BOSTON – A spark can come from the unlikeliest of sources.
It did last night for the Boston Red Sox, in the form of a lightning bolt off the bat of rookie Brandon Moss that lit the team’s slumping offensive pilot light.
Moss crushed a solo homer to center, a towering drive off the roof of the camera perch just to the right of the 379-foot marker.
The blast off Tampa Bay starter Edwin Jackson, with two outs and none on in the fourth, gave the Sox a 2-0 lead over the Rays.
And just like that, the Red Sox’ week-long slump vanished.
By the time Jackson notched the final out the inning, the Red Sox were on top, 6-0, as Boston rained hits all around Fenway Park.
Jason Varitek ripped a single to center. After a walk to Julio Lugo, Jacoby Ellsbury dropped an RBI single into left-center; Dustin Pedroia ripped a two-run single to left and David Ortiz bashed a run-scoring single through the Rays’ shift.
Slump? What slump?
Boston starter Clay Buchholz had difficult locating his fastball, especially early. Of the first 24 fastballs he threw, only 9 were strikes, including two that were smacked for singles.
So when his lack of command of the pitch got him into trouble in the third inning, pitching coach John Farrell strolled to the mound. It was clear that Farrell discussed a change in pitching philosophy against the Rays because after the visit, Buchholz and catcher Jason Varitek stayed away from the fastball.
The result? Three straight strikeouts, defusing a first-and-second, none-out jam.
Buchholz threw 13 pitches after Farrell’s visit. Only three were fastballs.
The first batter he faced, Jonny Gomes, fanned on three pitches – slider (called), changeup (swinging), curveball (waving wildly). Carlos Pena was next. The sequence of pitches to him was curveball (ball), changeup (strike swinging), fastball (strike swinging), curve (foul), fastball (foul) and curve (called strike three).
Evan Longoria followed Pena. By then it must have been clear to him that Buchholz had abandoned his fastball. With the count at 1 and 2 -- (called strike), curveball (foul), slider (ball) – Longoria appeared stunned when Buchholz delivered a 93 m.p.h. fastball over the plate. He took it for strike three.
Over the first five innings, Buchholz unofficially threw 39 fastballs, only 18 of which were strikes.
When Carl Crawford reached base on a one-out single in the first inning, Buchholz paid close attention to him, and with good reason. Crawford is one of the game’s best basestealers and this season he is again among the league’s leaders, with eight.
So with Gomes, the Rays’ designated hitter, at the plate, Buchholz threw over to first base five times during the course of the at-bat in an effort to keep Crawford close.
Buchholz also made use of the slide-step in his delivery out of the stretch to the plate.
He was effective on two counts – keeping Crawford from running and getting out Gomes.
Crawford wasn’t able to attempt a steal, and Buchholz whiffed Gomes. The impressive part of the strikeout was that Buchholz caught Gomes looking at a curveball for strike three.
When using a slide-step, curveballs have a tendency to flatten out because it is more difficult for the pitcher to get on top of the ball. Instead of being able to throw over the top for the curve, as Buchholz generally does, the arm angle may slip down a little so the ball doesn’t break down sharply on a downward plane, it remains on more of a flat plane.
Buchholz, though, was able to maintain good curveball-throwing mechanics despite using the slide-step, and buckled Gomes’ knees with the breaking ball for the punchout.
Moss, playing right field, put a nice charge on Jason Bartlett’s liner to right-center with runners at first and second and two outs in the second and racked up his second assist of the year.
Moss was playing shallow for the Rays’ number nine hitter. He got the ball on the second hop. And even though he took an extra hop-step, his throw home was strong and accurate, nailing Longoria trying to score from second, keeping it a 0-0 game.
Crawford overestimated his speed and took an unnecessary gamble in running into a double play that ended the fifth.
He was perched on third with one out and the Rays losing, 6-1. Gomes hit a grounder to third, forcing Crawford back to the bag a step.
