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Jason Varitek returns, and eyes playing beyond 2010

09.07.10 at 11:28 pm ET
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Jason Varitek

It was an inglorious time at which to return to the field. The Red Sox were trailing by 12 runs, and the team had made the decision to pull the plug in the sixth inning.

But even with his team trailing, 14-2, the significance was not lost on Jason Varitek. For the first time since June 30, he was on the field in a major league game, behind the Fenway Park plate that has been his crouching station for so many years. The moment, Varitek said, was “tremendously” exciting, a reward for months of hard work to come back.

“I’ve had a long time, a lot of work, and a lot of different people spent time with me from 1 o’clock in the afternoon till game time,” said Varitek. “I caught the ball good. I took some good swings. It was nice to be out there and to actually get into a game.”

Yet this was not the first step of a farewell tour for the Red Sox captain. Varitek, who went 0-for-2, said after the game that he envisions playing at least one more year, and perhaps several. The 2010 season — aside from the freak foul ball that broke his left foot — has left him feeling healthier and stronger than he has in years. That being the case, he looks forward to the opportunity to continue his career.

“I definitely want to play. There’s no question,” Varitek said. “Things have, health-wise, turned the corner outside of a freak broken bone that allows me to do some things at a high, high level. I definitely want to play.”

Varitek said that, in achieving health, he has realized how challenging the grind of recent seasons was, as he tried to push through injury. But now, perhaps because he was operating in a part-time role behind Victor Martinez this year, he feels that his bat has regained quickness, and that his actions behind the plate are better than they have been in some time.

“I’m able to make some adjustments offensively. I’m probably able to throw the ball better than I have ever in my entire life,” Varitek said. “And then the things you take pride in: Being able to block the ball, move, do things. I think that at some levels I’m just doing things better than I ever have.”

That being the case, Varitek is convinced that the 2010 season will not be his last. While he would like to play beyond 2011 as well, he is withholding judgment about just how much longer he wants to continue his career, at a time when he said that he has “no idea” how much the Sox will want him to play down the stretch.

“I want to listen to my body. At this point, I definitely want to play another year. I’d like to play a few more years. We’ll just have to see,” Varitek said. “If things go the other way and I wasn’t healthy, I’d have to evaluate. If my swings and stuff went the other direction, I’d have to evaluate. But I’ve made some drastic improvements, and I’m almost rejuvenated.”

Read More: Jason Varitek,

Closing Time: Rays 14, Red Sox 5

09.07.10 at 10:27 pm ET
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Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka matched a career-worst by allowing eight runs on Tuesday. (AP)

Daisuke Matsuzaka continued his yearlong struggles with the big inning. But this may have been the most undignified of them all.

For the sixth time in 2010 (second most by a Red Sox pitcher to Tim Wakefield‘s seven), Matsuzaka gave up four or more runs in an inning. The outbreak came in the top of the fourth, with the 6-7-8 hitters due up for the Rays.

The right-hander walked the first two batters he faced and then, on a sacrifice bunt attempt, he fired too late to third base, thus loading the bases. That set in motion a four-run merry-go-round that featured a bases loaded walk (the sixth issued by Sox pitchers in three games), a one-run single and a two-run double. Four runs on just two hits: This was misery, undeniable.

It got worse for Matsuzaka, who finished his night matching a career-worst by permitting eight earned runs in 4 2/3 innings. That horror show of a start sent the Sox spiraling to a 14-5 defeat, thus effectively ending any illusions of making a run at the wild card-leading Rays in the standings.

The Sox are once again 7 1/2 games back in the standings, with 23 games left on the schedule but just one left against Tampa Bay. The wholesale changes made by the Sox (who finished the game with different players at every position from the ones who started) in the late innings were a likely harbinger of the team’s reconfigured priorities down the stretch.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX

–The Red Sox had entered Tuesday having gone six straight games without permitting a homer, the longest such streak by the club since June 4-10, 2008. The pitching staff made up for lost time, permitting five homers to the Rays.

–Matsuzaka was terrible. He extended his career-worst streak of consecutive starts allowing at least four earned runs to five games. He also walked four or more batters for the seventh time this season.

–With Matsuzaka out of the game, it didn’t get any better for the Red Sox. Dustin Richardson faced three batters and allowed all to reach, permitting two walks and an infield single (on which he also committed a run-scoring throwing error). In walking the first two batters he faced, the left-hander extended his streak of consecutive batters walked to four, a run stretching over three games.

