Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pedro’s still got it

Pedro Martinez was at his best Wednesday. Photo from this site.

Who knows how Pedro Martinez will fare tonight when he takes the mound for the Phillies in Game Two of the World Series, but judging by his press conference Wednesday, he’s still performing at his Hall of Fame peak in front of the microphones.

Former Boston Herald beat writer Jeff Horrigan was right: This guy is the best quote in any language. I understand when fans roll their eyes at reporters gushing over the quote-ability of players, and I’ll freely admit my Martinez bias eight days a week after he provided me the best interview of my career virtually sight unseen in 2005, but I think everyone understands Martinez is a once-in-a-generation guy when it comes to filling notebooks—and that he really stands out in a world in which players are coached to say a lot without saying anything at all *cough* looking at you Derek Jeter *cough cough*.

His post-game press conference after Game Two of the 2004 ALCS was the stuff of legend—so much so that when a reporter thanked Martinez for his “mango tree” answer, such deference actually almost felt warranted. Martinez was almost as captivating at the new Yankee Stadium Wednesday, during which he gave a pretty revealing glimpse into his brilliant mind during an 11-question session.

Martinez gets the complexities of baseball (he made sure to point out that while the convenient storyline is the Mets choked the previous two seasons, the Phillies and Marlins—the latter of whom beat the Mets in the season finale in both 2007 and 2008 to knock the Mets out of the playoffs—played tremendously down the stretch as well as the coverage of the game and the emotions of the fans watching it.

Unlike so many of his peers, he gets that it’s not really personal when the back pages and those in the stands are shouting at him and calling him the bad guy. Yet he still expects—demands—people to separate the competitor from the person and is offended by being characterized as a bad man or a devil. He can lecture the media about his unfair portrayal, yet instead of sounding overly sensitive, he provides so much evidence for his case that it should give headline writers and cartoonists everywhere pause.

He can put into eloquent terms the power a player feels when an entire stadium is either rooting for or against him and how it fills him with equal parts arrogance and humility. And he can explain why he could feel bad over what happened with Don Zimmer during Game Three of the 2003 ALCS yet not apologize for reacting naturally to the sight of Zimmer charging at him.

Martinez turns 38 in less than a month and has hinted he could retire after the season. Let’s hope he sticks around for a while longer and continues providing an increasingly vanilla game some much-needed personality. But just in case he’s serious, tune in tonight, when I imagine Martinez will be at his charismatic best both on and off the field.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jerrybeach.

Root for the Phillies…for America’s sake

Do it for the rest of us, Phillies. Photo from this site.

I’m the 1962 Mets when it comes to predictions, but if you’re one of those people who thinks baseball mirrors America, you should root for me to be correct when I pick the Phillies to win the World Series in six games.

There was a nice bit of symbolism last September, when our financial system collapsed just as the Yankees were missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993. Finally, it seemed, we had reached a point where even the deepest of pockets could not spend their way out of trouble. It was a time of reckoning, in which the people whose recklessness led to the Great Recession had to be held accountable for their actions…as did those who signed Carl Pavano to a four-year deal worth nearly $40 million.

Finally, even in the capitalism capital of the world, restraint was no longer an option, it was a necessity. We had to realize good times would not last forever, and that it was time to build something more sustainable and conservative…that it was time to spend more time building one’s farm system than shopping for the biggest and splashiest names.

And then the Yankees went out, spent nearly half a billion dollars on the three best free agents on the market and won 103 games and the AL pennant. Doesn’t really fill you with hope that the rest of America is leaning its lesson, does it? So we need the Phillies to win, to remind those who hold our financial fate in their slimy little hands of the consequences of unrestrained and unfettered greed.

Or maybe you should just root for the Phillies because the grief and anguish of Yankee fans who think it’s their birthright to win the World Series provides sustenance for the rest of us. Either/or.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jerrybeach.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sox' only failure this season is one of perspective

The painful end to the Sox' season doesn't make it a failure for Dustin Pedroia or his teammates. Photo from this site.

