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Comparing the Red Sox, Yankees lineups (the instant gratification edition)

05.13.11 at 2:18 pm ET
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This sure doesn’t seem like the ‘Battle of the Titans,’ does it?

The Red Sox and Yankees are beginning a three-game series Friday night at Yankee Stadium, with New York standing at 20-15, one game in back of first-place Tampa Bay, and the Red Sox sitting at 17-20, five games back. In the last 10 games the Yanks are 4-6, with the Sox having played .500 ball over that span.

Still, when these sort of moments arrive, regardless of the early-season ups and downs, these are the two clubs who will always be compared and contrasted. So, let’s execute our MLB-given right and do the somewhat tired, but always interesting, position-by-position breakdown. This, however, will solely look at who is currently playing better as the teams execute another Bronx get-together.

(To make clear, this is identifying who is hotter, not better …)

FIRST BASE

Advantage: Adrian Gonzalez. Mark Teixeira is starting to heat up, riding a five-game hit streak, which has seen the almost-Red Sox go 7-for-19 with two home runs. But Gonzalez is a notch above. The Sox first baseman is hitting .458 over the stretch, with an OPS of  1.500 (only behind Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta).

SECOND BASE

Advantage: Robinson Cano. Cano hasn’t exactly been tearing it up, hitting .222 over the past five games, but he has hit in three straight games and carries a batting average of .291 with nine homers. Dustin Pedroia is showing signs of pulling out of his funk, sporting an on-base percentage of .400 with a batting average of .250 in the past five games, but is coming off a game in which he saw his four-game hit streak snapped with an 0-for-4 with two strikeouts.’

SHORTSTOP

Advantage: Derek Jeter. After a horrifically slow start, the Yanks’ captain has raised his batting average to .270 by hitting .311 thus far in May. In New York’s final two games in Texas last weekend, Jeter went 6-for-11 with two homers. Jed Lowrie, who missed the Red Sox’ final game in Toronto due to sickness, has cooled off somewhat, although he has hit safely in seven of his last eight games. Lowrie has a single hit in each of his last four starts.

THIRD BASE

Advantage: Draw. After raising his average to .257 with two hits last Sunday, Kevin Youkilis only has one hit in the past three games, and still hasn’t hit a home run since April 27. Alex Rodriguez has hit safely in eight of his last 10 games, although all but one have included just a single hit. Over the past five games Rodriguez’ OPS is .654, with Youkilis’ OPS standing at .679 over the same time span.

CATCHER

Advantage: Yankees. After a hot start, Russell Martin has gone cold for the Yankees, having gone 1-for-15 in his last five games. The combination of Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek has only been slightly better. The edge, however,  has to go to the Yanks here judging by overall performance, with New York’s catchers (Francisco Cervelli has hit in his last three appearances) managing the second-best OPS in baseball, while the Sox enter the series with the second-worst.

LEFT FIELD

Advantage: Brett Gardner. Both left fielders started out terribly, with the Yankees’ Gardner and Carl Crawford of the Red Sox both sitting at the bottom of all eligible players in OPS for much of April. That has changed. Crawford is hitting .356 with an OPS of .836 for the month, while Gardner’s last 11 games has seen in him .419 with an OPS of 1.010. Most notably, the Yanks’ outfielder has hit .533 with an OPS of 1.229 in his last four games.

CENTER FIELD

Advantage: Jacoby Ellsbury. A tough one considering Curtis Granderson’s continued power (he how has 12 home runs), and the fact the outfielder has multi-hit games in three of his last six starts. Ellsbury, however, has hit .360 in May, and is fresh off a 19-game hit streak.

RIGHT FIELD

Advantage: J.D. Drew. While 2011 has been classified as a disappointment for Drew thus far, it should be noted that his bat has started to come alive a bit. In the past four games, the Sox outfielder is hitting .333 (having hit in all of them) with an on-base percentage of .444. He reached base three times in the last game in Toronto. Meanwhile, Swisher is hitting .200 for the month, although he does have a single hit in each of the past five games.

