TORONTO — You see something new virtually every day in the course of a 162-game baseball season. And within the hours that encompassed the Red Sox‘ 6-3 loss to the Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre, there wasn’t any shortage of uniqueness.
You had David Ortiz, the slugger who finished his night hitting .189, come just a few meters away from putting at least some of his worries in the rear-view mirror with a blast just in front of the 400-foot sign in center field that would have been a first-inning grand slam with a little more punch. (Or if the roof was opened, which wasn’t an option after a day of beautiful sunshine turned to showers.)
Instead, you had Ortiz walk out of the stadium with another 0 for 4, left almost rhythmically saying, “just got to keep laughing, bro.”
There was a rookie pitcher, Daniel Bard, who made his presence felt by striking out five straight batters.
You even had the actor who played head of the board of Callahan Automotive, ‘Rittenhuer’ in the movie “Tommy Boy” — Sean McCann — hanging in the media dining room while preparing for the upcoming baseball amateur draft. (He is a part-time scout for the Blue Jays.)
But one thing you thing that was weighing on some folks’ minds while watching Tim Wakefield’s 4 2/3-inning, nine-hit, six-run outing against the Jays, and looking forward to Saturday’s start by Brad Penny, was whether or not they might be witnessing another unique moment a few weeks down the road.
Would the Red Sox actually go to a six-man rotation?
We learned that, even with the projected introduction of John Smoltz on June 16, and the continuing emergence of Clay Buchholz, adding the extra member to the starting staff is not a likely scenario, and if it does happen it isn’t something anybody should get used to.
Why the strategy most likely isn’t a reality was just one of a few things we discovered on the day the Red Sox allowed the Blue Jays to snap the nine-game losing streak that had started last week in Fenway Park…
WHY IT WOULDN’T WORK
When it comes to talk of a six-man rotation, Josh Beckett doesn’t hide his feelings regarding the proposed project.
“I don’t like it,” Beckett said. “I don’t need five days in between each start. If that’s what they decide to do, there’s nothing I can do about it. But I don’t personally like it.”
Wakefield, coming off one of his more frustrating outings of the season, had a slightly different view.
“It would be pretty cool because everybody would get an extra day, especially for the older guys,” he said. “I don’t know if they want to build in extra days for me, but I feel unbelievable right now.”
And then there are the thoughts of the Red Sox decision-makers.
While the team has discussed the prospects of going with six starters in the past, the Red Sox understand the problems with adding another pitcher to the rotation, and the uneasiness of Beckett and others is just a fraction of the equation.
Along with the tampering of each starter’s routine, there is also having to further adjust whenever an off day comes along. For example, in the first two weeks following Smoltz’ projected return to the majors, the Red Sox have two off days prior to the All-Star Game break. If such a plan would be hatched, it would most likely come during a stretch where there were no breaks in the schedule.
And then there is perhaps the biggest issue when it comes to why the Sox would shy away from such a ploy. With the extra starter comes one less member of the bullpen, and Red Sox manager Terry Francona had made no secret how much he enjoys the flexibility that comes with having seven relievers at his disposal. There also wouldn’t be a member of the starting staff which would be the kind of hurler who would be used out of the bullpen on their side-session day.
“That’s more of a longer discussion than just a happenstance coaching move because you’re going to affect the routine of the other five starters in the rotation, and the bullpen is the one thing that is overlooked,” said Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell. “All of a sudden you take one more reliever out of the mix. We plan on being in the game every night so you look at the match-ups and potential for overuse comes into play.
“I wouldn’t say it’s not optimum, it’s just not as easy as it looks by simply adding a fifth starter. There are other expectations that go with it.”
As for Wakefield, the first four innings against the Blue Jays continued to suggest that he would be one of the most important members of the Sox’ rotation, no matter the number of members. But then came a five-run fifth by Toronto and the knuckleballer was left looking for yet another rebound outing five days down the road.
“I’m not going to lie, kind of. I thought his knuckleball was better today than it was when we faced him down in Boston,” said Toronto catcher Rod Barajas, referencing Wakefield’s eight-inning, one-run outing against the Jays, May 19. “I had no chance my first two at-bats. That ball was starting at about my chest and it was ending up at my feet. I thought I didn’t have a chance against him tonight, but in that fifth inning he just left some up.”
THE ROOKIE IMPRESSES
With one out in the sixth, and the Red Sox already trailing, 6-2, Bard started putting on a show. First he got Adam Lind swinging, and then Scott Rolen went down the same way. In the seventh the reliever would fan the side, punching out Kevin Millar, Lyle Overbay, and Rod Barajas.
