Sunday, October 11, 2009

Missing Rocco Baldelli

Casey Kotchman strode to the plate in Friday's eighth inning, a lefty announced to pinch-hit against Los Angeles righty Jered Weaver. Angels manager Mike Scioscia, of course, promptly yanked Weaver for lefty Darren Oliver, a pitching change as by the book as it gets.

(Granted, Oliver actually has seen lefties slug .412 against him this season as opposed to .294 for righties -- and Kotchman has no real lefty-righty split in his career. It was a curious decision given how well Weaver was pitching. But we'll let that slide.)

To counter the lefty on the mound, Terry Francona went right back to his bench. It's a common postseason tactic: A new pitcher must face at least one batter, so the team at bat always can regain the upper hand if it's willing to burn a pinch-hitter.

Francona did so. He called upon Jed Lowrie.

Lowrie struck out on three pitches.

There's no question that had Rocco Baldelli been healthy, that would have been a spot for him. No question. The righthanded-hitting Baldelli signed with the Red Sox as a reserve but as a reserve who understood that he'd get plenty of playing time and plenty of pinch-hit opportunities against lefties. The Red Sox have a relatively lefty-heavy lineup -- J.D. Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz all swing from the left side -- and traditionally have been vulnerable to lefthanded pitching.

Baldelli was their weapon. Baldelli was their guy who could come off the bench in a big spot against a lefthanded reliever and deliver a big hit. Baldelli, in his career, has a .295 batting average and a .485 slugging percentage against lefthanded pitchers. He has an OPS almost 100 points higher against lefties than against righties.

But Baldelli is out for the American League Division Series, sidelined with a strained hip flexor he suffered two days before the regular season ended. He was taking dry swings in short right field during batting practice on Sunday but walked off the field without what you'd call a smile on his face.

The Red Sox missed him on Friday, and they'll miss him today and Monday, too. (That's assuming they get to Monday, an entirely separate issue.) The Angels are scheduled to throw lefties Scott Kazmir and Joe Saunders in Games 3 and 4, and the same issue they faced on Friday could arise in either of their next two games.

It's not hard to imagine a scenario in which the Red Sox have a couple of runners on base -- OK, maybe that is a reach -- with two outs in the sixth inning and the score tied and Alex Gonzalez due to hit. Gonzalez isn't exactly in the starting lineup for his bat, and Francona already has demonstrated a willingness to pinch-hit for his shortstop in the middle innings in a big spot in the game.

But who's he going to pinch-hit? Francona's not going to send the lefty Kotchman to the plate against Kazmir or Saunders, and Brian Anderson doesn't provide enough of an upgrade that it's worth sacrificing the defense Gonzalez can play at shortstop.

Baldelli would have been the perfect weapon. Baldelli would have presented Scioscia with two options, neither of them all that favorable to the Angels:
1. Letting a lefty pitch to Baldelli with runners on base.
2. Lifting his starting pitcher in the sixth inning.

The Red Sox assembled their team in part for the regular season but in part for the postseason, too. Baldelli spent most of the season as J.D. Drew's caddy but has looked like a perfect postseason bench player ever since he signed his contract.

His absence has a chance to cost the Red Sox dearly.

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