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Sox Machine Keeps Motoring

Has anyone else noticed how machine-like the Red Sox have become?

To this team, obstacles don’t register and negative storylines carry minimal weight.  Losses — when they come — seemingly dissipate into thin air while victories are greeted with little fanfare (like, for instance, any of the eight wins in eight tries they’ve piled up against the Yankees).

The fans still swarm into Fenway and belt out “Sweet Caroline” before the eighth inning, but now more than ever, being associated with the Red Sox is to be part of a world-class enterprise: an impeccably constructed, well-oiled and systematically run baseball machine.

It began last year after the club parted ways with Manny Ramirez, marking a new era within the new era of Red Sox baseball.  Minus the enigmatic and endearing slugger for the first time since the franchise shed it’s long-standing title of choke torchbearers, a severely depleted Sox contingent motored all the way to the seventh game of the American League Championship Series.

The theme of constantly battling the odds — yet feeling next to no effects of them in the big picture — has continued in 2009.

Consider the following:

After losing six of its first eight games, Boston was 3 1/2 games behind Toronto before barely blinking.   That four of those losses came against its two playoff foes from a year ago (Tampa Bay and Anaheim), alarm bells were probably sounding somewhere, but nobody cared to hear them.

Josh Beckett was atrocious in April, logging a 7.22 ERA in five starts.  When a Boston ace gets tuned up in April, it’s typically time to lay into the panic button.  Panic??  Puh-lease.

As poor as Beckett performed early on, he was outdone by Jon Lester.  Their lynchpin in the rotation last year, Lester got abused in six of his first 10 starts.  No worries kid, you’ll get em next time.

How about Theo and the Trio’s $100 million man?  Let’s just say Dice-K’s first stint on the DL was far more productive than all but one of his eight starts.  He’s back on the shelf again, and aside from feeling bad for the guy, is anyone really losing much sleep over his absence?

Then there’s David Ortiz.  The man whose toothy grin and big stick made life after Manny seem manageable.  Still hindered by an injured wrist and knee, Big Papi cranked 10 homers and knocked in 46 runs while slugging .529 in the two months PM (post-Manny) last year.

He assured all he was healthier, hungrier and fitter than ever this spring before coming out of the gates looking like he’d never seen a 92 mph fastball.  After two months, one homer, a .186 average and five different spots in the batting order, “Ortiz” and “release” began floating around in the same sentence.  While Papi has since (thankfully) rediscovered his stroke, the fact remains the Sox skipped not a beat during an extended period of time when their most feared hitter had morphed into the easiest out in baseball.

Throw in Kevin Youkilis landing on the DL after carrying the team (.393-6-20) over the first month and change, Dustin Pedroia running on hot and cold, J.D. Drew’s disappearance from the middle of April through the middle of May, Mike Lowell’s continued recovery from offseason hip surgery, both shortstops getting sidelined … and there’s no way this team could possibly be perched atop the American League today … right?

Well, as the kids are saying: Beleedat.

Indeed, the Red Sox have a four-game lead on the Yankees in the AL East and a three-game advantage over the Tigers for best record in the league.  They’ve stormed back from three and a half down in the division on May 18.  They’ve won five straight series and haven’t lost more than two games in a row since the second week of the season.

They have arms sprouting like dandelions: John Smoltz is here; Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden remain in the pipeline; Daniel Bard mowed down 16 batters in his first 15 appearances as a big leaguer.

Their lineup is gelling; their starting pitching is top-notch; their bullpen is unmatched.  No matter whom Terry Francona sticks in his lineup — from Jason Bay to  Jonathan Van Every — they’ve all produced.

Put it all together and the Red Sox again appear to be on a track leading to and through October.

ESPN has already dubbed Albert Pujols “The Machine” and Cincinnati will always lay claim to “The Big Red Machine”, but is there any denying the Olde Towne Team has transformed into the Olde Towne Machine?

Takahashi Story and Dice-K Thoughts

After lots of networking and prodding, I was given the opportunity to cover a Mets-Phillies game last week for  The story I ended up writing was on Ken Takahashi, the New York relief pitcher who served up the game-winning homer in extra innings to Raul Ibanez.  The link is below.

