Friday, September 30, 2005

Boys Are Back In Town

The Ninth Editorial Office is in a tizzy. All writers have been pulled off other topics, meaning another delay on our long-awaited romance novel, and put front and center on the Sox. We have an open tab at Dominoe's (now they put steak on pizza!), we're using Zima bottles for ashtrays (I employ a lot of 14 year-old girls from the 90's), and the Official Ninth Dog hasn't been fed for weeks. Production like this hasn't been seen since Kevin Millar's one good week in July. You have my word loyal (ahem) reader, every good writer we have is on this series. Every single one.

Has a team's fate ever changed more in one hour than Boston's did last night? They went from startling disappointment to finding Andy Roddick's mojo in just four innings, and made this weekend worth living again. The Ninth still believes in Mariano as the MVP, but David Ortiz sure made his case last night. A tying homerun that was eerily reminiscent of his walk-off blast in last year's ALDS, then the game-winning single against the shift in the 9th. For a little while there, the 2005 Sox looked a lot like their buddies from 2004. You could feel them insist, just as they did so many times last year, that they would simply not lose that game. It's a flavor they've been missing this season, and it's about time they found it. Not only did the win help in the standings, but it gave the Sox something to enter this series with. A little swagger, a little brashness, a jolt of confidence and invincibility that can turn a tight game your way. Ortiz and Manny are hot again, Damon has found his stroke, and Renteria is hitting better than he has all year. When those four click, if they've clicked, the Red Sox are the best team in baseball. There, I said it. Don't tell Mom.

The pitching matchups for the series are fascinating. Each day features a starter who was brought to their team specifically to win this sort of game: David Wells tonight, Johnson tomorrow, and Curt Schilling on Sunday. There is a lot of pride riding on these performances, and a lot of reputation that can swing either way. Big game guys with big game egos. Each expects to win, and none wants to be the guy that doesn't. Chien-Ming Wang is precisely the sort of pitcher that gives Boston fits: young, rarely seen, hard fastball, good control. It's not a matchup to savor, but luckily, the Sox have hit him a bit before. History goes a long way with this bunch. David Wells is a mystery. His knee is a problem, he's been mediocre recently, but he's 14-1 in Fenway Park the last several years. There were many times when David was a Yankee and he was facing Boston off a rough stretch. The Ninth would look at his recent numbers and smile broadly with confidence of the victory to come. Then bang, 7 innings, 4 hits, no walks, 1 run. He's a tough old bastard, he now hates the Yankees, and I expect he'll bring his game. As Remy always, look for his curveball. If it's snapping hard and down, it'll be a tough night for New York. Oh please let it be a tough night for New York.

Saturday should be a tough one. We're looking at 2-1, 3-2, 1-0 territory here. Wakefield and Johnson have been both had incredible months and neither has any problem with their respective foe. RJ clearly gets up for Boston games, and Torre has long said the last pitcher he ever wants to see is Tim Wakefield. Two guys pitching in the baseball version of their 100's, still winning after all these years, one with a 75 mph fluttering trick pitch and the other with hard heat and a nasty slider. What a combination. Runs will be rare, but the Unit has to be given the advantage. Because of the left-handed delivery, Johnson will be murder on a sunny fall afternoon. Batters will stare out at the mound, see nothing but sun, then have to find a 95 mph fastball coming out of the t-shirts in the bleachers. That's asking a lot. And, as a southpaw, Johnson can neutralize Damon and Ortiz, who both hit under .150 against him. This will be a tough win to win.

Then Sunday, game 162. How delicious that it's probably going to matter. This one swings in favor of Boston. Mussina was shelled his last time out, and it's clear that his shoulder is still hurt. Honestly, the Ninth is a little surprised that Torre isn't pitching Chacon. Now Schilling has been inconsistent himself, but this day was made for Curt. Last game of the season, against the Yankees, pitching for the division in Fenway Park? For better or worse, Schilling needs to pitch these games. It's what he believes himself to be, the great savior for his city and his team. It's his whole thing, and I can't see himself allowing a let down. Especially after the hit his pride took after losing the lead to Toronto. This is bloody sock all over again, and I expect him to pitch the same. He expects him to pitch the same. Honestly, he's probably got his cleats on already.