I don’t know about you, but when Jonathan Papelbon moved within one strike of closing out the victory in Game Three of the AL Division Series Sunday, I began clearing my viewing schedule for Wednesday night’s decisive Game Five in Anaheim.

I mean, did anyone doubt the ALDS was going back west at that point? The Sox had withstood several flurries by the Angels, who were beginning their usual Fenway fade with Mike Scioscia squawking at the umps and Reggie Willits channeling Matt Holliday and getting picked off first base by Papelbon to end an eighth inning rally. The Sox would gain more momentum in Game Four behind Jon Lester who, even on three days rest, was a far safer bet than soft-tossing Angels lefty Joe Saunders. And you’d have to like the Sox’ chances against the reeling Angels in Game Five.

But now I can watch Glee, because Papelbon channeled the man he succeeded as the most prolific closer in Sox history by failing to record that final strike multiple times and blowing the save as the Sox suffered a 7-6 loss.

The manner in which the Sox lost was shocking—who would have guessed Papelbon would have his Mariano Rivera moment in the ALDS; even when I’m right I’m still wrong—but that their season ended so early should not come as a surprise.

It’s funny, albeit in a way that’s not funny to most Sox fans, how the Sox are now the team that’s proving merely having a historical edge over a rival doesn’t make up for being the lesser team. When it came to breaking down the series a week (or three weeks) ago, it was easy to rely on the ol’ reliables when it comes to Sox-Angels in October—the Sox owning the Angels at Fenway, the Sox’ ruthlessly effective offense wearing out a workmanlike Angels staff, Scioscia getting too cute—and come up with a way the Sox would advance to the ALCS.

But all that stuff was irrelevant. The Angels were the better and more complete team while the Sox were far more flawed and inconsistent than their 95 wins might indicate.

The Sox were just 79-65 against teams not named the Baltimore Orioles. They went 27-11 immediately after the season-altering four-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees against competition that finished the season 53 games over .500. Yet they were just 12-16 in the second half against teams that finished over .500.

The Sox finished over .500 in every month, but by four games or fewer in May, July and August. They went 8-14 in the first 22 games following the All-Star Break, during which they went from three games ahead of the Yankees to 6 ½ behind.

Their September/October record (19-13) was boosted by four freebies on the final weekend of the season against the Indians, managed by Dead Man Walking Eric Wedge. In fact, the Sox lost their final nine games against teams that were still trying (Yankees, Blue Jays and Angels).

As usual, the Sox finished among the majors’ top offensive teams, but they were more dangerous at home, where they averaged 5.94 runs per game and recorded a .365 on-base percentage and .498 slugging percentage, than on the road, where they averaged 4.83 runs per game with a .340 on-base percentage and a .414 slugging percentage.

The Sox went cold on offense at the most inopportune time against the Angels, but sudden outages were a common theme this season. The Sox opened the season by scoring five runs or less in eight straight games, during which they went 2-6. Here are their other extended droughts with their record in that stretch in parenthesis.

—Scored four runs or less in seven of eight games from May 10-19 (4-4)
—Scored three runs or less in five straight games from May 26-30 (1-4)
—Scored four runs or less in five straight games from June 25-29 (3-2)
—Scored four runs or less in seven straight games from July 17-24 (2-5)
—Scored four runs or less in five of six games from Aug. 4-9 (0-6)

The team that seemed to have almost too much depth in the first half of the season with eight potential starting pitchers, a whole bunch of closer-type relievers setting up for Papelbon and players like Julio Lugo and Rocco Baldelli on the bench entered the playoffs with a three-man rotation, a long reliever (Paul Byrd) who was three months removed from pitching to his son’s team, two reserve outfielders (Brian Anderson and Joey Gathright) who spent the bulk of the season with other organizations and combined for just 33 at-bats with the Sox and a backup middle infielder (Jed Lowrie) who hit .147 in 68 at-bats.

