Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Red Sox might have a postseason utility guy

You don't have to wonder how badly Jed Lowrie wants to be part of the Red Sox roster in the postseason.

"That's why I'm here," he said. "That's why I've done everything I have up to this point. I want to be part of this. From everything I've been told, the only way my wrist is going to get better is with rest. If I didn't want to be here, I wouldn't."

The way Lowrie played on Wednesday -- assuming he still feels OK in the morning -- might be the most significant result from an otherwise totally meaningless blowout, a blowout so meaningless Rocco Baldelli played third base and Dusty Brown pitched.

(Sidebar: Brown felt right at home in the ninth inning: He was a closer at Yavapai Community College, his repertoire featuring a fastball in the low 90s and a slider, and he even blew a fastball past Randy Ruiz for his first career major-league strikeout.)

(Sidebar: Baldelli, on the other hand, was so out of place at third base he had to borrow a glove from Kevin Youkilis and a cup from Mike Lowell. But his technique wasn't awful: "On a foul ball into the stands, he had a quick jab step," Lowell said by way of critique. "His reactions looked good. I was actually hoping for him to get an easy, two-hop ground ball, but I think it's better that he didn't get anything.")

Lowrie, though, hit lefthanded in a major-league game for the first time since early August -- and he seemed to come through OK. Nothing else seemed to be an issue. He could hit righthanded. He could field. He could throw. He even could get dirty going to his left and to his right and come up making strong throws.

All he hadn't done, though, was hit lefthanded. It was a lefthanded checked swing that caused his first setback on Aug. 6, and it was another lefthanded checked swing that sidelined him for a week during his rehab stint at Triple-A Pawtucket.

He didn't check his swing against Halladay on Tuesday.

"The checked swing is something that aggravates it instantly," he said, "and the repetitive motion is something that builds up over time."

He couldn't deny a dull pain still lingers.

"It's more than just pain, too," he said. "It's that inflammation that comes into my wrist, and it's the same thing. But I am stronger. I'm able to take better swings. It's just a matter of fighting that inflammation. ...

"I can't say if there's more inflammation or less, but I know that it's there and I can feel it after I (have) three or four at-bats from the left side. Whether it's more than what was happening before, I can't tell you that, but it's there."

But it's something it seems he can play through -- and that gives him a leg up on Nick Green for a roster spot when the playoffs begin next week. He didn't get any hits but made a couple of athletic defensive plays at third base -- including a diving stop to rob catcher Rob Barajas of an extra-base hit in the fourth inning.

That actually was his third diving stop of the game. He didn't get enough strength or accuracy on his first two throws, though, to get outs.

"I felt pretty comfortable at third," he said. "The first throw got away from me just a touch, and I didn't quite get through it. The one that Vernon (Wells) hit down the line, I don't think I had a chance, anyway. That was fun. It was an opportunity to go out there and make some good plays."

His ability to play third base only increases his possible value to the Red Sox in the postseason. Should his wrist feel good in the morning, though, and should Nick Green not regain the lost strength in his leg, Lowrie might just sneak onto the 25-man playoff roster.

And by next season, knock on wood, he might just be 100 percent.

"Going into the offseason, if I do what I did last offseason, I think I'm going to feel like I did during spring training -- but have a structurally sound wrist as opposed to having a broken wrist," he said.


If you're interested in seeing your local Red Sox/Patriots reporter in action -- or, at least, sort of in action -- click here. Just to avoid any confusion, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback and squirer of supermodels is the one on the left.

Francona enjoyed a different celebration

Terry Francona got some odd looks this morning.

But it's only fair: There aren't many reasons the manager the Red Sox ought to be at a Residence Inn in Stafford, Va., checking out of his hotel room before the crack of dawn -- especially the morning after his team had clinched the American League's wild card back in Boston.

Suffice to say Francona didn't participate in the wild post-midnight celebration in the Fenway Park clubhouse. He ducked out of the park immediately after finishing his postgame media obligations and hopped a flight to Virginia in order to attend his son's graduation from the Marine Corps' officer training school.

By the time he was allowed to turn his phone back on, the Red Sox already were in the playoffs -- and he had a slew of text messages from Theo Epstein on his cell phone.

"They all came -- and I went right to the last one," he said. "It went from being a grumpy flight to a nice landing."

Francona's son, Nick, graduated on Wednesday from The Basic School, the officer training academy for the United States Marine Corps. Nick Francona played college baseball at the University of Pennsylvania and spent the last 26 weeks training to become a commissioned lieutenant in the Marines. He'll be off for infantry school in a couple of days.

Francona wasn't about to downplay the significance of the wild card and the need for his players to celebrate their achievement -- even though it came on the heels of a disappointing loss to the Blue Jays.

"Maybe people that are around the team understand, and maybe they don't," he said. "It's a long year, and for them to let loose like that together, I like it. Winning should never get old.

"Everybody in that room knows this is not our ultimate goal. But it is still an accomplishment, and you enjoy it and move on."

But he couldn't stick around to join in the celebration. He didn't even have any energy left to do much celebrating himself: His plane landed at 2:30 a.m., and he had to get up at 4:30 a.m. for the graduation ceremonies.

"It wasn't the time to celebrate," he said. "I didn't know where I was."

Bouncing back from a home-run barrage

Four pitchers this season have surrendered five home runs in a game -- the most recent being Boston's Clay Buchholz, crushed by Adam Lind and the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday night. The others:

* Brett Cecil, Blue Jays (against Boston in May)
* Josh Beckett, Red Sox (against New York in August)
* Justin Lehr, Reds (against Houston in September)

Twenty-four pitchers this season have allowed four home runs in a game, and some luminaries populate that list as well:

* Andy Pettitte, Yankees (against Tampa Bay in May)
* Dan Haren, Diamondbacks (against Oakland in May)
* Johan Santana, Mets (against Philadelphia in June)
* Joe Saunders, Angels (against Texas in June)
* Jarrod Washburn, Tigers (against Seattle in August)

If you assume that Buchholz's 0.68 ERA in his previous four starts gives him more in common with the above ground than with, say, Sergio Mitre, history can tell us something:

Beckett (5 HR)
* Bad start: 8 IP, 8 ER, 5 K, 0 BB
* Next start: 5 IP, 5 ER, 9 K, 5 BB, 2 HR

Haren (4 HR)
* Bad start: 7 IP, 5 ER, 7 K, 0 BB
* Next start: 8 IP, 2 ER, 8 K, 0 BB, 0 HR

Pettitte (4 HR)
* Bad start: 6 IP, 5 ER, 5 K, 1 BB
* Next start: 6 IP, 1 ER, 2 K, 4 BB, 0 HR

Santana (4 HR)
* Bad start: 7 IP, 5 ER, 2 K, 1 BB
* Next start: 3 IP, 9 ER, 3 K, 2 BB, 1 HR

Saunders (4 HR)
* Bad start: 3 2/3 IP, 8 ER, 2 K, 5 BB
* Next start: 5 1/3 IP, 5 ER, 2 K, 3 BB, 2 HR

Washburn (4 HR)
* Bad start: 6 IP, 6 ER, 4 K, 1 BB
* Next start: 6 IP, 3 ER, 3 K, 2 BB, 1 HR

Compare that to Buchholz (5 HR)
* Bad start: 5 IP, 7 ER, 4 K, 1 BB
* Next start: Sunday against Cleveland

We can learn a couple of things:
1. For good pitchers, giving up home runs in bunches can be a fluky thing. Not one of the above pitchers surrendered more than two home runs in their last outing.

2. Strikeouts can have something to do with it. The two pitchers who had the worst post-barrage outings also struck out the fewest hitters in the outing in which they were hit hard -- Santana and Saunders combined for four strikeouts and six walks in their bad outings, and neither bounced back well at all. Haren, on the other hand, struck out seven and didn't walk anyone in his bad outing and bounced back just fine.

Buchholz struck out four hitters in five innings on Tuesday and walked just one. He also got 10 strikeouts while throwing just 79 pitches.

If he can keep up that same strikeout-to-walk ratio next start, the home runs might just take care of themselves.


Added bonus: In the final start Josh Beckett made before the playoffs began in 2007, he surrendered five earned runs in six innings, including a pair of home runs.

He then tossed a complete-game shutout against the Angels in Game of 1 of the American League Division Series.

So there's that, too.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Buchholz can't put away Blue Jays

Clay Buchholz started Kevin Millar fastball-curveball-fastball with two outs in the third inning, getting quickly to a two-strike count and putting himself in position to end the inning.

He chose that point to throw his curveball -- his best pitch.

Millar was waiting for it, and he crushed it into the Green Monster seats.

"I felt like a pretty good job with the majority of the guys getting ahead in the count and getting two-strike counts," he said. "The execution of the two-strike pitches wasn't near as sharp as they needed to be to get those guys out consistently. ... If you make mistakes like that to a team that can hit, you see what happens."

It wasn't as though the Blue Jays lucked into seven runs in five innings against a pitcher who had allowed just six runs in his previous six starts. Jose Bautista hit a bomb of a home run over the Green Monster on the first pitch Buchholz threw, and Adam Lind deposited a two-strike changeup into the first row of the center-field seats later in the first inning.

