First things first: My humble apologies for the unplanned absence. We had some actual paying work pop up last week, so that took precedence. Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come and forces me to better manage my time (ha!).
So on to the news of the week: Who invented time travel while I was gone and why did he/she subject the Red Sox to a trip back to the crappy late summer of 2006?
A season in which the Sox enjoyed a winning streak of more than 10 games and looked for lengthy periods of time to be the best team in the American League may have been flushed down the drain by the Yankees in a four-day span. The Sox were 69-50 and 1 ½ games out of first the morning of Aug. 18, 2006, the day they dropped a doubleheader to the Yankees to begin the five-game sweep and their second losing streak of at least five games since the All-Star Break. These Sox were 62-44 and 2 ½ games out of first as of Thursday morning and two losses into what is now their second losing streak of at least five games since the All-Star Break.
Like then, the soul-crushing defeat occurred during a Sunday night game in which the Sox’ co-ace threw seven strong innings before a young and hotly hyped fireballer suffered a multi-homer meltdown.
David Ortiz, who three years ago missed eight games with an irregular heartbeat, is once again holding a press conference, albeit three weeks earlier this time, in which many questions remain unanswered. Theo Epstein is emerging from the shadows—this time prior to the second game, not prior to the fourth—to discuss the challenges suddenly facing the Sox.
The Sox have been attacked by a litany of injuries, and with their left fielder and shortstop on the shelf, they have been forced to send Kevin Youkilis into the outfield and to rely much more than anticipated on their backup shortstop (Alex Cora then, Nick Green now).
The Sox’ starter in the series opener—Jason Johnson then, John Smoltz now, this marks the first time in history Jason Johnson and John Smoltz have been mentioned in the same sentence—was designated for assignment before the second game, symbolic of the sudden lack of pitching depth that is forcing Epstein to sign or acquire anyone with a pulse (Paul Byrd is essaying the role of Kevin Jarvis) and reshuffle the bottom of the staff on a daily basis.
Check out the transactions then and now:
Aug. 18: Activate Keith Foulke from DL, DFA Johnson
Aug. 19: Recall Jermaine Van Buren, DFA Rudy Seanez, option Van Buren
Aug. 20: Recall Javier Lopez
Aug. 21: Purchase contract of Bryan Corey, option Craig Hansen
Aug. 6: Place OF Rocco Baldelli on DL, recall OF Josh Reddick
Aug. 7: Claim IF Chris Woodward off waivers, recall Junichi Tazawa, DFA Billy Traber and John Smoltz
Aug. 8: Place SS Jed Lowrie on DL, recall Enrique Gonzalez
Aug. 9: Purchase contract of Fernando Cabrera, DFA Gonzalez
Despite the flurry of pitching-related transactions, though, the Sox’ problems have been at the plate (you may have heard about that 31-inning scoreless streak) and not on the mound, at least since Smoltz’ meltdown Thursday. The 2006 Sox were outscored 49-26 in the five-game sweep, including 47-25 over the first four games. The power outage began as the series against the Yankees ended: Starting with the fifth game against the Yankees, the Sox scored three or fewer runs in 15 of 17 games.
The 2006 Sox never recovered from the Boston Massacre II, going 17-21 thereafter and never threatening in the wild card race. And the temptation, as the Sox trailed 1-0 late Sunday, was to write that a sweep here wouldn’t be nearly as demoralizing as the sweep three years ago.
The Sox cannot possibly be as offensively inept as they looked over the weekend. They will need to be resourceful, certainly, because the 54-homer Ortiz is gone and never coming back and Manny Ramirez is not walking through that door. Ortiz is just one of several Sox regulars skirting perilously close to automatic out status along with J.D. Drew, Jason Varitek, Jason Bay (.221 since May 14) and Nick Green (.127 in his last 79 at-bats).
But Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis all began Sunday hitting at least .300. As eager as the Sox seem to be to put Mike Lowell out to pasture, he’s hitting .352 with 13 RBI in 54 at-bats and more walks (eight) than strikeouts (six) since he returned from the disabled list. Victor Martinez is hitting just .219 since May 17, but he was 10-for-21 in his first four games with the Sox and delivered the big hit last night, so perhaps a pennant race is all he needed to revive his season.
As tattered as the pitching staff is, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester still provide a far better and reliable 1-2 punch than Curt Schilling and Beckett three years ago. Clay Buchholz, Junichi Tazawa and Brad Penny offer more upside and potential than any of the castoffs the Sox had to send out to the mound in the final six weeks of 2006. Daniel Bard wore the goat horns Sunday, but on his worst day is nowhere near Craig Hansen.
And if this season has proved anything, it’s that Kevin Millar was right and this is a marathon not a sprint. It was foolish to declare (as I did) the Yankees finished when they lagged behind during the season’s first three months and dropped the first eight games against the Sox, and it’d be similarly risky to assume the Sox are finished now.
Even if they prove to be toast in the AL East, the Sox are still at the forefront of the wild card race—unlike three years ago, when the sweep by the Yankees left them four games behind the White Sox. Get to the playoffs and beat the Yankees in the ALCS and nobody at all will care about what happened in August, just as nobody at all now cares what happened in the first eight games between the teams.
But now…now I don’t know. To take the lead like the Sox did—with Martinez delivering a seismic, scoreless streak-busting, two-run homer—and then to lose it like they did—with Bard giving up the go-ahead homer to Mark Teixeira, whom the Sox supposedly pursued like crazy last winter and whom they could really use right now to anchor a lineup that doesn’t have a big-time power threat—is demoralizing.
It’s fair to wonder how long it will take the Sox to recover from Sunday’s loss, and the schedule does them no favors, not with the AL Central-leading Tigers and the wild card foe Rangers coming up this week to begin a season-ending stretch in which the Sox play 30 of their 52 games against teams currently within three games of a playoff spot.
The swiftness with which the Yankees have surged to the top of the AL East lends a certain finality and certainty to the division race and an additional layer of precariousness to the Sox’ situation. To see Lowell doubled up even after Derek Jeter had to pause in the middle of his throw to first base Saturday is to think the Sox look far older and over-the-hill than the Yankees did 15 weeks ago last night, when Ellsbury stole home off the Yankees’ aging battery of Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada.
For crying out loud, even Joe Girardi—usually as slick as sand—has begun to develop the smugly arrogant Teflon air of Joe Torre. After Ramon Ramirez got tossed for hitting Alex Rodriguez in the eighth inning Saturday, Girardi said the Yankees “…expected something to happen and it did.” Gee, you think Joe? Couldn’t have anything to do with Mark Melancon trying to take off Pedroia’s head or the numerous times Yankees pitchers have hit Sox batters this year could it?
But hey, if Girardi wants to put his hands behind his back and passive-aggressively tsk-tsk the Sox for punching back, well, his team is 6 ½ games up in the standings. He can do that. The Sox have a lot more pressing things to worry about than Girardi’s behavior anyway and a lot of work to do to turn around a season that once seemed magical but is now threatening to turn sour. They can only hope Sunday—when 8-4 looked and felt so much worse than 0-8 ever did to the Yankees—is rock bottom and not just the beginning of the descent.
Email Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org.