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Friday, October 7, 2016

For David Price, it's time to grab that pick-axe and get yodeling

Price looks to the peak.

Have you ever seen that "Price is Right" game with the little mountain climber? Contestants guess the price of several items, and the guy inches his way up the mountain for every cent they are off -- yodeling all the way. The goal is to be keep him from reaching the top and falling off the other side.

It isn't quite the perfect David Price/Price is Right analogy, but it's close. After last night's 5-4 loss at Cleveland in Game 1 of the ALDS, the Red Sox left-hander needs to deliver the type of "top of the rotation" performance this afternoon that John Henry and Dave Dombrowski had in mind when they shelled out $217 million for him over the winter -- or the Sox will face the arduous task of being down 0-2 as the five-game series shifts to Boston.

Yes, the Red Sox brain trust knew all about Price's 0-7 record and Everest-high ERA in eight postseason starts when they signed him. When asked about it at his first press conference at Fenway Park, the pitcher smiled and said he was saving all his postseason wins for Boston. This got a good laugh from those gathered, but it won't be so funny if he can't start proving it right today.

Price in 2015; ERA champ, playoff chump.

Baseball history is filled with pitchers who performed great in the regular season but bombed in the playoffs. Those who can raise their game when it counts the most are a rare commodity -- which is a big reason Red Sox fans were so upset when the team traded World Series hero Jon Lester in 2014. Madison Bumgarner is an excellent starter for the Giants from April through September, but when October comes he morphs into Sandy Koufax. Guys like that are invaluable.

Rick Porcello was signed to be a No. 2 or No. 3 pitcher, and this year surprised everyone with a Cy Young-worthy season. The fact he delivered his worst start of 2016 last night was maddening, but not entirely shocking. He was so consistent all year, he was almost due a dud -- and the intimidating environment of Progressive Field was a tough place to make your first playoff start in five years.

David Price is in a different situation entirely. He's started postseason games in six of the last seven years, so he shouldn't be rattled by the big stage. He was also brought here to be an ace, and his string of excellent starts in mid-to-late summer was one of the big reasons Boston was able to win the tough American League East. But his sub-par outing against the Yankees in the last week of the regular season helped cost his team home-field in the ALDS, and if they don't win today the Red Sox will need three straight victories to reach the next round -- including a Game 5 back at Cleveland.

Get yodeling, David

Here's why the mountain-climbing metaphor isn't quite perfect. On Price is Right, the idea is actually to have the guy climb as little as possible; the more you're off in your guess, and the higher he goes, the closer he is to toppling off the other side.

If the Red Sox are to scale the mountain to a fourth World Series championship this century, they need David Price to help get them there. What they don't need him to do is deliver the type of disappointing performance that sends them to the brink of elimination,

So for the sake of the analogy, let's just say that the best thing for the team is to keep climbing -- and the first swings of the pick-axe need to come from their ace pitcher.


Friday, September 23, 2016

John Farrell reveals secret to Red Sox surge: Bill Belichick

"Warm up Koji in the seventh."

A month ago columnists, talk-show hosts and fans were calling for his head. Now John Farrell looks like a genius and the Red Sox are the hottest team in baseball -- winning the close games they couldn't earlier in the year due (said the naysayers) to his weak in-game managing.

Asked after last night's eighth straight win to explain the turnaround, Farrell dropped a bombshell:  Bill Belichick has been making Boston's strategic moves before, after, and even during games. Phone calls in dugouts, clubhouses, and hotel rooms have kept the two in touch and moved the Red Sox to the verge of the postseason.

It was the Patriots coach, Farrell says, who made the decision to immediately put Koji Uehara into the eighth-inning role -- where he has thrived -- after he came off the disabled list.

Shaw got mad -- and hot -- thanks to Belichick.

To start over-his-head rookie Yoan Mancada over Travis Shaw at third base for a few games, lighting a fire under Shaw -- and a resurgence at the plate.

To stay behind slumping Clay Buchholz, trying him in various spots and keeping his confidence up, so he'd be ready to move back into the starting rotation when needed .

To rest David Ortiz just the right amount so that his feet would hold up and he'd put up the best farewell numbers in MLB history.

