Thursday, July 30, 2009

Francona made wrong call by hitting Ortiz for Lowrie

The beauty of baseball is that you never need a home run.

To win a football game, you sometimes need to score a touchdown and not kick a field goal. To win a basketball game, you sometimes need a 3-pointer. To win a hockey game, you sometimes have to take a slapshot from the neutral zone with seconds ticking off the clock.

In baseball, you never need a home run.

Home runs are great, of course. There is never a bad time for a home run. But even a team that's losing by three runs can be just as victorious with seven or eight straight singles as it can be with three straight singles and a home run.

Time doesn't run out. Only outs run out. If you keep an inning alive with hits, be they singles or home runs, you're eventually going to score runs.

That brings us to Wednesday's eighth inning. The Red Sox went into the inning trailing by four runs, but a collision in the outfield and a Mike Lowell sacrifice fly cut that deficit to three. J.D. Drew then followed with a line-drive single to center field, and after Adam LaRoche bounced into a fielder's choice, Jason Varitek drew a walk.

(As an aside: How in the world does a third-base coach send Jason Bay -- a guy with mediocre speed who had just been thrown out at home plate in a costly play the night before -- on a shallow fly ball with no outs in a game in which his team trailed by four runs? Bay was safe -- but the single by Drew only emphasized the ludicrousness of the decision. You don't risk outs at home plate down four runs in the same way you don't steal bases down four runs. Had Bay been thrown out, fans everywhere would be screaming for the head of DeMarlo Hale.)

Jed Lowrie was due up next.

Terry Francona called him back and sent up David Ortiz.

The thought behind the move was obvious. Lowrie is a shortstop who hits line drives, a hitter coming off wrist surgery whose bid for a home run on Sunday died just in front of the warning track. Ortiz is Big Papi, the Greatest Clutch Hitter in Red Sox History, a slugger who has made a living out of distributing souvenirs to the fans in the bleachers behind the bullpens in right fields.

A home run would tie the game. Francona wanted a home run.

But Francona didn't need a home run. With the lineup set to turn over behind Lowrie, he really, really didn't need a home run. All Lowrie had to do was get a base hit, drive in a run, keep the line moving. If he hit it into a gap somewhere, even better. But all he had to do was get a hit or get on base and keep the line moving.

(Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia opened the ninth inning with back-to-back hits. Ellsbury hit a slap single into left field, and Pedroia beat a ground ball down the third-base line with which Adam Kennedy had trouble. Everything would have been different had they come to the plate in the eighth inning, of course, but it certainly drives the point home.)

Francona went for the gusto. He called for Ortiz.

Ortiz hit a pop fly on the infield that Kennedy squeezed for the third out of the inning.

The Red Sox ended up losing the game by an 8-6 score and fell 3 1/2 games behind the victorious Yankees.

Ortiz had a huge month of June, breaking out of his early-season slump in a big way. He hit .320 and OBP'ed .409 and slugged .653 and hit seven home runs and just generally looked like the old Big Papi. Since the calendar turned to July, though, he's looked quite a bit like the Big Papi that drove Red Sox fans crazy in April and May:

April: 87
July: 81

April: 20
July: 18

April: 8
July: 6

April: 22
July: 21

Home runs
April: 0
July: 5

Those five home runs are all that separate Slumping Ortiz in April from "He's Back!" Ortiz in July. His batting average and on-base percentage actually are worse in July than they were in April. When he's not homering, he's doing pretty much what he did back when all of Boston was clamoring for him either to be benched or released or drawn and quartered in Kenmore Square.

In 18 at-bats since the start of this particular homestand, Ortiz had just three hits -- and seven strikeouts.

Lowrie, on the other hand, is working his way back from wrist surgery and has hit the ball hard all week long. His numbers don't reflect it -- his batting average for the season still is just .125 -- but he's hit the ball hard.

One indicator: He's hitting the ball in the air four out of every five times he puts it in play, but he's hardly hitting anything on the infield. He's hitting the ball hard into the outfield. He's just seeing everything get run down.

Another indicator: Entering play Wednesday, his BABIP -- batting average on balls in play -- was .107, a number that's so unsustainable it's laughable.

Everything Lowrie been hitting had been going right to fielders. All he had to do is keep hitting. You could almost already see him yanking a single to right field or hitting a line drive up the gap in left-center, a hit that would score at least one run and keep the inning alive for Ellsbury and Pedroia.

Francona instead called upon Ortiz to tie the game with one swing of the bat, called on a power hitter who is a .188 career hitter coming off the bench cold. Oakland manager Bob Geren went to the bullpen and called upon lefty specialist Craig Breslow, a pitcher who seemed to be warming for no other reason than to be ready when Ortiz pinch-hit for someone.

Ortiz stayed patient at the plate. He did what he usually does. He watched a pair of fastballs miss and then took a slider for a strike. He then took a cut at a 92-mile-an-hour right at his hands, and he hit it straight up.

Inning over.

For all intents and purposes, game over.

Francona actually had sent pinch-hitters to the plate just 31 times this season -- well below the American League average (39). He's not a manager who normally likes to pinch-hit.

He should have stuck to his instincts on Wednesday. Like Ortiz, he swung for the fences and ended up with a feeble pop fly.

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