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Top 4: The bigger picture

09.26.08 at 7:04 pm ET
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Even with Tampa Bay losing 5-3 in the bottom of the seventh, the Red Sox are not playing like a team desperate to win. They decided to spare Daisuke Matsuzaka the start, they are currently leaving David Aardsma on the hill to get beaten around (shortstop Cody Ransom, brought in to replace Derek Jeter, just crushed a homer to left to give the Yankees an 8-3 lead), Mike Lowell, after one at-bat, was pulled in favor of Chris Carter

(Lowell, it is worth noting, left the game for what the team just described as “precautionary reasons,” and he will receive a medical examination tomorrow. After he flied to left in the first, he did not appear to be moving well on his way back to the dugout.)

Is this a flawed strategy? Most likely, no. The Sox entered today with just a 2 percent likelihood of winning the division. For them to play the games according to the 1-in-50 chance of erasing that deficit–rather than in a total push to maximize the health of their team before the playoffs–seems like tomfoolery. 

(As an aside–tomfoolery is a phonetically satisfying term, and yet its origin is somewhat unseemly. If we are to believe this entry, the term derives from a Medieval British pejorative that probably should be offensive to modern sensibilities.)

This is a pretty poor night across the board for American League contenders: the Sox, Rays, White Sox and Twins are all losing. The Angels are just about to get underway. If the Rays lose or the Angels win, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim will clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and will be faced with the decision of whether to play Game 1 of their Division Series–almost certainly against the Red Sox–on Wednesday or Thursday. The postseason picture should become very clear in very short order.

Top 3: Contract’s calling

09.26.08 at 6:51 pm ET
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Bobby Abreu just singled and stole second base, and looked like a lottery winner in the process. And, in a sense, each hit and steal does give the 34-year-old a better chance of hitting the jackpot. Abreu will be a free agent following this year, and this is probably his last shot at an eight-figure annual salary on the open market. Abreu has gotten stronger as the season has progressed. After a line of .274/.345/.436/.781 in the first half, he had jumped to marks of .329/.404/.528/.933 in the second half prior to tonight. 

Corollary question: is the notion of a contract year drive for greater riches real? Was the ridiculous year turned in by former Braves catcher Javier Lopez (ca-ching: 43 homers=$22.5 million) an extreme example of a push by players to earn riches? (Was there any more inglorious player in Boston in 2006 than Javy Lopez? The Sox released the guy in September, when they could have carried a roster the size of a college football team.)

If memory serves, this book suggested otherwise, but I’d be interested in anyone chiming in with any other studies.

Bottom 2: Gil Velazquez!

09.26.08 at 6:27 pm ET
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Gil Velazquez enjoyed a very warm reception here in the bottom of the second, as those who braved the torrent to make it to the ballpark offered a standing ovation to a career minor leaguer who just had his first big-league at-bat. Velazquez probably had a pretty decent adrenaline rush working–he swung at the first pitch (lifting a foul fly into the stands), took a ball and then grounded out to third. 

Jacoby Ellsbury followed by singling and stealing second. He thus became just the third player in Red Sox history–following Tommy Harper (54 in 1973) and Tris Speaker (52 in 1912)–to swipe 50 bases in a season. 

While Harper is only asked about his steals, he put together a pretty solid year in ’73 that included 17 homers and a .281/.351/.422/.773 line.

Top 2: A title at stake

09.26.08 at 6:21 pm ET
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News from afar: the Twins are getting smoked, 4-0, by the Royals (has Francisco Liriano really given up nine hits in three innings? whoaaaa), but Twins catcher Joe Mauer is 1-for-1, nudging his batting average north from .330 to .331. Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia is sitting out tonight, and time is short for him to bump up his .325 average far enough to catch the Twins backstop. 

Of course, in another category, Pedroia enjoys an insurmountable lead on the Minnesota star. Mauer’s sideburns enjoy unseemly popularity in Minnesota, to the point where small children appear to be consuming massive quantities of testosterone in order to replicate them. (Are the former East German Olympic doctors in charge of this campaign?)

Going relatively unnoticed–to the point where it is difficult to find a picture that demonstrates the phenomenon–has been Pedroia’s ambitious facial hair growth. The second baseman is starting to look like he’s spent the past couple years in a cabin in the woods hunting bears with his bare hands. With the Tampa Bay Rays currently rocking a bunch of mohawks, it seems disappointing that baseball players don’t go the hockey route for the postseason. 

That aside aside, David Pauley was hit hard in the second, giving up three runs (including a two-run homer to Johnny Damon). Yankees lead 4-3, a fact that seems increasingly relevant with the Tigers beating the Rays 5-3 in the seventh inning in Detroit.

