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The Boston Red Sox began the second half of their season Thursday night against the first-place Texas Rangers at Fenway Park, sending knuckleballer Tim Wakefield to the hill. Wakefield had struggled of late, going 1-3 in has last four decisions and sporting an ERA over 5.00 (5.22 coming into the game). The Rangers countered with right-hander Tommy Hunter, who came into the game 5-0 with an ERA 2.39. The Red Sox were hoping for a strong outing from Wakefield to get the post-All-Star Game season off on the right note. Unfortunately, Wakefield could not deliver.
After striking out the lead-off batter in the first, Wakefield gave up consecutive singles to put men on first and third with just one out. He then gave up an RBI single to Vladimir Guerrero (3-5, 2 runs scored, RBI), an RBI double to Josh Hamilton (3-4, all doubles, 1 RBI, 1 run scored), a 2-run single to Nelson Cruz (3-5, 3 RBIs, run scored), and finally a 2-run home run to Bengie Molina. Just like that, the Rangers were up 6-0 just one out into the game. Wakefield retired the next five batters he faced, including a perfect second inning, but the damage had already been done. In the third inning, with men on first and third and none out, Wakefield gave up another RBI double to Nelson Cruz to make it 7-0. After that he was done. Four Red Sox bullpen pitchers played for the final seven innings of the game.
As for the offense, the seven-run deficit was simply too much to overcome, and Tommy Hunter was pitching well on top of it. Solo home runs by J.D. Drew in the fourth and Bill Hall in the seventh helped mitigate the damage, but the Red Sox could not do nearly enough to come back from such a large deficit. Only three times were the Red Sox able to get multiple men on base, and all three times the runners were stranded without scoring. Despite just striking out six through the game, Texas’s pitchers were able to dominate Boston’s diminished lineup. Boston almost mounted a ninth-inning rally, but with two men on and one out both Ryan Shealy and Marco Scutaro struck out, ending the threat and the game. The final score: Rangers 7, Red Sox 2. Hunter picked up the win and Wakefield suffered the loss.
Of the six hits Boston managed, four came at the hands of J.D. Drew and Bill Hall. Both hit solo home runs en route to going 2-4 on the night. Bill Hall also made a tremendous diving catch in the fifth to rob Bengie Molina of extra bases and turned a nifty double-play in the sixth, beating the runner to third base and then making a strong throw across the diamond to nail the runner heading to first. He was the star of the night for the Red Sox and has stepped up tremendously given the extra play time he has received. The only other offensive player of note was Daniel Nava, who reached base three times on a single and two walks. The rest of Boston’s hitters all combined to manage one hit. The top four hitters of the lineup were completely useless, going 0-17. The Red Sox were 0-5 with runners in scoring position, left eight men on base, and managed no extra base hits beyond the two home runs. The Rangers pitching staff was in top form tonight, and the Red Sox could do nothing with them.
First the bad: Tim Wakefield. In just two innings of work he gave up seven earned runs on eight hits while striking out just two. The knuckleball is a tricky pitch to throw, and when it’s flat it’s the most hittable pitch in the game. Thursday night it was the flattest I’ve ever seen it, and Wakefield got crushed. This season has not been a strong one for Wakefield. He has just three wins and his ERA is over 5.00 (5.65). Perhaps he is finally reaching the end of his career, no longer able to throw his signature pitch with enough movement to make it dangerous.
Now the good: the bullpen! In seven innings of work, four Red Sox pitchers combined to allow just four hits and four walks. They did not allow a run. Of special note were Robert Manuel and Scott Atchison. Manuel was called in in the third inning with men on second and third and no outs. A ground out to third, a shallow fly out to left, and a strikeout later, and Manuel was out of the inning without allowing an inherited runner to score. Overall, he went 2.2 innings, giving up two hits and a walk while striking out one. He successfully slowed the Rangers offense down and at least gave the Red Sox a CHANCE to get back in the game. Atchison, meanwhile, pitched three shutout innings, allowing just one hit while recording a strikeout. Manuel and Atchison combined to save the Boston bullpen from overuse. Now its more elite pitchers will be rested and ready for the next game. While Wakefield’s performance was atrocious, the bullpen (and not the good pitchers in the bullpen) finally showed it can keep Boston in games without making deficits worse. If we can get performances like this out of Manuel and Atchison on a regular basis, the Red Sox will finally have a bullpen strong enough to complement its offense and starting rotation.
OK, this was a bad way to start the second half of the season. There’s no denying that. However, there are definitely some positives we can take away from this game. The bullpen, once thought of as the weakest link on the Red Sox, showed it still has some life left in it. Bill Hall continued to play magnificently both offensively and defensively, this time at third base. And J.D. Drew proved he is still alive. There are definitely things that can be built upon from this game. But the starting pitching and the offense need to pick it up. Both have been decimated by injury, yes. But everyone left is still a professional, and they must be able to produce. As starters return from injury the team will get stronger. However, if the Red Sox cannot win with the pitchers and hitters they currently have, they may find themselves out of playoff contention by the time they get healthy.