Monday, August 31, 2009

Tedy Bruschi's favorite big play

There isn't one moment, Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said, that can sum up his 13-year career. There are too many. Some came on the biggest stage in the World. Some have gone completely unnoticed.

"I slipped a guard and made a tackle or something like that," he said, "(and thought), 'Man, I thought that was a great play,' and only the coaching staff and I saw it. No one knew it, but I knew, 'That was pretty good.'"

But one play came to light on Monday in a now-it-can-be-told type of way, a play that illustrated just how perfectly Bruschi fit the Patriots' scheme during the team's run of three Super Bowl titles in four years. It was Thanksgiving Day in Detroit in 2002, and it was the second interception return for a touchdown in Bruschi's career.

"There’s almost never a play that happens exactly the way you draw it up," Belichick said. "But the interception in Detroit on Thanksgiving was exactly the way it was drawn up. It was unbelievable."

Just to set it up: The Patriots had the ball first and drove deep into Lions territory before a pair of short runs and an incomplete pass forced them to settle for a field goal. The Lions then took over at their own 23-yard line following a short kickoff return.

The first pass Joey Harrington threw was broken up by Ted Johnson. The second pass Harrington threw was intercepted and taken back for a touchdown by Bruschi -- a player who hadn't even been in pass coverage when the play began.

"That play was indicative of where I had come as a player," Bruschi said. "It was blitz and I was rushing, which is what I did in college."

Bruschi was a tremendous pass-rusher in college at Arizona, finishing his career tied with the late Derrick Thomas for most career sacks (52) in NCAA history -- a record not since surpassed.

Once Belichick -- then the Patriots' defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells -- got his hands on him, Bruschi had to learn to play linebacker and everything that went with it. He had to learn how to defend the run. He had to learn how to cover tight ends and wide receivers. He had to learn "what a hook drop was," he said. "I had never taken a drop in my life and to talk about 'Cover 2' was new to me. I didn’t even know where to go."

The learning curve made it tough for him to become a big-play defensive player right away. It was all he could do to do his job, to be in the right place, to make sure he wasn't missing tackles that would get him cut from the team. It wasn't until the middle of the 1998 season that he took over full-time at outside linebacker, and it wasn't until 1999 that he forced his first turnover.

By 2002, though, he understood the system and his responsibilities within it -- and at this moment, his well-trained instincts were telling him that this was not the right time to rush the quarterback.

"As you're rushing, I had the recognize the pass protection," he said. "If you recognize the pass protection as it's coming to you, then you drop back into pass coverage."

Had the Lions shifted their protection to the other side of the field, sending a tight end or a runing back out to pick up either Mike Vrabel or a cornerback off the edge, Bruschi would have kept right going after Harrington. But the protection had been swung toward his side of the field, and that meant he had little chance to get to the quarterback before the ball was away.

(The Associated Press recap described Bruschi as having "fooled Harrington by faking a blitz." Sometimes sportswriters get things wrong.)

Rather than allowing himself to be swallowed up and taken out of the play, Bruschi turned on his heels and searched for a blue jersey behind him. The closest one belonged to Larry Foster, a former undrafted free agent who had played his way into a role as a kick returner and part-time wide receiver.

"When you're dropping back in pass coverage," Bruschi said, "you look and read the route and see if there's a hot route that's going to be thrown because you know the blitzer is coming from the other side. Reading while you're in pass coverage -- another thing I had to learn."

Bruschi located Foster, the closest receiver and the most likely outlet for Harrington if the blitzer on the other side got too close. But seeing Foster wasn't enough. All that would do would be to put him in position to make the tackle once the pass was completed.

"You’ve got to look back," he said. "You’ve got to look back and see if the ball is coming because you think the quarterback is going to throw it because he has to because your blitzer is coming from the other side. This is all the thought process that goes on on that one play."

Harrington threw the ball short and over the middle, just like the Patriots had expected he would, and Bruschi jumped in front of it.

Twenty-seven yards later, he was in the end zone.

"You draw it up, but you don't ever think it's going to happen," Bruschi said. "Maybe parts of it. Maybe three out of four parts. But there was the ball -- and there's my moment of making the plays that change games. There it was, the final moment, my final progression as a player: Reach up. Catch it. Run for a touchdown."

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Pitching out of jams with Paul Byrd

(If you're not interested in what goes through the mind of a pitcher when he gets into a jam, you'll want to skip this one. This writer, though, finds that kind of thing absolutely fascinating.)

Paul Byrd allowed two baserunners in the first three innings he pitched on Sunday and never found himself in any sort of trouble as the Red Sox staked him to a 3-0 lead.

That changed in the top of the fourth.

Lefty Adam Lind led off with a double off the center-field end of the Green Monster, jumping on a fastball over the middle of the plate and lining it up the gap between Jacoby Ellsbury and Rocco Baldelli. Lyle Overbay then flew to Baldelli and Vernon Wells grounded to shortstop, forcing Lind to hold at second base.

That brought up catcher Rod Barajas with Travis Snider on deck and Jose Bautista behind him.

Here's what Byrd knew:

1. Barajas, a righthanded hitter, had four hits, all singles, in 12 career at-bats against him.
2. Snider, a lefty, had two extra-base hits -- a double and a home run -- in four career at-bats against him. Both of those at-bats came last September.
3. Bautista, a righty, had never faced him.
4. Lefties had OPS'ed .856 against Byrd in his career, and righties had OPS'ed .694. So far in the game, Byrd had allowed a single to righty Marco Scutaro and a double to Lind, a lefty.

With two outs, Byrd wanted to go right after Barajas. He wanted to go after him and get him out and not have to face a lefty with the bases loaded.

That's why he was so upset when he walked him on five pitches.

"The walk to Barajas just kills me because he's a righthander who doesn't see the ball super-well off me," Byrd said. "I made some poor pitches there."

That brought up Snider with runners on first and second and two outs -- and, it must be noted, Bautista on deck. Byrd had two options: Go right after Snider or unintentionally intentionally walk Snider and challenge Bautista.

There's a risk there, of course. For one thing, he'd be loading the bases -- and there was no guarantee that the command that deserted him against Barajas would return against Bautista. For another thing, the Blue Jays were getting close to turning the lineup over, and Byrd didn't want to have to face Scutaro and Aaron Hill and Lind again with runners on base.

On the other hand, walking the bases loaded would mean he'd get to pitch once again out of the windup. In his 30 starts a year ago, opponents hit .282 when Byrd pitched out of the windup and .295 when he pitched out of the stretch. His strikeout-to-walk ratio also fell from 3.13 out of the windup to 1.78 out of the stretch.

Like most pitchers, Byrd is most comfortable pitching out of the windup.

"Snider, on the other hand, is a lefty who sees the ball a little better off me," he said. "He hit a home run off me last year. I really wanted to pitch him carefully, and I knew that if I loaded the bases, I could go out of the windup. I was rushing out of the stretch."

Byrd walked Snider on three changeups and a high slider.

That brought Bautista to the plate.

Byrd started Bautista with a slider just off the outside corner that umpire Jim Wolf called a strike. He came back with a fastball up and in that was called a ball. His third pitch was a slider outside that seemed to get away from him, and he fell behind in the count, 2-1.

His fourth pitch was a better slider, a pitch that started on the inside half but then broke outside, and Bautista fouled it off.

He then reared back and threw a hard cutter, the hardest pitch he threw all day, a pitch that tailed away from Bautista on the outer half of the plate. Bautista got good wood on it and hit it to right field -- but in Fenway Park, that's where a pitcher wants to see the ball hit.

Right fielder J.D. Drew tracked it down for the third out.

Byrd pumped his fist, an animated celebration that's not exactly out of character for the 38-year-old veteran.

"That was big for me," he said. "(When) you get runs off Roy Halladay, you don't want to go out there and walk the other team back into the game. I was pretty frustrated after that inning, but, fortunately, we got out of it."

Said Red Sox manager Terry Francona, "It's hard not to be excited around Byrdie. He creates his own excitement. He's running around and patting everybody on the back and waving to his wife. He's got all kinds of things going on. ...

"The excitement is excitement about pitching and not the pressure of having to do well. He probably relished the fact that he was out there pitching in a game of that significance, and he really enjoyed that."

He'll get another shot next weekend, either Friday or Saturday in Chicago. If the Red Sox can get close to the result then that they got on Sunday, they'll be thrilled.

