Red Sox Treading Waters of American League

The Red Sox’s playoff hopes aren’t dead. No, they’re more along the lines of a comatose patient being sustained by nothing more than the veritable plug. And its immediate family members -- Theo Epstein, John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino -- appear resigned to the fate of a 2010 season sans post.

By entering the year offering predisposed, backhanded excuses laced with optimism and overshadowed by the off-season acquisition of John Lackey, the front office’s decision to remain relatively idle at this season’s trade deadline merely reaffirmed ownership’s stance that this, 2010, just wasn’t meant to be the Red Sox’s year.

That’s not to say that the organization came into the year without competitive intentions. And again, to do a bit of reaffirming of my own, Boston’s playoff chances don’t dwell six feet deep quite yet.

However, one glance at the American League standings makes it difficult to imagine the Sox sneaking their way into the postseason; even more so without the starting right side of their infield -- Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis -- who have been shut down for at least the remainder of the regular season. Entering play Wednesday, the Red Sox will be six games back of both the division and wild card leads.

And yet, even amidst a year paralyzed by injuries to such an extent not seen in Boston since 2006 -- which, not coincidentally was the last time the Red Sox failed to make the playoffs -- there may be more retrospective reasons than one would think to look back fondly on this season...yes, even sans post.

Staying on the topic of retrospective reminiscence, Tuesday night’s slate of MLB games seemed so indicative of the Red Sox’s season to this point.

Coming off three straight wins, the Sox were set to continue their home stand with Josh Beckett slated to start opposite one of the worst offenses in the league, the Seattle Mariners. Beckett, who has struggled as of late, is arguably the most important piece of the team’s still-lingering playoff lives. A home start against Seattle could have proved just what the doctor recommended in order for Beckett to regain form and continue Boston’s winning ways.

Instead, the rain came and postponed the game, forcing the team into a toilsome double-header tomorrow before they travel to dreaded Tropicana Field to tackle the first-place Rays. On top of that, rendered motionless in the standings by way of mother nature, Boston was forced to watch the backs of both New York and Tampa Bay shrink further in the distance of the playoff race as each team pounded out double-digit runs for a pair of impressive road wins.

Like injuries before it, the uncontrollable element of weather hindered the Red Sox’s ability to tread water in the tumultuous American League East.

 

…the 2010 Boston Red Sox treading water…

 

Unfortunately, that’s the image that ‘Red Sox Nation’ will subconsciously revert to when remembering this season.

But really, should those necessarily be negative sentiments simply by default? I mean, all occurrences considered, would it be a reach to believe that even having air in the proverbial lungs of the Red Sox at this point is cause for some level of celebration? Couldn’t the water that Boston is treading be half full, not half empty?

Alright, that last one may have been a slight stretch.

Nonetheless, my point remains intact. In a year originally deemed as a bridge to subsequent seasons, a roster glued together by previously unknowns and resurgent once-weres has managed to stay competitive and, at the very least, keep the club in playoff discussions.

Even six games back in late August, this team is still entertaining and worth watching on a nightly basis. A lot of that has to do with those aforementioned unknowns and once-weres that Terry Francona sprinkles amongst the lineup’s regulars each game.

Headlining the previously unknowns are players like Darnell McDonald, Daniel Nava, Ryan Kalish, and to a lesser extent, Daniel Bard.

Watching him play this season, you might be surprised to find out that Darnell "Old" McDonald will be turning thirty-two years of age in November. You may also be shocked to find out that, prior to joining the Red Sox this season, McDonald had played in just sixty-eight major league games. However, thanks to Adrian Beltre’s mule-like leg strength and selective peripheral vision, Boston’s outfield depth grew thin enough to afford Darnell an April call-up. In his Red Sox debut against Texas, McDonald pinch-hit for Josh Reddick in the eighth inning of a game Boston trailed by two. His first at-bat with Boston resulted in a game-tying two-run home run. If that wasn’t enough, McDonald again came to the plate one inning later and delivered a walk-off RBI-single, ending the team’s five-game losing streak and immediately immersing the 31-year-old amongst the Fenway favorites. Darnell would finish his first month with his new team batting .308. To date, McDonald is hitting .271 with 8 home runs and 30 RBI in 255 at-bats.

