Friday, October 31, 2008

Asked and answered: Tony Dungy, Colts coach

It's not quite the same as past Patriots-Colts matchups. Neither team is undefeated, and neither team is playing for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. In fact, an Indianapolis win might result in neither the Patriots or the Colts making the playoffs -- something that hasn't happened, if you can believe it, since 1994.

To give you an idea of how long ago that was, Marshall Faulk was a rookie that season. Curtis Martin hadn't been drafted yet. Jim Mora's "Playoffs?" rant -- which happened near the end of the 2001 season in which the Patriots would win the Super Bowl -- wouldn't even happen for another seven years.

Highlights from Tony Dungy's conference call with reporters this week:

What has contributed to your team’s 3-4 start this season?
"For us, it has probably been inconsistency. When we look at the things that have really caused this it’s a lot of penalties that we don’t normally get, a lot of turnovers, things that we are doing that really cause you to lose games. We have played well in spurts but we really haven’t played good consistent football that we need to win these games and we have to get back to it pretty quick."

How different is this week’s game against the Patriots from in the past where both teams were usually at the top of the AFC?
"They are doing a little bit better than we are. I would say neither of us has played up to our expectations so far. This is going to be a big game. It’s pivotal in a lot of ways. When you are fighting like this you have to get wins and get a streak going. We have to get it turned around quickly and we are playing a very tough opponent to try to do that."

After your game against the Tennessee Titans last Monday night it sounded like you were conceding the AFC South to the Titans. Is that an accurate read of what you were saying?
"Realistically looking at it, we have to look at it that way. We have to really focus ourselves on improving, playing consistently and getting a win streak going. If we can get a streak like we have gotten in the past and roll off six or seven in a row, it still might not be enough to win the division but that is OK. If we can get ourselves playing well and get hot and be in that wild card race we will be in good shape.

Is this different for you as a coach with having a team that is fighting to stay alive in the playoff hunt?
"Lately, it has been, but it seems like this is a position that we were in during my last three years at Tampa. We were 3-4 and we fought back every year and got in the playoffs. One year, we ended up stringing up a good streak and going to the (NFC) championship game. It is not something that I am unfamiliar with but we haven’t been this inconsistent here in quite a while."

What do you take from those experiences with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that are applicable with the position your team is in now?
"Well, the fact that NFL football is really still all about November and December. If you are playing well at that time of year then that is what counts. The Giants proved that last year. Pittsburgh did a couple of years ago. You don’t want to dig yourself in too much of a hole but certainly this season isn’t over on September 30th or October 30th even."

How much has your offensive line’s struggles contributed to your overall problems this year?
"Surprisingly, our offensive line has been pretty solid, pretty consistent. Even our young guards (Mike Pollak and Jamey Richard), when they were starting, both of those guys did a pretty good job. I don’t think that is the biggest thing. We have had inconsistencies in our passing game. We have had penalties. We have given up big runs on defense -- things like that. Sure, we would love to have our veteran offensive linemen in there the whole way but that hasn’t really been the major problem."

How much is the time quarterback Peyton Manning missed in training camp and the preseason still affecting him?
"That is hard to say. I am sure that is there to a certain extent and that has been part of it. We were playing Baltimore and we threw a 70-yard touchdown pass and we had a holding penalty. That really doesn’t have anything to do with Peyton being in training camp or not. It is not everything but I am sure he is not as sharp as he would have been with a full training camp."

What has stood out to you with quarterback Matt Cassel?
"They are doing a great job, as they always do, of playing to people’s strengths. I think they have found what he does well. He is developing that chemistry with (Wes) Welker. He is making less and less mistakes every week. They are keeping the ball and controlling it with a short passing game. He is getting them into the right plays. It has been impressive. I think he has gotten more comfortable every week. That is kind of what it looks like on tape."

What are the chances of running back Joseph Addai and strong safety Bob Sanders playing this week against the Patriots?
"It looks like they are going to be able to play. Addai, Sanders and (Kelvin) Hayden are all scheduled to practice today. They went through the morning walkthrough and did fine. We expect to see them out at practice. If they have a good week of practice I think all three of them will play."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Record aside, Belichick sees same old Colts

Peyton Manning still plays quarterback. Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne still run routes. Dwight Freeney still comes off the edge. Heck, Bob Sanders might be good to go.

When the Patriots meet the Colts on Sunday in Indianapolis, they won't be meeting any old 3-4 team. As far as Bill Belichick is concerned, preparing for this game is the same as preparing for last season's showdown between undefeateds.

"When I look at them, I see a very explosive football team," Belichick said. "Look at the last six minutes of the Houston game. Look at the first quarter of the Baltimore game. You see plenty of good football from them and plenty of explosive football. That’s what worries us, and that’s what we have to prepare for."

Belichick downplayed the Colts' loss to Tennessee on Monday and didn't mention at all the Colts' loss to the Green Bay Packers the week before that. In those two games, Manning threw two touchdown passes (both against the Titans) and four interceptions. He now has thrown nine interceptions on the season -- and just 10 touchdown passes.

But as long as No. 18 is lining up under center for the Colts, no one on the Patriots' side is taking anything for granted.

"They've got a veteran squad, led by Peyton and those receivers," safety James Sanders said. "They've still got a very strong team, and we're going to have our hands full."

Rookie cornerback Terrence Wheatley, who has seen action in five of the Patriots' seven games this season, could see quite a bit of playing time on Sunday night -- especially if Ellis Hobbs (shoulder) is unable to go. Wheatley played some key snaps against Marc Bulger and the Rams last week, but lining up against Reggie Wayne or Marvin Harrison would be an experience unlike any other.

It helps, he said, that he's had a chance to go up against Tom Brady and Randy Moss in training camp. Order them however you want, but Brady and Manning are the two best quarterbacks in the NFL, and experience against one can only help against the other.

"You can't give them the same look every time," Wheatley said. "You've got to go out there and disguise coverages. You can't line up in the same thing every time. Even if you're running the same coverage you did the last play, you've got to make it look different. ...

"Guys on this level are fast. They're big. They're smart. They know what they're doing. Coming in as a rookie, you've got to be able to show them different things. If you line up in the same thing over and over and over again, like with our offense, if I lined up against Tom and Randy, I can't show them same thing every time. They'll eat me alive. You've got to change it up. In college, you didn't really have to do that. You could just line up, and your physical ability would take over. But at this level, going against a team like the Colts, you can't do that."

Opening-night loss would have been understandable

It would have been easy to lose. That's what the Heat did two years ago -- they got throttled by the Bulls on the same night they hoisted their banner and received their rings. The Spurs didn't lose their opener last season or two seasons before that; the Pistons didn't lose their opener four years ago.

But with the way tears were streaming down Paul Pierce's cheeks, it was easy to wonder if last night, just last night, the hunger wouldn't quite be there, if the ceremony would spark the title-less LeBron James more than it would spark the guys in white who had just won their first rings. Doc Rivers has preached the belief that last season is over; the ring ceremony, though, meant that last season did extend into this season, at least for one night. And with the season lasting 82 games, it would have been forgiveable if the Celtics had come out completely flat in this one.

They did come out a little flat, but only a little. And after a break at halftime in which Rivers probably reminded his team that last season really is totally over, the Celts roared back. Kevin Garnett didn't shoot (5-for-15). Ray Allen didn't shoot (2-for-9). But Paul Pierce shot the way he's supposed to shoot (10-for-19), and Boston got a monster effort from sixth man Leon Powe, who could step right into James Posey's sparkplug role. Powe scored 13 points of 5-of-7 shooting, grabbed a couple of tough rebounds and even took a game-swinging charge.

It was an ugly win, for sure. But let's face it -- we were all prepared for forgive the Celtics if they completely laid an egg. It was Ring Night, after all; it was Banner Night. And the fact that the Celtics came out and beat Cleveland shows an awful lot about the mental toughness of this team.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Patriots secondary in serious trouble

The problems first exploited by the San Diego Chargers two weeks ago emerged again on Sunday against the St. Louis Rams. Marc Bulger came out looking to throw deep and did just that -- he hit rookie Donnie Avery six times for 163 yards, including a 69-yard touchdown on which he beat veteran Ellis Hobbs clean down the middle of the field.

It got worse for the Patriots, already playing with Rodney Harrison, when Hobbs left with a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter. Brandon Meriweather ended up moving from safety to corner and practice-squad promotee Antwain Spann played safety against St. Louis' four-receiver sets on the Rams' final drive.

"We were scrambling in the secondary," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "There is no doubt about it."

If Hobbs' injury is worse than just hitting the ground "kind of funny," as he described it to reporters on Sunday, here's what the Patriots' secondary will look like next weekend:
  • Meriweather (playing very well in his second season)
  • Deltha O'Neal (Philip Rivers' new best friend)
  • Mike Richardson (former practice-squad player)
  • James Sanders (had a possible fourth-quarter interception bounce off his helmet)
  • Lewis Sanders (couldn't stick with the Texans or last season's Falcons)
  • Spann (former practice-squad player)
  • Ray Ventrone (kick coverage specialist)
  • Terrence Wheatley (rookie)
  • Jonathan Wilhite (rookie)
And guess where the Patriots will be next week?

That's right: Indianapolis.

It'll be very interesting to see how Peyton Manning performs tonight against Tennessee. After some early struggles against the Bears and Jaguars, he came out of the Colts' bye week looking like the Peyton Manning of old.

Manning completed 25 of 34 passes (73.5 percent) for 247 yards and two touchdowns (with one interception) against the Texas in Week 5. He then completed 19 of 28 passes (67 percent) for 271 yards and three touchdowns (without an interception) against the Ravens in Week 6.

He then threw up a stinker -- 21 for 42 (50 percent) for 229 yards and two interceptions against Green Bay in a 34-14 loss a week ago. Is that an indication of a downturn, or was that just a speed bump in his return from one, I mean, two, I mean, three, I mean, how many knee surgeries did he have again?

Marvin Harrison isn't Marvin Harrison anymore, but Reggie Wayne still is one of the best receivers in the NFL, and Anthony Gonzalez is averaging 12.7 yards per catch. Dallas Clark, who was limited by injury for much of last season, is back healthy -- and he had eight catches for 81 yards last week against the Packers.

It's going to be a tall task for New England to cover every single one of those players. The Patriots are 5-2 and appear to have some momentum on their side, but unless they find a way to defend the pass, the best quarterback playing in the NFL this season is going to pick them apart.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Asked and answered: Matt Cassel, Patriots quarterback

Matt Cassel earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors after the Patriots' Monday night win against the Denver Broncos -- and he played even better today. He threw for 267 yards and a touchdown, and while he was charged with two interceptions, neither were his fault. (One was a pass that hit Randy Moss in the hands; Wes Welker fell down on the other.)