Hideki Okajima's masterful control

(Sunday's Union Leader story, thanks to deadlines, was written before Okajima gave up back-to-back hits in relief of Clay Buchholz on Saturday. Bad timing. Sorry. For what it's worth, nothing was over the middle on Saturday, either.)

Hideki Okajima doesn't get his outs with his raw stuff. He gets his outs with impeccable control.

"He locates really, really well," fellow reliever Manny Delcarmen said. "You could throw 150 (miles per hour), but if it’s down the middle, it’s going to get hit -- and he doesn’t need to throw 100. He locates and keeps the hitters really, really off-balance."

Some pitchers occasionally can avoid throwing the ball down the middle. Few, though, use the edges of the plate like Okajima. Even when he's getting hit, it's not because he's missing his spots. Check out the following three charts:

1. From a game in April in which he gave up two earned runs on four hits and failed to record an out:

2. From a game in June in which he allowed one run in two innings:

3. From the extra-innings adventure in New York earlier this month in which he threw 1 1/3 hitless innings:
In those three outings, you can find a grand total of about two pitches you could classify as in the danger zone -- and nothing right down the middle of the plate.

There's a reason Okajima hasn't yet accumulated an ERA of 3.00 in a season. His stuff might be above average, but his ability to locate his pitches is sensational.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Clay's command getting better and better

If you're starting to think that Clay Buchholz looked as good on Saturday as he's looked all season, well, you're right.

Just look at his curveball.

Yes, we've spent so much time examining that particular pitch in this space that we really could start to call this the "Clay If By Curveball" blog. But that doesn't have the same ring to it -- and, besides, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would not approve.

Besides, if Buchholz is going to finish this season and go into next season as the No. 3 starter in the Red Sox rotation, he's going to need his best pitch to start working for him. He's a pretty good pitcher with a fastball and a changeup and a slider. He's a tremendous pitcher with a fastball and changeup and a slider and a world-class curveball.

The three charts below all measure horizontal movement and vertical movement, all have nothing to do with speed and everything to do with command and location. A pitcher needs to know exactly how much his pitches are going to break if he's going to hit his target, and the more consistent he can be with that break, the better the results.

A pitcher with four pitches needs to have four distinct groupings of data points on the chart. He's going to have the most success when the ball comes out of his hand the same way but goes all sorts of directions after that. It's OK if the changeup moves the same way the fastball does -- the difference in speed is the weapon there -- but if the curveball is too flat or too straight, well, it's going to get hit.

None of that matters, though, if he can't command it. If he can't throw the pitch consistently -- and throw it for strikes -- batters won't even have to swing.

Here's Buchholz against Toronto on Aug. 19:

Check out the pink dots in the charts above. Buchholz shied away from throwing his curveball at the Rogers Centre 10 days ago because he didn't have a good feel for it. That shows up on the chart in the way the pink dots are spread out along the bottom of the chart. One of his curveballs moved just one inch horizontally, and a couple of them moved five inches. Considering that the plate is just 17 inches wide, that's a pretty significant difference.

To make matters worse, his slider and his changeup ran together, looking far too similar to make either pitch all that effective.

He ended up pitching six solid innings, but he was going to get burned if his stuff kept looking like that. That's what happened last Monday against the White Sox:

His fastball, changeup and slider all formed tight groups, but his curveball still wasn't there. You could tell he was making the pitch an emphasis -- he threw more than twice as many curves as he had in Toronto -- but it wasn't there. His vertical break varied from eight inches to 12 inches, and his horizontal break varied from two inches to nine inches. There's no way he could expect to hit a target with command like that.

His other three pitches, though, differentiated themselves from each other far better than they had in his previous outing -- a curious development considering that the results were far worse. He seemed to have found his fastballs and his changeup and his slider, and he just still needed to find a feel for his curveball.

That brings us to Saturday's gem against the Blue Jays:

Not only was his curveball dramatically set apart from his slider and his changeup, but the data points finally were clustered all together. Every time he threw his curveball, he threw it with between four and six inches of horizontal break. When he aimed for the inside corner, he hit the inside corner. When he aimed for the outside corner, he hit the outside corner.

(The only pitch that's offset a little bit is the curveball that slipped and almost hit Jose Bautista in the ninth inning. That's only fair, though, given that Buchholz completely embarassed Bautista in the first inning with his nastiest curve of the game.)

He recorded most of his strikeouts via the changeup, but that's in large part because he threw his changeup later in the count than his curveball. (Warning: That link takes you to yet another chart.) He started hitters with his fastball, baffled them with his curveball and finished them off with his changeup.

It was by far the best he's thrown his Uncle Charlie since his return to the major leagues about six weeks ago.

Not coincidentally, it was by far his best start, too.

Lackey would look good in a Red Sox uniform

The Red Sox could have made a waiver claim on Scott Kazmir but didn't -- a fairly reasonable decision given the $22.5 million in guaranteed money remaining on the contract of a lefty who still has made 30 starts and pitched 160 innings in a season just twice in the last four seasons. So far this season, he has a 5.92 ERA and a career-high WHIP of 1.541 to go along with a career-low strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.82.

A couple of years ago, he looked like a franchise-cornerstone lefthanded ace, Jon Lester before there was a Jon Lester. Since then, though, injuries have forced him to overhaul his arsenal to stay effective in the major leagues.

The trade might, however, create an opportunity for the Red Sox. If the Angels have to pay $20 million over the next two years for Kazmir -- as well as the $13.5 million option or $2.5 million buyout they'll have to consider -- they might have to think twice about opening the vault for free-agent-to-be John Lackey at the end of the season.

That might leave an opening for the Red Sox.

(The Rays, on the other hand, appear to have freed up enough cash to keep Carl Crawford around for the forseeable future -- bad news for the Red Sox and Yankees.)

Theo Epstein almost certainly will engage the Toronto Blue Jays in trade discussions for Roy Halladay in the offseason. Halladay remains one of the top two or three pitchers in baseball, but a deal for Halladay would mean both a huge haul of prospects as well as a lengthy and lucrative contract extension.

Lackey isn't in the same stratosphere as Halladay, but he's only a notch or two behind. If the Red Sox could land Lackey with a Derek Lowe-esque contract (four years, $50 or $60 million), they could also keep Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard and the rest of the prospect haul Toronto's J.P. Ricciardi almost certainly will demand for his ace.

Rather than being left with a rotation of Halladay and Lester and assorted flotsam if Josh Beckett departs after the 2010 season, the Red Sox would have a rotation of Lester, Lackey, Buchholz, Junichi Tazawa and any number of options to fill out the back end.

Lackey is just finishing up a four-year, $24.5 million contract with the Angels that will take him through his 31st birthday. He's not going to get A.J. Burnett money (five years, $82.5 million) because the only team that would have paid him that sort of money already paid it to A.J. Burnett. The Red Sox ought to be competitive with any team interested in his services -- and there will be a few.

The 6-foot-6, 205-pound righty might still be remembered for his Game 7 start against the Giants in the 2002 World Series, but he's won double-digit games with a sub-4.00 ERA in each of the last four seasons. He began this season on the disabled list with tightness in his throwing elbow but has a respectable 4.16 ERA in 20 starts since then.

He has a lousy career ERA at Fenway Park, but you might remember the mid-July game a year ago in which he took a no-hitter into the ninth inning before Dustin Pedroia broke it up. He also had a 2.63 ERA in a pair of ALDS starts against the Red Sox last season and has a career ERA of 3.39 in 58 1/3 postseason innings pitched.

He throws a fastball in the low 90s with a curveball, a slider, a changeup and a cutter, and he even can pull out a sinker now and then.

Oh, and he's almost as tough on lefties (.727 career OPS) as he is on righties (.716 OPS), something that's going to come in handy if he's pitching against the Yankees over the next three or four seasons. He has a career ERA of 4.66 against the Yankees, but that includes seven impressive innings in a win in Anaheim on July 12 of this season.

What sets him apart, though, is that he can strike hitters out (his K/9 ratio has been at least 7.0 in each of the last five seasons) and can avoid walking hitters (his BB/9 ratio has been 3.0 or below in seven of his eight seasons). Check out the following leaderboard:

Strikeout-to-walk ratio since 2002 (active players, min. 1,000 IP)
1. Randy Johnson, 4.32
2. Ben Sheets, 4.20
3. Roy Halladay, 4.09
4. Johan Santana, 4.07
5. Pedro Martinez, 4.00
13. CC Sabathia, 2.88
14. Andy Pettitte, 2.77
15. John Lackey, 2.71
16. Jason Schmidt, 2.66
17. Cliff Lee, 2.64
18. Odalis Perez, 2.61
19. Mark Buehrle, 2.58
20. Freddy Garcia, 2.58

One thing this list shows is just how far ahead Halladay is of Lackey. But Felix Hernandez, a young pitcher for whom Epstein offered to back up the truck at the trading deadline, has a 2.85 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his career and a 3.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio this season.