Miller and Aaron Hill later joined the party, and Lind hit two more home runs -- though one of those was a Pesky Pole special off Takashi Saito -- en route to a general thrashing of Buchholz, the first time anyone had done anything against him in more than a month.

"They were sitting soft, especially late in the count," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "They got some changeups up. ... They did a good job of picking out one speed with Buck. He was elevating a little bit, and they hit it a long way."

But it wasn't just a matter of picking a speed.

"There's other teams that have sat on it before, too, and his changeup's so good they don't hit it," Francona said. "The ball was elevated a little bit. Good hitters don't need help."

Buchholz had flummoxed his share of good hitters in his previous six starts -- including those same Blue Jays, against whom he threw 8 1/3 sensational innings exactly a month ago.

But the Blue Jays made an adjustment in this one, allowing Buchholz to get into two-strike counts and then waiting for him to come with a changeup or a curveball, his two best put-away pitches. Had those pitches looked as sharp as they have in the past month, it might not have been an issue -- but his changeup didn't have as much dive as it did in his last start:

(against Kansas City on Sept. 24)

(against Toronto on Tuesday)

Check out the yellow dots and where they registered on the scale of vertical movement. The home run Lind hit in the first inning came on a changeup that was flat and straight, and Lind Bernie Carbo'd the thing.

"I threw some changeups that were supposed to be on one side of the plate and went to the other and were up at the thighs," he said. "If you're sitting on it and you get it at the thigh, it's a hard pitch to miss."

That was particularly the case at the time when a pitcher is supposed to be at his most lethal -- with two strikes. On four of the first seven occasions in which Buchholz got two strikes on a hitter, he failed to finish him off. Three of the five home runs the Blue Jays hit off him came with two strikes.

"I just got to the kill counts, and I didn't throw the pitches where they needed to be," he said. "I don't necessarily think I threw the wrong pitches at the wrong time. Maybe the location of them weren't up to par tonight. They sat on them, and they hit them."

Buchholz has exploded as a prospect over the past couple of months thanks in large part to improved command of and confidence in his fastball. But he can't just throw fastballs -- particularly given that his secondary pitches are his best pitches.

The Blue Jays were sitting on his offspeed pitches. He could't command his offspeed pitches. What's a pitcher to do?

Buchholz didn't have an answer out on the mound -- and he didn't have an answer after the game, either.

"It's a tough question," he said. "I don't know. I've relied a lot on my offspeed a lot this year in big situation. I could have thrown 100 percent fastballs, but you can second-guess that, too. I gave up five long home runs, and the team still came back and almost took the game back. You've got to take what you're given sometimes."

Top prospect Kelly nearing big decision

Casey Kelly really can't make up his mind.

"From a pitching standpoint, I looked at it as playing football," he said. (Kelly was a highly touted recruit as a quarterback as well as a baseball player.) "You play once a week. You have a week to prepare. I liked having four days to mentally prepare for a game. If it was coming off a long bus trip, you had time to relax and get your thoughts together."

Relaxing. Mental preparation. Spreading it out.

That's the appeal of pitching.

The appeal of hitting, then?

"At shortstop, I loved playing every day," he said. "Playing every day and hitting is something I love to do."

Playing every day.


For all of the success Kelly had on the mound this season -- and he had tremendous success earning Red Sox Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors -- it doesn't sound as though he's decided his future necessarily is as a pitcher.

He'll even participate in the Arizona Fall League with the Mesa Solar Sox as a shortstop and a part-time third baseman. Being part of the team's taxi squad means he'll get some extra at-bats while playing only two days a week.

(One naturally has to wonder how that will help him make his decision: Getting to hit but only playing in games twice a week? It's the best of both worlds!)

The Red Sox haven't been subtle about their desires. The award bestowed upon Kelly on Tuesday only emphasized the role in which they see their former first-round draft pick.

It's hard to blame them, either.

Kelly had a 1.12 ERA in nine starts at Single-A Greenville and a 3.09 ERA in eight starts after a promotion to Single-A Salem. By the middle of the summer, he'd leapfrogged names like Lars Anderson and Ryan Kalish and cemented himself as the top prospect in the organization.

He then hit .224 and OBP'ed .305 in 151 plate appearances at Single-A Greenville, striking out more than twice as often as he walked.

"To split it up between pitching and hitting was a task," he said, "but having two seasons was one I really enjoyed."

Kelly and the Red Sox likely will have to make a decision quickly after the conclusion of the Arizona Fall League's season. (The Solar Sox play their final game on Nov. 19.) A year ago, he began his preparations to pitch in December, and he'll have to focus those preparations even more if he's going to endure a full season on the mound and all the innings that go with that.

"This year was eye-opening," he said. "Playing both, it doesn't really help either side from the pitching standpoint or the shortstop standpoint. ... We'll get it done a little faster so I can get ready for pitching or get ready for shortstop because the workouts are totally different for position players and pitchers."

He didn't make it sound like the organization had much say in the matter, either.

"(I'll do) whatever I want to do in my heart," he said. "I followed that from the beginning. When I got drafted, I could have played football at Tennessee and followed what I wanted to do with my heart. I think I'll do the same with this decision."

Fun with numbers: David Ortiz

A little player comparison for your afternoon. Below are the numbers of two prominent players since June 1 -- one of whom should be relatively easy for Red Sox fans to identify:

Player A
* .265 batting average, .357 on-base, .558 slugging
* 27 home runs, 77 RBI
* 50 walks, 79 strikeouts

Player B
* .300 batting average, .386 on-base, .551 slugging
* 22 home runs, 76 RBI
* 52 walks, 76 strikeouts

Player B has a significantly higher batting average and on-base percentage. Player A has a slight edge in power numbers -- more home runs, more RBI and a higher slugging percentage. The walk numbers and strikeout numbers for the two players are almost identical.

Player A, of course, is the resurgent David Ortiz.

Player B?

Any guesses?

(Cue Jeopardy music.)

It's Mark Teixeira.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Just another day for Dustin Richardson

It was just another day for Dustin Richardson -- which is to say that he was wide awake at 5 a.m. and ready to go.

By 9 p.m., he was making his major-league debut.

The 6-foot-5 lefty fell into something of a routine during his week in Fort Myers, Fla., staying sharp by throwing in Fall Instructional League games just in case the Red Sox needed his services. He'd gone home to Kansas at the conclusion of the Triple-A season for about a week and a half, playing catch but not doing much else, but he headed to Fort Myers about 10 days ago when director of player development Mike Hazen alerted him that he might be needed in Boston.

He remained on call for a few days but relaxed a little bit when Hunter Jones was recalled to replace Junichi Tazawa on the Red Sox pitching staff, taking the spot Richardson had wondered if he'd fill. Since he had a chance to throw some extra innings and refine his repertoire, though, the starter turned reliever kept right on pitching.

"He came up and he threw the ball hard," said Triple-A Pawtucket manager Ron Johnson, who had Richardson for a couple of weeks at the end of the season and reunited with him at Fenway Park. "I liked his stuff. When you look at him, he's a very physical kid. He's got good velocity on the fastball and the breaking ball. You don't want to lose your head with guys because they've all earned the right to develop at their levels, but I was very excited with him."

Workouts in Florida normally start at 7 a.m., but Richardson seemed to have accidentally programmed his body clock to get him out of bed at the crack of dawn -- or earlier. Every morning in Fort Myers, he was up and ready to go far before it was necessary.

(That might have something to do with his post-workout routine: "It doesn't help that when I get done with my day at noon, I go home and nap for about six hours," he said.)

He was scheduled to throw two innings today as part of a Red Sox team that includes most of the team's June draft class as well as international free agent Jose Inglesias, a 19-year-old shortstop signed in July for a little over $8 million. He was on his way to the bullpen -- it was a little bit past noon at this point -- when word came down that he'd been scratched from his appearance.

Josh Beckett was suffering from mild back spasms and wouldn't be making his start. Michael Bowden was pitching in his stead but on short rest. It was just the type of emergency for which the Red Sox had been keeping Richardson warm.

Ten or 15 minutes later, the lefty was in the shower and on his way to the airport to catch a plane to Boston. He caught the flight at 3 p.m., and he arrived in the Red Sox locker room just in time to pull on his uniform and try to walk to the bullpen as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

"It took me until about the third inning to finally realize I was a baseball player again," he said. "I just wanted to hit the fast-forward button and get out there and get it over with."

Said Johnson, who has relayed his share of good news in his years with Pawtucket, "It's always the same look. You see a little perkiness in the face -- and there's that gleam.

Bowden and Hunter Jones did their part to fast-forward his experience for Richardson, surrendering a combined 11 runs in 4 2/3 innings to the Blue Jays. Red Sox manager Terry Francona decided in the fifth inning that he'd had enough, and he called upon his newest rookie with two outs and two runners on and All-Star second baseman Aaron Hill at the plate.

It's tough to say Richardson was intimidated by the prospect of facing Hill, who had hit his 35th home run of the season earlier in the game.

