Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Successful Road Trip That Didn't Feel That Way

The Red Sox came off a road trip that saw them go 7-4 in 11 games from Cleveland to Baltimore to Detroit to St. Petersburg. I was hoping they could go 6-5 on the road. So why did it seem when it concluded it was like a real downer?

They raced off to three wins in the games against the Indians and Orioles, and extended a winning streak to six games. They looked like they might be catching fire (finally). But John Farrell singly cost the Sox the streak when he thought bringing in a washed-up Junichi Tazawa was a good idea in the eighth inning of a 3-1 game against the Tigers.

But still it appeared the Sox righted the ship, taking two of the last three games in Detroit, and winning the first two games against Tampa Bay. They were 7-2 on the road trip and it felt like an overwhelming success.

Then they lost the last two games against the Rays, and that problem that has plagued this team most of the year reared its ugly head yet again: failure with the bases loaded.

The Sox left runners everywhere on Wednesday's 4-3 11-inning loss. But Thursday's was even more infuriating. Drew Pomeranz pitched a solid game, going six innings, striking out 11. He allowed two runs and took the loss. In the sixth inning, the Sox loaded the bases with no outs, but came away with just one run, on Mookie Betts' sac fly. Hanley Ramirez walked, but Jackie Bradley, who has been in a prolonged slump, hit the first pitch into a DP to kill the inning.

As I write this, the Red Sox are an absolutely anemic 4-for-their-last 32 with the bases loaded. And they are hitting an astoundingly bad .212 on the season when the bases are full. (The league average is .262.) How can a team that is at the top of nearly all the major offensive team hitting categories be so bad in those situations? Only Tampa Bay is worse at .207. Can you imagine where the Sox would be if they were just at the league average with the bases loaded? Three or four games leading the AL East, in my opinion.

I was watching last night's game on NESN, and when the Red Sox had the bases loaded in the first (and they naturally scored just once, while two hitters struck out), Dave O'Brien may have said it best: "The Red Sox have the bases loaded, something Red Sox Nation doesn't want to hear right now." And by the way, can you remember the last time ANYONE on the Sox got a bases-clearing double? Hard for me to recall right now.

Andrew Benintendi's knee injury on Wednesday night also cast a pall on the end of the road trip. He made a base running goof that led to him being tagged and he awkwardly injured his left knee in the process. It landed him on the DL, but it appears he suffered no structural damage to the knee, and the Sox hope he will return some time in September.

One of the positives of the recent trip is that the starting pitching was excellent, and with one exception (Henry Owens getting hit hard in Detroit), it has become a strength for the Sox. But ominously, the offense slumped late in the trip against last-place Tampa Bay (just six runs scored in the last three games). You can chalk that up to the weariness of the long trip. But another nine-game trip that begins on the west coast next Friday is looming large. It's against two of the lesser lights in baseball (Oakland and San Diego).

The standings this morning show the Sox in second place, one game out of first place from Toronto. They lead the first Wild Card position by one game, so they are still in good shape right now. But a September that finds them on the road more than at home, and mostly against AL East clubs, will tell the final story of 2016. And they better find a way to drive in runs when they count.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"The Last Chicago Cubs Dynasty"

Many of you may or may not know that there was a time that the Chicago Cubs were a baseball dynasty, winning back-to-back World Series and four NL pennants in five years.

I can promise you that none of you reading this witnessed it live.

The years the Cubs did this was from 1906-1910. Now with the current Cubs on a rampage through the National League in 2016, award-winning journalist Hal Bock has released a book chronicling the early of one of MLB's most beloved teams in "The Last Chicago Cubs Dynasty: Before The Curse" (Rowman & Littlefield).

The book is centered on those great Cubs teams that ruled baseball just after the turn of the 20th century. It features such Cubs legends as Moredcai "Three Finger" Brown, Frank Chance, Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers (the last three being the infield immortalized in poetry as "Tinker-to-Evers-to Chance"), Ed Reulbach, Orval Overall (one of my favorite all-time baseball names) and Johnny Kling. (Mets fans of the early 1980s may remember that name well, as Mets catcher John Stearns broke his record for most steals by a catcher one year, and Kling's name has always stuck in my head because of it.)

