May 2011

These are the good old days

I have a simple chore for you today, if you are a Boston sports fan. Think this thought to yourself: “These are truly great times to follow Boston sports.”

The Bruins won Game 7 of the Conference Finals last night, a 1-0 epic over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

They are in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1990. While playing on this stage is very new to the Bruins, it is becoming old hat to New Englanders who love sports.

This marks the ninth time since February of 2002 that a Boston/New England team in the four major sports (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL) has reached the final round.

Here is the breakdown: The Patriots played in the 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2008 Super Bowls. The Red Sox played in the 2004 and 2007 World Series, coming back from seemingly insurmountable deficits in the ALCS both times to get there. The Celtics played in the 2008 and 2010 Finals. The Pats won 3 out of their 4 Super Bowls. The Red Sox won both World Series, sweeping both times. The Celtics won the ’08 Finals and came agonizingly close to winning Game 7 in ’10.

So the Boston teams won six titles in their eight chances in the final round. Here come the Bruins, hoping to make it seven out of nine.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox are playing ridiculous baseball right now, with 12 wins in their last 14 games. The Patriots still have Tom Brady playing at a high level, and perhaps the greatest coach since Vince Lombardi in Bill Belichick. The Celtics look like they might be headed on a downward slope, but they still have three Hall of Famers and one highly-exciting All-Star just entering his prime in Rondo.

Meanwhile, enjoy this Bruins trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. Enjoy being a Boston sports fan right now. Not many regions can relate to the euphoria you’ve felt since February of 2002.

Start of a road trip in Cleveland

The Red Sox arrived in Cleveland without Daisuke Matsuzaka. The injured starter is currently in Japan tending to personal business. On his way back, he will stop in Southern California and see the renowned Dr. Lewis Yocum to get a second opinion on his ailing right elbow. At this point, Dice-K and the Red Sox hope surgery can be avoided. There will be more information on that front after the visit with Yocum, which will take place before the end of May. If Dice-K needed to have Tommy John Surgery, it would take him out for all of this season and at least a large portion of 2012. His contract with the Red Sox ends after the 2012 season.

Being back in Cleveland, I can’t help but think of how much things have changed since the last visit here. The Red Sox, lacking in confidence and execution at the time, dropped to 0-6. They left on that hearbreaking loss, when Darnell McDonald fell down rounding second to end the game. It was quite a way to enter the Home Opener the next day.

As it turns out, getting swept by the Indians was not quite as bad as it looked at the time. After all, these are the same Indians who have a 29-15 record, the best in the Majors.

“I was just thinking about getting introduced on that first-base line [for the home opener] and wondering if they were going to shoot us,” quipped Red Sox manager Terry Francona. “Obviously they’re playing good and they feel good about themselves and it happens every year to a team. You start out well. Guys get confident. You get a couple of guys that really click.”

The Red Sox are in far better position to go toe to toe with the Indians this time around, because they are clicking, with eight wins in their last nine games going into tonight.

“Well, when we were here, nothing was going right,” Francona said. “The day Lester pitched well, we didn’t get any runs. we got blown out every so often. We would lose a close one. We were inconsistent in all areas. Now, it seems like we’re sort of stringing together maybe that game where we spread it out a little bit and we’ve won a lot of close games. I just think things have settled down a little bit.

“Like Salty, which is such a huge position, things were going kind of quick for him, now I think it’s slowed down for him. Tek’s taken a little bit off his plate, which has helped. Pitching is keeping us in games where if we don’t swing the bat early, like last night, it gives us a chance to get into the game and not have to fight our way back so much. and then there’s been a couple of games where we’ve fought back. Gonzalez has been maybe the best hitter in the game.”

Tonight, the Red Sox see Justin Masterson, who made a great impression during his years in Boston’s farm system, and the parts of two seasons (2008-09) he spent on the Major League roster. Masteron has done a great job, going 5-2 with a 2.52 ERA in his first nine starts.

“I know, it’s hard not to love him,” Francona said. “We all do. I hope we beat his brains out. Yeah, he’s everybody’s favorite. How can he not be?”

What has Masterson done to take his game to the next level?

“He’s pitching in very aggressively, especially to lefties, and he always needed to do that,” Francona said. “Because of his arm slot, lefties are always going to get a better look than righties. He’s pitching in aggressively. Because he’s such an easygoing guy, I don’t think people realize how much he competes. But he’s a really good competitor. I just think he’s good. We used him out of the bullpen because we could. It was kind of a luxury. When you go into starting, you need to have that other pitch or locate a little bit to get through the second time through the order. Now he’s got that, and he’s really good.”

