. Will they take the Division? Well, that's why we watch the games, to find out what will happen. They certainly have a tight grip on the Wild Card, although they are still a couple of weeks away from clinching. But, the Twins don't seem like they are poised to go on a tremendous winning streak, nor do the Sox look like they are poised to go into a nose dive. I would not be surprised at seeing the current standings hold fast.

What about the Blue Jays? Yes, they are on a serious winning streak, but you remember what happens to streaks in baseball? They end. Toronto is due to hit a speed bump soon, hopefully that speed bump will be losing two of 3 to Boston in this upcoming series. But, does Toronto really have a shot at a playoff spot? Mathematically, yes, but logically, no. They do have the pitching needed to succeed in the playoffs, but I think their winning streak is too little too late. They are playing loose right now, because they have nothing to lose. If they miss the playoffs, that is what is expected. The wins are not "must wins". They are "spoiler wins". Their wins are just thorns in the side of playoff hopefuls. But, as their chances at a playoff spot creep closer, the pressure will also increase, and the tension will build up, and they won't be playing so loose anymore. The wave will have past, and they will have come close, but not quite made it.

On the other hand, if they do go full steam ahead and force their way into a playoff spot, we will have the joy of watching history in the making. But, don't hold your breath.

Not too much to say about last night's game. A well fought battle between two good teams. A bullpen is like a rubber band. If you stretch it far enough, it will eventually break. The Red Sox rubber band broke first. I would guess the Rays' rubber band only had one more inning left in them. Mike Timlin gave up the winning runs in the 14th inning. The Sox only had David Aardsma (just back in the pen from an injury), Devern Hansack (just called up from the minors), David Pauley, and Chris Smith left. Timlin was as good an option (without the benefit of hindsight) as any of the others.

By the way, I have no issues with JD Drew not getting out there last night. Drew went through a full rigorous workout to test the back, and it was a success. Hours later, it started tightening up again. It is a bulging disc. Yes, he could have sucked it up and gone in to bat, but if his back was stiff, his swing would not be normal, or smooth. Watching him strike out or pop out because he could not swing cleanly and confidently would be no help. If you are all ranting about Drew, just take a deep breath. You are simply frustrated that they lost after you promised everyone in your office the win was guaranteed, and now you need to take it out on someone. There's no need. Take a breath, grab a coffee, and have fun on the playoff run roller coaster!

(Photos Courtesy of ESPN)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sox Miss Chance at First Place

It was the bottom of the ninth inning, and all of us Red Sox fans in the audience were still rubbing our eyes and asking ourselves if what we saw really happened. Did Jonathan Papelbon really just give up a home run and back to back doubles to blow a 4-3 lead? We were all filled with joy a mere 1/2 inning before, when we watched Jason Bay crush a laser beam line drive that barely cleared the top of the Green Monster for a 2 run home run that did away with the Rays' 3-2 lead. The woman sitting behind me quietly said, to no one in particular, "Manny Who?", as Jason rounded the bases to the roar of the packed house.

Jason BayBut, we all know a one run lead in the ninth inning can be quickly erased, and we knew Big Papi would be batting this inning. Mark Kotsay lead off the inning against Troy Percival with a walk. We all thought, "okay, here we go". Then, Jason Varitek stepped up, and began to work on laying down a bunt to move Kotsay to second. Percival has been around a long time, and was not about to make it easy on 'Tek, and threw him terrible pitches - high and off the plate, to bunt at. While this futile battle was being waged, I turned to those around me and asked, "If Francona wants to get the runner in scoring position, why doesn't he send in Jacoby Ellsbury to pinch run? He can steal second, then we'd have the runner in scoring position with no outs. That would let Varitek be able to swing away, and with Ellsbury's speed, we increase the chances of safely scoring from second on a single." Everyone agreed, this made sense. But, we continued to watch as Varitek fouled off strike two, then froze as Percival snapped a curve ball across the strike zone for strike three.

Then, Big Papi stepped in and worked the count to 3-1, then put the bat on a fastball, only to fly out to right field. Now, with two outs, and the hot hitting Coco Crisp coming up, Terry Francona send in Jacoby Ellsbury to pinch run! We all looked at each other and said, what the heck has he been waiting for? Why wait until there are two outs to send in Ellsbury? So, Ellsbury takes off for second, is safe by a mile, and to top it off, the throw gets away from the second baseman, and Ellsbury wastes no time flying over to third base. Unfortunately, Coco popped out to second base to end the game.

Now, picture how differently this inning would have gone for Troy Percival had Ellsbury been sent in to pinch run immediately. No outs, and the league leading base stealer on first base while clinging to a one run league in Fenway Park with the division lead on the line. Percival would have spent half of his concentration on trying to keep Ellsbury close to first, and Varitek would have been swinging away, no trying to bunt. Had Ellsbury executed a similar steal, we could have had him on third with no outs. Big Papi's fly to right may have scored him to tie the game!

