Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Home Stretch

As usual, I seem to have taken the summer off from writing about baseball. It's hard between good weather, work and searching for long-term employment to sit down and really come up with something interesting to write in this space. Some of you may be aware that a blog post I wrote over at Puckin' Right was picked up by Yahoo! Sports and their blog Puck Daddy (check out the second bullet point), giving my writing its greatest online exposure ever. I pretty much screwed the pooch on that one by not writing more immediately after, but if I can't find the motivation to write about baseball in the summer, hockey won't have much of chance. But I'm here now, and I'm no longer in the business of promising new posts.

Let's talk some Sox. Everyone knows about their struggles since the All-Star break, going 14-17 and never finding much consistency in either pitching or offense. Coming off a series sweep in Toronto the Red Sox scored 11 runs against the Yankees last night but still lost by nine, thanks in part to the remarkably bad Brad Penny. It seems that when deadline acquisition Victor Martinez is catching, Boston can sport a deep lineup that rivals any in baseball, especially with David Ortiz, Jason Bay, Mike Lowell and J.D. Drew all hitting well at the moment. The question right now comes down to the pitching.

According to's Mike Petraglia, Tim Wakefield will be activated from the DL to pitch next Wednesday in place of Penny, a move many have considered long overdue. Like the failed John Smoltz experiment, Penny hasn't lived up to any kind of expectation, proving once again that only the mightiest can make the transition from the National League to the American League successfully. The Sox are getting excellent performances from Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, who's rebounded from some early difficulties to throw three fine games in a row against the best pitchers in the AL (CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander and Roy Halladay). If the Sox get into the playoffs, I'd be more than satisfied with those top three starters. However, because the Sox are only a game up on Texas for the Wild Card, whomever takes up those last two spots might determine if playing in October is a reality this year.

Junichi Tazawa goes today, and even though I believe he's got an excellent career in front of him, it's unfortunate he's been thrown into the fire this early in his development. With Wakefield replacing Penny, Tazawa should get at least one more start after today, with FA signing Paul Byrd and the rehabbing Daisuke Matsuzaka on the horizon as possibilities to slide into the rotation. One or two of these starters must emerge as viable winning options for Boston if they hope to make the playoffs. Otherwise we're looking at the most disappointing Red Sox season in recent memory.

The stalwart presence on this team throughout has been the strong bullpen, but some chinks in that armor have been exposed in the dog days of August. Extreme taxing as a result of inconsistent starting efforts have caused guys like Ramon Ramirez, Daniel Bard and Manny Delcarmen to struggle in recent weeks. But help could be on the way in the form of Billy Wagner, who was claimed on waivers by the Sox yesterday. They have until Tuesday at 1 p.m. to work out a deal with the Mets, and given the financial instability of that franchise, I expect something to happen.

Wagner is coming off Tommy John surgery and appeared in his first MLB game of 2009 on Thursday by setting down the Braves in order and touching 96 mph with his fastball. The lefty fireballer is set to be a free agent at 38 and is undoubtedly one of the best closers in baseball history. Wagner wants to win a World Series before hanging them up, so he'd probably waive his no-trade clause to come Boston. My fingers are crossed that something gets done.

I was sincerely hoping this club would win plenty in August so they'd be well out in front in the Wild Card and essentially spend September as a tune-up for October. That hasn't been the case at all, and 19 of their next 24 games will come against teams in playoff contention. At the very least the Sox have concluded a difficult period in which they played only four home games through the first 20 days of August.

I still have high hopes for the 2009 Red Sox. If everything clicks, they can be one of the top teams in baseball. Unlike the Yankees, who might be peaking too early, perhaps the Red Sox will peak in September and October. They shouldn't concern themselves with what New York, Texas or Tampa are doing. All they can do the rest of the way is win as much as possible.