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Monday, March 25, 2013

Happy Birthday Bruce, thanks for the memories

A great subject for another day.

Everybody else is talking about the wonderful Jackie Bradley, Jr. (4 RBI Sunday, now batting .423) and his chances of making Boston's Opening Day roster, so I thought I'd step into the Wayback Machine in honor of another Red Sox first-round draft pick who celebrated his 55th birthday Sunday.

Roger Clemens got the MVP and Cy Young Award in 1986, as he richly deserved, but down the stretch and through the playoffs that season there was no better pitcher in baseball than Bruce Hurst. The left-hander from Utah was injured through most of June and July, but he went 8-3 after coming back -- including five straight wins as the Sox distanced themselves from New York and Toronto in the AL East. Hurst, not Clemens, was named AL Pitcher of the Month in September as Boston clinched its first division title in 11 years.
An '86 Topps with a real signature.

In the ALCS against the Angels, Hurst won Game 2 with a Tiant-esque performance -- an 11-hit, 127-pitch complete game -- but Boston lost Games 1, 3, and 4 (two started by Clemens, one by Oil Can Boyd). It was up to Hurst to stave off elimination in the fifth contest at Anaheim, and he turned in six solid innings (7 hits, 3 runs) to keep the Red Sox in the game and set up the ninth-inning heroics of Don Baylor and Dave Henderson in Boston's thrilling 7-6 victory.

Boston won Games 6 and 7, of course, giving Hurst the rest needed to start Game 1 of the World Series at Shea Stadium. Once again, the big lefty was outstanding, allowing the heavily favored Mets just four hits over eight shutout innings in a 1-0 win saved by good 'ole Calvin Schiraldi. Riding this momentum, the Sox crushed Dwight Gooden in Game 2 to take away New York's home-field advantage.

The Mets gave the Sox their own medicine back at Fenway, however, and the Series was all knotted up when Hurst got the ball again in Game 5. This time the Mets got to him for two runs, but not until the eighth and ninth innings after Boston had built a 4-0 lead. Going the distance one more time, Hurst now had allowed two runs over 17 innings against the NL's 108-win powerhouse.
Going for it all at Shea -- Oct. '86

What happened next, Red Sox fans know, is still very painful to recount -- although not quite as bad as it was before October 2004. Boston lost Game 6 at Shea (no details necessary), after which a Game 7 rainout gave manager John MacNamara the extra day needed to start the red-hot Hurst in the finale over a heartbroken Boyd.

For a while, everything went well. The Red Sox took a 3-0 lead in the second on back-to-back homers by Dwight Evans and Rich Gedman (I bet you forgot that, Sox fans, didn't you?) and a Wade Boggs single, and Hurst allowed just one ground-ball single through five innings in holding the advantage. Bruce was headed for his third win of the series and a sure MVP trophy.

Then the ghosts of the past made their way to Shea. Three hits, a walk, and a groundout gave New York three runs in the sixth, and although Hurst had only thrown 74 pitches, MacNamara elected to bring in Schiraldi -- who had already blown the save and lost Games 6 -- to start the seventh inning of a 3-3 game. Before you could say "Deer in the Headlights," Darryl Strawberry sent Cool Cal's fourth pitch to Newark and the Mets scored twice more for a 6-3 advantage from which Boston never recovered.


How did it get away?

Despite failing to hold the lead, Hurst was never held accountable for the world championship that got away. His 2-0 record and 1.96 ERA for the World Series, and his 2.13 postseason ERA over 38 mostly fantastic innings that fall, had been all Boston fans could ask for.

Hurst never did get another chance to pitch deep into October, and left the Red Sox two years later to pitch closer to home with the Padres. I assume, being a religious family man, he also wanted to get away from the  "Delta Force" atmosphere around the Sox in those days. 

Anyway, wherever you are Bruce, I hope you had a great day Sunday -- and thanks for the memories.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Can Lester and Red Sox withstand power outage?

Lester has Sox fans tickled green with excitement.

Pitching and timely hitting. The Red Sox are getting plenty of both this spring training, but will it be enough if they can't hit the ball out of the park?

It was on Sunday, when the green-clad Sox got six perfect innings from Jon Lester and allowed just one ninth-inning infield hit in a 5-1 victory over the Rays at Jet Blue Park. The big left-hander and projected staff ace is now 3-0 with an 0.90 ERA, six hits allowed, and 16 strikeouts in 20 Grapefruit League innings. 

Those numbers are very encouraging, and he is just one of numerous Boston pitchers having a terrific exhibition season as the staff aims to rebound from a dreadful 2012. Starters Lester, Clay Buchholz,and Ryan Dempster are a combined 6-1 with an 0.88 ERA, and even John Lackey is 2-0 with an improved physique and attitude. At least three of these guys should top last year's team "high" of 11 victories by Buchholz and Felix Doubront.
Simon Says Buchholz (left), Lester  are ready to roll.

The relief pitching, including Daniel Bard(!), has been solid as well, and the staff ERA of 3.54 leads all of baseball during spring training (their WHIP of 1.25 is second-best). Having former pitching coach John Farrell back as manager is clearly making an impact on the staff. 

