Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Camden Yards the site of fundamental All-Star change

Losing to the Rays in Game 7 in last year's American League Championship Series cost Terry Francona a chance to go to the World Series for the third time in five years. It also, however, saved him a big-time headache: Managing the American League All-Star team.

One reporter asked Francona today if he's talked to Tampa Bay's Joe Maddon to plug some of his players -- Tim Wakefield, probably -- for an All-Star spot. Francona said he had not done so, in large part because Maddon has so little to do with selecting the team.

"They really don't have decisions to make," he said. "They have decisions to make when guys get hurt, things like that."

That actually comes back to the All-Star Game held right here in Baltimore's Camden Yards in 1993. Toronto manager Cito Gaston held back Orioles ace Mike Mussina in case of extra innings and never did bring him into the game, drawing the ire of the hometown crowd that started booing when Blue Jays closer Duane Ward pitched the ninth in place of Mussina.

Ever since 1993, managers have felt enormous pressure to get as many players as possible into the game. That, of course, led to issues with extra innings and ties and complaints that the game wasn't played competitively. The infamous tie in 2003 was the most glaring example, but last year's All-Star Game almost ended the same way. Francona was prepared to pitch J.D. Drew in the top of the 16th inning because he'd used all his pitchers and didn't dare send Tampa Bay's Scott Kazmir back out for a second inning on one day's rest.

"You're trying to compete," Francona said. "You're also trying to get guys in the game. It's not fair. I'm telling you: It's not fair to the manager. ...

"We told the team before the game: I was going to try to play everybody I could and win. Our guys were very cooperative, and we managed to do it. I was very thankful because it wasn't easy, and it took a lot of the fun out of it. ....

"I understand that they want this game to be (competitive), and they've accomplished that. But I don't think you can have microphones (in the dugout). I don't think you can do both. I just don't think you can do both."

The odd nature of the game's rules cost Mussina again a year ago, his final year in the major leagues, even though the game was being played in Yankee Stadium. The manager now is so limited in the decisions he's able to make -- thanks to the fan vote, the player vote and the requirement that every team be represented -- that he has almost no control over his roster.

"Mussina, in my opinion, was a special case," Francona said. "He was a Yankee and he's been a Yankee and he had a great year going. We had no chance to put him on the team. I had no chance. I didn't want to have to explain it, but because of the rules in place, I had no way to do it. I thought he would have been a great selection."

Sons of Sam Horn to host ALS fundraiser

Red Sox message board Sons of Sam Horn will host an online auction to benefit the Massachusetts Chapter of the ALS Association, partnered with Curt Schilling and Curt's Pitch for ALS. The auction raised over $63,000 a year ago -- and among the items featured this year are a reception with Jim Rice, a trip to Red Sox fantasy camp and tickets to a Red Sox game in Baltimore in late July. You can find the entire catalogue of aution items here.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- known commonly as Lou Gehrig's Disease -- is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. As motor neurons degenerate and die, the patient gradually loses muscle function throughout his or her body. Life expectancy for a patient afflicted with ALS is between two and five years, though more than half of all patients live for more than three years after diagnosis. (Click here for more information.)

My Uncle Mark was diagnosed with ALS in 1985, shortly after his son was born. The disease robbed him first of muscle function in his arms; he'd been an anesthesiologist but had to give that up upon his diagnosis, and he soon could do nothing with his arms but let them hang at his sides. He learned to use a computer with his feet and did so until the disease robbed him of his ability to use his legs, too. He passed away in November of 2002, just a month before his son turned 18 years old.

Please do check out the auction items. There's no cure for ALS, but there may soon be -- and there's plenty we can do to improve the quality of life for those who still have to live with so cruel of a disease.

Lester just keeps rolling

Jon Lester had a 6.51 ERA in his first eight starts.
Lester has a 2.40 ERA in his last eight starts. He had a 0.00 ERA on Monday in Baltimore.

"Earlier, he's still getting his feet on the ground, getting his feel," catcher Jason Varitek said. "Everybody forgets that he's still 25. He's still developing. He still may go into ruts and do things, but that's part of his maturity."

Opponents hit .311 off Lester through May 15.
Opponents have hit .211 off Lester since May 21. The Orioles went 5-for-26 (.193) against him on Monday in Baltimore.

"It took him a while to get into that feeling," manager Terry Francona said. "But, boy, when things are going a little rocky, he and John Farrell go out there and put their heads together and keep working, and, boy, we're seeing those results now."

Lester allowed 10 home runs in his first eight starts.
Lester has allowed three home runs in his last eight starts. He allowed no home runs on Monday in Baltimore.

"When he was coming up and learning how to pitch, you could see his breaking ball and how he'd get it over for strikes," manager Terry Francona said. "Now he's starting to get some down-and-in to those righties and getting some action. That was a pretty explosive breaking ball."

Lester struck out 54 and walked 16 in his first 47 innings.
Lester has struck out 60 and walked 14 in his last 52 1/3 innings. He struck out eight and walked no one on Monday in Baltimore.

"I don't think he's lacked confidence," Varitek said. "When you're learning and learning yourself at the big-league level, you'll have bumps. But he's had more good stuff happen to him than bumps."


The Red Sox now are 18 games above .500 and have a .618 winning percentage and have a 3 1/2-game lead on the New York Yankees. They're 17-8 in the month of June.

Imagine what they'll do when they start to click.

From April 6-May 15, Red Sox hitters hit .277 with an OPS of .814.
From April 6-May 15, Red Sox pitchers had a 4.90 ERA.

Since May 16, Red Sox hitters have hit .259 with an OPS of .781.
Since May 16, Red Sox pitchers have a 3.22 ERA.

As frightening as it is, this team hasn't played up to its full capability yet.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Leadoff spot agrees with Drew

J.D. Drew was well aware he needed a double to complete the cycle when he strode to the plate in the eighth inning.

"Not a player alive wouldn't know he was ready to hit a double in that situation," said Drew, his bubbly side rising to the surface. "I was trying to hit a double. It just didn't quite work out."

How exactly does one try to hit a double, you might ask?

"I don't know how you try," he said with a chuckle. "I was just going to hit the ball and run straight to second if I had to."

Over the pitcher's mound?

"Right through the middle of the infield."

All joking aside, Terry Francona's decision to flip-flop Drew (.380 OBP) and Dustin Pedroia (.367 OBP) in the Red Sox batting order paid off in spades right away. Drew opened Monday night's game with a triple and Pedroia singled him home, giving the Red Sox a 1-0 lead and Jon Lester all the runs he would need.

"That got a little bit of a reaction in the dugout in the first inning, as you can imagine," Francona said with a smirk.

Pedroia and Drew had gone a combined 7-for-32 (.218) in their last four games batting first and second, respectively, in the Red Sox order. But Francona's decision wasn't a reaction to the results as much as it was a reaction to what it was doing to his second baseman. Pedroia had taken it upon himself to work more counts and see more pitches -- and thus was finding himself taking pitches he normally wouldn't take.

"It did take a little of my aggressiveness away," he said. "When you hit leadoff, you want to get on base so bad. They're throwing pitches on the corner and stuff like that, and, usually, I'm kind of a hacker a little bit, and that took it away from me a little bit. He just said, 'We'll move you down, flip-flop you and J.D., and just go do your thing.'"

Drew, for his part, didn't do anything differently at the plate when he first stepped to the plate. But that's precisely what makes him an ideal leadoff hitter -- his natural approach makes him perhaps the best on-base guy the Red Sox have.

He's such a natural in that spot, in fact, that Francona didn't bother to tell him about the change in person. It wasn't until just after he'd taken his swings in batting practice that he found out he'd be starting the game at the plate rather than in the on-deck circle.

"DeMarlo (Hale) said, 'Hey, you swung the bat like a leadoff hitter in BP,'" Drew said. "I was like, 'What are you talking about?'"

He didn't really need to know. He doesn't make any adjustments.

"I don't really understand the whole concept -- if I'm supposed to take pitches or if I'm supposed to hit the pitches that are right down the middle or what I'm really supposed to do," he said.

A game in which he singled, tripled and homered, well, that's not a bad start.

Pedroia back in No. 2 spot

Dustin Pedroia didn't have to worry about getting on base in his first at-bat on Monday. J.D. Drew was on third base following a leadoff triple, and it seemed as easy as anything for Pedroia to go after a fastball down and in and rip it through the box for an RBI single.

See the ball. Hit the ball. Nothing to it.

For Pedroia, though, there was plenty to it. He'd hit .328 in 48 games as the No. 2 hitter behind Jacoby Ellsbury -- but when Red Sox manager Terry Francona shuffled the lineup and installed Pedroia as his leadoff hitter, the second baseman hit .214 of his next 24 games.

It's easy to make too much of a shift in the lineup. Pedroia's slump has coincided with the recent struggles of Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis, and they haven't moved out of the No. 3 and No. 4 spots since Memorial Day.

But there is something to be said for the mentality of table-setting, Francona said before Monday's game, and for putting too much pressure on yourself to be that spark at the top of the lineup.

"He sees himself hitting first, and he wants so bad to do the right thing that he was getting himself in a hole in the count," Francona said. "He wasn't complaining. He was like, 'I'm fine.' ... It's not the biggest deal who hits first and second. But Pedey's trying too hard to do the right thing, and we just want him to be himself."

One question that naturally arises, of course: If you're going to put Pedroia back in the No. 2 spot in the lineup, why not put Ellsbury back at the top? The speedy center fielder was dropped in the lineup because his .335 on-base percentage wasn't cutting it -- and he's got a .379 on-base percentage since the move was made.

The answer: In that same time span, Drew has an OBP of .411.

"J.D. is a guy that's been getting on base more than driving in runs," Francona said. "To have him in a position where he's driving in runs, it just doesn't make sense to me."

And that's why it made sense to make the move -- even though the Red Sox are 18-7 in the month of June.

"That was the other thing Pedey said: He goes, 'We're winning,'" Francona said. "I said to him, 'Why didn't you tell me if it's bothering you?' He goes, '(Gosh golly gee whiz), we're winning.' That's Pedey. That's why we love him. He cares more about winning than himself."