Hernandez, like Halladay, is a far better franchise cornerstone than Lackey -- particularly given his age.

But if you could land Lackey without surrendering Buchholz and Bard and Tazawa and Lars Anderson and Ryan Kalish and Casey Kelly, well, that sounds like a pretty good deal.

Francona encouraged, Beckett not so much

"I actually thought he was better," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said in the aftermath of the team's rain-delayed win over the Toronto Blue Jays. "I thought his two-seam (fastball) movement was better. I didn't think his command was where he needs it. But I do think it was an improvement."

Josh Beckett surrendered five runs in five innings on five hits and five walks, striking out nine but allowing two home runs that left the Red Sox in a hole. It was his third lousy start in a row -- his ERA in his last three starts now is 9.94, and his ERA for the season has climbed from 3.10 to 3.80.

The nine strikeouts were encouraging. The walks and home runs were not.

Guess what Beckett chose to focus on?

"I was happy we won," he said. "Besides that, I'm not impressed by myself. We ended up pulling it out, and that's the good thing about being on a good team."

Was there any improvement over the last two outings?

"No, not really," he said, his voice dismissive. "Like I said, I'm happy we won."

Take a look at the charts, first from last Sunday's loss to the Yankees...

... and second from Friday's win over the Blue Jays.

Beckett isn't the type of pitcher to give in, to shy away from pitching to contact because he's afraid he's going to give up home runs. He was around the plate much, much less against the Blue Jays against the Yankees, and that's a sign of shaky command.

Here's another chart tracking the movement on his pitches, first from the game against Yankees last weekend...

... and second from Friday night's game against the Blue Jays.

Not only was Beckett around the plate more in his start against the Yankees, but he was more consistent with the movement of his pitches. He also didn't do much to differentiate his cutter or his changeup from a fastball that sat in the 93- to 95-mile-an-hour range.

In fact, he threw one changeup and just four or five cutters all night, and that turned him into a two-pitch pitcher who looked more like buddy Brad Penny than is going to sit well with Red Sox fans. He threw just his fastball and his curveball, and he didn't command either pitch particularly well.

As Jon Lester could tell you from earlier this season, it's easier to figure out issues with surrendering occasional home runs than it is to figure out issues with walking too many hitters. In that way, Beckett might actually have taken a step back.

It might have been the rain. Beckett pitched through a steady drizzle that eventually turned into a downpour, and that might have affected his command. The righty, to his credit, didn't choose to offer that or any other excuse.

Whatever the reason for his struggles, he's got some serious work to do starting right now.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Rain delays Dice-K's rehab, but not his return

Daisuke Matsuzaka will not pitch in Manchester on Saturday, Red Sox manager Terry Francona announced on Friday afternoon, and instead will pitch the first game of a rescheduled doubleheader on Sunday for the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs.

But that won't change the target date for his return.

"That doesn't really do anything," Francona said, "because when I stated that Dice could come back and pitch on the 8th, we really wanted him to pitch on the 9th. That actually works out perfect."

You have to assume that Matsuzaka will replace Junichi Tazawa in the starting rotation. Clay Buchholz is here to stay, and neither of the other three pitchers at the top of the rotation are going anywhere. That means the schedule likely breaks down as follows:

Aug. 28 vs. Toronto: Beckett
Aug. 29 vs. Toronto: Buchholz
Aug. 30 vs. Toronto: Lester
(The team has a day off on Aug. 31, the day before rosters expand.)
Sept. 1 at Tampa Bay: Wakefield
Sept. 2 at Tampa Bay: Tazawa

Sept. 3 at Tampa Bay: Beckett (five days' rest)
Sept. 4 at Chicago: Buchholz (five days' rest)
Sept. 5 at Chicago: Lester (five days' rest)
Sept. 6 at Chicago: Wakefield (four days' rest)
Sept. 7 at Chicago: Tazawa (four days' rest)

Sept. 8 vs. Baltimore: Beckett (four days' rest)
Sept. 9: vs. Baltimore: Matsuzaka
(The team has a day off on Sept. 10.)
Sept. 11 vs. Tampa Bay: Buchholz (six days' rest)
Sept. 12 vs. Tampa Bay: Lester (six days' rest)
Sept. 13 vs. Tampa Bay: Wakefield (six days' rest)
(The team has a day off on Sept. 14.)

Sept. 15 vs. Los Angeles: Beckett (six days' rest)
This is the spot where it starts to get interesting. Beckett would have gone a week without pitching and would need to take his turn before the extra rest became a hindrance to his routine. Tazawa, by this point, would be in the bullpen.
Sept. 16 vs. Los Angeles: Matsuzaka (six days' rest)
Sept. 17 vs. Los Angeles: Buchholz (five days' rest)
Sept. 18 at Baltimore: Lester (five days' rest)
Sept. 19 at Baltimore: Wakefield (five days' rest)

And so on.

If Matsuzaka replaces Tazawa in the rotation, Sept. 15 or 16 would be the natural day for the transition to happen. The Red Sox pitchers would get an extra day of rest thanks to Matsuzaka's first start back from the disabled list, but too much rest might do more harm than good.

The Red Sox then will go almost three weeks without a day off, but with every pitcher taking his turn every five days and extra depth available in the bullpen, it ought to be easy to prevent anyone from getting overworked.

A Junichi Tazawa diagnosis

Here's a relatively simple exercise. Check out the left-right splits Junichi Tazawa has put together so far in the major leagues:

Lefthanded batters: .286/.344/.357 (.308 BABIP)
Righthanded batters: .488/.543/.927 (.516 BABIP)

Too small of a sample size? Check out his year in the minor leagues (on-base and slugging numbers are approximated):

Lefthanded batters: .221/.283/.317 (.287 BABIP)
Righthanded batters: .226/.256/.329 (.264 BABIP)

No, Tazawa isn't going to see righties hit almost .500 against him the rest of the way. But the fact that he has something of a reverse split -- he gets hit harder by righties than by lefties -- doesn't appear to be a fluke.

His numbers in the minor leagues were even, if not slightly better, against lefties than against righties -- and he even got a little less BABIP luck against lefties than he did against righties.

It then makes complete sense that Tazawa would repeatedly wiggle out of danger against the Yankees, a lineup full of lefties and switch-hitters, and get rocked by the White Sox, a lineup with quite a bit more balance to it.

If that's not the key difference, good luck finding it: His pitch charts from the two games look almost identical. Against the Yankees, he got hit when he left the ball in the middle of the plate...

... and against the White Sox, he got hit when he left the ball in the middle of the plate.

(The blue dots, as you probably can figure out, are balls in play.)

The best pitchers generally work all four edges of the strike zone but keep the ball out of the middle. Tazawa actually appears to have been squeezed a little bit at the knees on Thursday -- check out the green dots inside the strike zone -- but gave away another entire edge all by himself. He threw about six pitches all night that could be classified as on the inside corner to lefties and on the outside corner to righties. When he tried to throw to that side of the plate, he left the ball in the hitting zone.

His location stayed pretty consistent throughout: Middle-in to righties and middle-away to lefties. Here's how his third inning broke down:

A.J. Pierzynski (L): Single to left on a changeup down and away
Paul Konerko (R): Single to left on a fastball away
Jim Thome (L): Sacrifice fly to right on a fastball away
Carlos Quentin (R): Home run to left on a curveball in the middle
Mark Kotsay (L): Hard-hit groundout on a curveball in the middle
Alexei Ramirez (R): Double to left on a fastball in
Jayson Nix (R): Single to left on a fastball in the middle

Both Tazawa and catcher Victor Martinez blamed the pitcher's lack of control early in the count for putting him in tough spots where he had to throw the ball over the plate.

But in that third inning, an inning in which the White Sox scored four runs, Tazawa got ahead of six of the eight hitters he faced. He went to a 3-1 count to Ramirez, but the White Sox otherwise were swinging early in the count because they were getting pitches to hit.

The White Sox happened to be looking for certain pitches -- and Tazawa couldn't make the adjustment when they started to hit those pitches.

