August 2009

A bad roll of the Dice

The Red Sox were hoping Daisuke Matsuzaka would take another encouraging step forward on Sunday, when he pitched for Double-A Portland in a game against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

But the right-hander had a sluggish first inning, throwing 49 pitches and giving up five runs. Matsuzaka did have a strong second inning, retiring the side in order.

His overall pitching line was two innings, four hits, five runs, three walks and two strikeouts. Matsuzaka threw 58 pitches.

Matsuzaka estimated that he was only throwing at 65 to 70 percent intensity in the first inning, as he was “just working on certain things.”

He had to ask to get another inning of work.

“I didn’t expect the first inning to be hit that hard. They said I was done but I asked them for 10 pitches and they said yes,” Matsuzaka told reporters in Manchester, N.H.

“I was able to do things in the second inning like I wanted to and I was 100 percent.”

Matsuzaka will make his next start on Friday at Triple-A Pawtucket. After that, with the Minor League season coming to an end, Matsuzaka is expected to return to the Red Sox for a start on Sept. 9 against the Orioles.

The right-hander has had two stints on the disabled list this season. He is hoping to turn his season around when he returns. In eight starts for Boston this season, Matsuzaka is 1-5 with an 8.23 ERA.

He has worked hard to get himself back in shape the last couple of months. Matsuzaka last pitched for the Red Sox on June 19.

They are hopeful that the hard work Matsuzaka has done on his rehab will pay off.

“It remains to be seen what we’ll get,” Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said earlier this week. “I don’t think anyone can say with any certainty. I will say that he’s worked as hard as a human being can possibly work under the circumstances to get back. He’s lost some bad weight, added some good core weight, some good core muscle strength and he’s getting through his delivery a lot better.

“We’ll see how he does as he works his way up. I don’t think we’re counting on him to be a savior. But I don’t think it’s unrealistic to hope that he can contribute in some way in September.”

Bay takes a breather against Doc

Sensing that durable left fielder Jason Bay could use a day off, Red Sox manager Terry Francona picked Sunday’s matchup against Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay to make it happen.

Bay entered the day with 122 games played, tied with Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury for the team lead.

“I think Bay needs a day off. I think I need a day off,” Francona said. “I just think it’s a day that – there’s certain guys that don’t get very many. He’s one of them so you try to pick and choose and make it be a day where it really helps him.”

The Red Sox don’t play on Monday, which effectively gives Bay a two-day respite leading into Tuesday’s game at Tropicana Field against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“I just think that going home and knowing this morning that he was waking up not playing should help him a little. He plays a lot,” Francona said. “I just think he needed it. He didn’t put up a fight. When he doesn’t put up a fight, he must need it.”

Rocco Baldelli occupied Bay’s spot in left field and batted seventh. Mike Lowell was also out of the lineup for the third time in the last four games. Victor Martinez started at first base, with Kevin Youkilis playing third and Jason Varitek catching Paul Byrd’s first Major League game of 2009.

Ian Browne

Byrd is the word

I’m looking forward to the return of Paul Byrd to the Major Leagues, as the crafty rigthy is expected to kick off his second tenure for the Sox on Sunday against the Blue Jays.

Bye bye, Tazawa — for now. However, look for the righty to be right back on the roster on Tuesday. That is why he was optioned to the Gulf Coast League instead of Pawtucket.

The Monday off-day gives Red Sox manager Terry Francona some nice flexibility with his rotation for the series at Tropicana Field. Jon Lester will step into Tim Wakefield’s spot on Tuesday, as the knuckleballer has once again been sidelined by back problems. Josh Beckett will likely take the ball Wednesday, with Clay Buchholz going on Thursday. Byrd will pitch again on Friday, most likely, with an unnamed starter for Saturday. Perhaps Wakefield would be ready for a return to action by then, or the nod could go to Tazawa.

Wagner could debut tonight

Why didn’t Billy Wagner pitch on Thursday night? Mainly because the Red Sox had the lefty throw a side session before the game so they could get a little more familiar with him.

“Johnny [Farrell] was very happy with it,” said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. “I wasn’t out there for it but he was very encouraged. I think it was what we expected.”

Perhaps he will get in there tonight.

And the back-to-back rule with Wagner will be a firm one. Remember, he
is still less than a year removed from Tommy John Surgery.