A rested Ortiz continues to rake.

To convince Hanley Ramirez to cut down on his home-run swing -- thus leading to more home runs and fewer helmet-flying strikeouts.

To move Dustin Pedroia into the lead-off spot, against the second baseman's wishes, sparking a Laser Show batting spree reminiscent of 2008.

"It's particularly tough when we have games at the same time, like last night, but Bill is such a mastermind that he can make out our lineup at the same time he's going over plays with a rookie quarterback making his first start," says Farrell. "I mean, the guy is a genius."

I wish Bill would call.

Farrell says he decided to come clean about the arrangement because he wanted the world to know just how brilliant a tactician Belichick is -- even if it costs him his job.

"I've been around baseball for 40 years," he says, "but Bill is in a league all by himself."

Make that two leagues.

Friday Fun from Fenway Reflections

Monday, September 19, 2016

Hanley Ramirez aims to bring second World Series to Red Sox (Nope, that's not a misprint)

Brothers in Arms: More celebrating to come?

David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia may be the only everyday players on the Red Sox who also played for Boston's 2007 World Series champions, but there is another guy in the lineup whose performance was a major factor in that title.

No use scouring the '07 lineup on baseballreference,com, you won't find him there.

American League Co-Player of the Week Hanley Ramirez has emerged as the hottest hitter in baseball, with 4 home runs and 9 RBI during a four-game sweep of the Yankees at Fenway this past weekend and 12 homers overall in his last 21 contests. Ramirez is finally fulfilling the expectations that former GM Ben Cherington was hoping for when he signed the free agent in the winter of 2014-15, and his surge has helped Boston to a 3.5-game lead over the second-place Orioles in the tight AL East race entering tonight's showdown in Baltimore,

If Ramirez is able to keep it up, and the Red Sox reach the postseason, it will be the second time he's paid big dividends on Yawkey Way. Back in 2005, after an excellent season in Class AA Portland, he was the key to a trade with the Florida Marlins that brought big right-handed pitcher Josh Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell to Boston.

Beckett took a season to acclimate to the American League, but in 2007 he was 20-7 and the ace of a World Series championship Red Sox staff. Lowell, considered a throw-in from Florida in the original trade, was a quiet leader on and off the field whose unexpected offensive resurgence (.324 with 121 RBI) was also central to the '07 title. In fact, Lowell was MVP of that October's World Series, to which Beckett contributed a Game 1 victory.

Lowell delivered in '07 -- now it's Hanley's turn.

So while Cherington may have been forced to resign last summer after the poor performance of Ramirez (a .249 average and brutal defense in left field) and fellow free agent washout Pablo Sandoval, the signing isn't looking quite so bad now, In fact, Ramirez's booming bat and solid work at a new position of first base has been one of this season's greatest surprises.

If Hanley can keep it up for another month, there will be a lot more to celebrate than just a sweep of the Yankees.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Two unlikely heroes are keys to Red Sox winning the AL East

Is Koji back to form? Red Sox fans hope so.

Despite all the firepower in the Red Sox lineup and a revitalized pitching staff led by a likely 20-game winner, two guys with ERAs north of 4.35 who were all but forgotten a few months ago could play a major factor in Boston's playoff chances:

Clay Buchholz and Koji Uehara.

Buchholz was a much-maligned mop-up man earlier in the summer after flaming out as a starter, It was thought that his days in Boston were all but done, his great potential never quite realized due to injuries and inconsistency. From July 2 to July 20, the bullpen outcast did not appear in a game.

Then, suddenly, he had a shot at redemption. After several other relievers failed as eighth-inning setup men, John Farrell gave Buchholz the ball -- and he surprised everyone by embracing the role. Suddenly the Red Sox were not blowing games late, or at least not as often.
Buchholz has earned his teammates' respect.

Knuckleballer Steven Wright's right shoulder injury offered yet another opportunity: the chance for Buchholz to reclaim a spot in the starting rotation. Once again he answered the call, this time with a string of solid performances that sustained the club in the first weeks after Wright went down.