Robert Manuel then entered and gave up a three-run homer to Evan Longoria, the first of three homers that he permitted in his outing. Manuel became the fifth major league reliever (and second Red Sox, following Tim Wakefield on May 1) to permit three homers in a relief outing this year.

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX

–Victor Martinez continued his hellacious year against left-handers. He went 2-for-2 with a single and two-run double against Rays starter David Price, improving his season average to .408 with a 1.200 OPS against lefty pitchers.

Michael Bowden helped bring the game to a merciful conclusion. With the Sox down, 14-2, he entered in the top of the seventh and tossed a pair of shutout innings, needing just 24 pitches to do so.

Darnell McDonald hit a homer, walked twice and stole a base. He has nine homers and nine steals (in nine tries) this year.

–After entering in the top of the sixth inning, Yamaico Navarro took his first major league walk in the bottom of the inning. After entering the contest with a higher average (.111) than OBP (.105), he managed to push his OBP up to .136. Lars Anderson likewise reached base for the first time in his big league career by drawing a walk in the eighth inning.

Read More: Daisuke Matsuzaka, David Price, dustin richardson, robert manuel

Pregame Notes: Ortiz has been ‘a force’

09.07.10 at 6:48 pm ET
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Red Sox manager Terry Francona described David Ortiz as a lineup "force." (AP)

Red Sox manager Terry Francona described David Ortiz as a lineup "force." (AP)

Last offseason, the Red Sox made clear the standards that they had for David Ortiz. In order to dedicate a roster spot to a designated hitter who cannot contribute in the field, the Red Sox needed a player who could be “a force” in the middle of the order, GM Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona said last October.

Eleven months later, Francona suggested, Ortiz has lived up to that standard. The Red Sox DH is hitting .262 and ranks near the top of designated hitters (min. 300 plate appearances) with a .365 OBP (3rd), .528 slugging mark (2nd) and .893 OPS (2nd), along with 28 homers (1st) and 87 RBI (2nd).

It was telling that on Tuesday, Francona used the same language to describe Ortiz’ season to date that he used to describe the team’s needs for his production last offseason.

“He’s an important part of what we do. I don’t think we’ve ever tried to hide that fact,” said Francona. “It was tough in April because he was struggling so much. When you have a designated hitter that is your full-time designated hitter, they need to be a huge force in your lineup, just as David has been.

“A lot of teams are shying away from that full-time designated hitter. They are rotating in guys, getting some guys rest. When you have a guy that’s out there every day like an Edgar Martinez in Seattle, they’ve got to go out there and be a force. David has certainly been that.”

OTHER PREGAME NOTES

–After an MRI revealed that Marco Scutaro was dealing with what the Red Sox described as inflammation of a longstanding rotator cuff injury, the Sox elected to flip-flop Scutaro and Jed Lowrie in the middle infield. Scutaro will play second, and Lowrie will shift to shortstop. For more on that, click here.

–The Red Sox have summoned Michael Bowden back from the minors. The right-hander has made six relief appearances over two different stretches with the big league club this year, amassing a 6.00 ERA.

The Sox hope that Bowden, who turns 24 later this week, will benefit from stability while remaining on the big league roster over the duration of the regular season.

“It’s finally an opportunity where he knows he can unpack his bags. He’ll make a road trip with us and during the road trip he’s not going to get sent down,” said Francona. “And hopefully that will help him get comfortable because for a while now, everyone has seen his name, he’s had so much success during his development. He’s performed so well. It will be nice to see how that translates into our bullpen right now.”

In 31 games (16 starts) with the PawSox in 2010, he went 6-4 with one save, a 3.66 ERA, 77 strikeouts and 37 walks, while holding opponents to a .222 clip (84-for-379). Bowden made each of his last 15 appearances with Pawtucket out of the bullpen, going 2-1 with one save, a 3.20 ERA and 18 strikeouts.

Francona suggested that the Sox still believe that he can succeed as either a starter or reliever, so long as he stays out of the upper reaches of the strike zone.

“His stuff is suited for anything – if he stays down. When he creates an angle with his pitches downward, he can pitch anywhere. It doesn’t have to be out of the bullpen. It can be as a starter,” said Francona. “The problem he’s run into in limited times we’ve seen him is when he’s elevated the fastball. Good hitters don’t need a lot of help getting it in the air.”

–The Red Sox feature a pair of left-handers — Ortiz and J.D. Drew — in Tuesday’s lineup against Rays southpaw David Price. That scenario is imperfect, as Price enters the start having held left-handers to a .208 average and .575 OPS (compared to marks of .237 and .688 against righties).