“He’s not going to pitch back to back days for now, that’s for sure,” said Francona. “Last night is a good example. He wanted to pitch. We told him after his side [session], he wasn’t pitching. So we’re not going to make changes on the fly or emotionally where we can get into a bind, that’s where you make mistakes. It’s hard enough not to make mistakes but we wouldn’t do anything like that. As we get into September, that becomes a lot easier. Easier to manage.”

Sizing up the Sox

Now that Theo Epstein has completed his last significant move of the season, getting Billy Wagner in the much-discussed deal with the Mets, it is a good time to look at the team as a whole.

And Epstein seemed fairly optimistic about a club that now includes Victor Martinez, Alex Gonzalez and Wagner.

Of late, the Red Sox have been crushing the ball. The bullpen only gets better with Wagner. And the rotation will get Tim Wakefield back Wednesday, and perhaps Daisuke Matsuzaka by Sept. 8.

“I think we’ve been through a lot,” Epstein said. “It hasn’t been one of those years where everything works like clockwork. If you look at the different elements of the team, our lineup is really talented and really deep. We have a lot of different options and we’re scoring a lot of runs now and I’d like to think that’s going to stay for the majority of the rest of the season. I think this team is perfectly capable of scoring a lot of runs and can certainly hit enough to win.

“Our bullpen is probably, I’d like to think, it’s very deep and talented and a lot of different looks now from the left and right side. It’s been a strength all year and I hope it continues to be a strength.

“And our starting rotation, the main issues in the middle of the season here have been the stability of the back half of the rotation. That’s something that we continue to work through. Clay Buchholz has had a pretty good second half of the season. I’d like to see him continue to build on that. We have a couple of different pitchers close to coming off the disabled list who have done a lot in their big league careers and I’d like to think they can help stabilize the back half of the rotation as well. We’re in the middle of it and we have our work cut out for us. There’s no guaranteed road to the postseason. There’s none in the offseason. There’s not in Spring Training. There’s not during the year. There’s not now. We’ve got to fight for it and I think we’re prepared to do that and we like the roster we have to try to get that done.”

What can the Red Sox expect from Dice-K?

“It remains to be seen what we’ll get. I don’t think anyone can say with any certainty. I will say that he’s worked as hard as a human being can possibly work under the circumstances to get back. He’s lost some bad weight, added some good core weight, some good core muscle strength and he’s getting through his delivery a lot better. I watched his rehab outing the other day on the web cam that we have down there. He was getting through his delivery a lot better. His arm was working well. He showed better shape to his breaking ball. Better command of his fastball down in the zone. So we’ll see. It was against a rookie ball opponent. We’ll see how he does as he works his way up. I don’t think we’re counting on him to be a savior. But I don’t think it’s unrealistic to hope that he can contribute in some way in September.”

One other interesting nugget from Epstein is that part of the reason ownership was so willing to pay the money necessary to land Wagner is that there were significant incentive bonuses for both John Smoltz and Brad Penny that won’t be used.

“I should note that ownership deserves an awful lot of credit here. We had a couple of starting pitchers who were due to make a lot of money in performance bonuses and due to some developments in recent days, and recent weeks, it was clear there’s going to be a savings,” Epstein said. “Some of the money budgeted for performance bonuses, it’s probably not going to end up getting paid out. So instead of just pocketing that money, we were allowed to look for ways to improve the club, improve our chances of getting to the postseason and winning a World Series. This was a redirection of those funds. I think a lot of ownership groups would have just said, ‘great, let’s come in under budget, let’s keep the money.’ This ownership group does whatever it takes to win. Redirecting those savings for someone like a Billy Wagner made a lot of sense.”

Buchholz not there yet

Clay Buchholz had produced three consecutive stellar starts for the first time in his career, but took a major step back tonight.

He had a 9-4 lead after four innings, but couldn’t even finish the fifth inning. In other words, he is now ineligible for the win.

This wouldn’t be so concerning if it wasn’t the second time it has happened to him this season. Remember on Aug. 2 in Baltimore, when Buchholz had leads of 6-0 and 9-7 and was pulled with nobody out in the fifth?

Obviously, he can be a tremendous pitcher when he is focused, as was the case when he faced Sabathia, Verlander and Halladay. But if the Red Sox are going to count on him heavily down the stretch, they can’t afford inconsistencies.

There is some thought that Buchholz could be the No. 3 starter in the playoffs, but he would have to really go on a roll to earn that faith from manager Terry Francona and pitching coach John Farrell.

Wake starting Wednesday; What about Penny?

Tim Wakefield will reclaim his spot in the rotation on Wednesday at Fenway against the White Sox. What about Brad Penny?