Overall, Buchholz has been one of Boston's best pitchers for two months. In his past 12 appearances, including 4 starts, he has a 2.20 ERA over 32.2 innings, with 22 strikeouts, 8 walks, and a .220 opponent's batting average.

If Wright's not right, the Sox need Clay to stay.

Now, with Wright's problem apparently bigger than initially expected, these developments become every more important. There is a good chance Wright will not return this year, leaving it up to Buchholz to hold down a permanent spot in the rotation -- at least for the remainder of the regular season.

If there is more than just a regular season for Boston in 2016 also depends on Uehara. The game-closing hero of 2013 was not expected to do as much this year, with the Red Sox picking up All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel and setup man Carson Smith. When Smith suffered a spring-training injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery, Koji stepped in and was up-and-down in the eighth-inning role.

Uehara later filled in admirably as closer when Kimbrel was hurt in July, and Koji looked to be getting on one of his hot streaks in late July when he too went on the DL with a torn pectoral muscle. Like Buchholz, fans wrote off Uehara at this point, especially given his advanced age of 41.

Koji's July injury looked bad.

But just wait a minute...

Koji got through rehab faster than expected, and was brought off the DL this week-- amazingly pitching a perfect eighth inning (with two strikeouts) Wednesday night at San Diego. He threw 11 strikes on 13 pitches and said afterward that he felt great.

Can Koji step back into a setup role, and spell Kimbrel at closer when needed?

Can Buchholz keep turning in stalwart performances in his return from the dead?

The answers to both questions will go a long way in determining the fate of the Red Sox during the next wild 23-game race to the finish.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Should the Red Sox be shipping Papelbon back up to Boston?

Worth the risk? You bet.

Forget about last year's flare-up with Bryce Harper. Forget the bloated ERA and declining speed on his fastball. Don't worry about the crotch-grabbing or the Trump stickers he may try and post around the clubhouse.

If Jonathan Papelbon wants to come to the Red Sox, Dave Dumbrowski should buy him a first-class ticket to Detroit and get him on a plane immediately.

Boston's starting pitching has excelled in August with an ERA around 2.50 for the month after David Price's fine rain-shortened effort in Baltimore last night. Going back to early July, it's still right around 3.25 -- a sample size of nearly 35 games. If Price and Drew Pomeranz can continue righting themselves, and Rick Porcello and Steven Wright remain rock solid, the rotation should be OK for the stretch drive. Should Wright's injury keep him down, or his knuckleball start staying up, Eduardo Rodriguez appears ready to take hold of the fifth spot.

Porcello (16-3) and Co. are not the issue.

Starters are not the problem for Boston. It's what happens after they leave games that has kept baseball's most explosive offensive team from running away with the AL East.

The Red Sox relief corps has been shaky and battle-scarred all year. Starting with the loss of Carson Smith to Tommy John Surgery in April, and extending through injuries to Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, and Brandon Workman, the bullpen has faced more casualties than Hawkeye and Trapper faced in Korea.

It's been a patchwork pen all season, made tougher by a slew of deer-in-the-headlights performances from middle-men, set-up men, and closers alike. There are no sure things in the Boston bullpen anymore, and this has kept the Sox from winning a majority of their close ballgames.

Seen too often: a Kimbrel crash.

So why throw another guy into the late-inning mix in Papelbon who many experts say is on the downslide and a threat to clubhouse chemistry? There are several reasons:

1. It's a cheap risk. Whichever team picks up Pap as a free agent will only have to pay him the major-league minimum for the balance of the season -- about $150,000.

2. John Farrell knows what makes him tick. The Red Sox manager was Papelbon's pitching coach in Boston in 2007-2010, when he was one of the best closers in the game despite a hothead personality. While it's true Pap no longer has an electric 95-97 MPH heater, he likely still has the mental toughness that enabled him to win on the biggest stage -- and for baseball's most demanding fans. In fact, Farrell admits he's talked to Pap about coming to Boston.

John knows Jonathan.