"Honestly," he said to reporters after the game, "you ask, but I could not tell you who I faced. I could not tell you who I faced."

He had every right to be exhausted. He'd missed his afternoon nap. He'd been up since before the sun rose.

But there was no slowing down his pulse on the mound, and there was no slowing it down in the locker room after the game, either.

"It hasn't stopped yet," he said.

Green and Lowrie remain question marks

Red Sox shortstop Nick Green spent some time before Monday's game working out with Red Sox trainers -- jogging and shuffling across the grass and playing catch from a distance of about 100 feet. He did some swinging on a tee, too, just to test out a leg that had almost given out on him thanks to a pinched nerve in his back.

The verdict? He's almost back.

"His hope is that he can maybe get into a game in a couple of days," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "We'll see. The good news is that he's actually thinking about getting in a game in a couple of days. ... That might be a little bit quick for me. We'll see. The fact that he thinks he can get into a game means he's going in the right direction."

Green spent much of the season as the Red Sox's starting shortstop, an emergency fill-in for Jed Lowrie (wrist) and Julio Lugo (unacceptably bad defense) until Theo Epstein acquired defensive whiz Alex Gonzalez in mid-August. He's had his moments -- his walk-off home run on Father's Day remains one of the season's indelible memories -- but his batting average had slid from .321 in May to .233 in June and .143 in July.

Lowrie, on the other hand, has endured more than his share of setbacks since he opened the season as the team's starting shortstop. He underwent surgery on his left wrist in late April and has spent all season trying to work his way back. The switch-hitter has no issues hitting righthanded, but he twice has felt numbness in his hand after a lefthanded checked swing and had to shut his rehabilitation back down.

He pinch-hit against Angels lefty Brian Fuentes a week ago and hit a rope down the third-base line that almost went for a double. He made his first start in six weeks against Yankees lefty CC Sabathia on Saturday, and he hit a fly ball to the warning track in center field, another encouraging sign.

But Lowrie and the Red Sox aren't yet ready to risk seeing him swing lefthanded. He has no limitations in the field or hitting righthanded, but he's not nearly as comfortable hitting lefty as he is hitting righty.

"Like I said from the beginning, I told them that hitting righthanded is fine," he said. "(Hitting lefthanded) is progressing. It's kind of been baby steps, but I guess that's still progress."

That poses a problem for the Red Sox. Green won't be 100 percent when the playoffs begin -- but if Lowrie is the utility infielder and something happens either to Gonzalez or Dustin Pedroia, he might not be able to hit in consecutive games against John Lackey, Ervin Santana or Jered Weaver.

It's not the worst problem in the world, but it would save quite a bit of hand-wringing if Green can show this week that he's fully recovered.

Nuts and bolts of Richardson-for-Carter

The Red Sox today designated Chris Carter for assignment to make room for reliever Dustin Richardson on the active roster. With Michael Bowden making an emergency start in place of Josh Beckett on Monday, the Red Sox needed an extra arm -- and Richardson was it.

The rise of Richardson already has been detailed in this space here. What's not quite so clear is how the Red Sox can release Carter if he's supposed to be headed to the Mets as part of the Billy Wagner trade.

(The Yankees claimed him when the Red Sox tried to pass him through waivers, forcing the Red Sox to keep him on the 40-man roster through most of the month of September.)

The trick is that he hasn't technically been released. He's been designated for assignment, which means he's off the 40-man roster and the Red Sox have 10 days to trade him or release him outright.

With only a week left in the regular season, the 10-day window becomes irrelevant. The Red Sox can remove Carter from the roster for the season's final seven days -- and once the season ends, Carter can be traded to the Mets without clearing waivers.

(Carter, as you can imagine, was the one really screwed by this deal. The Yankees' waiver claim only cost the Red Sox a roster spot for a few weeks, and it's not as though the Mets needed him to make an impact right away. All the claim did was cost Carter a chance to play for the Mets in September -- and, more importantly, to draw a major-league salary for a month.)

Lester throwing with Farrell at Fenway Park

Jon Lester has begun a routine side session, throwing on the Fenway Park warning track with pitching coach John Farrell. He jogged out to the bullpen with no apparent limp.

The two began by throwing from 40 or 50 feet and stretched out to 60 feet and then around 100 feet and then started throwing from somewhere around 150 feet. Farrell was standing on the spot where Dwight Evans made his famous catch in the 1975 World Series, and Lester was standing in front of the garage door in the center-field triangle.

Lester next moved back to within 60 feet of Farrell and began pitching lightly out of a full windup.

(In other words, a completely routine side.)

Apparently still feeling good, he then moved into the bullpen to throw off the mound. The first 10 or so pitches kind of looped in to bullpen catcher Mani Martinez, but he picked up the pace from there. He paused for a conversation with Farrell after he'd thrown about 30 pitches, and he paused again after about 50 pitches to do some dry runs with his windup and his plant.

He called it quits after about 75 pitches, counted unofficially from the press box. All told, he was throwing for about half an hour from start to finish.

Delcarmen still stranding runners, at least

Earned run average isn't the only way to judge relief pitchers. Takashi Saito, for example, turned a one-run lead on Sunday into a one-run deficit -- and his ERA for the season actually dropped from 2.36 to 2.35.

With that in mind, here's a look at the month-by month ERA for the Red Sox bullpen so far this season:

April: 2.88
May: 3.04
June: 3.82
July: 2.99
August: 4.69
September: 5.09

But, again, ERA isn't the only way to judge relief pitchers.

Even as the Red Sox bullpen ERA has skyrocketed, its rate of stranding inherited runners actually has plummeted. To wit:

Before Aug. 1: 35 for 115 (30.4 percent)
Since Aug. 1: 16 for 71 (22.5 percent)

One reliever is almost individually responsible for that drop, too -- and it's not who you'd think. Hideki Okajima and Ramon Ramirez actually have seen their inherited-runners-scored numbers increase since Aug 1.

Not so for Manny Delcarmen.

While some relievers tend to thrive most in bases-empty situations, the much-maligned Delcarmen have thrived in the most pressure-filled situations. Check out these splits:

Bases empty: .857 OPS
Runners on base: .703 OPS
Bases loaded: .404 OPS

And even as his ERA in September has climbed all the way to 16.20 entering play Monday, he's stranding inherited runners at an incredible rate. He allowed seven of his first 18 runners to score (38.9 percent), but since Aug. 1, he's allowed just one of 15 inherited runners to score (6.7 percent).

Five times in that span, he's come into a game with either two runners on or the bases loaded -- and he's wiggled out without surrendering a run.

Most Red Sox fans start to pull their hair out when Terry Francona calls upon Delcarmen in high-pressure situations with runners on base. Francona, though, might know just what he's doing.

Tweak to Byrd's mechanics paying off

A funny thing happened when Paul Byrd threw a first-pitch fastball to Alex Rodriguez in Sunday's fourth inning. It sailed in at 87 miles per hour -- and Rodriguez swung right through it.

"I felt like my fastball was beating a lot of good hitters in," Byrd said after Sunday's game. "They knew it was coming, and it was still beating them. That's the old me."

That, though, isn't quite true. The old Byrd has given away to a new Byrd in recent weeks, an adjustment made in collaboration with pitching coach John Farrell helping the 38-year-old veteran get a little extra velocity on his fastball. For Byrd, whose fastball registers as slower than Daniel Bard's changeup, every extra mile per hour cuonts.

"John Farrell has me twisting and rotating a little bit more," Byrd said, "and it's been phenomenal for me. I'm throwing the ball upper 80s -- I even hit 90 a few times last game in the sixth inning. With teams past, when I hit 90, we'd throw a team party. My velocity is up and my location is up, and I feel like no one is squaring the ball up too often."

(There's no fancy video equipment here at OneIf headquarters, so you'll have to bear with me as we try to compare two similar points in the pitcher's delivery. It's not perfect, but it's a pretty decent representation.)

First, Byrd in his first game back in the majors in August...

... and, second, Byrd against the Yankees on Sunday:

See the little extra depth to his shoulders, the way they're square to the shortstop rather than to the third baseman? It's subtle, but it's apparently working.

It's not just helping him with his velocity, either.

"It really, really helps my cut fastball," Byrd said, "which I need to lefthanders when it's cutting, darting up and in. They got some hits today, but it wasn't solid contact all over the place."

That's how Byrd ducked and dodged his way through as potent a lineup as there is in the game, a lineup full of lefties and switch-hitters who can make life miserable on a righty without his best command. He left a couple of changeups over the plate -- Melky Cabrera hit one of them for a solo home run -- but otherwise managed to prevent the Yankees from making solid contact with much of anything he threw at them.

It wasn't until Alex Rodriguez fought through a 10-pitch at-bat with two outs in the sixth that Byrd was lifted. He pounded the outer half of the strike zone with fastballs and cutters that Rodriguez repeatedly fouled away, and a slider that caught way too much of the plate eventually did him in.

"The A-Rod at-bat, I threw him some really good pitches and he fouled them off," Byrd said. "I just couldn't put him away. Sometimes you have to give them a little credit. He fouled off some very good pitches. I usually do very well against him, and he hit a slider into center field. Next thing you know, we're down."

