What Happened to the Red Sox?

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Despite their late season charge, everyone kind of figured that the Twins would fall to the Yankees in the ALDS.  While some morons totally blew the call on the Cardinals-Dodgers series, it’s not like the Dodgers winning was a total shocker either. But did anyone really think that the Red Sox would simply roll over and play dead like they did against Anaheim?

Actually, maybe some folks did.  Here’s Theo Epstein after yesterday’s loss: “I don’t think anything that happened in this series was completely out
of the blue.  We saw things that
were reflected early in the season.”

What kinds of things?  For one thing, the shakiness of Papelbon.  No, you can’t pin this all on him — and let’s be 100% clear here: the Sox “fans” booing Paps after the top of the ninth was a totally bush league move from folks who should know better — but the fact is that Papelbon v.2009 was not the same pitcher we grew used to seeing in 2006, 2007 and 2008.  His velocity is down and when you have a merely superior fastball as opposed to an otherworldly one like he’s had in the past, you’re going to get smacked around a bit.  And you get the sense that he knows his kung-fu isn’t what it used to be. He went 3-0 on Chone Figgins before getting anything over in the ninth. The same Chone Figgins who had been 0-12 prior to that at bat.  Papelbon should have been throwing his version of batting practice fastballs to him, challenging him to do something with the ball. Except now Papelbon’s version of a batting practice fastball is no longer an above-average major league fastball, and his tentativeness simply underscored this.

But like I said, hanging this on Papelbon is to miss the real story here, and that’s the story of an aging and incomplete offense that feasted on the Orioles and in home games all year but which was really exposed against the Angels pitching.  Ortiz was 1-12 with zero extra base hits. Lowell had an RBI yesterday, but was 0-7 in the two games in Anaheim. Jason Bay was 1-8. There was a lot of that.  It’s just not a team with a bat that strikes fear into the heart of a pitching staff anymore.  The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan went so far as to pine for Manny Ramirez yesterday.  

I don’t know if it’s that bad, but the 5-1 lead in yesterday’s game was, in hindsight, a mere blip on the radar screen. The one run and eight hits they gathered in two losses in Anaheim was far more indicative of the state of the Sox against good pitching.

It’s going to be a slightly longer offseason than expected in Boston this year, but from the looks of things Theo Epstein is going to need all of the extra time he can get in order to cure what ails the Red Sox.

Royals will bring back Yordano Ventura to start Game 4

Yordano Ventura
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Thursday night’s rain delay cut Yordano Ventura‘s start short after just two innings, as the Royals opted to turn to reliever Chris Young instead of bringing the 24-year-old right-hander back out to the mound following the delay.

One benefit to that is what manager Ned Yost has decided to do now, which is use Ventura to start Game 4 on Monday. Had he thrown, say, 102 pitches instead of 42 pitches Ventura likely would have started Game 5, forcing the Royals to go four starters deep in their ALDS rotation.

Ventura struggled before the delay Monday, allowing three runs in two innings. However, he finished the regular season by going 7-1 with a 2.38 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 68 innings over his final 11 starts, which was enough to convince Yost he was the right pitcher to start Game 1 rather than trade deadline pickup Johnny Cueto.

Playoff Reset: Four games in one day!

Cole Hamels

Oh baby.

There’s baseball from noon to midnight today, with a pair of Game 2s in the American League and a pair of Game 1s in the National League.

Tons of great starting pitchers–including the best in the world and a trio of big-name trade deadline acquisitions–and we’ll find out if a home team can actually win a game after starting the playoffs 0-4.

The Game: Texas Rangers vs. Toronto Blue Jays
The Time: 12:45 PM Eastern
The Place: Rogers Centre, Toronto
The Channel: MLB Network
The Starters: Cole Hamels vs. Marcus Stroman
The Upshot: Stroman coming back from what was deemed a season-ending knee injury in spring training to start Game 2 of the ALDS is a helluva story and the Blue Jays need him to come up big after David Price failed to do his part in Game 1. Yovani Gallardo somehow wriggled out of trouble against Toronto’s scary lineup, but as a left-hander Hamels has an even tougher assignment versus the never-ending right-handed power. Assuming it’s all in the lineup, of course. There are big health question marks for both sides, as Adrian Beltre, Josh Donaldson, and Jose Bautista all exited Game 1 with injuries and their respective statuses could swing the balance of power in the series.