But on the other side of the ball, so to speak, is a stat that jumps out as cause for potential concern. Through 23 exhibition games, the Red Sox have hit 13 homers -- tied with the Brewers for LAST of all 30 MLB teams.

Sure, this is spring training, and you can throw the numbers out once the real games start. However, there is no denying that while the Red Sox have turned in a solid 13-9-1 record in Fort Myers, they've done so without the power that has been their calling card for much of the last decade.
Jonny Gomes -- 20-homer potential.

The Sox have hit their fair share of clutch non-homers, often with men in scoring position, and this was the case again Sunday when Jonny Gomes notched 4 RBI with two singles and a double. Putting the ball over Green Monster South or anywhere else outside the field of play has been another story.

How are their AL East rivals doing by comparison this spring? Toronto, heralded by many experts as the most-improved club in baseball, has 23 homers including 4 from Andy LaRoche and 3 from Jose Bautista (no Red Sox has more than 2). The Orioles, who are projected to fall back to earth a bit after their surprising 2012, have 26. Interestingly, the Rays (15) and Yankees (14) are just above Boston and Milwaukee at the bottom of the charts.

Injuries are partly to blame for the power outage. Boston's best home run hitter, David Ortiz, has been out of the lineup the entire exhibition schedule with a bad heel. New York, meanwhile, has been minus its two top power threats -- injured first baseman Mark Teixeira and outfielder Curtis Granderson. The Yanks, in fact, will enter Opening Day versus the Red Sox on April 1 at the Stadium without 8 of the 10 players who hit double-digit homers for them in 2012; five are no longer with the club and three (Teixeira, Granderson, and Alex Rodriguez) are on the DL. 

The Red Sox, meanwhile, have plenty of their own question marks when it comes to power. Ortiz was on pace for 40 homers when he went down last summer, and his inability to even run on his bad heel two days in a row this spring has been a huge disappointment to management -- which signed Big Papi to a two-year contract hoping he could anchor the middle of the order through 2014.

Big Papi and son wait for his heel to heal.

Take Ortiz out of the lineup, at least for April, and you have just two other players with 30-homer seasons on their resumes: Mike Napoli and Jacoby Ellsbury. Both may be long shots this year. Napoli had 30 in 2011, but has had trouble staying healthy. Ellsbury had a fantastic 32-homer-39-steal year in 2011, but he too was injured for half of 2012 with a bad shoulder and hit just 4 homers in 66 games after his return -- leaving many to speculate that he has lost some of his power. 

What does it all mean? Are the Red Sox capable of competing as they did in 1990, when they won an AL East title with just one player -- Ellis Burks at 21 -- hitting more than 15 homers? There is no Roger Clemens in his prime atop this rotation, but Lester and Co. may keep the Sox in the hunt even if Papi and Ellsbury can't return to form.
Napoli hopes to get out of the cage, onto the field.

Red Sox fans would just prefer not to have to find out.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Bradley Jr. and Red Sox work at "restoring the faith"

Jackie Bradley Jr.: Great so far.

Maybe you caught the ad on RedSox.com. A determined-looking David Ortiz stares out on one side of the page as a message flashes across the other:

"162 CHANCES...TO RESTORE THE FAITH"
"SUMMER TICKETS...GET YOURS NOW"

It's starting to look more and more like Ortiz and his aching achilles will not be there for the first of those 162 chances, but there are plenty of other players who are helping get fans excited again this spring training after the worst stretch of Red Sox baseball since Billy Herman and Pinky Higgins.

Jackie Bradley Jr. has been the talk of Fenway South, with a .500 average (10-for-20) and terrific defensive work in center field. Manager John Farrell has said Bradley is not likely to make the team out of camp because he wants him to get regular at-bats in the minors rather than ride the pine in the big leagues. Still, it's good to know that Bradley -- who hit a combined .315/.482/.911 with 42 doubles and 24 steals at Salem and Portland last year -- is waiting in the wings if incumbent centerfielder and pending free agent Jacoby Ellsbury winds up hurt or elsewhere.

Allen Webster can bring some heat.

A highly-touted prospect for the Dodgers picked up in last summer's blockbuster trade, right-hander Allen Webster was also slated for Pawtucket this year but is making a good case to stick with the big club. He's struck out 11 and walked just one over eight innings, and is throwing his fastball 98 miles an hour. Like old friend Derek Lowe, Webster also has a very nice breaking pitch that induces lots of ground balls, and he seldom is hurt by the home run -- last year allowing just two homers in 131 innings.

On the other end of the experience spectrum among incoming pitchers, Ryan Dempster has looked impressive on the mound and off. He has not walked a batter in his first three starts, and in one outing threw 25 of 28 pitches for strikes. The 16-year MLB veteran is also just the type of free spirit innings-eater this staff may need to keep things loose; since he wasn't here for the meltdowns, he shouldn't be under pressure to rebound. If he wins his 12-15 games, everyone will be happy.

Napoli is fitting in fine.