That remains to be seen. Manager Terry Francona said that the team told Brad Penny he’s got to “kind of hang tight a little bit.”

To me, that means the club is waiting to see how Tazawa does today. If Tazawa has a good outing, perhaps he will start Thursday. If not, maybe they give Penny another shot.

Varitek is behind the plate today, with Victor Martinez playing first and Youk over at third.

Wake to the rescue?

While Brad Penny was getting shelled by the Yankees — to the tune of 10 hits and eight runs over four-plus innings — Tim Wakefield was making perhaps his final step toward re-claiming his spot in the Boston Red Sox’s pitching rotation.

The veteran knuckleballer, pitching at Triple-A Pawtucket, allowed two hits and one run in a start against Rochester.

Wakefield walked one and struck out four and could slide back into the Boston rotation as early as Wednesday — Penny’s next scheduled start. Wakefield could also pitch Thursday in place of Junichi Tazawa.

At any rate, the Red Sox have badly missed Wakefield during his time on the disabled list. The 43-year-old right-hander went 11-3 with a 4.31 ERA in 17 starts before the All-Star break.

While Josh Beckett and Jon Lester have been tremendous at the top of the rotation, the Red Sox have struggled to get quality starts in the 3-5 spots, though Clay Buchholz has emerged with three strong performances in a row.

Wakefield was first placed on the disabled list with a lower back strain, but it then became a nerve issue which caused weakness in his left calf. The concern with Wakefield the last couple of weeks is whether he could field his position effectively, and without risking further injury.

The Red Sox could reveal as early as Saturday when the veteran will return to the rotation.

Sox have swagger back as rivalry resumes

Hey all. I’m back from a nice respite and ready to dig back into the box for a little Red Sox-Yankees. Erika Gilbert did a fine job filling in the last three days.

How much better do the Red Sox feel about this matchup with the Yankees then they did on Aug. 6, when they had just been swept in Tampa Bay and seemed to be falling apart at the seams?

Now, the Sox are feeling like the Sox again. This is because they are hitting again. Jason Bay has his groove back. So does Big Papi. Victor Martinez has had his ever since his arrival. And J.D. Drew seemed to find a spot in the batting order — eighth — where he just might torment opposing pitchers.

We all remember the debaccle in New York two weekends ago, when your hometown heroes lost four in a row. While some feared it was 2006 all over again, this team has a lot more going for it then that ’06 team.

Quick refresher: This team has Beckett-Lester, which might be the best 1-2 punch in the game in the moment. That team didn’t have anything like that. This team also has a loaded bullpen, something the Red Sox didn’t have in ’06.

Division or Wild Card, I’m not sure it matters. What matters is that the Red Sox are feeling good about themselves again, and just in time.

Penny vs. Pettitte on Friday, that’s a pretty even matchup. Tazawa vs. Burnett is an obvious advantage for the Yankees. Then, Sunday Night Baseball features one of the best pitching matchups of 2009. It is Josh Beckett vs. CC Sabathia.

Buckle up. These next three days should be wild.

And a very warm welcome back to the broadcast booth to Jerry Remy. The Rem Dawg maks his return on Friday night, adding even more electricity to what should already be a great atmosphere.

All for now.

Ian.

A few words from Not Ian Browne

Hi. Erika Gilbert here, pinch hitting for Ian Browne. I’ve been covering the Sox this series.

A couple of notes…

It’s been a really hot and humid few days here in Toronto, after a relatively cool summer. Both Terry Francona and Jason Bay have commented that the ball has really carried this series.

The Jays have hit three home runs since Tuesday and the Sox have hit six — J.D. Drew just homered about a minute ago.

“The ball’s carrying here the last two nights like I’ve never seen it before,” Francona said after last night’s game.

The dome’s been open the last two games but it’s closed tonight — and with tornado warnings and funnel clouds popping up in the Greater Toronto Area, I’m guessing it’s not likely to open any time soon — but I’ve heard mixed review on whether that makes the ball carry more or less. It’s still pretty steamy in here, though.

Francona talked a little bit about Paul Byrd, who pitched four innings for Triple-A Pawtucket yesterday, allowing three earned runs on six hits and a walk and striking out three.

“They made him work” in a couple of innings, Francona said. “I think he was real pleased. I think there are some inconsistencies at times, which comes with not pitching, but I think there was also enough movement with his fastball that he felt pretty good about things.”

Francona said Byrd threw about 70 or 80 pitches and he’ll probably pitch again on the 24th.

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