Results tagged “Daisuke Matsuzaka” from Who Made You Mirabelli?

Back in the Saddle Again

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LesterHBP.jpgWelcome back... to the playoffs that is.

The Red Sox clinched yet another Wild Card playoff berth, but there was no celebrating last night at Fenway, as Clay Buchholz and the Red Sox fell victim to an absolute mortar shelling by the Toronto Blue Jays, losing, 8-7, last night. Thankfully the Angels put the hurting on the Rangers to knock Texas out of contention... not exactly the way the Red Sox wanted to head into October... but beggars can't be choosers now.

After a strong month, Buchholz looked uncharacteristically hittable last night, giving up five home runs to the Jays, three of them to Adam Lind. But even after Big Play Clay's second sub-par start in a row, it's not time to panic just yet. He has shown that he has the stuff and his command is improving weekly. The only issue to worry about is whether or not his nerves will let him stay in command as the Red Sox head to the post-season.

What is cause for concern is Jon Lester. The veritable ace took a laser off the knee cap in this weekend's start against the Yankees. While he walked off the field and later was confirmed to have negative X-Rays, Red Sox Nation let out a collective 'oh crap,' as the hopes of October seemed to momentarily get "contusioned" away. (On a more serious note, the announcers could not have used the word "contusion" any more times than they did without having to declare the show "Medical Programming." Worst part is, they most likely don't even know what the word "contusion" means. WMYM apologizes for not knowing who exactly called the game... it was hard to make out the voices on the national broadcast over the droning sounds of "Margaritaville" on loop at some dive bar in Tampa, FL named Miss Vicky's. Can't make that stuff up.)

As for the playoffs, only time will tell what shape the rotation will be in. With Tim Wakefield's issues, his spine might actually start to resemble a question mark -- where is the school nurse with that scoliosis test when you need her? Buchholz has looked shaky in his last two starts, Beckett isn't his old self, and now Jon Lester has a second knee where his shin used to be. Who ever thought that Dice-K would be our most dependable starter going into the post-season... oh crap.

No News is Good News

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dice-k.jpgAs of this morning, everyone and their uncle had their jock-straps in a twist over some theoretical announcement regarding Diasuke Matsuzaka's future with the Boston Red Sox. Was he going to start? Was he going to be benched? Was he going to be released? Taken out back and shot? WHAT? Somebody... please tell us what is going on.
But as the tension become more and more palpable (mostly because of the unreal amounts of media attention it was getting... but what do you want? -- it was an off-day), it became clear that Red Sox fans weren't even going to get a nugget of anything. The Red Sox are almost as bad as the Patriots in that respect. They have become masters in saying literally nothing. It's almost enough to pray for an Ozzie Guillen-type figure... almost.
But taking a step outside the box, the question is this: does it really matter when Dice-K comes back? We've already seen he's no Beckett in the post-season. And now that our bats have woken up from their beauty rest, the team is winning... without him.
Obviously, you want your ka-trillion dollar man out there earning his salt. But his return isn't going to make-or-break the season. If anything, it's going to give Red Sox fans more heartburn, as pointed out in a brilliant, funny, and awe-inspiring article by a good friend of Who Made You Mirabelli, Michael James Silver, or Pythagorus, as he is known is some circles. He's a talented young writer for FireBrandAL who is really going places. No wonder why his work has gotten picked up by the likes of ESPN.com's Rob Neyer, and was featured on the MLB Outsiders homepage.
Although it is somewhat silly that Dice-K, in all of his virtual irrelevance, is making the homepage of anything these days... slow news day.
cc_mets.jpg

In what must have been an homage to the New Yankee stadium, Red Sox pitchers were letting them fly in last night's loss to the Twins. They tied a modern day record for most wild pitches in a single game with a whopping six slips. Four of those humdingers came from the apparently spasm ridden hand of Daisuke Matsuzaka. The other two came from Delcarmen, who laid an egg and a half, and Masterson - who tried to clean up after the cracking of said egg. In related news, catcher George Kottaras had a nervous breakdown after tonight's "display," and the Twin Cities negotiation team has been trying to talk him down from the clock tower.

Masterson and Manny (which it feels surprisingly refreshing to call him) have no excuse - but any Red Sox fan could tell you that if they had to put money on one pitcher throwing four wild pitches in a game, it would be none other than Daisuke Matsuzaka.

"Labor" is a good word to associate with the Dice-man. Everything he does now seems tedious - not boring - but tedious. Never known for his quick style of play (or his endurance for that matter), Dice-K through over a hundred pitches tonight... in only five innings. Sox fans have come to realize that the high priced import is far from a sure thing - apparently a Rolaids sponsorship is somewhere in the wings.

But the interesting thing, the element that keeps us coming back for more after getting slapped around for a few hours every six days, is that the difference between a brilliant Dice-K start is a razor-thin line. Half of the (or maybe the only) fun in watching this guy pitch revolves around seeing him get into these sticky situations just to see what kind of pitch he'll invent to get out of them.

It's long and sometimes painful (as we saw tonight) - but at least it's entertaining. Unless, of course, you're poor George Kottaras.

What do the Sawx have to do to stay alive tonight? It's not hard to figure out:


1) Have Daisuke Matsuzaka throw an efficient outing: Another game like Game 1 on Friday would set Boston up for a nice, conservative win. Matsuzaka can be infuriating for his voluminous walks, but he has a knack for working out of the jams he creates. Now would be a very ideal time to tap into the competitiveness Theo Epstein and co. cited when paying out the nose for the right to sign him in November 2006.

2) For God's sake hit someone!: Scott Kazmir would be a good place for the Red Sox to beginhitting again, and there's no time like the present. Sure, Kazmir is the Rays' ace, but he's been hittable by Boston's bats in his last two outings against the Red Sox, both in the regular season and in Game 2. Both of those matchups were in Florida, and Kazmir has fared pretty well at Fenway in his career (4-4, 3.02 ERA in 11 starts). Boston needs to get to Kazmir and get to him early, scoring off him before the Rays have a chance to summon their terrific bullpen.

