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Red Sox Midseason Report

With the halfway point of the season just around the corner and the All Star break following soon after let’s step back for a moment and hand out some midseason grades for the 2007 Red Sox.

Offense The Sox offense has been sufficient so far. In the vital categories of runs, home runs and batting average the Red Sox rank sixth, sixth, and fifth in the league respectively. Good enough all things considered but in the words of Johnny Drama the haggler, “I like it–I don’t love it.” For an offense that should be in the top two or three statistically in the AL, there are two glaring reasons for their rather ordinary offensive standing. Their team batting average of .273 has been heavily weighed down by Julio Lugo, who has the worst batting average (.193) among everyday players in baseball. As for their lack of run production and home runs, look no further than the men in the middle, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Combined they have fewer home runs (24) than each league leader, Alex Rodriguez (28) and Prince Fielder (26). For some reason or another they don’t seem to be sweating it, and neither should we. Both are hitting over .300 and if Manny ever spoke to the media he’d likely be the first to point out that he’s hitting .400 over the last month (with a whopping four home runs and 13 RBI). But in all seriousness the only people who need worry about Manny and Papi are opposing pitching staffs (like, maybe Texas and Tampa Bay’s when they arrive at Fenway at the end of the week. Just sayin.) The runs haven’t come in bunches just yet, but they will. Grade: B

Starting Pitching The performance of the starting staff this year is undoubtedly the most significant reason the Red Sox have the best record in baseball. The two elder statesmen of the rotation, Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield, have had their ups and downs but are still a combined 13-12 with a 4.35 ERA. Schilling appeared to have expended a little too much too early in the season against Oakland a couple weeks ago when he nearly threw a no-hitter. The result was consecutive starts against Colorado and Atlanta in which he had no velocity on his fastball and little control of his all-important splitter. The ever-streaky Wakefield has had his fair share of struggles as well, but he continues to battle and rarely exits a game before the sixth inning. At this stage of his career we know what we’re getting from Wake.

The most unexpected lift has come from Julian Tavarez. After a horrid start Tavarez has pitched exceptionally. Over the last five weeks he’s unbeaten in seven starts (six of them Red Sox wins) with a 4-0 record and an ERA of about three and a half. Then there’s the dynamic duo of Josh Beckett and Dice-K. Quite simply they are the most dominant top-two tag team in baseball. They’re both on pace for 20 wins and both have answered the critics. Beckett has effectively changed speeds on his fastball this season, as opposed to trying to blow everyone away with 97 mph heat. He’s also fine-tuned his breaking ball to the point where it has become a primary out-pitch. Matsuzaka meanwhile, has given up a total of five runs in his last four starts, while striking out 34 in 26 innings. Wildness in the early to middle innings continues to be his only significant problem, but he is clearly getting better with each start, and has lived up to his proclamation of being a slow starter. With no structural damage in Schilling’s shoulder and the possibility of Mark Buehrle arriving via trade it sure looks like this already-potent staff is only going to get stronger. Grade: A-

Bullpen A case can be made that Hideki Okajima is the best setup man in baseball. One can also be made that Jonathan Papelbon is the best closer in baseball. Aright, I’ll take the honors. Okajima has a 0.98 ERA with a 2-0 record, four saves and 12 holds. Opponents are hitting .151 against him and he’s given up four runs all season (one of which came on his first big league pitch). Papelbon has 18 saves in 19 chances and a 1.65 ERA; 38 strikeouts in 21.1 innings pitched. Opponents are hitting .153 against him, and are consistently overmatched and/or blatantly intimidated when facing him. Cases closed. The rest of the bullpen has been solid as well. As a core, the Sox relievers have the second-lowest ERA in baseball behind San Diego. Brendan Donnelly was earning his paycheck before he landed on the 15-day DL. Kyle Snyder and Javier Lopez have been workmanlike and productive as matchup relievers. And now Manny Delcarmen is slowing being reintegrated back into the pen. With far less of the load on his young shoulders this season look for Delcarmen to make significant strides and become more important as the campaign continues (especially if Donnelly is slow to return). All and all the AL’s deepest and best bullpen. Grade: A

Overall It’s hard to be a Red Sox fan not loving life these days. At 48-26 they are the best team in baseball, they have an 11.5-game lead over the Yankees and are 4-2 on their current high-mileage road trip (through Atlanta, San Diego and Seattle). Because of their strong pitching staff they’ve only once lost more than two games in succession. And the curious way in which Manny and Papi are hitting (ie very well with little power) makes me wonder if they have some sort of wager on who can get to the All Star break with the fewest home runs and still crack 45 this year. It’s been that kind of season for the Sox. Through all the question marks, from Schilling to Lugo and J.D. Drew, from Coco Crisp to Manny and Ortiz, the wins have just kept coming, and there ain’t nothin wrong with that. October baseball will be returning to Fenway this fall, that much I can assure you of. And if all goes well October baseball will be going through Fenway this fall. In the meantime though, sit back, relax and enjoy the boys of summer. Grade: A-