Kevin Millar on M&M: Don’t know which way to go with John Lackey

05.13.11 at 12:31 pm ET
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MLB Network analyst Kevin Millar made his weekly appearance on the Mut & Merloni show Friday morning to talk about the still-struggling Red Sox. To hear the interview, go to the Mut & Merloni audio on demand page.

Said Millar: “It’s like they’re in mud. ‘€¦ It’s like they’re not going anywhere.”

The Sox are three games under .500 as they prepare to take on the Yankees for a three-game series in New York. Meanwhile, the Yankees have fallen out of first place in the American League East. This has taken some of the shine off this series.

“I don’t know where this rivalry’s at right now,” Millar said. “I don’t know. I was just asking that question: Is this the least-hyped series against the Yankees in the last few years? They’re really kind of just there, going into a nice weekend series with the Yankees. Maybe this will ignite both clubs. We haven’t seen a good brawl in a while.”

Added Millar: “You need something in this series. Either someone’s got to come out and throw the ball unbelievable or some hitter’s got to go out and get nine hits in this series and drive in 12, but we need to see something, a sparkplug in this series.”

Millar has been preaching patience with this team, but he said the Sox can’t continue at this pace.

“It’s not early anymore,” he said. “Is it early? Of course ‘€” we’ve got a bazillion games left. But it’s middle of May. We need to start going. Someone needs to start clicking. Who’s going to lead this squad? And listen, it all starts with starting pitching.”

Much has been made of John Lackey‘s struggles. After his latest rough start in Toronto on Wednesday night, Lackey implied that personal problems are affecting him.

“We’re human beings a players,” Millar said. “There’s other things that go on in our lives. What John Lackey is battling behind the scenes is really no one’s business. Obviously, it’s a big problem. When you’re dealing with a real family situation, it’s devastating.”

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Read More: Dustin Pedroia, john lackey, Kevin Millar, Theo Epstein

Nuggetpalooza: Middle of the plate. Belt high.

05.13.11 at 10:53 am ET
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I’m pretty sure that this is more than you wanted to know about pitching in the middle of the strike zone. It often doesn’t end well for the pitcher and the results have been awful for the Red Sox so far in 2011:

* – Through May 11, major league hitters had seen over 28,000 pitches (about 18 percent of all pitches thrown) that could be considered belt-high and over the middle of the plate (“middle/middle”). And hitters have taken advantage of those pitches, too, hitting .315 with a .594 slugging percentage and a home run every 23 at bats. On all other pitches, the league has hit .222, slugged just .329, and homered once every 54 at bats.

Really, it’s about what you would expect.

Now let’s look at it in terms of my pitch-by-pitch scoring system: “Middle/Middle” pitches have averaged +1.47 points per pitch while all other pitches have averaged just +0.11.

“But Gary, if hitters are ripping middle/middle pitches, why is the quality points per pitch average BETTER on those pitches”? Well, because the pitcher gets credit for every strike (swinging, called, or fouled off) but never gets docked for balls, walks, or hit batsmen.

But when Red Sox pitchers have thrown “middle/middle” this season, they’ve averaged just +1.30 points per pitch, second worst in the majors:

+1.25 – Astros
+1.30 – Red Sox
+1.31 – Rangers
+1.34 – Royals

Opponents have hit .331 with 20 homers (one every 19.8 at bats) against Red Sox’ middle/middle tosses. The Giants, with pitchers like Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, Matt Cain, and Brian Wilson, have been most effective on middle/middle pitches so far:

+1.70 – Giants
+1.62 – A’s
+1.61 – Nationals
+1.61 – Indians
+1.59 – Yankees

There are a couple of ways to be more effective than average despite middle/middle location. A pitcher can have great “stuff”, or he can be lucky.  Here are the top individual pitchers so far this season in terms of average points on middle/middle pitches (min. 100 such pitches):

+2.10 – Philip Humber, White Sox
+2.03 – Tim Lincecum, Giants
+1.98 – Kyle Lohse, Cardinals
+1.95 – Jaime Garcia, Cardinals
+1.93 – Josh Beckett, Red Sox

Also in the top ten: Josh Johnson, FLA (+1.86), CC Sabathia, NYY (+1.84), and Jered Weaver, LAA (+1.79). With an exception or two, it’s a who’s who of “stuff”.

