The Week Ahead: History stacked against Red Sox comeback

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Despite sitting in third place in the AL East, the Boston Red Sox appear to be in pretty good shape.

Riding a two-game winning streak, they enter the week just 6 1/2 games behind the New York Yankees, and 5 1/2 behind the Tampa Bay Rays for the AL wild card spot – with no teams in between.

In addition, Josh Beckett has pitched well since his return from a two-month stint on the disabled list, and Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Jason Varitek could all return within the next couple of weeks.

Add to that the possibility – if remote – of adding help in a post-deadline trade of Jeremy Hermida and/or Mike Lowell, and the Sox should be stocked up to make a run in the final six weeks of the season.

But despite all these positive signs, ESPN researcher Jeremy Lundblad writes that history shows it is likely too little, too late.

Can the Red Sox turn the tides? It will likely take a historic final two months – one that recalls the imagery of nicknamed seasons of the past.

Soon to be fully healthy for the first time in nearly four months, the real 2010 Red Sox have fewer than 60 games to catch fire. That is, if they manage to stay healthy.

According to Lundblad, the Red Sox have never made the playoffs when facing an Aug. 1 deficit of more than two games, and have only made the playoffs four times in their history when facing any deficit at all this late in the season.

The most recent was in 2004, when the Red Sox were one game behind Texas in the AL wild card race entering August. That team was aided by the trade of Nomar Garciaparra, which netted key components in Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz. This year, Boston’s big deadline move was to deal for once-promising catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who could realize his potential at some point in the future but for now will be stashed in Pawtucket.

Apparently, Theo Epstein is content to wait for the return of the players mentioned above, and he could be right. But that won’t solve the team’s bullpen woes, including the implosion of left-hander Hideki Okajima. Even Jonathan Papelbon has been less reliable than usual, having already blown five saves and sporting an ERA at a career-worst 3.05.

So the odds are against a Boston rally, but if they are going to make a run, this would be an excellent week to start it. The Red Sox host the lowly Cleveland Indians for four games to start the week, then head to the Bronx for four more against the Yankees, a perfect opportunity to make up ground.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Mets at Braves, Aug. 2-4:
The Mets aren’t out of it yet, but this week – with six games against the top two teams in the division – could just about do them in if they continue to struggle.

Twins at Rays, Aug. 2-5: A huge four-game series for both teams, as the Twins are 1/2-game back in the Central and the Rays just one game back in the East. Touted prospect Jeremy Hellickson makes his major league debut for the Rays on Monday against Carl Pavano.

Padres at Dodgers, Aug. 2-5: If the new-look Dodgers are going to make a run, this four-game series is a great place to start. Ted Lilly makes his first start in a Dodgers uniform on Tuesday.

Mets at Phillies, Aug. 6-8: Wouldn’t the Phillies love to simultaneously bury their rivals and gain some ground on the Braves? Wouldn’t the Mets love to play spoiler and act like they still have a chance? This could be a juicy one.

Red Sox at Yankees, Aug. 6-9: It’s the mother of all baseball rivalries, even if the Earth ceases to rotate and neither team is in first place by the time they meet for this four-game series. For Boston, it’s now or never.

ON THE TUBE
Monday, 7:10 p.m. ET: Mets at Braves (ESPN)
Wednesday, 7:05 p.m.: White Sox at Tigers (ESPN)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Red Sox at Yankees (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Rangers at Athletics (FOX)
Sunday, 1:30 p.m.: Giants at Braves (TBS)
Sunday, 8:05 p.m.: Red Sox at Yankees (ESPN)
*Check local listings

And for those of you who have asked for a schedule of MLB Network games, you may find that here.

Are you on Twitter? You can follow Bob here, and get all your HBT updates here.

The Cubs live for another day, but death will come soon

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The Cubs had a nice night last night. Javier Baez finally broke his hitless streak with not one but two homers. Willson Contreras hit a nearly 500-foot homer. Jake Arrieta, possibly pitching for the last time as a Cub, dug down for a gutsy performance, pitching into the seventh inning, working around some walks to allow only one run while striking out nine.

After the game, Cubs players sounded hopeful notes about believing in themselves, taking them one game at a time, getting the series back to L.A. for a Game 6 and Game 7. They’re professional athletes who know better than any of us that to achieve a thing you have to believe you can achieve that thing, so it’d be dumb to expect anything else from them in this situation. Ballplayers, quite admirably, don’t sound a note of defeat until they are actually defeated.

But let’s be realistic there: they’re still a dead team walking.

  • They’re dead because, as we have been reminded oh so many times, only once in 35 tries has a team come back to win a seven game series in which they’ve found themselves down 0-3. That team did so because Dave Roberts worked some magic. Dave Roberts is working for the other team now.
  • They’re dead because their biggest weakness this postseason — their bullpen — is not going to have its best pitcher, Wade Davis, available today in Game 5 after throwing 48 pitches in Game 4.
  • They’re dead because while the Dodgers used five relievers last night, none of them were worked particularly hard and neither Brandon Morrow nor Kenley Jansen were used at all, allowing them to come in and work hard and heavy tonight if need be.
  • They’re dead because the man on the mound to start tonight’s game is Clayton Edward Kershaw. Yes, he has had some less-than-glory-filled moments in the postseason in recent years, but all of those have come at the tail end of starts, when his managers have left him in perhaps an inning too long. See the above bullet point — and Dave Roberts’ early hook in Game 1 — if you think that’ll be a problem tonight.

The Dodgers lost last night, yes, but it was their first loss in the postseason. All teams have lost at least one postseason game since it went to the three-round format, so it was likely inevitable that L.A. would drop one. Heck, maybe they’ll drop two before the NLCS is over, but they’re not going to drop the next three in a row.

Last night’s Cubs win was nice for them, but it only delayed the inevitable.