AL East Points

 (Note: this is the last piece I wrote for my blog, published on June 18)

The Yankees won nine straight and 11 of the last 12 to get back within 8.5 games of the Red Sox. With the Mets sliding and the Yanks taking two of three in the Subway Series this past weekend (a solid Roger Clemens outing resulting in the only loss), Yankees fans have re-acquired that winning two-step. (And of course the swagger comes complimentary.) They really believe it’s only a matter of time before they’re back knocking on the door of first place in the division. It’s certainly not out of the question, and a pennant race in September is imminent. But it’s still an uphill climb like these Yankees have never known.

Two years ago around this time the Red Sox took decisive control of the division (from the Orioles believe it or not) while the Yankees were mired in a prolonged stretch of losing baseball. Behind A-Rod and Jeter the Bombers made their token late-summer run and beat the Sox in the first two games of the final series of the season, to clinch the AL East. The two clubs finished with identical 95-67 records (the Yanks took the season series 10-9 for the tiebreaker).

An impressive/expected comeback? Indeed. Will history repeat itself? I doubt it. Why? First, because of the sheer numbers. I picked the Red Sox and Yankees to each win 98 games this year, so let’s work with that number. For the Sox to win 98 they must go 54-40 the rest of the way, which is a .574 clip. The Yankees on the other hand, need to string together three and a half months of .663 baseball (or a record of 63-32), in order to win their 98. Truthfully, I think the Yankees can do that. They’ve done it before.

As opposed to ’05, however, the Red Sox are not going to fall drastically off their current pace, which is 105 wins. The reason is pitching. The ’05 team had a front four of Matt Clement, David Wells, Bronson Arroyo and Tim Wakefield. There wasn’t even a single viable number two starter in that rotation. Then there was Curt Schilling, who spent half the season on the DL before returning as a very pedestrian closer. Their horribly insufficient pitching staff was the explanation for both their sustained mediocrity over the last two months and for the thrashing they took in the ALDS against the White Sox.

When you look at their top four right now (Beckett, Schilling, Dice-K, Wakefield) there still may not be a viable number two, only because there are arguably three number ones. All have pitched like aces more often than not. And most important, they pick each other up. Opponents have yet to solve them in succession, which is why the Sox have not been swept this year. With Papelbon anchoring the best bullpen in the league there is simply no reason for the Red Sox to cease playing at least .600 ball the rest of the way (which would assure them of their first 100-win season since 1946).

Are the Yankees starting to hit their stride? Sure seems so. Will they be participating in October festivities? Umm, is Derek Jeter still a Yankee? Nuff said. All I’m saying is for once, I really don’t care. Curt Schilling declared the ’04 squad the “best Red Sox team ever”. And you know what? He was absolutely right. But this one just may be better. Only time will tell.

For now all I have to say is enjoy that wild card race, Yanks.

Lebron/NBA Finals Points

Before I get to the uplifting news, allow me to speak frankly. The NBA has disappointed the s**t out of me the last two months. The defending champs’ knockout was one-upped only by Chuck Liddell’s in terms of head-scratching decisiveness. The one thrilling series in the first round involved a 67-win team getting humilified by a squad of street-ballers. (Note that I morphed “humiliated” and “mortified” because I feel like a new word need be invented to aptly describe what happened to the Mavs this spring.)LBJ

That surreal Dallas-Golden State series created a void left by the Mavs, which gave us just one super-heavyweight showdown (a championship series before the Finals if you will) between the Spurs and Suns. Then the Robert Horry/David Stern tag team had to go and roger it all up. By virtue of Horry’s completely unnecessary hip check of Steve Nash and Stern’s utterly preposterous interpretation of the bench-rule, we were denied the one, epic seven-game series we were due this playoffs.

This all preceded my Celtics getting sandbagged in the lottery (by not getting a top two pick) then getting dirt thrown in their face when they were down (by getting the fifth pick). So much for putting your hopes and dreams in the hands of a friggin leprechaun..errr lottery.

So with all that said I’m sure you can understand why I’m feeling just a tad angry, perplexed, unfulfilled, teed off, and generally disheartened, right? I mean I’m not the only one who’s realized how poor the NBA has been the last couple of months, right? You’re probably inclined to agree with me, unless you hail from the city that rocks, in which case you’re probably inclined to tell me to stick something somewhere.

