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View from the Monster 6-30

The Red Sox are coming off a 3-3 week after taking two of three at home from the Diamondbacks and then dropping two of three in Houston to a rebuilding Astros team. More importantly, the Sox have dropped back into second place, a 1/2 game behind the Rays heading into the three game series in Tampa.

The series with the Diamondbacks showcased a lot of good pitching, as I think was expected given the two teams’ strength in the area. The first game was the toughest to call as Dan Haren faced off with Josh Beckett. The Sox typically have beaten him up in Fenway over the years, but he is in the Cy Young race this year since arriving in Arizona this offseason and showed why! Haren threw seven shutout innings, allowing two hits, one walk, and a hit batsman (Manny Ramirez) while striking out five before turning the game over to the bullpen.

Beckett struck out eight in eight innings, but allowed two runs on five hits and two walks, losing the duel and dropping him to 7-5 on the year. Despite what looks like a poor record, Beckett is pitching well (3.65 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 9K/9IP) and has taken three of the losses in games when he has allowed one or two runs. As the ace, he will often match up with the opposition’s best pitcher, so whatever his record ends up being, we know it is well-earned!

The Red Sox scored a gritty victory in the second game 5-4 behind four eighth inning runs. Justin Masterson allowed four runs through six innings, including a three run homerun from Chad Tracy. However, Chris Smith pitched two scoreless innings and Jonathan Papelbon shut the D-Backs down in the ninth for a win with another good outing: two strikeouts against one walk while not allowing a hit.

Tim Wakefield and Randy Johnson did not want to let the younger guys upstage them and put on a good show themselves. Johnson, while not as dominant as he was with Seattle, can still be effective and intimidating, allowed two runs over six and only struck out five, leaving the bullpen with the 2-0 deficit. Juan Cruz got into trouble and Kevin Cash launched a three run homerun over the Monster to provide Wakefiled with some insurance.

Wakefield definitely had the knuckler dancing, striking out six while walking only two and allowing only a single hit. The bullpen preserved the shutout, though Craig Hansen started getting into a bit of trouble in the ninth, before Papelbon came on to end the game with a strikeout (on five pitches) against the only batter he faced.

Arizona started the season hot, but is down to .500, good enough for the lead in the weak National League West. They are built around the pitching staff which will keep them in games, so it is no surprise these games were all tough and getting two of the three was important.

The series in Houston was disappointing as the Red Sox opened a ten-game road trip. This should have been the easiest stop on the trip as the Red Sox visit division rivals Tampa and New York after this. The Red Sox looked great in game one, winning 6-1 behind Diasuke Matsuzaka‘s five scoreless innings, running his record to an impressive 9-1. Hansen, Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima, and Papelbon combined on the other four innings, with Okajima allowing the lone run and Papelbon recording the save for the third consecutive game. Papelbon looked awesome again, recording the four outs on only 13 pitches.

In the second game, the Sox jumped out to a 4-0 lead early, as Dustin Pedroia (4-5), J. D. Drew, Manny, Mike Lowell (4-4), and Kevin Youkilis strung together consecutive hits. However, the Astros got to Jon Lester for five in the bottom half of the inning, punctuated by ex-Red Sox Mark Loretta‘s three-run home run. The Red Sox took the lead 9-6 in the sixth, but the bullpen could not hold it and trailed 11-9 heading to the ninth when Lowell homered to close the gap to one before Jose Valverde closed the door.

Beckett had another great game in the finale, allowing only two runs over seven, but got the no decision as the Sox could only get two solo homeruns from Pedroia and Manny. Loretta knocked in the game winning run again with a single off Hideki Okajima (run charged to David Aardsma) in the eighth. Valverde capped off a great pitching effort from Houston’s five pitchers with a scoreless ninth for the save.

This was a rough series for the Red Sox to take as they lost two tough games. They should have been able to overcome Lester’s bad outing, especially when they score 10 runs. Josh Beckett has got to be a little frustrated with the offense as they were silenced by Brian Moehler, spoiling another great effort from the ace. I’ll leave it for you to decide whether the 11-10 or 3-2 loss was the worse one!

As stated above, the Red Sox’ next stop on the trip is in Tampa to face the first place Rays. It’s not April anymore, the season is half over, and the Rays are back on top. Not only are they leading the divisional race, but they sport the best record in the game after 81 (49-32, .605), 1/2 game ahead of the Red Sox. The last time the Sox were in Tampa, the Rays swept them to take over first, but the Red Sox have swept two three game series at Fenway since then.

The last series saw that ugly brawl with Coco Crisp and James Shields mixing it up. Coco had originally received a seven-game suspension that was reduced to five games for his role in the brawl. He has to begin serving it now, which will keep him out of the series. Hopefully, the teams will avoid any distractions and let us watch this battle for first play out.

The Rays are much improved and have been healthy, but do not seem complete. They have great young starting pitching, speed, and defense. Their bullpen seems shaky and Troy Percival is doing a great job as their closer, but is 38 and injury prone (he has had one DL stint this season). They also do not have a lot of power. If the Rays commit to winning and make a couple key acquisitions, they could hang around all year, but I am still surprised they are playing as well as they are.

Masterson draws Shields in the opener, Wakefield gets Matt Garza, and Dice-K faces Scott Kazmir in what should be a great duel. The Sox have to get two here to retake first place and show the Rays that this race is their’s to lose. There is no reason to hit the panic button if they lose the series, but if the Rays come out of this series still on top of the division, it will be a big psychological boost for the young team.

The road trip will end with a visit to the Bronx for a four game set. The Yankees are holding steady in third place as the Sox and Rays battle for first, but had gotten hot recently. The issue with the Yankees continues to be their pitching, specifically their starters. They are middle of the pack by most major measures: ERA, opponent’s batting average, strikeouts, quality starts, and complete games. The Yankees have already started 11 different pitchers and recently signed troubled castoff Sidney Ponson, in what could be considered a desparate move.

Joba Chamberlain‘s role was much debated this spring before the Yankees management decided that he was a reliever. They have since reversed, primarily because of injuries, and transitioned him into the rotation. So far, it seems to be a success as he is 1-0 and still working on stretching out his innings. This transition is tough to make mid-season as the day-to-day routine changes as well as the physical adjustment of making 90 pitches as a starter instead of 20-30 as middle reliever.

However, perhaps intentionally, all of his starts have been against light hitting teams: Kansas City, Houston, San Diego, and Pittsburgh. Also, the National League teams likely have not seen him before, giving him a bit of an edge in those starts. The Red Sox have faced him before and carry a potent offense, so this experiment will get a good stress test in the series finale as he goes toe-to-toe with Wakefield.

In the other games, lefties will face as Lester draws Andy Pettitte, Beckett matches up with Darrell Rasner, and Masterson faces Mike Mussina. It should be noted that Mariano Rivera has converted all 22 save opportunities this season, but has yet to face the Red Sox. He was six for seven in opportunities last season in the series. The Red Sox are 3-2 against the Yankees in 2008 so far, including 1-1 in New York.

I think it is important to earn at least a split here since the Yankees are hovering in third. But, a team as talented as the Yankees are and with the resources they have, they will most certainly be in contention to the end.

The Red Sox do not need to open any doors for the Yankees to get into this race. If the Red Sox can get three, that will put the Yankees in a deep hole, but I think that would be a tough task. This week will be a critical week for the Sox and some riveting games for Red Sox Nation to watch as we draw closer to the All-Star Break.

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