Results tagged “Jon Lester” 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.

Big Game - Big Numbers

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Tonight is sure to be nothing short of a number game. As the Red Sox prepare to start a three game series against the Rays at Tropicana Field, the focus once again turns to pitching - the one area where the Sox have a decided advantage.

Thankfully, the Sox are staring down the barrel of a Sonnanstine, Garza, Price match-up - and we're firing back with Lester, Beckett, and Buchholz. Lester has been nothing short of spectacular in his last seven starts, picking up the slack for mysteriously ill Josh Beckett (H1N1? We're not saying... but we're just saying...)

It seems like a few short days ago when people were taking to the streets, praying up and down for any form of a pitcher. But in a series when a 14-5 ace with a 3.8 ERA is your biggest question mark, it's not a bad position to be in, relatively speaking of course.

In fact the three that the Sox are putting up this week have a combined ERA of 11.78, while the Rays are working with a 15.19 ERA. Of course, ERA can be one of the most misleading statistics in baseball, but the team's 8.9 hits allowed per 9 innings seem to echo the hittability of their pitchers. Not that the Red Sox have had the loudest bats as of late, but these Rays pitchers could be the nice cup o' joe that we so desperately need.

Now, the Globe, as it has been known to do, is crying to the hilss over this week's series - but they might actually be on to something here. At this point, with a month left in the season, there is a lot of room for change. But against a fiesty AL East competitor, the playoff picture could be much clearer by weeks end. Although Chad Finn needs to temper his enthusiasm (no... the earth is not going to open up and swallow the loser of this series), this is going to be a big one... hopefully with some big numbers for the boys in Red.

Last night, the Rays handled the Red Sox and rolled into the World Series. They did it with an overpowering starter who, all strops and headcase reactions aside, could become one of the best in baseball. They did it with a closer who had never close a game before, but may be the  best pitching prospect in baseball (who said losing never pays?). They did it the right we, and Boston just got flat out beat.

So why hadn't I been posting about this string of crazy events that led to this inexplicable Game 7 ... and it's subsequent Red Sox meltdown? Like so many superstitious Sox fans I thought I was on to something. Maybe checking in on the blog was bad luck, so I did away with it, hoping to spur on Boston and then resume blogging in the World Series.

Evidently it came up one or two Jason Varitek hits short.

Was it a memorable series? Absolutely. It was beyond that. But that doesn't make the Game 7 loss that much easier, particularly considering Jon Lester's strong start less than a week after he was shelled by the same team.

In fact, no matter how one tries to step back from the scene and take everything in, it's impossible not to be struck with the distinct feeling that, as good as the Red Sox were at times during the year, and as good as they were against the Angels in the ALDS, they just ran out of bullets. Missing Mike Lowell and a legitimate fourth playoff pitcher -- check out Tim Wakefield's splits in recent ALCS performances and you'll see what I mean -- they just didn't have the ammunition to go seven games with the Rays. Somehow they got there anyway, and the Rays came up with just enough plays to get through.

Will the Sox bounce back? Sure. But the franchise faces a lot of difficult offseason decisions about it's future. We'll be analyzing those in significantly more detail in the days to come. For now, we're going to go back to prying to pretend last night -- and much of the last nine months against the Rays, for that matter -- never happened.
Sure, it was a punch to the gut. The Red Sox should have won Game 2. They should have won it more than once over. Still, losing 2-1 to Tampa Bay isn't the end of the world.

In fact, given the home form of both teams in this series against the other, winning one of the first two games in Tampa Bay was a huge factor. If you'd told Boston fans before the series that the Sox would win one of Games 1 and 2, it would be hard to argue that the Sox weren't right on track.

At the end of the day -- a particularly long and painful, at that -- that's exactly where Boston is: on track. The problem is that the track is a much more narrow and precarious one than they would have been on after a 2-0 series lead. Now the Sox have no room for error, and that's a dangerous position with a knuckleball pitcher taking the mound in Game 4 in chilly and occasionally drizzly Fenway Park.

Jon Lester's Game 3 start is now a must win. Tim Wakefield's Game 4 will have even more pressure sitting on it, and the Rays will certainly have their eyes trained on a win there, particularly if they can get another Andy Sonnanstine start like they got in Game 4 in Chicago.