3. The stats are deceiving. Papelbon was pitching very well into late July, with a 2.56 ERA after his first 34 appearances. A handful of bad outings in the past two weeks blew it up, but Pap might have been already looking out the door at that point. If thrown into a pennant race,

4. He was great just last year. Papelbon's 2015 stats -- a 2.13 ERA and 1.026 WHIP in 59 appearances split between Philadelphia and Washington -- earned him an All-Star berth. Could be really have lost it that fast?

3. Even when slumping, he's better than some of the guys in the Boston bullpen. Who would you rather have in the 7th or 8th inning of a close game -- Fernando Abad or Jonathan Papelbon?

4. Pedroia and Ortiz won't let him hurt the clubhouse. Both these guys went to war with Papelbon in the old days, and as the elder statesmen on the club they can keep their old buddy in line.

5. He's been there before. With the exception of Uehara, Boston's prospective late-inning men and closers have zero deep postseason experience. Kimbrel, Brad Ziegler, and the others can learn plenty by picking Pap's brain. Nobody has ever been more lights-out over a longer period of time in Boston -- and that's knowledge worth having around.

5.  It's a Blue State. Even if he turns some on Yawkey Way toward Trump, Massachusetts is a Democratic stronghold.

So get this guy's ticket stamped, Dave -- this free agent may not be the Papelbon of 2007, but he's worth taking a shot on.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Why the Drew Pomeranz for Anderson Espinoza trade is absolutely right for the Red Sox

Worth the risk.

There are two big reasons that Red Sox fans should be applauding Dave Dombrowski for yesterday's move to trade top pitching prospect Anderson Espinoza for Padres All-Star lefty Drew Pomeranz.

First off, as many others have noted, top pitching prospects seldom meet expectations -- and the younger they are, the riskier they are. The minor leagues and high school athletic departments are filled with can't-miss guys who did. 

Remember Casey Kelly? Boston's top pick from the 2008 draft had a 2.08 ERA in the minors as a 19-year-old, but in the MLB he's just 2-8 lifetime with a 6.39 ERA. What a waste of a perfect Boston baseball name. 

Casey Kelly? Great name, lame game.

How about Craig Hansen, the Sox' first-round pick in 2005? He was supposed to take over as closer, but turned in a 6.15 ERA in parts of three seasons with Boston -- and was out of the majors by 2009.

Yes, Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon were prospects that turned out fine, but don't forget that neither was originally a first-round pick. Pap, in fact, was a fourth-rounder. And for every one of those guys, there are dozens more stocking the shelves at Staples.

So whatever Baseball America says about Espinoza, this is a deal worth making. In fact, even if Espiona DOES turn out to be terrific, it's worth it. 

How come?

If Espinoza is the next Pedro, so be it.

Picture the scene: the Red Sox are playing the Giants at Fenway Park in late October, a rematch of the 1912 World Series. David Ortiz, after smashing 42 home runs in his final season, caps his Red Sox career with one more chance to deliver in the clutch for Boston.

If the Red Sox hang onto Espinoza, the chances are very good that the last game Ortiz will play for the Red Sox is on Oct. 2 against the Blue Jays. Those of us who were there will always fondly recall Carl Yastrzemski's last game in 1983, but we would have gladly swapped it for a chance to see Captain Carl go out in a contest that mattered -- not on a last-place club.

Ted Williams homered in his final MLB at-bat for the 65-89 Red Sox of 1960. Think he would have traded it for a chance to face the Pirates in the World Series? You better believe it.

Unless Big Papi changes his mind, this is his last go-around. The Red Sox have a lineup that can compete with any team in baseball, and in David Price, Steven Wright, and Rick Porcello have three starting pitchers who they should be able to count on in the second half. They need a fourth, however, to have a chance at the postseason. 

Pomeranz gives them that chance. Espinoza may be the bigger winner in the long run, but if the Red Sox want a chance to help their greatest clutch hitter finish his career in Bill Russell, Ray Bourque, or John Elway championship style, they needed to make this move.

Ortiz deserves one last shot -- and so do the fans.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Why David Ortiz has more in common with Sandy Koufax than Ted Williams

What's this .097 hitter have in common with Ortiz?

He's not a pitcher, he's not a Dodger, but the final months of David Ortiz's career are more closely mirroring those of Sandy Koufax than Ted Williams.