So, I am not trying to be revisionist here, and I am not at saying this is why they lost. They may have lost anyway. But, I still just don't get why they waited until there were two outs to send in Ellsbury! It just made no sense.

Dice-K MatsuzakaDaisuke Matsuzaka was okay. As usual, he had one clumsy inning, this time it was the third inning. He slipped and fell trying to field a bunt with no outs, then walked the next two batters to load the bases. Dice-K then threw a pitch more or less in the dirt, but it nicked the foot of Cliff Floyd, giving the Rays their first run. The good thing is that he stopped the bleeding pretty quickly. He retired the next 3 batters in a row, giving up only one more run on a sacrifice fly. Dice-K gave up one more run int he fourth, and left the game after 5 innings, already up to over 100 pitches, with the Rays leading 3-2. Not a great outing, but good enough to keep the Sox in the game. The bullpen, Javier Lopez, Manny Delcarmen, and Hideki Okajima, held the Rays silent until Papelbon imploded.

Jonathan PapelbonPapelbon, from where we sat, looked off right from the first pitch. I don't know why, he just was not on his game. Hopefully it is nothing but a bad night. The game tying solo home run was given up to Dan Johnson, who had just been called up from AAA Durham. It was Johnson's second at bat of the season. His first at bat came on April 2nd against Boston when he was with the A's. In that at bat, he grounded out harmlessly to Dustin Pedroia. So, it seemed like a match up in favor of the home town team. That is, until Papelbon left a fastball out over the plate, and Johnson planted it out in to the center field stands.

The rubber match takes place tonight. Josh Beckett against Andy Sonnanstine. The Sox don't "need" to win this game, they seem to be in pretty good control of the Wild Card spot. But, winning this game, and pulling back to within 1/2 game of the Rays would be a big boost. We'll take whatever playoff spot we can get, but the Division Champ gets home field advantage, and we'd love to see that.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Red Sox Take First Game 3-0, Cut Rays Lead to 1/2 Game

Very nice start to the series last night. Jon Lester pitched like a seasoned veteran, going 7 2/3 innings, allowing 6 hits and 3 walks, but preventing any runs from scoring while striking out 9 batters. Rocco Baldelli, our own Rhode Island major league player, was the victim of 3 of those strikeouts. In fact, I was a little confused in the 8th inning. Jon Lester got the first two batters out, then gave up a single and a ground rule double to put runners on second and third. The next batter up was Rocco Baldelli. I know Lester's pitch count was 119, but since he had struck out Baldelli three times already, it looked to me like Lester would be the guy I wanted facing him.

Jon LesterInstead, Terry Francona went to the bullpen and brought in Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon threw 6 pitches to Rocco, all of them 95+ mph fastballs, and struck out Baldelli anyway. Papelbon then finished up the 9th inning to preserve the win and earn his 36th save of the season.

The Red Sox scored all of their 3 run in the first inning. If you watch baseball to see runs scored, you could have turned the game off right then. With one out, Big Papi doubled off the Monster to score Mark Kotsay all the way from first base. Then Kevin Youkilis singled to center to score Ortiz, but the relay home was cut off, fooling Youk who had headed to second base. Youk got tagged out easily for the second out, and then Jason Bay launched a solo home run to wrap up the offense for the evening.

Jonathan PapelbonYou have to tip your hat to Rays' starter, Edwin Jackson. After the first inning, it looked like the start of a big blowout. But, Jackson stayed in the game, settled down, and ended up pitching 7 complete innings allowing no further damage.

But, the Rays could not get on the score board, dropping their 6th game of September. The Rays are now clinging to a mere 1/2 game lead. A loss tonight would turn the lead over to the Red Sox. But, don't put down a Red Sox win in your score book just yet. The Rays have not scored a run in their last 18 innings, suffering back to back shutouts. If you follow baseball at all, you've probably noticed the pattern. A team scores a ton of runs on game, and the next game cannot seem to be able to score at all. Same thing goes in reverse. When you go too many innings without scoring, it all bottles up and often explodes all at once in a flurry of runs.

Tonight, the Rays will be facing Daisuke Matsuzaka. Dice-K has pitched well lately, but he has also been known to give up a big inning now and then, often around the 4th inning. If the Rays are simply destined to break out, this could be a tough game for Boston. Facing Scott Kazmir is no easy task. If the Rays break out, the Sox will find it a challenge to keep pace. But, we are also seeing how a new team to the playoff race is handling things - not too well. Tonight is a big test. Will they shake off the losses of the past two weeks and get back to business, or will they continue to play tight and not get into a groove?