How big a part of your game is confidence, and were you able to build on that today?
"I think for any QB, if you play with confidence you play well because you’re confident in what you’re doing; you’re confident in where you’re going with the ball. It’s a big part of my game and I played with a lot of confidence today. I felt good about the game plan and it showed out there."

Can you talk about the touchdown pass to Kevin Faulk in the fourth quarter?
"It was a great catch by him. He made a great move on the linebacker. He was in one-on-one coverage and I just tried to put it out there and give him an opportunity to make the catch. He did a great job. He did what Kevin Faulk does best."

How good of a job did the offensive line do today?
"They did an impeccable job. I had great protection all day. I was able to step up, go through my reads—go through one, two, even get to three at times. They did a great job."

Bill Belichick said that you have been playing well all season. Do you agree with that or do you feel like it has been more up and down?
"I feel like I’ve been playing pretty consistent throughout the year. Sometimes the score doesn’t reflect that, but we’re constantly working, we’re constantly trying to get better. I continue to mature, I believe, each and every week. Today was a good performance and something we can go forward and build on."

Did it register with you that you were behind in the fourth quarter and it was up to you and the offense?
"It did. And this was a big game for us because it was one where we’re behind in the fourth quarter and it’s up to us to come back and, in the face of a little adversity, to fight and we did that as an offensive unit. Everybody stepped up and I thought that was a big thing for this offense to prove that we can do that in those tight games because I’m sure there’re going to be a lot of those down the road."

Did you calm yourself down a little bit on the last drive? You seemed pretty sure of yourself.
"As you get going in the game you just kind of go along and you play the game. I really wasn’t worried about the situation other than the fact that I knew we had to score. I wasn’t trying to press; I was just trying to go out there and execute the offense like we always try to do and we were successful at it."

Did it seem like you had more time in the pocket this week and that it was there for longer?
"It did. The offensive line did a great job today. They gave me a great amount of time in the pocket. I was able to go through my reads. I was able to step up when I needed to and I think that was huge for our passing game."

Is the number of sacks you’ve taken a case where you are cautious because you don’t want to make a mistake, so instead of throwing a bad ball you’re conservative in order to get the ball back in the next series?
"There are definitely times when taking a sack is a better play than doing something else and trying to make a play when something is not there. Then there are also times when I’m trying to run around and make a play and I’m sure a lot of those sacks aren’t even on the offensive line. They’ve been doing a great job all year. Sometimes I feel like I can make a play outside the pocket and I’ll try to scamper and I’ll run and it will be a one-yard loss and it ends up being a sack because we were throwing the ball on that play. That happens."

Does Bill Belichick try to discourage you from running, in part because you’ve got to stay healthy?
"No, he doesn’t. We go out there, and the one thing we try to do each and every week is go out there and don’t play scared. If that’s part of my game and something where I need to pick up a first down on third down because I don’t see anybody down the field then I’m going to run and do it."

There was a sequence where Randy Moss had a tipped ball interception, Wes Welker fell down and the ball was intercepted, and then Randy Moss dropped a ball in the end zone. Was it tough not to get frustrated there?
"It’s just one of those things where you go out there and you keep fighting. Those things are going to happen, where a guy falls down, a tipped ball happens. The main thing I thought was great for the offense was that we didn’t get discouraged. We knew the plays were there; we just didn’t make them. Then we came back and made the play when it counted at the end."

Jackson inactive for Rams; Morris inactive for Pats

Steven Jackson has been announced as inactive for the Rams today; Jackson suffered a quad injury in the fourth quarter last week. Antonio Pittman and Travis Minor likely will see the majority of the carries for the Rams.

Look for UNH alum Dan Kreider, by the way, blocking out of the backfield. He'll need to be on top of his game -- Pittman and Minor aren't going to squeeze through some of the holes Jackson would have squeezed through.

Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan, by the way, are inactive for the Patriots. Look for the bulk of the carries to fall to BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

Defenders still storming the Cassel

Before we jump all over Matt Cassel for allowing himself to get sacked 23 times (for a net loss of 116 yards) in his first six games, check out these week-by-week sack totals from a different quarterback in his first year as a starter:

Game 1: 1 (for 9 yards)
Game 2: 4 (17)
Game 3: 3 (19)
Game 4: 0 (0)
Game 5: 2 (20)
Game 6: 3 (14)
Game 7: 7 (36)
Game 8: 2 (6)
Game 9: 4 (17)
Game 10: 3 (22)
Game 11: 3 (9)
Game 12: 5 (31)
Game 13: 3 (14)
Game 14: 1 (2)

Sure, he was playing with a different offensive line, but Tom Brady once had trouble getting rid of the ball, too. He learned as he went along; 41 sacks in 14 games in 2001 turned into 21 sacks in 16 games in 2007.

Why wasn't there this kind of uproar as Brady was going down 41 times in his first full season? That's easy: Brady was replacing the statue-esque Drew Bledsoe, who took 55 sacks in 1999 and 45 in 2000 before Mo Lewis almost ended his career.

Cassel, though, is replacing Brady. And while the reigning NFL MVP has never been a scrambling quarterback, he now knows how to move around in the pocket and when to get rid of the ball. That's something Brady had to learn through experience -- the fact that his sack totals went down in five of his next six seasons speaks to what he learned.

Cassel has taken at least two sacks in every game he's played thus far; he took a season-high six (for 38 yards) against the Broncos on Monday night. Some are his fault, some are not. But he's still essentially a rookie. He's still made just five career starts. And for a first-year starter, he's not playing all that badly.

"He actually made some good throw-aways, some smart throw-aways." offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said this week. "One was in the end zone. He got out of the pocket, and we ended up getting a face-mask penalty on that; they grabbed his face mask. He had another one in that same game where he evaded the rush to the right and there was really nothing there on the play so he got rid of the ball. I think it's just a comfort level for him."

But Cassel said he knows there's still work to do. Fortunately for him, he's a young quarterback; there's work to do in just about every area. The fact that sack-taking is the most glaring -- as opposed to, say, throwing with accuracy -- could even be considered a positive.

"There are times when I’m trying to let the play develop downfield," he said this week. "If I’m standing in there too long, I just need to learn when that time clock goes off and just throw it away. That’s an area that I can help the offensive line out with. Obviously, a lot of those sacks aren’t on them; they’re on me."

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Firing up the Hot Stove: Shortstop

Alternate title: My $1 sunglasses

I have this pair of $1 sunglasses. I bought them in Florida three years ago when my family was on vacation; I have a problem with sitting on or dropping things on or otherwise breaking sunglasses. When I was in youth group in high school, I bought a pair of $25 sunglasses while we were on a mission trip to New Orleans -- and someone dropped their duffel bag right on top of them. They lasted exactly three days. It didn't make any sense, I decided this time, to spend a whole bunch of money on a fancy pair that probably wasn't even going to last the week. I just wanted sunglasses to have while we were at the beach. Anything beyond that was a bonus.

Three years later, I still own those $1 sunglasses. I haven't done anything to them that would threaten their survival; they just have an uncanny ability to avoid getting sat on or stepped on or having something dropped on them. There's nothing necessarily wrong with them, either. They're comfortable enough, and they, you know, block the sun, so I have no reason to get rid of them.

But I did kind of want some sunglasses that looked cooler. As you can imagine, my $1 sunglasses aren't exactly turning heads when I cruise the strip in my, um, Camry. I figured some snazzy sunglasses would really help. A couple of months ago, I went to the mall and picked out a pair that was more flexible, more comfortable and didn't have the gaudy aluminum frames that made the $1 sunglasses look a little bit weird. They were great. I paid $15 for them and went on my way.

You can guess the next part: It took all of a week for me to leave them on the front seat of my car and sit on them. I snapped one of the lenses in half; they were finished. My $15 was as good as wasted. After that, I had to go back to my $1 sunglasses -- and they still work! They're still not broken! They're still there every time I'm driving around and need sunglasses for the glare through the windshield!

The lesson that we learn here seems particularly applicable as we look at Red Sox shortstops. Ever since the heyday of Nomar Garciaparra, the position has been a revolving door of disaster. Orlando Cabrera did OK, of course, but the Red Sox let him walk in favor of Edgar Renteria. After Renteria came Alex Gonzalez, and he was great with the glove, but his OBP was sub-.300, and that's pretty much terrible.

After that season, then, the Red Sox shelled out big money for four seasons of Julio Lugo. He, however, hit .236 and made 19 errors; when he came back this season, he ended up missing half the season with a quadriceps injury. Jed Lowrie played 81 games, split between shortstop and third base, and hit a respectable (for a rookie) .258, but that included .213 in September and then .207 in the postseason. (Yes, he drove in the winning run in Game 4 of the American League Division Series against the Angels, but let's face it -- it was a weak ground ball that happened to find a hole. It was a big hit, but let's not get carried away.)

Next season
The baseball guys at WEEI were discussing the list of available free-agent shortstops the other day: Cabrera is on that list, as is Renteria, and you probably don't need to go there again. But Rafael Furcal is a free agent, and while he was hurt for much of the season, he was 8-for-31 (.258) with six walks in the playoffs, and he's hit right around .275 or .280 for much of his career. Adam Everett, a former Red Sox farmhand who has been one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball, likewise is on the list.

But here's the thing: Why are we looking at free agents? Why would anyone even consider shelling out big money -- Furcal made $13 million in 2008 -- for yet another shortstop?

Remember the lesson of the $1 sunglasses, a lesson the Red Sox have not heeded with their shortstops for years: If you try to get too fancy, you'll sometimes get burned. The Red Sox got burned with Renteria; they've gotten burned with Lugo, too. If you hand the 31-year-old Furcal a three-year deal worth $40 million, you run a very big risk of getting burned again.

What they'll do
You would think the Red Sox would be prepared to go to spring training with Lowrie and Lugo both locks for the roster and let them fight it out. Alex Cora remains an option, but it's hard to believe you could find room on the roster for all three of those players.

It almost seems like a letdown to return Lowrie and Lugo, like they're missing something. But what's wrong with that? Lugo has played second base and third base as recently as 2006 with the Dodgers; if Lowrie wins the job, there's still a spot for Lugo two days a week at shortstop and one day a week at second base or third base. He's still signed through 2010 with an option for 2011 that likely won't become automatic thanks to his injury this season. (It's based on 600 plate appearances per year for four years; he'd need to average 732 plate appearances in the next two seasons for it to kick in.)