His repertoire is enough to send smoke streaming from the pitch charts. His velocity doesn't ever top 90. There's almost no way to distinguish his four-seam fastball from his cutter. But he had allowed just one run to the Yankees in Yankee Stadium when he walked off the mound, and it wasn't only about luck.

He isn't going to get a start in the playoffs -- but should something happen, including an unexpected injury or early exit by a starting pitcher, his effectiveness on Sunday will make it far easier for Red Sox manager Terry Francona to call on him.

"I feel like my stuff is getting better and I'm getting sharper with each outing," Byrd said. "I'm not happy that I'm giving up runs. I'm not happy that I lost the game. But I do feel like I'm throwing the ball well and giving us a chance to win."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A September sweep only means so much

Paul Byrd flashed back a couple of years as he watched the New York Yankees celebrate a three-game sweep of the Red Sox and, more importantly, the American League East title. The Yankees now have beaten the Red Sox in nine of the teams' past 10 meetings, and many already have predicted the sky will fall upon the Red Sox should the two teams meet again in the postseason.

The well-traveled Byrd, though, has seen this before.

His Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim met up with the first-place Chicago White Sox in early September of 2005 -- in Chicago, no less -- and swept three straight.

A dramatic 12th-inning against old friend Dustin Hermanson win kicked off the three-game series, and Bartolo Colon and John Lackey tossed back-to-back impressive outings to polish off the sweep. Colon won his 19th game of the season that weekend en route to a career-high 21 wins and the American League's Cy Young Award.

Byrd didn't pitch in that series. (He'd actually thrown seven shutout innings at Fenway Park the previous Thursday, outdueling Matt Clement in the process.) But he couldn't help but marvel at the way his Angels completely obliterated a team that would finish the season with the best record in the American League.

"We abused the White Sox three weeks before the playoffs started," Byrd said from his locker in the Yankee Stadium visitors' clubhouse. "Every one of their pitchers -- (Mark) Buehrle, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia -- we beat the tar out of them by like six or seven runs."

(It actually was Orlando Hernandez who pitched the third game of that series, but we'll forgive Byrd the one slip-up.)

"We said to ourselves, 'God, I really hope we face that team in the playoffs,'" Byrd said.

The Angels then won the American League West going away and ousted the Yankees in the American League Division Series, riding two outstanding starts from Lackey and an impressive 5 1/3 innings of relief pitching from Ervin Santana in Game 5 to advance to the American League Championship Series.

It was there that they met the White Sox.

It was there that the White Sox eliminated them in five games.

"We couldn't touch any of their pitchers," said Byrd, who earned the Angels' lone victory of that series. "It was totally different. They walked right through and won the World Series. ...

"You've got to get hot at the right time. You can't say, 'They beat us two weeks ago so they've got our number.' That's not the case at all. You want to be celebrating on the back side, and that's just the bottom line."

Buchholz still cruising along

Clay Buchholz knows his right arm is in uncharted territory.

When he makes his second-to-last start of the season on Tuesday against the Blue Jays, he'll already have 183 innings under his belt -- far more than his previous career high. Two years ago, even as the Red Sox were making a charge to the World Series, the Red Sox cut the righty off just shy of 150 innings. A year ago, even as he was fighting through the worst season of his career, he didn't get much beyond the 150-inning plateau.

If all goes well for the Red Sox in October, though, he'll make at least five more starts -- two more this season and at least one in each round of the playoffs. He very easily could blow way past 200 innings. For an arm as young as his -- he turned 25 in August -- he's getting into dangerous waters.

Buchholz hasn't given much thought to easing up on the throttle.

"I actually feel really good physically right now," he said. "That hadn't come into my mind, to take anything off or back off."

No kidding. He has an incredible 1.32 ERA in his last six starts. In that span, only Cy Young lock Zack Greinke has better numbers:

Aug. 27-Sept. 27
Greinke, 0.26 ERA
Buchholz, 1.32
CC Sabathia, 1.50
Ted Lilly, 1.54
Felix Hernandez, 1.57

But given the rate at which pitchers get hurt, it's interesting the Red Sox haven't yet decided to ease his workload. He threw 109 pitches in 6 2/3 innings against the Royals earlier this ewek and hasn't thrown fewer than 90 pitches since the Orioles knocked him out in the fifth inning on Aug. 2.

Buchholz will get something of a breather when he, in all likelihood, pitches the Red Sox season finale against Cleveland on Oct. 4. He said he'll pitch with a short leash in that game, likely throwing 75 or 80 pitches before coming out of the game.

"I talked to John (Farrell) yesterday," Buchholz said, "and he asked me how many innings I threw in Triple-A. I think it was right around 100" -- it actually was 99 -- "and that puts me around 175 now. I feel good. It doesn't feel like a foreign area. As long as my body feels good, we can keep doing what we've been doing."

The mission won't change much, either.

"Just to stay on the same track I've been on as far as first-pitch strikes and location and command of the fastball and being able to go to offspeed pitches in counts where I'm in favor," he said. "The big key for me is just throwing the fastball on both sides of the plate and getting early outs."

In some ways, Ortiz was never out of style

(This story only appeared in the print edition of Sunday's UL.)

NEW YORK – David Ortiz sat at his locker late Friday night, showered and changed and ready to go. The last thing he did was lean over to lace up an ostentatious pair of blue shoes.

Ortiz couldn’t always pull off his blue shoes. Big Papi might be Big Papi, but blue shoes make a certain statement you can’t really make when half your team’s fan base is calling for your indefinite benching. But no one is calling for that benching anymore.

Ortiz often walks into the Red Sox locker room these days making a far less subtle fashion statement: He wears a navy blue shirt adorned with the slogan, “Don’t call it a comeback.” It’s a lyric from LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out,” and the meaning as it applies to Ortiz isn’t exactly subtle: “Don’t call it a comeback/I been here for years.”

Ortiz, with an almost inexplicable lack of fanfare, has turned what looked like a disastrous season into something more than respectable: His 27 home runs entering play Saturday rank him behind only 17 hitters in the American League – and within striking distance of names like Joe Mauer and Alex Rodriguez.

Before going hitless on Sunday, he’d hit home runs in three straight games. Against Joba Chamberlain on Friday, he deposited a fastball on the outside corner into the left-field grandstand at Yankee Stadium. It was the first opposite-field home run he’d hit away from Fenway Park this season.

But his midsummer resurgence isn’t entirely a comeback, either. In some ways, he’s done for the Red Sox lineup this season just what he’s always done. He’s drawing walks at the same rate as he did in 2003 and 2004, and he’s seeing more pitches per at-bat this season than at any point in his Red Sox tenure.

“When I hit, good things happen,” he said. “I guess sometimes I take pressure off the guys when I do my thing out there.”

He spoke at length before Friday’s game about how a switch back to his Little League mindset had resurrected his joy for the game and eased his mind amidst the tumult around him. Easing his mind, certainly, had something to do with the surge in his production.

But his approach at the plate never really changed. The refusal of pitchers to give him anything to hit never changed. The fact that he could grind out six- or seven-pitch at-bats never changed.

Only 15 hitters in the American League have seen fewer pitches in the strike zone this season than Ortiz, and only five have seen more pitches per plate appearance than he has.

That’s a testament to his refusal to surrender to the slump. Not every hitter can stay that patient when frustration mounts with every out and with every swing and miss.

“You’re fighting yourself: ‘Man, that was my pitch,’” said left fielder Jason Bay, who endured his own slump right around the time Ortiz was heating up. “All of a sudden, boom, there’s another one, and then you’re way behind. It happens to everybody, but when you’re scuffling, it makes it even tougher because you know you’re only going to get a pitch or two per at-bat to put a good swing on. If you take it or miss it, you’re 0-2 before you even step in.”

Only the results were lacking.

“Part of our fight early on was to be patient,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “People were calling for David to retire, to pack it in. There were a lot of nasty things said about him – and he had a really bad two months.”

But the Red Sox stuck with him. Part of the reason was because he still was getting on base: Among Red Sox players, only Dustin Pedroia drew more walks than Ortiz in the month of May – even while the designated hitter was hitting .143.

Ortiz actually reached base via hit, walk or hit-by-pitch in 21 straight games in late April and early May, right in the middle of his slump. He drove in 11 runs and scored 11 runs in that span.

“If you’re not getting hits, you’re still trying to get on base or drive a guy in with a groundout or something, anything you can do,” Bay said. “Over the course of a season, there’s not too many guys who are going to be right here” – he drew a horizontal line in the air – “with a hit or two a game. It’s hots and colds, and for some people, it’s hotter and colder.”

Ortiz, all of a sudden, has the same batting average this September that he had in September of 2006, and he has an better OPS (on-base plus slugging) in September than he did a year ago.
It’s not a comeback. He’s been doing that for years.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bard gets upper hand on Teixeira -- this time

Daniel Bard was waiting for Mark Teixeira on Saturday.

"I wanted him," he said.