I'll be at the game, sitting near the visitor's bullpen. We'll do out best to rattle the relief crew. The rest is up to the Sox.

(Photos Courtesy of ESPN)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Yankees Defeat Red Sox to Advance in the Playoffs

New York fans everywhere wish the title of this post pertained to the pinstriped debacle that play in the Bronx. While the title of the post is true and accurate, it pertains to last night's AAA playoff game between the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees and the Pawtucket Red Sox. The game was scoreless in the bottom of the 10th inning when Sandy Duncan hit a 2 run walk-off home run to win the game, and the series.

Why is this important here? Two reasons. First, I just hate to miss an opportunity to tease Yankee fans. The news of their major league franchise is not good. The title of the lead article on the Yankee's web site says "Mussina, Yanks endure setback in playoff hunt". Excuse me? A "setback"? They have just lost 2 out of 3 games to the (get this) Seattle Mariners! With the Blue Jays going on a tear and winning 8 straight games, the Yankees are now in 4th place in the AL East and 4th place in the Wild Card. I am afraid there is no playoff hunt for the Yankees this year, therefore, there is really no setback.

Now, where was I? Oh, yes, the real reason the AAA playoff game mentioned above is of interest is that the starter for Pawtucket last night was Bartolo Colon. How did he do, you ask? Well, he simply pitched 7 2/3 shutout innings, only needing to throw 84 pitches, struck out 3, allowed only 2 hits and walked nobody. Hmm, I think he's ready. The tentative plan calls for Colon to pitch one of the double header games this Saturday against Toronto. Beyond that, I'm not sure what the Sox will do with him. My guess is they'll try to give most starters an extra day of rest leading up to the playoffs, and will use Colon to help make that happen. If he's hot, he could sneak in to the playoff roster, we'll see.

And speaking of Toronto, their 8 game winning streak included a 3 game sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays. Toronto is truly doing everything they can to help the Sox. Can we call them our "wing men" (get it - Blue Jays, wings?)? This is the Ray's very first taste of the September playoff hunt, and many people have been wondering how they'd hold up. They were terrific in August, and steady all year, but in September they are now 1-5, and find themselves clinging to a 1 1/2 game lead over the Red Sox. And, they kick off a 3 game series tonight in Boston, where they have lost six straight times this season. Yes, their back are against the wall. Time to fight, or take a step back.

Paul ByrdThe Red Sox, in contrast, are 5-1 in September, and are doing what a playoff contender needs to do. They are winning. Last night's 7-2 victory over the Texas Rangers was their 6th straight series win. That's how you enter the playoff hunt. Paul Byrd has turned out to be a very nice pickup by Theo Epstein. Byrd now has earned 4 straight wins for the Red Sox and has simply been steady and reliable. Big Papi and Jason Bay both provided home runs, and the Sox had an all-around solid night.

Coco Crisp has been getting hot, and if he keeps it up, he'll get more playing time this post-season that he did last year. But, Coco has to remember that Manny Ramirez is no longer in left field. In the 6th inning last night, Joaquin Arias sent a soft line drive to shallow left center field. Both Crisp and Jason Bay took off in hot pursuit. With Manny in left, Coco know he is the only chance the Sox have of getting that out, and that is how he went after that ball. However, Bay actually had a better angle, and a good jump. They both arrived at the same time, and nearly collided, Jason making the catch and tumbling safely away. The look on Crisp's face said, "where'd he come from - oh yeah, that ain't Manny out there any more".

Jason BaySo, tune in tonight when Jon Lester sets the tone for the main event. With the Rays sending Edwin Jackson to the mound, I like the Sox' chances in this one. Tomorrow, Scott Kazmir faces off against Daisuke Matsuzaka. That is a tough match-up, one I'll be watching in person (weather permitting). Then, the two teams wrap it up with Josh Beckett against Andy Sonnanstine. Lester, Dice-K, and Beckett? Well, you can't ask for more than that. This is the time to grab a piece of the lead!

(Photos Courtesy of ESPN)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

At Least Toronto is Still on Our Side

Just a quick drive-by today. From the storm, we've had a power outage until just recently. By know you know all about the drubbing the Rangers put on the Sox yesterday. Wakefield just could not find the plate. The newspapers have railed about how the bullpen did nothing to help. Well, that's true, and it would worry you to hear that, until you see who we are talking about.

The culprits were Chris Smith, Mike Timlin, and Dave Pauley. This year, non of those 3 is likely to even be on the playoff roster. So, no need to panic too much that the bullpen is falling apart. Manny Delcarmen, Justin Masterson, Hideki Okajima, and Jonathan Papelbon (and soon they'll add David Aardsma) were not part of the debacle, and they'll all be on the playoff roster. So will Javier Lopez, who only joined the game for 1/3 of an inning yesterday. Terry Francona most likely knew this was not the game to waste the elite crew, and let the new guys give it a shot.