A Josh Beckett diagnosis

A reporter -- OK, this reporter -- asked Jason Varitek late Sunday night if there was any surprise that the Yankees went up swinging at the first pitch the way they'd done with such brutal effectiveness. Both Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui launched first-pitch fastballs over the right-field fence in the first and second innings, and Jose Molina and Jeter swung at back-to-back first-pitch baseballs to open the third inning.

It wasn't until the fourth inning that a Yankee watched a first pitch go by -- and that was Nick Swisher, who has swung at just 17 percent of first pitches this season, fewer even than J.D. Drew.

An inning after Swisher took a first pitch and eventually grounded out on a curveball, Jeter again chased the first pitch -- a terrific cut fastball down in the zone -- and grounded to second base on a checked swing. An inning after that, Swisher came to the plate again and took a hack at the first pitch only to swing and miss. An inning after that, Molina again swung at the first pitch and missed.

Seven innings. Six first-pitch swings. This from a team that's swinging at just 22 percent of first pitches this season, fourth-fewest in the American League.

Was that a surprise, Jason Varitek?

"Not so much with Josh, no," the catcher said.

Check out the first three innings of Beckett's previous start against Toronto and the first pitch of each inning of that start:
First inning: Fastball right down the middle.
Second inning: Fastball right down the middle.
Third inning: Fastball away.

And the start before that against Detroit, a team that swings at 28 percent of first pitches:
First inning: Fastball right down the middle.
Second inning: Fastball away.
Third inning: Fastball right down the middle.

Let's keep going, just for fun, with his Aug. 7 start against the Yankees:
First inning: Fastball up and in.
Second inning: Curveball in the dirt.
(Whoa. Hold on. Stop the presses.)
Third inning: Fastball right down the middle.

Dare we continue? Aug. 1 against Baltimore, a team taht swings at a league-average 26 percent of first pitches:
First inning: Fastball right down the middle.
Second inning: Fastball down and in.
Third inning: Fastball up and away.

With a track record like that, how could the Yankees not be going after the first pitch -- and how could they not be hitting the ball over the fence?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Nick Green can throw a cutter

Nick Green and Victor Martinez didn't exactly have the most in-depth conversation in the world when the catcher visited the shortstop-turned-pitcher with two outs in the ninth inning.

Scott Podsednik was at the plate and had just taken a first-pitch fastball for a ball up and out of the zone. That had come on the heels of a walk issued to Jayson Nix -- and that had come on the heels of a walk to former Red Sox outfielder Mark Kotsay. ("I was so pissed I friggin' walked him," Green said.)

When Green missed with his first pitch to Podsednik, Martinez called time and made the trip out to the mound for a little light conversation.

"'Get on top of the ball,'" Martinez said he told Green. "You've got to expect that from a position player. You take ground balls and throw the ball to first, but it's not the same as throwing the ball from the mound to home plate."

Said Green, "He jabbered some stuff like, 'Get on top of the ball,' but I knew what I needed to do. He was just breaking it out. It wasn't really a conversation. We just said, 'Hello,' and he walked back."

It worked. Green threw a couple of four-seam fastballs and a two-seam fastball to Podsednik to get ahead in the count -- and to get two strikes on a hitter for the first time in his outing.

Podsednik then slashed at a fastball up in the zone and bounced it right back to Green on the mound. If you're a position player pitching, you'd better be able to field your position -- and Green scooped the ball without a problem. It was his throw over to first base that was the problem. For the second time in his outing, he threw a rocket to Casey Kotchman at first base in a situation that called for an underhand lob.

"It felt like I waited for him for 15 minutes to get over to first base," he said. "Usually, when I catch the ball at shortstop, I can throw it over and he's there. I catch it (on Thursday) and I'm like, 'Uh, uh, get over there!'"

"That was ridiculous," said Kevin Youkilis, who had moved from first base to third base earlier in the game. "I'm glad I wasn't playing first base. I would have thrown it back to him as hard as I could."

(Youkilis had to yell to Green at one point not to lick his fingers on the mound: "I was like, 'You can't do that anymore! You can do that in high school. You can't do that here!')

The last time Green pitched in a game was a decade or so ago as a freshman at Georgia Perimeter College, the alma mater of major leaguers Marlon Byrd and Robby Hammock. He didn't throw then much faster than he throws now -- and that's the only reason he even had a slider grip at all.

But the Red Sox were almost out of pitchers on a night in which rookie Junichi Tazawa could do nothing but leave the ball over the plate to get pounded. Billy Wagner had thrown a side session in the middle of the afternoon and wasn't available. Takashi Saito had slept on his neck wrong. He wasn't available, either. Hideki Okajima, Daniel Bard, Ramon Ramirez and Jonathan Papelbon each had appeared twice already in the Chicago series and thus would have been pitching for the third time in four games. Beyond Manny Delcarmen, who pitched the sixth and seventh innings, there was no one left.

Terry Francona and pitching coach John Farrell approached Green in the third inning to ask him to pitch. Green didn't want to pitch, but he understood the bind his team was in.

"Given the situation tonight with two guys unavailable and two others having, if we pitched them tonight, it would have been three of the last four days," Farrell said. "While it's a never situation you envision yourself in, (Green) helped keep some guys from having to come in and pitch innings and kept us rested going into this series tomorrow."

Said Green, "He told me the way it was going to work: Manny two (innings) and Ramon one and then I would come in. I told Farrell, 'I'm going to be pitching the eighth?' I was like, 'Who's going to be pitching the ninth?'"

As it turned out, well, he was.

Green and Rocco Baldelli wandered back into the batting cage behind the dugout during the fourth or fifth inning, and Green began to experiment with whatever repertoire he had left.

"I know he's got a really strong arm from shortstop, and he looked pretty strong in the cage, too," said Baldelli, who replaced Jacoby Ellsbury in center field even before Green made his appearance on the mound. "When he got out there, it was actually moving, too. He was throwing some that were cutting, and he was throwing some that were tailing."

He then made the trip out to the bullpen and threw to Jason Varitek, the designated bullpen catcher of the evening. He further made refinements to his repertoire, ditching a changeup that "almost killed" the veteran catcher, he said.

But Varitek wasn't worried about his health as much as he was the health of a guy who's had more than 300 plate appearances for the Red Sox this season.

"You just don't want somebody to get hurt in that situation," he said. "We need Nick to be able to do his job. ... I hope wasn't overthrowing."

Green did not, in fact, overthrow. He hit 90 on the Fenway Park radar gun on his first pitch, eliciting the same type of reaction from the Fenway Park crowd that Bard gets when he hits 100. He threw 92 or 93 when he pitched in junior college but wasn't worried about speed on Thursday as much as he was getting the ball over the plate.

Did the Red Sox know he could hit 90? Nope.

"We know he's got well above-average arm strength for an infielder," Farrell said, "but you don't evaluate that arm strength for the thought that one day he'd be pitching on the mound."

As impressive as it was that he hit 90 miles an hour, his speed wasn't what got him his outs. His movement was what got him outs. Check out the chart:

The MLB Gameday system classified more of his pitches as cut fastballs (21) than regular two- or four-seam fastballs (12). That, he said, was completely unintentional.

"I didn't know it was going to move," he said. "I was trying to throw it straight. Well, not all the time. But for the most part, I was trying to throw it straight."

He threw one slider, burying it in the dirt to lefty Paul Konerko. But he wanted nothing more to do with his breaking ball after that.

"I actually shook Victor off one time," he said. "He wanted me to throw a slider, and I was like, 'Nah. I'll just throw a fastball.'"

His biggest issue throughout his outing was leaving the ball up in the zone, as is made obvious by his chart:

He even came away with a greater appreciation of how hard it is for the pitcher to hit the strike zone. The first pitch he threw to the first batter he faced was a fastball letter-high, and Jeff Nelson called it a ball.

"When I threw it, I thought it was a strike," he said. "I was like, 'That's a ball? Sweet. I don't know what I'm going to do to throw a strike.'"

In the book, though, it all goes down as two scoreless innings -- and a 0.00 ERA for his career. Bench coach Brad Mills even stuffed the lineup card into his locker after the game.

"I was talking to Billy Wagner," Green said, "and he was like, 'Yeah, if I'd thrown that many balls, I'd have given up four or five runs.' I was lucky to not give up a hit and no runs. It was fun."

Lowrie suffers setback, still hopeful of return

There's no truth to the rumor that Jed Lowrie conveniently suffered a setback in his recovery just so he'd be back at Fenway Park for the Red Sox team photo.

