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July 27, 2005
What a difference a night makes
Not all steps are created equal in the slow march from Point 1 to Point 162 over the six-month baseball season. Manys the time you walk away from the ballpark, or your TV set, and are hard-pressed 10 minutes later to remember anything of importance from the game you just saw.
Last night was not one of those nights.
The argument can be made that the course for the second half of the 2005 season was plotted in the 3 hours and 48 minutes the Sox and Devil Rays spent locked in combat at Tropicana Field. When it was over, the Red Sox . . .
-- Were facing the prospect of not having their best starting pitcher for an undetermined length of time. This, of course, will have enormous impact on their trade strategy this week.
-- Were facing the loss of their starting right fielder for what, unfortunately, looks like a considerably long period. This, too, dramatically changes their trade-deadline wish list.
-- Were facing the reality that the Curt Schilling-in-the-bullpen experiment is . . . well, maybe not a complete failure but is certainly going nowhere near as well as they'd hoped. Now the question is, can they continue on this path until Keith Foulke returns in a month, or do they try to find an established closer between now and Sunday?
Tough questions, every one. And none of them were really on the front burner prior to the first pitch last night.
It seems callous to be talking about Matt Clement in such clinical terms so soon after the fact, and there isn't anyone in Red Sox Nation who isn't hoping for the best. Initial reports are encouraging, and whatever injuries he sustained don't, at first glance, appear to be as far-reaching as the ones suffered by Dick Pole and Bryce Florie, the two other Sox pitchers of my lifetime who were hit by line drives. But taking a baseball traveling about 130 miles per hour off your unprotected skull is, at the very least, traumatic; at the very worse, it may lead to problems as yet undetected but which may linger for weeks or months.
(I remember talking to Johnny Damon at the Sons of Sam Horn check-presentation ceremony at Dana Farber in February 2004, and I casually asked him how he was feeling after his collision with Damian Jackson in Oakland four months earlier. To my surprise, he talked at length -- and with great emotion -- about the problems with headaches and blurred vision he was still having, and how they affected his play in the 2003 ALCS against the Yankees. "Remember how everything I hit was to the left side [in the ALCS]?" he asked. "That was because I couldn't see the ball properly and I couldn't get around on the pitch." He would later expound on this with the Red Sox beat writers, and said he was still hurting well into 2004.)
If Clement is out for even a short period, the Sox will need another starter. Jonathan Papelbon, off three Triple-A appearances, isn't ready -- probably not for the big leagues in general and certainly not for the pressure cooker that is Boston in a pennant race -- and the only other organization options are inadequate. This will no doubt revive the A.J. Burnett talks, said by sources in both Boston and Florida to be dormant if not dead, but I wonder if there isn't another way to go.
That way involves putting Schilling back in the starting rotation and finding a temporary closer, someone like a Bob Wickman (who could slide into a setup role when Foulke returns). Schilling's numbers in the 'pen aren't horrific, but they aren't pretty, either: Two losses and a blown save in eight appearances (balanced by two wins and two saves), a 4.22 ERA, more hits allowed (12) than innings pitched (11 2/3), a .279 batting average allowed. (Not to mention that he was saved from another blown save and another loss by running, third-out catches on the warning track by Manny Ramirez in Chicago last Saturday and Johnny Damon in Tampa last night.) Not horrible, no, but also not numbers you want from your relief ace . . . and certainly not numbers you can live with over any length of time if you have serious postseason hopes.
All that, coupled with the fact that there's so little quality starting pitching available on the open market, makes me wonder if the right move isn't shifting gears to find a closer and putting Schilling back in the rotation, where he belongs. Last night's performance, in which the Rays threatened to win the game in the bottom of the ninth and tie it in the bottom of the 10th, may have been the deciding factor. He's had only two 1-2-3 innings in seven relief appearance -- one of which came in a loss, the other when he was "protecting" a three-run lead -- and he just doesn't seem to have taken to the job. Two birds could be killed with one stone if they're able to find a Wickman-type and make Schilling a starter.
None of which solves the right-field/No. 5-spot-in-the-batting-order problem, which didn't exist until the third inning last night. It does now, though, and no one on hand (Adam Hyzdu, Adam Stern) or about to be on hand (Gabe Kapler) is going to solve it.
One quick solution: Move Kevin Millar to right field and summon Roberto Petagine, who is all but screaming for a promotion, for first base. But there might be a better option on the trade market -- an interesting name floated on talk radio this morning is Cincinnati's Adam Dunn -- and it would behoove the Sox to look at all the possibilities before making their final decision.
Up to last night, the road ahead was murky. There was no real consensus on what the Sox needed to do, or should do, and there was a legitimate strain of thought that they didn't really need to do anything.
That's not true today. Funny how things change so quickly.
Posted by Art at 10:12 AM | Permalink