Long before Ortiz hit his 522nd lifetime home run on July 1 to pass the total hit by Williams, people were linking the two Red Sox icons. No less an authority than Carl Yastrzemski has called them the two greatest players in franchise history, and all but die-hard Yaz fans would agree.

When it comes to swan songs, however, the comparisons don't measure up. Ted played his final year for a moribund Red Sox team that finished 7th in the American League, and his 29 homers and .316 average meant nothing beyond padding his Hall of Fame statistics. He gave fans some final thrills at age 42 -- including, famously, a bullpen blast in his last at-bat -- but the Fenway stands that day and many others were largely empty.

Pressure? For Williams, in 1960, there was none.

Less than 11,000 saw Ted's last HR live.

Ortiz is playing under far different circumstances. The Red Sox near the All-Star break in the thick of the AL East and Wild Card races, meaning each Big Papi hit -- even, in one memorable case, a game-saving triple -- has far more importance. On a team filled with budding superstars, it is still Ortiz opposing pitchers fear most in crunch time. Fenway is regularly jammed to capacity with demanding Boston fans.

Whereas Williams was truly a lion in winter during his final season, emerging from hibernation to accumulate just 310 at-bats, Ortiz is playing nearly every day and leads the AL in OPS. True, he has yet to take the field on defense, but what he's doing at the plate is still remarkable for a 40-year-old. One could make a strong argument that Big Papi has been the league MVP over the first half-sesaon, and he is slated to start at DH for the AL in next week's All-Star Game.

It's enough to make a guy change his mind about retirement, but Ortiz insists that won't be the case. He is too proud and too smart to chance playing one year too long and leaving fans with a less-then-flattering image of a .220, 12-homer campaign. Plus, in addition to the normal aches that can hamper a ballplayer of his age and size, he has severe pain in his feet  that clubhouse onlookers confirm he hides behind his gregarious persona.

Here's where Koufax comes in.

Fifty years ago, the Dodgers hurler dubbed "The Left Hand of God" faced his own physical challenges. Although the he was just 30 in 1966, Koufax's arthritic left elbow caused him constant pain on and off the mound. His arm remained bent at a 22.5-degree angle between starts, and he had suits specially tailored to hide the deformity, Doctors warned him that he could permanently damage his arm by continuing to hurl 300 innings a year.

Koufax on ice -- a common occurrence in '66. 

But, like this year's Red Sox, the Los Angeles Dodgers of '66 were a contending team -- in fact, the defending World Series champs -- in a tight pennant race. There were other strong players on the club, and two future Hall of Fame pitchers in Don Drysdale and rookie Don Sutton behind him in the rotation, but Sandy was clearly the star. As with Ortiz, nobody performed better when the pressure was greatest.

This stayed true down the stretch in '66. The pain never lessened, but Koufax kept winning -- going 8-2 with an 1.78 ERA and 8 complete games in his final 11 starts. On the last day of the season, with the National League championship on the line, he beat Phillies ace Jim Bunning with a 10-strikeout performance on two days rest.

In addition to helping the Dodgers to the World Series, where they lost to Baltimore, Koufax led the league in wins (at 27-9), ERA (1.73), strikeouts (317), Bar Mitzvah invitations, and marriage proposals. He won his third Cy Young Award in four years, and only a career season from Roberto Clemente denied Sandy NL MVP honors as well.

Then, shocking the sports world, Koufax walked away. In a hastily called press conference, he stated that "I've got a lot of years to live after baseball and I would like to live them with the complete use of my body."

There will be no such surprise announcement from Ortiz. Everybody knows he is retiring. But, like Koufax, and unlike Williams, Big Papi is doing so on a team that could very well be playing important games in September -- and maybe October.

In the end, that's far more important than any home run.

Will Ortiz's last season also end with bunting?

Thursday, May 12, 2016

David Price chases history and the Ghost of Earl Wilson

Price's start has baffled the experts. (AP)

When he takes the mound tonight at Fenway Park,  David Price will be doing more than trying to turn around his season.