A day after he felt a pinch in his wrist on a checked swing at Triple-A Pawtucket, he at least was able to chuckle a little bit about it. His voice, though, sounded wearing with frustration.

"Right at the point I'm trying to stop my swing, I feel a pinch and can't really stop it," he said. "Within the next two minutes, the finger is dead and there's a lot of soreness, a lot of numbness.

It hasn't gone away, either.

"I can still feel it today," he said. "But I relate it to, after my first at-bat in New York, it felt like it did right now. When I took my second at-bat, it got exponentially worse. After my first at-bat when it first happened against Oakland here, that's the way it felt. It took a couple of days until it felt OK. The one in New York, after the second at-bat, took a week. It's been a guessing game."

The setback was all the more frustrating considering he'd hit three home runs in his previous two games with the PawSox.

"It just kind of justified that when I'm feeling good, I've still got it," he said. "I don't think that's a question. It's just a matter of figuring out how to get it healthy. At this point, your guess is as good as mine."

He had played all nine innings in those games -- 10 innings, in fact, in one of them -- and had felt like he was back in baseball shape and ready to go when the Red Sox called for him. The latest setback came completely out of the blue.

"My legs felt great," he said. "I was moving great. I felt find as far as baseball-wise goes. The checked swing felt like I went right back to square one."

You might wonder if he's ready to hang it up for the season and rest his wrist and target spring training next year as a return date. He might still have to do that, but he's not giving up yet.

"I'm still going to try," he said. "I don't feel ready to stop trying this year -- especially after doing what I did in Pawtucket for a couple of days. I know it's only a couple of days and I haven't played in a week and it's not a finished product, so to speak, but at least there's something there. Hopefully, I can build on it and take it from here. Like I said, I don't even really know at this point. ...

"Of course, it's more in jeopardy, but I'm not ready to give up yet. I'm going to continue to do what I need to do to get back and see where that leads me. I'm not ready to give up on it."

The only silver lining was that he seems to have identified what causes the problem. Everything about the way he plays baseball feels good except for when he has to check his swing when he's hitting lefthanded.

"I know what's causing it now," he said. "After New York, I wasn't real sure. The first time it happened, it was a righthanded swing where I rolled over a ball. In New York, it was a lefthanded checked swing. Now I know that it is a lefthanded check swing. Whether the righthanded thing was the swing or me diving back, that's a little up in the air. But I do know that the lefthanded checked swing is causing that. From talking to people coming off wrist surgeries, coming off wrist injuries, the checked swing is the final hurdle. ... I know there is light at the end of the tunnel, but that being said, hopefully we're moving closer."

Wagner's repertoire evolving with age

Billy Wagner won't pitch for the Red Sox on Thursday. He instead threw a bullpen session around 4:30 p.m. and will be available to pitch out of the bullpen on Friday against Toronto.

Still, though, he's in Boston and otherwise ready to go.

His role?

"Whatever role they want me to (fill)," he said. "Water boy, towel guy, lefty specialist. I don't care."

He's not necessarily the same pitcher he was in his prime with the Astros and Phillies. He probably isn't going to touch 100 on the radar gun, and he might not throw the same breaking ball that "could take your skin off," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.

But he's not going to reinvent himself, either.

"I haven't made any adjustments," he said. "I attack the zone as much as possible. My fastball has got a lot more life right now, and my slider is a little bit harder and sharper than in the past."

He then chuckled and divulged one adjustment.

"I've added somewhat of a changeup," he said, "so this whole Tommy John thing ain't looking too bad right now."

He actually debuted that changeup even before his surgery and was throwing it in the weeks leading up to his surgery. He was not, however, throwing it at the start of last season. Here's how his chart looked during a 17-pitch outing with the Mets in April of 2008, a year and a half ago:

Here's how it looked on Monday in his final appearance with the Mets:
The key change, of course, is that changeup -- he threw twice as many changeups as sliders in his final outing before his trade to the Red Sox. His fastball hasn't lost much velocity in the process of going through Tommy John surgery as you'd think: He's not throwing 98 or 99, but he was in the same 93- to 95-mile-an-hour range on Monday as he was before the surgery.

His slider, despite his assertion to the contrary, has lost a little bit of its break. But the addition of the changeup, a pitch that moves the same way his fastball moves, might offset the diminished break on his slider.

For Wagner, the most important thing is that he's pitching again. Most players take upwards of 14 months to recover from Tommy John surgery, but he's pitching in the major leagues less than a year removed from the procedure.

A pitcher who underwent Tommy John surgery in September of 2008 normally would hope just to be pitching again by Opening Day of 2010. But when doctors began to tell Wagner his career was probably over, that lit a fire under him.

By April, he and his trainer both set September as a goal for his return.

"I came down to work out for the trainers, and I was a good shape," he said. "Chris Correnti, he told me, 'You're going to pitch this year,' and he told the Mets I was going to pitch this year. Each month just seemed to get better and better. I wasn't having any setbacks, and things just seemed to be working out. I just got stronger and felt good and was recovering.

"I've never worried about the next year. I'm worried about today, considering what I've come through. I've worked for the next day, to get there and to be able to pick up the ball."

Better approach at the plate giving Ellsbury more chances to steal bases

(This story appeared only in the Union Leader's print edition.)

No Red Sox player has stolen more bases in a season than Jacoby Ellsbury. But the record Ellsbury broke in Tuesday’s first inning is a byproduct of everything else the second-year center fielder has done this season.

“When I’m getting on base, it gives me more opportunities to steal bases – but at the same time to score runs,” he said.

Ellsbury’s on-base percentage at this time last season was .330. It was .343 going into last night’s game against the White Sox. He’s running more often, but he’s also getting on base more often – and the more he’s on base, the more bases he can steal.

Ellsbury has begun to turn himself from a free-swinging slap hitter into the type of patient hitter the work-the-count Red Sox want him to be. In a lineup filled with pitch-grinders who work counts, the center fielder is working his way up the ladder.

He saw a team-low 3.58 pitches per plate appearance a year ago and swung at the first pitch 25 percent of the time he stepped to the plate.

So far this season, he’s seen 3.75 pitches per plate appearance – more than both Mike Lowell and Nick Green – and is swinging at the first pitch 16 percent of the time.

His first at-bat on Sunday against the Yankees lasted six pitches before he hit a ground ball between first and second base and tied up Robinson Cano. His second at-bat on Sunday ended in a strikeout – but not before he’d forced CC Sabathia to throw eight pitches.

“He’s a little more confident now to go deeper in the count,” Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan said. “That’s everything. If you’re scared to get to one or two strikes and get behind in the count right off the bat, you’re not going to see a lot of pitches. Right now, he’s confident that just because he gets strike one, it’s not the end of the at-bat.”

Then again, Ellsbury’s run-scoring single to center field on Tuesday came on a first-pitch slider from White Sox reliever Randy Williams. He’s making himself more unpredictable as a hitter – and that means he’s making himself a better hitter.

“That’s one of the few pet peeves I have as a hitting coach: Unless you’re doing a lot of damage on the 0-0 count, I don’t want guys swinging at the first pitch,” Magadan said. (The hitting coach swung at the first pitch 17 percent of the time during his career.) “Now, I want guys up there ready to hit on the first pitch. If you get a good pitch to hit, I want you to hit it and drive it. But if you’re hitting .270 on the first pitch with a .500 OPS, you’re not doing a good job. If you’re hitting .270, that’s what your on-base percentage is because you’re putting the first pitch in play.”

Ellsbury actually has seen his batting average on the first pitch drop from last year (.347) to this year (.324). That has only given Magadan more reason to wean Ellsbury off his habit of hacking.

Drawing walks remains a challenge. Drawing walks, though, goes hand in hand with doing damage with the bat. The better Ellsbury hits the ball, the more walks he’s going to draw.

“If you’re a guy that’s not going to do anything with the bat, they’re going to throw the ball over the plate,” Magadan said. “I wanted him to show teams that he could sting the ball and hit the ball with authority and then gradually work into that patience and seeing pitches and all that. It’s hard to do it the other way around.”

Drawing walks still can be an extra challenge for a guy with the speed of Ellsbury, but that’s all part of the total package. The more he can get on base, be it via an infield single or a walk, the more damage he can do with his legs.

“On 3-2, he’s going to get fastballs,” said Dustin Pedroia, who usually watches Ellsbury’s at-bats from the on-deck circle. “On 3-1, he’s going to get fastballs. They’re not going to risk walking him. That part, when you see his walks, shoot, they don’t want to walk him. He’s not going to walk 100 times. But he’s done a great job of getting on base. When he gets on base, there’s a good chance he’s going to score.”