3) Relieve pressure early: The last two games at Fenway have sounded like a tomb, with fans staring at Rays routs in silence. If Boston can jump to an early lead, they can remind their fans that this whole comeback thing is old hat with them.

4) Give the Rays something to think about: Staying alive for another day will force the series to back to Florida, and then the Red Sox could tap into the mystique forged by the 2004 and 2007 Sox squads before them. That, needless to say, would be a huge benefit.

Can Boston pull off all four of those goals? Maybe, but things will have to be a lot different than they have been recently if the Sox are going to stay alive. Otherwise the long, cold offseason starts tonight. And with the Patriots where they're at right now, that's not a pretty place to be.

There's a post worth reading that has a bit of WMYM on it over at The Washington Post's Baseball Insider Blog, and it gets to the heart of the second incredibly questionable decision by Terry Francona in the first two games (for the record, the first questionable call was leaving Daisuke Matsuzaka in the game to start the eighth inning of Game 1).

paulbyrdalcs1.pngAnyone else get why this guy wasn't on the mound
in the 11th last night? Yeah, we don't either.


It gets into a lot of depth but here's the gist: Why start the bottom of the 11th with Mike Timlin when you could use a perfectly ready Paul Byrd?

Byrd is on the Red Sox roster for a reason. He's a crafty and clever pitcher, and while his guile can't get him out of every jam, it was good enough for him to rack up a 4-2 record with Boston since the Red Sox added him for the stretch run. Needless to say, plenty of his eight starts came against top notch competition (though, interestingly, none came against the Rays).

But wait, there's more. Another potential Byrd advantage is that the Rays haven't seen him this season at all! When Byrd was still pitching for the Indians, he missed the teams only two series against Tampa Bay early in the season. For some pitchers that might not be an advantage, but for Byrd it probably is. The 6-foot-1 righty uses a bizarre, double windup that has a tendency to throw off hitters, and might be just the kind of weapon to unnerve the Rays hitters.

Add to that Byrd's stats in his three most recent trip to the postseason -- last year's ALDS and ALCS -- where he was 2-0 while allowing a total of four runs over 14 innings against the Yankees and Red Sox, and one has to wonder why Francona decided against throwing him instead of Timlin.

As you can read, the post goes on to question whether Francona is saving Byrd for a surprise Game 6 start, given Josh Beckett's recent woes. For the record, I don't think that's the case, and I imagine Andy doesn't think that's the case, either (though he can speak for himself).

Still, it makes one wonder why Byrd is on the roster if not to pitch in that exact situation. Mike Timlin finished the regular season as the team's mop-up man, strictly playing in extra innings and blowouts. That seemed to be the role he was targeted for in this series, too, until he was summoned in the 11th last night. 

So what can Tito be thinking? Is he really considering giving Byrd a start in Game 6 and also trying to save his arm in case he has to be used some in Game 4, which will be started by the ever-terrifying dual persona of Tim Wakefield? It's possible, but given Francona's predilection to stick with "his guys", it seems unlikely.

Really, the whole issue is a head-scratcher, and that's what makes it so strange. Francona rarely makes decisions that beg for second guessing. Maybe he'll be right about this one in the long run, too, but it has us awful curious at the moment.




We're up against the gun here at WMYM, so we're going to make things easy: Here's my ALCS series breakdown in terms of pitching, hitting and, finally, a flat out prediction. Here's hoping it's more accurate than Andy's stab at the ALDS.

ortizbay.JPGBig Papi and Jason Bay hope there's more to hug about in the games to come.

PITCHING:

Boston: Matsuzaka-Beckett-Lester-Wakefield-Matsuzaka-Beckett-Lester
Tampa Bay: Shields-Kazmir-Garza-Sonnanstine-Sheilds-Kazmir-Garza

It's hard to make a convincing argument that Tampa Bay has a rotation advantage, particularly with the recent form of Boston's burgeoning ace left hander Jon Lester. With Lester potentially getting the ball in both Games 3 and 7, Boston would seem to have him right in the clutch that he's been excelling at. Josh Beckett had his shakiest postseason outing ever in Boston's ALDS loss, but an extra day of rest -- as opposed to two starts in three weeks -- should have him a lot closer to being on point in this series. Daisuke Matsuzaka continue to be an enigma, wriggling out of jams throughout high pitch counts over just five innings. We still haven't seen him go deep in a postseason game. Could this be the series? And as for Wakefield ... he's Tim Wakefield. While WMYM has a shrine dedicated to him, he's utterly hit or miss at the best of times. He has, however, traditionally been dominant at the Trop, but he'll have to ply his pitches at chilly Fenway in Game 4 of this series.

As for the Rays, Shields has had rough outings against the Sox, Kazmir got drilled the last time Boston faced him in the Trop while Garza continues to seem like the scariest guy they throw out on the hill. Andy Sonnanstine was great closing out the White Sox. Great. Stay tuned. That Game 4 could look like a mismatch in the Rays' favor depending on how the series turns before it.

The bullpen, however, is another story. The Rays have a plethora of setup men without the closer they took and injury-riddled shot on in the offseason: Troy Percival. That hasn't slowed them, and it probably won't now, either. The Sox relievers looked much better in the ALDS than they did in much of the season, but there are still questions. Justin Masterson had one of his shakiest outings as a big leaguer to set the stage for Jed Lowrie's heroic walk-off. Then there's the fact that Mike Timlin earned the extra roster spot. We're longtime backers of Captain Camo, but he was almost a walking white surrender flag during the second half of this year. If he has to come in during clutch situations, watch out. The Rays teed off on him the last time he came in against Tampa. Of course, they did that against Jonathan Papelbon once, too, so you never know.