So there you have it. A crazy weekend ahead. Tonight is easily the biggest game, as a loss would force Boston to win three (counting the playoff) in a row to take the division. Not bloody (pun intended!) likely. Just as important in all of this is Cleveland, who if Chicago plays them tough, could let Boston in the backdoor. Say one thing about Ozzie Guillen, he's not the sort to let his team take three games off. As sure as the Ninth is about everything we've just said, we're more sure of this: most of what happens this weekend will be totally unexpected. It always is. So kids, as Tom Snyder used to say, fire up those martinis and watch the pictures as they fly through the air.
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Thursday, September 29, 2005

Paragraph

That's all I got time for, one paragraph, but I couldn't let today pass without remark. Must-Win games in June? Nope. July? Eh. August? Not really. But this, this is a must-win game. It is not critical that New York also loses, although it would help, but the Sox can't risk going down two games. So Matt Clement, welcome to the biggest game of your life. Pitch well, pitch deep, and prove to Dusty Baker why he should've let you play this time last year. Think of this: if Boston, NY, and Cleveland are all able to win tonight, and the Sox and Tribe take two of three this weekend - three-way tie. It could really happen. Youch. If the Ninth was a betting ordinal number, he'd pick the Sox to do enough to take the Wild Card but lose the division. Just seems like the sort of crap they'd pull. On other news, the Red Sox have aquired Mike Stanton for four games. I guess they lost Mike Remlinger's phone number. Actually, it's a fine move, but it would've been a lot better two weeks ago. Maybe he and Embree can have drinks.
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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Last Call For Alcohol

How to start a thing like this? Someone should be giving Bud Selig a dorky high-five right now. The trick worked. Another division added, a wild card introduced, and several years later we have the tightest last week, maybe, ever? I could look that up, but my Internet is down, and yours isn’t, so go for it. There’s a bit of intrigue left in the NL, but it’s looking mostly set at Atlanta, St. Louis, San Diego, and Houston. The American League though, oh American League. Anaheim’s in, but then we have four teams for two spots, and it’s easy imagine any combination making it. As disappointed as Sox fans have to be with giving up 1st, you have to enjoy the amazing baseball this has created. Let’s talk this out.

  • The White Sox are there for the taking. Playing the worst of Cleveland, Boston, and New York, but the most likely to make it because of their lead, Chicago were the only real winners of Tuesday’s loss fest. Another day comes off the schedule without losing ground. Because of their terrible play, the White Sox create an interesting incentive for the Yankees or Red Sox to take the Wild Card. Should the Card come out of the East, Its first round playoff match-up would surely be with Chicago, and that’s picking easy. An outright division winner would have to face Anaheim or Cleveland. Most important to Boston and New York though is the WSox failing to clinch before the weekend. If Chicago knows they are in before their series with the Indians, they will bench their starters and rest their pitchers, giving Cleveland three very easy games. The RSox and Yanks need Chicago fighting for their life, keeping wins difficult for the Tribe and holding the Wild Card tight. While the most just outcome might be the White Sox losing all of their remaining games and letting Boston, NY, and Cleveland have the playoffs, the Baseball Gods seem unmoved. Selfish.


  • The Ninth finds Cleveland an extremely tough figure. Are they the young team that’s going to bow under the pressure, or the plucky kids who don’t know better than to win win win? Until last night, I would’ve said the former. But they’ve now lost two in a row, to the Devil Rays and Royals of all people, and their starting pitching looks a little Don Knotts. They do have a top-notch bullpen (recognize any of those names, Theo?), but it would be pretty amazing for them to out-tough a pair of playoff vets like Boston and New York. The Indians are helped tremendously by the Sox and Yanks playing each other this weekend; somebody has to lose. A few more games against Baltimore and Toronto and the Tribe would be left in the dust. If we had to pick a loser, these kids would be it, but at the same time, I wouldn’t want to play ‘em over the next six games. And yeah, that was a Shakiest Gun in the West reference back there.