Coincidentally, Takahashi was one of a few players around when I was in the clubhouse before the game.  He conversed with a Japanese writer for about 20 minutes and passed the rest of the time hanging out with his interpreter.

Until this year, Takahashi had spent 14 seasons pitching for Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Japan’s Central League.  He was acquired and released by the Blue Jays this spring, at which point the Mets signed him to a Minor League contract.  Since his callup at the beginning of May, he was more or less just another arm in the Mets bullpen.

Outside of closers, relief pitchers go largely unnoticed by the media; they are the linemen of baseball, meaning they typically only garner attention when they screw up.

For Japanese ballplayers in the US, role or stature matters not; be it Ichiro or, well Ken Takahashi, their every move is tracked and dissected by a personal shadow of reporters from back home.  Japan is a baseball rabid culture, and when one of their own makes the move across the Pacific, they are eager to chronicle his progress.

Needless to say, Takahashi was borderline despondent in the clubhouse after the game.  When he spoke to the four or five Japanese reporters, his voice registered as barely more than a whisper; the despair in his eyes needed no translation.  He gave up a game, sure, but he also let down his true fans half a world away.  It was only then that it really hit me what a monumental transition it must be for a player to take such a leap.

In Takahashi’s case, he left everything he knew and entered a situation where all he could relate to was the game itself and the man he entrusted to be his ears and mouth.  Add to that the fact that he’s carrying the weight and expectation of an entire nation that views him as a hero, and you can appreciate the enormous burden that is placed on expatriated ballplayers from our ally in the Pacific.

That got me thinking about Dice-K Matsuzaka, and the struggles he’s endured this season.  This being his third year with the Red Sox, one would assume that he would continue to make strides and enjoy more success.  To the contrary, this has been his poorest campaign yet, as he’s gone 1-4 in seven starts with a 7.55 ERA and .372 batting average against.

While his 18-3 record and 2.90 ERA were moderately deceptive last year (he had a 5.04 BB/9 ratio, was consistently working into deep counts and seemingly always operating with multiple runners on base), he made big improvements from his rookie season, lowering his batting average against from .246 to .211 while cutting in half the number of homers he allowed (25 to 12).

Which brings us back to the World Baseball Classic this past March, when Dice-K led Japan to a defense of its title by going 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA while routinely pushing the bounds of the established pitch count limits.  He contended that the bit of extra work — he threw 14 2/3 innings in the tournament — was not the reason he landed on the disabled list with a tired arm in mid-April, and he may be partly right.

When Dustin Pedroia suffered an oblique strain in the WBC and went through a subsequent slump to begin the season, he talked about how it had been difficult playing in such an emotionally charged environment, with so much at stake,  at a time when he was traditionally just resuming everyday baseball activities under the Florida sun.

Fiery and competitive as he is, Pedroia was still just a second baseman on a US team that wasn’t exactly known for bleeding red, white and blue.

Naturally Team USA wanted to win, but let’s not mince words: This side of Cuba, there was no country more emotionally invested in the WBC than Japan.  It is their World Cup and Dice-K is their global superstar.  After his historic performance on the hill in the inaugural tournament in 2006, the pressure for him to perform honorably and succeed only grew greater.

So although physically and in terms of relative pitches thrown, he may not have overextended himself (like he asserted), there is simply no overstating the psychological toll the WBC took on Dice-K.

NBA Finals Preview

While it was seemingly predetermined that the Lakers would return to the NBA Finals for a second consecutive year and record 30th time overall, the Eastern Conference playoffs ended up leaving in its wake a long trail of what ifs.

What if the baby Bulls had had the chops to knock off the Celtics in the Most Epic First Round Series Ever?  Would the Finals be returning to Chicago for the first time since MJ?

What if the Magic hadn’t received a team-altering gut check when the Celtics stormed back in the fourth to take Game 5 in Boston?  Would they still have been able to come together and vanquish the champs in Game 7?

What if Lebron had a Ray Allen?  Or a Rashard Lewis or Pau Gasol?

And the granddaddy of them all: What if Kevin Garnett had been healthy?  If so, would any of the above groups of questions have even been worth asking?

(No, no, and yes.)