EDGE: Red Sox. The rotation should help make up for Tampa's bullpen buffer.

HITTING:

Boston: Ellsbury-Pedroia-Ortiz-Youkilis-Drew-Bay-Kotsay-Lowrie-Varitek
Tampa Bay: Iwamura-Upton-Pena-Longoria-Crawford-Floyd-Navarro-Gross-Bartlett

On paper, this is another mismatch. Unfortunately, that's paper that was drawn up over the bulk of the regular season, not a series of clutch matchups between the Red Sox and Rays and the two teams' subsequent ALDS wins. Jacoby Ellsbury seems to be waking up at just the right time for Boston, and if Ortiz can do more than he did in a miserable series against the Angels and if J.D. Drew can stay healthy, the Sox look plenty dangerous. If either of those factors don't come through ... or even don't come through the way Boston needs them to, the Jason Bay will have to be called on to hit at the blistering pace he put up against Anaheim.

Tampa Bay, on the other hand, bats a bunch of guys who many would need scorecards for. That's before you look at monstrous hot streaks for B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria, two hitters sandwiched by Boston area-native and crushing power hitter Carlos Pena. The 'los does strike out plenty, but Longoria has to be considered one of the most terrifying up and coming hitters in the majors. Navarro is another whose contributions can't be minimized. The catcher had a bushel of huge hits against Boston this year, including the ball that cost Jonathan Papelbon in the game that forever turned the AL East tide.

EDGE: Push

PREDICTION: They say great pitching wins championships, and both these teams have the potential to have it. Sure, Tampa Bay's rotation is as young as the rest of its roster, but it's got plenty of heat and talent. That being said, betting against Josh Beckett (despite his ALDS numbers) and what seems like the ghost of Sandy Koufax embodied by Jon Lester is a hard thing to do. That's before you add in hopes for Matsuzaka and the fact that the Red Sox's two most important hitters -- Big Papi and Dustin Pedroia -- almost tossed out in 0-fer in the ALDS, and couldn't possibly be any worse. If Ortiz and Pedroia hit while Beckett improves and Lester keeps cruising, the Sox should win. It says here that will happen.

RED SOX IN SIX

It didn't happen.

The chances were there -- a superb performance from Josh Beckett with only one-run of offensive support, a start for Tim Wakefield in a place where he'd traditionally dominated -- but in the end, it just didn't happen. After yet another key Daisuke Matsuzaka win in the opener of a series, not to mention an encouraging bounce-back from his disappointing outing at Fenway last week, the Red Sox offense crumbled in Games 2 and 3, all but handing Tampa Bay the AL East crown in the Rays' final stand at home.

Not that the Red Sox need to be cried over. With a seven-game edge in the Wild Card standings entering the night, Boston is all but assured to walk off with a playoff place, even with a tough run out of the season.

Those games -- at Toronto, at Cleveland and against the Yankees -- are exactly why Boston won't be able to bridge the two game breach at the end of the season. Sure, Tampa Bay has struggled on the road, a factor that comes firmly back into play as they head off to finish the season as vagabonds. But that shouldn't save the Red Sox with a division title on the line. It just won't. Boston had it's chances, twice in a week, for that matter, and it just didn't capitalize on them.

In fact, that's precisely what has to be much more discouraging about a second-straight collapse in a series against the Rays. Sure, the Sox hit impressively against Toronto and fought back to claw out a 3-of-4 series against a team even hotter than they were coming in, but they haven't been able to muster any of that clutch hitting against the team they've been chasing in the division all year. In fact, they haven't been able to muster any clutch hitting against Tampa Bay OR Anaheim, a considerable worry heading into the playoffs, since a Wild Card Boston would get yet another first-round face off with the Angels.

Naturally, conjecture over first round matchups are still a ways off. The AL Central is far too close to call, and even though the Sox shouldn't be able to bridge a two-game gap with 10 games left, much stranger things have happened. One magical run, and Fenway could be hosting Chicago or Minnesota as the playoffs open instead of trekking out to the left coast to kick off another playoffs.

It could happen, but it won't. It probably should happen, but it won't. It should have been teed up, but Boston couldn't capitalize and officially lost the season series to Tampa Bay for the first time ever. Kudos to the Rays. They earned an AL East title scrappy effort by undermanned scrappy effort, and the Red Sox just couldn't execute.

Soon, it'll be time to see who can execute when it really counts.

Tropic-ana Thunder

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Well, that was a whitewash.

It would have been hard to draw up a better first win for Boston in the sanitized duality of a split-crowd Tropicana Field. Not only did the Red Sox roll up a rout, they battered the Rays' ace, hit more home runs than anyone could keep count of and got Daisuke Matsuzaka another win without extending him any more than they needed to.

papilowell.pngSuddenly, not only is the division in a deadlock, the Red Sox seem to have a pitching edge tomorrow. And now they've proven that they can actually win in Tampa Bay when they need to. Add to that the continued improvement of players like Jed Lowrie and Coco Crisp in clutch situations -- i.e., the guys that weren't there last year are catching on -- and you have the makings of a real opportunity for Boston to steal something here. Not only can they grab the division lead heading down a tough stretch, they can steal momentum from Tampa Bay just days after they had taken it from the Red Sox and claimed it as their own.

Of course a Beckett meltdown and a subsequent Rays retaliation tomorrow could completely undo that shift in the blink of an eye. When you look at the schedule -- Blue Jays, Indians and Yankees for the Sox; Twins, Orioles and Tigers for the Rays -- Tampa clearly has an easier path toward the postseason. If they can scratch out a win over Beckett, that might well be enough to propel them back to the promised land of an AL East title and avoidance of the Angels in the first round. When it all shakes out, that's probably the most significant thing at stake, both tomorrow, Wednesday and in the run-out of the season.

