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Monday, September 30, 2013

Who needs the Yankees? Postseason could still bring high drama for Red Sox

Tito and Farrell could meet up again Friday.

Tito vs. Farrell. Drew vs. Iglesias. Big Papi against Crawford and A-Gon.

There may never be a playoff series at Fenway Park quite like the epic 2003 and '04 Red Sox-Yankees ALCS classics -- ending 86 years of misery against your arch-rivals is tough to top -- but this year's possible postseason opponents present plenty of intriguing scenarios for the Sox. 

As the Wild Card entries do battle over the next several days, we can have fun thinking about three great "what ifs" that could become reality:

Red Sox-Indians in the ALDS
Papi would be pumped to face the Indians.

Cleveland, which closed the regular season with 10 straight victories, will face the winner of Monday's Tampa Bay-Texas tiebreaker in the AL's one-game Wild Card "play-in" on Wednesday. Assuming he can prevail in the winner-take-all contest, Indians manager Terry Francona will return Friday night to Fenway Park -- his summer home for eight years and two World Series championships -- for the AL Division Series.

Francona got a loud and long ovation when the Indians came to Boston for four regular-season games in May, but now things really count. New Englanders are hungry for some playoff success in the Red Sox's first postseason berth since 2009, and current Boston manager John Farrell -- who served as Francona's pitching coach for five years with the Sox, including the '07 world championship squad -- will be attempting to beat his old boss and create some October glory of his own.

In addition to the Tito-Farrell storyline, a Red Sox-Indians series would match up the two most-improved teams in the American League; the Sox went from 69-93 to 97-65 this year, and the Indians from 68-94 to 92-70. In head-to-head play in 2013, Boston won six of seven from the club on which Farrell came to the majors and pitched for parts of five seasons.

Red Sox-Tigers in ALCS
In September, Iglesias was springy vs. the Sox.

Unlike Boston and Cleveland, Detroit surprised nobody with its strong showing in 2013. The Tigers, World Series runner-ups last fall, won their third straight AL Central title with a 93-69 record that was second only to Boston in the circuit. 

Detroit has one of baseball's best offenses, led by sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, but it is their rookie shortstop who may get the bulk of the attention at Fenway were these two teams to meet. Jose Iglesias, the favorite to win both the AL's Rookie of the Year Award and a Gold Glove, was developed in the Boston farm system and spent the first four months of his freshman season with the Red Sox before going to Detroit in a three-way trade on July 30 that brought White Sox pitcher Jake Peavy to Boston.

Iglesias' average, which had hovered around .325 or higher most of the summer, fell off badly in September as skeptics long predicted. His glove, however, remains second to none, and a few dazzling plays in the field may have Boston fans wishing he was still around (even with Stephen Drew and Xander Bogarts both performing well at short for the Sox). 

The Tigers were 4-3 against Boston this year, but the Sox did win two-of-three at Fenway in September -- including a 20-4 shellacking in which they hit eight home runs. 

Red Sox-Dodgers in the World Series
Crawford and Gonzalez have something to prove.

It has been just a little over a year since the Big Trade of 2012, when Boston sent overpaid, underachieving, unhappy stars Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers along with Nick Punto and $12 million on Aug. 25 for a quintet of prospects. Unlike many transactions, this was definitely a move that helped both teams. 

The trade, which will save the Red Sox approximately $275 million in salaries and luxury tax over the course of all the players' contracts, freed up money for Boston to rebuild in 2013 with lower-priced, hungrier character players like Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino. These additions (and subtractions) helped turn the clubhouse atmosphere at Fenway completely around, and the result was a worst-to-first finish in the AL East.

Initially snickered at by Boston fans when the deal went down, Dodgers management has no problem with how things have turned out. Although Beckett suffered a major injury in his pitching hand that all but wiped out his '13 season, Gonzalez and Crawford have both been major contributors for Los Angeles -- which claimed the NL West title and is considered a favorite to win the pennant as well.

Like Edgar Renteria a few years back, Gonzales and Crawford rebounded once they left the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Boston for laid-back LA. The Red Sox, however, would have home-field advantage for the World Series, meaning both players would have up to four games with the probing eyes of Fenway once more upon them.

Hang on, Red Sox fans, it could be a very fun ride.   

Monday, September 23, 2013

Once Bloodied, Captain Carl Yastrzemski Gets Bronzed

Yaz enjoys his day (Associated Press)

I couldn't find my "Yaz Day" shirt yesterday morning, but that was okay -- someone else who spent the past 30 years saving the white tee with the caricature that more closely resembled Governor Mike Dukakis than Captain Carl Yastrzemski managed to dig hers out. It was the least she could do given the circumstances.
Hers still fits -- mine not so much.