As for the Red Sox, they have a pretty good one of their own going in Clay Buchholz, who is coming off a career-high of 127 pitches.

“You won’t see him go that again, I guarantee you that,” Francona said. “He bounced back really well. A pitch count is a tool, and I agree with it. We need to know what it is. But he stayed in his delivery so well, he didn’t really tax himself. If he would’ve, we would’ve taken him out. I think he’ll be okay. But we recognize it and we’ll keep an eye on it. We keep an eye on workload pretty good. “

Game 4 goes into Celts not so great eight

Let’s take a brief break from the game of baseball, and the Red Sox.

As most of my long-time readers know, following the Boston Celtics — a team I don’t cover and therefore can be a fan of — is one of my biggest hobbies.

So yes, last night’s loss in Game 4 of the Eastern Semis was a crusher in every sense of the word. I started watching the Celtics in 1983-84, at the height of the Bird era. Last night’s game ranks as one of the eight worst Celtics losses I’ve ever endured.

Here is the complete list:

Game 4 of the ’87 Finals. The heroic and wounded Celtics are about to tie the Lakers 2-2 in the Finals, but they blow a 13 point lead in the last four minutes. Larry Bird hits a 3 with 16 seconds left to put them up by 2. They foul Kareem, who misses the second free throw but the rebound goes off McHale’s hand and goes out of bounds. Magic hits the hook shot. Bird somehow breaks free and gets a clean look (albeit falling off the court) at the buzzer and the ball goes in and out. Down 3-1, that series was over just like this one.

Game 6 of the ’85 Finals. Even down 3-2 in the Finals, Celts were in decent shape because they had both Games 6 and 7 at home, and at that point in the rivalry, the Lakers had still never beaten them in the Finals. But aside from McHale, nobody shows up. Lakers win the title on the parquet. Still makes me want to puke just thinking about it.

Game 5 of the ’88 Conference Finals against the Pistons: Very similar to last night. An aging team near the end of its run. Celts are leading comfortably most of the night but  run out of gas. They get a shot at the buzzer to win it in regulation but Bird misses it. Then they get smoked in OT (sound familiar)? The inevitable happens in Game 6. Pistons move on to the Finals. For all practical purposes, the original Big 3 era is over.

Game 5 of the ’90 First Round against the Knicks. They blow a 2-0 series lead and Ewing helps Knicks win Game 5 by banking in a 3. are you kidding me? Sadly, this was the last game of Dennis Johnson’s career, but he had a great game.

Game 4 of the ’92 Conference Semis against Cleveland. People forget that the Celtics were on a mega roll late in that season, led by a recharged Mchale, an ageless Parish, a blossoming Reggie Lewis and an inspired Ed Pinckney and an overachieving John Bagley. Bird is out for most of their late-season run, when they win something like 16 out of 17 and sweep the Pacers in the first round. Bird actually comes back for Game 4, the game i’m talking about, and a win would have put them up 3-1 in the series and set them up for a conference finals match with Jordan and the Bulls. Reggie gets fouled at the end of regulation. They don’t call it. in Overtime, Bird and Reggie run a give and go, and Bird somehow misses the layup!!! kind of like Rondo last night. Bad bad loss. Cavs end up winning the series in seven. Bird’s career ends after this series.

Game 4 of the ’02 Conference Finals against the Nets. The Celts make the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history to win Game 3. We all remember it. They are up 2-1 in the series. They have game 4 within their grasp but can’t seal the deal. Pierce misses a crucial free throw. Nets tie the series and win the series in six. So much for the honor of getting swept by the Lakers in the Finals.

Game 7 of last year’s Finals. I still can’t speak about it.

And last night.

We can take last night’s game off the list if they somehow come back to win this series, but at this hour, that isn’t feeling very likely.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming, where Carl Crawford has increased his hitting streak to 10 games, and Jacoby Ellsbury has a 19-gamer going.

Fenway Friday

Some nuggets of note from Fenway, where the Red Sox are set to open a four-game series against the Twins.

Alfredo Aceves is back in the bullpen, replacing Scott Atchison, who was here for just a day. Aceves did a good job the first time he was up, and was sent back not because of performance, but because of a roster crunch. He should be particularly beneficial over the next few days, because Tim Wakefield is starting tonight, and will need some rest before he is available in the bullpen again.