A buyer for Lugo?

It seemed as though Julio Lugo would be virtually untradeable based on the way he's been buried on the Red Sox bench for the better part of a month. But that might not be the case after all. From FoxSports.com:

Cincinnati's production at third base — the worst in the majors (.554 OPS) entering Sunday — could improve soon if regular starter Edwin Encarnacion makes a successful return from his broken left wrist. He's currently hitting .286 for Class AAA Louisville on a rehabilitation assignment.
So, the bigger infield need may be at shortstop, where Alex Gonzalez could be out until the end of July after having surgery to remove four loose bodies from his throwing elbow.
An interesting possibility could emerge at that position: Julio Lugo.
Yes, Lugo has been maligned in Boston, more for his defense than his offense. He's batting .292, with a .361 on-base percentage. That's better than Gonzalez's performance at shortstop and Willy Taveras' dismal showing as the leadoff man.
Even though he's rarely done it this year, Lugo has experience in the leadoff spot: a lifetime .272 batting average in 393 career games, according to Retrosheet.org.
Lugo is earning $9 million this year. He's set to earn $9 million next year, too. But the Boston Globe reported Sunday that he could be released once Jed Lowrie returns from the disabled list.
If the Red Sox release him, they will responsible for all the money left on his deal, less the major-league minimum. So, Boston officials have some incentive to explore trades now — with the understanding that they'd need to include a large amount of cash, anyway.

The Red Sox still aren't going to get much in return if they trade Lugo. But if they can either save some money or get any kind of prospect out of the deal, they'd be far better off than just releasing him.

What if Lowell can't go?

Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell will receive an injection in his hip this morning as he and the Red Sox try to find a solution for the discomfort he's been feeling. If the injection doesn't do anything for him -- and manager Terry Francona said Sunday he had a similar injection once and it had no effect -- he could wind up on the disabled list.

He's 9 for his last 47 (.191) and has just two extra-base hits since June 7. On top of that, thanks presumably to his hip injury, his range at third base has been among the most limited in baseball. (He ranks 34th among big-league third basemen in Bill James' runs saved statistic, and his Fielding Bible plus-minus is minus-19.)

But with July 31 approaching, as WEEI.com's Rob Bradford has pointed out, third base suddenly has become the biggest question mark on the field. Theo Epstein has to start thinking about worst-case scenarios. No one except possibly the Dodgers can be considered more of a World Series title favorite than the Red Sox at this point, and it would be ludicrous for the Red Sox to miss a chance to win their third title in six years because they hadn't acted to plug a hole at third base.

If they get to a worst-case scenario, if Lowell is feeling so much pain in his hip he either can't play or can't play with any effectiveness, they've got to be prepared. Among the options:

1. Trade for a third baseman
Supply dwindled and demand potentially increased when Adrian Beltre opted to undergo shoulder surgery that will sideline him for at least the next six weeks. Not only would Beltre have been a possible fit -- had the Mariners fallen out of the race in the American League West, that is -- but the Mariners now might think about adding a third baseman themselves.

Now that Mark DeRosa is off the market, dealt to St. Louis over the weekend, it's slim pickings for third basemen. The Red Sox apparently offered Takashi Saito for Texas' Hank Blalock, but Blalock has primarily been a designated hitter this season and hasn't played more than 360 innings (which works out to 40 games) at third base since 2006.

Unless the Orioles show a willingness to deal with a division rival and make Melvin Mora available, there's not much out there.

2. Move Kevin Youkilis to third base full-time and promote a first baseman
Chris Carter and Jeff Bailey both had cups of coffee this spring -- Bailey hit .188 in 69 at-bats, and Carter went hitless with four strikeouts in five at-bats. Carter is hitting .254/.314/.414 at Triple-A Pawtucket this season, and Bailey is hitting .261/.381/.433.

Neither appear to be sensational long-term options -- but that's what might face the Red Sox if Lowell has to shut things down after the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline.

3. Move Youkilis to third base full-time and trade for a first baseman
Yes, that means we get to bring up this guy again.

But he's not the only one out there. Pittsburgh's Adam LaRoche is the last year of his contract, and the Pirates already dealt their center fielder for a haul of prospects. Washington's Adam Dunn fits what the Red Sox want to do with their lineup. Baltimore's Aubrey Huff, too, would be an interesting idea if the Orioles were open to dealing with the Red Sox.


The flexibility of Youkilis gives the Red Sox an opportunity to trade for a first baseman rather than a third baseman. Unless it's someone like LaRoche, a 29-year-old power hitter for whom the Pirates would have to get something worthwhile to stave off a fan mutiny, the Red Sox shouldn't have to part with any of the crown jewels of their system, either.

It's all about insurance. Lowell easily could come back strong after the injection. He also, however, could feel more and more pain as the year progresses and wind up on the disabled list for much of the second half of the season. The best news for the Red Sox is that they have until July 31 to figure out what they're going to get from him -- and if he's going to miss significant time, they'd risk blowing a golden opportunity at a World Series title by not making a deal to replace his bat in the lineup.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Red Sox pitchers tend to see long at-bats, too

You already know that the Red Sox boast a pitch-grinding lineup, that four Red Sox players rank among the American League leaders in pitches per plate appearance.

But it's not just the hitters.

As a team, Red Sox pitchers throw more pitches per plate appeance (3.93) than any other American League team. Individually, here's a cross-section of the American League leaderboard:

1. Erik Bedard, Seattle: 4.10
2. Jon Lester: 4.04
3. Justin Verlander, Detroit: 4.03
4. Matt Garza, Tampa Bay: 4.00
5. Josh Outman, Oakland: 4.00
8. Brad Penny: 3.95
14. Josh Beckett: 3.91
23. Justin Masterson: 3.85
59. Tim Wakefield: 3.47

Obviously, while better hitters tend to see more pitches, the opposite does not hold true for pitchers. Strikeout pitchers, after all, are going to throw more pitches per plate appearance than contact pitchers.

And, not surprisingly, the Red Sox average more pitches per start (100) than any other American League team and have seen their starters throw more than 100 pitches more times (42) than any other American League team, too.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Why J.D. Drew fits

My first mistake, probably, was turning on sports talk radio in the first place.

But I've been moving all week, shuttling boxes and bags from one apartment to another, and that means I've had a chance to check in with what our local experts have to say. This week, of course, it's been all about the Red Sox and Yankees and what exactly it is that the Red Sox have done so much better than the Yankees of late.

The answer is fairly obvious: The Red Sox have drafted and developed players since 2004 far, far better than their pinstriped counterparts. Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon make up a core that's comparable to the Yankees' pre-2000 core of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. The Yankees haven't kept up that type of player development and now could miss the playoffs for a second straight season. The Red Sox, who just keep plugging in homegrown parts like relief pitcher Daniel Bard, have put themselves in a position to succeed both this year and for years to come.

The hosts didn't want to go overboard, though. Theo Epstein has made his share of mistakes, they said. Julio Lugo is a big one. That's a mistake. And everyone knows about J.D. Drew and how overpaid he is, right?

Hold on a second.

We're still doing this?

Yes, J.D. Drew makes quite a bit of money. He's actually the highest-paid player the Red Sox have on their roster, just ahead of David Ortiz and Mike Lowell.

But this is the luxury the Red Sox have afforded themselves with their player-development system. When they see a guy who's a perfect fit for their system, they can overpay to get him -- and J.D. Drew is a perfect fit for their system.

Joe Posnanski outlined last fall the importance of sticking to the plan. Football teams all have to have plans -- if you're a running team, you're looking for wide receivers who are good downfield blockers rather than tremendous pass-catchers, but if you're a passing team, well, that's when you make a gutsy deal for Randy Moss.,

Plans apply to baseball teams, too. The Red Sox have adopted the Oakland A's on-base percentage plan, but they've taken it a step further. The plan for the Red Sox is to grind out every single at-bat and make a pitcher work for every single out. The theory is that it will shorten starts and get into bullpens faster and just generally mean more runs scored against weaker pitching.

Youkilis is a pitch-grinder, the best in the game. Ortiz is a pitch-grinder -- even when he was struggling, he was still averaging four pitches per at-bat and drawing more than his share of walks. Jason Bay is a pitch-grinder, too, a guy who will strike out his share but who also sees pitches and draws walks. Dustin Pedroia is a different type of pitch-grinder: He's patient at the plate and walks quite a bit, but he also can spoil bad pitches as well as anyone in the game. He so rarely swings and misses that he's able to foul off pitch after pitch after pitch in search of the one he wants.

That's already a pretty formidable group of pitch-grinders.

But now you consider J.D. Drew -- to some, the most aggravating player to don a Red Sox uniform in years. The reason he's so aggravating is because he's so willing to take a walk. He seems to have the raw power to hit 30 home runs a year -- he did it with the Braves in 2004 -- but he instead takes his walks and hits his doubles and thus ends up driving in 65 runs every year instead of 100 runs every year.

Drew, however, is a perfect fit for the team approach at the plate the Red Sox have developed. He's seeing 4.22 pitches per at-bat this season -- a career high, sure, but his pitches per at-bat num bers have trended upward for years:

2003: 3.79
2004: 3.97
2005: 3.88
2006: 3.97
2007: 3.93
2008: 4.16
2009: 4.22

The reason the Red Sox overpaid for Drew was because he fits perfectly in a lineup with Pedroia, Youkilis and Ortiz. Manny Ramirez, the predecessor to Bay, routinely saw four pitches per at-bat while he was with the Red Sox -- and Bay is seeing exactly four pitches per at-bat so far this season.

Drew fits the plan. He fits right in with the rest of the pitch-grinders at the top of the Red Sox lineup, guys who will drive opposing starting pitchers absolutely nuts with their refusal to swing at pitches off the plate. It was Drew, remember, who took a borderline pitch with two strikes last Sunday against Atlanta, a pitch that eventually resulted in three Braves being ejected, and yanked the next pitch into right field for a run-scoring single.