Bock gives a comprehensive account of Chicago baseball of the 19th century, and how the Cubs reached the pinnacle of the club's success in the first decade of the 20th century. He also talks about the Cubs' two biggest rivals back then, the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates, which featued such baseball immortals as John McGraw, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner.

The book also accounts for the Cubs slide into mediocrity after those dominant years, and picks up with their NL title teams of 1918, 1929, 1935, 1938 and 1945. Five pennants but no championships for the Cubs since that last World Series title of 1908.

"The Last Chicago Cubs Dynasty" also touches upon some of the Cubs legendary misfortunes that have befallen them over the years, such as the alleged "Billy Goat Curse" of 1945, the "Black Cat" incident at Shea Stadium in 1969, and of course, the Steve Bartman affair of 2003. (As a Red Sox fan, I can understand how painful a book like this is for Cubs fans to read.)

Bock also describes all the places the Cubs have called home (there were many before they moved into Wrigley Field in 1914), and a chapter on all those legendary players of Cubs history, like Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins and Ron Santo. Actor Joe Mantegna, a lifelong Cubs fan, does an interesting foreword to the book.

"The Last Chicago Cubs Dynasty" is definitely a terrific read for that Cubs fan in your life. It will be mostly painful, but it brightly illuminates the time when the Cubs were a feared force in MLB. The Cubs may finally be shedding that "lovable losers" image they've had all these years with a dominating team they have in 2016. So, it maybe worth taking one more look back to see how the Cubs got to this point.

Monday, August 15, 2016

On The Road Again

Thursday night's brutal loss to New York left me with a feeling that this home stand was not going to end well for the Red Sox. They had dropped a series at home to an inferior team, and a much more inferior club, the Arizona Diamondbacks, were about to hit town.

The Sox needed to roll Arizona, and they did just that. They scored 15 runs in the first two wins on Friday and Saturday nights, and did that and some more on Sunday, putting up 16 in game that Zack Greinke started for Arizona.

They got another splendid performance from Rick Porcello, as he went seven innings, allowed just three hits on 80 pitches, and is now tied with J.A. Happ for the MLB lead in wins with 16.

Mookie Betts sat out the last game against New York with a tight quad, and took the collar in his first two games back. But he exploded on Sunday, hitting three home runs (two three-run shots), 8 RBI and 4 runs scored in the rout. It was his second thre-home run game of 2016, and he joined Ted Williams as the only Red Sox players to accomplish that feat, which Ted did in 1957. Dustin Pedroia had his career fifth five-hit game, the first Red Sox player ever to have five five-hit games. (Shocked that Ted never did that.)

After losing two of three to New York, the Sox did what they absolutely had to do against Arizona. I was hoping for 4 of 6 in the home stand before the next road trip started, and got it. The Sox wake up this morning 64-52, 2 games behind Toronto in the AL East. They currently have the lead in the second AL Wild Card position, 1 1/2 games ahead of Detroit.

The Sox hit the road today with a makeup game in Cleveland against the Indians, then head to Baltimore for two, and then on to Detroit for a four-game weekend series with the Tigers, before concluding the trip in St. Pete with four games against the Rays.

This will be the second of the three long summer road trips the Red Sox embark on. They made a number of moves just today, first putting Steven Wright on the DL with that shoulder inflammation he suffered on the bases in LA last weekend. (Why the hell was he used as a pinch-runner to begin with?) He may just miss one start before possibly being back next week against Tampa Bay. Hanley Ramirez will miss three games as he went on the bereavement list. The Sox have recalled infielders Deven Marrero and Marco Hernandez and reliever Heath Hembree from AAA and sent Roenis Elias back to Pawtucket.

