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The Red Sox have continued to struggle coming out of the All Star Break while Tampa Bay is tepid and the Yankees are hot. This has tightened the division into a three-team race and the Yankees have made the run I have been expecting. The Yankees even filled in some of their biggest holes in a lefty reliever (who can get both righties and lefties out), Damaso Marte, and a right handed bat and outfielder in Xavier Nady. They got them in one deal with the Pirates for a pretty cheap price.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox have the latest chapter of the ‘Manny being Manny’ soap opera going as Manny Ramirez sat out two games with a sore knee, however neither knee showed anything abnormal. The Red Sox currently sit one game back of the Rays and two in front of the Yankees.
The Red Sox rebounded well from the sweep in Anaheim with a sweep of their own against the lowly Mariners. Jon Lester opened the series with a dominant 7-1/3 inning outing, holding the Mariners to eight hits, which striking out six against zero walks. How dominant was Jonathan Papelbon, who came on in the eighth to put out the fire? He threw only 15 pitchers, to four batters, to record five outs (he induced a double play snaring one of the inherited runners). It is not often you see a pitcher record more outs than batters faced.
Jason Varitek hit a two-run home run for one of his two hits and Jed Lowrie recorded two as well, including a two run single. Manny’s week began on a positive note, pacing the offense with three hits.
Daisuke Matsuzaka also went 7-1/3 in the second game, getting a 4-0 lead to work with. He allowed a pair in the eighth before Hideki Okajima came in to put out the fire and set up another Papelbon save. Pap looked just as dominant again, facing only three batters in the inning and throwing only nine more pitches.
J.D. Drew homered and hit a sacrifice fly to drive in half of the team’s runs. Manny got on base three more times: one hit and two walks, however he asked to be scratched from the finale with knee pain.
Clay Buchholz and Felix Hernandez left a 3-3 game for the bullpen and the Sox bullpen met the challenge as the game stretched to 12. Okajima walked the only baserunner in the first 4-2/3 innings for the pen, but Pap allowed two hits in the 11th. The Sox were able to plate three in the 12th, giving Craig Hansen the save opportunity and he, too, allowed two hits in an adventuresome inning, but did record the save, giving the win to Papelbon.
A lot of good pitching (1.50 ERA and 1.03 WHIP for the staff in the series) for the Red Sox against a weak hitting Seattle squad. Also, the three wins kept them on pace with the closing Yankees and they crept closer to the Rays.
As good as the Seattle series was, the homestand opened with an ugly series against the hard-charging rival Yankees. The series opener was a classic contest of two battle-tested rivals matching blow for blow. Bobby Abreu scored on a dribbling infield hit by Jason Giambi for the only run of the game. Josh Beckett threw seven great innings, striking out six and the bullpen continued to execute as Javier Lopez, Manny Delcarmen, and Hideki Okajima combined to retire all six batters they faced in the final two innings, three by strikeout.
Unfortunately, the Joba Chamberlain conversion to starter appears to be going quite well. He went seven, striking out nine, while allowing only four baserunners (three hits and one walk) before turning it over the Kyle Farnsworth.
Joe Girardi, not wanting to take any chances on this game slipping away, did not allow Farnsworth much rope. After he allowed two hits to his three batters, Mariano Rivera got the call for the long five out save. The Red Sox managed out hit off him, but Rivera recorded three strikeouts. Manny’s offense would have been nice to have in the lineup for this one.
In the second game, the Red Sox got on Andy Pettitte early via David Ortiz‘ first inning RBI single. However, the Yankees got to Tim Wakefield in the fourth to take the lead and then Wakefield unraveled in the sixth.
Justin Masterson could not stop the bleeding, allowing three hits and a run without recording an out before Javier Lopez put out the fire. Craig Hansen had another bad inning, giving up three runs in 2/3 of an inning. Pettitte allowed three runs, but the bullpen did not allow the Red Sox to get even close to getting back into the game, providing three innings of shutout ball.
In the finale, Big Papi hit his first home run since his return to help the Red Sox get off to a strong start. Lester started strong and even worked out of a bases loaded-no out jam to allow just one run. The Red Sox sent Sidney Ponson to an early shower, teeing off on him for seven runs on ten hits in four innings. Manny and Jacoby Ellsbury added three hits each and Ellsbury added a nice first inning jumping catch on the warning track as the Sox salvaged one game. Losing the series allowed New York to creep even closer, but taking one game prevented the psychological damage that Red Sox Nation would have suffered with a sweep.
The Sox will get to seek some revenge on the Angels for the sweep out West when L.A. visits Fenway this week. The Angels are proving more and more that they are the best team in the American League, and right now at least, the Majors. They have great starting pitching, solid middle relief, and a superb closer in Francisco Rodriguez.
The team also has a top tier defense and good speed, though Chone Figgins has missed a good chunk of the season. They also have a great manager in Mike Scoscia, who knows when to sacrifice, hit-and-run, and claw out runs when needed. His best asset is his ability to manage the pitching staff, a skill he honed as a longtime major league catcher.
The Angels do a lot of these things day in and day out in the regular season that every playoff team must do. They are very good at keeping opponents off the socreboard and holding leads, however they have a hard time catching up when behind. If they can add a bat to protect Vladimir Guerrero before the deadline, they will minimize that weakness and solidify themselves as the American League favorite.
They should have an added advantage of resting players like Guerrero and Figgins and setting up their rotation for October since they should be the first team in the majors to wrap up their division. As for the matchups, Dice-K gets Jared Weaver, Clay Buchholz faces John Lackey, and Josh Beckett meets Joe Saunders.
The schedule appears to favor the Sox here as Dice-K would give them a small edge and Beckett should better Saunders, who is one off the league lead in wins at 13. Buchholz will have to build off his last start, which was the best in nearly three months, to have a chance to beat Lackey. Series against quality teams like this are always a good measuring stick, so winning this would bear some importance.
This series with the A’s will wrap up the homestand. Billy Beane has been working the phones a lot this July, sending starting pitchers Rich Harden and Joe Blanton to contenders for major league-ready prospects and minor leaguers. The club insists they are not giving up on ths season, but rather these moves are reloading for this season and the next few.
Realistically, they are a good team, but are not quite at the level to contend for the playoffs quite yet. Especially with the Angels in the West, the A’s appear relegated for the Wild Card chase anyway. The matchups in the series will be Wakefield facing Justin Duchsherer, Lester against Dana Eveland, and Dice-K hooks up with Dallas Braden. Duchsherer has been vying with Cliff Lee of the Indians for the ERA title most of the year, in his first as a full time starter, so he would seem to have the advantage against the inconsistent Wakefield.
However, Lester and Dice-K should be able to get some run support and overpower the Oakland lineup, an offense devoid of any real threats. Jack Cust is their leader in power with 19 home runs, but has an awful .224 batting average. Meanwhile, catcher Kurt Suzuki is their leading regular in average at .294, but only has five home runs. The Red Sox have to take advantage of this opponent.