After tonight's late-inning rally that was quickly killed thanks to a double play and a first-pitch swing, the comments in the open thread questioned what happened in the ninth inning. Alex Cora, who does not swing the bat well, grounded into a double play, and from there the momentum was dead, leaving Johnny Damon to ground out and end the game.
Having Cora hit with runners in scoring position late in the game is something I don't want to see again. I'd actually rather see Mark Bellhorn in that situation, and that says a lot, considering Bellhorn is hitting .163 with runners in scoring position this year. Bellhorn left the game after jamming his thumb, so we had no other option. We had to let Cora hit. If we were to pinch-hit for him with, say, John Olerud, and then tie it up and go into extra innings, we would have no one to play second base. There was no choice for Francona, though I'm sure he'd rather have had Olerud batting in that situation. That brings up the question: should a team carry 12 pitchers, or 11, with there being an extra fielder?
Let's rewind tonight's game and pretend that we dropped Jeremi Gonzalez back to Pawtucket and brought up Alejandro Machado, a personal favorite prospect of mine. Machado is a switch-hitting, speedy infielder that has a good glove. In the 9th inning, replace Cora with Olerud and he may have a hit. If the game goes into extra frames, then Machado can fill in at second base. He would actually probably pinch-run for Olerud anyways. Of course, I am not saying Francona was going to have this impossible, fortune-telling feeling that Machado should come up and play, I'm just trying to make my point that an extra fielder can win you a game.
What's the point of having Gonzalez with the club right now? The only reason he is usually in the game is to mop it up like the janitor from the 7-Eleven. In 6 of 9 appearances this season, the Sox were either losing or winning by at least 5 runs when he pitched. In 3 of those games the final score was by a deficit of seven or more runs. You can't tell me John Halama can't fill in those extra innings by Gonzalez? Halama has started many games in his career, so I think he should be able to go at least 5 innings in a blow-out, if necessary.
Maybe this transition to 11 pitchers will actually come - and quite soon. Adam Stern is our current fourth outfielder, with Gabe Kapler nipping at his heels. But, like I've said numerous times, we can't demote Stern or the Braves can take him back. And I don't think the Sox or Francona want to lose his speed and his glove, so running with five outfielders could work. We did it last year with Kapler and Dave Roberts, so I know we can do it again. And remember: Kapler played some third base during spring training last season, so if we need a third baseman, we've got him.
That extra fielder is more valuable than a pitcher because that extra fielder can be vital late in the game by any number of ways: speed, defense, base-running, pinch hitting. A pitcher like Gonzalez or Halama, though, is used in blowouts to get some work in. If the other team is winning by 10, does it matter if we give up a few more runs? Keep the long reliever in there instead of switching pitchers if the times get tough. I don't think switching from Halama to Gonzalez would make much difference in a blowout.
Nevertheless, Gonzalez's time with the big club looks to be coming to a close. Kapler will be coming back in a month or so, and I really don't think Stern will be sent back to the Braves. So that leaves Gonzalez, Halama (doubtful) and Alan Embree on the chopping block. Gonzalez is the most likely option, although I hope Embree doesn't have too many innings as a Red Sox left.