Yep, the town of Cleveland has turned into the castle of King James; its inhabitants have become his subjects and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is now simply an additional reason to visit C-Town. They should just change the prefix from “Cleve” to “Lebron”.

Ladies and gentleman, you are now entering Lebronland. Please fasten your safety belts, put your tray tables and seat backs in their full upright and locked positions, or else assume the fetal (aka “Tayshaun Prince”) position. Lebron-23 has taken off and his final destination is not yet known.

Let’s be truthful, after the performance we witnessed in Game 5 against Detroit, there isn’t a single basketball mind who can give a definitive appraisal of Lebron at this moment. The kid has grown up more in the last four games than he has in the last four years. (And I’m obviously not talking physically, considering I’m convinced that as a baby he was some Lebron-version of Marlon Wayans’ character in “Little Man”.) It’s as if sometime during the fourth quarter of Game 5 his mind and body finally agreed upon a solution to the problem of the horrible team around him. Basically a light bulb went off in the mind, which in turn informed the body that it was bigger, better, stronger and scarier than the whole Pistons team.

How else can you explain 25 straight points and 29 of 30 to close a game? How else can you explain an array of off balance, fading jumpers mixed in with a trio of monstrous dunks, all in the final minutes? Above all, how the heck else can you explain Tayshaun Prince, one of the grittier playoff performers of this era, cowering in fear as Lebron posterized him? It’s almost like Tayshaun saw Lebron soaring in, and said to himself, screw it, I’m cool being that guy forever linked to Lebron entering the next realm, at least I can live to talk about it.

It was that kind of game for everyone involved; a transcendent, ephemeral yet eternal event. You didn’t watch this game, you lived through it; you experienced it; you were somewhere for it. When it was over you rubbed your eyes, checked your watch, maybe even flipped a light switch. All served as confirmations that what you had witnessed was in fact not just a figment of your imagination, but the saving performance of the 2007 NBA Playoffs. A game for the ages.

It was a game that officially marked the coronation of King James as well as the collective decapitation of the new-age “Bad Boys.” I thought Detroit would take the series in six and they lost in six, which after last year’s seven-game tilt, coupled with the events of the past week, can only lead me to conclude that the consequences of losing Ben Wallace were far more grave than the Pistons could have ever imagined. It’s over for Detroit, and just beginning for Cleveland.

The only question now is how far can the Cavs go? Or more appropriately, how far can Lebron take them? Not to a championship, not this year. Not with the San Antonio Spurs, the best team of the last decade, looming. Not with the series going through the Alamo. A week ago I would’ve said the Cavs don’t stand a chance of winning a game, let alone four. Now I’m sure they’ll win at least one, because Lebron says so. No, he hasn’t guaranteed a victory (to my knowledge), but actions always speak louder than words. His actions might as well have been amplified by a bull horn last week.

How many games Lebron will win is a matter of educated guess and/or opinion. Let’s now tackle why he won’t win four games. In a word, defense. The cornerstone of the Spurs quasi-dynasty has always been defense. They know how to best force an opponent to beat them in a way that’s unorthodox and uncomfortable. They toppled the Lakers by taking the ball out of Kobe’s hands; they’ve beaten the Suns by keeping the ball in Steve Nash’s hands. The philosophy against LA was to prevent Kobe from scoring 40; the philosophy against Phoenix was to dare Nash to drop 40. In both instances the plan worked out (except for one Derek Fisher in 2004).

Rest assured, the Spurs will never (nevah evah evah, evah evah!!!) let Lebron James thwart them from their fourth championship in nine years. They’ll double team him, triple team him if necessary. Gregg Popovich will utilize Fabricio Oberto and Francisco Elson’s big bodies and 12 fouls to ensure that the painted area is well-fortified at all times. Bruce Bowen will continue to be the dirty hound that he is.

Then there’s the Spurs “Big Three”. For the first time this postseason Tony Parker will be matched up against a point guard who he’s better than, after having to deal with with Allen Iverson, Nash and Deron Williams in the Western Conference Playoffs. Manu Ginobili gets better as games and series wear on. And Tim Duncan, yes he is probably the greatest power forward in the history of the game. (I’m now going to watch repeated highlights of his patented post-up and bank shot to counteract my insomnia.)

Whether Duncan acts as a natural sleep-aid or not, whether the Spurs as a whole do it for you or not, they are a deep, talented, experienced and well-coached team built to win championships. Cleveland isn’t. That enormous gap between the two franchises will be the difference in this year’s Finals. But hey, look on the bright side. You’re going to get to watch the best team of the last ten years clash with the best player of the next ten years. You won’t see seven games but you will see history in the making. With the way this season and playoffs have gone, I’d say that’s probably the only icing that can save one crappy cake.

Spurs in six.