Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Down the stretch they come!

The Red Sox are in very good shape, though I still think it’s a bit early to start printing playoff tickets. They need to put together a better stretch of ball than they’ve shown recently. Beckett, Dice-K, Schilling and Tim Wakefield still constitute perhaps the strongest 1-4 rotation in the game. The bullpen is, hands down, the best in the business with Papelbon as the anchor, and adding Eric Gagne has given Francona options that would make Joe Torre start drooling into his sunflower seeds.

But a strange, perplexing dilemma remains: the lineup. Granted, Mike Lowell has been Mister Consistency at third, and Dustin Pedroia is everything Boston hoped for when they drafted him out of Arizona State. Kevin Youkilis is, well, Kevin Youkilis. The weird part is that neither Manny nor Ortiz has produced anywhere near the power numbers they should have by now, and they haven’t put together that one torrid month of “uh oh, you can’t pitch to either of these guys right now” production that everyone expects. It would be fun if that Magic Month ended up being October, though, wouldn’t it? JD Drew has shown only fleeting glimpse of the guy we were told we’d see when he came over from the Dodgers. And yes indeedy, he’s still injury prone. Not a big surprise there. My kingdom for a solid #5 hitter. Julio Lugo is still, by and large, an offensive black hole, and mostly average defensively at short. And do NOT get me started on Wily Mo (Fastball, I hit very much. Bats see curveball, they are afraid) Peña. This is the conversation I wouldn’t mind Theo Epstein having with someone soon.

“Hi, opposing GM? How are you? This is Theo Epstein. Good, thanks. Hey, I’d like to unload Wily Mo Peña. What would you give me for him? A bucket of baseballs? Are they new? Excellent! You’ve got yourself a deal.”

For everyone who wants to rant that the Red Sox made a horrible move in trading Bronson Arroyo for the second coming of Pablo Serrano, I’d remind you that Bronson Arroyo is 4-12 for a team that’s currently 17 games under .500. Yes, the Reds are bad. However, in his last start against the lowly Nationals, Arroyo allowed seven earned runs on seven hits and threw just 56 pitches over 1 2/3 innings. That’s against the Washington Nationals. He didn’t get out of the second inning. So perhaps the deal was closer to a wash than we thought at the time. No matter. If we don’t have room for Kason Gabbard, we wouldn’t be able to give Bronson Arroyo many innings, either.

Still, I’ll take this team they way it looks right now. I think Joe Torre deserves manager of the year consideration with the patchwork quilt he’s had to construct this year in New York, but his bullpen is being held together with spit and bailing wire, and even the most die-hard Yankee fan knows it. ARod can hit all the homers he wants, but unless he develops a nasty slider to get opposing hitters out in the 7th and 8th innings, I just don’t see that team getting very far. A wild card appearance would be a huge triumph for them, and that is probably all they’re going to get. In October, we well know, it’s all about pitching.

Who scares me in the American League when I start projecting playoff matchups? The Indians (Sabathia, Westbrook and Carmona) and especially the Mariners (Washburn, Hernandez and Putz) . Both those teams play like they’ve got absolutely nothing to lose, and they both look like they could catch fire at the end of the season, a la last year’s Cardinals. That worries me. We won’t be able to afford Manny running into outs on the basepaths, Drew and Lugo giving away at bats, or Matsuzaka becoming mediocre for an inning against solid, fundamentally sound playoff teams. In some ways, we’re all still riding on the propulsion of a great April and May. It’s now almost mid-August. Time to turn on the next rocket stage and boost this team into a new altitude. Schill’s had his vacation, and Dice-K’s had his orientation to American baseball. This team is either going to earn or blow its collective salaries between Labor Day and Halloween, and barring some miraculous waiver wire deal in the next few weeks, it’s going to happen with the guys currently in the clubhouse. I’m hoping that 2007 will be another season to remember.

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