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Start Me Up!

When the news broke that Red Sox pitchers Curt Schilling and David Wells, considered the number one and three starters in the rotation, respectively, would miss weeks due to injury, Boston had lost four-of-five and was falling far behind Baltimore and Toronto in the East. Never mind the fact that the Yankees who, with a rotation spearheaded by Randy Johnson that looked so good on paper to begin the season, had slipped nearly into last place alongside Tampa Bay; suddenly the Sox were scrambling to replace these two players and held hope that free agent acquisition Wade Miller, still a week away from joining the rotation after rotator cuff surgery last season, would be ready to immediately jump into the fire. With the odds stacked against them, would it be possible to stay afloat near the top of the standings, or would the Sox slowly sink down into the depths with New York while the division turned upside-down?

As they did last fall when the team was down to its last outs in the American League Championship Series in October, it was the unlikely of heroes who turned around the fortunes of the team. Kevin Millar, Dave Roberts, and Bill Mueller have morphed into Tim Wakefield, Bronson Arroyo, and Matt Clement with support from relative unknown Geremi Gonzalez, journeyman John Halama, and Miller. Since losing in Texas on 29 April to start a seven-game road tripe, the team has won ten-of-twelve, including five-of-six at home in the last week, and gone from an even .500 to a record of 23-15; on top of that, the rotation has won eight starts in that same span.

Wakefield, the longest-tenured member of the club, won two starts, including number 118 with the Sox on Monday; that put him in sole possession of fifth-place all time for wins in a Red Sox uniform. He allowed just three runs in each of his two starts and lasted better than six innings in both games; that improved his record to 4-1 while giving Boston enough opportunity to better Detroit and Oakland.

Arroyo, who many thought would be forced back to the bullpen once Miller joined the staff, was even better and is making a case to keep the number five spot. In three starts, he allowed just five runs, four earned, on 11 hits and six walks while striking out 17 in 21-2/3 innings of work. His record on the season is a perfect 4-0 and those three starts dropped his ERA more than a run to 2.91; even more impressive, Boston has not lost in his last 16 starts going back to last 15 August.

Clement, the new kid on the block, is looking like another gamble by general manager Theo Epstein that’s paid off in dividends. He’s won two of his last three starts and would have earned his fifth win on Wednesday to lead the staff in that department were it not for a ninth-inning meltdown by closer Keith Foulke. In 20 innings, Clement’s efforts have been nearly identical to Arroyo’s; he’s allowed five runs, four earned, on 14 hits and six walks while striking out 14. With a record of 4-0, his ERA has also dropped a run in that span to 3.06.

Of course, the efforts of the other starters cannot be overlooked, either. Gonzalez, who was plucked from the minors after Schilling went down, has pitched no less than five innings in two starts, allowed just six runs on ten hits and three walks while striking out 13 batters, and has one win to his credit. Halama, in his one start, allowed just two runs on four hits in five innings of work while striking out two for the win. Miller, who started Sunday against Seattle in the second game of a double-header, allowed just two runs on three hits and one walk while striking out six in a no-decision.

Look at it another way: in those twelve games, the starters have pitched 70-1/3 innings, an average of just under six innings of work, and allowed just 23 earned runs for a 2.94 ERA. When you count just Wakefield, Arroyo, and Clement, the averaged just under seven innings of work and 2.30 runs in each start. Without looking through the numbers, I’m sure that there are several teams in both leagues that would love to have three starters in their rotation matching those figures.

That’s not to say that the Red Sox aren’t looking forward to when Schilling and Wells both return from the disabled list. Schilling, who was brought to Boston before last season to make good on the promise to bring a long-awaited championship to this club, is the anchor of the staff and should be a key ingredient to another run. Wells, who may return sooner than expected from his sprained right ankle, has proven already that he still has what it takes to win ball games. It’s hard to imagine that this run of quality starts by Red Sox pitchers would carry through the season without these two returning to the rotation. Still, if Boston is to return to post-season play, fans will look back on the season and remember this key stretch at a time when the odds seemed out-of-favor for the Red Sox.

2005 Season Preview

It’s almost with sad reserve that we open the 2005 season after Red Sox fans enjoyed the fruits of a successful 2004 campaign. Yes, Boston will often be referred to as the defending World Series champions this season but, for all intent and purpose, last season’s amazing accomplishment doesn’t count for anything in this year’s standings. Still, with renewed enthusiasm, this team is looking to realize something even more astounding: repeating as champions for the first time since the Red Sox won back-to-back titles in 1915 and 1916. The team returns looking pretty much the same as last season’s squad, even with a few additions and subtractions, so how will this season compare to last? Hopefully we answer some of those questions here.