They unveiled a statue for Yastrzemski yesterday at Fenway Park, just a few feet away from the bronze likeness of the man he followed in left field for the Red Sox: Ted Williams. Yaz and Teddy Ballgame, together at last outside Gate B. 

After a week that marked the coronation of the 2013 Boston club, an immensely likable and surprisingly talented team that went from last place to an Al East title in one year, Sox fans got to take a short trip back to when the only thing atop the Green Monster was a net and one man spent parts of six presidential administrations guarding it.
Legends from Left: Rice, Ted, Yaz (Justyn Farano)

It had been a rainy morning but there were far more cameras than umbrellas being held up when the festivities got underway at 11 a.m. People complain a lot these days about the "Pink Hatification" of Fenway, but it was definitely a hard-core, blue-collar crowd of several hundred that gathered around the roped-off area where Yaz's family, several teammates, and current Red Sox players were assembled for the ceremony.  

Siblings Mavis and Jim McGetrick, standing right beside me, were a perfect example. They drove up from Providence wearing matching white Yaz painter's hats, each emblazoned with his uniform number eight on top and lined on the sides with some of the stats that helped define the day's honoree: 3,000 hits, 400 home runs, 7 gold gloves, and the 1967 MVP and Triple Crown awards. 
Mavis and Jim still have their pennant too.

The McGetricks also came north toting a boombox of the vintage used by John Cusack to win over Ione Skye in "Say Anything." What did they have in the cassette deck? What else but "The Man They Call Yaz," the Jess Cain tune that flew up the Boston radio charts during the summer of '67 and was later captured on the "Impossible Dream" album found under countless Christmas trees that December.

Another guy behind the McGetricks recalled being a freshman at BU and heading to Fenway for four straight nights in September of 1979 as a slumping Yaz remained stuck on 2,999 hits. He finally got his 3000th against the Yankees, a ground ball that skipped slowly past slick-fielding second baseman Willie Randolph on the Captain's last at-bat before a road trip. Though never proven, the non-play was likely one example in the long, heated Red Sox-Yankees rivalry when respect trumped hatred. Number 3000 was a hit meant to come at home.

His feats in '79 -- when he also had his 400th home run -- were historic, but  1967 was clearly Yastrzemski's most memorable year. In addition to his league-leading 44 homers, 121 RBI, and .326 batting average, he led the upstart Sox to the World Series with a .437 mark in the final 20 pressure-packed games of the greatest pennant race in American League history. He played left field with style and excellence, diving in front of and against the Wall and routinely nailing baserunners who dared to take an extra bag. On the bases himself he was daring but always smart.
Yaz in 1967: The perfect player.

Yaz won games for the Sox in every way imaginable during '67, and reignited Boston's passion for baseball much like the 2013 team has done. The difference is that while it was only one bad September and one bad season that preceded this year's resurgence, the 1967 club was the first in more than 15 years to offer New England fans any September excitement. "Crowds" at Fenway of less than 10,000 fans were common in the mid-1960s; even after least year, it's hard to imagine such apathy ever being repeated.

For those of us born in the late 1960s, a period that coincided with Yaz's peak, our memories of Captain Carl are from his white jumpsuit years -- when he was no longer the best guy on the field but still had the ability to turn on a Ron Guidry fastball or throw out a Willie Wilson at second when the situation demanded. We copied his familiar bat twirl and pants tug, but our only images of him as the perfect player came from highlight films.
Yaz in '78: the Jumpsuit Years.

Yastrzemski was not as naturally gifted a hitter as Ted Williams, but he worked just as hard at the craft. One of the most powerful moments of yesterday's ceremony for me was when Yaz's longtime teammate Dwight Evans, another of my favorites as a kid, discussed how Yastrzemski would spend 40 minutes after spring training games taking extra batting practice.

"We didn't wear batting gloves then, and you'd see blood on the handle of the bat," Evans said. Such a tale might seem apocryphal with some ballplayers, but nobody doubted it was true in this case. Yaz was a dirt dog long before the term existed.

I joined Red Sox Nation in April of '67, just before Yastrzemski's magical sixth season began, and I was already into my junior year of high school when I headed on the Green Line to Fenway for his final two games on Oct. 1-2, 1983. I got my Yaz shirt and cap and souvenir program and hoped he'd bow out with a homer like Williams.

Things didn't go quite as dramatically. He managed just a single over the rainy weekend, and popped up on a terrible 3-and-0 pitch in his final at-bat. We didn't really care, however; it was how he ran around the entire ballpark waving goodbye that we would always remember.
Yaz Day: What we remember.

