Thursday, September 30, 2004

Little Things That Kill

Pedro got shelled last night. Bad control, stuff, and attitude. Together at last. People are lighting themselves on fire because his last four starts have stunk. But let's be fair about this. The first of that bunch was a loss, but it was 6 IP, 2 ER against Scott Kazmir. That's nothing to be ashamed of. The most recent Yankee game was 7 IP, 3ER until he got Grady'd. I'll take that in the playoffs. Then, admittedly, he had two real stinkers - one in the Bronx, and the other last night. So he hasn't been spectacular, but he's not really Derek Lowe either. Also, in 2003 he had a dazzling September (33 IP, 3 ER), and looked distinctly out of gas when the playoffs started. Maybe he's trying to avoid that. Am I saying Pedro has been saving his bullets, as he has all season? Not necessarily, but wouldn't it make sense that a guy who tries to reserve his best for the late innings would do the same for late games? Obviously, that is pure conjecture, and I'm not sure I even believe it, but we should see from last year that being good on September 30th means nothing about being good on October 5.

And while we're (really though, you're doing nothing) talking playoffs, I'd like to mention the Sox' approach to the playoffs. On Dan Duquette's weekly interview with the Zone, he reminded listeners that post-season baseball is completely different than the regular 162. He mentioned how Billy Martin used to pull his best players aside before every big series and tell them he'd be riding them hard and often. In a totally sports-related way of course. We saw that sort of thing last season with Grady and Game 7, and we'll see it this year. Trot Nixon will probably be playing everyday, and you'll be likely see Mike Timlin and Keith Foulke in every game of consequence. But Francona has to prepare for this sort of thing. David Ortiz, should the Sox make the World Series, will be asked to play 1st base. He's too valuable a player to sit because of shaky defense, but without the DH he'll need to get in the field. You know the last time he did that? Oh you know, June. That's something he should work on. He ought to get at least one start there before Sunday. Also, playoff games tend to be low-scoring, and therefore involve a lot more bunting and moving runners around. Boston has improved in these departments lately, but don't wait until the 7th inning of game 5 to find out how much. Can Mirabelli can lay own down a killer sacrifice with the game on the line? I'm not really sure, and I bet Tito isn't either. You've got four empty games left, let's try some things out. Hit and run more, call a few extra bunts. Yes these guys are major leaguers, but we've all seen them fail in such situations before, so how about a few game-time reps? The main point here is you can't all of a sudden ask your players to do something different just because it's the playoffs. Duquette is right, the style of play does change, and you need to adapt - but that doesn't mean you have to do it on the fly. Get valuable bench players a chance to shake off some rust, and make sure your starters are ready to play all facets of the game. The Sox have some time here, and they should try to use it wisely.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Rotation Nation

The Red Sox have been in the playoffs for a total of 18 hours, and as Jimy Williams would say "uh oh, there's a problem, there's a problem in Boston."

Going into the 2003 postseason, the Red Sox were viewed as perhaps the most dangerous playoff opponent out there. Jayson Stark, Peter Gammons, Tom Verducci, they all said keep an eye on Boston. Why? Because they had the one-armed equalizer. Pedro Martinez, especially in a five game series, they felt, could take anyone down. Give him the ball a few times and gas up the plane. But if you listen to the radio and read the papers in 2004, Pedey is a five minute chat from starting just once in the ALDS, and doing it only after Curt has tackled Game 1. Well if what they said was true then, why isn't now? Of course Pedro's 1-1, 4.82 in last year's playoffs didn't help, but the reality is, it wasn't really true then. Pedro didn't have the stuff of a shutdown #1 anymore, and Sox fans knew it. The interesting development is that now, Curt does. So the decision seems simple, and even The Ninth, normally so considered and deliberate, jumped quickly to resolution that Schill must go first. But here's the thing...