Lowrie remains raw. Lugo remains under contract. The Red Sox are not the Yankees. Look for Theo Epstein to explore a deal -- he always does -- but to end up bringing those two to spring training this season and letting them fight it out for playing time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Asked and answered: Kevin Faulk, Patriots running back

Kevin Faulk has played more halfback than true running back over the years, catching passes out of the backfield and running draws out of the shotgun formation more often than lining up in the I-formation and powering through the middle.

With an injury to Sammy Morris possibly depleting the Patriots' corps of running backs even further, though, he might end up with more traditional carries than he's seen in the past.

(A swarm of notebooks and cameras congregated around Faulk's locker on Wednesday morning.)
"I didn't have this much people at my birthday party."

With Laurence out, do you expect to see an increased workload?
"Whatever's asked of me to do. I've been here long enough to just be prepared anytime they call your number."

How did you feel about the way things went with the run game on Monday?
"It just showed that we're capable of doing that. We've just got to be consistent the rest of the year."

What do you expect out of St. Louis this week?
"Since their bye week, it's been two different teams, really. They're playing really emotional right now and have some real speed at linebacker, and they're playing aggressive."

How did Sammy Morris look before he went down in the first half?
"That's Sammy. Sammy was doing his thing, just helping the team win any way he can."

How big of a difference does it make playing at home?
"It's always a big difference. You've got your fans behind you, and they're backing you 100 percent. Then you go out there and play well as a team, so it complements each other."

Could you tell how much more confident Matt Cassel looked once he had that sort of running game in front of him?
"It was everyone. It was everyone getting confidence and getting off to a good start, and the whole team was just feeding off each other. We're just playing well.

Is that something that started from the get-go?
"The thing that was on our minds that we wanted to re-emphasize was to be emotional from the beginning of the game."

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Firing up the Hot Stove: Catcher

The Red Sox packed up the clubhouse on Monday, which means it's time for the hot-stove season to begin in earnest. Here at One If By Land headquarters, we'll take a position-by-position at what Theo Epstein and the Red Sox will be thinking about as the offseason gets under way.

The natural place to start is catcher, also the topic of today's story in the Union Leader. It might be where the Red Sox make their biggest decision.

Last season
Jason Varitek: .220 (.313 OBP), 13 HR, 43 RBI
Kevin Cash: .225 (.309 OBP), 3 HR, 15 RBI
Dave Ross (split between Cincinnati and Boston): .225 (.369 OBP), 3 HR, 13 RBI
George Kottaras (at Triple-A Pawtucket): .243 (.348 OBP), 22 HR, 65 RBI

Next season
Varitek is a free agent; when reporters asked after Game 7 about his status for next season, his voice almost appeared to be breaking when he said, "I would rather not talk about it." After such a miserable season at the plate, a season in which the 4-6-3 double play in the eighth inning became far too routine, the knee-jerk reaction is to assume he won't be back.

But who else is out there? More importantly, who else is out there that would be a significant enough upgrade with the bat to offset what Red Sox pitchers would lose in terms of game-planning and steadiness behind the plate? Some get tired of hearing about how his leadership impacts the team, but the more you hear teammates talk about it, the more you have no choice but to believe it.

"It really falls on 'Tek," budding ace Jon Lester said after his win in Game 4 of the ALDS against Los Angeles. "He does a good job of keeping a good pace back there and calling a good game."

Said second baseman Dustin Pedroia, the type of player who could inherit the 'C' eventually, “When he walks in the door at one o’clock in the afternoon, his presence everyone feels. He doesn’t even have to say anything. That’s the type of teammate he is and what kind of player he is. Everyone looks to him for advice and looks up to him. That’s why he’s the captain of our team. He sets the tone.”

The free-agent options are sketchy; the options in the farm system are unproven. Epstein could try to trade for one of Texas' two young catchers (Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden), but either would cost the Red Sox someone like Michael Bowden or Clay Buchholz, and that might be too steep of a price to pay if Kottaras or one of the other internal options will be ready in two years.

What they'll do
Look for the Red Sox to offer Varitek a short-term deal with the understanding that Kottaras will see fairly regular playing time. Someone will have to catch Tim Wakefield; in an ideal world, though, Kottaras would play twice a week and Varitek three times -- or possibly the other way around. It's time to start easing someone else into that position, but there's no one else in the pipeline who's proven he can do what Varitek can do.

But if he's not willing to do that, if his professional pride leads him either to another team where he can start or to retirement, it would be easy to understand. In that case, the Red Sox might either have to go with a Cash-Kottaras platoon or pick from one of the lousy options available via the free-agent market.

Asked and answered: Heath Evans, Patriots fullback

Fullback Heath Evans was part of a goal-line package that was angry and embarrassed after failing on four straight fourth-and-1 attempts against San Diego a week ago. That's why, after Sammy Morris scored from four yards out in the second quarter, there was so much celebration in the back of the end zone -- it was a relief for that unit to be able to assert itself once again.

Rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis and veteran Kevin Faulk combined with Morris and Evans to rush for a combined 257 yards in the game.

How did it feel to get the running game back in a groove?
"In this league, you know it can be week to week, but this was one week where we were able to get into a groove early. It was kind of a snowball effect -- it just kept rolling. Benny comes in and finishes strong, Kevin is Kevin, like always, and Sammy was running like a madman to start us off. You know what? When the 'O'-line plays that way, things are very easy for us."

How do you describe those runs and the way those were blocked?
"There was a bunch of different styles tonight, but all in all, there were a lot of guys covered up. When I take off (out of the I-formation) and I'm seeing specifically one guy to block instead of two or three, that's a great feeling. There wasn't a lot of cleaning up tonight. Most of the time, I was getting on my guy. That's just because guys were prying open holes up front. Shoot, on Benny's touchdown (in the fourth quarter), I had nobody to hit. I don't know if you guys saw that. It was late in the game, and I'm sure they were tired, humiliated like we were last week. We've been there; we understand that. But to go through there, I didn't know what to do with myself. The 'O'-line played so well that we just walked in."

How empowering is that, when you're out on the field and you can call fourth-and-1s and pick them up?
"For me, it's all about confidence. It's like when our defense is out there and some team is going for it on fourth-and-1, I'm getting my helmet ready because, confidence-wise, I believe in those guys, and most of the time, they get the job done. For us, when we get the ball rolling that way, it's that snowball effect and just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Momentum is a tough thing to deal with in this league."

After that first touchdown, after Morris scored, did it seem like there was some extra celebration in the back of the end zone?
"You get, last week, to be down there four times in a row -- that was humiliating to any fullback in this league, any running back, any offensive line. When you get a chance to punch it in and punch it in with force, like we did, where he's basically walking in untouched, you love that. You love that."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Scratch that

Maybe the Patriots don't need to go out and sign a free-agent running back after all.

Sammy Morris left the game at halftime with an unspecified knee injury, but before that, he rushed for 138 yards on 16 carries -- including a 34-yarder and a 29-yarder -- and a touchdown. And in the third quarter, BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed eight times for 41 yards.

(Wisecrack of the night in the press box: "I thought his name was BenTy Warren-Ellis.")

As a team, through three quarters, the Patriots had 179 rushing yards on 24 carries; an average of 7.5 yards every time they handed it off. This came from a team that had averaged 111.8 rushing yards per game through the first six weeks of the season, good for 18th in the NFL.

If Morris' injury is severe, all bets are off. (He must have suffered it at the end of the 29-yard run that set up the Patriots' second touchdown with less than a minute to go in the half.) But Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels have to be awfully pleased with what they've seen out of their running backs, tight ends and offensive line tonight.

Maroney done for the year?

Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe is reporting that Laurence Maroney has been placed on injured reserve and is finished for the season. Maroney did not play a week ago and has just 23 carries in three games this season; he was not expected to play tonight against the Broncos.

With LaMont Jordan sidelined, that leaves just Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis to fill out the depth chart at running back. It's hard to believe the Patriots would make this move and not add a running back via free agency; here's a look at who might be available:

Mike Anderson -- Rushed 15 times for 62 yards for the Ravens last season; his most significant action came in Week 6, when he had eight carries for 44 yards (including a 16-yard rush) and one reception against Seattle. He as released by the Ravens in February. The former Marine is best known for his years in Denver as part of Mike Shanahan's plug-in-any-runner system; he was the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2000.

Ron Dayne -- Rushed 194 times for 773 yards for the Texans last season, including 21 times for 122 yards in Week 9 against Oakland and 21 times for 88 yards and two touchdowns in the season finale against Jacksonville. He's a bruiser who would give Morris a break without giving opposing defenses a break.

Samkon Gado -- Originally an undrafted free agent, Gado has played for the Chiefs, Packers, Texans and Dolphins; he rushed for 100-plus yards three times with the Packers in 2005 and scored three touchdowns with the Dolphins in 2007 but was not tendered a contract for this season. He reportedly has worked out for the Patriots in the past.

Anthony Thomas -- Spent much of last season behind Marshawn Lynch with the Bills and ended the season on injured reserve after tearing a calf muscle in November. His two best games came in Weeks 11 and 12 against New England and Jacksonville, when he had a combined 26 carries for a combined 77 yards on top of 11 receptions for 60 yards.

Sweet... Akinori Iwamura?

With the Red Sox finished and the Rays -- the Rays!! -- in the World Series instead, it's going to be hard for us in New England to put aside the disappointment to tip our caps to an awfully impressive team that could have completely collapsed after the Game Five Fold-Up.

Well, here's a tip of the cap to the Rays -- and how far they've come as a franchise -- to a tune we all know well:

There it began
Abreu for Kevin Stocker
Chicken Wing Wade just hanging on

Lost in the spring

Lost even more in the summer
Who'd have believed Esteban Yan

Lousy hands
Reaching out
An E-3
An E-2...

Sweet Caroline (bum bum bum)
Tampa never seemed so good (So good! So good! So good!)
I'd been inclined (bum bum bum)
To believe they never would, but now they're

Swinging with might
And it's not Crawford only
Evan can hit the long ball, too

Upton was hurt
Swung his arm out of his shoulder
How can it hurt when he hits like Ruth?

Warm, getting warm
Don't get outs
Winning three
Then four, too...

Sweet Caroline (bum bum bum)
Tampa never seemed so good (So good! So good! So good!)
I'd been inclined (bum bum bum)
To believe they never would

Sweet Caroline (bum bum bum)
Tampa never seemed so good (So good! So good! So good!)
I'd been inclined (bum bum bum)
To believe they never would... but now they're

(In the World Series.)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

It's over

It's over. It's heartbreaking in a lot of ways, the way it always is, but it's over.