Most relievers know ahead of time, as they're warming up, which hitter they're probably going to face. Billy Wagner had walked Nick Swisher, fanned Robinson Cano and hit Melky Cabrera in the hip with a fastball -- and that meant Bard had to start throwing.

Derek Jeter was at the plate and Johnny Damon was on deck, but Bard had a pretty good idea of who he was going to face if he got into the game.

"I can't remember who was hitting, exactly," he said from the Red Sox clubhouse after the game. "It lined up where I was going to face either Damon or (Teixeira). I figured they'd let Wagner pitch to Damon, left on left. But I wanted one of those guys."

Bard had a rough go of it the last time he pitched at Yankee Stadium, retiring Jeter and Hideki Matsui on groundouts but surrendering back-to-back solo home runs to Damon and Teixeira, home runs that turned a 2-1 lead into a 3-2 deficit.

Teixeira in particular had been of some annoyance for Bard. Two weeks after he hit his home run, he rolled a single through the right side of the infield -- and that made it two hits in four career at-bats against Bard. He was on the verge of starting to feel pretty good about his ability to hit the hard-throwing righty.

"I feel confident facing him, and I want him to know that," Bard said. "I just don't want that home run to be the last thing on his mind when he walks up to the plate."

That home run on Aug. 9 came on the second of back-to-back sliders. The seeing-eye single on Aug. 22 came on a changeup, a pitch Bard only pulls out in rare circumstances.

When Damon blooped a two-run single into right field, Francona summoned Bard -- and Bard this time brought the heat.

"I just wanted to challenge him," he said. "I don't know if he was sitting on (the slider) last time or not, but he was able to lengthen the bat out and get the barrel to it. I didn't want to give him a chance to do that this time."

The first pitch he threw to Teixeira was a 99-mile-per-hour fastball up and in. Teixeira fouled it back.

The second pitch he threw to Teixeira was a 97-mile-per-hour fastball up too high. Teixeira let it pass.

The third pitch he threw to Teixeira was a 98-mile-per-hour fastball up and in. Teixeira fouled it off.

The fourth pitch he threw to Teixeira was a 100-mile-per hour fastball in on the hands. Teixeira got a little bit of it but not enough to do anything, grounding it softly to second base for the third out of the inning.

Bard now has seen Teixeira five times. Teixeira has seen Bard five times. Bard is learning how to get Teixeira out. Teixeira is learning how to hit Bard. Given the prominent role the Red Sox expect Bard to have in their bullpen for the next six years, at least, it's a one-on-one showdown that promises to get more and more fascinating.

"You could argue for hours whether facing a guy more times favors the pitcher or the hitter," Bard said. "You've got to constantly change the way you approach a guy unless it's proven you can constantly get him out the same way and he can't adjust.

"But (Teixeira) is too good of a hitter. He'll adjust, and I'll have to keep pitching him different sequences."

Postscript: Teixeira adjusted. Bard had to face him again on Sunday and threw him the same up-and-in heat -- and Teixeira hit it into the right-field stands.

Meeting Rivera was a thrill for Ramirez

Ramon Ramirez first met Mariano Rivera as a 22-year-old relief pitcher at the Yankees' spring-training complex in 2004. Ramirez had grown up as an outfielder in the Dominican Republic but turned himself into a pitcher to propel his career forward, watching some of the greats of the game in an effort to learn the basics of pitching.

One of those greats was Pedro Martinez, like Ramirez a native of the Dominican Republic.

Another was Mariano Rivera.

"Sometimes, in my mind, I wanted to be like this guy because he's unbelievable," Ramirez said. "I want to live my life like that. ... I want to work and be a professional and be a player like that."

A year after the Yankees signed Ramirez away from the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Japan, they added him to their 40-man roster and invited him to their major-league spring training camp. He'd accumulated a 5.21 ERA in 14 Single-A starts the previous year but had fanned almost a hitter an inning in his first season in the minor leagues.

Upon his arrival in Tampa, Fla., he found himself sharing a clubhouse with one of his heroes, the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball.

Ramirez didn't approach Rivera, of course. As much as he might have wanted to pick his brain for pointers about pitching, about playing professional baseball about life, he didn't dare. Rivera was a legend already -- he'd won four World Series rings and accumulated almost 250 career saves.

Ramirez was a nobody. He was in awe being in the presence of Rivera, let alone trying to talk to him.

Rivera, though, broke the ice -- just the way he does often with some of the younger pitchers in the organization.

"I was one of the best players in the world -- that's how I feel when he talked to me," Ramirez said. "I don't know about anybody (else), but I feel like that with him. When he talked to me, it was like, 'I saw Mariano Rivera. He's one of the best closers in the world. Maybe he doesn't want to talk to any players.' But it's so different. He talked with me. He talked with the young guys -- not just with me, but with everybody."

The two didn't spent all that much time talking, but Ramirez made sure to pay attention to just about everything he did on and off the field.

"For me, what entered my mind was, 'I want to learn something about this guy because he's a professional outside the game and inside the game,'" Ramirez said. "I don't know how he seems at home, but in the game, he's one of the best to me. He's one of the best closers and one of the best pitchers and one of the best professionals. ...

"When I see this guy, I'm like, '(Shoot), I need to learn how I can be a professional, how I can be a professional in my life. This guy, he works so hard at pitching. He's got everything: He's a family guy, and he works hard. He's got big respect from people. This is the big point, about life in the big picture."

They even talked a little pitching.

"He told me, he told a lot of guys: 'The pitcher has to have control. Make a strike. Make the first pitch a strike. Make the first out of the game. This is what you have to do to be a pitcher,'" Ramirez said.

More importantly, they talked about life.

"Sometimes you can see some players thinking, like, 'I'm the best baseball player,'" Ramirez said. "But he'd say, 'Everything will pass one day. You need to do the best you can in your life.'"

Bowden not pleased with relief effort

Michael Bowden wasn't satisfied with his effort on Friday night.

He was upset about it.

Bowden has a right to treat everything that happens the rest of the way as gravy. He turned in a pretty impressive season at Triple-A -- he had a 3.13 ERA, third-best in the International League -- and now is pitching out of the bullpen, something he'd done all of three times in five minor-league seasons with the Red Sox.

But he's actually starting to get the hang of it.

He returned to the major leagues in September with a 15.75 ERA thanks to a shelling he endured at the hands of the Yankees at Fenway Park in late August. An awkwardly timed warmup -- he got up and down a couple of times, something starting pitchers never have to do -- in part contributed to the eight hits and three walks he surrendered in relief of Brad Penny.

But that ERA has steadily dropped since the Red Sox brought him back to be the long man in the bullpen. He tossed two scoreless innings against Baltimore on Sept. 8, and after going almost two weeks without pitching, he threw scoreless innings on back-to-back days against the Kansas City Royals.

It has made for quite the adjustment for a starting pitcher accustomed to throwing every five days and not having to warm up during innings or inherit runners on base.

But if the Red Sox see him as a candidate to pitch in long relief in the playoffs -- it's not as though Paul Byrd has done anything to sew up a spot -- the experience has been invaluable.

"I'm comfortable doing it now," he said. "I feel like I know what I'm doing. I know what I need to do to prepare and how much I need to throw to get ready and, just mentally, what my approach needs to be. Being out there for the few weeks I've been out there, even though I haven't been throwing, it's been giving me a sense of confidence. I feel comfortable out there, and I feel a lot better than I did before."

Three days later, he was back out on the mound as part of the effort to relieve the felled Jon Lester. He even struck out the side in the fifth inning, fanning Nick Swisher, Melky Cabrera and Derek Jeter in order, all with a fastball that doesn't quite touch 94 miles an hour.

But it got away from him in the sixth. The Red Sox had trimmed the deficit to 6-3 on the strength of a David Ortiz home run, but Bowden couldn't hold it. He walked two of the first four hitters he faced and saw the other two hit ropes to deep center field.

A run-scoring single by Jorge Posada finished off his night.

That, more than the strikeouts, was what had Bowden upset as he dressed in the back corner of the Yankee Stadium visitors' clubhouse.

"We got some momentum, Ortiz hits a two-run home run, and then I go back out there and couldn't keep them where they were at," the 23-year-old righty said. "I couldn't keep them where they were at. I'm disappointed in myself for that, giving them back the momentum. There's a few pitches I wish I could have back -- but other than that, I'll just learn from the experience."

Right-field fence seemed to spook Lester

Postgame comments from Red Sox manager Terry Francona did quite a bit to alleviate the concern about the right knee of Jon Lester, the knee struck by a line drive off the bat of Melky Cabrera on Friday night.

"When it first happened, it looked terrible," Francona said. "It sounded terrible. He was in a lot of pain. But I think it caught enough meat or muscle where it wasn't a direct blow on that bone. He got X-rays, and they came back clean. From talking to Dr. (Larry) Ronan and our trainers, he might be right on turn -- and the fact that we're even talking about that is good news."

It remains to be seen, of course, how Lester feels in the morning. But the lefty professed a strong desire to avoid skipping a start before the playoffs -- "Regardless of how many simulated games or bullpens you throw, it doesn't give the full effect of seeing live hitters," he said -- and expects to pitch against the Blue Jays back at Fenway Park this week.