Jon Lester will get some extra time before his next start. Beckett will vault ahead of him in the rotation and pitch Monday night. Lester will open the two-game series at Toronto on Tuesday.

This would set up Buchholz, Dice-K and Beckett to pitch the series in New York, though they’d have the flexibility to pitch Beckett Saturday and Lester on regular rest for the Yankees’ finale if they want to skip Matsuzaka in that series.

Atchison, Hill up; Wheeler, Jenks to DL

The Red Sox moved Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler to the Disabled List on Thursday morning, calling up right-hander Scott Atchison and left-hander Rich Hill to bolster a worn out bullpen. The Red Sox used eight pitchers, including Friday’s scheduled starter Daisuke Matsuzaka, in a five-hour, rain-delayed 5-3 loss to the Angels at Fenway last night.

Manager Terry Francona is expected to detail the official injuries shortly.

— Evan Drellich

Francona announces Red Sox rotation

After keeping quiet for a couple days, manager Terry Francona has announced the Red Sox rotation for the rest of the week. After Clay Buchholz on Monday and Jon Lester on Tuesday, Josh Beckett is to pitch Wednesday, John Lackey on Thursday and Daisuke Matsuzaka on Friday.

On Dice-K, Francona said: “We were trying to buy him a couple days. He says he doesn’t need it, I think when somebody comes out like that we’d like to make sure they’re OK.”

On Beckett: “We leaned on Beckett pretty hard there a couple games and we don’t have days off coming up. So, not just because of the way he’s pitching, because he’s pitching great, just wanted to try to get everybody situated where they all feel as good about themselves as they can physically. Just to give him that day I think was important.”

Beckett is not hurt, Francona said.

— Evan Drellich

Odds and Ends from Fenway, May 1

So that’s what a new month feels like. Not that there’s all that many wins to choose from this season, but you’d be hard-pressed to say any was bigger than Sunday’s 3-2 decision over the Mariners.

“I think we needed that,” manager Terry Francona said. “Gotta be good for [Carl Crawford], and it’s really good for us. Seeing him come off the field with that smile, I have a feeling it will come a long way.”

Some notes to wrap up the day …

  • Tim Wakefield and Francona said they both knew the knuckleballer would be done if anyone reached base in the sixth, even though Wakefield’s pitch count was at 76 when he left. “I talked to him after the fifth,” Francona said. “I don’t like to get in the way, but he knew he was on a little bit of a short leash. Part of it was because I didn’t want him to lose the game. I thought he deserved to win that game.” Wakefield estimated about 70 of his pitches were knuckleballs, and said Jarrod Saltalamacchia did a fine job catching.
  • With his first start of the season in the books, Wakefield has the distinction of being one of just eight pitchers to start a game for one team in 17 consecutive seasons.
  • David Ortiz’s two-run double in the third snapped an 0-for-16 skid for the Red Sox with runners in scoring position, and a 16-inning scoreless drought for the Sox stretching to the fifth inning Friday night.
  • Crawford was bound to get going at some point, yes. As to whether he’ll turn the game-winning hit into something — who knows. He can’t do much worse than he has all year, so the likelihood is he’ll be better from here on out, even if Sunday isn’t specifically a catalyst. “You never know what’ll get you started,” Crawford said. “Hopefully I can improve on it.”
  • If the reaction on the field wasn’t telling enough, the Red Sox players who spoke post-game all talked about how happy they were to see Crawford get going. “He’ll produce, he will,” Wakefield said. “He’s too good not to.”
  • They’ve come in bunches for Crawford this season. He has more multi-hit games (6) than he does games where he’s had just one hit (5).
  • The Mariners, who still took two of three at Fenway, weren’t a slouching team, even if they don’t finish atop the American League West come season’s end. They came in Sunday with a five-game win streak, and until Jamey Wright allowed the single to Crawford, M’s relievers had thrown 15 scoreless innings.
  • Matt Albers and Jonathan Papelbon were both stellar after Bobby Jenks’ implosion. They combined for three perfect innings. “Papelbon had a [seven-pitch] inning, which was tremendous, because if we don’t score, Pap can go back out,” Francona said. “Albers has been really, really good. He had life down in the zone. It’s exciting to watch.”
  • Jacoby Ellsbury’s still rolling. His hit streak’s at 10 games after a 1-for-4 performance. He’s 16-for-43 (.372) during.
  • Jed Lowrie’s sun-made triple in the ninth was his first three-bagger since Aug. 17, 2008, against the Blue Jays.

— Evan Drellich