Ups and downs

Work and home life have kept me from blogging, but not from watching the Sox.

Here are my notes from the last 3 days, in reverse order:

Saturday, September 1

Current Conditions:

Another wow.  It seems that the weekends are bringing big "wows" for the Red Sox.  Now if the can just fill the weekdays with some positives, it will be a great September.

By now, you’ve seen all the stats: Clay Buchholz became the first Red Sox rookie to throw a no-hitter, the 17th Red Sox no-hitter, the 11th no-hitter by a Red Sox pitcher in Fenway Park, the 21st rookie since 1900 to throw a no-hitter, and only the 3rd ever to do it in their first or second major league start. 

But I’ll bet those other rookies didn’t do it in a September pennant race in a must-win-to-stop-the-4-game-losing-streak game, in a baseball fanatical atmosphere like Fenway Park, with 37,000 fans standing and screaming on every pitch in the 9th inning.  THAT was pressure!  About the only thing relieving the pressure was the 8-0 lead he had after 6 innings, giving him the chance to be aggressive and not worry about the winning of the game. 

He needed to be aggressive, too, because he’d never pitched more than 94 pitches in a game this season, nor more than 98 in his entire career.  After 6 innings, he’d thrown 80 pitches, which is lower than an "average" of 90.  After 7 innings, he’d thrown 92 pitches, so manager Terry Francona called GM Theo Epstein.  How long can he let him go?  Terry later joked "Theo wasn’t any help".

After 8 innings, the pitch count was 102.  Just a 10 pitch 8th, thanks to Payton’s first-pitch one-hop shot back to Buchholz to end the inning, on which Buchholz had to make a tough stab to prevent a hit.  Francona called Theo again.  In order to protect his future career, Theo said not to let him reach 120 pitches, and to blame Theo if he took him out.  We’ll never know if Francona would have had the guts to do it.  Fortunately, the kid ended it with a 13 pitch 9th inning.

We knew this kid was the best prospect in the system, but we didn’t think he’d be this ready this soon.  It was expected that Clay Buchholz would make an occasional emergency start over the next year, but not really come up for good until a year from now, NEXT September.  He needs another year to command his fastball, they said.  He needs a certain number of minor league innings.  After last night’s no-hitter in his second-ever "emergency" big-league start, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein was raving that Buchholz showed the best command of his fastball ever last night. 

This kid is getting better faster than expected.  2 years ago, he didn’t even have a change-up, and now it’s one of the best in baseball. 

This removes some of the pain of seeing Red Sox prospect Anibel Sanchez throw a no-hitter in his rookie season last year for Florida, less than a year after being traded (with other top prospect Hanley Ramirez) for Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett.  Having Lowell and Beckett has worked out fine for the Red Sox, and now having a rookie with a no-hitter erases the pain of seeing Sanchez do the same for another team.

Varitek gets a lot of credit for this.  He has caught all 3 of the Red Sox no hitters during my more than 30 years of cheering for the Red Sox.  The kid knew enough not to shake him off, except of course when Varitek TOLD him to pretend to shake him off.  Watch the replay of the last pitch of the game.  They’d just thrown a high fastball which the hitter fouled on a check swing.  Varitek shook his head "no" twice before putting down a sign.  This is his signal to the pitcher to pretend to shake ‘Tek off.  This is to try to get the hitter to think that the pitcher is nervous and wants to stick to something "safe", like a high fastball out of the strike-zone.  Then ‘Tek threw down 2 fingers for "curveball".  The pitch started high.  The hitter thought it was a fastball which would be way out of the strikezone.  The hitter didn’t budge.  The ball broke sharply down into the strike zone.  Game over. 

Curt Schilling has learned his lesson.  Don’t shake off Varitek with a no-hitter on the line.  Schilling did so 2 months ago, and the hitter guessed right, hitting a single to break up Schilling’s no-hitter with just one out to go.

Dustin Pedroia made the play of the game, and got some good exposure on national TV which should help his Rookie of the Year candidacy.  His defense has been outstanding, but not as noticable as his .320+ batting average.  This will give some exposure to his great fielding, and might just clinch that ROY award.