This was a flawed team that Theo Epstein tried to retool on the fly with an atypical mid-season blockbuster trade. And he’ll surely work a hundred or so hours per week between now and mid-February trying to create a championship-caliber squad that will play a lot deeper into October next year.

But what if the Sox’ biggest problem cannot be fixed with a couple savvy transactions? What if the issue is the collective makeup?

This theory comes with plenty of caveats. Maybe, since I was sitting in my recliner Sunday night, I missed something subtle in Dustin Pedroia’s delivery earlier in the afternoon, and maybe his words cannot be taken too seriously since they were uttered minutes after a shocking season-ending defeat. And maybe I misread the vibe around Fenway Park during my brief visits to Boston this year.

But in spilling so many pixels earlier this season about how the Red Sox have turned into the Yankees, we never pondered what seems so obvious now: That the Sox, like the last few Yankees teams managed by Joe Torre, seem suffocatingly serious and sucked dry by sky-high internal expectations that declare anything short of a world championship not worth the effort.

“We all think of this year as a failure,” Pedroia told reporters after the game.

This is a team that plays in a city that worships its athletes and whose decision-makers have earned a deservedly wide benefit of the doubt from the vast media that covers it. So why are the Sox, from the very top on down, harping on the perceived negativity surrounding the team and dismissively waving away the attention with one hand while giving Google a workout with the other?

Again: Parsing coverage and attention in hopes of finding any slight, real or manufactured, is in the DNA of every elite athlete, as I write in Fighting Words (available now!). But at some point, doesn’t it become counter-productive?

The Yankees, meanwhile, are turning into the 2003-04 Sox before our very eyes, with the likes of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Nick Swisher infusing a goofy, relaxed aura into the once-stuffy locker room. That said, all the chatter about the looser, more carefree Yankees won’t mean a thing if they are disposed of by the Angels or the NL champion, and this is not a plaintive cry to bring back the Idiots.

It must also be noted that the Sox are less than two years removed from winning it all with a seemingly joyless team and less than 365 days removed from a thrilling, albeit aborted, ALCS comeback against the Rays that was almost every bit as unbelievable and gutsy as the one the Sox pulled off in 2004.

And of course there should be disappointment in the aftermath of a season-ending defeat, and of course the ultimate goal should always be a world championship. But there is no shame—and certainly no failure—in wringing every last bit of season out of a flawed squad. Infusing the roster with some more talent is key this winter, but not as pivotal, perhaps, as Epstein infusing it with some perspective as well.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jerrybeach.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fighting Words Q&A: Theo Epstein

Theo Epstein's approach to his job, post-return to the general manager position, makes more time for business and less time for answering reporters' questions. Photo from this site.

With the Red Sox preparing for their annual October vanquishing of the Angels (that’s right, I said it), there’s no better time than now to unveil the most pivotal interview I conducted in the writing of Fighting Words—a Q&A with Theo Epstein, who has been the architect of six playoff teams in his seven years as general manager.

As I noted in my Q&A with Bruce Allen last month, the follow-up with Epstein was the interview I needed to tie everything together. The book could have been written without his additional input, and at some point it would have had to have been written, but I can’t lie: Some nights I wake up in a cold sweat thinking the interview still hasn’t happened and that I’m still waiting on it to finish the book.

Here’s how I described the process to Bruce in our interview:

Landing Epstein for a follow-up (I interviewed him twice, once for a magazine feature and another time about the media, in 2004) was quite a delicate procedure that took nearly two years. Obviously, he really reduced his profile following the events of 2004 and 2005. He never definitely declined my requests, but he made it clear he was reluctant to talk about the media and to contribute to the celebrity culture that surrounds so many media members. I was beginning to think it wasn’t meant to be when he called me during a rain delay on the final day of the 2006 season and I missed the call because I had my phone on silent in the press box.

