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The Red Sox really seem to be getting into a groove as we get into the midseason summer schedule with another great week, going 4-2. They have extended the lead to 2.5 games over the Rays, with rumors beginning to swirl that Tampa Bay may be interested in adding Ken Griffey, Jr. If in fact the Rays are committed to being buyers around the deadline, ths division race could be interesting in late summer if they can hang around and the Yankees can make the run I expect. (They are on a four-game win streak and have risen to third, six back of the Sox.)
The week began with a three-game set at Fenway against very familiar foe, Baltimore, who the Sox will not play again until mid-July. The Red Sox dropped the first game as the Orioles got to Hideki Okajima again, but came back to get the final two. Okajima has allowed runs in only 4 of his 28 appearances, 3 of those against the Orioles and he has taken both of this losses on the season against them, including this game. Terry Francona may want to think about working Okajima around games against the Orioles from here on out.
Josh Beckett started the game and was not particularly sharp, allowing more earned runs than strikeouts (4-3). Okajima then allowed three runs while recording only one out. Manny Delcarmen provided some solid reflief with a scoreless 1 2/3 innings, but Craig Hansen allowed two insurance runs in this ninth. Daniel Cabrera did not figure into the decision either and allowed six runs through his five, including two home runs (J. D. Drew and Manny Ramirez). Five Orioles relievers came on to pitch a combined four scoreless innings, allowing only a single hit and one walk to seal the game. The Red Sox saw only 51 pitches against the relief staff, an uncharacteristically weak number against the soft middle relievers.
Bartolo Colon is really beginning to look like the pitcher he was in the late 90′s and early 00′s. While recording his 150th career victory, he struck out seven O’s through six, yielding only one run on five hits and a walk. He also threw 93 pitches, another improvement as he puts the shoulder surgery further and further behind him. David Aardsma and Javier Lopez each provided single innings of shutout ball as each continues to provide great relief. Mike Timlin came in in a non-save situation to try to wrap things up and allowed two runs (one earned) in 2/3 innings, but Jonathan Papelbon came on to get the final out and save.
The Red Sox hit starter Garrett Olson hard, scoring five first inning runs, including a Jason Varitek home run. Baltimore manager Dave Trembley showed a lot of confidence in Olson by letting him remain in the game. The rookie allowed only one more run while getting into the sixth inning. He had a good start to this season, as it was only his second bad outing. So, avoiding the early hook appears to be well-earned.
Mike Lowell powered the Red Sox to victory in the final game of the series, hitting a grand slam (his second home run in as many nights) to make a winner out of Jon Lester. Kevin Youkilis and Drew each added superfluous two-run shots off the Orioles bullpen. Lester allowed two runs through seven and Delcarmen and Timlin pitched scoreless eighth and ninth innings, respectively. A good series on the whole for the Sox as they continue to dominate at home. Only the Chicago Cubs, at 29-8, have a record anywhere near as good as the Red Sox 28-7 mark at Fenway.
The Red Sox then re-opened interleague play in Cincinnati, visiting for the first time since the 1975 World Series (though not the first meeting since ’75, as the two teams played at Fenway in 2005). Again, the Sox dropped the first of the three-game set but won the other two, which was good for their fifth consecutive series win.
The Reds young phenom Jay Bruce led off the home half of the first with a home run, getting the Reds off to a quick start on their way to tagging Justin Masterson with his first major league loss. He gave up a fourth inning home run to Adam Dunn and a run-scoring double by Joey Votto, while the Red Sox could only muster a single run on a Manny single. Aaron Harang struck out seven in seven, allowing just that one run. Neither bullpen allowed a run after picking up for Masterson and Harang. It is a tough-luck first loss for Masterson, getting no run support and allowing the two home runs in the generous (to hitters) Great American Ballpark.
Tim Wakefield was up to the challenge in his battle with the Major League leader in ERA, Edinson Volquez. Wake allowed only two in seven innings of work, setting it up for the one-two punch of Okajima and Papelbon. Unfortunately, Cincinnati was not privy to that gameplan as they got to Okajima for a run in only 1/3 of an inning, but Delcarmen came in to put that fire out. Edwin Encarnacion homered off Pap in the ninth to send the game to extra frames.
Volquez, for his part, recorded nine strikeouts in his seven innings and allowed three runs, two of which were earned. His bullpen was just as shaky as veteran David Weathers allowed a run in his inning and journeyman reliever Mike Lincoln gave up home runs to Youk and Coco Crisp in the 10th and took the loss. Hansen earned his first save of the season, allowing Papelbon to get the win, with a scoreless inning.
In another parallel to the Baltimore series, the Red Sox took the rubber game in deciding fashion, hammering the Reds 9-0. They hit four home runs, including three off of Cincinnati’s starter, the appropriately named “Homer” Bailey, who lasted only 2 1/3 innings. Beckett went seven and struck out six against six hits and Aardsma and Timlin each added a scoreless inning to complete the shutout. Aside from falling victim to the inconsistent Harang, the Red Sox were impressive in battling Volquez and beating up Bailey. The big win was a definite puncuation mark to end that series.
This week will mark the first all interleague week for the Sox beginning with the end of the road trip in Philadelphia, in another hitter-friendly ballpark. The opener features the best pitching matchup of the series with Colon facing Phillies’ ace Cole Hamels. Hamels is only 6-4, but sports a good 3.27 ERA and a miniscule 1.02 WHIP. He also has 86 strikeouts in 99 innings and has two shutouts on this season’s resume.
Lester will face Jamie Moyer in a battle of southpaws and Masterson draws Kyle Kendrick, who should be the most hittable of the three the Sox will see. He brings in an ERA of 4.54 and a WHIP of 1.47. The ‘Philadephia Story’ this season is all about their hitting. They have already put 20 on the board twice while Chase Utley leads the majors in home runs. He is being chased by teammates Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell. Brad Lidge is garnering attention for the comeback award following his offseason trade from Houston and regaining his form as an All-Star closer.
This should be a good litmus test for the Sox as they are on the road against a quality team for the first time in quite a while (since the late-April sweep by Tampa Bay). I am hesitant to judge the series on the matchups of the starters given the offensive abilities of each team and an unforgiving park for pitchers. Hamels should give the Phils the game one edge, while Lester and Masterson should provide that edge for the Sox in the following games. This should be an exciting series, especially if you love offense and home runs. I hope the Sox can grab two.
The Red Sox will then get a day off and head home to face off against the team them beat to ‘Reverse the Curse’ in the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards will be without Albert Pujols for a couple more weeks after tearing his calf. They also may be without top catcher Yadier Molina, after he was run over (and held onto the ball) and had to leave on a backboard. He appears to be suffering whiplash-like symptoms.
The Cardinals are among the leaders in runs, but are an average team with respect to power. Tony LaRussa will scratch out runs with steals, hit-and-runs, and sacrifices, among other ‘small-ball’ techniques. While Pujols is the team leader in most offensive categories, Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel have been starring as well and will be expected to carry more of the load while he is out.
They have slotted eight different pitchers into the game as starters so far, including Mike Parisi (my namesake) and Mitchell Boggs, the series’ second game starter, against Beckett. Wakefield and Kyle Lohse, who is having an impressive season so far at 8-2 with a 3.77 ERA and 1.21 WHIP, will open the series. The matchups for the finale have not been announced, but it appears Colon would face Braden Looper. The Red Sox have the edge across the board in this series, so I expect two of three and perhaps a sweep; anything less is a disappointment with the state of the Cards right now.
Mike writes a weekly column for Sports of Boston called View from the Monster. View his past articles here.