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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sox in Six: Pride, Pitching, and Another Curse Broken

Plenty to smile about so far.

A week after ending the longest sellout streak in major professional sports annals, the Red Sox helped fill hearts with pride after one of Boston's darkest days. Then they continued their own shocking revival.

Nobody could have predicted the horrific events that struck the city on Marathon Day, and few could have anticipated the start that has quickly reestablished the Sox -- at least for now -- as a viable force in the American League. Timely hitting, near-historic starting pitching, and a new attitude infused by new manager John Farrell has resulted in the AL's best record (13-6, tied with Texas) out of the gate.

Even more surprising than the speed with which Farrell seems to have turned around the clubhouse mojo is how quick the Red Sox have regained the respect of fans disillusioned by the woeful 2012 season and the calamitous reign of Bobby Valentine. It is still too early to compare this team to the feel-good squads of 1967 and 1975, but as they did in those memorable summers, the Sox are winning with a roster that has few established superstars but plenty of likable characters for whom it's easy to cheer.

Here's a look at the Sox in Six:

Give Papi a Bleeping Break
Papi spoke from the heart.

The events of last Saturday, from the majestic entrance of the Hoyts and other heroes to Neil Diamond's live crooning of "Sweet Caroline," have been well-documented elsewhere. But before moving on to the team itself, a thought on David Ortiz's much-discussed pregame speech in which he told fans, "This is our [expletive] city, and nobody is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong."

While expletives like the one Papi uttered are usually frowned upon in a public gathering, especially with thousands of kids listening in, this is one case where we should give the big guy a pass. My preteen son and I heard his address over the radio, where the word in question appeared to be blocked out, but when Jason asked me what I thought Ortiz had said, I countered with, "I'm not sure, but whatever it was, it's OK."

There are times when tough times warrant tough words. Papi's pride for his adopted homeland and city shone through in his comments, and to me this seemed a time parents could say to their kids, "That's not a nice word to say, but sometimes adults are so angry they can't help themselves."

As Ortiz reporters after the game, he wanted to get things "out of my chest." In doing so, he spoke for millions of people in New England and beyond.

No Chicken Around Here
Co-aces once again.

Larry Lucchino, Sam Kennedy and Co. certainly hoped that Farrell's successful stint as pitching coach for Boston from 2007-10 would help him turn around the club's disappointing starting staff as manager. The early returns have been very encouraging; in fact, they've been unlike almost anything seen before.

In helping the team to its best start (12-4) in more than a decade, Red Sox starters allowed three runs or fewer in the first 16 games of the season through last Saturday. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this feat had been accomplished just twice in American League history -- by the 1978 and 1981 Oakland A's -- and the Sox were one ground ball single off Sunday's Game 1 starter Ryan Dempster from stretching the streak to 17 straight. Entering tonight, Boston is the only team in baseball that has had no starter allow more than 4 runs in a game.

Leading the way through this stretch has been last year's biggest flops -- Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Boston is 8-0 in games started by the top two men in the rotation, and Buchholz leads the American League with an 0.90 ERA entering tonight (Lester is fourth at 1.73). 

K Men
Dempster brings some heat.

It's tough to win if you can't hit the ball, and Boston pitchers have been piling up strikeouts at a fantastic rate. 

Entering tonight, the Red Sox lead MLB with 189 strikeouts and 9.94 punchouts per game. Sox starters and relievers have combined for 12 games with at least 10 strikeouts, and starters Lester, Buchholz, Dempster, and Felix Doubront have registered 106 whiffs in just 96.2 innings. The relievers have not been too shabby either; closer Andrew Bailey, for instance, has 17 strikeouts in 10.1 frames.

Speed Demons
Ellsbury is on the run again.

While the pitchers are blowing away opposing batters, Boston base runners are turning on the speed as well. Boston trails only Oakland in the AL with 18 stolen bases, led by a resurgent Jacob Ellsbury -- tops in the league with 9 steals in 9 attempts. 

Speed has also been key for Boston on defense, where new additions Shane Victorino and Jackie Bradley have tracked down many a deep fly ball in the outfield and the infield of Will Middlebrooks (3B), Dustin Jose Iglesias/Stephen Drew (SS), Pedroia (2B), Mike Napoli (IB), and Jarrod Saltalamacchia/David Ross (C) has been airtight. Boston's 4 errors are the fewest in baseball, and its .994 fielding percentage the best.

Napoli a Net Gain
Napoli drives in four -- with one swing.

Boston's well-rounded offense has been another key to its great start, but Napoli has stood out in the clutch.

Although his .278 average is fifth among Red Sox regulars, his 25 RBI (on just 22 hits) leads the team and the majors. Last night he had 5 RBI including a grand slam, and he's had at least one ribbie in 8 of the last 10 games.

Napoli's career high in RBI is 75 -- and he's already one-third of the way there.

The (Next) Curse has Been Lifted

The truth shall set you free.

Another more ballyhooed curse may have been toppled by the Red Sox nine years ago, but when Fenway Park attendance fell below full capacity in the second home game this season, it marked the end of another streak.