That's the plan the Red Sox have. They overpaid to get Drew because he fits what they want to do so perfectly. Even better, it seems to be working: The Red Sox are seeing 3.89 pitches per at-bat as a team -- tied for third-best in the American League. They're also scoring 5.35 runs per game, third-best in the American League.

In fact, if you line the runs-per-game leaders up against the pitches-per-at-bat leaders, they're almos the same. The Rays see 3.98 pitches per plate appearance and are the highest-scoring team in the American League. The Mariners see only 3.71 pitches per plate appearance and are the lowest-scoring team in the American League.

When you make opposing pitchers work, you score more runs. Only five hitters in the American League are forcing opposing pitchers to throw more pitches per at-bat than Drew -- and Youkilis and Joe Mauer are two of those hitters.

Drew fits the plan. The Red Sox, thanks to their investment in young, cheap talent, didn't have to worry about the price tag. If that's a mistake, we probably need a new definition for the word.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Smoltz's first outings back from injury

To expand on today's Union Leader story about how it's dangerous to put too much stock in what John Smoltz does in his first outing today: This isn't the first time Smoltz has tried to come back from surgery on his pitching arm. If he struggles in his first start, well, it wouldn't be the first time for that, either:

Smoltz had bone chips removed from his elbow after a rough 1994 season -- and by "rough," of course, we mean that he had a 4.00-plus ERA for the only time in his career. He underwent surgery in July of 1994 and was ready to go by the time the 1995 season began -- and he had a 2.48 ERA on May 30. Not bad.

After dealing with elbow issues for a couple of years, Smoltz underwent Tommy John surgery in April of 2000 and missed the entire season -- as well as the first six weeks of the 2001 season. The first batter he faced in his first start back was Colorado's Juan Pierre, who singled up the middle. The fourth batter he faced was Jeff Cirillo, who hit a home run. Smoltz lasted just three innings and allowed five earned runs.

He then missed six more weeks before returning as the Braves' closer -- and he allowed a pair of unearned runs in his second stint in short relief.

When Smoltz opened his first season as a starting pitcher after three-plus years as a closer, he did so in inauspicious fashion: He allowed six earned runs in 1 2/3 innings -- and he even walked the opposing pitcher, a 24-year-old flamethrower by the name of Josh Beckett.

His next start, though, was something to behold: He went 7 1/3 innings and allowed just two earned runs, striking out 15 and walking no one.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tracking reliever use a difficult endeavor

ESPN.com's Buster Olney has put together a series he calls the "Bullpen Management Index" in which he examines use -- and abuse -- of relievers by each major league team. For example, he leads off today's entry with the Atlanta Braves:

Only four National League teams have gotten more innings out of their rotation than the Braves, whose rotation is anchored by Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez and Jair Jurrjens, and yet Atlanta has five relievers on pace to make 73 or more appearances, including Peter Moylan, who is on track for 87 appearances. Several Braves relievers are on pace to obliterate career highs in appearances and/or innings pitched, not a good sign.

But innings and appearances aren't all there is to it. Red Sox manager Terry Francona has talked quite a bit this season about the significance of warm-up pitches, of getting warm and sitting down and getting warm again, and how that can contribute as much to a reliever's fatigue as throwing 12 pitches in a game situation.

Baseball stats have come a long way over the last few years. We can predict future success far better using tools like BAPIP than we ever could just with batting averages and earned run averages.

But there's one final frontier no one yet has solved: Relief pitchers. No one yet has figured out how to solve the riddle that is the relief pitcher. Just look at the Tampa Bay Rays: A year ago, Grant Balfour (1.54 ERA), J.P. Howell (2.22 ERA) and Dan Wheeler (3.12 ERA) led a bullpen that played a huge role in getting the Rays to the World Series. So far this year, Howell has a 1.82 ERA but Wheeler (4.24 ERA) and Balfour (5.01 ERA) haven't been close to what they were a year ago.

Olney, by looking at appearances and innings pitched, certainly is going in the right direction: The more managers wear down their relievers, the worse they're going to pitch down the stretch. But, again, it's not just appearances.

Francona, in the Red Sox dugout, begins each game with a couple of charts taped to the wall. One chart represents his bullpen -- and it breaks down each pitcher by usage over the last week. If he threw 17 pitches in two-thirds of an inning the day before, the chart will say that. If he got up in the bullpen the day before, the chart will say that, too -- with an extra indication if he got up in the bullpen more than once.

Throwing and sitting and throwing and sitting can produce more wear and tear on a middle reliever's arm than pitching in a game. Francona makes an effort not to get guys up more than once; he usually doesn't warm up more than one pitcher at a time just because he doesn't want to waste bullets in the bullpen.

Olney, though, doesn't have bullpen stats. No one does. The Red Sox track usage of their own pitchers week to week and might even keep the stats for each guy over the course of the season, but no one has any sort of warmed-up-in-the-bullpen stat.

Until we can really measure how often each pitcher has to throw -- including whether or not a guy has to get up and throw two or three different times before coming into a game -- we're not going to be able to figure out which relievers have been used conservatively and which relievers are about to have their arms fall off.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Veteran hitters going in opposite directions

If you just look at David Ortiz's percentages, as you well know, you'll still think he's having a terrible season. He's hitting .213 (92nd in the American League) and OBP'ing .310 (76th in the American League) and slugging .370 (84th in the American League).

But Ortiz has, over his last 14 games:
* A .333 batting average
* A .447 on-base percentage
* A .769 slugging percentage
* Five home runs
* Nine RBI
* Nine runs scored

If he were to keep up that type of pace for the rest of the season, he'd finish the year with 39 home runs and 90 RBI.

He's not going to keep up that pace for the rest of the year, of course. But there's a big reason you don't hear any more talk about Nick Johnson or anyone like that: Big Papi isn't just pulling his weight. He's hitting like Big Papi again. The home run he hit through a driving mist into the second row of the Green Monster seats was as hard-hit a ball as you'll see all season.

"He feels like he's hitting the ball well -- and he looks like he's hitting the ball well," outfielder J.D. Drew said. "He's squared up a lot of pitches, and he's gotten some big hits. Just leave him alone and let him play, and it'll work out well."


Jason Varitek felt so good about the two doubles he'd hit off Derek Lowe on Saturday night that he forgot he doesn't like to talk about his own hitting.

"I've hit some balls hard over the past week, 10 days, and haven't had the results," he said. "Maybe I didn't hit a ball as hard as hard and got a result. It's a crazy game."

The veteran catcher will take anything he can, of course. But you can't help but wonder if that big day -- aided by the fact that the official scorer didn't penalize Garret Anderson for a ball that deflected off his glove in front of the Green Monster -- was just a brief reprieve. Even with that big day, he's hitting .186 and slugging .390 over his last 18 games. That's not a good sign for a guy who started last season with quite a bit of promise, too. Check out these numbers:

April-May: .272/.353/.470
June: .122/.205/.176
July-September: .217/.322/.343
ALDS: .214/.214/.214
ALCS: .050/.174/.200

April-May: .239/.327/.522
June: .190/.320/.333

Terry Francona gave Mike Lowell back-to-back days off over the weekend to give the veteran infielder a chance to rest his sore hip. Particularly with the way George Kottaras has been hitting of late -- .355/.382/.581 in sporadic duty over the last month -- it might be worth giving Varitek a few more days off than he's been getting.

As John Smoltz has said so often, it's not about one or two games in June or July with this team. It's about October.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Green's highlight reel keeps growing

The last time Dusty Brown saw Nick Green, the catcher and shortstop both were longshots to make the Red Sox roster. Green had come to spring training as a nonroster invitee well behind Jed Lowrie and Julio Lugo on the depth chart at shortstop. Brown had come to spring training with the big-league club for the third straight year -- and for the third straight year, he had virtually no shot to be anywhere on April 1 but Triple-A Pawtucket.

Green, as has been well-documented, ended up making the 25-man roster thanks to Lugo's knee surgery, and he stuck on the roster thanks to Lowrie's wrist surgery. Brown got his first call to the major leagues late Saturday night when Terry Francona and Theo Epstein realized they had a chance to add an extra catcher once Daisuke Matsuzaka was placed on the disabled list.

"He played so well in spring training, you hoped he would get a shot," Brown said, "and he did."

Brown, wearing an I'm-only-here-until-Thursday No. 59 on his back, was out in the bullpen warming up Manny Delcarmen when he heard a sharp crack of the bat on the first pitch of the bottom of the ninth inning.

"I didn't even get a very good look at it," he said. "I heard it and the crowd started cheering, ... and the next thing I know, it gets louder and he's rounding the bases. It was cool."

That it was. In the Hollywood story that is the Red Sox career of Nick Green, it might not ever get any better than this.

Green himself, though, wasn't totally aware of what was going on. All he knew was that he'd seen a fastball he liked, and he'd taken his best whack at it. He knew he'd hit it pretty well, but a fierce wind blowing in all afternoon already had knocked down a couple of would-be home runs -- including a bullet to center field by Atlanta's Nate McLouth in the fifth inning and Casey Kotchman in the seventh.

"McLouth couldn't hit it any harder to right, and that's Casey Kotchman's best shot," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He crushed that ball."

Said Green, "The last thing I wanted to do was hit the ball in the air right there. The wind was so bad. I thought I hit it decent to right field, but I thought it was going to be caught."

Green actually helped himself by hitting it down the right-field line -- the wind wasn't quite as fierce there as it was in the alleys. He didn't know it was gone until he saw it settle into the bleachers behind the Pesky Pole.

But it wasn't until he looked back at home plate, where a mob of white jerseys were in a Father's Day frenzy, that it dawned on him what he'd really done.

"For some reason, I didn't comprehend it was the bottom of the ninth until I hit second base," said Green, who hit a walk-off home run for the Braves against the Red Sox five years ago. "Once I hit second, I saw everybody at home plate and realized what was going on."