More important to the series' complexion, however, was Josh Beckett's utter inability to compete in clutch situations. Boston got Beckett three leads, he lost all of them. Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson and Jonathan Papelbon were all impeccable -- not to mention Manny Delcarmen, who got clutch outs again -- but those outings would have been preserving a win if Beckett had done his job.

Clearly, Beckett isn't the same pitcher everyone saw in the regular season, let alone in the 2007 postseason. Instead of three aces, the Red Sox suddenly have two and a huge question mark, and Terry Francona has to decide what to do with the rotation going forward.

Despite all of those problems, the Sox really are still on track, if barely. Now, if they can augment Dustin Pedroia's offensive awakening with more steady contributions from Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay and anything from the uber-slumping David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury, the Sox could really be in business.

Will that happen? Time will tell. For the moment, the Sox have to think about an incredibly disappointing Game 2 for another 24 hours, hoping that the next time they get a lead, their starting pitcher will hold it.
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

Monday night's ALDS-clinching victory over the Angels was a particularly sweet one, even if it did come with a full Immodium bottle's worth of discomfort for our friends over at The Halo is Lit, as you can read about in exquisitely painful detail here.

Still, it was a sweet one for the Red Sox because it affirmed that they would win by sticking to their program, running out their young guns in key situations and winning and losing with them. Of course, had things turned out differently with the sketchy Varitek tag in the top of the 9th, this could well be a prelude to an epitaph of a Boston kind.

Instead, Jed Lowrie's game-winning single provided yet another reprieve for Terry Francona, whose golden touch kept it's postseason gild, this time in thanks to an excellent bailout performance from Manny Delcarmen and the patient bats of both Jason Bay and Jed Lowrie.

That being said, the Anaheim comeback against Justin Masterson in the eighth was more than just troubling. Masterson entered in relief of Jon Lester, whose 22 innings of scoreless postseason work is the longest streak for a Red Sox pitcher since Babe Ruth. Yes, Babe Ruth. Lester has been incomparably amazing through two postseason games, and he was more than happy to trot back out to the hill, 109 pitches into his outing or not.

Instead, Masterson struggled, putting the runners Hideki Okajima allowed on via walks into scoring position when he missed Varitek's sign and crossed him up with a four-seam fastball instead of a slider, then delivering a payoff pitch to the wheelhouse of the one Angels hitter that did damage to Boston throughout the series, Torrii Hunter.

Was it a bad outing? Surely. Was it the kind of bad outing that Masterson can learn from? Sure, and that's clearly the bright side Francona was hoping to ram home for the young reliever. Masterson has shown improvement from outing to outing since first shipping off to the bullpen way back when Clay Buchholz returned to the rotation. There's no reason to believe he won't internalize his nightmarish eighth inning, write it off as his one bad frame of the postseason and go out against a team he's faced plenty with renewed confidence.

At least he better, for the Red Sox' sake. If he doesn't, the Sox will have a serious problem. Okajima has alternated between lights out performances and full on scuffles, and Masterson has yet to truly bridge into a multiple innings shutout man in the postseason. Just as the bullpen was thoroughly worked through in the ALDS, there will be plenty of work against the Rays, who are sure to keep games close deep. After all, they won more one-run games than anyone else in baseball.

For that, there's still four more days of introspective analysis. For now, it's comforting to think back on another year and another exit for the Angels at the hands of a team named "Sox".

It Is, And Isn't, Over

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Two things were made strikingly clear after Monday night's loss to Cleveland:

1) The Red Sox will not win the AL East
2) That won't keep them from the playoffs.

Sure, the Indians found a way to wriggle out of just enough jams to escape with a victory at Fenway, a narrow 4-3 Boston loss than sent the Rays to a 2 1/2-game edge in the AL East that will be almost impossible for Boston to make up in a mere six games. Naturally, having Tampa Bay visit the always hospitable climes of Baltimore doesn't help matters, either.

beckettletdown.pngBeckett spent entirely too much time receiving relayed
throws from hits allowed on Monday.
(AP)

Still, the one night setback -- complete with an utterly underwhelming Josh Beckett start that may well be his last before a date in Anaheim -- isn't about to keep the Red Sox from the playoffs eventually. Whether it's tomorrow with Paul Byrd, Wednesday with Tim Wakefield or, at worst, Thursday with Jon Lester, Boston will finish off it's playoff journey during this series in Fenway, against Cleveland. It'll happen, particularly since -- if another loss comes their way tomorrow -- the inevitable overarching panic of an impending Yankees series without the absolute certainty that they're eliminated from the playoffs, would likely be enough to get a brilliant start from Lester.