What about the other Red Sox pitchers?

+1.42 – Daisuke Matsuzaka
+1.03 – Jon Lester
+1.02 – John Lackey
+0.83 – Clay Buchholz

Notes: Buchholz’ (+0.83) ranks fourth worst in the majors and OPS allowed on middle/middle (1.180) is second highest in AL (Carl Pavano, 1.182) …That’s quite a regression from his +1.52 average in 2010…Last year, over 15% of swings against Buchholz’ middle/middle pitches did not make contact. This year: Just 5.2%… Toronto was able to finish off 13 at bats on middle/middle pitches vs. Lackey on Wednesday night, going 6-for-13 with a home run…Lackey had allowed 6+ hits in a start on middle/middle pitches only once since joining the Red Sox prior to Wednesday… Matsuzaka has coaxed just three misses out of 70 swings (4.2%) on middle/middle pitches so far in 2011 after 11.1% last season.

Big props to JoeLefkowitz.com and his Pitch F/X resource for making this research possible.

Daisuke Matsuzaka embracing additional rest in Red Sox rotation

05.12.11 at 2:05 pm ET
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TORONTO — Speaking before the Red Sox series finale against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre Wednesday, Daisuke Matsuzaka said he embraced the idea of getting additional rest prior to his next start, which is scheduled to take place Monday at Fenway Park against the Orioles. The righty will be working on seven days rest, having last gone Sunday when he allowed four runs over six innings.

“I don’t consider any part of it negative,” Matsuzaka told WEEI.com through translator Kenta Yamada. “More rest means I get more chance for preparations. It’s more of a break so I can get better prepared for the next game.”

Matsuzaka insinuated he will use the extra time to continue to work on aspects of his game, such as fine-tuing his two-seam fastball. The pitcher identifies the pitch as the biggest difference-maker for him, allowing him to make it deeper into games, as was evidenced in him throwing it almost half the time during his eight-inning win over the Angels on April 23.

And while he said that the offering — which he didn’t possess in his repertoire prior to coming to the United States — isn’t where he would like it to be, it was the reason he was able to make it through six innings in his last start.

“What’s different from first year is that I’m using more of a two-seamer, putting more action on the ball and pitching to contact. But I don’t think it’s going well yet,” said Matsuzaka, who used the pitch as his primary weapon against the Twins, throwing it 33 times. “Like last outing I pitched 34 pitches, but after that I was able to pitch to contact and finish the sixth inning. That was a moment I could see the improvement. If I pitched like before it would have been different, maybe just getting through five innings.”

The start against Baltimore will mark the third time this season Matsuzaka has worked on six or more days rest, having totaled a 2.25 ERA over 12 innings in such situations.

“I can try out many different things throughout the pitching. I’m just trying not to think negatively about my rest,” he said.

For more Red Sox coverage, see the team page at weei.com/redsox.

Peter Gammons on M&M: ‘There’s something funny about the passion of this team’

05.11.11 at 12:50 pm ET
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Hall of Fame baseball analyst Peter Gammons made his weekly appearance on the Mut & Merloni show Wednesday to talk about the Red Sox. To hear the interview, go to the Mut & Merloni audio on demand page.

Gammons said he’s trying to figure out why the Sox can’t seem to put things together and get over the .500 mark.

“There’s something funny about the passion of this team,” he said. “I still don’t see the offense. They haven’t scored 10 runs in a game all year. I don’t believe they’ve been ahead by four runs at the end of the fourth inning all year. So, games have really been struggles for them.

“They probably will click on all cylinders. But for the time being ‘€¦ Is it right to say that it’s almost like there’s a little chip missing here? I really sense that, that there’s a personality chip missing that’s different than what they maintained last year when they overachieved.”