Bottom 1: Ellsbury, Youkilis raking

09.26.08 at 6:05 pm ET
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Jacoby Ellsbury just homered off Alfredo Aceves to lead off the bottom of the first for the Red Sox. Ellsbury has now led off three games this year with a homer. He also has a career-best 17-game hitting streak in progress, and is also enjoying a strong finishing kick. He is hitting .326 with an .867 OPS this month.

Tommy Harper’s 35-year-old record for the most steals (54) by a Red Sox in a single season, however, appears safe. Ellsbury remains stuck at 49, and hasn’t swiped a bag in five games despite having reached base nine times. “Nine times?” quote principal Ed Rooney…

Ellsbury has also matched the season-long hitting streak by a member of the Sox this year. Dustin Pedroia had a 17-game run from June 22-July 9. Pedroia hit a ridiculous .474 during his streak, averaging more than two runs a game. 

Kevin Youkilis also went deep in the bottom of the first, crushing a 92 m.p.h. fastball into the left-field stands. Youkilis now has 29 homers on the year. Since Aceves now has a 2.39 ERA (up from a 1.38 mark at the start of the game), it adds, at least technically, to the notion that Youkilis is the best Sox hitter against “good” pitchers (technically defined as hurlers with a sub-3.50 ERA). Aceves, who gave up three hits and two walksin the first, may not fall into that category for much longer. All the same, the 25-year-old Aceves  deserves a shout out for having moved up all the way from High-A Tampa of the Florida State League to the majors in a single year.

And they’re off…

09.26.08 at 5:46 pm ET
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First pitch took place at 8:36pm. Before the Red Sox replaced the Fenway turf a few years ago, the drainage system would have never allowed this game to happen.

Even so, it is a buzz-free atmosphere. Aside from a few perfunctory boos offered to Johnny Damon, there’s no sense of blood lust. 

“Right now, it’s just like another team is coming in,” said Sox outfielder Jason Bay. “There isn’t the hoopla.” 

Members of the Yankees almost unanimously seemed to expect a rainout today. It will be interesting to see whether they come out a bit flat. Jed Lowrie, a native of Salem, Oregon, seemed positively exuberant about the downpour. Lowrie said that there was no chance that “a little drizzle” along the lines of what Bostonians experienced today would have rained out games in Salem.

“This would have been a nice day to play,” he said.

It was unclear whether he meant it. Regardless, the rain delay merely added to the rationale for the Yankees to move to Arizona

Of rain-imposed scratches and things

09.26.08 at 5:23 pm ET
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The Red Sox‘ decision to scratch Daisuke Matsuzaka in favor of David Pauley seems a prudent gesture. Whenever a pitcher is supposed to take the bump on a night when the weather is miserable, one need only think back to 2002 to reflect on the potential risks involved. 

In the second game of the 2002 season, the Red Sox sent pitcher Dustin Hermanson to the hill. Hermanson, a pitcher whom the Sox signed because of his lively, mid-90s fastball and sweet sideburns, was making his Boston debut, and was well on his way to a highly favorable impression. He looked electric in the first inning, striking out a pair of Blue Jays. Then, he slipped on the mound while warming up for the second and badly “strained” his right groin. 

Hermanson didn’t return to the majors until the 95th Sox game that year. His official Red Sox debut, which came in relief, was a particularly puzzling one. Sox skipper Grady Little decided that with the Sox leading the Yankees 8-6 in Yankee Stadium, the eighth inning would be a great time for Hermanson to make his first appearance since the injury. Hermanson coughed up a couple of runs and the Yankees went on to beat the Sox 9-8 in extras. 

A couple days later, Hermanson went back on the disabled list with a staph infection in his right elbow. The cause? The pitcher said that he slipped in his kitchen while doing dishes and gashed his elbow on his counter.

He missed another month before returning on August 22 for a start–another one in which Hermanson was dodging raindrops. Hermanson pitched five decent innings that night to claim his only win as a member of the Red Sox. He finished that year 1-1 with a 7.77 ERA, pitching in just 12 games and 22 innings, and was no doubt left to wonder that offseason how his life might have been different had he not been sent to the mound on one rainy night in April. 

Hermanson’s story took an interesting post-Bostonian twist. He bounced to St. Louis and San Francisco in 2003-04, then ended up as a member of the Chicago White Sox in 2005. He emerged as an elite closer that year, recording a 2.04 ERA and 34 saves, but injured his back in September of that season, losing his job to hulking closer Bobby Jenks. Jenks went on to become a postseason force for the White Sox en route to the club’s first World Series win since 1917. Hermanson bounced around before getting released by the Reds just prior to opening day in 2007.