But how many times was it over before it was over today?

It was over when Josh Beckett strained his oblique before the playoffs even started. But then it wasn't over.

It was over when Beckett showed he wasn't himself in Game 3 against the Angels. But then it wasn't over.

It was over when Daisuke Matsuzaka loaded the bases in the first inning of Game 1 against the Rays. But then it wasn't over.

It was over when Evan Longoria went deep in the bottom of the first inning of Game 2. But then it wasn't over.

It was over when Carlos Pena singled to left and Longoria doubled to left and Carl Crawford singled to right to give the Rays a two-run lead in the fifth inning of that same game. But then it wasn't over.

It was over when B.J. Upton hit a three-run home run against Jon Lester in Game 3. But then it wasn't over.

It was over when Longoria and Pena went back-to-back against Tim Wakefield in the first inning of Game 4. But then it wasn't over.

It was over when Upton hit a two-run home run in the first inning of Game 5. It was over when Pena and Longoria went back-to-back in the third. It was really over when Upton hit a two-run double against Jonathan Papelbon in the seventh.

But then it wasn't over. It couldn't have been less over.

It could have been over for the Red Sox so many times. It finally was over for good when Akinori Iwamura scooped up a Jed Lowrie grounder and stomped on second base for the final out of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

But it sure was fun while it lasted, wasn't it?

Batter-pitcher matchups: ALCS Game 7

(Stats have been updated to include Game 3 of the ALCS.)

Tampa Bay against Jon Lester (4-1, 3.72 ERA in eight starts; 4 ER in 5 2/3 innings in Game 3)
Jason Bartlett: 5-for-10 (.500)
Jonny Gomes: 4-for-12 (.333), HR, 3 RBI
Evan Longoria: 3-for-8 (.375), HR, RBI
Carlos Pena: 6-for-19 (.316), 2B, 2 HR, 6 RBI
Dioner Navarro: 3-for-10 (.300), RBI
Carl Crawford: 3-for-17 (.176), 2B

Boston against Matt Garza (4-1, 3.49 ERA in seven starts; 1 ER in 6 IP in Game 3)
Jacoby Ellsbury: 6-for-16 (.375), RBI
Dustin Pedroia: 5-for-16 (.313), 2 2B
Coco Crisp: 1-for-9 (.111), 2B, 2 RBI
David Ortiz: 2-for-13 (.154), 2 HR, 3 RBI
Kevin Youkilis: 1-for-15 (.067)

Red Sox on the verge of history -- again

It was as if Mike Timlin knew.

"It's never over -- you've got all the cliches," said the veteran reliever, standing by his locker after the Rays throttled the Red Sox in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. "Something about a big girl and making the last out and all that other stuff. ...

"You come back the next day and come out firing."

Timlin, of course, is one of the five players to have witnessed every single one of these comebacks -- he pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings in Games 1, 3 and 5 of the American League Division Series against Oakland in 2003, he pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 7 of the ALCS against New York in 2004, and he pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings in Games 1, 2 and 3 of the ALCS against Cleveland in 2007.

There's no way he could have known, though, just how this would come together. And though he's the last man in the bullpen, one of the last men on the roster, his experience in the last five years has to be a calming influence on a group of young pitchers who went above and beyond in Games 5 and 6.

That bullpen might be called upon early again tonight. Starting pitcher Jon Lester threw two gems against the Angels but got lit up by the Rays in Game 3; he might not have much left in the tank. That would mean Terry Francona would go right back to his heavily taxed bullpen, and they'll have to deliver once again if the Red Sox are to get back to the World Series.

"This is the end of the season," Timlin said after Game 4. "This is why you play -- to go to the playoffs. This is why you want to be here. You suck it up, and you go. That's just how you do it."

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Batter-pitcher matchups: ALCS Game 6

(The stats have been updated to include each pitcher's first start in the ALCS.)

Boston against James Shields (2-5, 4.81 ERA in nine career starts; 2 ER in 7 1/3 innings in Game 1)
J.D. Drew: 6-for-18 (.333), HR, 2 RBI
David Ortiz: 7-for-17 (.412), 4 2B, 2 HR, 6 RBI
Dustin Pedroia: 6-for-13 (.462), 2B, RBI
Coco Crisp: 2-for-10 (.200)
Kevin Youkilis: 2-for-20 (.100) -- but both of those hits were in Game 1
Jason Varitek: 1-for-13 (.077), RBI

Tampa Bay against Josh Beckett (5-3, 4.58 in 11 starts; 8 ER in 4 1/3 innings in Game 2)
Good, sort of
Jason Bartlett: 6-for-20 (.300), 2 2B
Carl Crawford: 7-for-25 (.280), RBI
Akinori Iwamura: 7-for-25 (.280), 2B, HR
Evan Longoria: 7-for-15 (.467), 2 HR, 5 RBI
Dioner Navarro: 4-for-21 (.190), RBI
Gabe Gross: 1-for-15 (.067), HR, 2 RBI

Friday, October 17, 2008

ALCS Game 5: What might have been

Let me take you through the process a little bit: When a game like this starts late and goes late, we sports writers have to have something on deck. We just do. And when a game is 7-0 during "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" and it's getting close to 11 p.m., well, you'd better assume the game is going to end with a score close to 7-0 and get typing as fast as you can.

When David Ortiz hits a home run to cut the deficit to 7-4, well, you get a little nervous, but you'd better keep typing because editors aren't forgiving when your excuse is, "Well, maybe they could have come back, so I didn't have anything."

No, you have to write something. You have to write something based on the 99 percent chance that the Red Sox aren't going to rally from a 7-4 deficit against the American League East champions and a bullpen (Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour and Chad Bradford) that had a combined 2.24 ERA, based on my 2:30 a.m. calculations.

It's not that you're dismissing the possibility of a comeback. You just don't have any other choice.

And if that comeback happens, the story you write in the middle innings never sees the light of day.

But this game was ridiculous. It was so ridiculous, in fact, that I'm going to let the first story I wrote see the light of day. Here's the story I wrote in the middle of the game, updated after Ortiz hit his three-run home run in the seventh and had to scrap when J.D. Drew hit his two-run home run in the eighth inning:


BOSTON – On the bright side, at least the Red Sox have all winter to rest.
Josh Beckett won’t have to pitch through his strained oblique in Game 6. Jon Lester won’t have to pitch through a season’s worth of fatigue in Game 7. David Ortiz won’t have to swing at fastballs with an aching wrist.
Even Mike Lowell can have his hip surgery Monday in peace, knowing that he’s not missing anything by being away from his team.
Three Tampa Bay home runs in the first three innings made an early laugher of Thursday’s American League Championship Series finale. B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria all went deep off Daisuke Matsuzaka as the Rays beat the Red Sox by a INSERT SCORE HERE to advance to the World Series for the first time in franchise history.
A three-run home run from Ortiz, his first extra-base hit of the series and his first home run in 61 postseason at-bats, injected some excitement into the late innings but wasn’t quite enough.
Matsuzaka, who twirled a gem in Game 1 of the ALCS, became the third straight Red Sox pitcher to get shelled in his home park; he gave up five earned runs and left after issuing a leadoff walk in the fifth inning.
Before that, Tim Wakefield and Jon Lester had combined to give up seven home runs and nine earned runs in Games 3 and 4. The entire Boston pitching staff surrendered 38 runs in losing the final four games of the series.
Upton, who knocked Matsuzaka out of Game 1 with an eighth-inning single, knocked Matsuzaka into the offseason with his second swing of Game 5. The center fielder jumped on a cut fastball that tailed back over the inner half of the plate and crushed a home run over the Green Monster.
And after Upton singled to center field in the third inning, Carlos Pena yanked a fastball around the Pesky Pole for two more runs. Third baseman Evan Longoria followed with another moonshot home run to left, his fourth home run of the series.
Upton capped the scoring with a two-run double off Jonathan Papelbon in the seventh inning to wrap up ALCS Most Valuable Player honors.
Red Sox hitters, meanwhile, did nothing to make Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon pay for his surprise decision to start shaky left-hander Scott Kazmir. Kazmir, who endured 4 1/3 up-and-down innings in Game 2, allowed two hits and struck out seven in six innings in Game 5 and once again looked like the staff ace he’s been for the last four seasons.
He’ll give the Rays a left-handed power arm to match Cole Hamels, who likely will be Philadelphia’s Game 1 starter when the World Series opens at Tropicana Field on Wednesday.

Asked and answered: Holy @#&%#@#! edition

J.D. Drew, Red Sox outfielder, who hit a two-run home run and then drove in the game-winning run with a single in the bottom of the ninth:
Can you go over those at-bats?
"We were in a situation where we needed some runs in a big way, and Papi was able to get a huge home run and give us some run support there. I'm just in a situation where we're trying to get a ball in the zone, trying to get a rhythm going. Missing six weeks of the season, I've found myself in a little bit of a bad rhythm but trying to work through it. I felt like I had some good at-bats, was able to get a ball in the middle of the plate and put a nice swing on it. And then the same thing kind of happened in that last at-bat."

Were you guys able to draw on previous comebacks, like last year against Cleveland, in this game?
"It's a little different, you know -- it was critical. Everyone knew that we needed to win the ballgame. It doesn't matter how you do it. We didn't want to go down 7-0, but there's a lot of fight in that dugout, and a lot of guys knew as soon as we got some runs on the board, we could get something going, and we were able to do that with (Dustin Pedroia's) hit and then Papi got that home run and that got things kind of steamrolling, and we were able to win the game."

What did you see on that last hit?
"I knew I hit it really well. I got a ball in the middle of the plate, just tried to square it up, similar to what happened in Anaheim when Coco was on second, just trying to get a ball to hit in the hole somewhere. And I hit it really well -- I thought well enough to get it over his head, but (it being) so deep in right field here, I didn't know if he would catch it or not.

Terry Francona, Red Sox manager, for whose team this has become old hat:
Is a win a win, or is this one more than that?
"Well, considering a lot of things -- a loss, and we stay home -- I've never seen a group so happy to get on a place at 1:30 in the morning in my life. I can't say the game was exciting because the first six innings we did nothing. They had their way with us every way possible. And then this place came unglued, and we've seen that before. But because of the situation we're in, that was pretty magical."

Tell us what you saw with Ortiz's hit and then the two hits by Drew.
"Well, David got us back into (a place where) if something else happens, it makes it interesting, where all of a sudden they've got to go to the bullpen, do some different things. J.D. squared up two balls really well. Coco (Crisp's) at-bat was probably the best at-bat he's had as a Red Sox, again, because of the situation. But we did some unbelievable things. (Jonathan Papelbon) went out and threw another inning. He was gassed from the first inning. So we get to keep playing, and that's truly thrilling."

