Jacoby Ellsbury saves Boston’s bacon with 14th-inning homer

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source: APThis story could have been about Terry Francona dropping the ball.  Fortunately for the Red Sox, Jacoby Ellsbury was there to bail out his manager, with plenty of help from Boston’s bullpen.

Ellsbury, who hit his 29th and 30th homers in a 6-2 loss in the first game Sunday, delivered a three-run bomb off Scott Proctor in the 14th inning of the nightcap, giving Boston a 7-4 win over the Yankees and a one-game lead in the wild card with three games left to play.

It’s going to be a tough sell with Justin Verlander getting so much hype, but Ellsbury’ superb late-season run has made him a serious MVP candidate.  He’s hitting .368 with seven homers, 10 doubles, 20 runs scored and 19 RBI in 106 at-bats this month.  He has 20 homers, 55 runs scored and 54 RBI in 66 games during the second half.

The bullpen also stepped up big for the Red Sox.  With the score tied at 4, Jonathan Papelbon got Daniel Bard out of a bases-loaded jam by striking out Austin Romine to end the ninth and then stayed in to pitch scoreless 10th and 11th innings.  It’s just the second time he’s pitched two innings this year and the second time in five years that he’s gotten as many as seven outs.

Relieving Papelbon in the 12th was Franklin Morales, who turned in two scoreless innings of his own.  Felix Doubront worked the 14th for a save.

The Red Sox may well have won this one in regulation if Francona hadn’t dropped the ball.  John Lackey bounced back from a three-run first to give the Red Sox a very solid outing, but for some reason, Francona sent him back out for the seventh with a 4-3 lead, even though Alfredo Aceves had already started warming up in the sixth.  Lackey gave up a leadoff single to Eric Chavez and was immeditely pulled.  The Yankees went on to tie the game after pinch-runner Brett Gardner stole second, advanced to third on a groundout and scored on a sac fly.

Four months ago, the shoe was on the other foot.  Yankees manager Joe Girardi sent Bartolo Colon back out for the seventh in a 2-2 game against the Red Sox, only to pull him after Jarrod Saltalamacchia singled to start the inning.  The Red Sox ended up with three runs in the inning and won 5-4.

As I wrote then, if a starting pitcher is just one mistake away from getting pulled, you don’t send him back out to make the mistake.  It’s a foolish way to manage, and while it didn’t cost the Red Sox a win tonight, it may very well cost them Monday after the team had to extend Papelbon, Morales and Bard in this one.

But the Red Sox will carry some momentum with them into the series against the Orioles.  It would have a morose flight to Baltimore had the Red Sox lost this one in extras.  Now they don’t have to depend on the Yankees beating the Rays this week; they can just go ahead and take care of business themselves.

UPDATE: Donald Trump declines Nats offer to throw out the first pitch

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UPDATE: Welp, we wont’ get to see that:

Sad!

8:53 AM: It’s just gossip now, but Politico is hearing that Donald Trump is in talks to throw out the first pitch at Nationals Park on Opening Day. The Nats are not commenting. Neither are the Palm Beach Cardinals of the Florida State League, who no doubt feel slighted given that the president effectively is a local.

With the caveat that, on Opening Day, tickets are likely to be more expensive and thus you’re likely to have a lot more rich people and friends-of-the-owners in attendance, thereby ensuring a more conservative crowd, I’m struggling to imagine a situation in which Trump strolls on to a baseball field in a large American city and isn’t booed like crazy. He’s polling as low as 36% in some places. He’s not exactly Mr. Popular.

Oh well. I look forward to him three-bouncing one to Matt Wieters and then grabbing his phone and tweeting about how it was the best, most tremendous first pitch in baseball history. Or blaming Hillary Clinton for it in the event he admits that it was a bad pitch.

2017 Preview: Texas Rangers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Texas Rangers.

The Rangers somehow won the AL West last year despite not being super great at any one aspect of the game. There are stars here — Adrian Beltre, Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish and Rougned Odor are all spiffy players — but the Rangers won the division by being greater than the sum of their parts. They scored a decent number of runs despite some bad collective peripheral numbers and they allowed more runs than anyone in the AL except the Twins and Athletics. Yet they had a great record in one-run games and outperformed their pythagorean record by a WHOLE lot. Luck shined brightly on the 2016 Rangers.

It’s hard to expect luck to hold in any instance, but that’s especially the case when there have been some pretty significant changes. Changes like the loss of Carlos Beltran, Ian Desmond and Mitch Moreland. In their place: A full season, the Rangers hope, from Shin-Soo Choo, a converted-to-outfield Jurickson Profar and Mike Napoli. That may wash out OK, especially if Choo is healthy, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see some regression in two of those offensive slots.

Starting pitching is also a big question mark. Cole Hamels at the top is not a problem, obviously, and if Yu Darvish is healthy and durable the Rangers have an outstanding 1-2 punch. Martin Perez in the third spot presents promise, but he’s been exactly average so far in five major league seasons. The back end of the rotation has some real problems. Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross are hurt at the moment and even if healthy, Cashner seems to be a shell of his once-promising self. A.J. Griffin is looking to pitch in his first full season since 2013. If the Rangers are strong contenders all year it’s gonna be on the “Spahn and Sain and two days of rain” model, but I have no idea what rhymes with “Darvish” and that’s sort of a problem.

The bullpen is going to look a lot like it did last year. Sam Dyson will close, but manager Jeff Banister has shown in the past that he’s not a slave to keeping guys in any one role down there. Jeremy Jeffress will likely set up but he’s closed before. Some think Matt Bush or Keone Kela could close. We’ll see Tanner Scheppers and lefty Alex Claudio. Banister has a Manager of the Year Award on his mantle and while that often doesn’t mean anything, it usually suggests that a guy knows how to deal with his pen. Banister will do OK with what he has.

Really, though, the rotation is a concern, as is hoping that a 35-year-old Mike Napoli and a soon-to-be 38-year-old Adrian Beltre can continue to be the types of players who can form the offensive core of a playoff team. There’s talent and a track record here, but there’s a lot of uncertainty. For that reason, I suspect the Rangers will fall back a smidge this year, even if they’re a playoff contender.

Prediction: Second Place, American League West.