There is a fact that you won't find mentioned in his long Red Sox media guide entry, or anywhere else. In many respects that's a good thing -- a sign of progress. Even he likely doesn't know about it,

As history, however, it is worth acknowledging.

When the Red Sox signed Price to a seven-year, $217-million contract last December, they did more than make him the highest-paid pitcher in MLB history. The move meant that, barring injury, the team's No. 1 starter entering the 2016 season would be African-American -- a first for a franchise that dates to 1901.

The Price was right in December. (AP)

Even at a position where there has traditionally not been a tremendous amount of racial diversity at the MLB level, this is surprising for such a storied organization. And while it can't be linked entirely to the team's dubious racial past, this does play a part.

There have, of course, been men of color atop the Boston rotation. Pedro Martinez is the best pitcher most of us will ever see, and the pride of the Dominican Republic. Luis Tiant, the big-game king of the 1975 American League champions, was as famous for his long exile from Castro's Cuba as for his topsy-turvy delivery and victory cigars. Both Pedro and El Tiante were beloved, charismatic winners, but neither was African-American.

Oil Can Boyd, the Mississippi-bred son of a Negro League player, went 15-13 with 3 shutouts for a mediocre Boston club in 1985. He seemed on the verge of No. 1 status, until Roger Clemens' rapid ascent in '86, coupled with Boyd's injuries and off-field problems, kept him from achieving it.

Boyd claims racism was also a factor. This can't be proven, but the other pitcher with perhaps the most legitimate chance to be Boston's first African-American ace was undeniably denied that shot by one of the ugliest injustices in team history -- which happened 50 years ago.

Earl Wilson was called up to the Red Sox in 1959, just a few weeks after infielder Pumpsie Green's promotion made Boston the last of the sixteen original MLB clubs to break the color line. During the next several seasons, the right-hander established himself as a very good pitcher on a very bad team. Twenty-game winner Bill Monbouquette was undeniably Boston's ace, but Wilson was a rising star who pitched a 1962 no-hitter at Fenway Park in which he also homered.

Wilson's no-hitter earned him a $1,000 bonus. (AP)

A down year by Monbouquette prompted his trade after the 1965 season, opening the door for Wilson to step into the No. 1 role. He had poise, experience, and confidence -- all the makings of a star.

Then came spring training of '66, which the Red Sox spent in the still-segregated Deep South. Wilson stepped into the Cloud Nine bar one hot night in Lakeland, Florida, with white teammates Dennis Bennett and Dave Morehead.

After taking drink orders from Bennett and Morehead, the bartender reportedly looked at Wilson and said, "We don't serve niggers here."

A Louisiana native, Wilson was not surprised -- but still angry. He went to team management, and was told to forget about the incident. He later said he thought long and hard about doing just that, knowing the club's dubious reputation in racial matters. In the end, however, he felt he could not remain silent and went to the press.

Even a great power stroke couldn't save Earl.

A few stories appeared in the newspapers, and the front office failed to condemn the incident or back its ballplayer. From that point on, it was only a matter of time.

On June 17, despite a fine 3.84 ERA for a last-place club, Wilson was traded to the Detroit Tigers in a terrible one-sided deal involving otherwise nondescript players. By stirring the pot, Wilson and others close to the situation believed, he had sealed his fate.

It can be argued that Wilson had the last word. He won a combined 18 games (mostly for Detroit) that summer, and then upped his record to 22-11 for the Tigers in 1967. The '68 season ended with a World Series championship, and Wilson -- still a stalwart in the Detroit starting rotation -- was celebrated as a key man in the title run.

Wilson won big in Detroit.

He settled in Michigan and went on to a successful business career after baseball, but the pain of what happened to him in Boston remained with Wilson until his 2005 death. The sting of injustice, and of being left out to dry by an organization to which he had given so much, was "the most humiliating experience of my life."

Now the Red Sox are one of the most racially diverse teams in baseball, and David Price has a chance to avenge this proud, personable man and knock down the final racial wall of Boston baseball. Price may never have heard of Earl Wilson and the Cloud Nine bar, but it's one more reason to root for the would-be ace.

Price ponders -- and hopes for better days.