That's why Monday night baseball was so important, and it's why Tuesday night with Beckett under the lights is so important, too. At midnight on Wednesday, everyone may have a more realistic answer when asked whether this Boston team can compete in the postseason the way the 2007 champions did.

It certainly looked like they could Monday.
When the season is over and everyone looks back on the Red Sox campaign, the three home victories over Toronto in early September may look like three matter of fact games. Three wins over a team that never really put it together, despite it's pitching depth and powerful middle of the order.

pedroialaugh.pngDustin Pedroia helped the Sox get the last laugh this
weekend, but Toronto gets a shot at retaliation soon.
Those games in Canada will be just as important.
(AP)

Of course, that kind of retrospective analysis minimizes the significance of the series in the moment. If the tables were turned on these results, with the Blue Jays taking three of four at Fenway instead of the other way around, the Wild Card race would appear very much alive. Instead, the Sox seem to be cruising toward the postseason, whether they earn that ticket via the aforementioned Wild Card or the AL East crown. That the AL East crown is even still in the picture after last weekend's Fenway meltdown to Tampa Bay is an accomplishment.

Now, Boston gets a three-game shot at a reprieve. Take two of three in Tampa Bay -- a tall task considering the fact that the Sox have yet to win there this year -- and Beantown will leave with a tie for the division lead. Lost two of three, or witness another sweep, and the division is all but officially finito.

Winning the division may still be a tall task -- trips to Toronto and Cleveland, not to mention that finale with the Yankees, remain on the schedule -- but making up ground on Tampa Bay may put enough shake into the Rays to let the Sox keep pace and maybe steal away with the division crown.

But none of this is relevant if the Sox can't pick up ground over the next three days. The Thunderdome is calling, it's just a matter of whether Boston can answer, starting with Daisuke Matsuzaka tonight.

More Than a Loss

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It's rare that a single game can provide a huge swing in momentum, let alone a single inning. Still, that's exactly how the ninth inning played out on Tuesday. Not only did the Red Sox lose a chance to deliver a painfully crushing blow to Tampa Bay, they lost a chance to slip into the AL East lead during this three game stretch with the Rays, setting the stage for an extremely tough Battle Royale in the Tropicana Dome next week.

All of those factors -- complete with a largely ineffective start from Daisuke Matsuzaka and a rare yet ultra-depressing loss for Jonathan Papelbon -- make the loss to the Rays all too depressing to bear. So we're not going to dwell on it any longer. Instead, WMYM is going to try and think about something more upbeat ... like the Patriots! They always win, right? Nothing could derail the Pats machine! Oh wait ...

Then again, there is this:




So maybe there is hope after all?

Huge.

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WMYM is back from vacation. Good timing, huh?

lesteryell.pngNot only was Boston's Monday victory over division-leading Tampa Bay an enormous boon, it kept alive huge trends for both teams: For the Red Sox, it kept alive an enormous win streak that has nearly eclipsed a five-and-a-half game division deficit. For the Rays, it kept a losing streak in tact that has all but eliminated a playoff-bound edge that Tampa Bay spent all summer building up.

Far from running away, the Rays are collapsing upon themselves, weighed down by both expectations and injuries, just as Boston is putting things back together. The mastheads of the two ships are nearing each other every day, closing on the moment when they'll finally pass each other in the night, steering toward directions unknown, with the potential to run aground at the same time in Tampa Bay, or continue on to playoff points in the future.

Generic high brow metaphors aside, Jon Lester's performance -- pitching a shutout into the eighth inning of a key playoff race game -- was nothing less of revelationary. Again. And while that might seem to be a redundant statement, instead it just reveals another facet of Lester's emerging persona as an overpowering ace. First there was the Game 4 victory in the World Series, a game before which some criticized Terry Francona for throwing a still recovery Lester to the playoff wolves. Less than eight months later, there was the no-hitter, a transcendent performance that showed the lefty could zero in on the pinpoint control he flashed in the preseason and the season's opening series in Oakland.

Since then, there's been skid stopping starts throughout the summer, complete with an even more significant start on Monday, a game which not only cut the divisional deficit to a bridgeable number but also provided a decisive blow to the very team Boston is chasing.

lesterdoff.pngLester has had plenty of reasons to doff his cap this
year, and if he can keep it going, the Red Sox
will have plenty to celebrate, too.
(AP)

In the pantheon of amazing Red Sox developments this season, Lester's metamorphosis from borderline fifth-starter to one of the best left-handed arms in the major leagues is right at the top of the list. When combined with the improved control of Daisuke Matsuzaka, the improving health of Josh Beckett and only slightly surprising perfect fit of Paul Byrd, the Sox have a consistent four-man rotation with the ever present knuckleballing weekly wild card of Tim Wakefield. That might not be perfect, but it's a heck of a lot better than just about any other team can provide.

Factor in the budding MVP candidacy of Dustin Pedroia, the resurrection of the ghost of Coco Crisp's bat, the depth brought by Mark Kotsay and rookie Jed Lowrie's imperviousness to pressure, and Boston just might be on to something here. We'll probably have a pretty good idea whether they do by the end of Wednesday night.


It may seem completely cliche, but at different points of the still evolving season, three different pitchers have emerged as aces of the Red Sox staff.

dicekkkkkkkk.pngThese fans had seven reasons -- and Monster seats -- to be
thankful for Friday night, all thanks to Dice-K.
(AP)

At the outset, Josh Beckett was both the ace of the Red Sox and, based on postseason performance, all of Major League Baseball. After early injury, frustration and -- comparatively speaking -- inconsistency, Beckett was forced to take a back seat with an eye on the later part of the season.

Luckily for Boston, Beckett's backwards evolution coincided with the meteoric rise of Jon Lester. The second-year lefty not only tossed a no-hitter less than a year after returning to the big leagues while recovering from lymphoma, he built on it.