Mike Napoli may not be the big-name guy Sox fans hoped to see the team acquire to take up the first base slot, and the non-stop talk about his degenerative hip and pending contract only made things worse. But Napoli has shown good pop early on and is chasing down balls left and right. His hip appears to be fine.

Among the holdovers, Dustin Pedroia has looked great with a .412 average in Grapefruit League play. The little second baseman with the big heart and bat is the kind of guy you love to watch at any time of year -- along the lines of a Trot Nixon or Rick Burleson. You can tell how much he cares about winning; his emotion is the real deal and not just macho bravado.

Jon Lester: Early results positive.

Lefty Jon Lester has also been terrific, first by being appropriately remorseful to reporters and fans about his forgettable 2012 season, and then by holding opponents to a .103 average over his first three starts and nine innings. Clay Buchholz, another guy eager to put last year behind him, has looked sharp too and free of the hamstring pain that derailed him last summer. Any talk of a winning season in '13 starts with these two guys at the top of the rotation, so it's crucial that both get off to good starts.

As for John Lackey, well, his uniform certainly fits better than last year. Whether a reduced waistline results in a reduced ERA, however, remains to be seen (and early outings have not been very promising). Farrell is confident Lackey can rebound well from Tommy John surgery, and general manager Ben Cherington is counting on Big John starting 25 to 30 of those 162 aforementioned chances. Still, if fans are counting on this pitcher to restore their faith, it may be a long summer.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Pedro Persevered -- and Sox Hope his Pupils Can Too

Pedro talks, and pupils listen.

News Flash: Pedro once struggled.

One of the delights of Red Sox spring training this year has been the return of former ace-turned-special instructor Pedro Martinez. In addition to working with young and veteran pitchers on their mechanics, Pedro has been a media darling -- smiling his way through numerous radio, TV, and print interviews.

Of all the sound bytes and quotes, however, the one that struck me as the most poignant has been largely ignored. During an early-morning interview on WEEI's Dennis and Callahan show on Feb. 19, Martinez was asked by Gerry Callahan if he thought he could help Daniel Bard regain his form as one of baseball's best setup men. "Yes," the future Hall of Famer said, before adding that he understood exactly what Bard had gone through during a disastrous 2012 campaign that included a demotion to the minor leagues.

Martinez, the Sandy Koufax of his era, relate to an epic slump? How could that be?

As a young Expo, Martinez doubted his abilities.

It was during his early career, Martinez said, and he was struggling as a starting pitcher with the Montreal Expos. He went to manager Felipe Alou and told him he didn't think he could cut it as a big-leaguer.

"Felipe said, 'Are you quitting?' and I said, 'No, I just don't feel I'm performing at the level I should,'" Martinez told Callahan and WEEI listeners. 

Pedro didn't specify exactly when the exchange took place, but looking at his career stats on baseball-reference.com, I figure it was most likely 1996, when Martinez endured a two-month stretch in which he went 3-5 with an ERA above 5.00 and appeared headed to a sub-.500 record for the season. 

In the midst of his travails, Martinez explained, came an incident that as he described it sounded like something out of "The Natural" or "Field of Dreams." 

Tommy Harper: Sage advice saves an ace.

"I was sitting down on the bench after a game, and [coach] Tommy Harper came up and sat down with me," related Martinez. "He said, 'You know what? The game's over.' I said, 'Yeah...' and he said, 'You know, I always come and sit here and listen to the organ after the game. The game is over, but the organ continues to play.'

"I said, 'What do you mean by that?' and [Harper] said, 'I know you're not having the best time right now, but do you know how it goes away? Just keep pitching.' I thought about it and said, 'But I'm struggling so bad I don't even want to pitch,' and he said, 'Just keep pitching. It will go away.'"

Martinez listened to Harper's advice, finished the year 13-10, and in 1997 led the National League with a 1.90 ERA -- starting his Koufaxian seven-year stretch with Montreal and Boston as the MLB's best pitcher. Harper saw much of it up close, first with the Expos and later as a Red Sox coach.

"That's baseball," Martinez told Callahan. "Everybody goes through a little funk sometimes, and he [Bard] is having one of those."

Bard follows the master.

So how can Martinez help Bard and other Red Sox pitchers rebound from last year's disaster? Pedro said that he has a good eye for mechanics, and believes he'll know when a tweak to a hurler's delivery may make a difference. This is what he did during his own career, closely watching great pitchers like Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux in developing his own physical and mental repertoire.

"I'm a combination of everything," Martinez explained. "I took a little bit of pretty much everyone and used it to build my own experience. I hope they do that the same way."

Perhaps John Lackey, coming back from a year off after Tommy John surgery, can also pick up a thing or two from Martinez. In the midst of his string of domination, Pedro suffered a torn rotator cuff in 2001 and missed half of that season. He returned the next year as more of a control artist than a flamethrower and still went 20-4 while leading the American League in ERA and strikeouts.

"I was a student," Martinez told the Boston Globe in another interview. "I wasn't just gifted. I had to study a lot."

Once the student, now the teacher.

If Lackey, Bard, and other pitchers on the Sox staff can listen to their new teacher as well as Martinez did to mentors like Harper, Pedro's hiring may be one of the best moves the Red Sox made this offseason.