Boston Red Sox And Oakland Athletics Workout Day

Two Sundays from now, we’ll be readying for our tilt with the Los Angeles Angels in the American League Division Series.
Boston just finished up a three-game tilt with the Mike Scioscia-led Angels, winning two out of three games. (The Red Sox lost the last game on a passed third strike at the hands of Varitek, who had a similar foul up in Wednesday’s comeback win.)
Tthe Sox are clearly firing on all cylinders for the first time all season.
The last 30 days has the offense scoring 163 runs, second in all of baseball. A lot of this has to do with Terry Francona’s increased playing of Victor Martinez behind the plate, removing Jason Varitek and his .157/.252/.243 line since the All-Star break.
With regards to pitching, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester can go head-to-head with the best of them in October. Clay Buchholz, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield all comprise more than capable starters.
The Sawx are among the trailers when looking at the UZR metric for fielding. All season long, you could tell the Sox just weren’t up to snuff on the defensive side of the ball.
Alex Gonzalez has changed that. Since donning the correct color of red after coming over from Cincinnati, his UZR/150 is 13.7. This would be his second-highest UZR/150 of all time, after… yup, 2006’s Boston campaign and would rank second in all of baseball, just behind Jack Wilson. Gonzo has also showed a surprising affinity for hitting in the clutch.
Clearly, it’s the right time to feel confident.
But if things are going to go horribly, horribly wrong in a quest for the World Series title, here’s where it will…
Look, I’m the first person to trumpet how significant Varitek has been to the Red Sox. When he retires, you could make a very good case for him being the best catcher Boston has had in its storied history. He was among the best offensive catchers in his prime and his leadership is constantly mentioned.
But there’s no denying that Varitek is a complete liability at the plate these days. ‘Tek turned some heads early in the year when he was cranking out home runs regularly, but somewhat predictably, his body has completely worn down. He has to be considered the worst hitter on the team, behind such luminaries as Nick Green and Brian Anderson.
Terry Francona is musing on giving Victor Martinez another shot behind the dish with Josh Beckett, despite the latter’s clear success with Varitek as catcher. If Beckett can succeed with V-Mart, the additional offense gleaned from Martinez in the lineup will give the Sox an offense on par with the Angels and Yankees. If not, the Sox will clearly have to concede the No. 8 spot on days Beckett pitches.
In a situation where every game — every inning, every at-bat — is crucial, having that vacant spot in the lineup will set the Sox behind before the first pitch.
Another wrinkle in the playoffs is its use of off-days, which allows teams to go to a four-man rotation and justify a three-man rotation. Another benefit to off-days is the impact it has on the bullpen.
The Sox’s bullpen is to the point where it should be preferred to take the ball from the starters and go to the bullpen early. The bullpen, non-Manny Delcarmen division, can make games a five- or six-inning affair. Francona should look for seven innings, and no more, out of the starters. If they need to come out after six, or even five, the move needs to be made.
By shortening the amount of innings the starters are out there, you using them at their freshest and also yanking them early enough that coming back on short rest wouldn’t be overtaxing them. If Francona makes liberal use of the bullpen, a three-man rotation could carry us to a title. It’s absolutely crucial that Beckett and Lester make as many starts as they can. If both go over 100 pitches, it will be tough to bring them back on short rest.
The Sox’s Nos. 3-6 starters are all quality in their own right, but too many questions run roughshod over said players — it’s important for the Sox to minimize these weaknesses.
This is actually not a concern as Francona has clearly shown that he doesn’t subscribe to the ‘what got you there’ method — but there’s always a first time for everything, so allow me…
One of the key things that have allowed the team to go deep into October is Francona shifting from a long-term to a short-term view as soon as September rolls around. Theo Epstein also clearly subscribes to this.
The evidence? How about Joey Gathright? He has been substituted as a pinch-hitter liberally in recent weeks. He wouldn’t be getting this many appearances if it was earlier in the season.
How about Jed Lowrie and Nick Green pinch-hitting in Wednesday’s come-from-behind win? Francona didn’t think twice about throwing these people out there, thinking them the best for the situation.
This kind of thinking HAS to extend into October. If it’s the eighth inning and David Ortiz is having a bad game with a fireballing lefty on the mound, Rocco Baldelli must pinch-hit. If it’s the ninth inning and we need a run to tie, Joey Gathright (if he makes the postseason roster) must pinch-run for Mike Lowell even if it thins our lineup if extra innings rolls around.
The playoffs are a completely different animal than the regular season. This has been proven time and time again in recent years. There are plenty of things that can go wrong — the offense could all go cold, the pitching could suddenly act as gasoline on a fire — so it’s imperative to place the team in the best possible position to win.
As I’ve outlined above, I feel that limiting Jason Varitek’s opportunities to bat, giving starters a short leash and making aggressive substitutions is the best plan to get a third ring this millennium.
How about you guys? Am I on target with the three things that need to be minimized?