Finally, during a series against the Royals in July 2007, I saw him in Terry Francona’s office before Francona’s daily presser. When all the reporters went upstairs around 4, Epstein hung around talking to someone in the office, so I waited right outside the locker room door, figuring my best and last chance to get him would be when there was no one else around. He walked out, I made my pitch, said my book was about why the media was such a part of the story in Boston and that his input would be incredibly valuable. He agreed to the interview and it ended up being the one I really needed to tie everything together. Everyone knew Theo had changed since taking over as GM, but why? It wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting if I didn’t have supporting quotes and evidence from him.

I’m sure that if I started this project in 2005, instead of 2004 when I got to talk to him a few times under more relaxed circumstances, I never would have gotten him for such an in-depth interview, or even written this book.

Along those lines: The book, and in particular the chapters about the post-’04 era, would not have been complete without the contributions Epstein made during the July ’07 interview. I thank Epstein for his access and hope you enjoy this interview.


J.P. Ricciardi said that Boston is a great place to grow up as a baseball fan but a tough place to play and work. Do you agree with that assessment?

I think the nature of the media here adds an additional challenging element to what’s already a challenging job. It’s nothing that can’t be handled.


In 2004 you said that you thought you could “…provide a lot of answers” about what you and the front office are doing and that “…five percent of the stuff is best not publicized.” Has that ratio changed at all?

I think the ratio’s probably changed a little bit, because there’s more competition and I think lower standards in general among some media members. So information that could be perfectly innocent otherwise can be used in a way that’s detrimental to the club and to the benefit of that media outlet. So we don’t want to risk anything. We don’t want to risk putting out information that can be used in a fashion that’s going to harm our ultimate goal.


Has the ratio changed at all because of competitive reasons?

That’s always been a constant. I just think that a few years ago, there was a certain expectation that information would be used a certain way. There’d be a certain level of understanding, decorum. And I think with the increased presence of the Internet and the general sort of lack of standards that exist—I’m not casting a wide net, but [in] certain sections of the media world—it really limits the mount of trust we can have when we put out general information.


Has that media world changed since you’ve been here?

Yeah. Again: More outlets, more blogs, fewer editors, lower standards for accuracy, accountability makes it a little bit more difficult. And it’s a shame, because that limits the amount of interaction we have, the information we can put out there with the people who still have high standards and are still accurate and still do their jobs very well. That’s the way it is.


Upon returning, you said there was a lot that could be learned from how the Patriots disseminated information. What did you mean by that?

That was really more of an in-house [thing]. Some things that are happening internally—we had too many people with access to information, too many people who could share information for their own benefit. We just kind of tightened up our ship a little bit, made our message a little bit more uniform. It’s been helpful.


Have you been more cautious with injury information?

[pauses] Not more so injury information than other information. I just think that, these days, it makes sense just to make sure everyone’s on the same page internally. Get [out] the information, if there’s some official means, rather than answer a question here or there and letting it trickle out. Because, again, [of] the instantaneous nature of some media.


How much more cautious are you as opposed to when you took over as general manager prior to 2003?

I’m not any more cautious. I just think that since the environment has changed, I’ve changed with it.


Does the size of this market make it difficult to be as open and as accessible as you’d like?

To me, it all boils down to what’s in the best interests of the team. And I don’t mean that from a marketing standpoint. I mean that from a wins and losses standpoint. Because, to me, that’s ultimately the most important thing. I think when we win, we’re popular. People are happy and that’s the bottom line. In a perfect world, yes, there is a way to be open and completely honest and still protect the vital information and allow us time to do what’s the most important parts of our job. I guess you could call that ideal.

But the reality is we’re in a slightly different age and we’re not living in an ideal world. There’s a lot of information, there are some people that use information in a way to promote their media outlets that prove to be sort of obstacles to us achieving our goals—not in any big way, but in a way that adds up over time. And so we’re just trying to make sure that we are aware of that when we interact with the media. And I think, in a way, it might make me personally less popular. But I couldn’t give a [expletive] about that. I care about protecting the interests of the organization, which is to win games.


