Red Sox, Braves let month full of chances slip away

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The collapses of the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves might have seemed sudden during Wednesday night’s wild action, but in reality they were a long time coming.

Red Sox fans might be tempted to blame Joe Girardi for subbing out his starters early against the Rays, or for leaving Mariano Rivera on the shelf while a host of guys like Boone Logan, Cory Wade and Scott Proctor served the AL wild-card berth to the Rays on a platter.

Maybe blame Terry Francona for failing to inspire his players or for inserting a hint of desperation into his late-season lineup selections.

Braves fans might blame the schedule-makers for allowing the Cardinals to finish in Houston while Atlanta drew the powerful Phillies. Blame the umpires or the managing or Hunter Pence’s dumb luck.

But both teams had a month to wrap things up, and they couldn’t get it done.

As Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia said after Wednesday’s final insult: “I’m devastated. I’m heartbroken. To play hard for 161 games like we have and have it end like this. … It should not have gone down to the last game of the season to decide if we were going to the postseason.”

And from Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel: “It was tough to be so close and then have the feeling like it was falling out of your hands. And that’s the feeling I have now.”

Both are right. For as well as the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals finished the season, it wouldn’t have taken much to end their dreams. It’s not easy to blow a nine-game lead in the final month, as Boston did, or an 8 ½-game edge like Atlanta did. Otherwise it would have happened before.

A couple more wins in the last 30 days. One less mound meltdown. One less injury. One more lucky bounce. That’s all the Red Sox and Braves needed. They had a month to tuck away those playoff berths, and they couldn’t grab them by the throat.

For the Red Sox, it was all about pitching and injuries – and naturally, injuries to pitchers. Yes, Carl Crawford underperformed, but it was the guys on the mound who ultimately caused this collapse.

Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka went down. Josh Beckett tweaked his ankle and wasn’t the same when he returned. Jon Lester lost his touch, Daniel Bard lost his control and John Lackey lost his poise.

Tim Wakefield was thrust into a role he was no longer fit for, and Andrew Miller for one he never should have had. Erik Bedard came in and was mostly … Erik Bedard – showing flashes of brilliance, maddening inconsistency, and a brittle body.

It all added up to a complete meltdown by the pitching staff, including a 5.90 ERA and a 1.54 WHIP during September. It was a collapse that was so complete it could not make up for a truly awesome offense that featured two MVP candidates and led all of baseball in scoring at 5.4 runs per game.

The Braves didn’t have as much trouble with their pitching staff, but the problems they did have – namely injuries to Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson — were devastating, and an offense that was inconsistent all season couldn’t compensate, hitting .235/.301/.359 over the final month.

The injuries also added pressure to a bullpen that has already been ridden hard by manager Fredi Gonzalez, and the seemingly untouchable duo of Kimbrel (4.22 ERA in Sept.), Jonny Venters (5.56), simply wore out.

It was a month full of chances going unclaimed, leading to a pair of historic collapses. Neither the Red Sox nor the Braves could find that one guy to come up with the key hit, or get the key out when they needed it most. The Red Sox finished the season 7-20 and were unable to put together even a two-game win streak in their final 28 games. The Braves went 9-18 in Sept. and lost their final five games.

Both teams missed the playoffs by a single game.

“This is tough,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “This is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had coming off a baseball field.”

That feeling might not go away for a long time.

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Seattle Mariners to make a “full-court press” for Shohei Ohtani

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Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said in a team-sponsored podcast the other day that the M’s will make a “full-court press” for Shohei Ohtani. To that end, Dipoto said that the M’s would be willing to let the two-way star to pitch and to hit, which is something Ohtani is interested in doing in the United States. Not all clubs are likely to let him do this, with most likely seeing him as a starting pitcher only.

Ohtani, who is expected to be posted by his Japanese team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, possibly as early as today, can sign with anyone he wants. He is, however, subject to the international bonus pool caps, so the bids on him will be somewhat limited. The Texas Rangers and New York Yankees have the most money available: $3.535 million for the Rangers and $3.5 million for the Yankees. The Twins ($3.245 million), Pirates ($2.266 million), Marlins ($1.74 million) and Mariners ($1.57 million) are the only other teams with more than $1 million left. Twelve teams — including the Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals and Astros — are limited to a maximum of $300,000, having met or exceeded their caps for this signing period already.

Ohtani, however, is said to be less motivated by money than he is by finding the right situation. While a lot of guys say that, the fact that Ohtani is coming over to the U.S. now, when his financial prospects are limited, as opposed to waiting for two years when he is not subject to the bonus caps and could sign for nine figures, suggests that he is telling the truth. As such, a team like the Mariners that is willing to allow him to hit and pitch could make up for the couple of million less they have in bonus money to spend.

As for how that might work logistically, Dipoto said that the team would be willing to play DH Nelson Cruz a few days in the outfield to accommodate Ohtani, allowing him to DH on the days he’s not pitching. That might be . . . interesting to see, but given how badly the Mariners could use a good starting pitcher, they have an incentive to be creative.

Ohtani, 23, suffered some injuries in 2017, limiting him to just five starts and 65 games as a hitter. In 2016, however, he hit .289/.356/.547 with 22 homers in 342 at-bats and went 11-3 with a 3.24 ERA, and a K/BB ratio of 146/51 in 133.1 innings as a starter.

Five clubs have more money to spend on Ohtani than the Mariners do. None of those teams are on the west coast, which some Asian players have said in the past they preferred due to faster travel back home. The Mariners, owned for a long time by a Japanese company which still retains a minority interest in the club, and long the home for high-profile Japanese players such as Ichiro and Hisashi Iwakuma, likely have a better media and marketing reach in Japan than most other teams as well, which might be a factor in his decision making process. Is all that enough to sway Ohtani?

We’ll find out over the next couple of weeks.