How much with the loss of Derek Lowe and Pedro Martinez hurt?

Both guys played key roles in the 2004 post-season; Lowe was the winning pitcher in all three series-clinching games and Martinez dazzled in his only World Series appearance. They also combined to win 30 games during the regular season and both stayed healthy for the entire season. Only time will tell if Matt Clement, Wade Miller, and David Wells will be able to combine their efforts to repeat, but we have to remember that the Sox also have one of the best lineups at the plate. While the win totals were impressive, both Lowe and Martinez had their earned-run averages jump considerably, combining for a 4.59 ERA. Lowe’s 5.42 ERA was almost three runs higher than his stellar 2002 campaign numbers, and Martinez’s 3.90 ERA was almost double his Red Sox career average. The point is that, barring an unlikely drop-off in production at the plate, the Sox will continue to win, even with these two wearing different uniforms this season.

Should we be concerned with Curt Schilling missing the opener?

If you believe Schilling, the only reason that he is heading to the DL to start the season is because he needs another week or so to work on his mechanics. His infamous ankle, which was surgically repaired last November nearly a week after the World Series ended, is not the problem; it has fully healed and trainers gave him the green light early enough in spring training that he would otherwise be in the Bronx next Sunday night to open the season for Boston. Luckily, the Sox have enough off days during the first two weeks of the season to go with a four-man rotation and Schilling should be available before the schedule becomes more demanding.

Has Edgar Renteria stabilized the shortstop position?

Renteria should cement himself in that position for many years to come, especially given that the Sox signed him to a four-year contract at $10 million per season. He is a year younger than fellow Colombian Orlando Cabrera, whom he replaces in the Red Sox lineup and a couple years younger than Nomar Garciaparra, who seemed to be a permanent fixture in Boston until last year. Like Cabrera, he is a Gold Glove winner and has flashed the leather many times this spring, already winning over the hearts of Red Sox fans. He also adds more punch in the lineup, with a lifetime batting average of .289 and 10 or more home runs each season over the last six years. Prospect Hanley Ramirez, who impressed coaches and the front office this spring, waits in the wings in Portland but don’t be surprised if he’s never seen in Boston, so long as Renteria performs as expected.

What more can we expect from David Ortiz this season?

There is just so much beauty in that man’s swing, it almost brings a tear to my eye. Looking at his statistics from last season through the regular season and into the playoffs, it’s just amazing what he has done since the Sox picked him off waivers from Minnesota. Last year, “Big Papi” amassed 41 home runs and 139 RBI, spending more than three-quarters of the time in the DH role, and his post-season heroics earned him MVP honors in the American League Championship Series. This spring, it’s evident that his powerful stroke has not diminished, even if he’s taken off a few pounds during the off-season. Terry Francona expects to use him as the everyday DH, so there’s no reason that he can’t continue to compile the numbers that make jaws drop everywhere.

Who will be the surprise of the season?

Jay Payton grabbed headlines when he was traded to Boston in December for Dave Roberts, but perhaps overlooked in that deal was the acquisition of infielder Ramon Vazquez. The four-year veteran from Puerto Rico, who has averaged 78 games in that time, plays all four infield positions and sports a .979 fielding percentage. Remember how valuable Pokey Reese was for Boston last season? Perhaps he might not get as many opportunities as Pokey, who took advantage of Nomar’s absence for the first half of the season, but he should prove valuable as a late-inning defensive replacement. Plus, when one of the veterans needs an off-day to recover from aches and pains, Vazquez should prove adequate with a .262 lifetime average.

Will Adam Stern remain with Boston for the entire season?

Being a Rule V pick-up, Stern would be shipped back to the Atlanta Braves if the Sox are unable to find a permanent place for him on the major league roster. Unfortunately, there are five Red Sox outfielders in front of him: Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Trot Nixon, Payton, and Kevin Millar. Adam Hyzdu has already been sent packing this spring for that very reason. Barring an injury to one of the fore mentioned players, Boston will not jump through hoops to retain his services, so expect him back with Atlanta by mid-summer.

Isn’t Francona deserving of an extension now?