Never was that more obvious than in the aftermath of Ellsbury’s record-breaking stolen base. He doubled to lead off the first inning and stole third base on the first pitch Freddy Garcia threw to Pedroia. When Pedroia hit a squibber to first base, Ellsbury scored.

“I hit the ball off the end of the bat, and we got a run,” Pedroia said. “His speed helps us win.”

Wakefield arrives, rotation stabilizes

Well, that might be that.

It's dangerous to make too much out of one start, but if Tim Wakefield can pitch like that for the rest of the season, the Red Sox rotation might be all set once again -- whether Daisuke Matsuzaka makes it back to the major leagues or not.

(The Red Sox appear to agree: Brad Penny was granted his release late Wednesday night after watching Wakefield's start from the bullpen. It was interesting to watch Penny walk out to the bullpen before the game -- he had his arm around Manny Delcarmen much of the way. A roster spot now is clear for Billy Wagner to join the team on Thursday.)

Wakefield tossed seven outstanding innings, allowing six hits and one run while striking out three and walking one. He allowed a run in the first inning when Paul Konerko hit a towering triple to center field, but he retired seven straight after that and diddn't allow another hit until Carlos Quentin's swinging bunt in the top of the fifth. He allowed two runners to reach base in the seventh inning but retired Alexei Ramirez on a pop fly to shortstop to end the inning -- and his night.

He threw 94 pitches. He threw 73 of them for strikes. He didn't miss the strike zone until the second inning.

"I had better command than I did in Pawtucket, obviously, throwing a lot of strikes with a lot of movement," he said. "That kind of set the tone early in the first inning."

Even better, just one knuckleball slipped out of the glove of catcher Victor Martinez -- who was wearing a first baseman's mitt to give himself a better chance.

"He's worked hard the last two weeks catching my sides and playing catch with me out in the outfield," Wakefield said. "For the first time catching me in a game situation with hitters up there, he did a phenomenal job."

All of a sudden, a rotation once in tatters looks like it's coming together. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester remain the aces at the top of the rotation, and Wakefield slides right into the role of No. 3 starter he filled during his All-Star first half. Clay Buchholz had a rough go of things on Monday but had strung together three solid starts before that, and Junichi Tazawa has allowed either one run or zero runs in two of his three stars in the major leagues.

On top of that, Daisuke Matsuzaka is on his way back looking slim and trim and reportedly throwing better than he ever did this spring.

The Red Sox could go into the final weeks of the pennant race with the same starting rotation with which they opened the season -- with the exception of Buchholz assuming the role Penny once did. Both Buchholz and Tazawa then would be candidates to pitch out of the bullpen in the playoffs or, if Matsuzaka hits a roadblock, to make a Game 4 start in the first round.

These things really do work themselves out in the end.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Youkilis sticking up for Drew

Kevin Youkilis didn't say it in so many words. But his tirade -- or what came across as a tirade, anyway -- in today's Globe was far less about him than it was about J.D. Drew.

Among the key quotes:
* "I'm just annoyed by the media as a whole. People write stuff about players on this team throughout the whole year and it's been going on for years and people just keep writing crap."

* "You guys don’t have to hear what people say to us on the street. People have made comments to me. I’ve heard them say some things to my teammates. The problem with the game and all sports .... I understand everything’s not positive in this world. And negative stuff sells. But I come to the ballpark and go to a football game or basketball games. I don’t even think you can take kids to a game anymore. There’s so much negative yelling and screaming at players. People don’t even root for their team anymore. They just root against the opposition’s players. They’re so angry at people."

* "People portray people. I’ve been portrayed as a guy who breaks helmets and breaks bats. I don’t do that. The only reason I have a new helmet this year is because the padding wore out on the ear flap of my old one. Whatever. But when I see negative stuff all the time, that bothers me. If I don’t comment, people are going to get mad at me. But I’m just going to ‘no comment’ about certain things. If people don’t like it, they don’t like it."

Youkilis, though, wasn't talking about himself. As was pointed out ad nauseum by writers and talk-show hosts today, Youkilis is one of the most popular players on the team today. Fans love his intensity. Fans love his home runs. Fans love his goatee. Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia would be neck-and-neck in a "Who's your favorite Red Sox player?" poll.

Any guesses who would finish last in that poll?

Fans in Boston get all over J.D. Drew. He gets hurt too often. He walks too often. He's overpaid. Michael Felger, who just got his own drive-time show on the city's newest sports talk radio station, equated the right fielder with the female sex organ when he sat out back-to-back games in Texas a week and a half ago.

It's worth noting that Drew has spent exactly zero time on the disabled list this season. It's also worth noting that Drew has the third-best on-base percentage on the team (behind Youkilis and Jason Bay) and the fourth-best slugging percentage on the team (behind Youkilis, Bay and Mike Lowell).

But he looks dispassionate -- the opposite of Pedroia and Youkilis, not coincidentally -- and so the fans believe he doesn't care.

Bay, for what it's worth, plays the game with the same type of blank expression on his face. Bay has drawn more walks than Drew. Bay has even struck out more often than Drew. But Bay had a monster April and is endlessly patient with reporters and doesn't make $14 million a year, and so his even keel is portrayed as just that.

Drew isn't endlessly patient with the media. Drew hardly talks to the media. Drew often is gone from the locker room by the time the media arrives. This reporter once ducked into the locker room the instant team officials opened it up -- and still had to half-jog across the room just to catch Drew before he could slip out the door.

Drew wasn't going to lash out about the criticism. Youkilis, though, had had enough.

"The biggest things about the fans, the negative part, was there's just comments from selected fans once in a while which are not directed toward me but toward my teammates," Youkilis said in a session with reporters this afternoon. "I feel like I have to stick up for some guys, and maybe it's not my platform to do that. Sometimes you get frustrated because you see teammates really going out there and working hard. Sometimes they're not producing like they'd like to, but they're putting forth the effort and it's not because they're not trying. They're just not having success."

He wasn't talking about himself. He was doing what Bill Lee once did for Carl Yastrzemski during a June swoon in 1975. He was inviting fans and media to target him so they wouldn't target another guy on his team.

In a lot of ways, it was a pretty impressive thing to do.

Lester's luck turns as Red Sox rally

Jon Lester now has nine no-decisions this season -- including five in his last six starts. He won't remember many of them much more fondly this season than he will the no-decision he recorded in perhaps the most entertaining Red Sox game of the season.

A short summary: Lester lost his win when a nasty curveball took a bad hop in the dirt. Hideki Okajima tried to basket-catch a pop-up and dropped it -- and he then missed a return throw from the catcher to allow the runner to move to second base. Victor Martinez drove in Nick Green in the seventh and eighth innings, a result even more unexpected given that both players spent the first six innings on the bench. Okajima pitched himself into a jam, and Manny Delcarmen pitched himself out of one.

Jason Bay, who had struck out looking twice already on offspeed pitches, hit a home run on an 0-2 offspeed pitch. Jonathan Papelbon met with the media about Billy Wagner in the afternoon and absolutely blew away the White Sox in the evening. Oh, and Jacoby Ellsbury broke the franchise record for stolen bases on the first pitch to Dustin Pedroia in the bottom of the third.

That's the short summary. Here's the long summary.

1. Ellsbury. The 25-year-old speed demon had gone four games without a left before stealing his team-record-tying 54th stolen base of the season on Friday against the Yankees. Tommy Harper was in the house on Sunday, presumably in hopes Ellsbury would break the record that night. It didn't happen.

"Maybe he was hoping I'd break it -- or not break it," Ellsbury said with a smirk. "He was here and he wished me good luck, so I appreciated that."

But Ellsbury didn't steal a record that night -- he went 0-for-5, in fact, and never even got to first base. He then doubled and tripled on Monday but went without a stolen base.

He didn't wait long on Tuesday, though. He jolted a ground-rule double into the Red Sox bullpen and took off on the first pitch Freddy Garcia threw to second baseman Dustin Pedroia. But it didn't stop there. When Pedroia went out to get a slider away and rolled it to first base, Ellsbury cruised home with the game's first run.

"When I go, there's usually a purpose behind it," he said. "I'm not just out there to steal bases. If I was out therej ust to steal bases, I know I could steal quite a few more. But I want to steal at a high success rate to help the team win. That's the most important thing."