He didn't even get his helmet off in time. David Ortiz -- who hit a home run himself, his sixth of the season -- has perfected the art of the helmet toss in the home stretch of his trot to the plate. Green, though, hasn't done it enough to know better -- and he got himself pummeled. He had his helmet on when he disappeared into the mob, but it was long gone by the time he emerged.

"I was hoping not to get hit, but I did," Green said. "I'm sure a couple of people enjoyed it -- Josh Beckett, for one."

Green had to have enjoyed it, too, even if he'll wake up with a couple of bruises on Monday morning. He hasn't just turned shortstop from a position of weakness for the Red Sox almost into a position of strength. He's made some very real contributions to a team that's as well-positioned to win the World Series as any in the game.

"We've talked a lot about the evolution of this from non-roster in spring training," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "It's gotten to the point where he's just been a really good player -- not just a really good non-roster player., but a really good major-league player, hopefully, on a winning team."

Walk-off or no walk-off, though, he still sees himself as that same guy who was fighting for everything he could get back in spring training. Heck, he still owns a "Rescue Squad" T-shirt.

"I still feel like I'm still filling a hole," he said. "It's one of those things where, if I get overconfident, I'm probably going to not do well. I still feel like I'm a utility guy at the moment. Except that I'm a shortstop, per se, I'm just going to do whatever job they want me to do."

Matsuzaka on DL, so Brown gets first call-up

Having waited until the horde of reporters cleared out of the way, Dusty Brown wandered over toward the office of Red Sox manager Terry Francona. He walked over slowly, not sure whether he should knock on the half-open door or wait for someone to come out and say something to him.

It was like being called to the principal's office -- only the exact opposite.

The Red Sox today placed Daisuke Matsuzaka on the disabled list with weakness in his throwing shoulder, weakness that Francona maintains stems from his inability to ease into his throwing this spring the way the team's other pitchers did. Instead of throwing two innings and taking it easy the first time he faced hitters, Matsuzaka "pitched in earnest before he was ready to," Francona said. "There's no getting around that. I don't know how you can. You just hope it doesn't affect your guys."

There was no reason to activate John Smoltz until Thurday, though, which meant the Red Sox essentially would have been wasting a roster spot for most of the week. Brown was recalled hastily from Triple-A Pawtucket -- he flew in this morning from Durham, N.C. -- to provide a little depth at catcher and ensure Jason Varitek wouldn't have to play today even if something were to happen to George Kottaras.

"When I came down and talked to Theo (Epstein), I was like, 'You know, we've got a day off Monday, and it's almost like a free roster spot until Smoltz comes back on,'" Francona said. "I said, 'You know what? We always try to stay away from 'Tek on a day game, and Dusty is almost on the roster.' He was like, 'Let's get him here.'"

Brown had to be pulled out of the shower late Saturday night after the PawSox pulled out a come-from-behind victory over the Durham Bulls. Early this morning, he was on a quick flight from the Raleigh-Durham airport to Boston. His flight landed at 10:30 a.m., and he walked into the clubhouse right around 11.

He hadn't yet had a chance to greet many of the players when reporters surrounded him at his new locker in the corner. He was especially looking forward to finding Kottaras, with whom he split catching duties at Pawtucket last season.

"I haven't even seen Georgie yet," he said. "He hasn't been in the clubhouse since I've been in here. I'll definitely be in his ear all day."

Brown will stay with the team for the next three days or so -- including the off-day on Monday -- before being dispatched back to Triple-A Pawtucket on Thursday to make room for Smoltz.

"I'm looking forward to whatever I get when I'm here," he said. "I'm just excited to be here."

Brown is hitting .239 and OBP'ing .347 in 163 at-bats at Triple-A Pawtucket this season. The fact that Michael Bowden and Clay Buchholz have a 1.90 ERA and 3.26 ERA, respectively, and the PawSox have the third-best ERA (3.39) in the International League means he's doing that part of his job pretty well.

"It's been up and down," he said. "Defensively, it's been pretty good, and what our pitching staff has done has been pretty good. I've struggled offensively more than I would like to, but there's been some bright spots."

None of that matters now, though: He's in the big leagues.

Jacoby stays on message

Jacoby Ellsbury drew just 10 walks in his first 224 plate appearances (4.4 percent), all at the top of the Red Sox order. Since he was bumped down to eighth in the batting order, he's walked nine times in 60 plate appearances (15 percent). His on-base percentage has jumped from .332 to .355.

He's got it now, clearly. He's totally overhauled his hitting approach. He's drinking the Kevin Youkilis Kool-Aid. He's an on-base machine. Right?

"I haven't changed a thing," Ellsbury said. "I haven't changed a thing."

Say what?

"I've had the same approach," he went on. "Basically, I'm just taking what they're giving me. I've always been pretty patient as a hitter, but if they're throwing you strikes, you can't take strikes. They're going to hang a strikeout-looking on you. But they've been off the plate a little more, and I'm just taking what they're giving me."

That's got to be a little disheartening to hear if you're Theo Epstein or Terry Francona -- for two reasons:

1. Ellsbury hasn't made an effort to change his approach.
2. Ellsbury believes he's "always been pretty patient as a hitter."

So far this season, Ellsbury is swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone than any Red Sox hitter except Nick Green. A year ago, he swung at more pitches out of the strike zone than any Red Sox hitter except Dustin Pedroia.

Strike-zone discipline sometimes takes time to learn -- just Atlanta's Chipper Jones, who is fifth among active players in on-base percentage.

"There are certain times when teams are absolutely not going to let me beat them," Jones said in an interview on Friday. "I have to be quick to realize when those situations arise and when I just have to take my walk and let the guy behind me do the damage. But you’re talking about a guy who, this is my 16th year in the big leagues. It’s hard enough for me to do it, much less a guy who’s been in the league two or three years. It’s almost impossible for them to stay patient."

Ellsbury, in one sense, is correct. He has been seeing more pitches out of the strike zone. The pitchers against whom he's been walking -- Philadelphia's Antonio Bastardo and Florida's Andrew Miller, for example -- had control issues against the Red Sox in general and not just against Ellsbury.

"Even as a young kid, I've had a pretty good eye," he said. "But when you're a leadoff hitter or you're a guy who can run, they're not going to want to walk you. If they walk you, you have a chance of stealing a base. The game speeds up, and it puts a lot of pressure on the defense if you can steal. Teams definitely don't want to give guys that can steal bases a base on balls."

There's an expression for that: Self-fulfilling prophecy. If Ellsbury goes up the plate convinced he's going to see nothing but strikes, he's going to do nothing but swing. If he does nothing but swing, he's not going to get on base. Check out the numbers:

Swing percentage:
J.D. Drew: 37.7 percent
Kevin Youkilis: 37.7
Jason Bay: 38.9
Dustin Pedroia: 39.1
Mike Lowell: 42.3
Jacoby Ellsbury: 42.4
Jason Varitek: 42.5
David Ortiz: 46.4
Nick Green: 56.3

On-base percentage:
Kevin Youkilis: .446
Jason Bay: .400
J.D. Drew: .386
Dustin Pedroia: .379
Jacoby Ellsbury: .355
Nick Green: .335
Mike Lowell: .324
Jason Varitek: .320
David Ortiz: .308

The same four make up the top of both lists. That's not coincidence.


Fun fact from Saturday's 3-0 win over the Braves: The last time Nick Green faced Derek Lowe, it was the Fourth of July in 2004. Lowe was with the Red Sox. Green was with the Braves -- and so, too, were J.D. Drew and John Smoltz.

Green and Drew delivered the game's biggest hits -- Green singled home the tying run and Drew followed with a two-run double. The Braves knocked Lowe out in the fifth inning of what would be his worst start of the season. Smoltz then pitched a scoreless ninth inning to close it out.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Beckett lets pitching do the talking

Here's a contrast for you: While the Red Sox were stuffing their No. 3 starter in an MRI tube and diagnosing weakness in his arm that almost certainly will land him on the disabled list, their No. 1 starter needed just 94 pitches to toss a complete game against the same team that had absolutely pounded the aforementioned No. 3 starter the night before.

Even better, it was a tremendous bounce-back effort from an ace who had allowed six earned runs in six innings the last time he pitched. He gave a taxed bullpen a night off, and he gave a packed house at Fenway Park something to cheer from start to finish.

"He had good, quality location with his fastball, changed the tilt of his fastball, threw his sinker and four-seamer," catcher Jason Varitek said. "I don't think he had a great breaking ball tonight. He had good break to it, but he didn't have as good of a feel. He mixed in some changeups and cutters. Strike one with quality location."

"I thought he pitched unbelievable," shortstop Nick Green said. "His location was good with his fastball again today, and he was throwing everything else for strikes, too. He was fun to play behind, and he made it a quick game and got a lot of outs quick, so it was fun."

"It was good," Josh Beckett said.

The Red Sox ace allowed five hits and struck out 11 seven en route to his first complete game of the season. He had a chance to let things get out of hand in the eighth inning but started the inning-ending double play himself, fielding a one-hopper and throwing a strike to Green at second base.

"J.D. (Drew) thought I was going to put my glove down and swing at it," Green said. "It was a perfect throw, so it's easy to turn like that."

"That was probably the biggest pitch," Beckett said.

He then needed just five pitches -- including two 96-mile-an-hour fastballs -- to retire the side in order in the ninth inning. His velocity seemed to dip a little bit in the middle innings, but he looked as strong in the ninth inning as he did in the first.

"The whole game of baseball is predicated on the fastball," Beckett said. "It wouldn't do you any good to go out there and throw nothing but changeups if you don't throw any fastballs."

The 3-0 victory pushed the team's lead in the American League East to three games over the Yankees, losers by a 2-1 score in Florida on Saturday.

"We played good defense and scored enough runs," Beckett said.

The Braves had jumped all over Daisuke Matsuzaka on Friday. Nate McLouth hit the first pitch into the bullpen, and Matsuzaka never really recovered. Beckett threw strikes from the start -- he missed the strike zone just twice in the first inning, and one of those was a pitch in the dirt that led to Chipper Jones being thrown out trying to get to second base.