If that's the case, then, we can move onto the next pressing issue: Something about pitching at Yankee Stadium has spooked Lester.

Yankee Stadium has spooked many pitchers this season. Something about the way the ballpark was constructed has turned right field into a conveyor belt for home runs. Dustin Pedroia, for example, had never hit an opposite-field home run in his life, at any level, before he did so at Yankee Stadium. Far more home runs have landed in the right-field seats than the left-field seats, something you seldom see given the preponderance of righties swinging the bats:

(It's the complete opposite, as you can imagine, at Fenway Park. Thanks to HitTrackerOnline for the charts.)

Lester, as a lefty, has a built-in advantage pitching at Yankee Stadium. The switch-hitters in the Yankees' lineup -- Melky Cabrera, Jorge Posada, Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira -- all have to turn around and hit righthanded against him, and that makes it far more difficult to take aim at the Little League dimensions out in right field.

Lester had surrendered three home runs in his first two starts at The House That Scott Brosius Built, but two of those home runs went to left-center field rather than right field. The homer-happy right-field corner hadn't seemed to be a problem for him against either righties or lefties. He'd done well to pitch away from the ballpark, to prevent lefties from pulling the ball or righties from taking a crack at going the other way.

He took the strategy to an extreme on Friday, though, and it came back to bite him.

In Lester's up-and-down first inning against the Yankees, 29 of the 30 pitches he threw were on the left-field side of the plate. Throwing to that half of the plate -- inside to righties and outside to lefties -- made it difficult for anyone to take a shot at the right-field fence, and no one really did.

"We were trying to go in a lot (on righties)," he said. "We've done that before."

But because he also tried to go away a lot against lefties, too, it made his sequence totally predictable. The Yankees could eliminate half the strike zone and adapt their swings accordingly.

Here's what the first inning on Friday looked like:

Compare that to his first inning at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 9:

Not much changed the rest of the way. Here's his strike-zone chart for the entire game, once again from the perspective of the catcher:

And here's his strike-zone chart from Aug. 9:

(Pitch charts once again come from

Lester began to mix and match in the second inning but reverted to old habits in the fateful third inning that saw him surrender four runs and take a line drive off the knee. He actually threw a pretty decent pitch to Alex Rodriguez, but with the outer half of the plate a non-factor, Rodriguez had a pretty good idea he was going to see something on the inside corner. He turned on a fastball on the inside corner and at the knees and ripped it into the second deck in left field.

"Alex hit a good pitch, down and in," Lester said. "He was obviously looking in, and he turned on it and didn't miss it. That's the way it goes."

That might the way it goes, anyway. But it seems like Lester gave Rodriguez no choice but to look for something on the inside half. A veteran hitter wouldn't miss a pattern that obvious.

Should Lester have a chance to pitch at Yankee Stadium again in Game 1 or Game 2 of the ALCS, it'll be interesting to see if he tries the same strategy or if he mixes it up just a little bit.

Friday, September 25, 2009

David Ortiz lives

David Ortiz has more home runs this season than Kevin Youkilis.

Think about that.

Ortiz hit his first home run in mid-May, an occasion that prompted celebration and bad poetry across the lane. It wasn't until his fifth home run of the season that the Fenway Park crowd didn't summon him back for a curtain call to celebrate a feat that once had been routine.

Since June 1, though, Ortiz has 25 home runs -- including a home run in each of his last two games. He's hit six home runs against lefties. He's hit nine home runs on the road. He's hit two home runs on the first pitch, and he's hit two home runs out of a full count. He's hit 14 solo home runs. He's hit 11 two-out home runs. He's hit four home runs in the first inning. He's hit two home runs in the ninth inning.

(He'll have a chance to add to that total this weekend as he takes aim at the short porch in Yankee Stadium's right field.)

He's doing, in short, exactly what Red Sox manager Terry Francona has hoped all season he would do.

"Part of our fight early on was to be patient," he said. "People were calling for David to retire, to pack it in. There were a lot nasty things said about him -- and he had a really bad two months. But to his credit, and I don't know his numbers as well as I should, but I think he's got like 25 home runs (since June 1).

"The other thing that's happened is that we've dropped him in the order, so it's lengthened out our batting order. Youk and Jason Bay and those guys have become mainstays in the middle, and David has hit down a little lower, and it's given us a thicker batting order."

What got a little lost during the slump is that Ortiz all along has given the Red Sox some thickness to the batting order. He hasn't given at-bats away all season. For a team that thrives on wearing down pitchers by grinding out at-bats, Ortiz has remained a key component.

Only five players -- Youkilis, Nick Swisher, Jack Cust, Chone Figgins and Bobby Abreu -- have seen more pitches per plate appearance this season than Ortiz's 4.18. That number hasn't fluctuated much, either: Even before he hit his second home run of the season in early June, he still was seeing more than 4.0 pitches per plate appearance.

No Red Sox regular this season -- not Youkilis, not Bay, not Victor Martinez -- has seen fewer pitches in the strike zone this season than Ortiz. Even as the designated hitter was enduring an epic slump, American League pitchers had no desire to challenge him -- and he's now showing why.

Choice of Lester for Game 1 a no-brainer

Josh Beckett has the resume, but according to Sean McAdam of the Boston Herald, Jon Lester has the Game 1 start for the Red Sox when the playoffs begin in a couple of weeks.

The choice, really, was a no-brainer.

As well as Beckett has pitched all season, the numbers show that he's no longer the ace of the staff. Lester, the best lefthanded pitcher the Red Sox have had since Bruce Hurst, has been a more reliable and more consistent pitcher all season long. A sampling:

Beckett: 3.78
Lester: 3.33

ERA since May 1
Beckett: 3.22
Lester: 2.95

Playoff ERA a year ago
Beckett: 8.79
Lester: 2.36 in 26 2/3 innings
(Granted, Beckett was hurt -- but did you remember Lester was that good?)

Beckett: 8.4
Lester: 9.9

Beckett: 2.3
Lester: 2.8

Beckett: 0.89
Lester: 0.94

It comes down to this: If both Lester and Beckett win Games 1 and 2 in whatever order but Clay Buchholz loses Game 3, who do you want to pitch Game 4 to close it out before an anything-can-happen Game 5?

The answer is clear. It's Lester.

(Does that, then, set up Victor Martinez to catch Game 1 and Jason Varitek to catch Game 2? Maybe -- but given that there'll be a day off before Game 3, maybe not.)


Lester, by the way, remains in the same elite company he was in earlier this season, back when he had an ERA higher than 5.00. Back in early May, Lester was one of nine pitchers with a K/BB ratio of better than 3-to-1 who also was averaging more than a strikeout an inning.

That group is down to six:
* Javier Vazquez (2.91 ERA)
* Zack Greinke (2.08)
* Justin Verlander (3.41)
* Ricky Nolasco (5.34)
* Tim Lincecum (2.47)
* Jon Lester (3.33)

Back in May, both Lester and Verlander had outlier-type ERAs.

Now, though, Lester's ERA was right where it should be -- among the best in the major leagues.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Burgess reinforces depleted corps of LBs

It's not that the Baltimore Ravens were happy to see Preston Burgess go -- but they were happy to see where he ended up.

"Once my teammates found out I got traded," the 25-year-old linebacker said from his new locker stall in Gillette Stadium, "they said, 'That's a great move.' At least I didn't go to no team that wasn't known for linebackers."

Bill Belichick's Patriots have churned out linebackers for years: Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson, Roman Phifer and Mike Vrabel among them. But the injury to Jerod Mayo has left the Patriots short at that position for the first time in a long time. Burgess, acquired from the Baltimore Ravens on Tuesday for a conditional draft pick, will have an opportunity right away to bolster the Patriots' depth at perhaps their most important defensive position.

Gary Guyton and Adalius Thomas played most of Sunday's snaps against the Jets at inside linebacker, but the Patriots' lack of depth at the position limited the looks they could throw at Mark Sanchez. If the former sixth-round pick out of Michigan can get up to speed quickly, he could allow Thomas to move back to the outside and give the Patriots another run-stuffing and pass-rushing weapon.

Getting up to speed, though, won't be easy.

Burgess is more than familiar with complicated defenses, having played his first two seasons under Rex Ryan with the Ravans. But learning one complicated defense doesn't make it any easier to learn another.

He underwent a physical upon his arrival on Tuesday night and wasn't handed a playbook until Wednesday morning -- giving him just three days to start digesting it before the Patriots' game against Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons. He's only received bits and pieces of the playbook so far to make things a little easier -- with the Ravens, he said, new players get the whole playbook at once -- but it's still going to be a challenge.

"It's kind of Chinese to me right now," he said, "but I'll get it."

Learning, after all, is something upon which the third-year linebacker prides himself.

"I learn from my mistakes," he said, "and I learn from the people that's in front of me. I go hard every play, and I try to be around the ball every time, each play."

An argument for Michael Bowden

Paul Byrd is tentatively scheduled to pitch Sunday's game for the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium.

He shouldn't make that start.