In a way, the dual realizations of Monday night's games, both the one in Boston and the one in Baltimore, could make things better for the Red Sox down the road. If Boston isn't going to win the division, there's no point trotting out the full rotation of starters down the stretch. Clearly, Terry Francona is about a loss away from tossing in the cards and resting as many starters as possible might be a significant boon to eventual postseason aspirations. It's clear that any long term Red Sox success will depend on both the health of the pitching staff -- fourth and fifth starter aside -- and the health of the team's most significant bats. Mike Lowell has to get healthy, and get healthy fast. J.D. Drew needs to continue improving, with aims of being able to play without having to spend longer spells on the bench. Regardless of epidural shots, and Drew had his second of the year yesterday, the Sox need him and the reliable bat he brought throughout the first half once the playoffs get rolling. That's a lot more likely to happen if they don't feel pressure to use them out down the stretch first.

So, is WMYM saying that it's a good thing Boston is fading down the stretch in the division? No, we're not crazy. It'd be nice to miss the Angels, with their depth and logistical travel problems, in the first round for a change, sure. But WMYM IS saying that health in the postseason is a very close second to getting the right matchup. After all, there's no team that knows that better than Anaheim, after last year's first round exit at the hands of these very Sox.

And thus, the double-edged sword cuts through another day of the pennant race, giving us a loss that hurts but doesn't maim where one more victory can heal all wounds ... at least all the wounds that aren't suffered by Mike Lowell or J.D. Drew.

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.

dicekbend.png
lackeyhug.png 


OK, everyone who had Jon Lester as the Red Sox' big game stopper in the preseason prospectus raise your hand. Phew. Well, WMYM is glad we're not the only ones who missed the boat on that one.

Amazingly, Jon Lester is transforming into an ace -- a lefty ace at that -- in front of our own eyes. A day after the pitcher he modeled himself after as a teenager, Andy Pettitte, riddled the Red Sox, Boston's own lefthanded power pitcher turned the tables, holding the Yankees to two runs in seven innings. He got into serious trouble only once, the fifth inning, and limited the damage of a bases-loaded, no outs scenario to the two runs he let in.

bigpapihail.pngFew sights could be more comforting to Red Sox
fans than this one from last night.
(AP)

Beyond that, Lester was in such command that, had the fifth been avoided, he likely could have gone eight frames himself. Instead, he gave way to Manny Delcarmen, who was efficient for an inning before passing the torch to Mike Timlin, who aced his mop-up duty, thank you very much.

To say that the Red Sox had to have that victory is melodramatic. To say that a sweep at home by the Yankees would have been crushing is, too, but it's also probably accurate. Friday night's loss was devastating because it showed that Joba Chamberlain is advancing as fast as Lester. His upside is equally tremendous and, if he can become more consistent Chamberlain is starting to look like an outright Boston menace. Not to mention his penchant for throwing at Kevin Youkilis. That's a brawl waiting to happen.

And that drama doesn't even take the latest Manny Ramirez saga into account. ManRam has officially reached the point of no Red Sox return. Again. Of course, the latest "They can trade me. Sure. Whatever." development could all blow over by the time the Angels leave town if ManRam has a big series. And if he shuts up, either of which could happen and both of which might not. Either way, Sunday night provided a return to normalcy, with ManRam and David Ortiz connecting on key hits -- Big Papi's homer proving some of his power is back -- and Dustin Pedroia comfortable back in the lead-off spot, with Jacoby Ellsbury breathing easier at the bottom of the order.

Will things keep clicking with the Angels in town? They certainly didn't a little more than a week ago in Anaheim, and one out of three against the Yankees didn't help matters. Jon Lester DID help, but he won't get a shot to take care of the Angels. That's up to Daisuke Matsuzaka, Clay Buchholz and Josh Beckett.

And Big Papi and ManRam, of course. After all, some things don't change, including parity in the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. This weekend certainly went a long way toward proving that yet again.
Hmmm. Get swept, sweep. Nice trend.

Oh wait, no it's not.

