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Monday, August 11, 2003

Crunch Time

It’s probable that years from now, Red Sox fans will look back on the next two weeks as either the time the 2003 Red Sox proved themselves worthy of being remembered by posterity, or the time when the wheels came off the 2003 Red Sox and it became time to watch pre-season football instead.

Over the weekend, some good things happened. the Yankees dropped two of three to the Mariners, and the Athletics dropped two of three to the White Sox. However, the Red Sox completely failed to take advantage of a comparatively weaker opponent, losing three of four to the Orioles at Fenway Park, finishing 6-7 during a 13-game stretch where they should by all rights have gained some ground in the pennant races.

The bottom line: Not counting the three-way race in the weak Central division, there are four contenders (the Yankees, the Sox, Oakland, and Seattle) in the American League, and one of them is by necessity not going to make it into the postseason. Right now, the pundits are largely convinced the star-crossed Olde Towne Team are going to be the ones playing golf in October.

I’d say the Bosox have blown their chance to catch the Yankees for good, since the rest of New York’s schedule is on the easy side - except they do have six games left against the Yankees; go 4-2 in those games, and all you have to do is beat the Yanks by two games over the rest of the schedule to seize the AL East. Assuming Baltimore and the White Sox are both playing over their heads at the moment, Boston’s schedule isn’t really much more difficult than that of the Yankees.

And maybe, just maybe, the Orioles play the Yankees as tough as they did the Red Sox. (Yeah, right.)

Last weekend’s debacle leaves them with not much margin for error for 14 games in a row against Oakland and Seattle, two teams they have not played yet, who also happen to be key competitors. The first three of this stretch are in Oakland, against the Big Three starters – Hudson, Mulder, and Zito. (There’s a fourth game in Oakland where Wakefield is slated to face #5 starter Ted Lilly.) I have a hard time asking for better than an 8-6 record over this stretch, but winning 9 of these 14 would go a long way towards making October baseball at Fenway a reality, especially if the Sox can win a whole bunch off of either team – the Sox likely only need to finish ahead of one of these teams for a wild card berth, as Anaheim and Toronto have faded, and no one in the Central seems to poised to make a Wild Card run. Anything worse than a 6-8 record probably dooms the Sox to another year on the post-season sidelines.

I’d rather see Seattle in the playoffs than Oakland, mostly due to the starting pitching the A’s bring to the table, but also the fact that Sox pitchers would seem to have better luck against the Mariner hitters. Left-handed pitching is not the Sox’ strength, and that’s where Oakland seems to be vulnerable; I’d even consider giving southpaw Casey Fossum the start on Thursday instead of Wakefield and save Wakefield for Friday night at Safeco, maybe slowing down the Mariners’ bats for Saturday’s crucial start by Pedro.

I don’t exactly feel confident going into this set of games. But this team has done enough to keep us interested, and both times they’ve gone into crucial sets against the Yankees mired in a mild slump, the Sox have managed to passed the test and stay in the race both times. This test is tougher, since it’s two weeks straight against playoff-caliber teams that are playing well.

Grady Little is still dumb, but at least Todd Walker, two months after he stopped being useful, isn’t batting second anymore. Now we need to stop Grady from running his way out of innings, and putting in light-hitting pinch runners for sluggers when those pinch runners will likely have to bat in future innings.

Hmmm..you’ve got what some people are calling the most potent lineup, top to bottom, in the history of the game. You’ve already lost at least two games in large part because you ran yourself out of a potentially big inning. If there was ever a team that should never bunt, should never steal, never do anything but let your hitters hit because they can, it’s this team.

Walker’s been mired in a slump for two months, and the Sox have traded away his supposed replacement at 2B, Freddy Sanchez, to Pittsburgh for Jeff Suppan, which so far looks like a huge blunder. Manny is struggling lately (ever since I traded him in my fantasy league, interestingly enough) and Oakland and Seattle have lots of lefty hurlers, which will probably stifle the bats of Walker and Trot Nixon while helping quiet David Ortiz and Kevin Millar. It’ll be up to Nomar, and switch-hitters Bill Mueller and Jason Varitek to keep the runs coming in this next stretch.

Optimist’s Scenario for the next 7 games:
1. Pedro outduels Tim Hudson, for the simple reason that the Red Sox have more dangerous hitters than the Athletics do.
2-3. One of these two games (Burkett v. Zito, Lowe v. Mulder) degenerates into a slugfest where the Sox come out on top. It's also not entirely unreasonable that in one of these games, the Sox get a quality start.
4. Either Boston feasts on Ted Lilly, Wakefield continues his hot streak, or both, and the Sox take the Thursday afternoon game.
5. Jeff Suppan, happy to be away from Fenway Park and needing a good start to hold off talk of being yanked from the rotation, actually pitches decently at Safeco Friday night. And Jamie Moyer, whose career record against the Sox isn’t very good, struggles against a potent lineup that likes to take pitches.
6. Martinez has more or less owned Seattle during his entire career, and that doesn’t change Saturday.
7. Either John Burkett’s rejuvenation continues, Gil Meche can’t follow a gem against the Yankees, or both.

Pessimists’ Scenario:
1. Pedro’s good, but Hudson’s better. Or Pedro goes seven innings, leaves tied, or up 3-2 or 2-1, and Oakland wins the battle of the bullpens, as they would do against the Sox in most games.
2-3. The Sox win neither of these games as they continue their hitting slump. (If the Orioles’ starters can pitch well against you at Fenway, facing the Big Three at the Coliseum can’t exactly make you feel confident.) Or, alternatively, the Sox offense does score some runs in one of the games, but the Sox starter on that day gets shelled.
4. Either Wakefield finally has a bad start – he’s due for one - or Ted Lilly shuts the Sox down too, as the Sox are vulnerable to lefties as long as Manny and Nomar are slumping.
5. I still think the Sox will hit Moyer, but Jeff Suppan is so bad that he doesn’t give the Sox a chance to win. The Sox bullpen is improved but the Mariners still have a better one.
6. See #1 above, replace Hudson and Oakland with Joel Piniero and Seattle.
7. On paper, Burkett v. Meche in Seattle isn't really a good matchup for the Sox, and it plays out that way.

The truth is somewhere between these two. Hopefully, for my sake, closer to the former than the latter. I'd be pleased as punch if they went 4-3 on this West Coast swing.

I suppose I ought to plug the opposing perspective.


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