The Game: Houston Astros vs. Kansas City Royals
The Time: 3:45 PM Eastern
The Place: Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City
The Channel: FOX Sports 1
The Starters: Scott Kazmir vs. Johnny Cueto
The Upshot: Two headline-grabbing trade deadline pickups with a lot to prove, as Kazmir and Cueto both struggled for their new teams. Cueto was bumped back to Game 2 after being acquired to front the Royals’ rotation and there was some speculation that Kazmir might not even have a spot in the ALDS rotation. Kansas City losing Game 1 last night and Houston having Dallas Keuchel waiting in the wings for Game 3 puts a ton of pressure on Cueto’s shoulders. Generally one of the toughest pitchers to homer against, he allowed 10 homers in 13 starts for the Royals and the Astros’ power-packed lineup will put him to the test all afternoon. Can the defending AL champs get off the mat quickly or will they head to Houston in need of a win to keep the season alive?

The Game: Chicago Cubs vs. St. Louis Cardinals
The Time: 6:45 PM Eastern
The Place: Busch Stadium, St. Louis
The Channel: TBS
The Starters: Jon Lester vs. John Lackey
The Upshot: Former Red Sox teammates Lester and Lackey square off in Game 1 of the first ever playoff series between two of the biggest rivals in baseball, with the Cubs fresh off their Wild Card game triumph over the Pirates and the Cardinals coming off an MLB-high 100 wins. Yadier Molina‘s ability to play through a thumb injury will be key for the Cardinals and it’ll also be interesting to see how much faith manager Mike Matheny has in Adam Wainwright to get late-inning outs as a reliever after returning from a torn Achilles’ tendon.

The Game: New York Mets vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Time: 9:45 PM Eastern
The Place: Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles
The Channel: TBS
The Starters: Jacob deGrom vs. Clayton Kershaw
The Upshot: Quite a way to finish an entire day of baseball, as the Mets go looking for their first playoff win since 2006 and Kershaw tries to cement his legacy as an all-time great by dominating in the playoffs like he does in the regular season. And don’t overlook deGrom, because last year’s Rookie of the Year winner has a 2.61 ERA and 349 strikeouts in 331 innings since debuting last May. Among all starters with at least 300 innings during the past two seasons Kershaw ranks first in ERA and deGrom ranks fourth, with Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke in the 2-3 slots. This is a speculator pitching matchup.

Maybe Alcides Escobar shouldn’t bat leadoff

Alcides Escobar

Alcides Escobar finished with a .292 OBP this year. He came in at .246 in 117 at-bats in August and .257 in 109 at-bats between September and October, so he wasn’t exactly flying high entering the postseason. Still, that didn’t stop Ned Yost from putting him into the leadoff spot for Thursday’s Game 1 against the Astros.

Yost finally did reconsider hitting Escobar first in September. It took Alex Gordon‘s return to health, plus the previous addition of Ben Zobrist to the lineup, in order to make that happen. However, it didn’t stick. Escobar hit ninth in each of his starts from Sept. 7-26, batting .236 with a .276 OBP during that span. With five games left to go, he was suddenly returned to the leadoff spot. The Royals went on to win all five games. Yost saw it as a sign, even though Escobar went 5-for-22 with no walks in those games.

Escobar went 0-for-4 in Thursday’s loss to the Astros. He did not swing at the first pitch of the game, which probably explains the defeat.

It’s been difficult to argue with Yost since last year’s World Series run and this year’s incredible run out of the game. The blind spot with Escobar, though, gets rather infuriating. One can defend hitting him leadoff against the Astros’ lefties. His career OBP against southpaws is .319 (.316 this year). Against righties, he’s the most obvious No. 9 hitter alive, with a career .258/.290/.342 line (.252/.284/.314 this year). He’s not a pace-setter. He’s not a spark plug. He’s a liability.