The more aggressive the Braves got, the better the Red Sox ace got.

"Efficiency sometimes is how aggressive they are," Varitek said. "They were aggressive and put some balls in play earlier in the count, and that's big for a power pitcher like Josh."

"We had a good plan going in, and I think we executed it really well," Beckett said.

The result was that he outpitched former Red Sox star Derek Lowe, who pitched 6 1/3 solid innings in his first trip back to Fenway Park since he received his World Series ring four years ago.

"D-Lowe, that's the guy we've seen so much," Francona said. "When it's down, there's not a lot you can do with it. You know what's coming, but it's hard to get it in the air. One inning, we squared up three balls and didn't have much to show for it. We stayed in the middle, and then he really established the two-seamer down and the breaking ball, and it was hard for us to do much with it. ... He was the guy we remember when he was going good. That was pretty effective."

"I'm trying to stay pitch-to-pitch and just worry about myself," Beckett said. "I can't worry about what everyone else is doing."

He did, however, notice the ovation Lowe got from the Red Sox faithful upon his exit from the game, a well-deserved tribute for the critical postseason innings he pitched in 2004.

"The Boston fans, they don't forget their guys," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "You would absolutely think that they would give him a standing ovation."

"Yeah, I saw it," Beckett said. "It was good."

Matsuzaka likely DL-bound

Daisuke Matsuzaka underwent an MRI exam and several strength tests before and during Saturday's game against the Braves. Red Sox manager Terry Francona was not about to make any kind of announcement -- the Red Sox don't have to make a roster move until Thursday -- but it didn't sound like Matsuzaka was going to go anywhere but on the disabled list.

"I don't think it's any surprise that there's some weakness we're going to have to fix," he said. "We've been fighting this all year. It's been hard. I know I keep coming back to the (World Baseball Classic) and that's probably not a real popular thing in baseball to say that, but he didn't really have a chance to get a foundation. He ramped up to try to get people out, probably, before he was ready. Physically, it's happened to pitchers where they're pitching in earnest before their bodies or their arms are ready to do that. I think we've paid the price for that. We've been playing catch-up. We did what we thought was right to shut him down earlier, and I think we all see that it's not really getting better. It's been a struggle."

Red Sox to skip Dice-K's next start

Red Sox manager Terry Francona said this afternoon that the Red Sox are going to run some tests to find an injury that explains why Daisuke Matsuzaka has been so ineffective this season.

OK, Francona didn't say it quite that way. Here's what he did say:

"We stayed here late last night, Theo (Epstein) and John Farrell, and we came back this morning because we have some decisions to make on our rotation. What we talked about and met and decided was, going forward next week, we are not going to start Dice-K. When he got here today, we called him in to talk about that. It became apparent, into the meeting, that ... we need to get him looked at physically.

"It's Saturday afternoon, and, hopefully, that process will get started quickly. He will be looked at by (team doctor) Tom Gill and the trainers, and ... you're talking about potential MRIs that may not be done at quarter to 4 on a Saturday when we just got done with our meeting. But that all will be coming fairly soon, hopefully, and we will try to get better answers."

Here's more: "We need to get him looked at physically. It all started with the (World Baseball Classic) and him not having, in his own words, a consistent base. We've been fighting that all year and continue to. When you take a guy out of the rotation, rather than just take a guy out of the rotation, we want to fix it. It became very obvious as we talked to him that we need to look at some things physically."

Here's more: "I've watched him for three years now, and it looks to me like he's struggling to get the velocity he could get before a little easier. That's consistent with when he came back after the WBC. He ramped up pretty quick to pitch in games that meant a lot to him, and I understand that, but there wasn't that base to build off for the entire season."

Here's even more: "When we get out of a meeting at 3:30, we can't have a medical opinion at 4:15. It's just not going to happen."

Here's still more, in response to a question about putting Matsuzaka on the disabled list: "We don't have to do something. He pitched yesterday. We're certainly not going to pitch him tomorrow. We've got Monday off. We'd rather go slower and use proper judgment. That's what we'll do. In fairness to him and us and everybody, we'll do it correctly."

You can take all that however you want. Francona himself said things he and others say tend to be construed numerous different ways. You can, however, take several things to be absolutely true:

1. The Red Sox do not believe Matsuzaka is a viable option to make his next start.
2. The Red Sox do not know of any injury afflicting Matsuzaka at this point.
3. The Red Sox are going to do everything they can to figure out what is wrong with Matsuzaka.

From here? The smart money is on Matsuzaka being placed on the disabled list with whatever injury the Red Sox medical team finds. His fastball velocity is down a tick from last year, and that might be justification enough.

Smoltz will assume Matsuzaka's spot in the Red Sox rotation on Thursday. Beyond that? The Red Sox have no answers. They wish they did.

Much has changed since Lowe left

It's not as familiar for Derek Lowe as you might think.

Sure, the ballpark is the same. Many of the fans who will give him what's sure to be a spine-tingling standing ovation are the same.

But the locker room isn't the same. Lowe now has to dress in the smaller, cozier visitors' clubhouse on the third-base side -- a place he always took for granted when he had a regular locker in the home clubhouse on the first-base side.

"I've never been down here," he said. "I didn't even know where the visiting clubhouse was."

And the team isn't the same, either.

In fact, of the players who were regulars on the 2004 team with which Lowe won the World Series, only three remain: David Ortiz, Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield. (Kevin Youkilis had almost 250 at-bats in 2004 and was on the postseason roster, but he mostly rode the Pawtucket shuttle until 2006.)

"I texted (Varitek and Wakefield) this week," Lowe said. "Throughout the season, it's hard to keep in touch with everybody. They knew we were coming to town. It's not like you're asking to go to dinner because you're in town, have a reunion, what have you, but it's always good to catch up and wish them well. I still root for them just like I do the Dodgers. Just because you don't play for a team does't mean you can't root for them."

Lowe won't be able to spend too much basking in the affection of the Fenway Park crowd today. He's got work to do. He had a 3.44 ERA through his first 13 starts before being shelled at Baltimore on Sunday, allowing seven earned runs in 2 1/3 innings in a game his Braves lost by an 11-2 score.

But that doesn't mean he's not going to enjoy an opportunity to revisit one of the most memorable seasons of his career.

Lowe had a 5.42 ERA in his final season with the Red Sox but cemented his legend with a sensational postseason in which he had a 1.86 ERA and won all three series-clinching games. He capped his Red Sox career with seven shutout innings in Game 4 of the World Series in St. Louis before Bronson Arroyo, Alan Embree and Keith Foulke closed it out.

He's compiled a 3.63 ERA and 61 wins in the four-plus seasons since he left Boston, making him perhaps the most successful of the star players who have departed the Red Sox in recent years.

When he signed with Atlanta, he knew the Braves' natural interleague rival was the Red Sox and that he'd end up back at Fenway Park for the first time since he collected his World Series ring four years ago. He just didn't know if his turn in the rotation would come up this weekend.

"It didn't look like it would for a long time, but we ended up having two rainouts," he said. (The rainouts were May 17 and June 6, which shows you how long he's had this weekend circled on his calendar.) "I wasn't trying to manipulate the system to find a way to pitch here. With this offense in this park, you're probably better off trying to skip it."

But it worked out, and he'll get a chance tonight to pitch at Fenway Park for the first time since that magical summer five years ago.

"It's going to be an exciting night," he said. "There's no doubt about it."

Friday, June 19, 2009

Red Sox have luxury of skipping a Dice-K start

Terry Francona loves to tell reporters they're getting way ahead of him -- particularly when it comes to his pitching.

No one bothered, then, to ask Francona immediately after the game if Daisuke Matsuzaka would make his next scheduled start. The only question along those lines was more vague than that: What do you do from here?

"We've got an off-day Monday, and we'll certainly sit down," the Red Sox manager said. "We have the ability to be a little flexible in what we do going forward. Saying that, I don't know that it makes a lot of sense to do something beofre the off-day. We'll see where we line up after that."

Pitching John Farrell, asked specifically when Matsuzaka would make his next start. John Smoltz already is lined up to pitch on Thursday in Washington, the day Matsuzaka's next turn in the rotation comes up.

"Until that determination comes from within, we haven't announced a rotation beyond that," Farrell said.

Matsuzaka, though, wasn't vague.

"If I keep going like this, I have no right to be part of this rotation," he said through interpreter Masa Hoshino.

He's not kidding. He began the game with a fastball right over the heart of the plate that Nate McLouth hit into the Atlanta Braves' bullpen in right field. He then threw a fastball over the middle that Yunel Escobar ripped into left field for a single, and he followed that with a fastball down and in that Chipper Jones yanked into right field for a double.

(Give credit to the Braves for having the right game plan. Matsuzaka normally is a pitcher who nibbles around the strike zone, but he's made more of an effort in his last couple of starts to throw the ball over the plate with more consistency. The Braves adjusted accordingly and jumped all over him.)

After that, he decided he didn't want to throw the ball in the strike zone anymore -- and he threw eight straight balls to Brian McCann and Garret Anderson, forcing home a run.

Only an unbelievably lucky break saved him -- Casey Kotchman's rocket of a line drive hit Kevin Youkilis right in the glove and right in a spot where he could double up Anderson to end the inning with the Red Sox still in the game.

"It's just him executing his pitches," catcher Jason Varitek said. "Everyone's making a grand deal about something that he can do -- and he'll be able to do. If he's not, he's going to have those results."

Said Matsuzaka, "After I came out of the game, I checked myself on the video. What I saw was completely different from what I actually thought I was doing, so I was quite disappointed."

The Red Sox are going to have some decisions to make. Here are some of the options:

* Stick with Matsuzaka.
It's an option. As Francona and Farrell say every time they get the chance, Matsuzaka won more than 30 games in his first two big-league seasons. He had to have been doing something right.

"We have confidence in everybody," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "Everybody goes through tough times. You play so many games. He's had so many starts that he's going to have a bad start, but there's going to be more good starts than bad starts, I can guarantee you that. We're confident that he's going to bounce back and be fine."