But the current construction of the Red Sox roster gives the Sox little choice but to employ two hitters who have struggled badly this year against left-handers.

–The Sox were still holding off on a decision about whether to use Clay Buchholz on three days’ rest on Wednesday, likely awaiting the outcome of Tuesday’s game to make that determination.

–In the wake of his 48-pitch outing on Sunday, the Sox were unsure whether closer Jonathan Papelbon would be available on Tuesday.

“I think he’s doing a lot better today,” said Francona. “That was a lot. We’ll see, when he goes out there in a little bit, we’ll see how he’s doing. The good side of that is that he feels good. It’s not like he came in and said, oh this is killing me. But whether he pitches tonight, we have to see how he does out there during BP.”

Felix Doubront is likely still unavailable on Tuesday, as his progress back from a strained upper pectoral strain has been fitful.

Scutaro to play second to protect shoulder

09.07.10 at 6:16 pm ET
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Marco Scutaro will play second base in deference to his rotator cuff inflammation. (AP)

Just prior to the Red Sox’ game with the Rays Tuesday night at Fenway Park, the Sox moved Marco Scutaro from shortstop to second base to protect the infielder’s ailing right shoulder. According to the Red Sox, results from an MRI taken earlier in the day suggested that the 34-year-old was dealing with inflammation of a longstanding rotator cuff injury.

The injury, which emerged in early August, won’t get any worse by continuing to play. Jed Lowrie was moved over to shortstop.

The thinking is that the throw from second base, where he played two games last year with Toronto after manning the position 50 times in ’08, would be easier on Scutaro’s shoulder. The infielder had been forced to alter his throwing motion because of the injury, saying that the pain was most severe when throwing the ball around the infield because he couldn’t short-arm the tosses like he was able to on ground balls.

“Especially with this team, they’ve got a bunch of fast guys so if you get a ball at short in the hole it’s going to be tough. You’ve got [Carl] Crawford, [B.J.] Upton, [Jason] Bartlett, all those guys can run. So it will be better for the team if Lowrie plays short,” Scutaro said. “We’re going to start getting treatment and stuff. Whatever the doctor says, and whatever the treatment I have to get to make it better. I’ve just been given the option to play second which makes it a little easier, a little closer.”

Read More: marco scutaro, rotator cuff,

Lester ponders 20 wins

09.07.10 at 3:18 am ET
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Jon Lester matched a career-high with his 16th win of the season on Monday. (AP)

Personal accomplishments are not at the front of Jon Lester‘s mind.

The left-hander’s foremost concern remains his next start, which will come either against the A’s on Sunday or the Mariners on Monday, depending on whether the Red Sox elect to have Clay Buchholz pitch on three days’ rest on Wednesday. That said, Lester admits that the idea of winning 20 games has crossed his mind, and like any pitcher, it would represent a meaningful accomplishment.

“I think if you ask any pitcher about that, I’m sure it’s crossed their minds at some point,” Lester acknowledged. “But at the same time, I’m worried about five or six days from now. You can’t start counting down starts, I’ve got five more or whatever and have a chance. You can’t worry about that.”

On Monday, Lester (16-8) overcame some early labors to match a career high by earning his 16th victory of 2010 as the Red Sox beat the Rays, 12-5. He struggled to put away the Rays early, requiring 29 pitches in both the first and third innings, but he summoned the right pitches in key situations, stranding a pair of runners in the first and leaving the bases loaded in the third, limiting Tampa Bay to one run in each frame.

That positioned him to punch claim a victory on a night when he allowed two runs on four hits while punching out 10 in his six innings. The performance continued a season in which he has enhanced his reputation as one of the top pitchers in the game. Lester is tied for second in the AL in wins and also ranks among league leaders in strikeouts (196, 3rd) and ERA (3.26, 10th).

The Sox have 24 games remaining, meaning that Lester likely has four or five starts remaining this season. That gives him at least a chance to reach the 20 wins milestone. But Lester suggests that he will refrain from targeting such a goal until he reaches 19 victories.

“That’s what gets you in trouble, if you start thinking about [20 wins],” said Lester. “I’ve got to worry about my next opponent, and try to get the next one, and see what happens.”

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Closing Time: Red Sox 12, Rays 5

09.06.10 at 10:42 pm ET
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So when is an 11-2 lead not particularly safe heading into the seventh inning?