Like McDonald, outfielder Daniel Nava took a longer-than-usual route to the major leagues. However, the 27-year-old got his first taste of the MLB this season for the Red Sox, and believe it or not, Nava’s first at-bat with Boston was even more incredible than McDonald’s. On June 12th, Nava hit a grand slam home run on his first big league swing against the Philadelphia Phillies. In 101 total at-bats, Nava has hit .277, with twelve of his twenty-eight hits going for extra bases.

Another outfielder, Ryan Kalish, saw some unexpected playing time this season with the major league club. A ninth round selection in the 2006 draft by the Boston Red Sox, the 22-year-old shot through minor league system and made an immediate impact during his July 31st debut against the Detroit Tigers. During Boston’s 5-4 victory over the visiting Tigers, Kalish went 2-4 with an RBI and a run scored. His first home run would also be a memorable one, coming in a 6-3 win at Yankee Stadium against the rival Yankees. Kalish has struggled of late, going 1-17 in his last six games and dropping his average from .300 to .239, but there’s no denying the impact that the young outfielder has made in his short time with the Red Sox.

Daniel Bard didn’t truly enter the season as an unknown, at least in the eyes of Red Sox fans, but by now Bard has introduced himself to the world of Major League Baseball on a much larger scale. With current closer Jonathan Papelbon’s exit from Boston seemingly inevitable, Bard has emerged as a more-than-viable option as his replacement. In 56 games, the Sox’s primary set-up man has tallied a league-high 27 holds, 3 saves, a 0.92 WHIP and a 1.87 ERA to go along with an astounding 9.36 K/9.

As for the once-weres, there are certainly plenty of candidates to choose from.

David Ortiz again silenced early-season doubters, myself included, by leading the team with 27 home runs -- 10 in the month of May alone. Adrian Beltre’s resurgence as one of the best hitters in the American League (.325, 23 HR, 86 RBI) has been a main reason behind Boston’s surprisingly potent offensive attack. Even Jed Lowrie has reemerged as a middle-infield option for the Sox, returning from the land of forgotten to hit .299 and get on base at a .413 clip in his 23 games so far in 2010.

However, the most notable, by a wide margin, has been pitcher Clay Buchholz. After throwing a no-hitter in his second major league start, Buchholz is finally completing the type of season that Red Sox fans dreamed could happen but started to doubt whether it actually would. Through twenty-two starts in 2010, Clay has emerged as a potential Cy Young candidate, winning fifteen games (2nd in AL) and posting an American League-best 2.26 ERA. In the absence of Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka for a good portion of the regular season, Buchholz anchored the rotation. Opponents are batting just .224 off the right-hander, his fifteen quality starts are tied for second on the team and his 1.20 WHIP is just 0.02 points behind Jon Lester for best among the starting staff. Clay Buchholz’s season has been arguably the most incredible storyline of the 2010 season and his pursuit of twenty wins may be the most compelling from here on out.

The season hasn’t been without its thrilling moments and incredible single-game feats, either. Personally, there are a few that immediately come to mind.

On April 4th -- Major League Baseball’s opening night -- the Red Sox welcomed the defending World Series champion New York Yankees. Despite trailing 5-1 entering the bottom half of the fifth inning, the Red Sox never gave up, eventually scoring eight runs in innings five through eight and winning the nationally televised game 9-7. Even after going on to lose the next two games, and the opening series, to New York, the statement Boston made in game one was enough to salvage some positive feelings heading into the remaining 159. And besides, nobody wants to lose on opening day.