In case anyone was lost in the blue, the Red Sox and Yankees face off again tonight, the latest adventure in the tet-a-tet warfare that has decided the fate of the AL East for the past decade. While the Rays have made things in the division a heck of a lot more interesting this time around, you may have noticed the Yankees' stunning surge back into the thick of the race. Winning 10-straight at home will do that for you.

hugebigpapi.pngGuess who's back? And not a moment too soon ... (AP Photo)

So will having a pitcher run headfirst into a renaissance year that nobody -- repeat: NOBODY -- thought could possibly happen. Mike Mussine SHOULD have made the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, no questions asked. He's been positively terrific, emerging as a staff ace with Ching Ming "I'm so quiet it creeps the hell out of my teammates" Wang on the DL and Joba Chamberlain adjusting to a new role as a starter.

Now that Chamberlain seems to be settling in, the entire division dynamic is shifting. The Rays are still streaking ahead, but each blip on the radar screen -- a Thursday night loss, for example -- seems significantly more poignant. Each loss is no longer just a segue back to expectations, but rather a step back from a truly unbelievable run which, quite naturally, becomes a lot more believable every time they lose.

Of course, the divisional flip side of the Rays success has been an overall Yankee malaise, and it seems fair to say that's gone ... completely. It's hard to pinpoint an exact moment when New York snapped back to relevancy and a realization that they were, in fact, the Yankees. If there was one snapshot that captured their moment of their in-season awakening, however, it appropriately came in the last series between these rivals.

According to a variety of New York media sources, Johnny Damon gave a rousing, "we're not playing hard enough, we're not fighting for wins," speech before the game with the Red Sox on Independence Day. Hours later, Damon was lost for weeks because of a headfirst run into the fence that left him looking ridiculous as the ball -- a triple by Kevin Youkilis -- nearly balanced atop the fence and then left him with a serious shoulder injury and a trip to the DL. He hadn't made the play, but his reckless effort had left a hell of an impression.

Needless to say, that would be an inspiring thing for almost anyone, Yankees not excepted. According to some in the clubhouse, it was. Suddenly New York is hitting, at least more than they were before, and they're pitching relatively efficient games.

Of course, with the exception of an abysmal three-game stretch in Anaheim last weekend, the Sox haven't been huge slouches lately either. But there are more glaring concerns in Boston's lineup than at any time previous. David Ortiz makes his return to the lineup tonight, but where will Terry Francona bat him? Does he slot back into third right away? The team's power hitters have increased slugging percentage admirably in his absence, so moving them in the middle of a Yankees series might not be the best way to get Big Papi back in the swing of things. Some of the lineup headache might be mitigated with Manny Ramirez out of the lineup with a sore knee, though that would raises bigger issues, with Ramirez's bat in absencia during an enormous series that could drastically swing momentum in the AL East. Not to mention the issue it raises about how someone could possibly injure their knee jaywalking in the Pacific Northwest.

Most of the scuttlebutt in Boston has focused on a monthlong slump by Jacoby Ellsbury, and the rookie could lose his leadoff spot though, again, that would be an interesting twist to the lineup at a particularly dramatic time to make the change. There's also the question mark that is Jed Lowrie -- can he really keep hitting above .300? -- and Coco Crisp's fleeting productivity.

On paper, Boston would seem to have a pitching edge. After all, no matter how strong Chamberlain looks in bursts, Josh Beckett > Chamberlain until further notice. There's no word that notice will ever come, either. Tim Wakefield has also been spectacular despite losses in recent starts. It's hard to blame him when he can't get W's despite limiting opponents to two runs across seven and eight innings. And Jon Lester has been the Red Sox' most reliable starter of all the past month, never clearer than in Seattle, when he settled into another stirring start with more emotional pangs, this time from a homecoming where he's showing what he can do when he really is healthy. Oh, and that Mussina guy WMYM was raving about? He's not pitching (you can exhale now).

What does that mean for the Sox at Fenway? It means pressure could swing wildly. If Boston wins behind Beckett on Friday, they would be in good shape for a strong weekend. If they lose, the pressure will get intense. Fast.

Hold on to your hats folks, here we go again. And this time around, make sure to bring you Madonna wigs and stillettos. If A-Rod thought the blond bombshell treatment was frustrating last spring, he's sure throwing a lot more firewood out for the flames. 