When Theo Epstein took over as GM, he said he’d turn the Red Sox into "a scouting and player development machine".  He’s accomplished his goal:  2 pitchers throwing no-hitters as rookies (A.Sanchez & Buchholz), one of the most dominant closers in baseball in only his 2nd year (Papelbon), a rookie of the year candidate in Pedroia, one of the best on-base guys in the game in Youkilis, a National League batting champ and excellent defensive infielder in Freddy Sanchez (who he should have never traded!), another top young National League hitter and fielder in Hanley Ramirez (traded with A.Sanchez for Lowell/Beckett), and rising young stars Jonathan Lester, Manny Delcarmen, Brandon Moss, Jacoby Ellsbury, and now on Texas: David Murphy and Kason Gabbard (both traded for Eric Gagne).  That’s 13 outstanding talents coming out of the Red Sox farm system in the last 3 years.

Forecast:

The September callups couldn’t have come at a better time, as Manny Ramirez, Tim Wakefield and Kielty all are suffering from back problems.   The outfield and pitching help lets players rest and brings in some fresh energy, and that energy was certainly felt last night.  The Red Sox will ride this energy through the upcoming easy schedule to win 9 of their next 11 games before the Yankees arrive.  Lost in the excitement of the no-hitter was Ellsbury’s first-pitch 2-run double off the wall after he’d come in as a defensive replacement.  He’s hitting over .300 at the major-league level and his speed off the bench can let the Sox play small-ball when they need to.

On the same day, the Yankees brought up a rookie pitcher who pitched extremely well in place of Mussina, which bodes well for the Yankees chances to make the playoffs, but his performance was overshadowed by Buchholz.  It now looks like the Yankees, with 4 starters going well, and 2 relievers pitching show-down ball, and an offense that won’t quit, will be in the playoffs one way or another, as Seattle just won’t be able to keep up.  The Tigers will have to get hot, but the Yankees just look better, with the pitching starting to come together. 

When the Sox and Yankees meet in mid-September, the Sox will have likely just run off a string of wins against weak competition in mostly home games, so their lead should be about 7 games, and with the series in Fenway, the Sox should win 2 of 3, and the division should be all but wrapped up after that series.  However, it will be playoff intensity, as the Yankees will still be fighting for the wild card and the Sox fighting to keep the lead comfortable. 

Friday, August 31

Current Conditions:

Ouch!  That one hurt!  Not only because they came up 1 run short to the struggling Orioles, but because Kevin Youkilis got plunked twice, the day after his head nearly got taken off by 2 straight Chamberlain fastballs that slipped.

Kevin Youkilis is NOT a punching bag! 

I had a good feeling and bad feeling when Timlin was brought into the game.  He’s been pitching well, but reaching 1000 career appearances was the main reason he wanted to pitch another season, so doing it in front of his home crowd was sure to distract him, as he came in to a standing ovation.  I felt happy for him, until I realized that he’d probably have trouble focussing on his pitching.  Indeed, he was uncharacteristically bad, giving up several runs, capped by a 3 run homer.  Had he been removed one batter sooner, the Red Sox would have won that game. 

Forecast:

Timlin will be mad and focussed next time he pitches, and will bounce back fine.

Youkilis will be mad for the next 2+ weeks, until the Yankees series is over, and he’ll go on a tear during that time. 

Hopefully, those performances, and the September callups, can lift the Sox out of this 4 game funk.  The Sox offense was back tonight, after the best Yankees pitchers shut them down.  With Jacoby Ellsbury coming up to add some energy and speed to the offense, and Brandon Moss helping, too, things should be fun to watch over the next couple of weeks.  A lot of runs will score.  The only question is whether the starting pitching will stay healthy enough.  With the extra days of rest the Sox have given them by starting Buchholz and Lester on the weekend, the starters should do well enough to let the bullpen and the offense do the rest.  Staying by the prediction of 10 more wins before the Yankees arrive in town.

Thursday, August 30:

Current Conditions:

Bummer.

The Yankees whupped us this game.  In last night’s loss, it was a lot of luck and fluke plays helping the Yankees.  In this afternoon’s loss, the Yankees just out-pitched, out-fielded and out-hit the Red Sox.   The few times the Sox hit the ball well off Wang, the Yankees fielders made great plays.  The Sox should have won the Wednesday night game, but they weren’t even close to deserving today’s. 

Youkilis had a tough day, being called out for going out of the baseline at a critical point in the game, then being nearly beheaded twice by Joba Chamberlain fastballs which got away in the 9th inning.  Joba probably didn’t intend that, but Youkilis will probably be fired up for the next series starting Sept 14th, and all the games in between.

The optimist’s view:  the last time the Yankees swept the Red Sox 3 straight in Yankee stadium was in 2004.  We all know how that season ended.

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