While it was Bard’s fastball — which topped out at 99 mph and lived around 97 and 98 mph — was undoubtedly his bread and butter, it was the slider he threw four times (out of 32 pitches) which perhaps offered his most encouragement.
Three days before Bard and Farrell decided to change the grip on the slider, going from a two-seam grip to a four-seamer. It paid off, as did the rookie’s ability to harness the explosiveness of his heater down in the strike zone.
“You could see the balls were down. I was having a hard time getting the other ones down below the zone as finish pitch, and these ones I was throwing consistently down and down and away,” said Bard of his slider.
The low-key Bard stopped short, however, of identifying the outing as a hallmark moment in his brief big league career.
“It feels good. That’s what I expect though, not necessarily the strikeouts but getting outs and executing pitches that makes you get hitters out at any level,” said Bard, who, after pitching two innings against the Jays, has now gone 8 1/3 innings since his promotion, giving up one run on seven hits while striking out seven and walking three.
“I think there’s an adjustment period whenever you’re moving up at any time. Last year I went throught it at Double A. It took me about a month, but that’s when you get that feeling, ‘Alright I belong here,’ and then you go out and start pitching and throwing with more confidence. You stop worrying about what people are thinking out here and it’s more a focus on getting out and winning ballgames.”
ORTIZ IS LAUGHING (SORT OF)
First came the first-inning blast on a first-pitch fastball from Toronto starter Casey Janssen that reached the center field wall, but also Vernon Wells’ glove. And then, two innings later, there was a line-drive rocketed down the right-field line that was snared by Overbay.
Lazy fly outs to center and left would end Ortiz’ night, leaving the DH shaking his head as he prepared to head out of the visitors’ clubhouse.
“You know what? All I can do about myself right now is laugh. I’m not going to cry,” he said. “Laugh, keep on swinging, and keep on waiting for the good luck charm to show up. There’s nothing else I can do.”
Was there some gratification stemming from the first at-bat smash even with it settling in Wells’ mitt?
“What do you think?” Ortiz said. “You can’t swing the bat no better than that.”
Did he think it was out?
“I hit it pretty damn good,” the DH said.
But the problem remains, both for Ortiz and the Red Sox, who haven’t scored more than three runs in any of the five games since the rearrangement of their batting order.
While many of the members of the Sox’ order have produced since Ortiz was moved to sixth and J.D. Drew slid up to the No. 3 spot (with Lowell, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and Jason Bay all hitting .294 or better), the two main components of the alteration have struggled somewhat.
Up until Drew’s seventh-inning homer he had been 0 for 14 since moving up in the order, while Ortiz still stands at 2 for 15 (.133) with four strikeouts.
ELLSBURY PICKED UP WHERE HE LEFT OFF
Ellsbury couldn’t remember how he fared following the end of his 25-game hit streak while with Triple A Pawtucket, but he most likely won’t forget how he rebounded from the conclusion of his 22-gamer, which ended Thursday in Minnesota.
The Sox’ leadoff man notched his sixth and seventh hit of the road trip, knocking in his team’s first two RBI. His average stands at .304.
So now he has come within four games of reaching the halfway point of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak, does he believe it is an attainable record?
“He did it, so why can’t somebody else do it?” Ellsbury said. “Records were made to be broken. Somebody will do it. It’s tough, but you never know. You never thought there would be another Michael Jordan and here comes LeBron (James). Yeah, it’s a reord that is probably going to withstand for a long time, but baseball is going to be around for a long time.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Ellsbury believes that it will be tougher to break Rickey Henderson’s record of 130 stolen bases in a single season than it will to top DiMaggio.
“I would say it’s harder to steal a base than get a hit,” he said.
LOWELL AIRED IT OUT
When Lowell’s grounder up the middle was fielded by shortstop Marco Scutaro, who threw it to Overbay in time to get the Sox’ third baseman for the first out of the fourth inning, it’s importance was hard to decipher. But it was important, on a few levels.
First, replays showed that Lowell’s contention that he had beaten the throw was accurate. But unfortunately for the Sox, first base umpire Tim McClelland didn’t see it at the time. As it turned out, it could have been a pivotal mistake by the umpire, with the visitors following up the out with back to back hits.
“He said he would check it after the game,” said Lowell regarding his argument with McClelland. “You get a little emotional because you want the hit. I’m usually not a guy who’s going to argue unless I feel I’m really, really right. I consider Tim one of the best umpires in the game. He just told me he would take a look. It was just that it was leading off the inning and it could have been a hit. I could have changed the strategy.”
There was a positive to the play for Lowell, however. He agreed with some of those in the press box who believed the race down the first base line might have been his fastest since coming back from hip surgery.
“That’s when you smell the hit,” he said. “I don’t think I could have done that a month ago.”