Are you purposely maintaining a lower profile now than you did at the beginning of your tenure?

Yeah, yeah. I definitely do that on purpose. Because one, it’s hard to do my job when I’m available every day to every writer. So I just try to be around less. And I think one thing that I found and that others found is life goes on, you know? I think if people really need me to answer questions, they can find me. I’ll always respond to phone calls or emails or setting up an appointment or anything along those lines. Life goes on. It’s not the most important thing in the world to answer the same question 45 times from 45 different writers every day about injury status that’s the exact same as it was yesterday and is the same as it’s going to be tomorrow.

Ultimately, it’s not about me. It’s not about any one individual. It’s about the Red Sox and there’s plenty to write about over the course of nine innings and what our organization is, our competitiveness and our ability to try and win a World Series every year.


Do you think it’s tough for players to differentiate between the different types of media?

Yeah, yeah, Because I know it can be tough for us, and we have more time to try and hash through it. So for a player, certainly, it’s tough for them. And they don’t have an obligation to be able to tell 60 different people apart, you know? [laughs]


Do you think your renewed cautiousness has led or could lead to a strain with the reporters covering the team?

Again: I think people know where to find me. I just think that the thing about instant accessibility is that people always turn to whoever’s right there to answer a question. Ninety-nine percent of the quotes that are used are pretty mundane. Anyone can give them. If someone has a question they really want me to answer—if I can do so without compromising the interests of the organization—I know I’ll be there to answer that question. If not, then [talk to former director of media relations] John Blake. Email me. Call me. I’ll find a way to answer the questions. I don’t think it should cause strain. If it did, then life goes on.


Looking back on your first year or two as general manager, do you wish you knew then what you know now about the media relations part of the job?

No, I think it was a little bit different time. And my first attempt was to be sort of as open and honest as possible as I could while protecting the interests of the organization. That proved to be a.) extremely difficult, b.) extremely time-consuming and c.) as things changed in the media world, not possible. So now I’ve taken an approach that allows me to do my job. And as we said, life goes on with the media. There’s always someone else to fill up a notebook.


How do you go about preparing rookies for the media in Boston via the rookie development program?

We run through the media—what to say, suggesting approaches to dealing with it, about being accountable, accessible [and] cooperative while protecting themselves at the same time. I think our guys were lucky that guys come through Lowell, Portland and Pawtucket. By the time they get up here, they have a pretty good feel for what awaits them.


Do you think the demands on the time of managers, general managers and players in Boston is unique to Boston?

I don’t think it’s unique to Boston. I think it’s certainly as much of a factor here as it is anywhere else. I think there’s levels of intensity. Boston is, along with probably New York, Philly at times, one of the most intense. It’s not that big a deal. I just—if I have an extra 45 minutes a day to look through other teams’ farm systems or watch a minor league game on TV or do something else that’s going to hopefully help us make a good decision and someone else can kind of fill up a writer’s notebook. If that writer really has a question for me, they can find me. I think that’s fine. I think that’s a good solution.


Lastly, what did you think of the coverage of your resignation and return following the 2005 season?

I didn’t, really. That coverage of that winter—I just think there’s not a lot to write about in the winter. I don’t think I’m that important that I could generate that much coverage. But again, there’s no games going on. I think if something like that happened during the season, it would have been more of a secondary story.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jerrybeach.

It’s just one indulgence on top of another

If my predictions are right (for once), among the sights I'll be missing this month is Ubaldo Jimenez once again pitching against the Red Sox in the World Series.

Earlier sunsets, crisper air and Columbus Day approaching on the calendar: I’ll try not to bore you too much with the details, but damn, does this week ever remind me how much I miss covering the playoffs.