Like the last trip, I'm hoping to see the Sox go at least 6-5 on the road swing. The bats came alive this past week, and they need to stay alive on this trip if the Sox want to hang with the Blue Jays and Orioles.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Tonight's The Night

Last night was an absolute shitshow at Fenway Park.

The Yankees lost their starter, Nathan Eovaldi, after one inning, due to elbow soreness (uh-oh). So they had to patch together the rest of the game with their bullpen. Meanwhile, Drew Pomeranz would go 5 1/3 innings, allow just one run. He left with the lead, and you would think the Sox won this game easily, right?

Guess again.

The Red Sox had the New York bullpen on the ropes in the middle innings, loading the bases in the third, fourth and fifth innings, and came away with only two runs, both on ground outs. And worse, they had them loaded in the fifth and got nothing. The same old act in the clutch again. They left 11 men on last night, while going 2-for-11 with RISP.

Matt Barnes came on in the 7th and game went right to hell from there. New York scored five in the 7th and tacked on three more in the eighth to salt away a 9-4 win. Four relievers allowed eight runs. Putrid to say the least.

The Sox continue their slide to mediocrity. Going back to the All-Star break, they came out with 5 wins out of 6, with the high water mark being the 13-2 wipeout of Minnesota on July 22. They are 7-12 since. After the losing road trip that just concluded, I figure they need to go at least 4-2 on this homestand. Toronto currently has the best record in MLB since July 1, and continue to play good ball.

There is just no way the Red Sox can drop this series to New York and consider themselves players for October. The Yankees have long since raised the white flag on the 2016 season and are just playing out the schedule. You can't let a team like this come into your building and push you around. A message has to be sent tonight.

The pressure is squarely on the shoulders of Eduardo Rodriguez tonight. With Steven Wright missing a start because of shoulder tightness, Rodriguez gets the start a day earlier than expected. He's got to give the club a quality start, 6 of 7 innings at minimum. What we don't need to see is another start of him nibbling and getting the pitch count sky-high by the 4th or 5th inning. He's got to prove he's a major league pitcher who is here to stay.

And the offense has to back him up. Stop screwing around in clutch situations letting scoring opportunities go to waste. It's been happening way too often lately. The Red Sox will be without Mookie Betts and David Ortiz, who both left last night's game with minor injuries, and both are day-to-day.

This is a far more important game than it appears. Granted, the season isn't on the line tonight. But it is time for the team to man up and beat a far lesser opponent in their own home building. Another 11-game road trip is looming starting on Monday. The Sox have to dominate at home and split the game away from Fenway.

Time to start dominating. Tonight.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Back Home, Still 2 1/2 Back In Third

The Red Sox left Fenway over a week and a half ago having been swept by the Detroit Tigers, ending a losing home stand. They went out on the road and needed a winning road trip with 11 games on the West Coast.

They didn't get it.

The Sox lost no ground since the Detroit sweep, as they are still 2 1/2 games back in third place in the AL East. That's because neither the Orioles or Blue Jays were great over their past eleven games either. They went 5-6 on the trip, and had their "ace" David Price pitch three times, and came away with no wins.

He was sparkling in first start in Anaheim, going eight shutout innings. But the pen and defense melted down in the ninth, and it was a brutal loss. In Seattle, Price was excellent for seven innings, but he was clearly done in the eighth, as John Farrell left him in way too long, and the Mariners rallied for five runs and won. Another awful loss.

But the road trip finale was telling. The Sox were 5-5 and a win would have made it a winning trip and the team feeling better about things. The Dodgers sent a very erratic Brandon McCarthy to mound, and he was literally all over the place, hitting two batters and throwing pitches to the backstop. But once again, the Red Sox offense couldn't capitalize, scoring just two runs off him. Meanwhile, Price cruised through the first three innings. But he became unglued in the fourth and fifth innings, and the Dodgers scored six runs. Granted, the Sox made two critical errors that made three of the runs unearned. LA went on to an 8-5 win.