Soggy math

09.26.08 at 4:10 pm ET
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Rain delays can be fun! Really… we mean it…

Just ask Mr. Met. Or the guy who created the Rainout Blog (where I found the image of Mr. Met).  Actually, and sadly, don’t ask the guy who created the Rainout Blog – looks like he pulled the plug on the enterprise this season.

But enough of that. Rain, hypothetically, could crown the Red Sox the champions of the American League East. But how?

The Sox enter today facing a two-game deficit in the division, but because Tampa Bay won the season series and the resulting tiebreaker, the Sox would have to win out their schedule while the Rays would have to lose all of their three games against Detroit. 

But the dismal weekend weather could create all kinds of bizarre scenarios that would wreak havoc on the division. Here’s the shakedown:

If the Rays lost all three games and the Sox were rained out all weekend, the Rays (96-66, .593) would win the division thanks to a higher winning percentage than the Sox (94-65, .591). 

If the Rays lose all three and the Sox play and win one game, Boston would take the division with a 95-65 record and .594 winning percentage. The same is true if the Sox play and win two games to finish with a 96-65 record and .596 mark. 

In such scenarios, the big question would be whether the Sox should pop champagne corks in celebration of a Sunday rainout. Or whether scheduled Yankees Sunday starter Mike Mussina would go ballistic. Mussina is 19-9 with a 3.47 ERA, and–somewhat incredibly–would become a 20-game winner for the first time in his career with a ‘W’ on Sunday. The 39-year-old would become the oldest player in baseball history to reach the milestone for the first time.

Former Boston and Milwaukee Brave Warren Spahn is the oldest pitcher ever to notch 20 W’s in a season. He was 42 (the same age as Tim Wakefield and Mike Timlin) when he went 23-7 with a 2.60 ERA in 1963.

Pre-game notes of note

09.26.08 at 2:06 pm ET
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If tonight’s game is rained out, the Red Sox and Yankees are likely to play two on Sunday. I can’t imagine that Ernie Banks was thinking of a meaningless twin-bill on the season’s final day when he made his well known proclamation, but so be it. 

In such a scenario, Daisuke Matsuzaka would start on Saturday, with Josh Beckett’s status officially “undeclared.” If Beckett were to start on Sunday, it would all but rule out a Game 1 start. 

Tonight’s lineup–in a hypothetical scenario in which the game is played–would feature Mike Lowell at D.H. and David Ortiz playing first base. Ortiz, whose most frequent use of his glove is to fend off potential groupies, has yet to play in the field this year. All the same, the Sox do not consider it a priority to get him pre-World Series game activity in the field. It just so happened that it made sense to do so as the team brings Lowell back into the fold.

J.D. Drew is out of the lineup again after his back acted up again. He spent today at MGH with Dr. Thomas Gill’s medical staff to determine whether there was a significant orthopedic problem in play. A battery of bloodwork and scans did not reveal a problem, but the team still seems uncertain about what his availability might be like going forward. There was a time when that would have seemed like a huge deal, but Sox manager Terry Francona shrugged, “We’ve had him for, what, three innings for the last 39 days?” Drew has been out of the lineup, with little interruption, since August 17. In that time, the Sox have a 23-12 record, best in the American League and tied with the Phillies for the best in the majors. 

Coco Crisp remains out of the lineup due to a left foot injury that required a painkilling injection on Wednesday. In the final month of last year, Crisp dealt with the same discomfort in the sesamoid area. 

I’m not sure if 5:05pm qualifies as the “late afternoon,” but the “possible break” in the deluge is nowhere in sight…

Pesky ceremony postponed

09.26.08 at 12:29 pm ET
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I do not own a car. Today, the few-minute trek to and from the sundry means of MBTA transportation were uniquely unpleasant. The likelihood of baseball at Fenway Park, according to my very unofficial and waterlogged assessment, seems poor. According to an official Sox statement, there is “a possibility of a break in today’s rain showers.” Hardly inspiring. 

The facade above the right-field grandstand currently features a gap in the register of retired Red Sox numbers: 1-4- -8-9-27-42. The retirement ceremony for Johnny Pesky’s No. 6 was supposed to fill that void tonight. Instead, due to the monsoon, that event has just been postponed until Sunday afternoon at 1:15pm. 

I did, however, want to get back to colleague Rob Bradford’s question about Alex Cora’s history against Brendan Donnelly. In six career showdowns, Cora has averaged six pitches per appearance against the former Red Sox and current Indians reliever. Here’s the blow-by-blow.

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