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.
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-
For the past two days, they've come in the eighth inning. Not just that, they've come via the bat of Manny Ramirez, who -- after a .225 start to July in Tampa Bay and Yankee Stadium -- has done a pretty good job making up for a poor start to the month. Monday it came via an eighth inning single that scored the game's only run. Tuesday, it came in a much larger and stronger package, with a two-run blast pulling the Sox into a 5-5 tie, a deadlock which was broken two batters later after a Kevin Youkilis double on a single by Brandon Moss, a player who continues to pick his spots admirably.

mannypedroialaugh.pngIn fact, Moss may be picking his spots so admirably that he might be prime trade bait over the next couple of weeks.

That's a story for the future, not one for a deceptively important night after a second-straight Red Sox win over a Twins team that entered as hot as anyone in the major leagues. They'll exit with a lost series, and will have to beat Josh Beckett to get a win out of a three-game set.

As the case turned out, they should have beaten Jon Lester on Tuesday, a day in which he toggled between brilliance and the kind of scuffles that pockmarked his previous tenures in the major leagues. Occasionally, when listening to a play-by-play team on the radio or TV, one of the announcers will just get it right. That was the case Tuesday, when Dave O'Brien, one half of the WEEI radio crew and a weekly ESPN TV play-by-play man, said that Lester was, "just a little off tonight." It's true. While Lester was absolutely dominant over the first three innings, he was lucky to get out of the fourth allowing just three runs. He got things back under control in the fifth and sixth, but found himself struggling again in both the seventh and eighth before being relieved and bailed out by David Aardsma, who earned the win in relief.

Was the performance a bit schizophrenic? Sure, but it was hardly Lester's worst. In fact, by going deep into the game, the second consecutive night a Sox starter has lasted long enough to avoid using more than one reliever as a bridge to closer Jonathan Papelbon, Lester ensured that the Boston bullpen would be all but completely fresh for Wednesday's series finale, Papelbon aside.

franconamoss.pngBrandon Moss could bring a reliever at the deadline, or he could
just keep contributing to a lineup he's starting to crack more often
with Big Papi working his way back.
(AP Photos)

Still, Ramirez was the story again, as the outfielder-come-DH showed that he can get himself re-tracked as quickly as he slips off the rails. After the win, Terry Francona reflected on Ramirez's bomb the way he's reflected on missing Big Papi from the lineup, with a proverbial, "sometimes you just need a home run."

On Tuesday, the Red Sox needed a home run. They got one, and it couldn't have come at a better time.
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.
Before anyone comes streaming in with pot shots on lack of entries, WMYM offers this entreaty as a peace offering: We're sorry that our vacations have been so poorly planned. Just like clockwork, as soon as the Red Sox hit two consecutive monster series, we hit the road and aren't able to update the blog through the whole trip. It's unfair, we know.

mastersonhat.JPGNo win, but a new snazzy hat for Justin Masterson in New York on Saturday. (Getty)

That being said, just as we were pining away for a platform after a fairly demoralizing sweep in Tampa Bay -- three losses that highlighted both the shortcomings in Boston's bullpen and the problems of with an Ortiz-less lineup -- the Sox go out and look unbeatable in a pair of wins in the Bronx. OK, unbeatable is a bit strong. Still, Jon Lester was absolutely phenomenal in a five-hit shutout on Thursday night (yes, we know, the Yankees swung at a lot of first pitches) and Josh Beckett was in fine form on Friday, taking care of business before eventually ceding way to the bullpen for a few innings.

In fact, the Red Sox are actually only a failed attempt to get in two runs with the bases loaded and no outs away from being 3-0 through the first three in Yankee Stadium. Justin Masterson wasn't exactly weaving a gem yesterday afternoon on national TV, but his command came to him after a shaky first couple of innings, and he eventually showed why he has kept all the talk about getting Bartolo Colon or Clay Buchholz back into the rotation mighty quiet. Maybe it was the patriot hat that got Masterson back on the efficient track? Maybe. Or maybe it was just the fact that the Yankees lineup hasn't exploded. Yet.

That, in fact, is what has WMYM worried right now. Sure, Johnny Damon is out of the Yankees lineup for the foreseeable future, which ... shockingly ... is actually significant. And yes, A-Rod is mired in the most galling public personal issues this side of Max Moseley, but the last time we checked, that never slowed his ridiculous power hitting pace in the past.

