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Sox Defense Plays With Fire, Finally Burned in Seventh

Chicago White Sox's Alexei Ramirez hits an RBI-single off Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Josh Beckett, scoring Omar Vizquel, during the seventh inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

For six innings, Josh Beckett and the Red Sox infield danced around walks, infield singles, sacrifice ground outs and bunts. In the seventh inning, the music finally ended, as two RBI singles and an errant throw on a bunt allowed three runs to score. Wednesday night at U.S. Cellular Field, the Chicago White Sox beat the Boston Red Sox, 5-2.

The Red Sox got on the board first: In the top of the fourth inning, Marco Scutaro led off with a double, then stole third base two outs later, capitalizing on the White Sox shift against David Ortiz. The designated hitter then beat the shift, lacing a single to exactly where the third basemen would normally be. Ortiz also bunted in his first at-bat, to the amusement of players and coaches from both sides. Ortiz might have been the only Boston player having any fun Wednesday.

The single put the Red Sox up 1-0, but Beckett gave the lead away in the bottom of the fourth. After inducing a quick ground out, A.J. Pierzynski smashed a 1-0 pitch over the right field wall, tying the game. Up until the fourth, Beckett had pitched superbly, allowing just a walk while enjoying two 1-2-3 innings. But Pierzynski’s home run seemed to ignite White Sox offense, though no batter would do better than a single.

Beckett got out of bases loaded jams in the fifth and sixth, but the hits and walks were starting to build up against the starter. In the seventh, it all came crashing down. Three consecutive singles, the last by the ageless Omar Vizquel, gave the White Sox a 2-1 lead. With two on and none out, Brent Lillibridge dropped a beautiful bunt on the infield grass. It rolled just far enough away from Victor Martinez to make his throw to first difficult, while simultaneously rolling slowly enough that Beckett, who rolled his ankle in the fifth and was having trouble fielding, could not get to it comfortably either. Martinez made the throw, and he airmailed it over Mike Lowell’s head and into the seats, allowing a run to score and the runners to advance to second and third.

An intentional walk and an RBI single later, Beckett was done for the night. The Red Sox escaped further damage in the seventh, but they never came back. Lowell homered off White Sox starter Freddy Garcia to begin the eighth, but that was the last run Boston scored. Garcia had a fantastic night that was likely cut short by the 26-minute wait while Chicago scored three in the seventh inning. Through seven innings he allowed just two hits, enjoying six 1-2-3 innings.

The White Sox answered Lowell’s solo shot when Brent Morel reached on an infield single (Chicago’s fourth and Morel’s second) off Tim Wakefield, took third on another single, then scored on a double play.

Matt Thornton retired all four batters he faced to pick up his eighth save. Garcia picked up his 12th win while Beckett suffered his sixth loss.

Red Sox at the Plate

Lowell’s eighth-inning home run brought the game within reach, but the Red Sox squandered Jed Lowrie’s subsequent single and never got back in the game. Lowell had the closest thing to a good night at the plate, homering and reaching on a walk, but to call that a good night would be a stretch. Ortiz drove in his 102nd RBI of the season, but you have to wonder if he shouldn’t have wasted that first at-bat, amusing though it might have been. The only other person to hit was Scutaro, who doubled and scored Boston’s first run.

Scutaro has quietly had a very good season. His batting average, .273, is the second highest of his career. He has already set a new career high in hits with 171. And he’s missed only nine games all season despite playing with a partially torn rotator cuff in his shoulder. Were he batting ninth, like he was meant to, instead of first, we would be calling him a great signing by Theo Epstein. As it stands, he has played as hard as physically possible, and at $5.5 million, he’s earned his salary. He might not be the long-term solution to the Red Sox merry-go-round of shortstops, but he was far from the worst we’ve seen in the last six years.

In general, Garcia relied almost exclusively on off-speed pitches, and the Red Sox never adjusted. They only struck out once, but they never figured out how to place Garcia’s corner-nibbling pitches. Good defense by the White Sox infield helped corral their hitting, but the Red Sox were essentially outsmarted by the opposing pitcher.

Red Sox on the Mound

Beckett will finish 2010 with the highest ERA of his career and the fewest wins since 2003. He started just 20 games this season, the fewest since his 2001 rookie year. This season was, in short, a non-starter. Beckett spent numerous days on the disabled list and never really found his groove. Even-numbered years have been a problem for Beckett since joining the Red Sox, so his struggles should not come as too great a surprise. With any luck, this season will be a motivator for Beckett in the off-season, driving him to get himself in even better shape. He should return in 2011 ready to fight for the title of “ace” that he lost this year.

Wakefield, meanwhile, looks done. Wakefield has always carried himself with a sense of honor and nobility. He has always been the veteran of the pitching staff, the longest-tenured pitcher on the roster. So now, Wakefield should do the honorable thing and retire. The franchise record for career wins would’ve been nice, but he could do worse than to end his career behind just Cy Young and Roger Clemens. That still puts Wakefield ahead of numerous pitchers who have had brilliant careers, some of them Hall of Fame-worthy. But third place is where Wakefield will stay. The 13 wins necessary to tie and 14 to take first place are not going to come in relief, and Wakefield will have a difficult time winning a starting spot on the 2011 roster. Wakefield should retire, then sit back and welcome his entry to the Red Sox Hall of Fame and the retiring of number 49. He deserves both these accolades.

Hideki Okajima looked good in the seventh inning, striking out Manny Ramirez and then inducing a double play to escape a bases-loaded, none out situation without giving up a run. It only remains to wonder why he wasn’t pitching this way the entire season. His ERA has gone up every year he’s been in the majors, and his strike outs have gone down each year. It may be that opposing hitters are finally learning how to read his pitches. For him to remain a reliable reliever in the MLB, he will need to either increase his velocity or find a new way to fool hitters. The head-drop no longer seems to be working.

Looking Back, and Looking WAY Ahead

This was a meaningless game in what turned out to be a busted season, but there are things that can give Red Sox Nation hope for 2011. Anyone not excited by the idea of several more years of the Jon Lester-Clay Buchholz 1-2 punch hasn’t been paying attention. These two are bonafide superstars, and they’re going to be Red Sox for a LONG time.

In his longest tenure in the majors since 2008, Lowrie has shown tremendous progress. Since 2008, his strikeouts have been cut to a third, his average is up over 20 points and his home runs have tripled. Given a full season, he might just turn out to be the player fans hoped he would be.

Finally, Red Sox Nation got a glimpse of perfection on June 12 at Fenway Park. Daniel Nava, the One Dollar Wonder of Redwood, hit the first pitch of his major league career into the Red Sox bullpen for a grand slam. It was only the second time in history where that had happened. It was a perfect moment, the kind you go to the ballpark hoping, dreaming to see and be a part of. Every year the Red Sox seem to have one magical moment, and this was 2010′s. The fact that it was Nava’s only home run of the season, or that the Red Sox will not go to the playoffs this year, does not detract from its magic. Cherish moments like that: they are few and far between.

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