Just as Lester's gradual development was a stark contrast from the slow yet steady mental collapse of Clay Buchholz, it was equally significant in the broader context of the team's shifting reliance. Lester emerged as a dominantly consistent power pitcher while Beckett was ailing and Daisuke Matsuzaka fought with control from start to start, mixing a deft knack for escaping jams with the occasional brilliant pitch.

dicetosser.pngLately, Matsuzaka-san's performances have been full of more brilliant pitches  and less inconsistency. That's not to say that he's made it. Rather, Dice-K appears to finally be harnessing his immense talent and perfectionalism with a sense of comfort with the major leagues. On Friday, he mixed two hits with 24 outs against a team that's currently penciled in for the playoffs. That's not a perfect start, but it's awfully good.

Considering the fact that Lester hasn't exactly fallen off a cliff -- one loss in Toronto aside -- that leaves Boston with two healthy aces and one on the rebound. Should Beckett return next Friday, and Boston fans have to hope that he can find it in him to get back on the mound if this run toward the playoffs really is going to happen, then the Red Sox suddenly could find themselves with three starters stronger than any other team's heading toward October.

That's an awfully strong place to be, and it comes from out of the necessity for a new ace to emerge earlier this year, proving once again that necessity truly is the greatest mother of invention.

Here's hoping young Michael Bowden finds it in himself to go where Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have gone before him. If he does, he very well could find himself in a bullpen with Justin Masterson and other former teammates during the most exciting time of the year, in the most exciting place to be there.

After all, Fenway Park in October is a long ways from Portland and Pawtucket in July, even if it is just in between the two minor league outposts on the road.

Cue Daniel Powter

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Has there ever been a more appropriate time for "Had a Bad Day"? Maybe not for Jon Lester and Red Sox fans.

Not only did Lester get knocked around on Saturday, he did so by one Wild Card chaser, allowing the other to close ground. After a convincing win behind newcomer Paul Byrd on Saturday, the Sox seemed to be in good shape for a timely three-game sweep in Canada, a set that would A) prove that Boston had turned the tables on a remarkably disappointing string of Toronto frustration, and B) distance itself from both the Blue Jays and Yankees, who were swept by their Canadian division mates last week.

Now, neither of those outcomes is in the offing, and the pitching shortcoming that led to that finality was one of the least likely this year: Jon Lester didn't come through.



That's right, in a year in which Lester has morphed from a fringe fifth-starter to a borderline ace, the lefty was knocked around from the early moments of the first inning Saturday, providing the pitching ammunition for Rogers Center fireworks that would make the organizers in Beijing blush. His fastball was a bit off, his location missed by inches and, as a result, the Pacific kid went from being unhittable -- literally, as he proved earlier this year -- to eminently drillable.

The result, of course, was the 11-0 whitewash that followed, a game which puts significantly more pressure on Daisuke Matsuzaka entering Sunday afternoon's series finale. If the Dice man can come through again, the Sox will close out an impressive two-of-three set in Canada, where no one has been winning series lately. If he doesn't, Boston will find itself wondering whether it has the ammunition to mount a run on Tampa while simultaneously holding off both the Yankees and Blue Jays. Between the series finale tomorrow and next week's set at Yankee Stadium, the next week will go a long way toward plotting the team's trajectory down the stretch. It's no coincidence that, just as Josh Beckett announces he'll miss a start, Tim Wakefield comes back. And Bartolo Colon throws a dominant outing in AAA.

The way things are going, they'll all need to get back. Fast.
If you were trying to script the last couple of Red Sox wins, the results you got were far too soap opera-esque to be believed.

A blown 10-run lead in the first inning? No way. Two straight games with late-inning collapses? Even against a shaky middle relief corp, seems a bit far fetched.

Well, so much for screenwriters. The melodrama from the past two days has hit the roof, and that's before taking into account an abdomen strain and DL stint for Mike Lowell or the acquisition of Paul Byrd and, seemingly, subsequent demotion of Clay Buchholz.

Still, all that truly matters are the numbers on the Green Monster scoreboard at the end of the game. For the second straight night, those were pretty good this evening, despite a disappointing three run homer given up by Mike Timlin in just the latest proof that the veteran is careening down a precipitous downlslope of his career.

Meanwhile, Javier Lopez got the Sox out of trouble, then promptly put them back in it. Only Justin Masterson's performance was reassuring in relief, and that still came with plenty of drama. Sure, Masterson allowed a fluky hit and somewhat disturbing walk. The reassurance comes from how he responded, calmly fielding his position to facilitate a double play, then egging a pop-out from Michael Young to end the game.

Of course, those up and down efforts would have been worthless if not for another sparkling outing from Jon Lester, who looked like he was ticketed for a complete game until a homer and bad bounce got him in eighth inning trouble. Lester continues to be a rock in the rotation, giving the Sox something they thought would be provided by Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka; two legitimate aces who dominate opponents and almost guarantee wins.

That's not to demean Dice-K's season, nor his bulging win total. He's immensely improved over his 2007 debut season, consistently wriggling out of the jams he often couldn't last year.  Those three starters are precisely the reason why Boston is so dangerous in the playoffs, but the bullpen's abhorent performance over the past two nights is precisely why it'll need to keep getting runs from David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and the shockingly hot Jed Lowrie if they're going to catch Tampa Bay and gather more momentum heading toward the playoffs.

Given the injuries Tampa's suffered in the past week -- devastating, multiple-week losses of outfielders Carl Crawford and rookie of the year candidate Evan Longoria -- and the fact that the Red Sox can block the Rays from adding personnel via the waiver wire, you have to like the position Boston is sitting in. Meanwhile, the Yankees haven't completely played themselves out of the postseason yet -- years past have certainly proven that -- but they're making yet another trip to the playoffs a pretty tall order entering the final six weeks of the season.