It was a challenge for various logistical reasons—the access is terrible, the interview room is a breeding ground for clich├ęs, I worked for companies that didn’t pay for travel and there was the nightmare before Game One of the 2007 World Series, when I almost bought a new laptop at the Best Buy outside Fenway Park because a speck of dust in my hard drive completely shut the computer down—but the payoff was well worth it.

What I love about the regular season is it tests those who follow and chronicle it. It’s a challenge to not get lulled by the monotony that is inescapable at some point during a 162-game season. For entirely different reasons, the postseason also provides quite the test. You never know when the defining moment of the series and season will arrive, so full attention must be devoted to every pitch.

The playoffs symbolize baseball’s beautiful unpredictability. The anonymous are thrust on to center stage and superstars are reduced to underachieving understudies (cough, Alex Rodriguez, cough cough).

Baseball’s critics have a field day with the marathon games, and Bud Selig cannot be hammered enough for these ludicrous starting times, especially come the World Series. But there is nothing like the building suspense of a taut playoff game, nothing like the buzz increasing from the time the catcher throws the ball back to the pitcher and turning into a deafening roar before the next pitch is thrown.

Damn do I miss it. Email me if you need coverage. I’ll work cheap!

You probably didn’t want to hear some exiled writer waxing poetic/pathetic about the good ol’ days. You REALLY probably didn’t want some more playoff predictions from a guy sitting on his couch (well, I’m actually away at the moment, so it’s my wife’s best friend’s coach, but I digress), but…I’m so good at predictions, I figured I’d try again!

AL Division Series
Red Sox over Angels in 4. The Sox look more vulnerable heading into the playoffs than they have since 2005 and the Angels are nothing if not due to finally beat the Sox. The Angels’ speed should wreck havoc with the Sox, whose catchers have thrown out a meager 13 percent of opposing base stealers this season. All logic says I should pick the Angels. But Jon Lester and Josh Beckett easily provide the best 1-2 punch in the AL, and once again, I’ll take Terry Francona every single time over Mike Scioscia.

Yankees over Twins in 3. Remain quite skeptical of how CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett will handle October—not to mention Rodriguez as well as the super high-strung Joe Girardi—but this could be a historic thrashing. All the momentum in the world doesn’t change the fact the Twins’ starter tonight is Brian Duensing, who was bumped from his must-win start in the regular season “finale” Sunday in favor of Carl Pavano. That’s not good, and neither is this: Pavano, the most loathed Yankee in generations, would seem to be in line to start Game Two at Yankee Stadium. Oh well, at least the Twins have last night.

NL Division Series
Cardinals over Dodgers in 3. Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright is an even better duo than Lester and Beckett and Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday are a modern day version of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. Speaking of Ramirez, he’s been awfully quiet since his 50-day suspension, hasn’t he (.269-13-45-.492 SLG in 260 at-bats)? Another postseason fade for Joe Torre.

Rockies over Phillies in 4. As noted last week, the concept that the team that is hottest entering the playoffs is the most dangerous is pretty much bunk. But the Rockies were the hottest NL team two years ago, and look where they ended up. This team, too, seems to be bursting with positive karma, and it has the lockdown ace (Ubaldo Jimenez) the ’07 team lacked. The Phils did everything they could to make the NL East interesting down the stretch and their lack of stability at closer will haunt them at least once this series.

AL Championship Series
Red Sox over Yankees in 6. Lester/Beckett vs. Sabathia/Burnett, at least in October, is a no-brainer. Teixeira proves to be a lot like A-Rod when it counts most and John Henry returns to Tweeter to gloat about it.

NL Championship Series
Rockies over Cardinals in 7. A classic series and the Rockies get the last laugh on Holliday.

World Series
Rockies over Red Sox in 7. Three straight deep October runs catch up to the Sox and Jonathan Papelbon finally has his Mariano Rivera moment.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jerrybeach. 