Any fan who has attended games since the September swoon of 2011 or watched on TV has observed many contests in which there were thousands of empty seats at Fenway, yet the Red Sox' home sellout streaks "officially" reached 794 regular season games and 820 overall (including playoffs) before mercifully ending on April 10 against Baltimore. The sellout stretch had started on May 15, 2003, nearly two full seasons BEFORE the Red Sox captured the 2004 World Series.

Management always maintained it had sold enough tickets to qualify home games as sellouts, but media and fans scoffed at the splotches of blue and red throughout Fenway and stories emerged of the team literally giving away tickets online during the last-place 2013 season.   Now that the pressure is off, the Sox can focus on playing well enough that the park is full or nearly full most of the time.

The strategy seems to be working pretty well so far.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Oh Yeah, the Red Sox Won

Not to be forgotten. (Associated Press)

Last night I actually forgot the Red Sox had a ballgame. It was completely out of character, but also completely understandable.  

As a Bostonian far from home, my thoughts the last two days have been dominated by the horrific events that took place Monday at the marathon finish line. I grew up a few blocks from Heartbreak Hill, and have been cheering on friends and strangers in this great race all my life. More times than I can count, I've thought of running it myself.  

Now, like New Yorkers who can never completely separate themselves from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, those of us who love the Boston Marathon will be forced to make room in our memories for what transpired this week. We will cheer again, but there will always be sadness and fear ready to creep in. 
Boston Strong in Cleveland (Boston Red Sox)

I learned about what happened like most people, in bits and pieces. It was just after 3 p.m. on Monday afternoon when I signed onto my iPhone for a brief look at the Red Sox and marathon results. Vacationing with my family in Washington, D.C., I needed a quick fix of the Patriot's Day fun we were missing.

On, along with details of a Sox victory over the Rays and the men's and women's marathon winners, there was a small account of "loud noises" at the race's Copley Square finish line. I didn't think much of it, and only mentioned it briefly to my wife and brother while in line with our kids waiting to enter the Museum of American History.
A few hours before the horrors unfolded. 

I was curious enough to check my phone again a few minutes later, however, by which point the game and race had been knocked from the online headlines by the horrors unfolding on Boylston Street. Trying to stay composed for the sake of the two 8-year-olds in our party, the adults took turns swapping phones during the next two-plus hours as the news grew increasingly grim.

By the time we left the museum at 5:30 p.m., there were sirens sounding through the streets as Washington went into a semi-lockdown mode. We had plans to meet an old friend for dinner that night, but wound up staying in and ordering pizza; transfixed by the footage and eyewitness accounts on CNN, we forced ourselves to switch over to pay-per-view and the silly diversion of "Here Comes the Boom." It was nice to laugh along with the kids. 
Kind sentiments from Tito's team.

Now, after more than 36 hours of Copley Square coverage, I am trying to get myself focused back on the Red Sox -- both as an additional escape and to help fill the pages of Fenway Reflections. I'll be back home tomorrow and will be starting a regular weekly column with odds and ends about the team.

It's clear Red Sox Nation is ready to cheer again even while the crying goes on. Tuesday afternoon my wife saw online that "Sweet Caroline" would be played that night at Yankee Stadium during New York's game against the Diamondbacks. Then she read me one of the comments beneath the story, and I had another welcome laugh.

"Nice thought," the reader mentioned, "but the Yankees still suck."
The feeling was mutual -- for most. (NY Daily News)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Opening Day at Fenway--What a Difference Seven Months Makes

The energy has been infectious early on.

From the moment one turned off Brookline Avenue and onto Yawkey Way on Monday afternoon, the change was apparent.

As the sun shone down and hawkers handed out "K" cards reading "NEW TEAM-OCTOBER DREAM," fans approached Gate A at Fenway Park for Opening Day displaying vastly different emotions from the somber crowd that departed the ballpark last Sept. 26. Whereas that dismal home finale served as just one of the eight straight losses that capped the worst Red Sox season in a half-century, those entering the ballpark seven months later had good reason to be smiling and laughing.

By winning two of three in both New York and Toronto to start the 2013 campaign, Boston was 4-2 and in first place as it readied to take on the Baltimore Orioles. New manager John Farrell had the club playing with an energy that was sorely lacking last year, and numerous newcomers like outfielders Shane Victorino and Jackie Bradley Jr., shortstop Jose Iglesias, and first baseman Mike Napoli were making their presence felt in the lineup and in the field. Pitching, a big problem in 2012, also appeared to be solidified with excellent starting performances and a lights-out bullpen during the first week.
Buchholz kept "K" card holders busy.

Well before right-hander Clay Buchholz took the mound in this contest, Fenway was awash with positive vibes. The Red Sox honored their 60-year partnership with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and its Jimmy Fund charity during pregame ceremonies, which featured a stirring rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" by current and former cancer patients, family members, and Dana-Farber staffers. Cancer survivors from each of the last seven decades paired up with past Sox players in a simultaneous first pitch, and young patients and their siblings yelled "Play Ball!" with help from former Boston ace Pedro Martinez.

