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Enter Daisuke “Wet Blanket” Matsuzaka.
Winning the first home series of the season against the Yankees, and doing it with a 2007 Josh Beckett on the mound, was enough to lift spirits after a devastating start for the most exciting Red Sox team in years. Then, Monday night, Daisuke gave up a touchdown – 6 runs – in the second inning of the game, and the black cloud of typical Sox-fan cynicism reappeared over Fenway Park.
In the moments leading up to tonight’s home game against the Rays (Editor’s Note: a 3-2 loss), a quick search for Red Sox on Twitter shows that fans remain pessimistic, with Tweets ranging from “Red Sox desperately need a win,” to “Dear Red Sox, Get off your knees tonight, the game doesn’t need to be blown again.” One fan even asked “who do the Red Sox lose to tonight?” Hopes could be a little higher.
The mood is equally bleak in the media. USA Today dropped the Sox from No. 1 on its power rankings to No. 13, behind the Blue Jays and Marlins. The Providence Journal’s Jim Donaldson called Red Sox fanhood a “daily soap opera,” equating the season so far to a “roller-coaster ride, filled with dramatic ups and downs … which have left a sickening, queasy feeling in the stomach of Red Sox Nation.” Even the Boston Globe’s Michael Vega couldn’t help but sense that the crowd at Fenway was “clearly agitated” at Daisuke last night, when, in reality, Daisuke was just a punching bag for Sox fans who are truly agitated with the team as a whole.
But, even as the Sox sit at the bottom of the AL East, is it time to panic about a Boston team with Major League Baseball’s second-highest payroll and a .182 win percentage?
The short answer is no.
Last night, I addressed the sense of panic that has slowly crept into the national conversation surrounding the Celtics, as they have shown some inconsistency heading into the playoffs. The situation for the Red Sox is much different. Rather than one trade involving their least capable starter in a contract year, the Red Sox committed $142 million to Carl Crawford so he can start the season with a .163 batting average. Also unlike the Celtics, this Red Sox team does not have a dominant start to the season nor a championship and a seven-game finals appearance to fall back on when people question them.
No, the Red Sox instead have what seems like a long 152 games ahead of them, and the nightmare of what could be such a low return on such high investments is causing chaos for fans eager to see this promising new roster translate into wins.
At its core, the panic in Boston stems from the nagging possibility lingering in the back of every fans’ mind: that this is more than a slump and the Red Sox will play like this all year long.
But it’s only 10 games into the season. Ten games. At this point, slightly more than 6 percent of the season has been played. Let’s take a look at some of the other trends that have emerged across Major League Baseball at this point, 13 days removed from opening day, and how the end of the 2011 baseball season would look if they held true:
Also consider the changes this Red Sox team underwent as the season started. Not only did this team earn a permanent spotlight with the league’s two biggest off-season acquisitions, it also saw Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis return from serious injuries. This team is incorporating a new pitching coach, Curt Young, who is taking over a staff that was hand-crafted by John Farrell. This rotation is adapting to a new catcher. This infield is adapting to a new first baseman and a new permanent third baseman. This lineup is batting with five left-handers. This team is adjusting.
Add millions of dollars of new contract money to this recipe and the 2011 Red Sox are one big high-expectation soup. Based on this new “spend first, ask questions later” strategy, the 2011 Red Sox drew plenty of off-season comparisons to the Yankees. With that comes the same national spotlight, expectations and constant pressure to deliver that is perennially applied to the Yankees.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the Red Sox will fail to live up to these expectations. The situation is similar (NOT the same) to this year’s Miami Heat. The media has held a microscope over everything the Heat has done this season after pulling off the biggest off-season acquisitions in sports history. Leading up to the season, this created similarly high expectations and a sports media that could not bring itself to imagine any other team winning a national title.
Also similarly, when the Heat were down this season, the national sports culture was always there to kick them. After the Heat strung together a five-game losing streak in late February, which included a 30-point embarrassing loss to the Spurs, the media joined in on the laughing stock. A Yahoo Sports headline called it “misery,” while a NESN report poured salt in the wounds, claiming “the Heat aren’t just losing right now. They’re losing in painful, humiliating fashion.” Even Sportscenter devoted plenty of time to reports that Heat players were crying in the locker room because of a regular season losing streak.
Eventually, though, the tears dried and the sports world moved on to the next big thing, and, for the Heat, talent prevailed. Now, through it all, the team with the best off-season acquisitions is entering the playoffs with a No. 2 seed. As far as the regular season goes, consider expectations fulfilled.
I’m not comparing this Red Sox team to that of the Miami Heat, but rather the situation. With such an active, high-profile and expensive off-season, this kind of attention is natural; as is the panic when things don’t go as expected.
So, please, Red Sox fans, dont give in to the hysteria of the 24-hour sports news cycle. Just like Albert Pujols is not going to end the season with a .167 batting average, the Red Sox are not going to close the season with a .187 winning percentage.
Hopefully, when it’s all said and done, talent will prevail.