His return was a heartwarming story. It was. But his ERA now stands at 6.04 after his disastrous first inning gave the Red Sox next to no chance to beat the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday night. He's now allowed 37 hits in 25 1/3 innings -- just about three hits for every two innings he's pitched.

He smoke-and-mirrored his way to six shutout innings in his debut against the Blue Jays but got shelled in Chicago and repeatedly pitched in and out of trouble against the Los Angeles Angels last Wednesday. His ability to bounce back from a bad first inning on Tuesday saved the Red Sox bullpen, but it doesn't change the fact that the first inning essentially decided the game.

The veteran is not, clearly, going to make any starts for the Red Sox in the postseason. (Knock on wood.) He'll likely make the postseason roster as a long reliever, just like he did last season -- and if he's going to do that, he might as well start getting used to the role now.

He can do that on Sunday by pitching in relief of Michael Bowden.

The rookie with the herky-jerky motion has a 9.00 ERA in the major leagues this season but hasn't surrendered a run in either of his two September appearances out of the bullpen. He finished his minor-league season with an ERA of 3.13 in 24 starts, and opponents actually had less success against him after the All-Star break (.222) than before it (.232).

Unless the Yankees completely fall apart, the division no longer is in doubt. But that doesn't mean the Red Sox have to throw away a game, especially a game against the Yankees, by sending Byrd back out there.

Bowden will be in the mix next spring for a spot at the back end of the Red Sox rotation -- or he might be a key chip in a trade this winter. It might be worthwhile to see what he can do as a starting pitcher in the major leagues.

The Red Sox have nothing to gain, short-term or long-term, by starting Byrd. They have quite a bit to gain, particularly long-term, by starting Bowden.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Red Sox pitching staff keeps getting thinner

When the Red Sox placed Junichi Tazawa on the 60-day disabled list, ending his rookie season, they made an interesting decision: They summoned shortstop Chris Woodward back from his home in Tampa, Fla., to provide depth in the infield.

The reason Woodward fits is clear. With Nick Green suffering from an as yet undiagnosed weakness in his leg, the Red Sox were down to just one backup middle infielder -- Jed Lowrie, whose lingering wrist injury has wiped out most of his season. Should Alex Gonzalez or Dustin Pedroia suffer any type of minor injury that would keep them out for a few days, the presence of Woodward allows the Red Sox to fill that spot without needing to push Lowrie too hard.

But swapping out Tazawa for Woodward does something else for the Red Sox: It leaves an already thin pitching staff even thinner.

With the Sept. 1 expansion of rosters comes an opportunity for teams to bring on board more pitchers, an opportunity to spread out the workload a little bit on a staff worked hard during the season's first five months.

Teams normally go with an 11- or 12-man pitching staff. Most have added four or five pitchers to the staff for the final month of the season. Half of them have 16 or more on their roster right now.

Baltimore's Dave Trembley turned calls to the bullpen into his own sophisticated form of Chinese water torture -- something he could do without issue because he has 18 pitchers to call upon. Both the Rockies and the Yankees are have 19.

The Red Sox, on the other hand, have 14. Having played all season with 12 pitchers, they used the Sept. 1 roster expansion to add just two more: Michael Bowden and the recently activated Daisuke Matsuzaka. Other than Bowden, the Red Sox are pitching with the same bullpen they've used all year.

It makes for some difficult in situations like Tuesday night, a night in which the Red Sox have Paul Byrd on the mound and no long reliever in the bullpen -- an almost unthinkable situation for a team to be in come September.

What's interesting is that two pitchers are available but are sitting at home. The Red Sox only have activated 34 of their available 40 players this month -- catcher Mark Wagner; infielders Aaron Bates, Chris Carter, and Jose Inglesias; and pitchers Felix Doubront and Hunter Jones haven't gotten the call. (Carter is effectively ineligible because he'll be traded to the Mets to complete the Billy Wagner deal.)

If the Red Sox want to go all-out to try to catch the Yankees for the division title, they won't pitch Bowden much and instead will stick with the relievers that have done the job so far.

If they want to ease off the accelerator and avoid overtaxing those same relievers, though, it might take more a pitching staff that goes more than 14 deep. It might take Doubront or Jones -- pitchers who, to this point, have not been summoned.

Doubront is something of a longshot. He's just 21 years old and threw 121 innings this season for Double-A Portland -- more innings than Clay Buchholz threw when he was 21 years old. He's never pitched above Double-A, either. He's likely been shut down for the season the way most Red Sox pitching prospects are after they hit a certain plateau.

The decision by the Red Sox not to call up Jones, though, is a curious one. Jones made eight appearances earlier this season when Daisuke Matsuzaka first went on the disabled list in April, and he's remained on the 40-man roster even while spending the rest of the season at Triple-A Pawtucket. His numbers weren't spectacular -- he had a 4.25 ERA in 53 innings pitched with the PawSox -- but the Tazawa-less Red Sox aren't in a position to be picky. If he can ease the burden on Hideki Okajima (59 innings pitched) or Ramon Ramirez (64 innings pitched), he'll have done his job.

If he's kept himself in any kind of pitching shape over the last couple of weeks -- he last pitched on Sept. 6 -- don't be surprised if he gets the call in the next few days.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The disintegration of Manny Delcarmen

It was rumored back in May that the Washington Nationals had offered first baseman Nick Johnson to the Red Sox for reliever Manny Delcarmen, a deal the Red Sox declined. Delcarmen was a potential closer for another team, too valuable a chip to waste on an oft-injured first baseman so early in the season.

Teams throughout the winter discussed Delcarmen with the Red Sox, according to reports, but Theo Epstein never bit on any trade. He was simply too valuable of a late-inning reliever for the Red Sox to give away without getting real value back.

All of a sudden, though, he might be on the cusp of being marginalized within his own bullpen. His ERA has climbed to a season-high 4.34 after his second meltdown in three days, this time an outing in which he surrendered three doubles and a walk and couldn't find a way to get the third out of the inning.

Month by month, here's Delcarmen's ERA:
April: 0.00
May: 3.00
June: 4.00
July: 4.66
August: 5.25
September: 21.60

What's wrong with Delcarmen?


Let's start with his velocity.

The righty was hitting 94 miles an hour regularly and touching 96 in key spots back in mid-April. He's now hitting 92 miles an hour regularly and touching 96.

(Both of the above examples are games against Baltimore at Fenway Park. In case you think the radar gun was juiced in April and isn't juiced now, well, Ramon Ramirez was recorded as throwing harder 10 days ago then he was back in April.)

Whether it's injury or fatigue -- Delcarmen threw more than 70 innings in back-to-back seasons in 2007 and 2008 when you count his stint in Triple-A -- Delcarmen isn't throwing the same fastball he was throwing earlier in the year.

Something's also wrong with his command. Check out these charts -- the first from that same mid-April outing...

... the second from his rocky one-third of an inning against the Orioles almost two weeks ago...

... and the third from Monday night's disaster:

(Note: The "approach plot" normalizes the chart so there's no difference between righties and lefties. Everything on the left half is inside, and everything on the right half is outside. All of the pitching charts come from

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what's happening there. Everything in April either was down in the zone or up and uncomfortably in. Nothing, with the exception of what seems to be a change-of-pace curveball, was up and over the plate.

Now, though, everything is up in the zone and over the plate.

When hitters are putting the ball in play, it's not on the inside edge or outside edge of the strike zone. It's right over the middle, right where they get get the barrel of the bat on it and hit it hard somewhere.

The command and velocity could be related: If Delcarmen is pitching through fatigue and reaching back to summon every last little bit of velocity, his command naturally is going so suffer -- and he's naturally going to leave the ball up in the strike zone.

Delcarmen isn't just unlucky. Something is wrong. ESPN's Amy Nelson reported on Saturday that the righty has been flying open with his delivery, not getting his hips aligned the right way, a possible indication that he's trying to do too much with a diminished fastball.

If it doesn't get fixed, the Red Sox might have no choice but to leave him off their postseason roster. With the pride of West Roxbury, all of a sudden, no lead is safe.

Belichick fires shot at last year's defense

The question was innocuous, almost leading in its intent and in the way it gave Bill Belichick a chance to offer a subtle excuse for the way it failed to rattle a rookie quarterback on Sunday: With all the new faces on defense and without Jerod Mayo in there, has communication been a problem at all?

Belichick, who had spent most of his press conference doing his best to say nothing at all, didn't take the bait. He instead used the opportunity to take a potshot at the defense he fielded last year, a defense he's almost totally revamped.

"I would say it's probably better than it was last year," he said. "That wouldn't take much. Is it as good as it needs to be? No. There's always room for improvement. But I would say it's definitely improved over last year -- not that that was a real high bar."

He makes the point twice, just in case anyone missed it. The Patriots' communication on defense last season was horrendous.

Well, that might explain some things. It might just explain why Belichick didn't hesitate to trade Mike Vrabel to Kansas City or Ellis Hobbs to Philadelphia or Richard Seymour to Oakland.

Vrabel was the signal-caller most of the time -- an interesting idea given that he primarily was a pass-rushing outside linebacker and not someone right in the middle of things. But communication can be just as important on the defensive line or in the secondary as anywhere else.