Well, when you have a bullpen that has walked in five runs over eight innings in the span of two  games, you can’t blame Terry Francona for not feeling secure.

He watched as Jon Lester settled down after laboring over his first three innings and 69 pitches. He went to his bullpen and gave Robert Coello a chance to make his major league debut with a nine-run lead. Poor Coello. He faced six batters, retired one, allowed three hits and three runs and walked two, both of which forced in runs.

Dustin Richardson followed with a walk of his own, bring his total to two batters faced and two walks over the last two days.

Scott Atchison came in to save the day and Francona’s blood pressure, if not the game itself, by getting the final out of what was a three-run Tampa Bay seventh, an inning that featured six Tampa Bay pinch-hitters.

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX:

– They pounded bad pitching. This is something the Red Sox have a legendary reputation of doing. And they got back to basics on Monday. Despite a lineup featuring rookies Daniel Nava, leading off, Ryan Kalish, Lars Anderson and Yamaico Navarro, the Red Sox pounded Jeff Niemann for four runs and six hits and chased him after he retired only five Red Sox batters.

The Red Sox continued the onslaught against Andy Sonnanstine with five more hits and five more runs as they built their lead to 11-2 after four innings.

Jon Lester survived. The lefty was clearly not having his best night but he still managed to strike out 10 over six innings to earn his 16th win of the year.

Ryan Kalish is quickly becoming the odds-on choice to win a starting outfield spot in 2011. Whether it’s center field, we’ll have to wait on the fate of Jacoby Ellsbury to see about that. But Kalish, with his second career grand slam and two steals on Monday, is going a long way to make his statement.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX:

– Bullpen is still very shaky. On a night when they didn’t have Jonathan Papelbon available, Francona had to rely on the major league debut of Robert Coello, a converted catcher to begin the seventh inning. Dustin Richardson walked the only batter he faced.

– Jon Lester still doesn’t look himself. All you needed to see were the early walks and the hard-hit balls to know that Lester is still having a puzzling time trying to command his fastball. His curve got him out of some tight jams, including two strikeouts of Evan Longoria with runners on.

– Not quite the debut Lars was looking for. The highly-regarded first base prospect went 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts in his big league debut, falling short of the accomplishments of fellow rookies Daniel Nava, Kalish and Yamaico Navarro, all of whom had hits in their first at-bats.

Read More: lars anderson, MLB, Rays, Red Sox

Maddon expected Sox to contend despite injuries

09.06.10 at 7:53 pm ET
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Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon was aware of the epidemic of injuries sweeping across the Red Sox. He knew that Boston was without Jacoby Ellsbury, a player who he believed was ready for a breakout year, and that the losses of Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis had struck at the heart of the team.

And yet, through all of that, Maddon “absolutely” believed that the Sox would continue to remain in the thick of a three-team race, running alongside the Rays and Yankees. The reason for that was simple enough.

“A big part of it is pitching. You can absorb different injuries on the field and they can be very difficult, but if you can keep your pitching intact and you play defense, it can still carry you through the moment until guys get well or other guys figure it out,” said Maddon. “The fact that most of their problems were located on the field and not in their pitching, I just felt their pitching staff, their starters are among the best. And I know the bullpen has suffered but the two guys at the end are also among the best.

“So while they’re going through all these different maladies, I’m seeing that the pitching is still intact. You still have to respect that and from my perspective.”

Maddon’s expectations, however, have since been undermined by the struggles of the offense. The Sox have actually enjoyed a fairly strong pitching performance since Youkilis went down. Since he was placed on the disabled list with his year-ending adductor muscle injury on Aug. 3, Sox pitchers have a 3.87 ERA.

However, the Sox have hit just .248 and a .720 OPS while averaging 4.2 runs per game in that time. They have gone 16-15, and effectively fallen out of contention.

That is not merely a product of injuries, but also of the division in which the Sox reside. Whereas other races might be more forgiving of a .500 stretch, the Sox’ residence in a brutal AL East that features two teams (the Rays and Yankees) that could finish the year with 100 wins, and two more (the Sox and Blue Jays) good enough to challenge for a title in virtually any other division has taken away such margin for struggle.

“In spring training, I think I was right on,” sighed Sox manager Terry Francona. “I said the Yankees were going to be really good, Tampa was scary good, Toronto was good and Baltimore was improving. I think that’s kind of what happened. I think I was, unfortunately, right.”

Read More: Joe Maddon, Rays, Terry Francona,
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