* Send Matsuzaka to Triple-A.
Per his contract, Matsuzaka can't be sent to Pawtucket without his permission -- but the way he was talking on Friday night, he sounded like it might be a bigger blow to his pride to get shelled than it would be to get demoted.

It would give Daniel Bard a reprieve, anyway.

* Place Matsuzaka on the disabled list.
This is a popular suggestion, but it's not an easy one to pull off given that Matsuzaka is showing no sign of any kind of physical ailment. Heck, he's not even pretending like there's any kind of physical ailment.

"No structural issues," Farrell said. "No health issues. It's a matter of more consistent location."

It'd be a tough sell, given that the league already has started to talk about disabled-list shenanigans and teams using the disabled list to stash players who are ineffective rather than injured.

* Skip Matsuzaka's next start.
Don't rule it out. The Red Sox have six starting pitchers and already have slotted Smoltz into the schedule where Matsuzaka next is scheduled to pitch. The Red Sox easily could leave the two-time World Baseball Classic MVP on the active roster but skip his next start and give him until June 30 at Baltimore for him to work through his command issues and find some solutions.

Josh Beckett, Tim Wakefield, Brad Penny and Jon Lester would follow Smoltz in order, on normal rest, and the Red Sox would have 10 days to figure out what's wrong with their $51 million man.

The only downside would be a shorthanded bullpen. Given that no one is being shipped out when Smoltz returns, the Red Sox will be operating with a shorthanded bullpen anyway -- and if they can't survive a three-game series with the Washington Nationals with six relievers, they're going to have bigger problems on their hands.

All sorts of emotions for Smoltz as Braves arrive

John Smoltz is a PGA Tour-caliber golfer who can hold his own with the greatest the game has ever seen.

But Chipper Jones has seen him blow a putt about as badly as a putt can be blown.

"He had about a six-foot putt on 18 to beat Tiger out at Isleworth one day," said Jones, whose Braves will play three games at Fenway Park this weekend. "Tiger came up and stood next to me on the green and goes, 'I'll bet he doesn't even hit the cup with this putt.'

"Smoltzie missed it by like eight inches. He gagged a little bit."

Jones delighted in the chance to give Smoltz, his teammate with the Braves for more than a decade, something of a hard time. Smoltz actually was the guy who used to give his own teammates a hard time for feeling nostalgic when their old teams came to town: Greg Maddux against the Cubs, for example, or Fred McGriff against the Padres.

"I'd tell them to let it go, give it up," Smoltz said with a grin. "I've already heard that."

Smoltz won't pitch against the Braves this weekend and, barring a rainout forcing the two teams to meet against sometime in July or August, won't pitch against them this season. But just being in the opposing dugout made for some mixed emotions on Friday.

"You can't erase history," Smoltz said. "You can't erase friendships, and certainly, there are many over there. I've never been in this situation before."

Still, though, he's having some fun with it.

"I wish I could be an umpire," he said, "and have a comment for each guy that either tries to get to first base or gets to first base. That's what I wish. Or a first baseman, because I would enjoy that part of it."

He's just glad he doesn't have to pitch against the Braves this weekend. It's tough enough to start his season when hitters already have 200 at-bats under their belts. It's tough enough to try to figure out how best to ease his way back after having undergone shoulder surgery. Having to face a team for which he played for more than 20 years might be a little too much.

"Later on, it would be a lot more fun," he said. "It really would -- and I'd have fun with it. I know how to have fun and compete. I've done it against Glavine and Maddux. I'd do it against the Braves. I'd have a good time. If they beat me, it's not because I wasn't prepared or not fiercely going after them. If I beat them, same thing.

"I've thrown to just about every one of those guys in (batting practice) at some point. I've watched their swings."

He's watched all of the Braves' baseball swings. He's also watched a few of the Braves' golf swings -- and while Jones can give him a hard time, the reigning National League batting champ is a far better hitter than golfer.

"I'm not in the same area code," Jones said.

Said Smoltz, "He'd better have three dozen golf balls with him, and that might be running it close. If you play a tough course with a lot of water and he's got to put his driver in his hand, he's going to lose a lot of golf balls.

"But I always say this about Chipper: If he ever really tried to play that game seriously, he has enough talent and length to play it pretty well. He just doesn't get a chance to play very often. When he does, he hits it a long ways but all over the place."

Epstein in uncharted waters as July 31 approaches

With all the talk about John Smoltz and Brad Penny and Jed Lowrie and David Ortiz and the July 31 trade deadline, something seems to have been overlooked: This Red Sox team doesn't need anything.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Barring injury, this Red Sox team doesn't need anything. There's nothing at all out there that would give them reason to trade away Michael Bowden or Josh Reddick or Casey Kelly.

There's not much on the market that would be an upgrade on Lowrie. There's not much on the market that would be an upgrade on Ortiz. There's not much on the market that would be an upgrade on Rocco Baldelli or Mark Kotsay. There's not much on the market that would be an upgrade on anyone in the majors' best bullpen.

That's almost unfathomable. The July trading deadline is fast approaching, and the first item on the agenda of general manager Theo Epstein is going to involve trading away a former All-Star Game starter or doing some creative juggling with the two-time Most Valuable Player of the World Baseball Classic so as to make room for a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer.

It's amazing how far this franchise has come in the last six years. But the position of power in which the Red Sox find themselves now only looks more amazing when you look back at some of the deadline moves the Red Sox have had to make since Epstein took over as general manager:

Needs: Pitching, pitching and pitching. John Burkett and Casey Fossum both had ERAs over 5.00, and Ramiro Mendoza looked like he was still being paid by the Yankees rather than by the Red Sox. Someone named Jason Shiell allowed five earned runs in one three-game stretch in the last week of June.
Acquisitions: Byung-Hyun Kim, Scott Sauerbeck, Scott Williamson and Jeff Suppan.

Kim pitched better than posterity has given him credit for; he had a 3.18 ERA in 49 appearances, including five starts. Suppan, on the other hand, wasn't particularly effective -- he had a 5.92 ERA in his 10 starts in August and September and did not pitch in the postseason. Sauerbeck, too, was something of a disaster; he allowed 12 earned runs in 16 2/3 innings pitched and made just one postseason appearance.

Williamson, though, almost pitched the Red Sox to the World Series. (We all remember it: "Timlin in the eighth. Williamson in the ninth.") By the ALCS against the Yankees, he effectively had become the Red Sox closer -- and had Grady Little opted to use him when Pedro Martinez ran into trouble, he could have clinched a pennant for the Red Sox.

Needs: Defensive help -- and a total shakeup, particularly after Nomar Garciaparra made three errors in two midsummer games at Yankee Stadium and sat out the third. The Red Sox were swept.
Acquisitions: Orlando Cabrera, Doug Mienkiewicz, Dave Roberts.

You know the story.

Needs: Pitching, mostly. Jonathan Papelbon was a starter. Curt Schilling was the closer. Wade Miller was in and out of the rotation. Chaos.
Acquisitions: Chad Bradford, Alex Cora, Jose Cruz Jr.

"Moneyball" hero Bradford had a 3.86 ERA in 31 appearances out of the bullpen, but he allowed five earned runs in his final 5 2/3 innings as the Red Sox slipped into a tie for first place with the Yankees in the final week of the season. (They then would be swept by the eventual World Series champion White Sox in the Division Series.)

Cora spent the next three seasons as a valuable utility infielder with the Red Sox and won a pair of World Series rings. Cruz, on the other hand, appeared in just four games with the Red Sox before he was placed on waivers and claimed by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Needs: Pitching, mostly. Bronson Arroyo had been traded away, and Matt Clement, Kyle Snyder and Lenny DiNardo weren't exactly doing the trick. The bullpen was populated by guys who were too young (Manny Delcarmen) or too ineffective (Jermaine Van Buren) or both (Craig Hansen).
Acquisitions: Bryan Corey.

The Red Sox were in first place by a game when the deadline passed despite a thin starting rotation and an even thinner bullpen. Corey had a 4.57 ERA in 21 2/3 innings with the Red Sox down the stretch as part of a pitching staff that saw 27 different pitchers make at least five appearances. (So far this year, the Red Sox have had just 14 pitchers make at least two appearances -- a particularly impressive feat given that they carry 12 on the staff at any one time.)

The Red Sox lost seven of their next nine after the deadline passed and had a 5.27 ERA as a team en route to a third-place finish behind the Yankees and the Blue Jays.

Needs: Relief pitching. The Red Sox led the American League East by seven games at the deadline and had a formidable starting rotation, particularly with rookie Jon Lester making his way back from cancer treatment. But things got a little dicey deep in the bullpen after you got past Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima and the ageless Mike Timlin.
Acquisitions: Eric Gagne.

Whoops. Gagne had a 6.75 ERA in 20 appearances down the stretch and a 6.23 ERA in five postseason appearances. It ended up being youngster Manny Delcarmen who stabilized the bullpen, compiling a 1.52 ERA in August and September.

Needs: For Manny to Be Manny somewhere else. Oh, and pitching. Clay Buchholz flopped in his first full-time opportunity with the Red Sox, and Bartolo Colon (seven starts) and David Pauley (two starts) weren't exactly what the doctor ordered.
Acquisitions: Jason Bay, Paul Byrd.

In the team's most ground-shaking trade since 2004, the Red Sox shipped Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a three-way deal that landed them Bay from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Ramirez immediately went on a tear that may or may not have been chemically assisted. Bay hit .293 and slugged .527 down the stretch and hit .341 and slugged .634 as the Red Sox took the Tampa Bay Rays to Game 7 in the ALCS.

Byrd made eight starts and compiled a 4.78 ERA. He was included on the postseason roster as a long reliever but made only one appearance.

Needs: None. As long as Lowrie can play above-average defense at shortstop, there aren't any. The Red Sox have never enjoyed the depth of talent they enjoy this year. Never.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dustin Pedroia: Rainout Negotiator

(If this blog had sound effects, you'd hear the William Shatner/Priceline theme music playing in the background. You'll just have to imagine it.)