  • As we said, bummer that Boston lost the lead. Would’ve been a hell of a lot easier another way. But the Yankees, as loathe as we are to congratulate, have earned it. They’ve won 13 of their last 16 with a starting rotation that still stinks, and only one relief pitcher. But how about that relief pitcher? The Ninth has refrained from commenting on the Ortiz v. Arod MVP battle, because really, who cares, but any balanced discussion has to include Mariano Rivera. Looking at this weekend series, who is the single most important character involved? Mariano. What is the one thing New York has that Boston can’t match? Mariano. Whose endurance and durability will likely decide the outcome of the most important games of the year? Mariano. Do you realize that from May 7th to July 7th Mariano Rivera did not let up a SINGLE EARNED RUN? That’s two months, 24 innings, zero earned runs. Holy stromboli. Where would New York be without him? Absolutely finished. Joe Torre builds his game plan, every game plan, around bringing Rivera in. He barters with other relievers, trying to buy time and build bridges ‘til there’s only three outs left. Three outs that he’s virtually assured of getting. How can that not make him the most valuable? If Rivera were gone I’m not sure Joe could get his uniform on much less win a game. And honestly, we all know how these weekend games are going to go. The Red Sox have an advantage because of their home field, and will light it up offensively at least once. But New York can hit too, and the games will all be close. Torre will do his best to get up by one run, and if there is any scent, any sniff, any thought of trouble after the 8th Inning, Rivera comes in. And Boston will have to beat him. That’s the way it is kids. That’s the way it’s always been, and that’s the way it always will be: the Boston Red Sox vs. Mariano Rivera. Now you tell me how someone else is the most valuable player. Well you can’t, because I don’t read your blog. And the Sox could do it. Because Mo is so great, because Torre needs him so much, he’s been overused. Tanyon Sturtze and Tom Gordon have been solid pieces for Joe this year, but because of the lousy rotation, he’s pitched them too much. Trust me when I tell you, they’re gassed, and they’ll give it up this weekend. If there’s one chink in the Torre armor, it’s his inability to accept mediocre relievers. It’s hurt New York for a few years now, and if they lose this weekend that’ll be why. Rivera has had to appear in 41 of New York’s last 80 games (51%!), going back to July 1st, and has thrown 46.2 innings. Chart that over the course of a full season and you’ve got a closer throwing 100 innings. That’s, well, insane. Will it be too much? He’s sure to pitch in the next two games, or New York will lose, so what will he have left for the Red Sox? Torre will call him, we know that, and he will call him often. But will his workload, the unbelievable weight Rivera has carried for his team this year, catch up with him at the worst possible moment? Your guess is as good as mine. So when you think about the home runs Ortiz could hit, or the pesky plays Arod could make, keep in mind that none of it really matters. What this series comes down to, really, what this entire season hangs on, is how many cutters are left in that quiet gentleman’s right arm. None of us have any idea, but something tells me, sometime around 4pm on Sunday afternoon, we’re all gonna find out. And come on babies, don’t tell me it isn’t going to be a hell of a good time.


  • Stay close Boston, stay tied by Friday night, and the division will be yours. Your home field will be the reason.
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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Picks

Well we really knocked it out of the park last week. Kevin Faulk, perhaps feeling the pressure of the Ninth One selection, gained a massive 30 total yards and as a non-factor. Ninth One Curse? Absolutely. Oh the power a rarely read blog can wield.

This week is a tough game to read, not a challenge the Ninth One selection committee really needed. It would be nice to say that Corey Dillon is going to feel responsible for his poor start and run wild in week 3, but the Steelers aren't the best matchup for CD. Let's remember the way last year's playoff game went. Both teams killed themselves trying to establish the run early and both succeeded. In killing themselves, that is. Rushing yards were nowhere to be found, and it became a Roethlisberger v. Brady contest, a matchup New England will take every time. The Ninth continues to be amazed at the league's fascination with Big Ben. If there's a QB in football not named Boller who's asked to do less, I would love to know who. He's fine, but not many teams consider 130 yds from their quarterback a success. Brady, in a game where the run is nullified, is far more equipped for victory. But the New England defense has yet to establish their control of the line, as they did last year. So...

