Thanks, Rays, but …

Thank you Tampa Bay Rays, for being considerate to the Red Sox and allowing them to finish their game first last night, so that they were able to clinch the division by winning their own game instead of by watching you lose.

But 18 innings wasn’t really necessary.  Really, you didn’t have to be THAT considerate.  10 innings would have done just fine.

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Lester determined

Jon Lester has been pitching like an ace of late, in every outing.  Watching him do so, it’s been very apparent how highly motivated he’s been over these past several weeks.

Tonight, he’ll have some extra motivation, being able to clinch the division title for his team with a win.  It would be only the second division title in the last 18 years for the Red Sox.

I pity the poor Blue Jays hitters.

Red Sox: falling in love with the home run loses close games

I have little patience for seeing a rally squashed by a big swing-and-miss.  I’m talking about hittable pitches here.  My patience for this is especially thin in close games in which runs are at a premium.  The intent of these batters is clear: to hit a “big smash” over the fence, with all the glory, cheering, and maximal dramatic impact that that entails.

I saw this a few times in last night’s Red Sox loss in extra innings.  When all the Red Sox needed was a base hit to break the tie and score the run that would have won the game eventually, I saw two players take big, swinging-for-the-fences types of cuts to strike out.  They’re players who’ve had this problem before, and have overcome it before, so it’s troubling to see them regressing at this time.  Perhaps you know who I’m talking about.

In the fifth inning, the game tied at 2, David Ortiz is up with 2 outs and a runner on 3rd.  On a pretty straight pitch down the middle of the plate and slightly in, the kind of pitch he’ll normally demolish, Ortiz took a bigger cut than usual and completely missed.  Contrast that to his first inning home run, on a very controlled swing in which he looks like a guy who’s trying to make good contact.  He did, and it went plenty far enough, several rows deep into the stands.

In the ninth, with the game tied at 3 and a runner on first, Jarrod Saltalamacchia struck out taking a big cut on a pitch unquestionably over the plate, while slightly down and away.  A pitch he would probably do well to go the other way with for a base hit.  But instead, he tried to yank it over the fence, and shortened what could have been a game-ending half inning for the Red Sox.  Contrast that to his 12th inning leadoff base hit, a controlled swing on which he made good contact and lined one down the right field line.

These guys have both fallen in love with the home run in the past, and it’s gotten them into trouble, causing their on base percentages to plummet.  Thankfully, neither one has been that guy over the latter part of this year.  But with the amazing roll the Red Sox have been on lately, perhaps the feeling that “nothing can go wrong” has set in, and they’ve forgotten two crucial facts:

  1. The hardest part of hitting a baseball is lining up the ball with the sweet part of the bat.
  2. Guys like Papi and Salty are big and strong enough that they don’t need to swing their hardest to send the ball far over the fence – especially when they hit that sweet spot on the bat.

Succeeding at hitting at the major level is hard to do.  The Red Sox have made it look easy lately, and perhaps they’re starting to forget how much effort and focus it takes to make it look easy.  Guys, don’t get carried away now!

Red Sox have a better than 99.99999999999% chance of making the playoffs

For the Red Sox to not at least tie for a playoff spot, a lot of things would have to go exactly right (or wrong, depending on your perspective) at this point.  3 teams would have to overtake Boston to knock the Red Sox out of both the division title and both wild card spots.  As it turns out, only 3 teams in the American League that can still overtake the Red Sox in the race for the 3 playoff spots available to the Red Sox:  the Rays, the Indians, and the Rangers.  Since Baltimore can only tie at this point by winning all their remaining games, and since doing so would knock the Rays out of contention by giving the Rays at least 4 losses when they can only afford 3 to catch the Red Sox, the only scenario that can work is the Rays beating Baltimore.

Because Cleveland has 69 losses against Boston’s 92 wins, they must win all their 12 remaining games, and the Red Sox must lose all their 11 remaining games, for Cleveland to overtake them.

Tampa Bay, with 67 losses, can afford to lose no more than 2 games and still overtake the Sox; Texas, with 68 losses, can afford to lose no more than 1 game.  These teams are scheduled to play 3 more games against each other, however, so between them they must lose at least 3 more games.  Therefore, for both to overtake the Sox, the Rangers must beat the Rays 2 games out of 3, and both teams must win all their other remaining games (10 each).

So between the 4 teams, Boston, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, and Texas, 43 scheduled games must go a certain way, while the other 3 have a little more flexibility, with 3 of the 8 possible outcomes working to bump out the Red Sox.

If we assume each game has a 50-50 chance of going to one team or the other, that makes (3/8)*(1/2 to the 43rd power) as the chances of this happening: that’s less than one in 23 trillion.

However, the chances of the Red Sox losing any one of their games has to be less than 50% right now, and with Texas scuffling through a 7-game losing streak right now, I’d say the odds are even slimmer.

Yeah, it’s not yet a mathematical gaurantee, but come on, do you really need better odds than that?

Red Sox fans: enjoy what may be the peak point of optimism in this season

Red Sox fans are probably feeling pretty darn optimistic right now, and rightfully so.

