Sunday, August 12, 2007

Dazed and confused

It's late, I'm gassed, and the Sox pretty much ruined what was a perfect Sunday at the beach. If you've come here for rational discourse, check back another day. I'm here to vent, and I expect it will be even less coherent than usual. Thanks for your tolerance. - TATB Management

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Well, if it's possible to hit rock bottom while still leading the division, I suppose this is it.

Actually, make that I hope this is it. Tell me it won't get worse for your first-place-for-the-moment Boston Red Sox, who watched as Eric "Gasoline" Gagne torched a late-inning lead for the second time in three days, then had to suffer the indignity of watching that old cowboy Kevin Millar waddle around the bases in the 10th inning after walloping a walkoff homer. The most agonizing loss of the season? Definitely . . . since Friday, at least.

Sure seems like a loonnng time since the Sox stole one in the late innings like the Orioles did twice in this series. Yes, Baltimore has atoned for the Mother's Day Miracle quite effectively. It was so much more fun when Sam Perlozzo was employed and the Orioles were our patsy.

So here's the fallout. After losing two of three to the Orioles and four of six overall, the Sox' lead in the division is down to four games, their smallest margin since May 1. All the Bleacher Buttafuocos in the Bronx are undoubtedly drooling on their wife-beaters at the thought of a repeat of '78, and I'm sure Murray Chass and the other usual media suspects already have Bucky Dent on speed dial. And you know what? At the moment, I do not blame them.

We might as well admit it: The Yankees will be in the postseason for the 26th straight season. They are 23-8 since the All-Star break, just emasculated a very good Cleveland team at Jacobs Field, and have a team OPS since the break of .947, which is the equivalent of having nine Vlad Guerreros in their lineup. Andy Pettitte is having his typically strong second half, Mike Mussina is fending off his osteoporosis surprisingly well, Philip Hughes and Joba Chamberlain are worthy of every syllable of hype, Mariano Rivera is hitting 97 on the gun again . . . and did we mention that the offense is ridiculously, historically hot? It was fun while it lasted, that double-digit lead, but the reality of the moment is this: The Yankees are a very, very good baseball team right now.

Perhaps better than the one ahead of them in the standings.

I hate to sound like an 'EEI banshee here, and it's largely the frustration from today's loss that's making me think this way, but I have to be honest: I will be pleasantly surprised if the Red Sox are in first place when the teams meet again at the end of the month. Actually, let me put that another way: Some things will have to change - immediately - if the Sox are going to maintain what's left of their lead.

First and foremost, someone needs to start hitting with runners on base. I loved "Moneyball" and believe Bill James to be truly brilliant, but this team is making compelling case that OPS is one of those classic lies-and-damn-lies statistics. The Sox have a bunch of patient hitters, and the bases are often occupied, but there's no one to drive them in. Hell, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and J.D. Drew, the alleged 3-4-5 hitters, have 43 homers between them, or four more than A-Rod alone. How pathetic is that? It's almost enough to make me look forward to the franchise's inevitable pursuit of The Artist Formerly Known As Slappy McBluelips in the offseason.

I realize Papi's hurting from shoulder to knee, and he's about the last player in Red Sox history I want to criticize, but I can't help but wonder why he didn't get that troublesome meniscus scoped in the offseason. And I think I've made my adoration for Manny obvious over the years, but even his most willing apologist has to admit he's slipped just enough to make his sideshow antics annoying rather than quirky - and when was the last time he hit a three-run homer, anyway? Mike Lowell is a swell guy and everyone likes him, but he's in the midst of his annual second-half power outage . . . Kevin Youkilis is closer to being Carlos Quintana than he is to being Wade Boggs, and wasn't that breathless early season comparison a lot of over-the-top hype? . . . Drew is looking like the worst free-agent signing since Wayne Garland . . . hell, you get the gist. They've gotta hit, now, or else Theo's inability to make a deal for Jermaine Dye is going to haunt them.

The blessing is that they've had the best pitching in the league for the better part of the season, and there isn't a better 1-2 punch in the league than Josh Beckett and Dice-K, whose recent brilliance has, surprisingly, gone mostly unnoticed. And despite his Chad Fox imitation, I think Gagne will be an asset, especially once Jason Varitek realizes he has both a changeup and a curveball. (However, the eighth inning belongs solely to Hideki Okajima until Gagne finds his mojo.) I am curious why Tito Francona (who has generally done an outstanding job again this season, the clueless, "FranComa"-spewing nitwits be damned) didn't use Jonathan Papelbon in the 10th today - he is being babied a little too much, unless there's something we don't know.

I expect the pitching staff will continue to be the backbone of this team, and on a better day I'd probably admit that their staff depth alone is enough to ensure there will be playoff baseball at Fenway Park come October. But right now, a four-game lead feels quite small. It's time for this team to rise back to the surface and start playing like a legitimate contender again.

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As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

So far, Gagne's making that trade look pretty good by comparison.

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