Friday, October 2, 2009

Some cosmetic games are better looking than others

The Red Sox' cosmetic games this week are positively Jennifer Aniston-ian compared to those being played by their foes, the Blue Jays and Indians. Photo from this site.

There’s not a lot Terry Francona hasn’t seen in six seasons as Red Sox manager, but the last five games of the regular season are an entirely new experience for him. When the Sox clinched the wild card early Wednesday morning, it rendered the final game of the three-game series against the Blue Jays and the four-game series against the Indians completely irrelevant—or, as he called it, “cosmetic.”

There’s no AL East title up for grabs and no questions about whom the Sox will face in the AL Division Series. This marks the earliest the Sox have reached the “cosmetic” stage in a season in which they reached the playoffs under Francona.

In 2004, the Sox clinched a playoff berth with six games left and were eliminated from the AL East race with three games left. In 2005, the Sox clinched the wild card on the final day of the season. In 2007, the Sox clinched a playoff berth with seven games left and sealed the AL East with two games left. And last year, the Sox clinched a playoff berth with five games left and were eliminated from the AL East race with two games left. (In 2006, the Sox were knocked out of playoff contention with seven games to play)

“I hope we play good, because that’s why we show up,” Francona said Wednesday afternoon. “Every time we play, I want to play good…[but] the next five games are kind of cosmetic. I hope our record is better than it is worse, but these games have no bearing on what we do next week.”

The uselessness of these games, as well as the D-list lineup Francona wrote out in the aftermath of Tuesday’s late-night celebration, made for a predictably ugly game Wednesday in which Roy Halladay flirted with history and the Sox danced with ignobility. Joey Gathright’s clean single broke up Halladay’s no-hit bid in the sixth inning, but Tim Wakefield’s continued struggles and Francona’s reluctance to use his top relievers in a meaningless contest meant we were all treated to the sight of Dusty Brown becoming the team-record third position player this season—and first catcher ever—to take the mound in a game.

Not fun for Francona to witness, but, as he noted, completely irrelevant in the grand scheme. And, by the way, a whole lot better than the cosmetic nature of these games for the Jays and Indians.

The Jays entertained thoughts of competing for a playoff berth when they raced out to an AL-best 27-14 start, but reality—as well as the task of actually playing their division rivals, against whom they played just three times in those first 41 games—hit in a big way for the Jays, who are 48-71 since then—and that’s after winning nine of their last 11 games—and, reportedly, uprising against Cito Gaston.

At least the Jays’ last playoff appearance is 16 years in the rear view mirror. Imagine how depressing it’s got to be for the members of the Indians who are just shy of two years removed from having a three games to one lead on the Sox in the AL Championship Series heading into a Game Five started by eventual Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia.

The Sox, of course, didn’t lose again until 2008 while the Indians fell apart. Sabathia was dealt last July in the midst of a rotten first half and Cliff Lee—Sabathia’s successor as the Cy Young winner—and Victor Martinez were traded this year as the Indians endured an even worse season. Eric Wedge, whose uptight demeanor seemed to deaden the mood even as the Indians moved within a game of the World Series in ’07, was mercifully fired Wednesday, though he inexplicably agreed to remain the manager through the end of the season.

He’s probably wondering just why he subjected himself to five more games of this: Including tonight’s loss, the Indians are 0-3 since he was fired and have scored just two runs in 27 innings. They’ve been the perfect tonic for a Sox club that entered the series having been outscored 47-19 during a six-game losing streak.

It’s all still cosmetic, but at least it looks a little better. Of course, regardless of how the Sox fared, that would be the case anyway, since when it comes to final week ugliness, “wait ‘til next week” sounds a whole lot better than “wait ‘til next year.”

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jerrybeach.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Is this it for Tim Wakefield?

It's been all downhill for Tim Wakefield since his first selection to the All-Star Game in July. Photo from this site.

BOSTON--Asked in his pregame press conference Wednesday what he would like to see out of Tim Wakefield later in the evening, Terry Francona said he hoped Wakefield could simply pitch—or some variation thereof—four times.