It's tough to know who Belichick sees as the main culprit. Vrabel spent years in the Belichick defense, and it seems counterintuitive to think that his communication was acceptable for years but not acceptable last year -- especially since he wore the helmet with the green dot all season. Seymour likewise spent years playing for Belichick and, we have to assume, communicating at an acceptable level. Tedy Bruschi saw his playing time diminish in favor of Mayo and Gary Guyton, but Mayo was elected a captain and Guyton wore the helmet with the green dot on Sunday.

That leaves Hobbs and fellow jettisoned cornerback Deltha O'Neal. Communication can be critical in the secondary, and the Patriots certainly did give up too many big plays back there over the course of the season.

Then again, maybe Mayo was just totally lost during his rookie season. It's tricky to try to read between the lines with just about anything Belichick says.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Patriots' conservative 'D' a contrast to Jets

It's tough to put any blame on the Patriots' defense for the loss on Sunday. A depleted unit playing without its best player allowed just one touchdown and three field goals to the Jets, an impressive effort from a group widely considered to be the team's weak link coming into the season.

But it's still interesting to look at the contrast in the way Rex Ryan and Bill Belichick deployed their defenses -- and it starts with the "SK" and "QBH" columns on the defensive stat sheet.

Two Patriots had sacks: Ty Warren (a defensive lineman) and Mike Wright (a defensive lineman). Two Patriots had quarterback hurries: Warren and Tully Banta-Cain (a third-down pass-rushing specialist). That's it.

No Jets had sacks. Tom Brady did well to throw the ball away. But five different Jets had quarterback hurries: Kris Jenkins (a defensive tackle) Kerry Rhodes (a safety), Bart Scott (a linebacker) and Eric Smith (a safety) each had one, and David Harris (a linebacker) had three.

The Patriots sent four pass-rushers after Mark Sanchez, a rookie quarterback who one would think would have trouble with a variety of defensive schemes. Sanchez completed 14 of his 22 passes and threw the game's only touchdown. The Jets sent blitzers from all over the place after Brady, and the two-time Super Bowl MVP completed fewer than half of his passes and threw the game's only interception.

The contrast was stark.

How stark? Just for fun, let's look back at the first quarter and at the way the two defenses chose to attack the opposing quarterback (*denotes offensive half of the field):

The Jets against Brady
1-10-21. All three linebackers showed blitz on the game's first play, but only Harris came across the line of scrimmage and was driven back by run-blocking tight end Chris Baker.

1-10-33. Rhodes (S) sprinted to the line of scrimmage but pulled up when Brady cut off his snap count to point him out. Both Harris (LB) and Scott (LB) came flying up the middle when the ball was snapped, but both were picked up -- Harris by Logan Mankins, who let Jenkins (DT) drop back away from him, and Scott by Stephen Neal, who had been double-teaming Marques Douglas (DE) with Dan Koppen before he saw the linebacker coming at him. Scott actually ran right over Neal but tripped in the process and never got to Brady.

2-6-37. The Patriots caught the Jets off-guard a little bit with the no-huddle. Four defensive players were clustered together about six yards down the field, and that's not how Ryan would have drawn it up. By the time Brady handed the ball to Laurence Maroney, all the Jets could do was pursue.

(The play was nullified by a penalty on the Jets.)

1-10-42. Scott (LB) actually put his hand down and lined up as a defensive end. Harris (LB) blitzed up the middle. After Dwight Lowery (CB) crept up to the line of scrimmage well before the snap, he came on a delayed blitz, too. But the Patriots again picked up all three -- Baker blocked Scott, right tackle Nick Kaczur blocked Lowery and Maroney jumped in front of Brady to block Harris. Rhodes came charging on an even more delayed blitz, but Brady unloaded in plenty of time to hit Joey Galloway in one-on-one coverage.

1-10-39*. The next play out of the no-huddle came so quickly CBS still was showing an instant replay when the ball is snapped. Suffice to say that when Maroney was brought down in the backfield for a one-yard loss, it was Scott (LB) and Jim Leonhard (S) who did the honors. Scott tore through a gap between Matt Light and center Dan Koppen, both otherwise occupied, and Leonhard did the same between Kaczur and Baker, both of whom likewise have white jerseys to block.

That's what the overload blitz does: It appears that everyone one of the Patriots' offensive linemen -- with the possible exception of Koppen, who was trying to get a hand on Jenkins (DT) -- was actively blocking someone, but the play still goes nowhere.

2-11-40*. Lowery (CB) timed his blitz perfectly from one side of the field, but Maroney ran the ball to the other side. Waiting there was Scott (LB), who didn't start moving toward the line of scrimmage until he saw Brady hand the ball off, but Kaczur got out in front and got in front of him perfectly. Defensive tackle Bryan Thomas, however, shed a block by Baker and pulled down Maroney just four yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

3-7-36*. The Patriots lined up three wide receivers to the left of Brady and Joey Galloway alone to the right. Only two Jets lined up with their hands on the ground, but it was clear a blitz was coming. Rhodes (S) didn't even disguise his intentions, living up alongside Scott(LB) at the line of scrimmage. Lowery (CB), too, set up along the line of scrimmage, but he ended up following Baker in coverage. Harris (LB) stayed back and put a hit on Baker as he came over the middle.

It wasn't any kind of all-out blitz. Only five Jets -- Rhodes, Scott, Bryan Thomas and two defensive linemen -- came across the line of scrimmage. But because both of the blitzers came from one side of the line, the Patriots couldn't pick them up. Matt Light and Logan Mankins double-teamed Sione Pouha (DE) on the left side, and Koppen and Neal doubled-teamed Thomas (LB) in the middle. Kaczur picked up Shaun Ellis (DE), and Laurence Maroney got himself in front of Rhodes.

But that left Scott free and clear, and with Baker's route disrupted by Harris, Brady had no chance to complete his intended pass to his tight end.

The Patriots then punted.

Sound complicated? It should. It was.

The Patriots against Sanchez
(We'll skip ahead to the middle of the second quarter. The Jets saw a pair of fumbles derail their first couple of possessions, and they didn't put move the chains for the first time until this possession -- one that's sustained long enough for us to get a good look at how the Patriots defended it.)

1.10.33. The Patriots lined up in much the same formation they'd used during the Jets' first four possessoins. Four defensive linemen put their hands down -- Ty Warren, Mike Wright, Ron Brace (in for Vince Wilfork) and Jarvis Green. Gary Guyton and Adalius Thomas stood in two-point stances behind those four, and three cornerbacks lined up across from the Jets' three wide receivers.

When Sanchez handed the ball to Thomas Jones, safety James Sanders came up to make the stop.

2.1.42. Same formation. (The two linebackers did switch sides, with Thomas moving to the weak side and Guyton to the strong.) No movement before the snap. Jones ran into the right side of the line for a first down.

1.10.50. Wilfork returned to the game. Brace went out. Sanchez handed the ball to Jones, who broke through the line and dragged Guyton for a gain of 10 yards.

1.10.40*. Same formation. Still no movement before the snap. Sanders (S) came up to the line of scrimmage to double-team Jerricho Cotchery with Jonathan Wilhite (CB).

The throw, however, went to the other side, a screen pass for Chansi Stuckey with wide receiver Brad Smith blocking out in front. It was Thomas (LB) who eventually got over to force Stuckey out of bounds.

1.10.25*. Same formation. Same personnel. Leon Washington lined up off to the right side but came back to the middle to take the handoff.

2.7.22*. Cornerback Shawn Springs crept up to the line, even going so far as to tap Warren on the hip to get him to move to his right. But with Stuckey and tight end Dustin Keller lined up close to the rest of the formation, he might just have been in pass coverage on Stuckey.

Springs eventually chased down wide receiver Brad Smith, running a reverse along the left sideline.

1.10.15*. Thomas, for the first time on this drive, lined up along the line of scrimmage in his traditional outside linebacker spot. He didn't explode out of his stance, though -- perhaps sensing that the Jets would run the ball. Jones carried it straight up the middle.

2-9-14*. Here's the interesting one. The Jets on this play tried to set up a little bit of a play-action screen pass: Washington came in motion and acted as if he was taking a handoff, but Sanchez pulled the ball pack and instead swung a pass to Stuckey. Patriots cornerback Jonathan Wilhite, not fooled, dropped Stuckey for a four-yard loss.

The success of the play, though, had everything to do with the way Wilhite reacted and not much to do with the scheme. Pass-rushers Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess had replaced Green and Warren at the end of the Patriots' line, but the scheme was the same: Four defenders along the line of scrimmage with defensive backs in man-to-man coverage.

Wilhite, though, made a terrific play to push the Jets back.

3-13.18*. For a moment, just before the ball was snapped, it looked as though the defensive front would show some variety -- but then Banta-Cain got down into a three-point stance the same way he had on the previous play. Sanchez handed the ball to Jones, and only then did Guyton attack the middle of the line, getting a piece of Jones just as Banta-Cain wrapped up his ankles.

The Jets then kicked a field goal.