The truest statement that can be made about Game 1 is that someone is going to win it. One team will be up 1-0, another be down 0-1, and tomorrow they'll eat lunch. That is to not say, of course, that it doesn't matter who the Red Sox start, but it only matters for one game. An bad choice in Game 2 however can matter for the series. Joe Torre has always said that the biggest contest in a set of 5 is the second one, and as always, he's right. Being down or up after one is of little consequence, but you take that to two and you've got problems. Every Game 2 is a tide turner. You battle your way into the series or you're one game from elimination. That's consequences. That's when you need your best starter. Say The Ninth starts Game 1. An unconventional move, but we've seen Francona do worse. I plod out to the mound, throw up a few of the patented deuce knockas, and the Twins get a quick 5 spot. It would be more, but these guys ain't Puckett and Hrbek. Santana is going against me (a bit of piling on if you ask me), he spins a gem, and the Sox are in the hole. In a gallant post-game speech, The Ninth accepts all blame and insists that I should never have promised Francona I was capable of pitching major league baseball. Terry agrees, but says he would do the same thing again if given the chance. That's Tito for you. But here it is - even with a Game 1 that ridiculous, you can still leave Minnesota 1-1. You throw a shutout tomorrow and you're right back in it. In fact, you have a chance to win the series on your home field. Let an overweight internet writer pitch Game 1 and still be even in 24 hours.

That's the power that Game 2 holds. If you lose it, you're in a big time mess, if you win it, you're made in the shade. That's where I want my best pitcher. Might you just want to put Schilling out there in Game 1 and hope for the win? Sure, but this is insurance. Johan Santana is the '88 Hershiser right now. He has not been hit hard in two months. Send out Pedro, hope he gets fired up, and see if he can duel. If he doesn't, you know you've got your real ace going tomorrow. You may be giving yourself a worse chance to win Game 1, but you're helping yourself win one of two. And that's all you really want. It's unconventional, and I'm not sure the Sox would try it, but it's worth considering. Honestly, if it wasn't for Game 5 implications, I'd do it in a second.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Go Time

Let's be honest, the Sox are in. As of Friday morning, Boston is 6 games ahead of Anaheim in the loss column with 10 games to go. I know that everyone is terrified of junkies, curses, ghosts, and specters so they don't want to say anything, but let's be adult about this. The Red Sox are going to the playoffs. So now we have to ask, who are they bringing with them?

A lot of these are obvious:

1. Curt Schilling - that's right, I wrote #1.
2. Pedro Martinez - the best #2 starter since, well, see #1.
3. Bronson Arroyo - you predicted he'd be the third best starter on the team, right?
4. Derek Lowe - bullpen? starter? Or, like last year's ALDS, both?
5. Tim Wakefield - so good in the playoffs, so bad in the last two months.
6. Mike Timlin - taking over Williamson's role as Captain Eighth Inning.
7. Alan Embree - can he repeat the last year's six crappy months, one good one?
8. Mike Myers - pretty good get for free, hu?
9. Keith Foulke - forget the home runs, it happens. Best Sox closer since Monster.
10. David Ortiz - anyone else feel an October swoon coming on?
11. Kevin Millar - touch of the Troy O'Leary syndrome: looks bad even when he's good.
12. Doug Mientkiewicz - good glove, no stick. Remember Rico Brogna?
13. Mark Bellhorn - never heard so much nonsense about K's in my life. 80 R / 86 RBI.
14. Orlando Cabrera - was definitely wrong about him. whatever, so were you.
15. Bill Mueller - somebody make a knee donation. seriously, it's important.
16. Pokey Reese - man is he a crappy hitter.
17. Manny Ramirez - .232/.332/.473 in the playoffs. Uh, Manny?
18. Johnny Damon - Boston's third best position player this season.
19. Trot Nixon - coming on strong, could be the key to this whole thing.
20. Gabe Kapler - overrated defense, underrated speed.
21. Dave Roberts - unbelievable weapon in close games late. Great great pick up.
22. Jason Varitek - would be nice if he started hitting again.
23. Doug Mirabelli - doublin' doug, double it up.