The Red Sox have won 13 of their last 16.  They’ve grown their division lead to 8 1/2 games, with only 16 games to go.

Their two mid-season rally-killing strikeout artists, Napoli and Saltalamacchia, have stopped striking out, have started making contact, and in Napoli’s case, have started mashing the ball.  Middlebrooks’ lost swing has been found again, and is better than ever.  Their backup infielders are performing about as good as, and in some ways possibly better than, their very good starters.

They’re assured that Ellsbury will be back in time for the playoffs.

And there is enough of a lead in the playoff race and enough off days in the schedule that the starters should be able to get ample rest before the playoffs arrive, and start the postseason sharp and fresh.

Lester is Lester again.  Lackey is Lackey again.  They have three other starting pitchers who have been very good for most of the year, and are now getting rest as needed to assure they stay very good into the postseason.

Their closer Koji Uehara is unreal – with his last 28+ innings scoreless, and his last 31 consecutive batters faced retired, a team-record-matching feat.  He just seems to keep getting better, but then how can you do any better than GETTING EVERYBODY OUT?

They’re beating the best teams in dramatic ways, starting with a defeat of this year’s certain Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, who was aiming to tie the record for the most wins with only one loss at 20, thowing John Lester in his path and winning with a 2-1 score, giving Scherzer only his second loss of the season.  Follow that with a record-breaking 20-4 outburst with seven different Red Sox players hitting home runs.  Follow that with a thrilling comeback win against Mariano Rivera with an inning that brought to mind that most pivotal moment in the last 9 decades of Red Sox history, the stolen base heard ’round the world in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS against this very same closer.  And two more thrilling wins to follow that left the Red Sox offense looking like an unstoppable force, scoring 54 runs over 4 games.

And now after Tuesday’s game against the Rays, everyone’s favorite remaining question mark has been answered – Clay is still Clay.  That’s saying a lot.  Clay Buchholz is a guy who was the game’s best starting pitcher through the first 2+ months of the season, with a 1.71 ERA and a 9-0 record in 12 starts, on the best run of his career, a career peppered with some very good runs.  Was his spectacular start to the season just that, another “hot streak”, or has Clay matured into the kind of player who can produce at an elite level consistently?  Did the 3 months off throw him off whatever sweet spot he was in in terms of feel for his pitches and precise mechanics?  We his not-so-elite results in his minor league rehab starts an indication that he hadn’t refound whatever made him so dominant before?

Fans watching Buchholz’ start this Tuesday saw a guy that earned a win against long odds considering the circumstances.  With a pitch limit of 75 to 80 pitches, things would have to go very well for him to complete the number of innings (5) required for a starter to earn the win.  Also, he was facing last year’s Cy Young Award winner David Price in a game with big playoff consequences, a pitcher who, it turns out, brought his best game.  But the Red Sox just happened to string together a few good at bats against him in the fifth, just in time to put Buchholz ahead before exiting the game.  And Buchholz, with some help from his catcher Saltalamacchia gunning down two stolen base attempts to shorten his time on the mound and allow him to go deeper into the game, managed to get through 5 innings in 74 pitches and exit with a 2-0 lead which the bullpen made stand.

Shutting out a playoff-quality team, earning a difficult win, hearing the catcher say how all his pitches were working, and actually lowering his already miniscule season ERA, Buchholz exceeded expectations and hopes for this start and gave Red Sox fans something to be thrilled about.  A lot of people have probably stopped worrying about what Buchholz will do in his remaining starts.  But should they?

We all know that pitchers can look great in one start but poor in the next.  A different lineup, a different city, different weather, and suddenly everything that was going right could start going wrong.  We don’t know yet that Buchholz can keep giving the Red Sox what he gave them Tuesday or what he gave them in the rest of the season.  Things could go downhill …

Also, while everyone seems to be hot at the same time, “being hot” doesn’t always last.  Is it the time of year and anticipation of a playoff spot that has them playing at this level now?  Or is it just good timing?

What if the injury bug bites over the remaining 2 and a half weeks of the season?

Things rarely stay as good for a team as they have been going for the Red Sox these last few weeks.  While there’s plenty of reason to believe the Red Sox can keep producing as they have been, there’s also plenty of ways things can get derailed a bit, if only because of “regression to the mean” – return to a more normal level of “good” after the statistical anomaly that is a hot streak.  And if that happens, the optimism of the Red Sox fan could wane a bit.

So enjoy this moment Sox fans.  Enjoy it to its utmost!  It may be the high point of your optimism for the season.

Red Sox could catch the Yankees by this time next week

Improbable, but not that improbable.

The Red Sox play four in Kansas City. The Yankees play 3 in Anaheim. There couldn’t be much more difference in the strength these opponents. If the Red Sox seep KC, and the Yankees lose 2 to the Angels, that moves the Red Sox to 2 and a half games behind the Yankees. Then a sweep of the Yankees in New York next weekend would put the Red Sox on top.

That last part, of course, is the rather improbably part. Still, even coming a little short of that, the Red Sox could end the week withing striking distance of the division title, with one week to go in the season.