On May 22nd, Daisuke Matsuzaka toed the rubber against the Phillies coming off a start in which he allowed seven earned runs without making it through the fifth inning in a loss to the Yankees. With an earned run average approaching eight, nobody could have predicted the type of start Daisuke would have. Entering the eighth inning, Matsuzaka had surrendered zero hits and was just six outs from no-hitting one of the most powerful National League lineups at their own (hitter friendly) ballpark. After Raul Ibanez walked to start the inning, Carlos Ruiz followed by lining a ball hard to third, only to have it dramatically snagged and turned into a double play as Ibanez was picked off first base. At that point it seemed Daisuke was destined for a historic performance. Instead, the very next batter singled and ended the no-hit bid. Daisuke would finish the eighth inning before handing the ball to Bard who completed the one-hit shutout. His final line: 8 IP, 1 H, 4 BB, 5 K. For some reason, it was oddly exciting watching someone as inconsistent with location as Matsuzaka typically is chasing a no-hitter.

However, the most memorable individual performance came from Dustin Pedroia on June 24th. In the final game of a three-game series in Colorado, the Rockies jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in the first inning and threatened to sweep the Red Sox after winning the series’ first two meetings. Pedroia, however, had other plans for the evening. After doubling in his first at-bat only to be stranded at second base, Pedroia decided to get the Red Sox on the board himself in the fourth, leading off the frame with a 396 ft. home run to left field. In the fifth with the Red Sox leading 4-2, Pedroia led off by drawing a walk and would eventually come around to score on a mammoth Adrian Beltre home run (421 feet), giving Boston a 6-2 advantage. In the sixth, Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima and Ramon Ramirez combined to give up seven hits, six runs, and more importantly the lead, as the Rockies jumped ahead 8-6. Boston would regain the lead in the seventh, following four hits -- including a single by Pedroia -- and three runs. With the Sox still leading 9-8 in the eighth, Pedroia took it upon himself to add some insurance, belting a two-run home run to left off reliever Rafael Betancourt. After Papelbon relieved Bard in the ninth, the closer imploded for the second straight night, allowing two runs on three hits sending the game into extra innings. Thankfully for Boston, Dustin Pedroia would get another at-bat after Scutaro reached on an infield single. Facing closer Huston Street -- the fifth different pitcher he had seen in his six at-bats -- Pedroia clubbed his third home run of the night to put his team up for good, 13-11. Pedroia’s final line: 5-5, BB, 2B, 3 HR, 4 R, 5 RBI. In a marathon that lasted nearly five hours (4 hr 48 min), one can’t help but think what could have been had Franklin Morales not walked Pedroia -- who was a triple short of the cycle -- in the fifth.

Individual achievements and accolades aside, the fact remains that even without a trip to the postseason, 2010 should be reviewed in a positive manner by fans rather than a disappointed one.

In the world of baseball’s top-dollar teams -- whose payrolls dwarf even those considered middle-of-the-road spenders -- bridge years are the rich man’s equivalent to a rebuilding period.

Keep in mind, the Red Sox are tied with the Minnesota Twins for the third-best record in the American League. Take away the divisional format and all of the sudden Boston is projected postseason participants. Even in the sport’s toughest division, Boston is eighteen games above .500, and by all accounts still has an outside shot at making the playoffs as it is.

Teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles, to name a few, have been rebuilding for years. The difference being that they do so annually at the bottom of the standings and are generally at least six games out of the playoff race after the season’s first month.

And don’t forget a team like the Chicago Cubs. Just behind the Red Sox on the list of highest opening day payrolls in 2010 was the Cubs, coming in at number three. Where are they entering play Wednesday? Try twenty-one games below .500, eighteen games back in the National League wild card race and without the services of both manager Lou Piniella [retired] and All-Star Derek Lee [traded].

All of the sudden Boston’s ‘bridge year’ -- one in which they are 72-54 and still alive in the playoff race nearing the end of August -- doesn’t seem so grim. Sure, injuries knocked them off the bridge, forcing the Sox to tread the waters of the American League playoff race without Dustin Pedroia or Kevin Youkilis, just remember what it took to even be considered in playoff talks at this point in the season.

...the 2010 Boston Red Sox treading water...

 

Now, all things considered, that picture seems quite admirable actually.

 

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