So that's where it stops being obvious. There is a 100% chance that all of the above players will be on the roster. The leaves two more slots for depth. At least one of those will be a relief pitcher, but which one? Mendoza has been good, but not spectacular. He would be the only the reliever who could handle long innings, but the fifth starter (likely Wakefield) could probably fill that role. I think Boston would love to use him, but he's had a few bad outings of late. Scott Williamson is another potential, but he just hasn't looked healthy. Obviously his value at 100% is through the roof, but you don't know when his arm might blow or if you can ever use him back to back. His fastball has been much closer to 90 than 95, showing that he's not all the way there. Would be a big leap of faith. So who does that leave? Terry Adams? Pedro Astacio? Don't panic, there's Curtis Leskanic (and no, I never get tired of that). Not a great option, but not a terrible one either. You know what you're gonna get from Curtis: a gritty, hard-nosed battle with mediocre stuff. He doesn't have a lot left, but he will give you all of it. In a lot of ways, he's Rod Beck all over again. So as long as he doesn't pitch to Bernie Williams, he should be fine.

So what do they do with that last slot? Youkilis is an option, and if they're concerned with Mueller's knee, he'll get the call. He's been used so little lately though (less than 20 AB's in September) you don't get the feeling that Francona is in love with his play. And Bellhorn can easily slide over to third. Kevin might be a nice bat option of the bench, but when the Sox have their full lineup on the field, who are you really going to pinch hit for? The best choice for this slot would be a healthy Ellis Burks, who could give you some pop, but that's not gonna happen. So do they go with Youk as insurance, or an extra bullpen arm? If I had to guess, I'd probably say they go with Kevin, but I'd lean to Mendoza. I can forsee them needing a big double play a lot more than a double back up at third. Of course, the truth is, any time you need your 25th man to really come through, you're in a lot of trouble to start with.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Football Baseball Football

You know what's hilarious? Building your entire fantasy football team around two running backs, then having one of them go down with a serious knee injury. Stephen Davis, out 2-5 weeks with a knee injury. Yeah, there's a real good chance he'll be back in two weeks. Right. Week 2, season over. Can I have my twenty bucks back?

Anyway, on to teams that are good. New England is playing Arizona this weekend, and all people are talking about the weather. You know you're facing a crappy team when the newspapers spend as much time on the temperature as they do the actual club. Yeah, it'll be 90 at Sun Devil Stadium, but come on. They could play on the actual sun, and it wouldn't matter. So, who's our standout?

The Ninth One Patriots vs. Cardinals: Rodney Harrison

The one concern after the Indy game was New England's run defense. Edge ripped the inside of New England's defense with new NT Keith Traylor looking bad and Vince Wilfork looking only a bit better. But I have seen Edgerrin James and Emmitt Smith is no Edgerrin James. Not anymore anyway. Belichick will have made adjustments and the noses will play better, but really, they won't have to -- they won't be tested too hard. Emmitt Smith is like a washed-up Eddie George, except more washed-up. One way or another, the run game isn't going to be a problem. The danger here is Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson. Two big receivers who can run and bang. And Josh McCown isn't bad at the QB. These guys will get their catches, but the key is holding them to small gains. That's where Rodney comes in. Once the Arizona receivers get the ball, they need to brought down. And a couple of good hits on guys with a combined 17 games of pro experience couldn't hurt either. Let them get the ball, but make them wish they hadn't. And don't let them manhandle your smaller cornerbacks. That's basically what Rodney does for a living, so he's our guy. How am I going to evaluate this? No idea. But hell, nobody's reading anyway.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

I Don't Know

I mean, what are you supposed to say about a team that doesn't do things wrong? The Sox aren't winning as much as they were, but they aren't screwing up. It's not realistic to continue an unbelievable winning streak, but they have continued to play good ball. Schilling will most likely defeat Mark Tall But Not Good Hendrickson this Thursday evening, and Boston will head to the Bronx with a chance to leave with a share of first place (they're four back overall, but it's three in the all-important loss column). Is a sweep likely? Logically, you wouldn't think so, as the Yankees have pulled together a bit, but what else has been logical about the Red Sox season? Having a .500 team seemingly forever even though you're near the top in most offensive and pitching categories? No logic there. Becoming a much better club by trading a possible Hall of Famer for three decent-to-good guys? No, no sense. Having a manager go from firing squad to skipper of the year in less than two months? How does that happen? Right now I could easily see Boston putting on their hitting shoes and going all July 4th, '03 on New York, or they could play pretty well and win and lose some close ones. The one thing I don't expect is a Yankee blow out. But judging by the path this season has taken, does that make it the likeliest thing? God I hope not. In any case, The Ninth will be watching and cheering in Brooklyn - hope I don't get stabbed.

