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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hanley Ramirez homering at record pace for Red Sox -- will weak pitching make it moot?

That ball is gone -- and so is the helmet. (AP)

Jimmie Foxx never did it. Neither did Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, or Mo Vaughn.

When Hanley Ramirez smoked a R.A. Dickey pitch into the left-field Monster seats at Fenway Park last night, it marked his 10th home run of April. Ramirez is tied atop the majors in homers with Nelson Cruz of Seattle, and just one player in Red Sox history has ever hit that many in the season's first month: David Ortiz in 2006.

That was the year Ortiz set a team record with 54 homers, but his prodigious slugging was not enough to save a pitching-thin Boston team from a third-place finish. Ramirez may meet a fate similar to his Dominican countryman this summer.

Although Rick Porcello pitched seven two-hit innings against the heavy-hitting Blue Jays last night in a 4-1 win, Red Sox starters have the worst ERA of any rotation in the major leagues.  

Slugger's Hug: Ortiz greets Ramirez. (USA Today)

Still, while pitching remains a major concern for Boston, Ramirez has quickly become a fan favorite with his prodigious slugging.

In addition to his 10 homers through 20 games, he is also tied with Cruz atop the AL with 22 RBI, while his .659 slugging percentage and .999 OPS place him among the Top 5. To put his hot start in perspective, Ramirez hit just 13 homers all of last season, and he is already nearly one-third of the way to his career high of 33 (set in 2008).

Making his performance all the more exciting is how he's doing it. Ramirez has a robust swing that often causes his helmet to fly off, and he has run out several home runs this year -- including last night's shot -- with nothing atop his colorful cornrows but a skull cap.

He did wrap a homer around the Pesky Pole on Tuesday night, but most of Hanley's howitzers have been no-doubters that fly off his bat even faster than they are delivered by the pitcher. Ramirez's Wednesday shot was estimated to have traveled 106 mph from the plate to the Monster seats, and some are predicting he could hit 50 for Boston hitting in a stacked lineup with Ortiz and fellow newcomer Pablo Sandoval.

Will an offense be enough? (Boston Globe)

The big question is whether all of these hitters will be enough to offset an ace-less Boston rotation that has had trouble getting through the middle of games. Porcello is the only Red Sox starter averaging six or more innings per game, and the team predicted by many to be a World Series contender is a so-so 12-10.

Red Sox fans hope that Rodriguez not only keeps knocking them out, but that come August and September his home runs will still have meaning as Boston seeks a return to the playoffs.

Friday, April 24, 2015

John Farrell on new Red Sox plan: Just singles and homers

Must be runners in scoring position.

Having lost 4 of 6 games and saddled by a .196 average with runners in scoring position (RISP) -- 13th in the American League -- the Red Sox will be instituting a new offensive game plan starting with tonight's contest at Baltimore. 

No matter where and how far Boston batters hit the ball within the confides of Camden Yards, they will stop at first base -- thus preventing the next hitter from having to bat with a runner in scoring position. Farrell calls it the "RISP Revenge" offense.

Sox batters will continue to run out home runs, and once a batter gets a hit other than a homer with a man on first, the team will return to its "normal" offense and hope for the best.

Chili is red hot mad at what he sees.

"There is just something about seeing those guys at second and third that is rattling our guys at the plate," says Red Sox manager John Farrell. "We're hoping without the pressure of knocking someone in, our hitters will raise their productivity up a notch."

The unorthodox move by Farrell comes amidst growing concerns about the much-hyped Boston offense. The season is just 16 games old, but despite adding Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to their lineup,  the Red Sox have not yet seen the expected uptick in production. 

The team batting average after 16 games is .230, which Gordon Edes of points out is its lowest to this point of the season since 1992 -- when Butch Hobson's last-place club hit just .246 all year. Tom Brunansky led that punchless crew with 15 homers and 71 RBI, and the team home run total was an anemic 84. 

"I know we can hit, and we're going to hit," says Boston's first-year hitting coach Chili Davis. "When that sun is shining bright and it warms up, we'll be sitting pretty. Until then, we figure we'll try something new to get us rolling."

I'm hitting .210, but you should see my new car. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

One more (new) reason to love and respect Pedro Martinez

Cherington gets his man. (Getty Images)

The ceremony honoring former Boston College centerfielder and "Ice Bucket Challenge" pioneer Peter Frates before Monday's home opener at Fenway Park was a wonderful touch by Red Sox management, as Frates signed a professional baseball contract with Sox GM Ben Cherington to the delight of a packed house. 

Actually, it was Pete's wife, Julie, who signed the contract. Frates can no longer write due to the ALS that has ravaged his body, but that didn't stop him from smiling while the crowd roared its approval.

There was just one problem with the event, and it came when the long line of current Red Sox players passed by Frates' wheelchair with autographed jerseys. The jerseys, each of them bearing the #3 Frates  wore at BC, had been donned by the team during a spring training game with the Eagles.

While the Sox contingent exchanged hugs, handshakes, and kind words with Julie and others in Pete's family, the man of the hour was seated a few feet back and below eye level from the players. As a result, he had no contact with most of them as they quickly walked by. Rather than hand him their #3 jerseys or drape them across or near his wheelchair, the players were instructed to place them on a table far to his right.

My wife, who has worked with paralyzed patients in wheelchairs for 25 years, noticed this right away. "Somebody should really have put him in better position, and shown those guys how to approach him," Michelle said. 

Even Ortiz looked unsure around Frates. 

She added that the players were likely nervous, unsure whether they would hurt the now-frail Frates if they were to reach out, so most played it safe by keeping their distance.  A few touched a hand to his shoulder, but the well-meaning gestures seemed tentative. 