Coco Crisp, whose 10-pitch at-bat ended with a single to score Mark Kotsay with the tying run:
When you're going through an at-bat, do you have any idea how many pitches you were facing, what's going on? Do you know now?
"Yeah, somebody said nine."
It was 10.
"See? Somebody was wrong. I didn't know. I was just focusing on every pitch. I stepped out, said a little prayer, you know, and every time I got back in, it was the same routine, the same thing I asked for. I lost track of how many pitches."

What was the difference on the last pitch?
"The location was different. His ball sinks and tails away from you a lot; he left a few of them up, and I was able to get a piece of them. They were actually good pitches, up and out of the zone. But the ball sinks so much sometimes that it might just drop down into the zone. It didn't, so they ended up being good pitches, and I was able to foul those off and keep myself in it and then on a long at-bat, he made a mistake, and I was able to put it in play."

Did you see how many fans were still in the stands when it was 7-0?
"Yeah, I saw a few of the fans leaving -- with good cause, I guess, being down seven in the seventh, right? Most of the time, guys don't come back from that. This is an exception to that. But I know they're at home kicking themselves in the butt, like, 'Gosh, dog, I just left an instant classic!' But the guys that did stay, they're out there partying and celebrating and cheering, and it makes it exciting -- not only for us, to win a game like this and celebrate, but when you're coming back in here through the dugout and you see them out there partying and giving air high-fives, it makes you a little happier."

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Oh, THAT'S what he meant

David Ortiz just hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 5 to cut the Tampa Bay lead to 7-4. (B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria all hit early home runs for the Rays.)

It gave me -- a guy who wrote this story for today's newspaper -- reason to look back at one quote:

"The problem is that everyone is focused on Papi not hitting," Ortiz said Tuesday "I'll tell you the truth: In both of these series, with Anaheim and now with the Rays, Papi does not come up there with men on base all the time. I might come to hit maybe four or five times in the whole series, and I'm not going to change the game when you have a lead by nine, 10 runs."

He'd actually come up with a man on base eight or nine time in his first 17 plate appearances in the series. What he'd never done, though, was come up with men on base -- more than one. And when he came to the plate with Coco Crisp on third and Dustin Pedroia on first, he ripped a 97 mile-an-hour fastball into the right-field seats.

Look at the quote again. He said "men" on base. Not "a man" on base.

When that guy gets specific, he gets specific.

Schilling bounces ceremonial first pitch

The Red Sox didn't announce the identity of tonight's ceremonial-first-pitch thrower until moments before he emerged from the dugout. It was the not-yet-retired Curt Schilling, wearing a No. 38 jersey and light jeans. He half-jogged to the mound to a rousing ovation from the Fenway Park crowd.

And he bounced the pitch. He took a very small windup and didn't try to throw it that hard, but, still, he bounced the pitch. It hit the dirt some eight or 10 feet in front of catcher David Ross. It is impossible to describe how awful that pitch was.

Memories of Philly less than fond for Francona

Make no mistake: Terry Francona would like nothing more than to spend the last weekend of October in Philadelphia. It’s not, though, because he misses the fans who booed him out of town in 2000 after four seasons as Phillies manager.

It’s because it would mean his team was playing in its second straight World Series.

“I went through some really tough times there,” he said a few hours before his Red Sox faced elimination in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series on Thursday. “It’s hard for me to be all warm and fuzzy about the city. That’s just the way it is.

“But there are some people there I care a lot about. You can’t go through four years there and not care about them. … There’s a lot of people I’m really thrilled for.”

Francona took over the reins after the Phillies won 67 games and finished last in the National League East in 1996; his teams finished last, third twice and last again in 2000 before he was fired and replaced by Larry Bowa.

“In Boston, they’re very vocal, but there’s more love for their players here,” he said. “They want them to do good so bad that when they don’t, it just kills them.

“In Philadelphia, it turned to hatred in a hurry – like ball one.”

His roster was not sensational, either.

He had some talent, certainly; Bobby Abreu, Scott Rolen and Mike Lieberthal all were in their prime, and Curt Schilling (then 33 years old) and Paul Byrd (then 29 years old) made a combined 33 starts as part of a rotation that also included Randy Wolf and a chock-full-of-potential Bruce Chen.

But shortstop Jimmy Rollins played in just 14 games as a rookie in 2000, and Pat Burrell likewise got his first taste of the big leagues in 111 games split between first base and the outfield. Chase Utley spent the 2000 season in Single-A Batavia, while Ryan Howard wouldn’t even be drafted until the following June.

Bowa’s Phillies would win 86 games and finish second in the division in 2001. They would finish under .500 just once more on their climb to back-to-back division titles under Charlie Manuel last season and this season.

“Our thing was to try to help some young players get better and survive,” he said. “That’s now what they’re doing now. They’re trying to win a World Series. It’s vastly different.”

Philadelphia, though, became a place Francona suddenly wanted to visit when the Phillies polished off the Dodgers in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. Left-handed ace Cole Hamels tossed seven impressive innings, surrendering five hits and one run, and earned NLCS Most Valuable Player honors.

No matter how much the city might still hate him, there’s nowhere else Francona would rather be next week.

“They can throw stuff at me -- I don’t care,” he said. “That would be great.”

Francona denies Beckett has torn oblique's Tom Verducci wrote in a column this morning that Josh Beckett "tore his oblique muscle in his final start of the regular season," something Terry Francona denied and dismissed in his office this afternoon.

"No," he said. "Come on. He doesn't have that. He went through a side not yesterday, but the day before. It's hard to explain because I don't know how to answer something that's not true. That's the best I can do. I actually heard somebody kind of mumbling that today, and I was hoping that it was just somebody saying it. I guess it wasn't. ...

"I can guarantee you that that's not -- I don't think anybody is capable of doing that, nor would we let him."

Francona reiterated his denial in his regular press conference a few minutes later.

"When the media chooses not to be completely professional, we get put in a tough position," he said. "Other than that, I don't know how to answer it. It's not true, so that's about the best I can do."

Ellsbury out; Drew, Ortiz still in

Here's Terry Francona's Game 5 lineup; you'll notice that a certain designated hitter remains entrenched in the No. 3 hole. Several other spots, though, have been shaken up:

Coco Crisp, CF (switch-hitter, similar numbers from both sides)
Dustin Pedroia, 2B
David Ortiz, DH (left-hander)
Kevin Youkilis, 3B
Jason Bay, LF
J.D. Drew, RF (left-hander)
Jed Lowrie, SS (switch-hitter, better as a right-hander)
Jason Varitek, C (switch-hitter, better as a left-hander)
Mark Kotsay, 1B (left-hander)

"We're a little bit left-handed for a guy who does well against left-handers," Francona said. "Lefty-righty against Kazmir is just so distinct in the difference. ... It's a vast difference."

* It's interesting that Ellsbury is still out and Drew in; that tells you something about Francona's confidence level in his center fielder. Ellsbury is a better matchup against Scott Kazmir than Drew, so Francona clearly believes Ellsbury is in a slump out of which he's not going to break today.

"You try to take everything into consideration," Francona said. "We're trying to win tonight's game. That's about the best way I can put it."

* Mark Kotsay is 4-for-17 in the series and is a .143 career hitter against Kazmir (2-for-14, including 0-for-2 in Game 2). He remains at first base for his defensive abilities, but it's clear no one's expecting much out of his bat, either.

* Coco Crisp did not hit leadoff in Game 4 because there wasn't going to be much of a chance for the Red Sox to run against Andy Sonnanstine. For what it's worth, opponents were 7-for-10 in stealing bases against the left-handed Kazmir this season. The infield is going to be muddy, though, which makes base-stealing even more difficult.

"Kazmir is certainly a guy that the league has run wild on, but at least are some attempts," Francona said. "Speed can come into play where it didn't against Sonnanstine."

Batter-pitcher matchups: ALCS Game 5

(The numbers here have been updated to include each pitcher's first start in this series.)

Boston against Scott Kazmir (6-7, 3.86 ERA in 22 career starts, including 4 1/3 innings, 5 ER in Game 2)
Jason Bay: 4-for-11 (.364), HR, 4 RBI
Coco Crisp: 10-for-32 (.313), 4 2B
Dustin Pedroia: 16-for-28 (.571), 3 HR, 5 RBI
J.D. Drew: 1-for-7 (.143), 3B
David Ortiz: 8-for-40 (.200), 2 HR, 8 RBI
Jason Varitek: 6-for-30 (.200), HR, 4 RBI
Kevin Youkilis: 9-for-38 (.237), HR, 3 RBI

Tampa Bay against Daisuke Matsuzaka (3-3, 3.27 ERA in nine career starts, including seven shutout innings in Game 1)
Carl Crawford: 4-for-13 (.308)
Akinori Iwamura: 10-for-27 (.370), HR, RBI
Carlos Pena: 5-for-17 (.294), HR, 4 RBI
Jason Bartlett: 1-for-14 (.071), RBI
Dioner Navarro: 3-for-21 (.143), HR, 2 RBI
B.J. Upton: 2-for-17 (.118), HR, 2 RBI

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Asked and answered: Deltha O'Neal, Patriots cornerback

Deltha O'Neal played four season with the Broncos, but he won't be thinking much about that on Monday night -- he'll be thinking about preventing the big plays that burned him in the Patriots' 30-10 loss to the Chargers last Sunday.

On the first play of the game on Sunday (a 48-yard bomb from Philip Rivers to Vincent Jackson), what happened on that play?
"Oh, man, they tried to take a shot. I guess it was a good call for them. As a corner coming in, you would never expect that on the first play, so it was a good call. It was a good call on their part. ... It was just fortunate that I got him down and he didn't score because that would have really been embarrassing. But it was just a good play."

What did you see on the film on that play?
"I had a chance to get the ball out of his hands, but he fell on his back, so it just fell right in his lap. I just saw that they made a good play. I didn't. ... I was in great position to make a play; they just came out with the ball. My experience in the NFL, nine times out of 10, if I'm that close to the ball, I'm either picking it or knocking it down, so good job on their part."

It's a copycat league, so do you expect more teams to air it out against you guys?
"Most definitely. Until we get it stopped, yeah, that's what you've got to expect. We're going to work hard at that, of course, and just keep trying to put 'W's up."