“I think the biggest thing we hope is that he can pitch—kind of pitch and not limp and not have [other issues],” Francona said. “He can pitch. That’s the biggest thing. There are no guarantees what the knuckleball’s going to do or [if] they’re going to hit it, but if he can go out and pitch, that would be real good.”

It did not turn out real good for Wakefield or the Sox, and it might be time to wonder if simply pitching is no longer possible for the knuckleballer, who gave up five runs on seven hits, including three homers, in three innings as the Sox suffered a 12-0 loss to the Blue Jays.

The start was just the fourth for Wakefield since the All-Star Break, and it is almost inconceivable that he’ll make another appearance this year. Even with plenty of time between outings, Wakefield has barely been able to make it to the mound due to a nerve issue in his back that has drastically sapped the strength in his left leg.

“My left leg is about 60 percent of what my right leg is, so fatigue sets in pretty quick,” Wakefield said. “I’m not going to make excuses on my back. I’m going to go out there and give whatever I have that particular night and try to win a game. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough tonight.”

That’s been a common theme for Wakefield since a storybook first half in which he made his first All-Star Game and seemed primed to make a run at becoming the oldest first-time 20-game winner in history. Wakefield went on the disabled list July 21, and since throwing seven innings of one-run ball and earning the win in his return Aug. 16, he has lasted just six, five and three innings and recorded an 0-2 mark with an 8.36 ERA and 2.14 WHIP despite making those starts on eight days, 15 days and eight days of rest.

It was painful to watch Wakefield limp throughout a laborious 76-pitch effort last night in which he looked every bit of his 43 years, right down to a waistline that looks as if it’s expanded during his period of relative inactivity. Wakefield limped coming on and off the field and looked particularly vulnerable moving off the mound in pursuit of a bunt by John McDonald.

“I think we all saw on the bunt, trying to reverse direction, you can see how much it’s hurting him or limiting him,” Francona said. “I thought after that play he was dragging a little bit in his delivery. He’d thrown a lot of pitches. He wanted to stay in and pitch, which I respect a lot. I didn’t think it was in his best interest.”

“You’ve seen it for two months now,” Wakefield said. “It’s hard for me to obviously cover first and it’s hard for me to field my position.”

Neither Francona nor Wakefield would confirm the obvious—that Wakefield will not make the AL Division Series roster, or, one must assume, any series roster thereafter—so it wasn’t a surprise that neither pondered the possibility Wakefield may have hobbled off a mound for the last time at 7:53 p.m. after he struck out Jose Bautista.

In declining to answer a question about Wakefield’s availability for the postseason, Francona said “There’s a lot of unknowns.” But the unknowns may just be beginning for Wakefield and the Sox.

Wakefield is expected to have surgery on his back after the season, but such a procedure seems particularly delicate when performed on a 43-year-old. This is also the fourth straight season in which his second half has been marred by injury and will almost surely be the second time in three seasons he misses a chunk of the postseason. The Sox will likely pick up Wakefield’s perpetual $4 million option this fall as long as he expresses an interest in returning, but at some point, the diminishing returns will make it difficult for the club to enter spring training him penciled into a starting spot.

There are some difficult decisions on the horizon for Wakefield and the Sox. And if last night was it, it would serve as a sad yet also somewhat appropriate finale to one of the most remarkable careers in Sox history.

There was no pomp or circumstance for the perpetually stoic Wakefield, no warmup tosses in the fourth before Francona walks out to the mound to pull Wakefield and allow him to exit to a standing ovation. For a pitcher who prides himself on his reliability, versatility and accountability, even when his body is letting him down, it was just another day.

“I don’t want to give up on the team, regardless if I’m 60 percent,” Wakefield said. “I feel like I’m needed. The staff has made it clear that I’m needed to be out there and I’m going to go out there at 40 percent if I have to.”

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jerrybeach.