Francona managed in his first year at the Red Sox helm to win a World Series championship, something that no Boston manager had done since Ed Barrow, also in his first season as manager, in 1918. To some, that would seem like reason enough to sign him to a new contract right now; however, the Red Sox front office is not going to rush to get him guaranteed for anything past the current length of their agreement with him, at least through this season. Should his fortunes continue, then it’s possible that he would be granted an extension after that, as well as a statue right next to Ted Williams‘s, but both Francona and the Sox are content to let sleeping dogs lie for now.

Will they or won’t they?

It bears repeating that all roads to the championship will lead through New York and the Yankees spent the winter reloading the arsenal as usual. However, the Red Sox are just as strong themselves and should be able to rise to the challenge once more. Winning the division has become inconsequential thanks to the Wild Card draw; Boston should do well enough again to earn at least that prize and make the playoffs. As long as they play to their potential and Francona continues to make smart coaching decisions, the Red Sox should get another chance to meet a National League opponent in late October for all the marbles.

A Marriage Made In Heaven?

One week into interleague play and Boston can feel good about taking four-of-six from the National League at home. Excitement griped the Hub this weekend when the Dodgers, who had been to Boston once before in the 1916 World Series but never played in Fenway Park, battled the Red Sox and fans were witness to two great games (we’ll just overlook the beating that Los Angeles gave Boston on Saturday). There was even some pleasure in watching the Red Sox tangle with the Padres earlier in the week; Tuesday’s pitching duel between David Wells and Pedro Martinez ended in a rare but memorable 1-0 win for Boston.

It’s been eight years since the two leagues began playing against each other and interleague baseball is now an integral part of midseason baseball. Still, as in any relationship, you always find something that you want to change to make it even better. While this does not involve a clean shirt or a different haircut in our case, the look of interleague play needs a tweak here and there. The problem is that there are some glaring imbalances that should be corrected for it to be better.

First, there needs to be another realignment of the leagues. With the National League having two more teams than its American counterpart, the divisions don’t match up; only the AL and NL East have the same number of teams while the NL Central and West divisions have one more team than their AL counterparts. This imbalance forces two National League teams to play each other in the midst of interleague play as they would at any other time of the season.

One solution would be to bring Milwaukee back to the American League to give each league fifteen teams, but that would mean interleague meetings every day throughout the season and the owners will have none of that less it cheapen the interest. The second solution would be to contract two teams, although you will never get the approval of the player’s union to do that. Expansion is the third option, but you’ll never get me to agree to that solution.

Second, we need to get rid of the “natural rivalry” games. As a Sox fan, I’ve almost dreaded seeing the Braves come to Boston or the Red Sox fly south to Atlanta for years because we were constantly playing against a superior team and that usually guaranteed at least four or five losses each season. Meanwhile, the Yankees were facing the Mets in a Subway Series and the New York American League representatives were easily taking it to their weaker cross-town rivals.

Sour grapes aside, the schedule seems a little imbalanced when the weak sisters of baseball have to play against perennial powerhouses because they seem like natural adversaries. Plus, some of these rivalries that have been created make no sense. What did the Diamondbacks do to earn the wrath of the Twins? Who knew that the Tigers and the Rockies are natural enemies? Major League Baseball did, but somehow the memo must have been undeliverable to my mailbox. Why not just rotate the interleague rivals as they do in the NFL and let the chips fall as they may?

Third, a decision needs to be made on what to do with the designated hitter rule. I’m impartial to keeping it because I would rather see David Ortiz swing for the fences than watch Martinez flail away at the ball, but it seems like an unfair advantage for National League teams who have pitchers that have faced live pitching for a couple of months. It’s hard to believe that, after thirty-one years, an agreement has still not been reached between the two leagues on whether the DH should become universal in or dropped from Major League Baseball. I don’t have a solid argument either way – perhaps I’ll save that for another column – but this sticking point should be the easiest to address.

All in all, though, what I once believed was just a passing novelty has proven to be a remarkable “gimmick” for baseball. When you consider that, in every other major sport in the United States, everyone gets to face each other at least once every few years or so, it makes for more excitement and more interest. I’m looking forward to watching Martinez face off against Barry Bonds next weekend, even if I might have to stay up a little later to see the game here on the East Coast. Maybe next season, should it not happen this postseason, I’ll watch the Cubs and Sox face off in a rematch of the 1918 World Series. It’s true that not every game will feature “classic” match-ups, but it makes for some interest in an otherwise long season and, with maybe just a tweak here and there, has proven to be a winning formula for baseball.