Some thoughts from the last few:

-- Nixon is back, Williamson is not. Trot's results speak for themselves (5h, 3 2B, 3R since Sunday), and his legs look just fine. Francona is doing the right thing by bringing him along slowly (when did Boston become the organization that gets everything right?), as his value is in the playoffs, not now. SWilly however hasn't been so good. In his last appearance he was throwing 89-91, and the splits and slides didn't have much split or slide. Hard to believe he can beat Leskanic or Mendoza out for a potential playoff spot, but we'll see how it develops. Obviously a healthy Williamson would be nice.

-- Kenny Anderson, after signing with the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday afternoon, said about returning to the Georgia Tech area, "Atlanta's my home away from home and I am excited about it. I think the fans will embrace my return." Can you technically be embraced by an empty seat?

-- Gonna be a tough decision on Wakefield when playoff time rolls around. He is easily Boston's least consistent starter right now, and a prime candidate for bullpen demotion. But his was so valuable last year, and it's not like Arroyo and Lowe are locks. With all the hoopla Tim created when Jimy Williams left him in off in '99, this is worth watching.

-- No Bill Mueller this weekend is really going to hurt.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

New Segment

Hello ladies and germs...we're gonna try a new something for this year's football season. Because everybody picks winners, we're gonna pick players. Well one actually. We'll call it The Ninth One: the player we predict to be the standout in this week's Patriots game. Doesn't have to be a Pat, but let's be honest, how often am I gonna be picking some Titan or something? That's right, never. You may remember this idea from last season, when I would repeatedly insist that Larry Centers would have a huge game and he would never touch the ball. So it'll be like that, expect, you know, smarter. Picking Tom Brady or Corey Dillon over and over is allowed, but admittedly, kind of lame. We're looking for the hidden gem here. Oh, and we'll post the The One on the sidebar for the week, so my brilliance can be permanently documented. Ok, here we go:

The Ninth One Patriots vs. Colts: David Patten

Everybody thinks the story here is going to be New England's defense and their ability to adjust to the new rules -- but that's a little simplistic. You guys have seen this secondary, do you think they're gonna be able to handle a few new flags? Are they thugs who bang because they can't cover - or are they dominant defenders who do what they can to get an edge? You just answered out loud, didn't you? Weirdo. The new rules might hurt Law and crew a bit, but these are talented players, they'll adjust. No, the story of this game is not going to be New England's secondary, it'll be Indy's. You know who's starting on Thursday night at corner for the Colts? Jason David and Von Hutchins. Never heard of them? Gee, that's strange, you must not be up on your obscure back-up rookie cornerbacks. They're freshman, they've never played before, and Charlie Weis is going after them early and often. Don't forget that Brady and the bunch scored at will against Indy in '03, mostly through the air. Expect that again tonight, and expect a lot of The General, David Patten. He's listed as 2 on the depth chart, mostly because he's been the only receiver other than Deion Branch to stay healthy throughout training camp. He's got all the skills he had before he got hurt, and now he's got a chip on his shoulder from being given only an outside chance to make the team. David has always seemed to thrive on being overlooked, and that should give him an extra edge tonight. He won't see the double teams that Branch will, and in fact, should benefit from the Colts' over-interest in his teammate. Should be a big night for the little man, or at least we hope. Would look a little silly to start this thing off with a goose egg....

Friday, September 03, 2004

Quick Ones

-- Last night's win was absolutely shocking. That game had 9-1-loss-but-it's-ok-because-we-still-took-the-series written all over it. Didn't happen though. I realized a strange thing while watching: the Red Sox are now better than I thought they could be. Have Sox fans ever been able to say that? Even last year when we were tearing it up there was that stinky garbage bullpen looming as an area of disappointment. But we don't have that Dick Nixon to kick around anymore. There's literally nothing to feel badly about. So we're left with a club that, sure, will come back to earth a bit, but is playing better ball at the moment than I think many of us ever considered possible. That kind of thing happens in Oakland, Florida, heck, even New York - but not Boston. It's hard to deal with. I do remember this feeling though, when it was called the '03 Patriots and the '86 Celtics.