2. Lester. The snakebit lefty now has a 2.97 ERA in his last six starts -- and one measly decision to show for it. He fought through fluky adversity in April but has seen his bad luck return in August -- twice has he struck out double-digit batters in six innings, allowing three or fewer runs in the process, and still not earn himself a win.

"It's kind of getting old sometimes," he said. "But you've got to keep plugging away and keep working. The main thing is that we won the ballgame. That's why I'll go home and sleep good tonight."

He didn't look like he was going to sleep good when he left the field in the seventh inning.

He'd gone the whole game without his best stuff, fighting at times to find pitches that would work for him. He'd hit 96 miles an hour in the eighth inning in Toronto last week but saw his velocity track downward as his pitch count climbed from 50 to 75 to 100.

"There are innings when you go out there and you feel really good," he said, "and other innings where you're just battling to find a rhythm. That's what's tough about starting pitching. Sometimes, form inning to inning, you don't know what you have, and sometimes, from game to game, you don't know what you have. You just have to make adjustments from pitch to pitch. At times I did that, and at times I didn't. ... The nice thing is that the times I didn't feel too good about my mechanics or location or what we were trying to do, I was able to minimize the damage and keep the team in the ballgame."

He got himself into a little bit of a jam in the seventh when he allowed a first-pitch single to Paul Konerko and folloewd with a four-pitch walk to Jermaine Dye. A.J. Pierzynski then bunted the runners to second and third. When Alex Rios hit a line drive to J.D. Drew in right field that failed to score Konerko, it looked as though he was about to escape unscathed -- and with the lead.

He threw three straight curveballs to Alexei Ramirez: A called strike at the knees, a nasty swinging strike at the knees and a nastier swinging strike in the dirt. But the third pitch somehow ricocheted off the left edge of the plate and over the right shoulder of catcher Jason Varitek and rolled all the way to the backstop, allowing Ramirez to reach first and Konerko to score from third.

"It hit the right part of the plate with the wrong spin and got over his head," Lester said. "Nine times out of 10, that ball stays in front of the plate and we get out of the inning."

He then caught a little too much of the plate with a sharp cut fastball -- but appeared to catch a break when Nix hit the ball straight at Mike Lowell at third base. The ball hit Lowell square in the glove -- and it bounced away for a run-scoring infield single.

"You couldn't hit 100 fungoes to Mike Lowell and have that exact same result where you hit a ball out of his gloves," Bay said.

An inning-ending strikeout had given way to a two-run rally and a 3-2 White Sox lead and had knocked Lester from the game. The lefty stalked into the dugout and down the stairs and into the clubhouse, a pat on the back from John Farrell his only solace as he stormed away from what looked to be another defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

3. Okajima. On a day the Red Sox acquired a flame-throwing lefty in Billy Wagner, the incumbent finesse lefty demonstrated once again why he's been one of the best middle relievers in baseball over the last three seasons. He inherited Lester's jam and promptly saw the White Sox load the bases when Scott Podsednik rolled a ground ball into no-man's land between first base and the pitcher's mound.

But the 33-year-old from Japan came back with his best Wagner impression, throwing three splitfingered fastballs to Gordon Beckham before blowing an 88-mile-an-hour fastball at the eyes -- OK, easing an 88-mile-an-hour fastball at the eyes -- past him to end the inning.

4. Martinez. You'd have to guess that Terry Francona doesn't often exchange late-night text messages with his catcher. Last night, though, Francona got a message from Martinez around 1:15 a.m. that said, "Let me play."

"I finally wrote back," Francona said after the game, "and I said, 'Leave me alone. You'll come in and pinch-hit and get the game-winning hit.' He said, 'OK. Good night.'"

It didn't quite go that way. But it still was a big spot when Francona pinch-hit Martinez for Alex Gonzalez with one out in the seventh inning and the Red Sox still trailing by a 3-2 score. He sent shortstop Nick Green to run for Jason Varitek at the same time, effectively a double-switch with his shortstop and his catcher.

Martinez didn't wait long, jumping on a Matt Thornton fastball in the middle of the plate and ripping it into left field to score Green from second with the tying run. Martinez knew what to expect from Thornton, having faced him 19 times in his days with the Cleveland Indians, and he didn't expect the 6-foot-6 lefty to mess around at all.

"I just went up there and looked for his strength," Martinez said. "It's no secret. Everybody knows he's got a great fastball. I went up there to go get one and put a good swing on the ball."

Tie game.

5. Delcarmen. Carlos Quentin popped the second pitch he saw in the eighth inning over the pitcher's mound, a pop-up just high enough to make Okajima hesitate rather than calling for it himself. The result was a botched basket catch on the back of the mound to allow the runner to reach. (The play first was ruled an error but later changed to a hit.)

"It's got to be Oki's ball because of the height," Francona said. "It was like somebody punched me in the stomach -- and before I could look even look up, I felt like I got hit with the other hand."

The other hand? That came when a return throw from Martinez to Okajima missed the pitcher's outstretched glove and rolled all the way into center field, allowing Quentin to scramble to second base and threatening to turn a tie game back into a White Sox win.

Francona stuck with Okajima long enough to let him induce a pop fly to Dye and strike out Pierzynski, the last lefty in the White Sox lineup for a little while. But he then went to Delcarmen with two outs and runners on first and third and Rios striding to the plate.

Delcarmen found himself on the periphery of controversy this week after the report that both he and Jonathan Papelbon weren't overly enthusiastic about the then-rumored move for Wagner. He also hasn't exactly been the most lights-out pitcher in the Red Sox bullpen and has seen himself passed by both Daniel Bard and Ramon Ramirez in terms of the faith Francona has in him in big spots. Part of the reason is the fact that he's averaging almost a walk every other inning he pitches. When he comes into a game with runners on base, he often puts more runners on base.

True to form, he missed with back-to-back fastballs to Rios.

(Ozzie Guillen made an interesting call, by the way, in not pinch-hitting Jim Thome for Rios. Rios has hit lefties and righties equally in his career, but Thome has crushed righties to the tune of a 1.045 OPS in his career. It seemed logical that once Francona called for Delcarmen, Guillen would send up Thome. But Delcarmen has a goofy reverse split: He's a righthanded pitcher, but righties have hit .260 off him in his career while lefties have hit just .216.)

The third pitch Delcarmen threw was a 92-mile-an-hour fastball at the letters, and Rios popped it into shallow center field. Pedroia caught it for the third out.

6. Bay. Not much has been consistent about Bay's season. He began the season on a tear that turned "Sign Bay!" into a "Don't Treat On Me"-esque New England anthem, but his OPS numbers dwindled from there -- from 1.123 in April to .978 to .701 to .689 in a miserable July in which he hit just one home run.

But things have taken a turn for the better in August. He went into Tuesday's game with seven home runs for the month, and that meant he was feeling a little better in the eighth inning even though he'd already taken two called third strikes against Garcia in the early going.

"It was a constant battle," he said. "You go up there looking for a pitch you can drive, and I had some early on that I didn't swing at. It's kind of nice to do it when it matters."

It mattered in the bottom of the eighth with the game still tied at 3. David Ortiz had turned on a Thornton curveball and put a nice stroke on the ball and hit a line drive almost to the warning track in right field before Dye hauled it in. Bay then came up and took a called strike on a curveball and fouled off a slider to put himself right into the hole he didn't want to be in.

"The problem is, when I look breaking ball, half the time, that's when I swing at it when it bounces because you're looking for it and you get it," he said. "At that point, he had thrown me two (breaking balls), but it's still in the back of your mind that he throws 96 miles an hour. You're just basically looking for a strike."

Thornton hung a splitter, a terrible two-strike pitch right of the middle of the plate, and Bay crushed it into the Green Monster seats.

"It's easier said than done, just to react, but that's basically what it was," he said.

Green, Martinez and Ellsbury followed with hits to score two more runs and push the score to 6-3, a more than manageable margin for a dominant-looking Papelbon in the ninth.

Postscript: Bay's night ended with, of all things, a drug test. He took longer than usual to emerge into the locker room because, he said, "I couldn't go." Two Red Sox players were tested -- Bay and, of course, Ellsbury.

Did they find anything on the record-breaking base-stealer?

"I'll let you know," he said with a grin.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Billy Wagner and salary arbitration

Theo Epstein, a general manager raised from the Billy Beane School of Hoarding Draft Picks, didn't just trade for six weeks of Billy Wagner on Tuesday. He potentially traded for a couple of impact players in next year's amateur draft.