Nevertheless, despite the fact his momentum had shifted him back to third, and despite the fact that the Rays were down by five runs, Crawford took off for home as Mike Lowell threw to first. Kevin Youkilis, the Sox’ first baseman, received Lowell’s throw for the out there, and then threw home where Varitek, Boston’s catcher, slapped a tag on Crawford for a double play.
A light but steady rain has been falling for some time at Fenway, bad enough to cause a delay.
A Red Sox official said the rain is likely to remain in the area until about 8 p.m.
For now, the tarp remains on the field and very few fans are in the stands. We will update as warranted.
For what it's worth, the Sox are not as excited as they have been in the past to play the Rays. Boston is 61-23 all-time against the Rays at Fenway. The Rays swept the Sox last weekend in Florida and have won four in a row going back to last season, equalling their longest winning streak ever against Boston.
BOSTON _ Curt Schilling could be back throwing a baseball again soon.
``Very soon,’’ Schilling said today after he completed a workout at Fenway.
The veteran, who at one point was feared to be lost for the season, was upbeat as he spoke about what he has been doing and what his immediate future could be.
``I feel strong. I feel great. I feel everything I’m supposed to feel,’’ Schilling said.
The 41-year-old right-hander signed a one-year $8 million deal with the Sox in November. But a major problem with his throwing shoulder was discovered before the start of spring training. There even was some discussion about the Red Sox possibly voiding the deal.
Today, though, all was positive both from Schilling and manager Terry Francona, who reported that Schilling is set to be measured, as he described it, this weekend.
``That may lead to him starting to throw the ball,’’ Francona said. ``We’ll see.’’
Schilling received a cortisone shot in February, rather than undergoing surgery. He reported all has been on the improve ever since. He has undergone numerous tests.
``We’ve done a bunch of them. They’ve continued to improve on every single time,’’ Schilling reported.
``Today is like a light day,’’ he said. ``We’re alternating heavy and light days. The heavy days just got immensely heavy, so the light days are much lighter. We’ve come to realize a ways through this that every time I have an off day I’m immensely better the following day.
``The workload on my heavy days is excessive. There is no pain. No stamina issues. No strength loss. No lingering effects, which is a huge plus.’’
There is one more step to take.
``I haven’t thrown yet. That’s the big piece of this,’’ he said. ``I don’t envision, with the amount of work that we’ve done and things that we’re doing, that I’m going to come back and start throwing and it’s not going to work. I think we’re set now to go for an extended period of time with me throwing and getting more amped up on the throwing side of things to see how far we can take it.’’
Most days, Schilling has done his work early in the day and been gone by 2 p.m. when his teammates arrive.
``I’m here and done most days by like 2,’’ he related. ``It’s weird. It’s very uncomfortable. I try and impact the guys on this team that I’m close with at time when we can talk away from everybody, then I go do my thing.’’
The goal is not just to be able to pitch, but to be effective.
``It’s not just about me getting healthy and coming back. I have to be good,’’ he said.
``Last time I looked, this rotation didn’t have a hole it in. There are a lot of different scenarios that might come about, with innings limits for guys and things. But I’ve got to come back and be good. I can’t just get healthy and come back and expect to come back and have a spot.’’
Schilling has enjoyed watching the way the Sox rotation has developed this season, even without him.
``These guys are all very good to great,’’ he said.
Schilling spoke about how he would not be putting himself through the process if he did not have confidence he would be able to pitch again.
``I’ve never thought otherwise,'' he said. ``If I didn’t believe absolutely that I’d have the ball in a World Series game I wouldn’t be doing this.’’
Coco Crisp, who is nursing a sore left knee and a tight right hamstring, is out of the starting lineup, leaving Brandon Moss to replace ailing J.D. Drew in right.
Crisp said his hamstring actually loosens up and feels better as a game goes along, but that his knee gets stiffer as the innings go by, especially given the cold weather that the Sox have endured this week on the homestand.
Crisp was smiling about his "extra" at-bat Thursday night. Crisp lofted what appeared to be the game-ending fly ball to shallow right field, but the pitch was waved off when second base umpire Bruce Dreckman called Toronto left-hander B.J. Ryan for a balk on that delivery to the plate.