Price continues to disappoint. He sure isn't pitching like an ace. He sure isn't a stopper either.  Price is 1-5 in games when he takes the hill after a loss. (Consider that Rick Porcello is 7-1 and Steven Wright is 6-1 after a Red Sox loss.)

But also the offense disappeared on this western trip. Jackie Bradley, David Ortiz and Xander Bogaerts especially struggled throughout the 11 games. In six of the eleven they scored just three runs or less.

As we stand this morning, the Sox are 60-50, 2 1/2 games back in third place. Hardly out of it, but they gained no ground out west. This week they play New York and Arizona at home, two teams that are pretty much playing out the schedule right now. This is where the Sox have to put it together and win at least 4 or 5 of these games. Starting next week, The Sox have an even more difficult road trip than the one they just completed. They open with a makeup game in Cleveland, and then head to Baltimore, Detroit and Tampa Bay. And they have no off days on this swing.

Another 11-game trip. We'll see where they stand on August 25th when it concludes.

Monday, August 08, 2016

The Slappy Era Comes to a Close

The Alex Rodriguez Era in the Bronx officially comes to an end on Friday when Slappy plays his last game for New York and will be unconditionally released following the game.

His days as a player are clearly behind Rodriguez, and the Yankees are in complete rebuild mode. As of right now, they are on the hook for $27 million in salary through next season. It was clear the team had to dump him, and try to find the best to it for all concerned.

It was pretty much a farce of a press conference yesterday, with GM Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi praising Slappy to the skies. (Where was principal owner Hal Steinbrenner while all of this was going on? He was the one who ultimately pulled the plug.) A-Rod has sat on the bench since July 22nd, and the fact that he sat last week against the Mets' Bartolo Colon, who he has enormous numbers against lifetime, was all you needed to know about what the Yankees were thinking about him.

He "retires" on Friday, and gets to go home and return as a special instructor next season, while collecting every cent of the $27 million still owed him. And that is clearly the most important thing to him, make no mistake about it. (Forget him coming up four home runs short of 700. I'm sure that won't keep him up nights after he leaves.)

It's interesting his last game is on Friday. I'm sure they came to that date because it allows a build up this week for additional ticket sales and TV ratings. How many empty seats would have been in the Bronx for two teams (NY vs.Tampa Bay) going nowhere this Friday night?

And those three games before his last one will be played by the Yankees at Fenway Park against the Red Sox. It will be mighty interesting to see if Red Sox management will even acknowledge Slappy's retirement. You know the fans will let him know how they feel.

I checked in with some my friends on Facebook and Twitter and tried to gauge how they felt about Rodriguez' Yankee departure. I think you can some it up in one sentence: "Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out." Of course, there was an exception.

In many ways, the Alex Rodriguez story is a tragic tale. A guy with a ton of talent, who made some really awful decisions and went down some bad roads. "A million dollar swing with a ten cent head" comes to mind. He simply ruined his career and reputation by dabbling in PEDs, and earned a year's suspension for the Biogenesis mess he got involved in. I can't EVER see him being enshrined at Cooperstown. Even while both Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens continue to increase their support year-by-year in the Hall of Fame balloting, I can't see A-Rod getting much support at all. You have to wonder if he'll even get 5% of the vote when he first becomes eligible in 2022.

As Red Sox fans, we all remember how Rodriguez was nearly traded to the Sox in late 2003, and he badly wanted to play at Fenway. But the players union wouldn't allow him to restructure his deal to allow the trade to happen (and remember, Jon Lester would have gone to Texas in that deal!), so he was eventually dealt to New York the following February.

I remember the media crowing the day the deal was done, about how the Yankees had one-upped the Sox yet again. I reminded all my friends that New York had just acquired a very good bat, while trading another very good bat away (Alfonso Soriano) and to keep in mind "A-Rod can't pitch."

Some times, the best deals are the ones you don't make.

And here's A-Rod, reminding everyone how many more World Series the Red Sox have won over his team since his time in the Bronx began in 2004:

Adios, Slappy, and we in Red Sox Nation thank you for Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS. Always.