Added Gammons: “I can’t put my finger on it. I thought about it all last week. I kept thinking, ‘Jeez, there’s just something funny about the way this team is playing.’ Whether they need one more guy to kind of come in and stir things up with [Dustin] Pedroia, I don’t know. That’s sort of the way I feel. But I don’t see anybody in that division running off and winning 100 games, so they’re in a very good position if they do get hot to make up whatever they need to make up.”

One player who does not lack intensity is Carl Crawford. “I don’t think he realized what it would be like to come to Boston and start out struggling,” Gammons said. “He cares so much, he practices so hard that I think he just drives himself into the ground. But now that he’s starting to relax ‘€¦ He’s obviously very popular. Every time he does anything, his teammates’ reaction to him is wonderful, it really is.”

John Lackey‘s failure to be a stopper has made him a target for critics. Gammons said he would like to see Lackey take more responsibility for his struggles. Said Gammons: “I’ll admit that that game [the 13-inning, 5-3 loss to the Angels on May 4], having to play that game for 16 hours or whatever it was, that deflates you. But that’s a time when John Lackey has to step up and say, ‘OK, here I am.’ ‘€¦ That wasn’t the case. They need him to be more consistent. He has not been what he was brought here to be, pure and simple.

“The only thing that surprised me is I’ve never really heard him say, ‘I’m really mad about the way I’m pitching.’ You always hear, ‘Well, the ball found a hole,’ or something happened, a bad call. He should be too good for that stuff.”

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Read More: benjie molina, carl crawford, David Ross, Dustin Pedtroia

Wednesday’s Red Sox-Blue Jays matchups: John Lackey vs. Jesse Litsch

05.11.11 at 10:41 am ET
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John Lackey will look to rebound from a horrendous start last Thursday against the Angels when he takes on the Blue Jays Wednesday night. He gave up eight runs on 10 hits and three walks over four innings in that last outing, picking up his fourth loss of the season in the process. It marked the third time this season Lackey has given up at least six runs, although it was his first non-quality start in four outings, as he had allowed just three runs in his previous three starts combined.

Lackey is 4-5 with a 4.58 ERA in 15 career starts against the Blue Jays. He faced them four times last year and did not fare well, as he came away with a 1-2 record and 8.61 ERA.

Current Jays are batting .254 against Lackey. Adam Lind has absolutely destroyed him, as he is 10-for-18 with five RBIs. Luckily for Lackey, Lind will likely miss the game with back spasms, according to the Toronto Sun. Jose Bautista has two home runs, but those are his only two hits in 11 at-bats (although he also has five walks). Six of the eight Jays with nine or more ABs against Lackey are hitting under .200.

Getting the start for Toronto will be Jesse Litsch, who is 3-2 with a 4.04 ERA this season. Litsch has gone at least six innings in five of his six starts this year, but he has yet to go more than 6 1/3 in any of those outings. Most recently, he picked up a victory over the Tigers by allowing one run on four hits and three walks over 6 1/3 innings.

Litsch won four of his first five decisions against the Sox, but he’€™s lost the last two, including his only start against them last season. Current Sox are hitting .262 against him. Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury and Darnell McDonald are all batting at least .333 with a homer. Jason Varitek and Jed Lowrie have struggled the most, as they are a combined 1-for-15. Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Blue Jays, Jesse Litsch, john lackey, Red Sox

How Rajai Davis, Blue Jays ran past the Red Sox

05.11.11 at 12:34 am ET
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TORONTO ‘€“ Rajai Davis is fast. Tuesday night, unfortunately for the Red Sox, he proved just how fast.

After notching a single with one out in the 10th inning — with the Sox and Blue Jays tied at 6-6 — Davis took off for second, out-running a throw from catcher Jason Varitek which shorstop Jose Iglesias fielded on one hop.