The Ninth One, New England vs. Pittsburgh: Richard Seymour

Willie Parker is the best Steeler weapon by far. He's a speed back, unlike either of the two gentlemen NE have seen previously. Logic would put the Patriots into more of the 4-3 this afternoon, but, of course, expect the unexpected. Whatever alignment the boys find them in, Seymour will have to dominate. He's the cornerstone of New England's front line, and has the ability to shut down an entire side. Depending on the set, Richard can either make tackles or open things up for his linebackers, but look for more of the former today. This is not the time to see if the linebackers are ready to step up. Could the Pats really be 1-2? Yeah, they really could.
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Thursday, September 22, 2005

Pen Not Mightier

Terry Francona is killing this team. Those who have followed the Ninth know that I am not a big manager critic. Very rarely are they presented with decisions that have clear right or wrong options. You can look at different numbers in any situation and defend a variety of choices, so I try not to attack any one move. But right now, Francona is making a big mistake. Wakefield should have been removed last night, he got that one right. He'd gone into the 8th inning in each of his last five starts, two of which he went complete, and even with a low pitch count was starting to look tired. So Terry went to his closer, asking for a reasonable four outs. Problem was, as every Boston fan muttered in their sleep last night, Timlin has allowed 18 of 32 inherited baserunners to score, and he entered with a runner on first. A reasonable person might've said "You know, Mike is good at everything except this one situation I'm about to put him, so maybe I'll do something else". But even there we give Terry a pass. Timlin has had a bad season with inherited runners, but a perfectly good career, so his luck may change, and truly, he's Boston's best reliever. You need a win, go with your number one guy. He was rested, he threw beautifully on Saturday, he was ready to go. Already we are being more gracious than 95% of Red Sox Nation, but as we said, there's a logic to most managerial decisions, as long as you know where to look. The true problem here is, Francona doesn't have anyone else. It's Timlin and some guys he hasn't figured out how to use. If you want to find the logic in that, look for bald the guy in the red fleece, maybe he can explain it.

Boston has three relievers that could help in the late innings: Craig Hansen, Manny Delcarmen and Jon Papelbon. Each have electric fastballs, resilient arms, and, especially in the cases of Hansen and Papelbon, great composure. Jonathan has seen the most work in set-up, but the other two could make contributions as well. I say could, because we really have no idea. Tito won't touch 'em. Not young guys with delicate psyches, no way. Give him the right situation, a big lead, other guys warming up, and yeah, maybe he'll give 'em a spin, but this a playoff race boys. Do you have any idea what could happen? Actually, we do Terry, and I think we saw it last night. The ship's going down here buddy, so how about a little laugh along the way? Do you realize, loyal reader, that Papelbon has been in the Boston bullpen for a full month now? A month. Now, loyal reader, tell me if he's a reliable set-up man? What, no answer? Oh, you're chewing. Ok, I'll answer for you: no idea. We don't know. How could we possibly? He's only pitched 9 times, and half of those were in blowouts. How has he been allowed to sit on the roster for four weeks without Francona ever really figuring out what he can do? Don't you think last night would've been a good time to have that information? Wouldn't it have been better to bring in Paps, get a strikeout, then use Timlin to start the ninth? And if the Red Sox find their way into the playoffs, isn't it going to be really super keen to know then? Because as much as Terry Francona wants to rely on one reliever, one 39 year-old reliever with 76 appearances, it's not going to work. There will be a time where a big out is needed the sixth or seventh, Timlin won't be available, and Francona is going to have to decide whether to risk bringing in one of the kids, or using Bradford, who he knows can't get the job done. And because he's managed his bullpen so short-sightedly, he'll have no idea what to do. That's unacceptable. How much time do you think is left here, Terry? There is no next-week, ease-him-into-it, wait-for-a-blowout time. We've got ten games, and right now, we're on the outside looking in.