Oh, and in case you forgot, Jason Bay is looking awful good, and comfortable, in a Sox uniform. It just bears mentioning, particularly considering the fact that Manny Ramirez likely wouldn't have been playing half the time whatsoever.
Strike One: Dropping two of three to the Yankees in a series that had both Josh Beckett and Jon Lester on the mound.

bigtex.pngStrike Two: A devastating, televised meltdown by Daisuke Matsuzaka in the sixth inning of Monday night's loss to the Angels.

Strike Three: A bad loss to the Halos only hours after they, not the Red Sox or Yankees, made the move of the trade deadline season. A loss that further undermines significant concern over Clay Buchholz's development and makes one wonder whether he can contribute significantly this season ... at all.

Put them all together, and the Angels are in position to send Boston into a tailspin tonight at Fenway, all with  Mark Teixeira pulling on a Halo uniform for the first time. If that, combined with Jon Lackey's official exorcism of the ghosts that have haunted him in Boston across recent years last night, doesn't send a shiver up your spine, we don't know what will.

We've been holding on to these photos for a couple days, waiting for something that could make WMYM break down and re-hash any development that might be slightly positive. Nothing's coming. Thus, these really are the lasting moments of the last two days, disappointing as they are to Boston fans ... and uplifting to those wearing the "A" on their hats.

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Best Foot Forward

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This is the part of the season called keeping pace. Thus, in the interest of putting one foot in front of the next, we bring you Game 2 of the I-90 bookend series: Seattle vs. Boston.

matsuzakasmile.pngLast night's Red Sox win, a 44-0 doozie over the Mariners highlighted by Jon Lester's brilliant eight-inning shut out and Jonathan Papelbon's Houdini impersonation in the aformentioned eighth, a two-pitch double play gem that got Lester out of a bases-loaded jam (though he could hardly be blamed for the last of the three runners), was a return to normalcy.

OK, maybe it wasn't a return to normalcy. After all, how many times this year has Jason Varitek come through with the big homer? Still, it showcased more of the offense pressure fans are used to than Boston flexed in Anaheim. The team's four runs came in two different innings, included an impressive homer and clearly benefitted from hitters showing more patience at the plate, eventually getting to Jerrod Washburn despite the pitcher's relatively impressive stuff.

That brings us to tonight, with Daisuke Matsuzaka heading to the hill for his first start of the second half of the season. His personal campaign -- you can practically call it the "Yes, I really am worth all that cash" season -- kept it's positive trajectory going in his final start before the All-Star break, yet another win with big innings and harrowing escapes more typical of a mid-summer Tom Cruise flick than an mid-summer outing on a pitching rubber.

All of those steps forward, for both Matsuzaka and Boston, will get pushed to the side if they can't put together another game like they did on Monday night. Interestingly, the tables will be turned on the Sox, with their hitters facing off against ulner ligament-less knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, whose 2-4 record comes with the asterisk of limited starting experience -- he's only started seven games this season -- and his relative youth as a knuckleballer. Dickey came up as a fireballing fastball hurler, then converted himself into a gimmick pitcher after he had his ulnar ligament completely removed when one elbow surgery turned into the next without any significant productivity in between.

Dice-K, meantime, has had mixed results against the Mariners himself. After the loss in his Fenway Park debut, in which he was famously outdueled by Felix Hernandez, Matsuzaka hasn't lost against Seattle. Unfortunately, he's only won once, with a whopping three no-decisions thrown in for good measure.

One would think he'd need a bit more run support than in his earlier outing against the M's this year, when he lasted only four innings while giving up three runs. But that all depends on whether Dickey's knuckler moves.

Here's hoping Tim Wakefield hasn't been giving any lessons in the past week.
So, we're part of a semi-annual Red Sox blogger roundtable over at Red Sox Monster, which is chock full of some great Boston bloggers and Sox talk. Still, we thought we'd give you the WMYM take a night early, before you see it with responses from a handful of other bloggers tomorrow. Extra time can't hurt, right?

1) We'll start with a biggy right out of the box: Given the recent seven-game tailspin by the Rays, who is a bigger threat to the Red Sox in the American League East: the Yankees or the Rays? Why?

We may not want to admit it, but the Yankees are definitely the bigger concern. Sure, the Rays have had a great first half, but their seven-game losing streak heading into the break exposed them for what they are: A terrific home team that's still learning to win on the road. Come September, rookies, second and third year players the likes of Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton will have to keep swinging hot sticks when it counts. It says here they'll slow down.  The Yankees, on the other hand, really can't go down from where they already are. Joba Chamberlain seems to be settling into the rotation, Andy Pettitte is practically guaranteed to come through with three, four, maybe even 10 clutch starts and Mike Mussina is in the middle of an inexplicable renaissance. Put those factors together with a veteran lineup that has yet to truly click, and you get a team that could put together a serious challenge, whether Sox fans like it or not.


2) What do you see as the single biggest thing the Red Sox struggle with in 2008? Is it in the bullpen? Timely hitting? The gaping holes that have appeared at times in the lineup? How do you fix that problem?

Clearly it's the bullpen. Thinking back to 2007, there were plenty of stretches when the lineup was mired in slumps and when the team left ducks on the pond. The difference thus far, aside from having more injuries in 2008, has been the surprisingly vulnerable bullpen. If you check out the numbers, most would probably be surprised to find that Javier Lopez has done a better job of limiting damage off inherited runners than anyone else. Javier Freaking Lopez, the lefty specialist. That's not a great sign. Manny Delcarmen's recent surge has been a bright ray of optimism and Craig Hansen seems to be getting more and more consistent, but neither has reached the status of Hideki Okajima in '07, aka a sure bridge to Jonathan Papelbon (speaking of which, turn away all Sox fans, but Paps has been a touch more hittable this year, too, despite the fact that WMYM, for one would rather have him on the mound than anyone else in the ninth). So there you go, clearly, the bullpen is the issue and Theo Epstein would do awful well to go grab a, say, Scott Linebrink at the trade deadline. Not that he's available, but someone of that ilk would sure go a long ways.