Toronto still is pulling for the Sox as they beat Tampa Bay yesterday to prevent the Rays from extending their 2 1/2 game lead. Thank you brothers from the north! Of course, they had beaten the Rays prior to the Sox game, and the Sox completely lost a chance at stepping a game closer.

Never mind, we'll see what they can do this afternoon. Paul Byrd should be able to give the Sox a good outing and maybe the bats can continue to jump on Rangers pitching! Even though the Sox lost yesterday, they did score 8 runs! Most days, that translates into a win.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Red Sox Continue Moving Up

Cue the theme music from 'The Jeffersons', because the Sox are 'Movin' On Up'! Toronto, yet again, wins a meaningful game for the Red Sox with a 6-4 win over Tampa Bay. That, combined with the Red Sox' 8-1 victory over the Rangers last night puts the home town team only 2 1/2 games behind the Rays in the AL East. In the Wild Card, the Twins pulled out a win to remain 5 1/2 behind Boston, while the Yankees find themselves on a slippery slope.

You heard it here first (well, probably not if you have crazy fanatic Red Sox friends). The Yankees are officially eliminated from the 2008 playoffs! Okay, I know they are not "mathematically" eliminated, but last night, in the thick of their last chance at making a run for a playoff spot, the lost (3-1) to the (get this) Seattle Mariners! Yes, the same Mariners who are in last place, already actually eliminated from the playoffs, and with nothing left to do but play out the string. The loss puts the Yanks 8 1/2 games back for the Wild Card, and in my book, they are done. That loss sealed the deal for me. The next 21 games are going to be painful for pinstripe fans, and we in Boston all feel true sympathy for you (NOT).

Josh BeckettNow, yesterday I said I was worried about last night's game, and I truly was. Kevin Millwood is Texas' best starter, and Josh Beckett is fresh off the DL. You know the rest of the story from yesterday, but I also said the new guys returning could be the difference maker to ensure the win. That turned out to the Mike Lowell who made his presence felt the most. After three innings, Josh Beckett was pitching a no-hitter with 4 strikeouts, and Millwood was trying to keep pace. Millwood had only given up two hits through 3 innings, but one of them was Mike Lowell announcing his return with a solo home run in the 2nd inning.

In the fourth inning, an error and a double by Jason Bay put runners at second and third. Mike Lowell just barely stayed with a tricky off-speed curve ball, got the sweet spot of the bat on the ball, and lofted a looping line drive single to left field to drive in two more runs. Mike Lowell 3, Texas 0. That was enough to rattle Millwood. He proceeded to walk Jed Lowrie and gave up a single to Jason Varitek. Then, Coco Crisp sends (appropriately) a Texas Leaguer out to center field, and it goes off the glove of second baseman, Joaquin Arias (who had also made the error earlier in the inning), to allow two more runs to score.

Mike LowellBack to back triples in the 6th inning were fun to watch. First Coco Crisp hit one to score Varitek, then Jacoby Ellsbury hit one to score Coco. For a second there, I thought Ellsbury was going to have a shot at an inside the park homer with his speed.

Josh Beckett exceeded expectations (and pitch count). He went 5 innings, and threw 80 pitches, only giving up 4 hits to go with 7 strikeouts and no walks. Exceeding his pitch count limitations is a good sign. It means he felt strong, solid, and confident. Because of that, he was throwing like he was last season. Having Beckett get hot in time for the playoffs could spell doom for the rest of the AL.

The Sox bullpen did a nice job as Manny Delcarmen pitched two perfect innings to extend the game to the 8th inning. Justin Masterson got two quick outs in the 8th, but walked two straight batters after that. He managed to induce a ground ball out to end the threat and turn the game over to Hideki Okajima in the 9th. Mike Lowell had just doubled in the top of the inning to drive in Jason Bay from first base, and record his 4th RBI of the evening! So, Oki had a nice 8-0 lead to work with. He got the lead off batter to line out, then gave up a walk and a single to put two men on. He struck out Brandon Boggs for the second out, and had a 1-2 count on Nelson Cruz before watching him send a single to left to score the Rangers first and only run of the night. Oki struck out Gerald Laird to end the ball game.

So, the Sox go at it again tonight, and are thankfully on the road and missing the storm passing through Boston. Tim Wakefield will face off against Matt Harrison. Harrison has yet to face the Red Sox, and is not nearly the threat that Millwood is. But, if my sentiments yesterday helped at all with the win, then I'll have to repeat them today. I have a bad feeling about this one...

(Photos Courtesy of ESPN)