Now is the time to take a risk. And yes, it absolutely is a risk. Looked at Cla Meredith's stats lately? After he got shelled in Boston he went back to AAA and got shelled there for a few months. You have to be careful with young guns, and they're not the most reliable performers. But for a team that just fell out of first place, it might be time to get creative. If they've decided that the future well being of Delcarmen, Hansen, and Papelbon is more important than making the playoffs, fine. If it's more important than letting them get their feet wet, more important than trying to win with this strong nucleus, then let's ease off. But anyone who saw Craig Hansen pitch on Monday knows he's the best arm Boston has, so if the Sox want to go anywhere, Francona has to take the risk. Do you think Mike Scioscia eased K-Rod into work when he came up? If you do, you're wrong. Francisco Rodriguez pitched his first game on Sept 18, 2002, and pitched in five of the next nine contests (7.2 IP, 0 ER). Then he threw in 11 of the 16 playoff games Anaheim played, pitching 18.2 innings in 26 days, and was most certainly the reason they won the World Series. It was a risky move by Scioscia, relying so much on a kid, but he was the Manager of the Year that season and it was probably the smartest thing he's ever done as a coach. Imagine what he would've done with three K-Rods? Now look, is it likely that any of these kids will pitch at that level? No. But what bothers me, and what should really bother Francona's bosses, is that they don't really know. This is a bullpen with three men in it. Mike Timlin and, I guess, two situational relievers. If the playoffs started tomorrow Francona would have nothing but question marks (and a lot of free time, as Boston wouldn't be in). Honestly, I don't even know how he'd make out the roster. Who goes and who stays? Beats me. How can Francona sit there, with possible solutions staring him in the face, and not try them out? By not pitching the kids now, he's robbing himself of the ability to evaluate his team, and them of the experience they'll need to succeed when they are inevitably forced into action. This temerity and fear of failure is costing Boston the season, and if they're lucky enough to get in, it will cost them the playoffs as well. The Red Sox are a team with a great offense, a solid staff, and a terrible bullpen. Why Terry Francona is doing nothing to change that, I have no idea.
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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Oscar Oscar

Huge win on Friday night for Boston. H-uge. For the Red Sox to fall out of first place at this point would have to be considered a major failure, and it would take a toll on the team psyche. Presuming they have one. Also, getting involved in a Wild Card race with the best team in the AL right now, the Cleveland Indians, doesn’t seem like a great idea. And for those eagerly raising your hands and propping up your glasses on your nose, yes I understand that Boston is 1.5 games up on NY, not just one. Thanks for the math lesson poindexter, but the loss column is all that matters in September, and Boston only has one less of those. That may have been unduly harsh. In any case, Manny took one off the elbow, Boston remains on top, and the Ninth is heading to the Fens to take in a couple games. Now, a few interesting issues have arisen in the last seven days:

  • If the playoffs began tomorrow, Tim Wakefield would have to be your Game 1 starter. Think about it. Who has given the team a better chance on a consistent basis in the last two months? The Ninth has been pushing for David Wells all season, but Wake’s last three starts have easily pushed him to the front of the line. Normally, when your #4 starter becomes your #1, you don’t need to spend too much time on the victory parade route. But who knows with Timmy? Maybe he’s on one of stretches. Although “Game 1 Starting Catcher: Doug Mirabelli” doesn’t light anyone’s pants on fire. Anyway, this would be a fun development for a guy Jimy left off in ’98.


  • Keith Foulke may be done making contributions for 2005. There’s barely enough time to get him back acclimated into the closer’s role, and Francona doesn’t seem to have any interest in doing that anyway. We’ve covered how important Foulke’s ressurgance would’ve been to the club, so there’s no reason to overdo it, but this is a problem. Perhaps Mike Timlin can close, he’s certainly looked good since taking the job over. But Jon Papelbon and, I suppose, Bronson Arroyo can not be your primary set-up men in the playoffs. It just isn’t going to work guys. Don’t tell me about the kid’s poise and command – believe me, I’ve heard. He’s gonna come in to Yankee Stadium in the 7th inning with runners on second and third and strike out Sheffield to hold a lead? Fine, great, I’ll cheer heartily when it happens, but until then I will sit with my arms crossed and a displeased expression on my face. I know Tito has no choice, but this plan isn’t going to work.


  • Where the hell is Craig Hansen? I know it contradicts what I just said about rookie relievers, but 1) I don’t care, and 2) Hansen is different. If he’s got two pitches then that’s one more than Papelbon, and there’s a chance he could an answer. The dead-arm thing is fixed, so why isn’t he up? Theo Epstein, it should be noted, has built three different bullpens with Boston, and all three of them have stunk.


