Sunday, August 16, 2009

Taking on water

I posted some time back that the model for the Red Sox in recent years was the old Earl Weaver philosophy of pitching, defense and 3 run homers. The Red Sox are falling fast because they can't manage to excel at any of those three elements with regularity.

The starting pitching has gone from the team's biggest strength to a cause for serious concern. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are legitimate studs, but that's all we've got. John Smoltz was a bust, Daisuke Matsuzaka has been off the radar all year, Tim Wakefield is still hurt, Clay Buchholz remains a work in progress, and Brad Penny is problematic.

The bullpen has sprouted leaks as well. For all his promise and eye-popping talent, Daniel Bard is in approximately the same position as Clay Buchholz. He needs seasoning, and he's not yet the stud he'll develop into. Manny Delcarmen is either lights out or batting practice, and Takashi Saito is more often batting practice than much else. If you can't hit a hard fastball Ramon Ramirez is your man, but everything comes out of his hand at the same speed, and once hitters have locked in on him, he doesn't fool anyone with actual stuff. Then there's Jonathan Papelbon. I know that he's a mythical figure in Red Sox Nation, but looking at him realistically this year, he is not Mister Automatic. He tries to get too cute with sliders and even his devastating fastball. Making the perfect pitch takes precedence over just pitching. Every outing involves about 10-15 more pitches than it should.

The biggest nightmare with this staff is pitching coach John Farrell's fault. For reasons passing understanding, no Red Sox pitcher either understands how or is interested in paying attention to base runners. Brad Penny is the worst of the bunch but Papelbon isn't far behind. Buchholz has the maddening tendency to throw over to first when the runner is standing ON THE BASE. Why would you do this? This isn't a Jason Varitek problem. He has no shot at throwing anyone out when the pitchers allow enormous leads and barely bat an eye when the runner takes off. If it were just one pitcher, I'd say it's an individual issue, but when the Red Sox as a team are among the league's worst at holding base runners, it's endemic, and it leads to big innings and lost games.

The rest of the team defense has declined. There's the black hole at shortstop (I'm looking right at you, Nick Green), Mike Lowell's slowed reflexes at third and some awful play of late in right field. While Kevn Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury are gold-glove caliber, the Red Sox sit in the middle of the pack in team defense in the American League: the textbook definition of mediocrity.

Three run homers have happened on occasion, but all too often the team has been completely shut down. This is a bad year for David Ortiz, and it's impossible to know whether it's really the beginning of the end or not, but when your DH is hitting .219, and that's considered pretty good for him, there's a problem. Big Papi has only 64 RBI and a lower slugging percentage than Varitek and Rocco Baldelli. Something is seriously wrong. Jason Bay has been hot and cold, JD Drew has been mostly cold, Captain Tek's strong start has deteriorated again, there's that black hole at shortstop I mentioned earlier.

This team doesn't have what it takes. They're taking on water all over the place. The rotation, the bullpen, the offense and the defense are all, at best, just a bit better than average. After Beckett and Lester, nothing scares you about the 2009 Red Sox, other than their maddening propensity to find ways to lose ballgames they should win. A great win this weekend in Texas was followed by a demoralizing loss. The worst loss of the year took place on Jim Rice Night. The debacle in the Bronx last week probably killed any hope of winning the division. The wildcard is a tossup, but even if they pull it out I wouldn't be too optimistic that come playoff time they're able to do anything to get out of the first round.

They're just not that good.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Pittsburgh, PNC, and Pujols

There isn't much to be said for a Red Sox team that's alternating between shaky and complete free fall. This week, my dad and I celebrated my birthday a little early (it's supposed to be at the end of September) by taking a trip to Pittsburgh. Yes, I said Pittsburgh. I told dad I wanted to see a game with him in a park I hadn't visited yet. High on the list of MLB venues I've wanted to see was PNC Park in Pittsburgh, the gorgeous home of the woeful Bucs.

Before you make fun of Pittsburgh, I have to ask: have you been there in the past 10 years? It's a remarkably beautiful and fun city. The architecture is more varied and interesting than most eastern cities. With the steel industry long gone, the air is clean and downtown is vibrant and very walkable. We stayed at the Omni William Penn, which is the city's best, most opulent grande dame hotel. I visited Pittsburgh a couple years back for work, and not only did I enjoy my time at Carnegie Mellon (one of the best schools you'll find anywhere), but I was blown away by the city, and vowed to return. There are vistas from iconic spots like the Mt. Washington neighborhood, where you get a commanding view that can't be described.

We visited the Carnegie Museum of Art, across the street from the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning.

Friday night, we walked across the Roberto Clemente Bridge to PNC. Many ballparks now have statues of the local patron saint out front somewhere. Fenway has Ted Williams, PacBell/AT&T has Willie Mays, Detroit has Ty Cobb, and Turner Field has Hammerin' Hank and Phil Neikro. Well, in Pittsburgh, it's the great Roberto Clemente.

PNC is a sort of knockoff of Camden Yards in Baltimore in some ways. You enter through the centerfield gate, a la Eutaw Street. The first view of the field is flat out beautiful.

Unlike Baltimore, where you're in the shadow of a big brick warehouse, at PNC you're walking down a concourse that parallels the Allegheny River. Given the atmospherics of the ballpark, though, it feels a little like McCovey Cove in San Francisco. Camden Yards has Boog's BBQ, and PNC has a BBQ grill named after their old catcher Manny Sanguillen. Dad described the park itself as being "the anti-Fenway". He's not wrong. In Fenway, everything is hunched forward, crowded toward the field. At PNC, it feels open and expansive, looking outward, as if you're encouraged to recline.

It's a good thing the ballpark is so beautiful, since the team is pitiful. They were playing the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards boast one of the better starters in the league in Chris Carpenter, who started Friday night. They also have the best all around player in the game in Albert Pujols. Sir Albert is being protected in the lineup by Matt Holliday, who's the hottest hitter on the planet right now. Just to make the Pirates feel good, Carpenter spotted them a 4-2 lead before St. Louis eased past and won 6-4. The game was never in doubt. There was even a highlight for Red Sox fans. The great Julio Lugo led off the game with a clean single for St. Louis, then fell asleep at first base and was picked off.

Dad and I had seats just 10 rows from the right field line. Those tickets cost (Red Sox fans please stop reading here) $26 apiece. The memorable moment of the game happened about 30-40 feet away from us in the bottom of the 7th inning. A fan in the first row down the right field line reached over the railing to snag a foul ball hit near him, and flipped over onto his neck/head. The first person to reach him was Albert Pujols. What ensued was a 15-20 minute delay to tend to the fan who, people were afraid, may have just been very seriously and perhaps even catastrophically injured. Trainers from both teams, doctors, security personnel and, I read later, even Pirates front office staff, appeared at the man's side to assist. Through that entire time, Pujols never left the man's side. He held the man's hand, spoke to him, soothed him, and when the fan/patient had his head and neck braced and was loaded onto the stretcher, Pujols was still right there. He took the time to comfort the man's son, who was riding on the cart to the ambulance that would take the man to the hospital. Remember, we were in Pittsburgh, not St. Louis. In spite of that, Pujols was right there the whole time while all other players kept their distance, as they normally would.

During the game, Albert had a very quiet 3-5 with a run scored. He's a legitimate triple crown threat again and is a certain first ballot Hall of Famer whenever he decides he's had enough of tormenting National League pitching. This past Friday night I saw what Allbert Pujols is really made of. For that reason alone I'm glad we made the trip to Pittsburgh.