2008 Red Sox vs. 2001 Red Sox?

It is very interesting to be considering the possibility of a Los Angeles Dodgers – Boston Red Sox World Series.  I have been wondering something, and today I found out it is true:

The Los Angeles Dodgers right now look more like the 2001 Boston Red Sox than the Boston Red Sox do.

Check out the rosters, and you’ll see that while the current Dodgers have 3 players from the 2001 Red Sox (Derek Lowe, Nomar Garciaparra, and Manny Ramirez), the current Red Sox have only 2 (Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield).

What’s extra interesting is that these three Dodgers were 3 of the superstars on that Red Sox team – the kind of guys that you’d see on the cover of the program guide.

What’ll happen if these Dodgers show up in Fenway Park for Game 3 of the World Series?  I expect we’ll hear applause for Garciaparra, and if there’s an appropriate moment, for Lowe; but expect to hear Manny booed as loudly as ever we’ve heard a player booed in Boston.

As for who wins, I hope the Red Sox would demolish the Dodgers if the matchup comes to pass.  Vindication that would be!  And validation for the decision to ditch Manny.

The one thing to make me worry is that Joe Torre would be in the opposing dugout.  If there’s one man who could best coach a National League team on How To Beat The Boston Red Sox, I’m thinking Joe Torre’s gotta be that guy.

But we’re not there yet.  We must wait and watch …

(By the way, though I’d root for a Sox sweep of the Dodgers in the World Series this year, I’d be hoping for a 7 game Sox-Rays ALCS.  The Rays have been fun to watch this year, and I’d like to see them get something for all the effort they’ve made.)

Jacoby Ellsbury, Mr. September

This year, until recently, Red Sox fans have been a bit let down by the performance of Jacoby Ellsbury, who gave the Red Sox such a huge boost in September and October of last year.  He started the year pretty well, but didn’t produce offensively through the middle of the season with anywhere near what we knew to be his potential.

September has been a different story this year.  He finished out the month of September with an 18-game hitting streak.  It was his best month overall of the year.  He hit .340 in September – and that’s his only month hitting above .300 this year.  His 20 runs are about equal to his totals in each of the first two months of this year.

And all of this sounds strangely familar.

Why?  Last year, as a late-season callup, Jacoby had an outstanding September as well, actually performing better at the major league level than he had been to that point in the year in the minors.  He carried that consistently high level of performance through October, and the World Series, right up to the final victorious game.  It seemed that in every game, he did something to help the team win.

So we seem to have a pattern emerging here.  It’s quite a common thing for players to have their “time of year”.  Johan Santana, for example, though good before the All-Star break, each year is close to unbeatable in the second half of the season.  So I don’t think it’s a stretch, based on just the last two seasons of performance, to give Jacoby Ellsbury the moniker “Mr. September”.

Though, as a Red Sox fan, I can hope that he can start to find that hot streak a little earlier in the season, and still keep it through October.  🙂

The Will of the Baseball Gods – a postseason prediction

Here is a prediction for the postseason in 2008:

I believe the Baseball Gods will make their feelings about the ending of Yankee Stadium known this autumn by sending the Red Sox and the Cubs to the World Series.

That would mean that this year, the World Series would be played in the only two parks in baseball that are older than Yankee Stadium, and the only other parks built before 1961.  These three are the only remaining parks to have seen the likes of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe Dimaggio and Ted Williams.

There is a place for these older parks in this game.  They are our most tangible connection to the years gone by when the game of baseball was made great.  The Baseball Gods will want us to know that a move to the newer is not necessarily a move to the better.

Elimination numbers can be misleading

Here is a post I put on my MySpace blog earlier this evening, before the Monday, September 15 games were final.

Sometimes in baseball, a team’s chances aren’t as good as they look.

The Yankees and Toronto are right now tied at 80 and 70.  The Red Sox and Rays are ahead of these two teams, in the same division each with 88 wins (that’ll change by the time you read this, though).  This means that, even though their elimation numbers are 5, at least one of the Yankees and the Blue Jays will do no better than a tie for the division’s best record.

If you don’t know what an elimination number is, it’s the number of losses by a team in their remaining games that will eliminate them from being able to win the division.  In fact, if the sum of wins by the division leader in their remaining games, and losses by trailing team in their remaining games, adds up to at least this number, the trailing team is eliminated.  This number is calculated by subtracting from 163 both the number of wins the division leader already has, and the number of losses the trailing team has.

So if both the Yankees and Blue Jays have elimination numbers of 5, shouldn’t they both be able to pass the current division leader?  Interestingly, they can’t.  Why?  Well, they play each other three times more, so one must lose at least 2 more games, and thus will finish with at least 72 losses.  With at least 72 losses, they can have at most 90 wins.  And the Sox and Rays play 3 more against each other, so one must win at least 2 more games, and so will finish with at least 90 wins.  Hence, at least one of the Yankees and Blue Jays can do no better than tie one of the two current division leaders.

Of course we all know that neither of them will actually make it.  😛