  • The Indians are red hot, and I want absolutely nothing to do with them. They may be the most balanced team still in this, and other than their youth, it’s hard to come up with negatives. Ozzie Guillen and his Idiot Ball are going to win Manager of the Year, but it should be Eric Wedge in a landslide. Guillen manages like he played: stupid.


  • I just went to the Café Car (I guess all it takes is two tables and a guy in a hat handing out cokes to be a café nowadays), and there was a big sign saying “hot dogs sold out”. Sold out? You’re telling me Amtrack brings a certain quantity of hot dogs, an amount that their experience tells them is more than enough to fill everyone’s hot dog hopes and dreams, and we’ve exceeded that number? We’ve gone over what is normally considered “plenty of hot dogs”? Who is eating all these hot dogs? In fact, who’s eating any of them? How could we possibly have run out of something no one ever wants to eat? There are always more hot dogs, it’s a rule of food.

    “Got any burgers left?”
    ”No, but there are couple of dogs.”
    ”Oh, no thanks.”

    I am concerned about my fellow traveler.


Ok, now on to the Patsies. If you watched last week’s game immediately after reading about our Ninth One selection, you must’ve thought the Ninth a genius. Ben Watson came out of the gates quick, and got most of his 55 yards in the first half. It looked like big things were in store. But Big Ben sort of disappeared in the latter portion(s) of the game, giving him good but not great numbers. The wisest pick would’ve Troy Brown or Deion Branch. Alas. This week, I think we’ve got something.

The Ninth One, New England at Carolina: Kevin Faulk

Carolina is a team that loves to rush the passer, and have already vocalized a desire to put Tom Brady on his backside. Not likely, but worth a try. The best antidote for such an attack is misdirection: get them to run at something that is no longer around when they arrive. Counters, draws, reverses are all good choices, but the best one for New England is the screen. Remember how effective Corey Dillon was on the screen against a very similar Philly defense in the Super Bowl? Well, same idea here, except I think New England will use Faulk more because frankly, he’s better at it. So look for Kevin to have a big day as a receiver and add some nice support on the ground as well.

Alright, off to get a dog….
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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Patriotic Sox

To paraphrase John McClane, the Red Sox seem to have themselves some starting pitching. The last trip through the rotation was a fun one, with each fellow looking about as good as he has all season. No better time than September. And it sure makes the bullpen look good when you never have to use it. Combine this all with the red hot Millar-Olerud tag team and all of a sudden we have a contender speech on our hands. You're wondering if this just a hot streak or if the team has found a new level when it matters most. The Ninth's Definitive Answer: no idea. Go ask someone's who's getting paid for this. I will say this however: of the three keys we identified last week (finding a closer, finding another set-up arm, getting Schill right), two are coming together. Curt pitched his most complete start since October on Monday, using all of his pitchers and getting a bit of life on that splitter. Not there, but progress. Foulke has been similar with velocity in the high 80's, but, far more important for him, a livelier change and much better control. All that leaves is the set-up guy, but until the Sox get messier starting pitching, they won't have anything to clean up. That three strikeout 8th inning from Papelbon the night other sure was intriguing.

But that's not why you called. Tonight is the beginning of Patriots football, and you're wondering if the Ninth has remembered to pick his Ninth One this season. You're thinking that because the Ninth seems to forget most things, including important grammar rules, regularity in posting, and creativity of thought, certainly he has forgotten to select New England's surprise standout player for the game. Well (ahem) loyal reader, you are wrong.


The Ninth One (Oakland at New England): Ben Watson

How could it not be? The Raiders, having too many lineman and not enough linebackers, decided to move a few of their excess gentleman back a few feet. So now the people who are supposed to be quick and strong are actually slow and fat. Yes, that is a simplification, and sure, many people have made the conversion before, but I don't see how anyone who ever played the line is going to keep up with Ben Watson. Maybe they'll use a safety, probably they'll try a zone, but Big Ben will find the gaps. Maybe not a touchdown dance this evening, but for look for him to pick up serious yards. We've been waiting a while for this. If he doesn't, buffalo wings are on me.

I ain't buying you shit.
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