Friday, September 25, 2009

Bits and Bytes: Five-year itch?

Sorry for the longer-than-anticipated sabbatical, I had some other work that unexpectedly took up most of my week. Got a few things Sox- and Pats-related I’d like to chew on and a couple Q&As to post next week, so please stop by for those posts. But, in the meantime here’s a couple quick hits to get back into the flow heading into the weekend:

—None of this should be used in trying to project how the Red Sox will fare in the playoffs, but nonetheless, if you’re a Sox fan (and let’s face it, if you’re reading this, chances are pretty good you are), you’ve got to like the similarities between the end of this season and the end of the 2004 regular season.

As they did in 2004, the Sox took a couple weeks to gel following a blockbuster trade before authoring a blistering sprint to the finish line. They went 8-7 in the first 15 games following the Nomar Garciaparra trade in 2004 and a sizzling 34-12 thereafter, a stretch that included 16 wins in 17 games at one point.

The Sox took a bigger post-July 31 stumble this year, when they went 3-6 in the first nine games following the Victor Martinez trade, but they’re 29-14 since then after tonight’s loss to the Yankees.

Then, like now, the Sox’ surge allowed them to bury the Rangers in the wild card race. In fact, how’s this for a fun bit of coincidence: Through Aug. 23, 2004, the Sox were 70-53 and the Rangers were 69-54, marks that left the teams just behind the wild-card leading Angels (71-52). While the Angels stormed past the slumping Athletics to win the AL West, the Sox left the Rangers (and the Athletics) far behind by finishing the season on a 28-11 tear. The Rangers went 20-19 over the same span.

Through Aug. 23 this year, the wild card-leading Sox were 70-53 and the Rangers 69-54. Since then, the Sox are 21-9 and the Rangers 15-15.

And just like 2004, the Sox, in running away with the wild card, also put some unexpected pressure on a Yankees team that was cruising towards the AL East crown and gave some meaning to a series between the two teams on the penultimate weekend of the season.

That 16-1 stretch five years ago allowed the Sox to shave a remarkable eight games off the Yankees’ lead—from 10 ½ games to 2 ½--in just 19 days. The Sox closed the gap to two games on Sept. 8 and were 4 ½ out the morning of Sept. 24, when the Yankees arrived at Fenway. A 6-4 win by the Yankees that night in the Pedro Martinez “Daddy” game all but ended the race.

The Sox’ recent 10-1 run cut the Yankees’ lead from nine games to five games. The deficit was at 5 ½ entering tonight.

That said, these Yankees are also 29-14 in their last 43 games and are finishing the season in far better fashion than the 2004 club, which was 26-19—7 ½ games worse than the Sox—in its final 45 games.

—As I’ve noted here a few times this season, I’m not very good when it comes to predictions. So now seems like a good time to clarify what I meant in April when I wrote the Indians would win the World Series. I actually meant they’d endure the worst stretch the franchise has seen since 1931. That’s really freaking remarkable, considering the Indians’ abject awfulness from 1932 through 1988 inspired a movie franchise.

But hey, not all my predictions were historically bad. I wrote in April that Clay Buchholz would win many more games than Brad Penny and John Smoltz combined. That won’t happen—with two starts left, Buchholz has seven wins, two fewer than Penny (seven) and Smoltz (two) recorded before they took their rightful spot over in the JV league—but Buchholz’ recent dominance (5-0 with a 1.32 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and .185 batting average against in his last six starts) indicates Theo Epstein might have made a rare mistake in bringing aboard the rehabbing Penny and Smoltz at the expense of Buchholz, who did, admittedly, have an awful season last year.

—Speaking of predictions, sort of, all those pixels spilled by myself and others earlier this summer about the possibility of Tim Wakefield not only succeeding Cy Young and Roger Clemens as the Sox’ all-time winningest pitcher but also pitching up to or even beyond his 50th birthday look sadly foolish these days.

Wakefield has made just three starts since the All-Star Break due to a fragmented disc in his back that will likely require surgery (and yeah, we were wrong in wondering if his back injury was just a convenient way to get Wakefield some rest and Buchholz some work). He has looked every day his 43 years in those starts, often appearing as if he can barely jog to cover a base, even though he has made his last two starts on nine days rest and 15 days rest, respectively, and is expected to get at least eight days rest before he next takes the mound. Given how much recovery time he needs between starts, it seems inconceivable he’ll make the playoff roster.

It’s long been assumed the Sox would have Wakefield back on an annual basis thanks to his team-friendly perpetual option, but this is the fourth straight season in which he has been injured in the second half and he is almost sure to end the season with his lowest innings total since arriving in Boston in 1995, a pretty startling feat considering he pitched predominantly out of the bullpen from 1999 through 2002. Can the Sox really spend $4 million on a 43-year-old pitcher who may be a half-season hurler?

The Hartford Courant’s Dom Amore suggests Wakefield should announce his retirement and make a farewell start at Fenway against the Blue Jays or Indians. While something that formal is unlikely to occur, it’s fair to wonder if Wakefield’s next start at Fenway will in fact be the last of his career—and to preemptively lament how cruel it would be for Wakefield to travel so far to approach the most hallowed record in team history and still fall short.

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