‘€œWe had the pitchout, we had the right thing,’€ Varitek explained. ‘€œI wasn’€™t able to gain as much ground as I would have liked to have. It ended up bang-bang. Over at third, it was no contest.’€

The one at ‘€œthird’€ which Varitek alluded to came when Davis took off before pitcher Matt Albers could barely start his delivery. The result was predictable considering Davis’€™ speed and his jump.

The end result would be the game-winning run when David Cooper lofted a deep fly ball to center field, plating Davis, giving the Jays a 7-6 victory.

‘€œIf we get the ball in the air on the one to second we got him because of the pitch-out,’€ explained Red Sox manager Terry Francona. ‘€œWhen he got to second, [third base coach Tim Bogar] was trying to get Iggy’€™s attention just to hold [Davis] a little more, because it is Davis and he can do that. He has the ability to do it and obviously [Blue Jays manager John Farrell] is letting him do it.’€

‘€œMaybe just a little bit of inexperience on Iggy’€™s part, just not getting tight enough. It certainly changes the way you have to defense. Rather than being a nothing fly-out, it’€™s the game-winner.’€

“I thought it was going to be close at second. I knew it was going to be pretty close at second,” said Davis, who now has nine steals on the season. “But at third, I pretty much was convinced that he had no shot.”

Daniel Bard: Pitch to David Cooper ‘right where I wanted it’

05.11.11 at 12:10 am ET
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TORONTO — Usually there’s nothing wrong with relying on a perfectly placed, 98 mph fastball. But Tuesday night Daniel Bard came across an exception, thanks to a rookie named David Cooper.

With the Red Sox having knotted up their series opener with the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre in the eighth inning thanks to a two-out, RBI single from Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Bard was called upon to pitch the bottom of the eighth, with Cooper scheduled to leadoff the frame for the Jays. A first-round pick in the 2008 draft, the first baseman came into the game having played in just eight big league contests, claiming three hits in 31 plate appearances.

The only reason Cooper was in the game in the first place was because shortstop Yunel Escobar had to leave after being hit by a pitch.

The matchup seemed to be heavily in the favor of Bard, who in seven prior appearances at Rogers Centre had struck out 14 batters, walked just one while carrying a 2.14 ERA. Add in the fact that the reliever felt better than at any other time this season, and it would appear that the result of the at-bat was a foregone conclusion.

It wasn’t.

After working the count to 3-2, Cooper showed why he was the 17th overall pick in the ’08 draft, depositing a Bard fastball into the right field bleachers.

“It was right where I wanted it,” the Red Sox reliever said. “We had gone away the entire at-bat, went to 3-2 and [catcher Jason Varitek] called for another fastball away and I just thought he would be geared up for that ball away and figured a well-located fastball on the inner-half would blow up his bat, but it didn’€™t, it went right into his swing. It was literally right where Tek showed his glove, it just ran into his swing. We didn’€™t know very much about him going in at all. He has just a handful of at-bats.”

Making the at-bat even more frustrating for Bard was the fact that his stuff — which allowed him to get through the eighth without any more difficulties — was good that any sort of offering should have been good enough.

“I felt really good,” Bard said. “That’€™s the best my command has been all year. Probably should have gone to an off-speed pitch there. I had good command of my off-speed stuff. But we thought why give into a guy we don’€™t know anything about. Let’€™s make him beat us on the best pitch and he did.”

The Red Sox did mount their third comeback of the night after the Cooper home run, with Adrian Gonzalez rocketing his second homer of the game to leadoff the eighth for a deadlock. But the Blue Jays would have the last laugh in the 10th when Cooper struck one more time, driving in Rajai Davis with the game-winning run on a sacrifice fly.

Closing Time: Red Sox still searching for .500 after 10-inning loss

05.10.11 at 11:03 pm ET
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TORONTO — The Red Sox are still looking for .500.

Despite coming from behind three separate times, the Sox finally succumbed to the Blue Jays Tuesday night, dropping a 7-6 decision to the Jays in 10 innings when David Cooper drove in Rajai Davis with the game-winning run on a sacrifice fly against reliever Matt Albers. The winning run for the hosts came after Rajai Davis followed his singled with two straight stolen bases.