3) I've got a record for being a pretty large Terry Francona supporter and apologist at times. With that said, some of his decisions in the first half of the season have baffled me, like not sending in a pinch-hitter for the badly slumping Jason Varitek with one out and the bases loaded in the ninth inning of a 2-1 loss against the Yankees on
July 5. Where do you stand on Francona's performance and juggling act in the face of numerous injuries this season?

WMYM has always been a pretty huge Francona backer itself, so it's pretty hard for me to weigh in objectively. That being said, WMYM is standing by Francona, blemishes and all, halfway through the season. Sure, it took him far too long to catch on to Hideki Okaijima's inability to retire batters that were already on base when he took the mound, and some of his other moves to the bullpen have created some head scratching, too. That being said, WMYM would have had Varitek hit in that situation, too. If the Sox are going to bounce back, Varitek is going to have to be a big part of it. Boston might as well get him going now, or this whole "Division and World Title Defense" thing just isn't happening.


4) David Ortiz is expected to return after July 25, which is obviously a huge sigh of relief for Red Sox fans. If you were in charge, how would you incorporate him into a lineup that has produced abundantly at times with JD Drew hitting third, ahead of Manny Ramirez and Mike Lowell? Also, what do you do about the four starting outfielders the Red Sox have used while Ortiz was out, since Manny got the bulk of the at-bats at designated hitter?

This one's easy: You move everyone back to where they were, recent productivity aside. Ortiz and Ramirez have always been lethal as the three-four combo, and Mike Lowell is born for the five-hole. So All-Star Game MVP J.D. Drew hit's sixth, you ask? That's right, and congratulations for your mastery of math. With the way the guys in front of him tend to hit, that'll still give J.D. plenty of RBI opportunities, and in that situation he's more of an insurance policy, which is what the team really needs him for anyway.


5) Who wins more games this season: Daisuke Matsuzaka or Josh Beckett? What would you put the over-under number at for each pitcher, and why?

This is actually tougher than it looks, but WMYM is going with Beckett. Sure, Matsuzaka's off to a 10-1 start at the break, and he's already missed injury time which should make him a big more fresh coming down the stretch. The problem is the modifying piece of that last sentence: a bit. Anyone who saw Dice-K's late season meltdown last year has to temper expectations. Still, he's been more effective this year, so we're going with a final record of 18-6. Beckett, meanwhile, has missed a little time himself, and is a win behind at the break, entering with a record of 9-5. Yet Beckett looks to be in more command every time out, and if the division race stays close down the stretch, there's little doubt that Beckett will raise his performance again. So we're going with a final record if 19-8 for Beckett, which means we have him with a second-half record of 10-3. Sounds about right, don't it?


6) How do you see the American League playoff picture shaping up? Is this a year where the wild card does not come out of the AL East? Who makes the playoffs?

When you take a gander at the American League in total, it's hard to see another division grabbing the wild card spot. AL Central? Not by the record of it, and that assumes that the Twins can keep pace with the White Sox. Clearly Detroit's just too old. AL West? Not likely. The Angels are already running away with the division and the A's are too busy trading significant pieces to notice. Where does that leave us? Well, as much as WMYM hates to admit it, that gives us a playoff picture like so: AL East: Red Sox/Yankees, AL Central: White Sox, AL West: Angels. Sure, I'd love to see the Rays keep the Yankees out, too, but as previously stated, it's just too much of a leap of faith on youth ... which is a real shame.
Since we started this blog with game-by-game preschool grades, it'd be hard to justify not coming out with actual letter grades when the season reaches the mid-way point, particularly since the All-Star Game comes after more than half of the season's games have been played.

But first, a general overview: Things are pretty good, aren't they? Think about it: the Red Sox found a way to enter the All-Star Game in hated Yankee Stadium with the AL East lead. They've done so despite first half DL stints for three primary starters -- Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz -- and with back-and-forth bullpen shuffling that included jettisoning to members of last year's World Series champions.

Oh, and did we mention that the team is still reigning World Series champion? Yeah, that helps, too, particularly come September, when any pennant race will have to include the experience factor that Boston can rely on, with two world titles and (finally!) an AL East crown won in 2007.

So, without further ado, let's get into the grades:

Rotation: A-
Daisuke Matsuzaka is the only 10 game winner, but you could make a case for all of the Sox starters to get serious accolades. In fact, Matsuzaka hasn't even been the most consistent, an honor which, quite unbelievably, might go to second-year man Jon Lester, he of the World Series clincher and, now, no-hitter. Tim Wakefield has improved as the season has gone on, again, and has looked positively unhittable the last three times out. Josh Beckett was out of shape in camp and then dealt with nagging injuries, but he's begun to pitch like his overpowering self, and Matsuzaka continues to mystify with his ability to wriggle out of trouble, time and time again. Clay Buchholz has been a truly mixed bag, with a pair of unbelievable wins and even more unbelievably frustratingly inconsistent losses. The  gem of the first half? That might be Justin Masterson, whose meteoric rise through the minor leagues didn't slow his success in the bigs, where he was absolute quality every single time he took the mound. OK, there was the one five-run game, but outside of that, the sinkerballer was outstanding.

Player-by-player: Beckett A-, Matsuzaka A, Lester B+, Wakefield B+, Buchholz C+, Masterson A-
This post comes with rather ignominious timing and, depending on the second half of the season, could be a kiss of death. WMYM is already bracing for it, and, in truth, hoping that our gut instinct is wrong. It's all we can hope for, because our gut instinct on this one is fairly strong. Here it goes:

The Red Sox brass picked the wrong rookie starter.

mastersonyankeestad.JPGThey're both (technically) rookies, they're incredibly different pitchers, and WMYM isn't sure the
Red Sox should have sent Justin Masterson, above, to the 'pen rather than Clay Buchholz, below.