There were programs made up for ceremony too, and I was lucky to get one of the pile handed out to fans by none other than Dr. Chalres Steinberg right after the unveiling. Fans later got a Yaz baseball card as they entered the ballpark, but the neatest piece of memorabilia I picked up was a enlarged, mounted photograph taken at the exact moment depicted in the statue -- Yaz tipping his helmet to a roaring crowd during his last at-bat. 

A guy was selling prints dated and autographed by the photographer for $20 apiece, and when I approached him he said he took the picture himself from his box seat back in 1983. By then he was asking $10 a picture, as sales had not been going well; since I only had a twenty on me, I bought two and gave one to my friend Scott -- who was at Yaz Day with me in '83 and also on hand for Sunday's ceremony.
The $10 photo

In a short but moving speech to the crowd during his 1983 farewell, Yastrzemski mentioned seeing a sign in the crowd that read, "Say it ain't so, Yaz." Pausing, his voice cracked as he said, "I wish it wasn't." This spontaneous and poignant display of emotion from the usually stoic ballplayer earned a roar from the masses.

Mavis and Jim McGetrick remembered the moment perfectly, because they were the ones holding the sign in the left-field seats. They showed me a fading Polaroid to prove it, and Jim laughed and said he had a cassette of the speech with him too if I wanted to hear it.
Mavis (center) holds her sign in 1983....

...and yesterday.

By then it was time for Yaz's latest speech, and as his custom he kept it short. He got a bit choked up only once, when he mentioned how he wished his "biggest fan," his late son Carl Michael, could be there. He praised the current Boston team -- represented at the event by manager John Farrell, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, and current left fielders Daniel Nava and Jony Gomes -- and said it reminded him of the '67 crew. When he mentioned that the statue meant as much to him as being inducted into the Hall of Fame, the crowd applauded. 
Yaz admires his likeness (Kelvin Ma, Boston Herald).

There was no speech for Yaz at the ballgame after the ceremony, just a first-pitch strike to current Red Sox hero David Ortiz before the Boston-Toronto contest. Oritz later homered in the game, which finished in 2:13 -- a quick pace far more the norm back in Yastrzemski's day. 

Will Yaz be back one more time in 2013 to throw out a first pitch? If he is, there will likely be a National League team sitting in the visitor's dugout. That would suit Captain Carl just fine.
A hug for Papi. (David Butler II, USA Today)



Thursday, September 12, 2013

Patience with Mike Napoli pays off for Farrell and Red Sox

Mike Napoli is locked in.

Mike Napoli shared last week's American League Player of the Week honors with his teammate Will Middlebrooks, but it would have been fitting if their boss got a portion of the award as well.

After all, it was Red Sox manager John Farrell who kept penciling Napoli into the lineup nearly every game despite a three-month power drought and a dismal August in which the first baseman hit .208 and seemed to strike out every other at-bat. Even when Boston's lead in the AL East race disappeared, Napoli got the call again and again.

Farrell's patience paid off, as Napoli has emerged from his long dry spell to hit .391 (20-for-51) with 6 doubles, 6 homers and 18 RBI over his last 15 games (including a two-run double Wednesday night). 
Napoli has plenty to smile about lately.

Not surprisingly, the hot streak has sparked the Sox to a sizzling 13-2 stretch, and Boston has built its East lead up to 9.5 games over second-place Tampa Bay.

Farrell was likely aware of Napoli's past history. A streak hitter, he traditionally does better late in the season -- including a .429 average and 1.361 OPS in September/October 2011 and 7 homers in 16 games last September. Still, it takes a cool head and supreme confidence to stick with a guy who's flailing, especially as a first-year manager trying to turn around a last-place club.

The approach Farrell took with Napoli is similar to that displayed in 2004 by another rookie Boston skipper, Terry Francona, who played Kevin Millar all through a first-half slump. Like Napoli, Millar got hot down the stretch, batting .331 with a .987 OPS starting July 4 as the Sox nearly caught the Yankees in the East and reached the playoffs as the Wild Card entry.
Millar's hot stretch helped deliver a title.

What happened next is well-documented. Millar had some clutch hits during the postseason and the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.

Boston has no need for a Wild Card this year, having all but clinched the East with 15 games to go in one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in franchise history. Last year's Red Sox team finished in last place at 69-93; this year's club is currently 89-58.

Can Boston cap off its magical revival with a title run in October? That remains to be seen, but if Napoli keeps up his sizzling pace, he could play a major role in determining the outcome. 
Can Nap keep it up into October? We shall see.