Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Luck Be A Lady

An interesting thing these Red Sox. As of Wednesday afternoon they have the second-best record in the American League and the White Sox, their lone betters, have been in a tail spin for weeks. Boston's held first place for months with the Yankees unable to make any real push, a fact which doesn't seem likely to change. But after all this, even with a record 21 games over .500, it's hard to say the Red Sox are a very good team. How is that?

The pitching is probably the best place to start. Matt Clement was poised to make the leap in the first half, but a quick look at his numbers today show that he's about the same pitcher he's always been. Maybe it's the ball to the face that's ruined his second half, maybe he's playing the Regressing to the Mean theme song, either way his post All-Star era is 6.52 and that won't look so good in Game 1 of a playoff series. Bronson Arroyo and Tim Wakefield have both been solid if unspectacular, and Wade Miller's shoulder mercifully pushed pause on his season of mediocrity. So that leaves David Wells, who has been the only Boston starter to regularly dominate in months, and would have to be considered, for better or worse, the club ace. Unless of course we include Curt Schilling. Doesn't it always comes back to Curt Schilling? No, he wasn't a great closer, but who said he was going to be? A great deal of what makes Schill such a good starting pitcher is his mastery of the form. He understands what it takes to start, how to prepare yourself, what to study, when to rest. He's made it an art, and by changing roles he lost that advantage. It's like asking Quentin Tarrantino to direct a Jane Austen adaptation. Would it be a decent movie -- I guess so, I mean the guy knows to direct. But would it be his best work? Absolutely not, it doesn't play to any of his strengths. You can't go around setting quick-witted yet demure butlers on fire and shooting them in the face just for the fun of it. It wouldn't be Austenian. So how about we let Schilling get back to where he belongs before we decide what he's got left in that ankle? What we do decide however will have a great deal to say about how far Boston goes this October. As I think we've made clear, the rotation could use a hefty dose of #1.

The bullpen however isn't so obvious. How often has the best team in the league had the worst bullpen? Ever? Well the Sox are getting close, and I just hope Mike Remlinger will still be around to see it. We know what's wrong with them (they all stink), so how do we fix it? The truth is: a whole lot of luck. Bradford and Mike Myers make a tidy 6th/early 7th inning combination, and Jeremi Gonzalez is adequate in long relief. After that, they have one good pitcher. One. Mike Timlin, and he can't close, set-up, and make the camo t-shirts all by himself. Assuming he eventually gets slotted back into his 8th inning position, the Sox will need someone to close and someone else to set-up. If they find that, they'll have a real bullpen. Not so hard. So, who are the candidates? Well...how about two rookies, (one of whom has played pro baseball for all of two weeks), and a disabled pitcher who hasn't thrown well in 10 months! The Ninth smells sitcom! I make humor joke, but seriously, that's the state of it. The life of the Red Sox bullpen rests soundly on the shoulders of Keith Foulke, Jonathan Papelbon, and Craig Hansen. It could be worse, but then again, so could've Waterloo. (Yes, I considered the Holocaust for that joke, and no I did not consider it appropriate). One of these men must become an effective closer, and realistically that better be Foulke. For the team to succeed, he needs to return healthy and dominant. On top of that, either Hansen or Paps has to develop, more or less instantly, into a late-game strikeout artist. The Sox have no one else. Both of them have the stuff, it's reasonable to think they might have the poise, but because they've never done it it's still a question mark. A pretty big one. Asking a rookie pitcher with little (Papelbon) or no (Hansen) experience to step into a pennant race and get huge outs for a struggling bullpen is a bit like asking Anna Nicole Smith to designated drive. You can give it a shot, but you might not like where you end up. These are talented kids, but you can't realistically expect this to succeed. The track history just isn't good. VERY few young pitchers dominate right away. Huston Street and KRod come to mind, but so should the troubles of Dennis Tankersley and Paul Shuey. It's not an easy thing to pull off, no matter how fast the fastball and how sharp the slider. Unfortunately for Boston, they need it to happen. So that's where the luck will have to come in. This shouldn't work, but maybe they can scratch themselves a winner. At least they have two tickets.

Finally we come to the offense. Can't blame these guys. 1-6 (when Nixon is healthy) Boston is a good stretch better than anyone else in baseball, and there's your first place right there. Interesting to note, the Red Sox were able to field their best lineup for the first time all season last night, with Olerud and Graffanino starting and Trot back in right field. Should everyone stay healthy, Theo will have the "Tough Out Nine" he's been trying to build all season for the stretch run. Pretty good. As long as Tito can resist the putrid call of Kevin Millar and the illogical desire to start Gabe Kapler more than once a week, this should take care of itself.

It can be easy when watching the Red Sox to confuse having better players for playing better baseball. Boston has gotten by this season largely on the former, but if they want to succeed in October, they'll have to look into the latter. The sheer talent of the Damons, Ortizes and Variteks of the world is enough to beat the decent teams. When you're facing the great ones though you need something else. In the next month, we should find out if Boston has it. Fingers crossed.
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