-- Terry Francona has done a great job the last two nights with his bullpen. Exactly what we suggested a few weeks ago. Playing matchups heavy and not asking too much of any one guy. He made a somewhat dangerous decision in leaving DLowe in to face Vlad in the 8th, but got lucky when the hard line drive was directly at Damon. But his use of Myers and Adams on Wednesday was highly creative, and dare I say, masterful? Of course, as every Joe Torre will tell you, it sure it helps when your players are doing their jobs.

-- Off to Fenway for the weekend. Great time to see some ballgames. Let's hope we can see the streak continue.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Those Neon Lights Are Bright

Sometimes, as the song goes, I just happen to like New York. Savor the flavor of the New York Post, the Daily News, and the NYT collectively losing their dignity. A lot better than corn flakes in the morning, I'll tell you that.

So here's the question: what if this is as good as it gets? The Red Sox have essentially just equaled a stretch the Yankees put together earlier this year. After being swept by Boston in late April, New York won each of their next 8 and 30 of the following 40. That's when things started to get ugly. Boston wasn't playing all that badly, (nor, it should be said, all that well) but they seemed to be falling improbably behind the Bombers. Soon enough their deficit got into the 7 and 8 game territory and no matter how early it was, the division had to realistically be conceded. It's just too improbable to come back from such things, no matter how much time is left. But now, as we have all seen, the improbable has happened. The Red Sox have won their last 7 in a row and 26 of the previous 36. And despite New York's delicious 22-0 failure on Tuesday night, they aren't playing all that badly of late either, but, as it turns out, just badly enough to let a steaming Boston back in. So what does this mean? Have the Red Sox finally become the juggernaut they were destined to be? Now that Boston has tossed away a disgruntled superstar for two solid "ballplayer" types, are they ready to end their nine year absence from the AL East throne? Is 2004 our 1978? The Ninth's answer: who cares.

Just as the Yankees aren't a .750 team because of May, neither is Boston one due to August. Just because one streak is happening now and the other happened 3 months ago, that doesn't make it any more significant. What both the Yankees and Red Sox have proven is that they are very good teams that are capable of playing like championship ones. And that's valuable information, especially for fans in Boston who, until recently, had no real belief their club could do that. It was sensed, but not known. The tails to that head however, is that each can also be .500 when they feel like it. So where does that leave us? The Sox have not miraculously become the American League powerhouse because of a few roster moves and a nice schedule. They're on a hot streak, just as the Yankees were earlier. And the valuable thing about it is that they've cancelled each other out, making the standings tight. But it does not matter because of a rivalry. It's not important because it's fun to see New York papers point at a falling sky. And it's definitely not of note because Georgey Fats is going to squirm. It matters because it doubles Boston's playoff chances. Two weeks ago the Red Sox had one opportunity to play in October, now they have two.

Would it feel better to enter the postseason with our heels digging into Yankee backs? Yeah, I suppose. But I don't know about you guys, I just want to get in. Because if you get in, you can win. What excites The Ninth about the month of August is that the Red Sox have become very good. Not legendary, but good enough. These aren't the 2001 Depressions, they're a real baseball team, and one capable of dominance. And The Ninth for one is far more concerned with dominating our way to the World Series than I am with dominating the ridiculous Yankees. And I reiterate, what if this is as good as it gets? What if Boston keeps on their streak and blows past New York, wins the division, then gets dropped by Minnesota in the opening round. You guys cool with that? Is that enough for you? "Hey, we got beat earlier than last year, but we sure showed those Yankees hu? Man do they look funny. Wanna watch the Pats?" No way. That's not good enough. I want the World Series, and what the Yankees have to do with that, for me, is unimportant. Beat 'em now, beat 'em later, miss 'em all together - I don't give a cah. I want to win on October 31st, September 31st is for sissies (apologies to sissies). You know what matters about 1978? Not that the Yankees won the AL East, but that they took the whole damn thing. The Ninth knows now that this team can do that, and so do you. So let's focus on what matters, and leave the silliness to the jokers in New York. They're better at it anyway.