As tantalizing and vexing as it is to ponder what might have been, the facts remained that Kevin Garnett wasn’t walking through that door and Mo Williams wasn’t going to be the crucial second banana on a championship team.

Enter Magic, stage right.

Let’s not sell Orlando short.  The Celtics and the Lebrons didn’t give it up to Superman and his sidekicks; they had it taken from them.  While it’s realistically impossible to beat a pair of champs in the same playoffs, the Magic did essentially that.

They grew up before our eyes after enduring one of the most painful 1-2 punches in playoff history to go down 3-2 to the Celtics.  Just when everyone thought it was over, the Magic — trailing in the fourth quarter of Game 6 in their own building — came alive to send the series back to Boston, where they promptly became the first team in history to come back from down 3-2 to beat a Celtics outfit.

Cleveland may not have been the defending champs, but they had fallen only once in 44 games that mattered in their house.  Orlando wasn’t given a choice: Either tear down the walls of a building that contained one of the most decisive home courts advantages off all time, or go home.

Make no mistake about it: The visiting team that will be showing up at Staples Center Thursday is not the same squad it was at this time last month.  The Magic are as battled-tested and proven as any team making its first Finals appearance in 14 years could be.  They won a Game 7 on the toughest home court to win a Game 7 on, then steamrolled a team nobody and their mothers gave them a chance of beating.

At the heart of the matter — and indeed what becomes the determining factor in the majority of playoff series — was favorable matchups.  Orlando had them against both the Celtics and Cavaliers.

Versus the Celtics, Paul Pierce had to give up four inches to guard Hedo Turkoglu, and the duo of Big Baby Davis and Brian Scalabrine was borderline comical given their task was to contain Rashard Lewis.  Kendrick Perkins put on a clinic of how to defend Dwight Howard (muscle him up chest to chest and force him into running line drive hooks) for five games until Superman got angry at his coach, and that was that.

Against Cleveland, let’s just say as dominant as Lebron was, there was a mismatch of comparably epic proportions on the other side.  Howard did the basketball equivalent of eating Zydrunas Ilgauskas for breakfast or stealing Anderson Varejao’s lunch money.  And he’s simply a bigger, younger and meaner version of Ben Wallace.  Ouch.

How next to nobody saw this coming is a topic for another day.  But staying on the topic of matchups, it’s hard for anyone to be so naive to think the Magic will have the same ease operating in their style of play against Los Angeles.

If you could tailor a pair of defenders to man up Turkoglu and Lewis, some version of Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol would emerge.  Gasol has the wingspan to interrupt Turkoglu out on the perimeter and the quickness to stay with him on penetration.  The scouting report on Odom indicates he’s ideally suited for defending Lewis, in that he’s long and agile, and more than comfortable operating outside of the paint.

It’s more or less a certainty that Howard will give Andrew Bynum some serious on-the-job schooling, but Phil Jackson will not allow him to be so fluid in his dominance.  Which is to say you’ll see a lot of the Josh Powells and D.J. Mbengas playing small spurts merely to make life as taxing as can be on Superman.

In addition to matchups, there are two other factors that, depending on the series, can swing an outcome.  The first is coaching, an aspect of this Finals that needs little synthesis, considering one guy has nine rings and the other is in uncharted territory.

The second is hunger.  As talented as the Lakers were last year, they ran into the hungriest squad this side of the 2004 Red Sox.  Playing Garnett, Pierce and the famished Celtics was like running into the proverbial buzzsaw.  The Lakers didn’t stand a chance.

Well, as the saying goes, times change.  Last year, we didn’t see the hungry, desperate, ferociously competitive Kobe Bryant until the gold medal game in the Olympics.  Then we saw him.  His teammate now and competitor at the time, Gasol, saw him.  Lebron and Carmelo Anthony took note.

This is Kobe’s time, and everyone knows it.  A win in the 2009 NBA Finals cements Kobe as one of the handful of greatest players of all time and puts him on the list of most prolific champions.  He’ll also tie that fella named Shaq with four rings, one on the solo.

A magical run it has been for Orlando, but it will end at the last possible moment in the least desirable place, at the hands of the Black Mamba.

Lakers in seven.