Wagner signed a contract four years ago that includes an $8 million team option for the 2010 season. Epstein agreed not to pick up that option but would not assure the pitcher he would not offer salary arbitration at the end of the season.

"The Mets had told him that they weren't going to exercise his option," Epstein said, "so we thought it was fair to leave him in the same position he would have been with the Mets. We do have the right, as the Mets would have had the right, to offer him arbitration at the end of the year as appropriate. We'll deal with that at the appropriate time."

(This, by the way, is why it was so baffling that Wagner insisted on the Red Sox promising not to pick up his option for next season. There was no way Epstein was going to pass on a chance to add a couple of draft picks to his team's coffers next June. Remember that scene in Moneyball where Beane trades for Ray Durham mostly just to cash in on the two draft picks at the end of the year? This is almost the same thing.)

Barring serious injury between now and the end of the season, the Red Sox almost certainly will offer the hard-throwing lefty salary arbitration. Once the Red Sox make that offer, things could go one of two ways:

1. Wagner could accept arbitration. The two sides then could negotiate a one- or two-year deal or, failing that, present their cases to an independent panel. Wagner, who has been paid $10.5 million in each of the last four seasons, likely would be awarded a salary somewhere in the ballpark of $12 million.

The Red Sox then would have added a talented lefthanded reliever to their bullpen for next season without having to forfeit the first-round draft pick he would have commanded on the open market.

The downside to the offer of arbitration, of course, is that the Red Sox could be stuck paying that salary no matter what might happen to Wagner. The lefty could tear his elbow to shreds in May, and the Red Sox would have no recourse.

If he were to hurt himself in spring training, though, the team would have an out. Arbitration salaries are non-guaranteed, and that means the Red Sox could cut him by mid-March and pay just 30 days' termination -- or cut him by Opening Day and pay him just 45 days' termination. (Those two numbers would work out to about $1.5 million and $2 million, respectively, on a $12 million contract.)

For the Red Sox, $1.5 million is pocket change.

2. Wagner could decline arbitration. The pitcher could sign with any team at any salary. If he signed with a different team, the Red Sox would receive that team's first-round draft pick and an additional pick in the supplemental first round.

(Note: The Red Sox only would receive a first-round draft pick if the team that signed Wagner had its pick in the final 15 picks of the first round. The first 15 picks are protected from free-agent compensation, and the Red Sox then would receive a second-round pick. Fortunately for the Red Sox, there aren't many teams who finish with a sub-.500 record who are in the market for a high-priced closer the next season.)

The Red Sox then would have traded two non-prospects -- various reports have the Mets receiving Triple-A slugger Chris Carter and another prospect "not of significance" -- for a first-round draft pick and a supplemental draft pick.

This seems like the far likelier scenario particularly given how much Wagner, a career closer, would prefer not to be a middle reliever. He'd only accept arbitration with the Red Sox if no other team showed any interested whatsoever in making him its closer.

If left fielder Jason Bay also declines an offer of salary arbitration and signs elsewhere, the Red Sox would have three first-round picks and a couple of supplemental-round picks. Epstein could feel comfortable signing a Type A free agent like Matt Holliday or Marco Scutaro despite the forfeiture of his own first-round pick -- or he and Jason McLeod could begin preparations for a 2005-like draft haul.

That's what we in the business call a win-win.

Penny, Smoltz struggles open door for Wagner

The Red Sox might spend more money than the Marlins, but that doesn't mean they don't have a budget. Bringing Billy Wagner to Boston meant assuming about $3 million in salary for the rest of the season as well as the $1 million buyout they'll have to pay in lieu of his $8 million option for 2010.

(Fairness would dictate that Wagner decline the buyout if he's the one requiring that the Red Sox not pick up the option. Life is not fair.)

The Red Sox, however, have had some money freed up lately without which they might not have made the trade.

"We had a couple of starting pitchers who were due to make a lot of money in performance bonuses," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said. "With some developments in recent days and recent weeks, it's clear now that there's going to be some savings in some of the money budgeted for performance bonuses that's not going to get paid out. Instead of just pocketing that money, we were allowed to look for ways to improve the club and improve our chances of getting into the postseason and winning a World Series. This was a redirection of those funds."

It doesn't take much detective work to figure out the starting pitchers to whom Epstein is referring.

The Red Sox had to eat the contract of John Smoltz when they released him, and a report today indicats that there's no way the Red Sox could trade Brad Penny and get out from under the money still owed to him.

But neither pitcher is going to earn all of the performance bonuses included in their contracts.

"The thought was that if they worked out, great," Epstein said. "If they worked out, our money would be well-spent. We won't necessarily need that many mid-season acquisitions. If they don't work out, there would be some savings and we could redirect that money. In a couple of cases, that seems to be the way it worked out."

Penny received a $5 million salary with the following incentives -- with a tip of the cap to Cot's Baseball Contracts:
* $500,000 for pitching 160, 170, 180 and 190 innings;
* $500,000 for appearing in 55, 65 or 75 games;
* $1 million for either 200 innings pitched for 50 games finished.

Penny, banished to the bullpen after a miserable start against the Yankees on Friday, has pitched 131 2/3 innings for the Red Sox this season. The appearances incentives never were a factor, but the Red Sox do save $3 million in the money they would have paid him had he been the 200-inning workhorse they'd hoped he would be.

Smoltz received a $5.5 million salary but stood to receive $35,000 per day he was on the major-league roster between June 1 and Oct. 3. He also stood to receive a $500,000 bonus if he was on the major-league roster on Oct. 4, the final day of the regular season.

The Red Sox designated him for assignment on Aug. 7, removing him from the major-league roster 57 days before the final day of the regular season. The total savings? Just shy of $2 million -- and that's not including the $500,000 he would have received on Oct. 4.

Overall, the struggles of Penny and Smoltz saved the Red Sox more than $5 million in incentive bonuses -- and that made it pretty easy to fit Wagner into the budget.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Red Sox still leading "another race"

It wasn't what Jason Bay said about the Red Sox's chances to catch the Yankees in the East. It was what he didn't say.

"There's still time left," said Bay with just a little bit of bite to his voice. "But if that doesn't happen, what goes unnoticed around here is that we are in first place for the other remaining playoff spot. It obviously goes unnoticed when you're playing New York, and people want to make a huge deal out of it. But we won the wild card last year and made it to Game 7 of the ALCS. It's getting a little further away and we're running out of time, no question, and you've got to be realistic. But, at the same time, the goal is to get into the playoffs. Whatever way you do that, at least you're in."

Yes, the "other remaining playoff spot." Here's how the standings break down as of Monday morning:

1. Boston, 70-53
2. Texas, 69-54
3. Tampa Bay, 67-56
t-4. Chicago, 63-61
t-4. Seattle, 63-61

The Red Sox do have pitching -- thanks in large part to the steps forward taken by Clay Buchholz and Junichi Tazawa, now pretty much the No. 3 and No. 4 starters in the Red Sox rotation. They might even have pitching on the way if a deal for Billy Wagner is consummated in the next 24 hours or so. (That seems unlikely now, according to reports, but there's still time.)

The Red Sox also have a ferocious lineup, and if you're still worried about their .264 lineup since the All-Star break, consider this: Of the first 17 hitters that stepped to the plate against CC Sabathia on Sunday night, every single one either saw at least four pitches or wound up with a hit -- or both. The only first-pitch hackers were Mike Lowell, who doubled off the Green Monster, and Rocco Baldelli, who shot a ground ball up the middle for a run-scoring single.

Bay then swung at the first pitch in the bottom of the fourth and blooped a single over second base. Lowell and Baldelli followed with seven- and eight-pitch at-bats, respectively.

(Here's a fun stat for you: The Red Sox have the highest slugging percentage -- .683 -- of any American League team when swinging at the first pitch.)

Oh, and the team's .793 OPS in the second half is third-best in the American League -- behind only the Yankees and the Angels.

Things didn't work out against Sabathia, a horse who has thrown more pitches (2,859) than any other pitcher in the American League this season. But it's going to work quite a bit against some of the teams the Red Sox will face down the stretch.

"What needs maybe to be focused on is that we're a game up on the Rangers for the other playoff spot," Bay said. "I know a ton gets made around here about the Yankees and the Red Sox and that we're so far behind, but, ultimately, it's about getting to the playoffs and winning there. We're starting to run out of a little bit of time, and 7 1/2 games is a pretty large deficit. But at the same time, it helps to try to focus on the fact that we're not really chasing anybody else in another race. In some regards, we control our own destiny."