How did you feel after that game?
"I felt embarrassed. I felt down. I felt like there were things I could’ve did that probably could have changed the outcome of the game. But I’m my worst critic. I sat there and thought about it these past couple of days, that whole flight home. I’m over it now. It was just one game."

Did you say anything to the team or your teammates?
"I talked to a couple of my corners, and they helped me out on the plane: 'Don't worry about it. It happens. At least you didn't just get blown away -- you were right there,' which is true. It happens. The way I look at it, they get paid, too. My job is, don't make it a recurring event. Try to stop that from happening."

Are you looking for some redemption on Monday?
"Most definitely. Most definitely. They've got some good receivers over there, so it's going to be another challenge."

What have you seen out of those receivers on film so far, (Brandon) Marshall and (Eddie) Royal?
"Good receivers -- Marshall is big, and he's good at catching the ball and running, after catching the ball, running with it. The quarterback has a strong arm. They're in sync right now, so it'll be a good challengef or the secondary."

Red Sox bullpen has to keep plugging away

Curves might not curve. Sliders might not slide. Change-ups might not change much of anything.

The Red Sox bullpen will be pitching on fumes in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, as must-win as a must-win gets. But that’s what fumes are for.

“Yeah, it hurts – it hurts to warm up, it hurts play long-toss, it hurts to come to the park,” veteran reliever Mike Timlin said. “But this is the end of the season, and this is why you play, to go to the playoffs. This is why you want to be here. You suck it up, and you go. That’s just how you do it.”

Tim Wakefield allowed back-to-back home runs in Tuesday's first inning en route to the shortest outing by a Red Sox pitcher in the playoffs – 2 2/3 innings – since the Yankees crushed Bronson Arroyo in Game 3 of the 2004 American League Championship Series.

The result was a 13-4 win for Tampa Bay that pushed Boston to the brink in the ALCS for the second year in a row and the third time in five seasons. Both times previously – down 3-0 to the Yankees in 2004 and down 3-1 to the Indians in 2007 – the Red Sox rallied to win the series.

If they’re going to do that again, though, they’re going to have to do it with a bullpen that’s been asked to do far too much already. One merciful off-day – the series pauses today and resumes Thursday – won’t be enough to negate the kind of workload Red Sox relievers have shouldered in the last week.

Justin Masterson has appeared in three games in this series and pitched four innings; he struck out four and looked generally effective in his 2 1/3 innings yesterday.

Manny Delcarmen couldn’t get anyone out in his second appearance of the series, walking three and surrendering five runs in 1/3 of an inning. He had a 3.27 ERA in a career-high 74 1/3 innings this season, but he looked totally out of his element against the Rays in Game 4.

Left-hander Javier Lopez gave up the go-ahead hit in Game 3 against the Angels, and he gave up a single to Carl Crawford on the only pitch Francona let him throw in Game 3 against the Rays. He meandered through 1 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 4 but couldn’t possibly be available for Game 5.

“You do the best you can with damage control,” Lopez said. “It didn’t work out. Some good pitches were made and they got some hits, but that’s what you try to do: Damage control. You try to eat up as many innings as you can because you don’t want everybody to be taxed going into just as important of a game on Thursday.”

Timlin, whose defeat in extra innings in Game 2 could easily have been the final pitch of his career, tossed two innings of mop-up relief and can’t possibly be a consideration any longer for any meaningful situation.

By the end, you had to wonder if Francona would consider pitching a position player; trouble is, David McCarty retired three years ago.

The only two pitchers spared from the messes in Game 3 and Game 4, in fact, were Papelbon and Hideki Okajima.

But both still have already pitched twice and racked up 2 2/3 innings of work in the series. That comes after both were used three times in four games against the Angels in the first round of the playoffs.

And it’s ominous that Daisuke Matsuzaka is next up for the Red Sox; he pitched beyond seven innings just four times this season.

He worked into the eighth inning in Game 1 against Tampa Bay on Friday, one of his best outings of the season. The last time he pitched against the Rays in the regular season, though, he needed 101 pitches to get through five innings. His style has been successful, but it’s not exactly conducive to bullpen preservation.

It would be a minor miracle if he went seven innings again, let alone tossed a complete game. And if he doesn’t, that same bullpen will have to go right back to work.

“We’ve got to do our job,” Timlin said. “We had to do our job a lot earlier than we want to (in Game 4), but we’ve got to do our job. That’s our mentality.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Francona not worried about Varitek -- or fans booing Varitek

Jason Varitek is one of three Red Sox regulars to have no hits through three games of the American League Championship Series. Jacoby Ellsbury has been replaced in center field for Game 4 by Coco Crisp, and Ortiz either is fighting a wrist injury or is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

Varitek, though, has scuffled all season; he hit .183 in September and now is 3-for-24 (.125) since the postseason began. One has to wonder if the 36-year-old catcher's bat ever will be the same again.

"Everybody in that clubhouse, they want to do so much to help us win, and he's at the top of the list," manager Terry Francona said during his pregame media availability. "You have to fight through it, and he's a fighter."

Scattered boos even rained down on Varitek after he popped to first to end the fourth inning on Monday. Francona, though, said he neither heard nor would have been bothered by that reaction.

"I didn't pay for the ticket," he said. "When you buy a ticket, you have the right, basically, to voice your opinion as long as you don't go over the line. That wouldn't be my personal style, but if people pay for the ticket, they can do whatever they want."

Batter-pitcher matchups: ALCS Game 4

Tampa Bay against Tim Wakefield (19-5, 3.32 ERA in 41 career appearances, 31 starts)
Carl Crawford: 25-for-82 (.305), 2 HR, 10 RBI
Akinori Iwamura: 10-for-24 (.417), 2 RBI
Evan Longoria: 3-for-6 (.500), RBI
Rocco Baldelli: 3-for-26 (.115), 4 RBI
Carlos Pena: 4-for-30 (.133), HR, 3 RBI
B.J. Upton: 5-for-22 (.227), RBI

Boston against Andy Sonnanstine (1-1, 5.40 ERA in six career starts)
Coco Crisp: 3-for-10 (.300), 2 RBI
J.D. Drew: 4-for-11 (.364), HR, 3 RBI
Jason Varitek: 5-for-10 (.500) HR, 4 RBI
(Varitek won't be in the starting lineup since Wakefield is pitching for the Red Sox.)
David Ortiz: 3-for-16 (.188), RBI
Dustin Pedroia: 3-for-15 (.200), RBI
Kevin Youkilis: 1-for-12 (.083), RBI

Lack of bat speed hurting Ortiz

David Ortiz is now 0-for-10 in the American League Championship Series, and everyone has a theory as to why. Is it his wrist? Is it that he's not getting pitches? Is it that he's lost without Manny Ramirez behind him?

Well, let's look at it. Let's look at what Tampa Bay pitchers threw David Ortiz in Game 3:

First inning, Dustin Pedroia on second base, one out
This seems like a spot where Matt Garza wouldn't mind walking Ortiz, with a runner in scoring position and one out; if he walks Ortiz and gets a ground ball from Kevin Youkilis, he's out of the inning.
0-0 pitch: Curveball in the dirt; Ortiz doesn't chase.
1-0 pitch: Fastball way high; Ortiz doesn't chase.
2-0 pitch: A get-me-over fastball; Ortiz doesn't bite. This is the sort of pitch where Ortiz kind of has to make a decision -- is he more valuable working the walk, or is he more valuable jumping on 2-0 pitches over the middle of the plate? It's not as if it's a 3-0 pitch; he can ignore anything except a fastball over the middle, but if he gets that fastball, it'd be nice to see him go after it.
2-1 pitch: A fastball a little up and over the inner half; Ortiz swings and misses. Maybe in the strike zone, maybe not. Still, though, that's the sort of pitch Big Papi has to hit -- and that's the sort of pitch his wrist injury and lack of bat speed might keep him from hitting.
2-2 pitch: A fastball at the thighs and over the outside corner; Ortiz watches it go by for called strike 3.

Third inning, Dustin Pedroia on first, one out
Garza's team has just staked him to a 5-0 lead; he has no reason to do anything but go after Ortiz here.
0-0 pitch: Fastball high; Ortiz doesn't chase.
1-0 pitch: Fastball high; Ortiz doesn't chase.
2-0 pitch: Fastball high, again; Ortiz still doesn't chase. All three were at the shoulders.
3-0 pitch: Fastball at the waist and on the inner half; it's 3-0, so Ortiz lets it go.
3-1 pitch: This is the pitch. Garza throws another fastball, 93 miles an hour, and it comes in at the knees and right over the middle. Ortiz can't get around in time and fouls it straight back, off the press box.
3-2 pitch: Curveball out over the outside corner; that's the pitch with which he could do some of the "peppering" of the Green Monster that Terry Francona said Ortiz was doing during batting practice on Sunday. Instead, Ortiz fouls it off.
3-2 pitch: Another fastball, 96, up and over the middle; Ortiz still can't get around on it and fouls it off into the seats behind third base.
3-2 pitch: Curevball right over the middle of the plate; Ortiz lifts a lazy pop fly to shallow right field that shortstop Jason Bartlett (playing the shift) catches.

Fifth inning, Dustin Pedroia on first again, two outs
It's still 5-0; there won't be any pitching around Ortiz in this at-bat, either.
0-0 pitch: Fastball inside; Ortiz lets it go.
1-0 pitch: Fastball, 96 miles an hour, right out over the middle of the plate. Ortiz hits it foul. That's the sort of pitch Matt Garza wouldn't ever get away with if Ortiz was hitting with a healthy wrist and his true bat speed. That's the sort of pitch that would have ended up in the bullpen. But Ortiz fouled it off.
1-1 pitch: Fastball, 96, up and over the inner half of the plate. Ortiz flies to center.

Eighth inning, leading off the inning
It's now 8-1 and left-hander J.P. Howell is pitching. Ortiz is 1-for-9 in his career against Howell and hit .221 against lefties this season. This isn't a bad spot to be patient and just try to get on base.
0-0 pitch: Fastball over the inner half of the plate; Ortiz lets it go.
0-1 pitch: Curveball low; Ortiz doesn't chase it. Smart hitting.
1-1 pitch: Fastball inside; Ortiz still doesn't chase.
2-1 pitch: Fastball, 87 miles an hour, thigh-high, over the inner half of the plate -- and Ortiz fouls it off. He fouls it off. By my unofficial count, that's the fifth time in the game that Ortiz has fouled off a pitch he could have pasted. Now, even Big Papi is going to miss a few. But to see pitches like that and to go 0-for-5 -- and that's not including the fastball in the first inning he missed entirely -- is entirely un-Ortiz-like. And now he's got two strikes on him.
2-2 pitch: Curveball at the knees but out over the middle. Ortiz actually does a nice job with this one, hitting a sharp ground ball down the right-field line. But thanks to the shift, Carlos Pena is in just the right place and fields it cleanly for the out.