I was beginning to wish Michelle had not pointed this all out to me when suddenly the roar of the crowd went up several notches. Emerging from the Boston dugout was one more player wishing to pay his respect to Frates -- legendary pitcher and new Hall of Fame inductee Pedro Martinez.

Waving to the crowd, his smile as broad as the guest of honor's, Martinez approached the Frates family and paused to talk with and hug each of them. He took his time, and the exchanges seemed much more poignant than the hurried embraces from the conga line of players that had come before.

First Pete's family gets a hello.

Then Pedro neared Frates' wheelchair. He leaned over, spoke a few words, and grabbed Pete in a bear hug. There was no hesitation -- just respect and love for a fellow ballplayer.

As I watched the scene unfold, I thought back a couple years to when members of the 2004 World Series champion Red Sox visited patients at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Although all of the players were a hit in the clinics, Martinez had a sincere warmth and playfulness about him that delighted kids and adults alike. 

Now, in front of 37,000 people, he was at it again -- showing compassion to a man facing a a frightening future.

Like Lou Gehrig, for whom ALS gained its second name, Pete Frates most certainly got a tough break. But at that moment, in the arms of a legend, he felt like the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Nice job, Pedro.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Buchholz, Pedroia bashers seek new tagets after Opening Day

 Been there, done that -- Pedroia after No. 2. (AP)

One was a former MVP prematurely past his prime, his offensive moxie gone thanks to hand injuries and years of over-zealous play. The other was the ultimate tease -- a pitcher with all the stuff in the world but an inability to stay healthy or hungry.

Dustin Pedroia and Clay Buchholz were two big Red Sox question marks during the offseason, with naysayers taking to the sports talk radio airwaves to lament about Pedroia's wilting power numbers and Buchholz's status as an unreliable No 3 starter anointed as a No. 1 purely out of necessity.

Monday night, however, the cynics were noticeably quiet after Boston's 8-0 Opening Day win at Philadelphia. Buchholz's seven shutout innings (with nine strikeouts) were certainly ace-like, while Pedroia was 3-for-5 with two homers from the No. 2 spot in the batting order.

Clay's Day -- Buchholz flattens the Phils.

Manager John Farrell noted after the game that Pedroia's success was no surprise given the additional " freeness in his swing" Farrell noticed during spring training. Last year Pedroia didn't hit his second home run until Mother's Day, and had just 7 all season; if he can get back to the 15- to 20-homer/.850 OPS numbers he displayed in 2008-11, it will provide a huge boost to Boston's offense.

Defense has never been a concern with Pedroia, and the reigning Gold Glove winner was at it again with two great diving plays in the opener. It was, however, the first time in four years that he's had a two-homer game.

Petey brought his glove to work too.

As for Buchholz, the slim right-hander did a lot to silence those who worried he would fail in replacing former Sox ace Jon Lester atop the rotation. Of his 94 pitches, 65 were strikes, and he had his great curveball and change-up working in addition to a 92-mph fastball. 

Buchholz was efficient and dominant, two traits he displayed in streaking to a 9-0 start in 2013 before missing three months with a shoulder injury. He outpitched Phillies ace (and Red Sox rumor-mill favorite) Cole Hamels, who lasted just 5 innings, as well as Lester, who couldn't make it through the fifth in losing his first start for the Cubs on Sunday night.

So with Pedroia and Buchholz both clicking, who can the naysayers turn to now? How about Mookie Betts and his ridiculous near-.450 spring training average, or the over-paid, over-hyped Hanley Ramirez?
Two HR for Hanley -- this one a granny (Globe)

No, that's not going to work either. Betts (2-for-4, 1 HR, 2 runs) and Ramirez (2-for-4, 2 HR, 5 RBI) did pretty well Monday too.

Better make it David Ortiz then. The DH-turned-first baseman was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in the opener, and this will most certainly be the year age finally creeps up on Big Flabby.

At least for a day.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Theo Epstein, Cubs to Red Sox: "Let's make a really big deal."

Betts and Fenway -- Theo wants them both.

After already adding more than a dozen former Red Sox onto his 40-man roster and coaching staff,  Cubs general manager Theo Epstein is determined to continue the trend in his quest to take Chicago's NL club to its first World Series appearance since 1945.

In a series of overtures Wednesday afternoon to his friend and successor Ben Cherington, Epstein made it clear he was willing to do whatever necessary to get the Cubs back to the Series and a chance at their first world championship since 1908.

"I believe Mookie Betts has what it takes to put us over the top," said Epstein, "and I think he's worth a starting lineup in trade." 

This is exactly what Epstein offered Cherington for Boston's .467-hitting center fielder, Chicago's entire projected starting lineup plus ace pitcher Jon Lester -- who, of course, the Cubs signed as a free agent over the winter after he helped the Red Sox to two World Series titles.
Could Lester be coming back?

"Did you ever see that old Bugs Bunny cartoon where he plays all nine positions at once and beats a team of Babe Ruth-types single-handedly?" Espstein told a reporter. "We want Betts to be our Bugs."
Although three major leaguers have played all nine positions in one game -- Bert Campaneris, Cesar Tovar, and Scott Sheldon -- nobody has ever played all nine at the same time. To do so, Betts would have to use his terrific speed to sprint from one spot to the other on the diamond faster than the ball.

Bugs could do it -- how about Betts?

Asked if he would consider the trade, Cherington said only that "we are always open to discussion with other teams," but with Betts already being compared to the likes of 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen after just 52 games of major league experience, it is likely Boston's GM will hang on to his 22-year-old phenom.

Epstein also proposed a pair of additional trades Wednesday: Wrigley Field for Fenway Park and mascot Clark the Cub for Wally the Green Monster. Cherington had no comment on either offer.

Theo will throw in the ivy too.