Postponements become problematic during interleague play.

The Florida Marlins, naturally, make only one trip to Fenway Park this season. That left both teams scrambling a little bit when rain threatened Thursday's game, the final game of the three-game series. The Marlins play in New York on Friday, and the Red Sox are scheduled to host the Atlanta Braves. There's no easy way to reschedule the game without forcing the Marlins to make a one-day trip back to Boston -- and no one wants that.

Player representatives play a critical role in rescheduling postponed games. The collective bargaining agreement guarantees players certain rights when it comes to makeup games -- especially in cases when one or both teams would have to make a one-day trip in the middle of a season: "With respect to the rescheduling of any such game ... the Club(s) shall consult with the Association concerning the actual date and time of such rescheduled game."

Jon Lester normally is the Red Sox player rep. With Lester pitching, though, union responsibilities fell to assistant player rep Dustin Pedroia. It's just coincidence that Pedroia also happens to possess the loudest voice in the clubhouse.

Pedroia, therefore, spent most of his time between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. in and out of the office of Red Sox manager Terry Francona and on the phone with, presumably, Marlins player representative Andrew Miller.

(That must have made for an interesting dynamic given that North Carolina and Arizona State -- the alma maters of Miller and Pedroia, respectively, were set to square off in the College World Series on Thursday night.)

"Pedroia gets that duty because he's second in charge, so it'll be a fiasco," Francona said with a smirk. "You can bet, by the end of the night, he's going to threaten to kick somebody's ass.

"If nothing else, it'll be amusing, the decision-making process."

Fortunately for all concerned, the game began on time.

Ortiz not just hitting mistakes anymore

Today's Sox Beat, which didn't make it onto the Union Leader site:

In a way, it’s too bad David Ortiz didn’t get one last curtain call from the Fenway Park crowd on Tuesday night.

Sure, now that he’s gone deep four times in his last nine games, Big Papi home runs no longer feel like Halley’s Comet-type special events. His fifth home run, though, was the most impressive longball he’s hit this season.

Up until about mid-May, Ortiz couldn’t hit anything. He swung and missed at 88-mile-an-hour fastballs over the middle of the plate. When he did make contact, he hit mostly pop-ups and lazy fly balls to left field. It looked as though he’d never go deep again.

Over the next two weeks or so, he started to hit mistakes. His first home run came on a 90-mile-an-hour fastball at the letters and over the middle of the plate; his second came on an 83-mile-an-hour changeup right in the middle of the strike zone.

On Tuesday night, though, he hit a pretty good pitch.

Florida righty Chris Volstad doesn’t throw 98 miles an hour, but he does throw a fastball with plenty of sink on it. A year ago, he allowed just three home runs in more than 175 innings split between Double-A and the major leagues. He hasn’t been close to that sharp so far this season, but when a fastball has that much sink on it, it’s never easy to hit over the fence.

The fastball Volstad threw Ortiz in Tuesday’s fourth inning wasn’t out and over the plate, either. It was up and in, the one location with which Ortiz has had trouble even when he’s hitting well. Ortiz took a hack at it – and he hit it a long, long way.

“He went after that ball pretty good,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “There was some aggression without muscling up. There was some bat speed without trying to generate so much bat speed you use your shoulders. He’s using his hands.

“It’s pretty obvious he’s starting to feel better about himself.”

Even better, Ortiz hit it into the bullpen in right field. In the last three years, he’d hit 36 of his 44 home runs at Fenway Park – more than 80 percent – to the right of the center-field triangle. Other than the cheapie he bounced off the Pesky Pole, though, each of the home runs he’d hit the second had gone to center field or left field.

Now that he’s pulling the ball with power to all fields – not just left field – he can truly be confident that he’s back.

“That’s what I normally do when I’m swinging the bat good,” said Ortiz, now six home runs shy of 300 for his career. “I don’t really pick a spot to hit the ball. I just swing hard, wherever the ball is at, and I let things happen.”

That, of course, is exciting for the rest of his team to see.

“We knew it was going to come,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “Everyone goes through a tough time. It doesn’t matter if it’s the start, in the beginning, or at the end. Everyone is going to hit a time where they struggle. Everyone goes through it. But now he’s found his stroke, and it’s time to take off.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ramon Ramirez skirts danger in late innings

Ramon Ramirez was worked as hard as any Red Sox pitcher in the early going, making 20 appearances in his team's first 38 games. It was then that Terry Francona tried to ease off the throttle and give his power-armed reliever a little bit of a break.

There's only one problem: When Ramirez gets a break, he starts to feel too strong. When he feels too strong, he starts to overthrow.

"I feel so loose sometimes, and when I feel so loose, I try to throw so hard," the Dominican righthander said.

He got himself into trouble in the eighth inning on Wednesday, walking Hanley Ramirez after an eight-pitch battle and leaving a fastball in the middle of the plate for Jorge Cantu to rip into left field for a base hit.

The final two pitches he threw Ramirez both were fastballs out of the zone. Three of the four pitches he threw Cantu, including the pitch on which the designated hitter singled, were fastballs.

He then started Jeremy Hermida with yet another fastball up and away and got a hard-hit fly ball with a fastball on the outside part of the plate.

That's when he went almost exclusively to his offspeed pitches. There's no better way to corral runaway velocity, after all, than by throwing offspeed pitches.

"I threw my slider," he said. "My slider and my changeup are almost the same speed. People sometimes confuse them because sometimes it's over here, and sometimes it's over here. It's my slider, but it looks like the same pitch."

Dan Uggla took back-to-back offspeed pitches for strikes, falling behind quickly. He then didn't chase a slider below the knees and fouled off a fastball up and a slider on the outer half of the plate before striking out on a slider up and away.

Cody Ross then saw offspeed pitches -- it's even more difficult to tell the two apart when they're up in the zone -- on five of the six pitches Ramirez threw to him. He swung and missed at an offspeed pitch down in the zone on a 3-1 count, and he swung and missed at a slider up in the zone for the third strike that ended the inning.

"Once he's able to get some swings, get some guys involved in the at-bat, that offspeed comes into play," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He's throwing hard, but once he gets guys swinging, the deception with the offspeed comes into play."

It was an important escape for a young pitcher who has allowed three earned runs in his last 2 2/3 innings after starting the season with 15 scoreless innings.

"I want to throw the best I can," Ramirez said. "I want to put 100 percent into it when I'm pitching, but too many things can happen in this game. I don't want to put my mind down or anything like that because something happened. I just try to do my best all the time."

Bard not caught up in pitching staff shuffle

Daniel Bard is just a relief pitcher.

He's not a general manager.

He's not, therefore, worrying too much about how he'll be affected by the arrival of John Smoltz on the Red Sox roster a week from Thursday. Red Sox manager Terry Francona announced on Tuesday that the Red Sox will go with a six-man rotation from the end of June until the All-Star Game. If no starting pitcher is going to be bumped from the roster to make room for Smoltz, Bard likely will be shipped back to Pawtucket.

"I'm not going to worry about it," the rookie flamethrower said. "I'm not working in the front office, so the thing I'm going to do is make the decision as tough for them as possible. That's all I can do. Obviously, I want to be here. If my arm feels good and I'm throwing well, I want to be helping this team.

"If that is the case, if I get moved down, I'm sure something's going to happen along the way -- whether it's soon or it's September. But I'm not worrying about that right now."

To make the decision as tough as possible, Bard first had to bounce back from perhaps his worst outing as a major leaguer. Pitching in relief of Josh Beckett in a one-run game in Philadelphia on Sunday, Bard walked Chase Utley, failed to haul in a double-play ball he could have hauled in, allowed a double to Jayson Werth and intentionally walked Chris Coste to get to pitcher Chan Ho Park only to walk Park, too.

He'd allowed just one earned run all season to that point. He was charged with four earned runs that inning. His ERA jumped from 0.75 to 3.55.

"I'm going to stick with what's gotten me here -- do the same early work and the same things between outings that I have been doing," he said. "You've got to expect, any pitcher, there's going to be bumps in the road throughout the season. There may be two or three like that -- hopefully not, but I've got to expect it. If you dwell on it and start worrying about it, like, 'This is going to turn into two or three or four bad ones in a row,' you're screwing yourself over. You just stick with it and go back out and keep doing what you've been doing."

But that was Sunday.

Bard came back strong on Tuesday, fanning Hanley Ramirez on a 98-mile-an-hour heater for the first out of the ninth inning and getting Dan Uggla to pop to first to end the game.

"I went into today thinking about slamming the door," he said. "These hitters don't know what I did my last time -- well, they may, I don't know, but they weren't there. I'm going to act like they've never seen me before and come in firing."


One thing to watch for: Bard and tonight's Marlins starter, Andrew Miller, pitched North Carolina to the first of its four straight College World Series appearances three years ago. The two had a chance to catch up on the off-day on Monday, traveling down to Cape Cod to see Bard's younger brother Jared pitch for the Brewster Whitecaps.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ellsbury still the sparkplug

Florida pitcher Chris Volstad retired five of the first six hitters he faced, cruising through a relatively painless first inning and retired David Ortiz and Mike Lowell on just six pitches in the bottom of the second inning.

But that's when he got to the Red Sox leadoff hitter.

Jacoby Ellsbury jumped on a curveball at the knees and yanked it into right field for a two-out single. He then stole second on the first pitch Volstad threw to Nick Green.

When Green hit a high chopper over the mound and the ball squibbed through the bare hands of Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez, Ellsbury tore around second base and scored. The ball never reached the outfield grass.

1-0, Red Sox.

Ellsbury might hit second in the Red Sox lineup these days -- but once a leadoff hitter, always a leadoff hitter, right?

"It almost feels like I'm batting second," Green said, "because I've a guy that can get on and run and steal second and give me a chance to knock him in."