What have we learned?

Well, it's clear that Ortiz is getting pitches. In a game that got out of hand early, Ortiz had to get pitches. Garza and Howell would have gained nothing by walking him, even with runners on base in front of him. They threw him pitches, challenged him out over the plate, and he consistently fouled off pitches he normally would crush -- mostly either back or to the third-base side. That seems to signal a lack of bat speed, and that, in turn, points a finger at his wrist. It can't be healthy. There's just no way.

In the same way that Josh Beckett is clearly having trouble with something physical, Ortiz isn't the same hitter he's been because something -- his wrist, probably -- is holding back his bat speed. On top of that, he's a .188 (3-for-16) lifetime hitter against Game 4 starter Andy Sonnanstine.

And Terry Francona might have to make a big decision today because this guy hit .432 in 37 postseason at-bats in 2006 and hit .331 in the 47 games he was in the starting lineup (including .351 in 37 at-bats as a designated hitter) for the Red Sox this season.

Monday, October 13, 2008

No sure thing in the playoffs

After Boston and Tampa Bay split two games at Tropicana Field, we all knew -- we knew -- the Red Sox would win Game 3 behind ace Jon Lester. We also knew the Rays had a great chance to win Game 4 when Tim Wakefield took the ball.

Shows what we know.

All we can know now, in fact, is that the Red Sox will be in big trouble if Wakefield can't outduel Andy Sonnanstine at Fenway Park on Tuesday. Three games to one is certainly not an insurmountable deficit, as Boston has proven twice in four years, but it's not ideal, either.

"We've been here before," said second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who was 2-for-3 to raise his average to .545 in the ALCS. "We've got to come out and play better baseball."

Things can't go much worse than they did for the Red Sox on Monday at Fenway. Jon Lester left a couple of fastballs up in the zone to B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria in the third inning, and Matt Garza twirled a gem against a suddenly silent Boston lineup.

Pedroia was 2-for-3 to raise his batting average to .545 in the ALCS, but Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz went a combined 0-for-7 remained hitless in the series.

On the other side, four Rays went deep -- Upton and Longoria in the third, Rhode Island's Rocco Baldelli in the eighth and Haverhill's Carlos Pena in the ninth. Akinori Iwamura chipped in a pair of doubles and scored a run.

"There's no excuses, obviously," Pedroia said. "They came out and kicked our butts tonight -- 9-1, or whatever it ended up. They played great, and we didn't. That was the bottom line of the game. There's no 'Oh, we should have done this.' It was a straight-up ass-kicking."

That puts a big onus on Wakefield, who has a 6.36 ERA in the postseason (including 5.91 since 2003) and who was 0-2 with a 5.87 ERA against the Rays this season.

"We've got Wake tomorrow, and he's going to go out and battle his butt off," Lester said. "That's all you can ask for."

Storytime with Terry Francona: Third base

It's not an easy transition, going from first to third the way Kevin Youkilis has this series for the Red Sox. Terry Francona knows. He did it once.

(In case you're wondering what happens when reporters meet with Francona before games, well, this is it. Sometimes it's on topic -- sometimes there are pressing questions to ask about Josh Beckett or Mike Lowell. Sometimes, though, this happens.)

It was the last day of the 1985 season. Francona's Montreal Expos were at Shea Stadium to play the Mets. Shortstop Hubie Brooks was pinch-run for after a fourth-inning single, and manager Buck Rodgers needed someone to take his place in the field. Thing is, no one was in the dugout. No one.

No one, that is, except Francona, and Francona was a left-handed fielder. Lefties don't ever play the infield in the major leagues -- being a left-handed fielder built like a second baseman was, in fact, what ended the Little League career of his particular writer.

But it was the last day of the season, and there was no one else.

"(Brooks) was in the clubhouse, and I saw Buck looking around, and there was nobody -- I mean, nobody," he said. "Vance Law wasn't playing. ... I looked around, and I said, 'Buck, I'll go out there.' He goes, 'OK!'"

There was no way Rodgers was going to play Francona at shortstop. But he did move Fred Manrique from this base to shortstop and put the left-handed Francona in at third base.

"I went out there, and Larry Bowa tried to bunt," Francona said. "I wanted to (expletive) kill him."

(Bowa showed bunt but pulled it back; he ended up grounding out.)

"Ray Knight hit a dribbler right over the mound; I came in and caught it and it rolled up my glove, but I threw him out," Francona said. "I only had one play and made it. ... I stayed open and let it go (awkwardly) as I was running in."

But he "panicked" when he saw closer Jeff Reardon coming in to close an otherwise meaningless game, and that's when Law made it into the game in Francona's place.

"He's got an incentive based on his saves," Francona said. "I said, 'I want no part of staying in this game.' ... I said, 'Buck, I want no part of him losing a quarter of a million dollars -- no part of this.'"

(Check out the box score from that game, by the way, and all the future managers involved: Francona, Bowa, Knight, Ron Gardenhire, Ned Yost -- and A's general manager Billy Beane.)

Patriots might need to rethink RBs

Kevin Faulk rushed eight times for 48 yards on Sunday. Sammy Morris rushed 10 times for 26 yards. Laurence Maroney stood on the sidelines and watched.

It's been tough sledding this season for the New England Patriots' running game -- particularly since this is the time you really need to run the ball. Matt Cassel is more game-manager than game-breaker; no one expects him to put up the type of numbers Tom Brady has put up in recent years. But the ground game has ground to a halt just when the Patriots need it most.

The Patriots are 17th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (113.0) but 24th in yards per carry (3.7). In the first half against San Diego, when the outcome was still in doubt, the Patriots rushed 11 times for 35 yards -- an average of 3.2 yards per carry. Needing just a yard for a touchdown in the third quarter, again with the game still in reach, the Patriots got nothing.

Teams are stacking the line against the run, of course, and daring Cassel to throw downfield. That never helps. But teams stack the line against the Atlanta Falcons and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, too, and the Michael Turner-led run game still is averaging 5.5 yards per carry this season.

What's the prescription? Certainly, recent history has shown that an offensive line and a solid system do more for a running attack than a particular running back. The Broncos did it first, but more and more teams have shown an ability to shuttle running backs in and out with similar results.

But it goes both ways -- a great offensive line can elevate a good running back, but a great running back can elevate a good offensive line, too. The Patriots' offensive line was supposed to be great last season. Tackle Matt Light and guard Logan Mankins both started in the Pro Bowl last season; center Dan Koppen made the team as a reserve. The talent appears to be there on the offensive line, but they haven't been able to elevate Morris anywhere beyond serviceable. Maroney, for his part, can't seem to get his shoulder healthy enough to be effective -- and even when he was healthy last season, it took the entire season to get him going.

It might be time, after this season, to pull the plug on Maroney. It might be worth investing a first-round pick in a potential game-breaker like Beanie Wells or Knowshown Moreno. (Look what it did for the Vikings last season and the Titans, Panthers and Bears this season.) Both are projected, at this point, to go in the mid-to-late first round. With the way the Patriots played on Sunday night at San Diego, though, the middle of the first round might be right where they're drafting.

Batter-pitcher matchups: ALCS Game 3

Tampa Bay against Jon Lester (4-0, 3.38 ERA in seven career starts)
Jason Bartlett: 4-for-8 (.500)
Carlos Pena: 5-for-16 (.313), 2 HR, 6 RBI
Carl Crawford: 4-for-14 (.214)
Akinori Iwamura: 4-for-17 (.235), HR, 3 RBI
B.J. Upton: 4-for-18 (.222), HR, 2 RBI

Boston against Matt Garza (3-1, 3.86 ERA in six career starts)
J.D. Drew: 2-for-5 (.400), HR, 2 RBI
Jacoby Ellsbury: 6-for-13 (.462), RBI
Coco Crisp: 1-for-9 (.111)
David Ortiz: 2-for-10 (.200), 2 HR, 3 RBI
Dustin Pedroia: 3-for-14 (.214)
Kevin Youkilis: 1-for-12 (.083)

Side note: If it seems like Youkilis has ugly career numbers against every single Tampa Bay pitcher, well, he does. The starters, anyway. He's hitting .234 in his career against the Rays, including .232 this season. And it only gets worse in Game 4 -- he's 1-for-14 in his career against Andy Sonnanstine.

Then again, Youkilis is 6-for-10 in the series thus far, so something seems to be working.

And he has had past success against the Rays' bullpen -- he's 8-for-21 (.381) with six walks against Chad Bradford, J.P. Howell, Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Small sample sizes gone wild

Which of the following players would you take in your lineup?
Player A: 1-for-17 (.059), 2 BB, 2B, RBI
Player B: 4-for-8 (.500), 2 BB, 2 HR, 2 RBI

Trick question. Both players are Dustin Pedroia. Player A is Pedroia during the American League Division Series; Player B is Pedroia thus far in the American League Championship Series.

But Pedroia had to face plenty of questions last week about his lack of production -- he was 0-for-15 before a Game 4 double -- against the Angels. His struggles even sparked news stories like this one and this one and this one. (Words like "skid" and "slump" and "drought" abound.)

Pedroia then went 1-for-3 with a run scored in Game 1 against Tampa Bay and followed that up with a pair of solo home runs against Scott Kazmir in Game 2. His big night prompted news stories like this one and this one and this one. (Phrases like "back to life" and "busted out" and "gathering momentum" abound.)

Look at the dates on those stories. They're less than a week apart!

All of this is worth keeping in mind as we ponder the immediate future of the Red Sox outfield. Jacoby Ellsbury hit .340 in September and was 3-for-5 with a double in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Angels. Since then, though, he's 3-for-24 (.125) with five RBI -- and three of those RBI came on the flukiest of fluke hits, a bloop to center field that never should have fallen to begin with. He's 0-for-15 in his last three games and has failed to reach base entirely; his only RBI came on a ground ball to second base in Game 4 of the ALDS that Howie Kendrick bobbled.

Predictably, the outcry has begun: Bring on Coco Crisp!

Crisp has several things going for him -- he's Ellsbury's equal (or better) defensively, he's hitting .400 (4-for-10) with two doubles in the postseason thus far, and he hit .324 (11-for-34) with five walks and five runs scored against the Rays this season. Against Game 3 starter Matt Garza, he was 1-for-5 this season, including a two-run double in a game in June. And a switch of center fielders worked out great a year ago -- Ellsbury replaced Crisp in center field starting with Game 6 of last season's ALCS and absolutely torched both the Indians and the Rockies.