Look, we know that Clay Buchholz's stuff is as good as anyone else on the Sox staff. We know he brings an electricity with the potential for a no-hitter every time out, and he could easily hit a second half groove that makes him an invaluable addition to the Boston rotation. As WMYM said right off the bat, we certainly hope he does. But as things stand now, we can't figure out how he's a better bet as a fourth or fifth starter than Justin Masterson, a pitcher who's shown he can maximize each outing on the hill.

Instead, it's Masterson the Sox are sending to the bullpen, arming him with the chore of re-tooling his approach in the minor leagues for a call up at a time TBD. It's precisely the type of plan they cooked up for Buchholz last year before his shoulder soreness got in the way, creating a temporary void in the bullpen that led the then-WMYM to proclaim his absence a major playoff dilemma for Boston.

There were numerous reasons to write that then, but primary among them was this: Masterson could be one of the great confounding relievers of all-time. He can challenge with a fastball, drop his curve off the table and leave batters questioning which pitch is coming on a constant basis.

That's not the case with Masterson, a sinkerballer whose success is based almost entirely on velocity and location. If Masterson is having a good night, whoever he's pitching against is going to be making a lot of contact, hitting into groundouts and pop flys and various other hits for outs. He can pound the ball inside and paint the edge of the corners for strikeouts, but that's not his game. Controlled contact is.

buchholzsweat.JPGBuchholz, on the other hand, is a strikeout pitcher, a guy whose stuff may come and go inning to inning or, on good nights, game to game. He approaches every batter with the assumption he's going to strike him out, which -- combined with his remarkably frail physique -- is why his occasional dominance is so impressive. In short, you're taking a gamble when you bring him out of the pen, particularly with runners on (as you'd assume they would use him). But that chance comes with the possibility of high reward and a strong potential to bail out whichever arm is currently on the hook.

Obviously, that's not the case with Masterson. Think about it: contact is NOT what you want when the bases are loaded. At that point, any contact brings potential for disaster, particularly with a pitcher in his first major league season who, despite showing an aptitude for working out of jams, remains a relatively untested commodity when put under pressure.

So why are Theo Epstein, Terry Francona and the rest of the Boston brain trust making this move? That's easy: It's all about innings.

Think about it, the Red Sox developmental program is so focused on pitch counts and innings limits that they only half-joked about taking Buchholz out of his no-hitter in the eighth inning last year. As it turns out, they were clearly vindicated in their stringent limits, with Buchholz's shoulder injury coming less than a month later.

This year, Buchholz's pitch and innings limits have been extended, giving the pitcher more of a leash to work with on the mound. Conversely, Masterson finds himself in the binds that constrained Buchholz last summer, limited even in his best outings by a daily pitch count and, eventually, by the number of appearances he was to be allowed in during 2008.

That's why the move does make sense from a strategic position. Unfortunately, strategic positions don't play games on the field, like, say, the one that the Sox are currently trailing to the Orioles at Fenway Park. It's Buchholz's first start back, and his inning-to-inning schizophrenia is in full effect. We're going to go close our eyes while "watching" the rest of the game, hoping that the overpowering and mystical Buchholz gets the best of his alter-ego, waiting for Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka the next couple days. Come to think of it, Wake and Dice-K are just as likely to have WMYM looking for alkaseltzer, aren't they? Hmmmm. Must be time for the weekly CVS trip for TUMS.
Let's make one thing clear: 2-5 road trips against the other two primary AL East competitors is not going to get the job done. Even spectacular starting pitching through all seven games won't atone for losing five winnable games that could come back to haunt the Sox in September.

manrampostsingle.pngThat's why it was particularly important that Boston return to Fenway and play a lot more like the team that earned seven All-Star spots without raising an eyebrow than the one that left more ducks on the pond than a conservation specialist in Boston Common.

In the end, after a little more than three hours in the Boston humidity, the Red Sox bats didn't quite reverse the trends of the last seven days. They did, however, do just enough to break a two-game losing streak and help closer Jonathan Papelbon get rid of the truly rotten taste in his mouth left over from a 10th-inning loss, the first time in 20 Papelbon outings that the Sox didn't win.

This one, they did, 1-0 against a surging Twins team that had won 16 of its past 18 games. The fact that one run, driven in by the slumping Manny Ramirez after a terrific Dustin Pedroia double to lead off the top of the eighth inning, was enough to earn a win and break a horrendous slippery slope, a downhill traipse of demoralizing one-run losses that that was quickly mounting to the realm of crippling. Instead, the Sox bounced back behind a dominant performance from Daisuke Matsuzaka, who wriggled out of a first inning jam and then proceeded to put himself on efficient pitch counts until a rough patch in the eighth inning.

The rest, of course, is  one-night history. Hideki Okajima gets himself in even more hot water, then gets off without a run. ManRam strokes his RBI single, and Papelbon gets redemption moments later.

It's an auspicious start to a truly essential three game series. With the Twins as hot as any other team in the majors, Boston has an immediate opportunity to prove that it's rough road trip was a fluke. It can also use the tripartite series as an instant edge in any potential wild card chase down the road, not to mention the tiebreaking factor in head-to-head factor.

Naturally, it's too early to be taken those kind of considerations seriously. In 2006 the Sox looked as good as any team in the majors at the All Star break, then faded to a dismal third place. While starting pitching depth would seem to make that a less likely eventuality this time around, nothing is impossible -- copyright Adidas -- particularly with Reebok pitchman Big Papi cheering from the bench instead of relaxing in the batter's box.

So, while Justin Masterson heads down to the minor leagues to learn how to be a reliever, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett get a chance to show they can keep pace with Matsuzaka. If they can, then perhaps Boston can move on and get back to life before the week of July 1-7. Needless to say, that would be a step in the right direction.

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