Ellsbury, ever the speedster, had cleared out of the locker room by the time it was opened to reporters. But his production speaks for itself. He's now hitting .366 and OBP'ing .449 since Terry Francona dropped him out of the leadoff spot in the batting order. On Tuesday against Florida, he singled twice, stole second base twice and scored twice.

In the fourth inning, he drove the first pitch into center field for a single. He then stole second on the second pitch to Green -- "I'll let him run until I get a strike," the shortstop said -- and scored when Green rifled a double into the left-field corner.

That made it 4-1. By the end of the inning, it was 8-1.

"He's swung the bat great -- and with his speed, he can get to second base as soon as he gets on first," Green said. "That's huge -- to keep us out of the double play and to give us a chance to what I did with a defensive swing and get an RBI."

The bottom three hitters in the batting order -- Ellsbury, Green and catcher George Kottaras -- all had terrific games at the plate. Together, the trio went 6-for-12 with three RBI and four runs scored.

"It seems like it's always someone different every night and a different part of the order doing it," Kottaras said. "As a team, we had some good at-bats today and put some stuff together."

But it didn't start until Ellsbury got it going. It's almost as if he's already got a 22-game hitting streak under his belt this season.

"It's not like he was struggling," Green said. "He's hitting well, so moving down is just one of those things -- if it helps the lineup run smoother, it's one of those things he's capable of doing and willing to do. He's done a great job of handling it. He's done a great job down there, too."

How the Red Sox rotation shakes out

Terry Francona and John Smoltz both made the announcement that Smoltz will make his first Red Sox start on June 25, a week from Thursday, against the woeful Washington Nationals.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was hammered today in a Boston Herald column Francona did not enjoy -- "I feel bad for the players sometimes," he said. "I didn't realize what the players were going through publicly, and I feel bad about that." -- will not be bumped from the rotation. Instead, he'll be pushed back a day. So, too, will the rest of the Red Sox starting staff -- and the Red Sox will indeed employ a six-man starting rotation until the All-Star Game.

(That means the first big-league stint of rookie Daniel Bard is likely to come to an end on June 24, the day before Smoltz is activated. Bard can easily be dispatched back to Pawtucket, and he and Clay Buchholz can resume carving up Triple-A hitters together.)

Here's how the Red Sox rotation would shake out in the 10 days or so after Smoltz makes his Red Sox debut:

* June 25 at Washington: Smoltz (seven days' rest)
* June 26 at Atlanta: Matsuzaka (six days' rest)
* June 27 at Atlanta: Josh Beckett (six days' rest)
* June 28 at Atlanta: Tim Wakefield (six days' rest)
* June 29 at Baltimore: Brad Penny (five days' rest)
* June 30 at Baltimore: Jon Lester (five days' rest)
* July 1 at Baltimore: Smoltz (five days' rest)
* July 3 vs. Seattle: Matsuzaka (six days' rest)
* July 4 vs. Seattle: Beckett (six days' rest)
* July 5 vs. Seattle: Wakefield (six days' rest)
* July 6 vs. Oakland: Penny (six days' rest)
* July 7 vs. Oakland: Lester (six days' rest)
* July 8 vs. Oakland: Smoltz (six days' rest)

It's a gamble. There's no question about it. Pitching on five or six days' rest is an adjustment for players accustomed to pitching on four days' rest; Wakefield and Smoltz both have better career numbers on four days' rest than five.

On top of that, removing Bard from the bullpen would increase the strain on the remaining relievers -- and Hideki Okajima and Ramon Ramirez already are among the American League leaders in appearances.

But if the Red Sox can get to the All-Star Game without having lost a starter or burned out their bullpen, they'll be in a position of tremendous strength as they decide what do to with their glut of quality starting pitching.

Lowrie likely to start rehab stint next week

Shortstop Jed Lowrie "did really well" against live pitching in Lowell on Monday and Tuesday. Lowrie hit both lefthanded and righthanded against some of the team's recent draft picks, which meant he saw quite a few pitches out of the strike zone as well as quite a few pitches he could hit.

"(Lowrie saw) a lot of balls, which you can expect from young kids facing a major-league player," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "They're probably nervous."

The erratic pitching, though, probably helped Lowrie more than batting-practice pitching would have. He hasn't had to judge the strike zone since spring training.

"He's a smart enough kid to use it to his advantage," Francona said. "He said he felt a little rusty, and if he's going to feel rusty, that's a good place to have it."

Lowrie will fly to Fort Myers, Fla., tomorrow, and play in extended spring training games on Thursday and Friday. (The Gulf Coast League, a short-season league for newly signed draft picks, doesn't get going next Wednesday.) The informal nature of those extended spring games means he can jump in and out of the lineup to get some extra at-bats and speed up his trip back to the major leagues.

"He can hit nine, 10 times if he wants," Francona said, "and after two days down there, he'll be wanting to get out of there. Every once in a while, they'll throw a ball at your neck. ... He can take a bunch of grounders. He can lead off an inning. He can hit third. He can do a lot of things by design that we can't do once he starts getting into Triple-A games."

After that, he'll likely head for Pawtucket to get some real swings in real games. If he plays 10 days' worth of games with the PawSox -- Francona said a week "might be a little quick" -- he'd be ready to be activated right around July 1.

Beckett-Ramirez trade a win-win

Carlton Loewer had a 6.09 ERA as a starting pitcher in 1998, his first full season with the Philadelphia Phillies. He had then a 5.31 ERA as a starting pitcher in April, May and June of 1999. He did show some spark -- he threw a complete-game shutout against the Padres in early May -- but he missed most of the second half with an injury and pitched exclusively out of the bullpen once he worked his way back to the major leagues.

His relegation to the bullpen, though, didn't sting that much. What really stung was the Phillies trading him to San Diego barely a month after the season ended. It stung so much, in fact, that his dad called Phillies manager Terry Francona to ask, "What did he do?"

He hadn't done anything. The Phillies had a chance to get an ace-type pitcher in Andy Ashby, and the Padres clearly hadn't forgotten the way Loewer had flummoxed them back in May.

"I felt so bad because he was a really good pitcher, a good prospect," Francona said from the Fenway Park media room on Tuesday afternoon. "But another team wanted him, and he helped us get Andy Ashby, who we thought we could plug in as a No. 1 or 2."

Fast-forward almost a decade. The story of the hurt feelings of Loewer -- who made seven starts for the Padres before hanging up his spikes in 2003 -- almost mirrors the hurt feelings Hanley Ramirez described to reporters in advance of this week's series against the Red Sox.

The Red Sox had Edgar Renteria penciled in at shortstop in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 season. What they didn't have was an ace pitcher who could put them on his back and win them a World Series. They swapped Ramirez, the top prospect in the organization, for Josh Beckett. They won a World Series two years later.

"We're trying to get an ace, and they don't grow on trees," Francona said. "To get a guy like Josh Beckett and a Mikey Lowell, you've got to give up some good players. We did that knowing Hanley is a superstar. We recognized that."

Ramirez still uses the perceived slight to motivate himself. If he were to be honest with himself, though, he'd probably realize it was a pretty big compliment for the Marlins to trade their ace for him.

Andy Ashby is good, after all, but he's no Josh Beckett.

"It's hard to explain to young players, especially," Francona said. "It doesn't mean you don't like them."

Hanley Ramirez's defense is underrated

A rebuttal to the predictable Hanley Ramirez features that have shown up in advance of today's Red Sox-Marlins series opener:
"Can anybody include the fact that Hanley is a subpar to very poor fielding SS in any of these “one that got away” articles? He averaged around 24 Es per season in ‘06, ‘07 & ‘08 and already has 5 this season. I know that this is not the cutting edge measure of fielding ability these days but the Fielding Bible has him as the 2nd worst frielding SS in the ML behind Jeter in the last three seasons. Why is this information conveniently left out? The Sox actually talked about putting him in CF to replace Damon because of this reason."

This has become a regular refrain from those trying to talk down the "We should trade for Hanley!" dreamers. But there is a reason that information is conveniently left out.

It's not true.

(Cue angry masses with pitchforks and torches.)

Hang on for one second. Hear me out. Hanley Ramirez has become an underrated defensive shortstop.

In fact, if you consider his play over his last 200-plus games -- all of last season and the first 60 or so games of this season -- he's an above-average defensive shortstop. Check out the numbers:

(UZR and Fielding Bible plus-minus both are a measure of the runs a defender saves in his defensive area as compared to runs that an average defender either would have saved or allowed.)

Two years ago, Ramirez was perhaps the worst defensive shortstop in baseball. Every statistic available points to the same conclusion:
* 26 errors, second-worst among shortstops
* -19.2 Ultimate Zone rating, worst among shortstops
* -37 Fielding Bible plus-minus, worst among shortstops

This, of course, is where his critics get all their ammunition.

But fielders, like hitters, can get better.

* 22 errors, worst among shortstops
* -0.7 UZR, 12th among shortstops
* +3 Fielding Bible plus-minus, 15th among shortstops

Errors, as we all should be starting to realize, are a fickle statistic. If you go deep into the hole and get a ball and then throw it away, you're charged with an error. If you completely whiff on a fly ball, failing even to get your glove on a can of corn a Little Leaguer could catch -- we're looking at you, Nick Swisher -- you're not charged with an error.

If we look past errors, then, we'll see something interesting: Ramirez went from being the worst shortstop in the league to being a relatively mediocre shortstop. His Fielding Bible plus-minus number, in fact, has him as an above-average shortstop -- and he went from minus-21 to plus-10 when going to his right. (For the stats, click here; a subscription is required.)

But it's not improvement if it's not a trend, right?

* 5 errors, tied for 11th among shortstops
* 1.3 UZR, 12th among shortstops
* +3 Fielding Bible plus-minus, 12th among shortstops

Hey, look at that.

That looks like a slightly above-average shortstop.

No, we're not talking about the second coming of Omar Vizquel. But it's about time the public opinion of Ramirez's defense starts to include his 2008 and 2009 seasons rather than just the brutal 2007 season.

At this point in his career, he's at least an adequate defender -- and when you can hit like he does, adequate is all you need.