But Ellsbury is 6-for-13 against Garza in his career; Crisp, in his career, is 1-for-9 against the Rays' 24-year-old right-hander. On top of that, jerking around Ellsbury and Crisp -- for example, what happens if Crisp then goes 0-for-4 against Garza? -- isn't going to do either player's confidence any good.

Terry Francona had a short answer on Sunday afternoon when a reporter asked what happened to Ellsbury.

"Kazmir," he said with a smile.

That's the right idea. James Shields pitched great in Game 1, and Kazmir had the right approach against Ellsbury in Game 2. But Ellsbury has a good track record against Garza, and that's a good reason to give him another shot in Game 3 at Fenway on Monday.

The other reason is that these last three games, as lousy as they've been, are far too small of a sample size on which to base any big decision. Just ask Dustin Pedroia.

Asked and answered: Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox outfielder

Jacoby Ellsbury, still a rookie but playing in his second postseason, is hitless in his last 17 at-bats. He'll have a chance to break out of that slump, though -- he's hitting .462 (6-for-13) against Matt Garza, Tampa Bay's Game 3 starter.

There were a lot of missed opportunities where Game 2 could have turned; how do you guys look at it?
"We had some opportunities; I know we left a lot of runners on base. It was just one of those games we wish we could have got, but we're here now at Fenway and we've already forgotten about that last game."

How do you mentally prepare yourself against Tampa Bay when you know every game is going to be like the last two?
"That's how the playoffs are. The biggest thing is timely hitting. That's going to be a key to this series. Obviously, we left some runners on that we'd like to get across late in the game, but that's the way it goes sometimes."

Do you feel like these two teams know each other so well that it ends up affecting the game?
"Both teams are so relentless. Both of us find a way to be in the ballgame, to give yourself an opportunity to win, and it's no different with Tampa. They just battle back to be in a position to be in it at the end."

When you look at your two games in Tampa, is it satisfying that you got the split or is it disappointing that last night didn't work out?
"We wish we would've got last night's game; we had a lot of opportunities to put it away and come back here 2-0. But if we split down there, we've got three games here to get it done. We can't complain. We can't complain. It would have been nice to get last night's win, but we're already putting it behind us."

You started off hot in these playoffs and things have cooled off a little bit; is there anything that's been happening differently?
"It's just the way it goes sometimes. Unfortunately, you can't stay hot all the time. But it'll turn. It's a matter of time."

Terry Francona said before the game last night that he has faith in you at the top of the order; is it frustrating when he has that much faith in you and you have a tough game?
"Not really. Obviously, you want to go out there and have a great game every time, but it happens. You're not going to have an excellent game every time. It's staying confident; that's the biggest thing. It's a long season, and you're not going to go 4-for-5 every night. It's a best-of-seven-game series. It's not about one game; it's about winning four of them."

No more uncertainty about Lester

They're still not on the same page.

Someone asked Red Sox manager Terry Francona at a press conference on Saturday when it was that he felt able to give left-hander Jon Lester the go-ahead to pitch normally and not hold him back the way he'd done early in his return from cancer treatments.

"We did a lot of homework on what he was going through and what to expect physically or what was fair to expect or how we should go about this -- and we really did make him go slow," Francona said. "I made a call to his folks in spring training, and I told them, 'We're really going to piss off your son,' and they laughed. They said, 'You know, we understand why.' We were going to go slow with him, and we did, and it was very frustrating to him. ...

"It's come back. It's come back. He's farther away from being sick; he's bigger and stronger. If you look at video of him, like, from the back, he doesn't even look like the same kid anymore."

Lester, though, reiterated that he felt ready to go, with no restrictions, when spring training began. He might have started the season with just two wins in his first 10 starts and a 3.95 ERA to go along with a 29-to-33 walk-to-strikeout ratio, but that was more attributable to his inexperience than any lingering weakness from his cancer treatments.

"I had a normal off-season, could do the normal routine and come in full-strength and be able to do the same workload as everybody else," he said. "I don't think there were really any issues this year."

Whichever story you believe, it's easy to agree on one thing: There are no issues anymore. In fact, given the sudden shakiness of Josh Beckett and the ongoing maddeningness -- if, you know, that's a word -- of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Lester is the closest thing the Red Sox have to a sure thing right now.

He's thrown 14 straight innings without allowing an earned run in his two playoff starts. He's 6-1 with a 1.51 ERA since Sept. 1. He's 13-1 with a 2.22 ERA at Fenway Park since the regular season began. With a 96-mile-an-hour fastball and a nasty curveball, he's almost untouchable at this point.

And while Lester did his best to duck the "ace" tag on Sunday -- "I just try to go pitch my game," he told assembled reporters. "You guys can put the labels on it as what you want." -- no one was fooled.

"He's the guy everyone wants to give the ball to right now," reliever Manny Delcarmen said.

And if you treat the American League Championship Series as a brand new best-of-five series, Lester is set to pitch Games 1 and 5 with a chance to pitch the Red Sox into the World Series.

"You can't really describe the atmosphere of the ballpark when you go play and every pitch matters," he said. "Every pitch, every at-bat, every out -- it matters so much more trying to get to that next stage."

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Batter-pitcher matchups: ALCS Game 2

Tampa Bay against Josh Beckett (5-3, 3.10 ERA in 10 career starts)
Jason Bartlett: 6-for-18 (.333)
Cliff Floyd: 8-for-28 (.286), 2 HR, 4 RBI
Akinori Iwamura: 7-for-22 (.318), HR, RBI
Evan Longoria: 4-for-12 (.333), HR, 2 RBI
Gabe Gross: 1-for-13 (.077), HR, 2 RBI
Dioner Navarro: 3-for-19 (.158), RBI
Carlos Pena: 3-for-17 (.176), HR, RBI

Boston against Scott Kazmir (6-7, 3.62 ERA in 21 career starts)
Jason Bay: 3-for-9 (.333), HR, 2 RBI
Coco Crisp: 9-for-30 (.300)
Dustin Pedroia: 14-for-25 (.560), HR, 3 RBI
J.D. Drew: 1-for-7 (.143), RBI
David Ortiz: 8-for-39 (.205), 2 HR, 8 RBI
Jason Varitek: 6-for-28 (.214), HR, 4 RBI
Kevin Youkilis: 7-for-35 (.200), 2 RBI

Bid for Iwamura signaled Rays' arrival

Broadcasters and other analysts often get fixated on a certain theme and refuse to let it go. It doesn't matter if it's accurate; as long as it sounds good, it just won't go away. For this series, it's the idea that the Rays announced their arrival with their spring-training brawl with the Yankees and their June brawl with the Red Sox.

Never mind that the Rays have plenty of history of brawling, particularly against the Red Sox -- Gerald Williams and Pedro Martinez being the primary example. All that signaled, in August of 2000, was that the then-Devil Rays were well on their way to a then-franchise record 69 wins.

The moment that started the Rays' ascent wasn't any kind of on-field fight; all their other fights just made them look like a younger brother too frustrated with losing to do anything else. No, the moment that started the Rays' ascent was one subtle transaction: Their successful bid for Japanese import Akinori Iwamura.

Rewind to the 2006 season: The Devil Rays went 61-101 and finished last in the American League East. Scott Kazmir had a 3.24 ERA in his second full season in Tampa Bay; James Shields made 21 starts after being called up from Triple-A Durham. Carl Crawford led the Rays in most offensive categories, and players like Dioner Navarro, B.J. Upton and Delmon Young got their first consistent taste of American League pitching. Andy Sonnanstine had a 2.66 ERA in 28 starts for Double-A Montgomery; J.P. Howell made eight big-league starts but spent most of his time in Durham after having been acquired from Kansas City for Joey Gathright.

And with the No. 3 pick in the draft the previous summer, the Rays had selected third baseman Evan Longoria.

Things, in other words, weren't great -- but things were starting to come together. The Rays had young arms coming through the system and a handful of top prospects were figuring out how to hit at the big-league level. It was close to the point that the Rays only needed to fill a few holes to become a legit contender.

And that's when Iwamura became available on the posting market.

Before that, contending teams had done most of the bidding -- and winning -- when Japanese players became available. Ichiro Suzuki propelled the Seattle Mariners to 116 wins in his first season in the major leagues; the Los Angeles Dodgers won 92 games the year after bringing aboard Kazuhisa Ishii. The San Diego Padres improved from fifth to third to back-to-back division titles after bidding for setup man Akinori Otsuka; he was one of the last pieces, too.

And, in the same week Iwamura became available, the Red Sox landed Daisuke Matsuzaka in the most expensive posting transaction ($51.1 million) in the short history of the process. We all know how that worked out.

The Rays landed Iwamura four days later for the relatively paltry price of $4.5 million. The transaction went almost unnoticed. But it still was fascinating because it was Tampa Bay -- a team that had finished fourth (and won 70 games!) in 2004 and had slipped back to 61 wins in 2006, Joe Maddon's first season -- and the Rays still felt like Iwamura was a player worth their while.

Iwamura filled a specific need, the way Otsuka had for the Padres. The Rays had outfielders (Crawford, Rocco Baldell); they had a young second baseman (Upton) and would sign a young first baseman (Carlos Pena) a few months later. They had a sure-thing third baseman (Longoria) climbing the ladder. They had young pitching (Kazmir, Shields) finding its way. They even had pieces to trade (Young, who would go to Minnesota a year later for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett).

The Rays needed one more infielder. A team with aspirations to fourth place doesn't need one more infielder; a team with aspirations to third place doesn't bother to participate in the posting system. But the Rays -- who had bid for a relief pitcher a year earlier only to watch him tear his labrum that season -- didn't have aspirations to third place. The Rays had aspirations to a division title even with the Yankees and Red Sox holding a stranglehold on playoff berths out of their division.

Iwamura played third base that season, hitting .285 with seven home runs and had a range factor of 2.38 in the field. (Mike Lowell's range factor, by comparison, was 2.51.) And when Longoria came up for good earlier this season, Iwamura moved to second base and hit .274 with a career-best 70 walks while range-factoring 4.58. (Dustin Pedroia's range factor was 4.75.)

He's not a player like Longoria, who can almost singlehandedly win a playoff series. He's not a player like Pena, who's going to hit 35 home runs a year. He's not a player like Kazmir, who can be the ace of a playoff staff.

But he's the type of player a playoff team needs. He's not the type of player a last-place team needs. And that's why you can trace the start of the Rays' dramatic ascent to their successful bid for Akinori Iwamura.