|Notes and Observations Week 16: Patriots Escape from New York with 17-16 Win; Clinch First Round Bye.||Connelly’s Top Ten: Patriots Win By Less Than a FOOT||Panic Mode in Full Effect, Minutemen are Struggling||Patriots Survive Gritty Challenge From Jets|
Nomar Garciaparra returns to Fenway Park for the first time since 2004, now with his third team since leaving Boston in the deadline deal. The Red Sox visited Wrigley Field in 2005, but Nomar was hurt (shocking!) and they were in Oakland earlier this season when Garciaparra went 1-4 in a start and walked in a pinch hit plate appearance.
I, like many Red Sox fans, will always remember where I was on July 31, 2004 when I heard that Nomar was being sent to the Cubs with prospect (who has since made the big leagues) Matt Murton for Montreal shortstop Orlando Cabrera and Minnesota first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz as part of a four-team deal.
I had been out in Boston with friends and we had just sat down to eat at Joe’s American Bar and Grill on the waterfront when I heard someone say, ‘Nomar got traded’ and ESPN had the trade on the screen. I was in utter shock that Theo Epstein and company would part with the oft-injured face of the franchise for what seemed to be two average ballplayers. We all know how it turned out: they combined to improve the Red Sox defense drastically, Cabrera added many clutch hits, and Mientkiewicz created controversey over the World Series ball as the Red Sox won the World Series without Nomar. I hope the Fenway Faithful give him a well-deserved round of applause.
As for the Red Sox, they open the final week of the first half with the best record in the American League, despite dropping the series with the Mariners, and hold a single game lead over the torrid Yankees in the East Division. The A’s are dead last in the West and well out of playoff contention in what has turned out to be a better than expected division. The A’s did not figure to be competitive this season, despite the curious offseason trade to acquire free agent to be Matt Holliday for closer Huston Street.
John Smoltz will make his first Fenway Park start as a member of the Red Sox, coming off a tough no decision last week against the Orioles against Brett Anderson (4-7, 5.45 ERA, 1.51 WHIP). The Red Sox send All-Stars to the hill for the final two games in Josh Beckett and Tim Wakefield, who nearly threw a no-hitter in Oakland back in April. They will face Dallas Braden (6-7, 3.13, 1.26) and Trevor Cahill (5-7, 4.55, 1.44, respectively. Oakland’s youth is especially visible in their pitching staff. Braden and Cahill anchor the rotation and the closer carousel points to Andrew Bailey, Oakland’s lone All-Star, at the moment.
The A’s offer one of the worst offenses in baseball by almost any measure, including hits, extra base hits, and total bases. Fenway is a lot smaller than the Coliseum, so perhaps their hitters get a boost, provided that they can get enough baserunners off Smoltz, Beckett, and Wakefield. Catcher Kurt Suzuki is their leading hitter at .282 with five home runs, 33 batted in, and 35 runs. Prized acquisition Holliday is hitting .273 with only eight home runs, 43 RBI, and 39 runs. Their leading home run hitters, Jack Cust (14) and Jason Giambi (11), have David Ortiz-like averages: .224 and .197 respectively, leaving a big hole in the middle of the order when they fail to go yard.
Braden has the A’s best shot of a win, but draws Beckett, so the Red Sox can look to break out the brooms in this series.