In the week immediately following the 2009 All-Star break, the yearly apocalypse was starting to dawn on Red Sox Nation. It was the week when fans began panicking as they frantically searched for the one answer that would solve all of the team’s inadequacies and carry them toward a playoff berth. They theorized about who could help get the job done (Roy Halladay, Victor Martinez) and who simply wasn’t worth it (anyone that required the entire Boston farm system to serve as sacrificial lambs).
This year, the problem happened to be that the bats weren’t working. Boston’s starting pitching was getting the job done. During the course of a five-game losing streak to Toronto and Texas, pitchers allowed 22 runs, which isn’t great but is far from inexcusable. There didn’t seem to be a reason why Boston’s lineup — featuring two 2008 MVP candidates, a proven clutch hitter, one of the league’s RBI leaders, and a recently rehabbed and surprisingly effective former World Series MVP — couldn’t support the pitching staff.
Cue the sirens.
One week after the five-game skid ended, in rode Victor Martinez, shining armor and all. And the difference in the team's offense has been drastic.
During Boston’s five-game losing streak from July 18 – 22, the team hit .193 batting with a .280 slugging percentage. The lineup hit two home runs, drove in nine runs (to offset 22 allowed by the pitching staff), and struck out a whopping 33 times.
In five games since trading season officially closed (in its non-waiver form) – including a July 31 matchup against Baltimore, which Martinez did not play in — Boston has gone 3-2, hitting .307 with 11 homers while scoring 34 runs. Of course, there is a huge outlier here, in Sunday’s 18-10 annihilation of the Orioles, but still, the bats are alive again.
How much of it has to with Martinez and how much of it has to do with the mental boost that comes with making the biggest move of the 2009 deadline?
Maybe Boston’s bats really were just struggling in July. Maybe they needed time to sort themselves out. Maybe the team’s two biggest power threats were slumping at exactly the same time, and it became all the more troublesome when no one picked up their slack. Maybe one more legitimate big bat was all the lineup needed to get up and running back toward run-scoring salvation again.
But maybe the team was simply reenergized by the idea of doing something big to improve itself while its two division rivals stayed relatively silent.
Martinez is good. He’s a young switch-hitting catcher/first baseman who could serve as a long-term solution to the Jason Varitek saga for the next few years. He’s a career .298 hitter, a two-time All-Star, and had the first five-hit game by a Red Sox catcher in franchise history. But he's not the messiah. He hasn’t saved the world in just five games for Boston, and before the Nation runs away with unrealistic hopes for him, it’s important to realize that.
He could end up saving this team the way Doug Mientkiewicz/Orlando Cabrera/Dave Roberts did in 2004. He could end up sitting out the rest of the season with a freak injury. But no matter what he does, Boston is unlikely to sustain the offensive pace it has been on since his arrival.
There aren’t going to be 18-run games every day.
Jon Lester hasn’t had much success against the Rays. Entering Tuesday’s start against Evan Longoria and friends, the Sox southpaw was 0-4 with a 8.18 ERA in four career starts against Tampa.
But something must have clicked this time around, because Lester came out on top – or, at least, he was up 2-1 at the end of the seventh inning. Until Daniel Bard blew his lead and Takashi Saito blew the game, Lester was in line for his first career win against Boston’s division rivals, allowing one run on three hits with 10 strikeouts in six innings.
He may not have gotten the result he wanted on Tuesday night, but it’s certainly a good sign heading into the playoff push.
Honorable mention goes to Jacoby Ellsbury, who has finally given Terry Francona a sound leadoff option. Since the All-Star break, the center fielder is hitting .319 with a homer, six RBIs, 23 hits, 13 runs scored and eight stolen bases.
During every one of Daniel Bard’s recent appearances, it’s been hard not to hold your breath and wait for him to break. It never happened. Leading up to Tuesday night’s 13-inning, 4-2 loss to Tampa, the rookie reliever had been perfect in 12 appearances since June 18. He threw 14 innings, allowing two runs (zero earned) on four hits. He struck out 23 batters, allowed no home runs and held opponents to a .089 batting average.
He broke eventually. The situation was less than favorable — he blew Boston’s one-run lead in the seventh inning of an eventual extra-inning loss to the Rays — but it had to happen eventually. He lasted two-thirds of an inning, allowing one run (a homer to Longoria) on two hits with two walks and a strikeout.
Here’s to embarking on another streak.
Quote of the week
“Anyone could have won that game. The teams in this division, you’ve got to battle every night. And it’s not just the teams in the AL East. We don’t have too many games left, and we’ve got to play our best ball for the next two months.’’
–Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis, in the Boston Globe, on rebounding from Tuesday’s 4-2 extra innings loss to Tampa Bay
Evan Longoria has proven to be a huge pain for Terry Francona and the Red Sox, and nothing was different this week, as the slugger teed off for two home runs against Red Sox pitching on Tuesday — one to tie the game in the seventh inning and one to win it in the 13th. In 12 games against the Red Sox in 2009, he owns a .347 average with 17 hits, seven homers and 24 RBIs. Boston pitching needs to find a solution for him soon, because when he’s single-handedly winning games against the Red Sox, it doesn’t bode well if Boston hopes to stay on top of the Rays in the AL East standings.
Series of the week
Nothing big is happening this week. Just kidding. Boston faces New York for the first time since early June. As everyone knows, the Sox are currently 8-0 against the Evil Empire. It’s unlikely that the streak will extend for much longer — New York’s pitching staff has gotten substantially more solid since it last saw Boston’s bats, and its lineup hasn’t fared too poorly, either. Plus, Boston slumped through July and just got swept by the Rays in Tampa Bay. Anyone expecting to see the same Yankees squad Boston beat up on for 55 runs over eight games earlier in the season – think again. The action kicks off at Yankee Stadium on Thursday.
Kevin Youkilis said it best, and Dustin Pedroia said it better a week earlier: Boston needs to start winning some games, especially now, when it’s trying to catch New York, keep Tampa at bay, and make a legitimate push for the wild card, as Texas breathes down its neck. August is the most important month for the Sox to assert its presence in the playoff hunt, and if they keep playing the way they did in July, they can essentially kiss their postseason dreams goodbye.