The first car I ever bought was a thing called a Datsun 610 wagon. Bought it after my junior year in college for $1,500 at a used car dealer in Maine. Spent another $50 or so and installed a cassette player from Radio Shack, and I was off to the races.
OK, not the races. It was all I could do to get the thing to Vermont to start my senior year.
Point is, the 2009 Red Sox remind me a little bit of that car. It started out with great expectations. I expected to jump out into the fast lane with it and never look back. By the time I got to school, I realized there were some issues to be dealt with. I became very good friends with the guys at Chuck?s Mobil in Winooski, making almost weekly visits to patch up problems and keep the thing running.
Which brings us to the Sox. When Joey Gathright entered Wednesday night?s game as a pinch runner in the eighth inning, he became the 51st man to play in a game for Boston this season. That?s a lot of players. In fact, it?s the most used in one season since the 2006 campaign — the only time in the past six seasons the Sox did not make the playoffs.
They?ve already used 10 more players than they used in all of 2008.
Teams that burn through players like that usually do it out of desperation. And, while there have been desperate times for the Sox this season (let?s not forget that six-game losing streak through Tampa and New York last month), Terry Francona?s team has been back on a roll. Even with Wednesday night?s ugly loss to Matt Garza and the Rays, the Red Sox are 2 1/2 games ahead of Texas in the wild-card race, with Tampa five games back.
Not bad for a team that has had engine trouble since the All-Star break. The sputtering started before that, way back in April when Daisuke Matsuzaka went on the DL, but there were enough spare parts to keep things rolling. Tim Wakefield?s 11 wins by the Midsummer Classic were enough to keep the ride smooth.
Then the team began to pay the price for installing replacement parts that were used and no longer trustworthy. John Smoltz and Brad Penny proved to be ineffective, and were thrown to the scrap yard (these days, known as the National League.)
After long discussions, the Sox retooled with Clay Buchholz and Junichi Tazawa, and found an old unused part that gave the team a spark. Who knows how long Paul Byrd will go, but he arrived just in time to finish off the homestand with a win on Sunday.
Now, Wakefield thinks he might be returning soon. And with Tazawa?s inconsistency so far, the Sox will need him.
An oil leak here, a voltage regulator there, a cracked radiator ? they were the issues I dealt with for much of that fall many years ago. All in the name of independence ? and a heated ride in the cold Vermont winter.
The Sox have been dealing with problems that have sprung up all year, and have managed to maintain their spot above the Rays. Wednesday night?s game featured Alex Gonzalez at third, Victor Martinez at first, and a run for Gathright. Nick Green (a Triple-A player last year) pinch ran, and Casey Kotchman got a key pinch-hit opportunity.
How busy has Theo Epstein and his baseball operations staff been? The team has made at least one transaction in seven of the past nine days, juggling players and shuffling rosters to field a competitive team.
Through it all, the Sox have won seven of the last nine games to solidify their position. They lead the majors in home runs since July 31. They have the look of a team that is hitting its stride just in time for the final 30 games of the season. It has taken a lot of players to get to this point, but the effort appears to be paying off.
That Datsun wagon got me to Vermont and back to Maine for the holidays. It didn?t last long — I was in another car by the time I hit the real world — but all that maintenance kept me driving through my senior year. There were times I never thought it would make it, times I was ready to literally walk away from the car. After all, this was way before the Cash for Clunkers program.
This Red Sox team is certainly no clunker. If Buchholz proves he can beat teams other than the Blue Jays (he?s 3-0 against Toronto and 0-3 vs. everyone else), the Sox have enough pitching at the top of the rotation to be a contender. Josh Beckett still doesn?t look like himself, but other than the second inning Wednesday night, he pitched well enough to win.
So, enjoy the ride. And don?t worry too much about that weird noise you?ll hear under the hood from time to time.