Once Martinez and Co. were done, Buchholz and Orioles lefty Wei-Yin Chen did their best Pedro impersonations in a game that was scoreless through six. There were not many baserunners for either side, but fans didn't seem to mind the lack of offense. There were great fielding plays by both sides, a slew of strikeouts by Buchholz, and (thank you Larry Lucchino) two-for-one Fenway Franks and $5.00 beers.
Inspiration from the Jimmy Fund Chorus

After another scoreless frame for Buchholz -- punctuated by a strikeout of Steve Pearce on his 113th and final pitch -- the Jimmy Fund Chorus came back out during the seventh inning stretch to offer renditions of "God Bless America" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Fans joined in with fervor that matched anything heard at Wrigley Field during the Harry Carray years, and perhaps the feel-good moment woke up the Sox bats. After two men reached against Chen in the bottom of the frame, Daniel Nava smashed a pitch across Lansdowne Street for a 3-0 lead.

The only blemish on the day was a shaky ninth inning from Joel Hanrahan, who allowed a home run to Adam Jones and put the tying runs on base before finishing up the 3-1 win. But even when Hanrahan struggled, the boo-birds did not emerge. This was too much of a feel-good crowd to resort to its familiar habit of bashing closers for not being Jon Papelbon. 

Now its up to yet another newcomer -- tonight's starter Ryan Dempster -- to keep the good times rolling. And even if he's bombed, he can always lead the crowd in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The guy does a killer Harry Caray imitation.

Big League Brian and fans all had a ball.

Monday, April 1, 2013

What must new Red Sox do to make chemistry worth it?

Time to see if the new Red Sox have the right fuel.

Much has been made about the concerted effort by the Red Sox to go for character over sex appeal in reconstructing their roster. But if they want to rebound from their worst season since the Beatles played Boston, the Sox need performances to match the chemistry.

Case in point among the newcomers facing the Yankees on Opening Day this afternoon is Shane Victorino. Everyone agrees he's a great guy with a great glove. But can he adjust to the vast expenses of Fenway's right field and hit enough to justify an everyday spot in the lineup? He's hit as many as 18 home runs in a season, but had just 2 in 53 games with the Dodgers last year -- and none in 45 at-bats this spring training.
Can Dempster deliver more than a quick wit?

Then there is Ryan Dempster, the newest member of the starting rotation. Good with a joke (which was surely handy on the Cubs), he comes here boasting durability (an average of 199 innings for the past five years). But John Lackey arrived in town with much the same credentials -- and experience as a World Series winner. How's that turned out so far?

The new closer is Joel Hanrahan, who put up some pretty gaudy strikeout numbers in the low-stress atmosphere of Pittsburgh. But Eric Gagne whiffed all comers as well with the Dodgers, and he was a disaster when put into the Boston pressure cooker. Boston is still seeking a closer with the eye of the tiger Jonathan Papelbon possessed; Hanrahan is next to make the attempt.
Will Farrell be loving on Gomes come June?

Jonny Gomes was not expected to be the starting DH, but David Ortiz's uncooperative heel has necessitated it for now. Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe calls Gomes "baseball's chemistry professor, a positive clubhouse presence wherever he goes." That will only take him so far if he fails to start strong, and last year he had a .220 average through May with Oakland. And what's with the missing "h" anyway?

The rookies in today's lineup, also apparently strong pieces in the chemistry mix, have to prove they can be everyday big leaguers.

Shortstop Jose Iglesias, another guy getting his Opening Day shot due to an injury -- Stephen Drew's concussion -- already has Gold Glove skills. His bat, however, has been very suspect in limited MLB trials (although his .294 spring training performance was encouraging). Ozzie Smith spent several years early in his Hall of Fame career as a .220 hitter, but it's hard to imagine Boston fans being that patient with Iglesias -- especially with Drew and minor league phenom Xander Bogaerts waiting in the wings.
Iglesias (left) and Bradley will both get their shot.

Projected to make his debut at Yankee Stadium is a 22-year-old who was the best story of spring training for the Red Sox -- left fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. He was Mr. Everything during the Grapefruit League schedule, hitting .419 with power and running with poise and purpose on the field and the basepaths. He's the guy Boston fans can't wait to see at Fenway, but the annals of baseball are filled with rookie phenoms who went bust before the All-Star break.

There is, of course, one other newcomer on the team -- Manager John Farrell. He's not an unfamiliar face to Red Sox fans, having been a well-liked and successful pitching coach with Boston from 2007-2010. But reviews of his performance as Blue Jays manager were mixed, and the results (a 154-170 record) rather tepid. Ownership thought Bobby Valentine was the answer last year, and the result was a chemistry explosion. Farrell seems a better fit for Boston in the early going, but you can be sure Joe Kerrigan (the last Red Sox pitching coach elevated to manager) is on his mind.

Unless Farrell and the other newest parts of the Red Sox potion perform at a high level, nobody will much mind whether they keep the clubhouse happy and help old ladies across the street. In fact, the old ladies will likely be kicking them in the shins if they try.