Little did the Sox know they’d be playing two games last night. Thankfully, they won both — the Starter’s Duel, 3-2, and the Battle of the Bullpens, 7-5. Sure, they only played nine innings. But the difference on a scoresheet is pretty easy to tell (as shown at left).
As such, this game showed us just about everything that is good and bad about the 2006 Red Sox. So let’s take a brief break from celebrating our return to sole possession of first (and please give back that Nationals gear you just bought; we play them next!) to look at what we can glean from this wild ride.
Bad news first:
Another spectacular failure from our offense after loading the bases on walks with none out in the sixth. A prime opportunity to blow the game open, force Smoltz out, get to the Atlanta pen sooner. Instead, we score one run — on a double-play grounder. Sickening.
Terry Francona, helped along by the front office, was nearly as big a disaster as the pitchers he called on in relief of Schilling, who deserved but didn’t get his 10th win. I’ll admit it — I’ve been guilty in the past of being overcritical of the Sox manager, but how is Manny Delcarmen ever going to become a good pitcher if he’s not allowed to work out of his own jams? Two quick outs and a single to one of the best hitters in the majors earns him a hook so Terry can use his (unnecessary and apparently ineffective) brand new LOOGY and micromanage a one-run lead into a two-run deficit, the crowning moment coming with Rudy Seanez.
I have consistently argued for the use of the kids (Van Buren/Delcarmen/Hansen) over the veterans because it’s clear Tavarez/Seanez can’t get it done in the most crucial situations. If the kids get rocked, hey, they’re learning, and something might be gained for use during the pennant race. Delcarmen was pitching adequately, had just one baserunner, and his curveball was just amazing. The front office, having traded away 33 percent of our bullpen with ERAs under 4.00 for a one-out pitcher, is certainly culpable for giving Terry an option he probably felt pressure to use — particularly since he’s said in the past he felt he underused Myers. Nevertheless, as a manager, if he thought Lopez and Seanez gave the Sox a better chance to win than Delcarmen in that situation, he is indeed inept. And if he didn’t, then I’m not sure what his philosophy is — because it must not be to win games.
Now the good news:
The long-awaited offensive explosion … well, it exploded. Eight straight two-out baserunners, including RBI on four consecutive hits, capped by Youk’s nail-in-the-coffin (we thought at the time) home run. Every Sox starter — and every Sox batter except JT Snow — either recorded a hit or scored a run. That includes Curt Schilling, who joins a growing list of Sox pitchers with a better average than Willie Harris.
Jonathan Papelbon — relieving for still-rusty (we hope) Mike Timlin, who had thrown 25 pitches in allowing two runs with the go-ahead Braves run at the plate — slammed the door with one pitch. Even after an Atlanta double in the ninth, the outcome was not in doubt. Paps has been so lights-out thus far, he could give up three runs in his next appearance, not record an out, and still leave the game with an ERA of 1.01.
Terry Francona made all the right moves in the six-run eighth, pinch-hitting Mike Lowell for Alex Gonzalez (2-run double), then putting Alex Cora in the pitcher’s spot (RBI single). And he clearly deserves credit for the ongoing use of Youkilis (2 hits, HR) in the leadoff spot and Crisp (2 RBI, SB) lower in the lineup. I feel like John Kerry when I’m talking about Francona — He’s inept! He’s a genius! “I actually opposed that decision before I was in favor of it.” It was just that kind of game.
Hopefully, this marked a breakthrough game for our offense, which hadn’t scored 10 runs in a game since May 15 (11-1 over Baltimore) and had gone nine straight games without scoring more than six runs.
Thanks to the Braves we now know what a horrendous bullpen really looks like. Ours is merely pitiful. Lopez might well turn out to be Mike Myers 2004, but thus far, he’s been unimpressive, and we sorely missed David Riske and his (admittedly sample-sized) solid performances. Seanez has mixed two months of solid relief with some atrocious performances that have cost games or nearly cost games and make me wonder whether he’s a Tavarez-like choker. (Resisted the urge to replace “Tavarez” with “ARod” in that sentence).
Ah well, a sweep’s a sweep. First place is first place. And if the Sox, who are ahead of last year’s pace, can be all alone in first with a .500 record over the last 20 games, the rest of the year might turn out all right after all.