Put all those factors together, and mix in the stunning seven Red Sox named to the All-Star team (remember, Terry Francona is the AL manager), the snubbing of Mike Mussina for the AL squad and the general frustration starting to vent out of the tiny holes in Yankees manager Joe Girardi's hat, and there's plenty of motivation for the Yankees and starter Joba Chamberlain to draw on in the series finale at Yankee Stadium on ESPN.

Of course, Tim Wakefield has had some good nights at Yankee Stadium in the past. Wishful thinking? Sure. But did you see him in his last loss in Tampa last week? Put that on display tonight, and the Sox have a shot.
It was interesting week in the pitching camp of Red Sox world. Daisuke Matsuzaka made his official return, though you could hardly tell. Justin Masterson proved human, or at least had a human outing at home. Curt Schilling now officially won't return, but based on the stunning performances turned in by both Jon Lester and Tim Wakefield, he would have had to fight to get a rotation spot anyway.

Oh, and Josh Beckett proved that, even in a loss, when he's on, he's as good or better than anyone in the game.

Sounds like a mixed week, you say? Well, it was. Here's how WMYM graded it out:

Josh Beckett: A-
Inside Edge gave Beckett a B+, and we were tempted to as well, if it weren't for taking another look at his final line, which went something like this: 8 IP, 5 H, 2 R. That's right, he allowed two runs OVER EIGHT INNINGS. Better yet, he struck out eight, compared with just two walks. Sure, at his best over the past couple years, Beckett has had outings where he's walked none. Still, eight innings with only two runs is an outing in the A's absolutely any night. You can book it.

Daisuke Matsuzaka: F
The Dice-man cometh? Not so much. This is only the second game in what will hopefully be a long Red Sox career that Matsuzaka-san has received a failing grade from the back-room brass at WMYM -- the other was his September debacle on a Saturday night in Baltimore last year as a rookie -- and after that outing he immediately hit the DL with shoulder soreness. Could that be an omen for what's to come? After the loss on Saturday, the Sox might hope so. Or, better yet, maybe they should just avoid having him pitch on Saturdays. Maybe that's what it is.

Jon Lester: B
Say what you will about Jon Lester's first full season in a big league rotation -- we're not willing to count the previous part-campaigns as one when added together -- but he IS getting a lot deeper into games on the same pitch counts. By the time he hit 101 tosses against the Cardinals, Lester had been throwing for 7.1 innings, and he'd only allowed 2 ER. Sure, those runs came on a lot of hits -- nine, to be exact -- but Lester continues to show an uncanny knack for scattering opponents' base knocks across innings, and he keeps getting big outs when he really needs to. Now that we've said that, WMYM is heading to a lumber yard to go knock on every piece of wood available to make sure we didn't just ruin a solid Lester season.

Tim Wakefield: A
Raise your hand if you had Wakefield as the winner of "outing of the week" in your office pool. That's ok, we didn't have him picked, either. After all, when you're dealing with a knuckleballer closing on his 40th birthday like Big Brown running away at the Kentucky Derby (or any race, providing a shoe isn't falling off his hoof), it's pretty hard to predict performance start-to-start. Like, 7 IP, 2 H, 1 BB and O ER, for instance. That being said, a fairly inauspicious start to the year for Wakefield is starting to shake up as another fine vintage season for the pride of knuckleball fans everywhere. After all, he's the only thing GOING for knuckleball fans everywhere. After his shutout on Wednesday, even Dougie was smiling somewhere. Trust us, he emailed.

Justin Masterson: C+
Everyone deserves the right to toss out a bad game once in awhile. Masterson used that mulligan Tuesday. The sinkerballing rookie put pressure back on his attempts to stay in the starting rotation when he struggled to get through the sixth inning. Sure, three of his four runs allowed came on a single swing -- a three-run homer by Chad Tracy in the third -- but that's what made Masterson's outing so curious: he got stronger as the game went along. Rain could have been an interesting x-factor, too, with Masterson forced to sit through an uncomfortable delay while the slightly more experienced Doug Davis cooled his jets in the opposing dugout. But that's just speculation,and as Theo Epstein has proven time and again, speculation and potential don't earn a player a continued roster spot. Good starts earn that, and Masterson needs one the next time or two out to make sure he'll still have one in Boston a month down the road.




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