The loss drops the Red Sox to 17-19.

It looked as though the Red Sox had lost the game in the eighth inning when Daniel Bard, who had experienced great success at Rogers Centre in his previous seven appearances (15 Ks, BB, 2.14 ERA), gave up a leadoff homer to Cooper. The homer, which came on a 3-2, 98 mph fastball, was Cooper’s first career home run and gave the Blue Jays the lead heading into the ninth. It was also the first long ball allowed by Bard this season.

Fortunately for the Red Sox, Adrian Gonzalez continued to exhibit a revitalized power stroke, with his latest display coming at a very opportune time. The first baseman tied the game with his second homer of the game, a leadoff blast in the ninth over the left field fence against Toronto closer Frank Francisco.

The Red Sox didn’t get their usual standout performance from starter Jon Lester, who gave up five runs on seven hits and five walks over 5 1/3 innings, leaving with his team trailing by a run. He totaled 114 pitches before being pulled in favor of reliever Rich Hill.

Here is what went wrong (and right) for the Red Sox …

WHAT WENT WRONG

– Lester’s outing marked the first time since Opening Day that the lefty allowed more than three runs, while the two home runs equaled the total number of long balls surrendered by the ace over his last six starts.

– The Red Sox’ starter had his worst command of his season, walking five batters for the seventh time in his career. Lester also walked home a run for the third time since he became a major leaguer. Coming into Tuesday night, the Red Sox were 4-2 when the southpaw issued five free passes.

– Gonzalez, a two-time Gold Glove winner, made his first error as a member of the Red Sox, dropping Juan Rivera’s pop-up in the first inning. The miscue allowed the Jays’ third run of the inning to score, although Gonzalez managed to salvage an out by getting a force out at second.

– The Red Sox had a great chance to make hay in the seventh inning when Dustin Pedroia and Gonzalez led off the frame with singles. But a sharp grounder to third by Kevin Youkilis and a 1-6-3 double play off the bat of David Ortiz ended any threat. Entering the game, this year’s edition had the second-worst batting average with runners on base of any Sox team since 1974, only sitting in front of the ’92 edition.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Jarrod Saltalamacchia made Terry Francona’s faith in him pay off, lining a first-pitch single to left, scoring pinch-runner Jose Iglesias for the game-tying run with two outs in the eighth inning. Francona left Saltalamacchia in to face lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski despite having both Mike Cameron and Darnell McDonald on the bench, and with the catcher having gone 0-for-3 with two strikeouts prior to the at-bat.

– Ortiz stayed on fire. The Sox DH not only came away with his second three-hit game in the past week, but rocketed a solo blast over the Rogers Centre center field wall in the fourth inning, cutting the Jays lead at the time to a run. The home run was Ortiz’ fifth of the season, tying Johnny Damon for second-most homers by a DH for the season, trailing Jorge Posada by one.

Jacoby Ellsbury got any questions regarding his hit streak out of the way early, ripping a single into right field in the first at-bat of the game off Toronto starter Kyle Drabek. His streak now stands at 19 games. It was also the outfielder’s fourth three-hit of the season.

– Gonzalez’ power is starting to pick up. After striking out in his first two at-bats, the No. 3 hitter put a smooth swing on a 93 mph fastball from Drabek, depositing it over the left field fence to tie the game at 4-4. It was Gonzalez’ fourth homer in his last eight games. He then went deep again in the ninth for his 11th career multi-homer game.

– Hill impressed again, pitching a perfect 1 1/3 innings, with three of the four batters he faced hitting from the right side. The lefty has allowed just one hit in three appearances with the Red Sox, totaling 3 2/3 frames.

– Pedroia kept trending in the right direction after struggling for most of May, reaching base four times — two singles and a pair of walks.

Red Sox live blog: Lester, Sox take on the Blue Jays in Toronto

05.10.11 at 7:24 pm ET
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TORONTO — Follow all the action as the Red Sox take on the Blue Jays in the first of a two-game series at the Rogers Centre

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