So Crisp, spared an 0-for-4 at least momentarily, got back in the box. He made the second chance pay off, lining a single to right.
Jacoby Ellsbury is back in center field, leading off for the Sox tonight in the series opener against the Rays at Fenway Park.
He had missed the previous three games because of a sore groin.
Boston manager Terry Francona went out of his way to say he wasn't calling out Ellsbury, but he engaged in a discussion of the difference between pain and injury in this afternoon's media gathering.
"There's a fine line," said Francona. "You're not always going to be 100 percent. We can't wait for guys to be 100 percent. If we did, we couldn't field a team. There's a responsibility (to play). They're protective (of players and their aches and pains) in the minors and they're supposed to be. We try to be (also), but every game here is a big deal."
Francona again mentioned that Ellsbury thought he'd be ready to play after the day off on Monday, but he wasn't, intimating that he thought the rookie should have come in on Monday for treatment. Francona said the situation has given him and his staff an opportunity to talk to Ellsbury, as they do with all young players, in trying to educate them about the way things are done in the big leagues.
Francona brought up outfielder Coco Crisp, who played the last two nights despite a sore knee, as an example of doing what needs to be done even if a player isn't 100 percent.
Of course, then there's J.D. Drew, another outfielder, who has been sidelined because of a sore quadriceps and has the reputation as being a player who won't play with pain. Drew left Tuesday night's game after one at-bat and hasn't resurfaced, though Francona indicated he might return to the lineup tomorrow.
Pretty brash headline today on the official Web site of the Tampa Bay Rays: "Rays aim for second sweep of Red Sox." Let's submit right off the top that the boys from Tampa should win the first game, or better yet the first two games, of the series before they start thinking about sweeps. On the other hand, the Rays have reason for a little swagger as they visit Fenway Park for the first time this season. Tampa Bay took three straight from the Red Sox last weekend, their pitching seemed to start Boston on its current offensive tailspin, and the Rays open the series percentage points ahead of the Red Sox for first place in the American League East. Their three wins in three tries against Boston puts them just two wins short of equalling their total in 18 games against the Sox last season. And if they win tonight, they'll be five games over .500 for the first time in franchise history.
Devil Rays blogger R.J. Anderson reports that, "more and more Rays gear is being worn and bought around town and by all indications the doubters are starting to go to the park in order to question Joe Maddon's philosophies instead of staying home."
In the last few years, the Rays have had an OK offense coupled with horrendous pitching. So far this year, they have middling offensive stats, while the pitching has actually carried the load. Even in the absence of ace starter Scott Kazmir (expected to make his first start of the season this weekend), the Rays are second in the American League in team E.R.A. (3.61) and first in the major leagues in bullpen E.R.A. (2.44). Tampa Bay pitchers have surrendered fewer hits (218) than any other American League team's staff, and only three A.L. teams have walked fewer batters (90). And it's not like they've been facing weak offenses either -- their schedule has featured six games against the Yankees, three against the Red Sox, three against the high-payroll Seattle Mariners and three against the AL Central-leading White Sox.
Click the play button below to hear Sean's comments, recorded this morning. Today's topics: the bizarre balk call that prolonged last night's game (I had already turned the thing off...); the Red Sox' abysmal offensive showing this week; a showdown series against ... Tampa Bay; and the injury problems down in the Bronx.
So the stark reality that's been somewhat masked by the ninth-inning miracles of the previous two nights is now staring the glum Red Sox (above) in the face: They ain't hittin' (Boston Herald). (Check out the linescore of the last 50 innings from Joy of Sox.) As Rob Bradford points out in the Herald piece, Sox batters have struck out almost as many times (33) as they've reached base via hit or walk (37) in the last five games. The "You have to tip your hat to the opposing pitcher" rationale is wearing thin after five consecutive games in which they've scored four runs.
DRAMA KINGS: Can't say April (or the two days in March in which they also played games that count) was too cruel for the Red Sox, though. It started on Opening Day -- Night? Morning? -- in Tokyo when Brandon Moss' ninth-inning homer off A's closer Huston Street sparked the Sox to a come-from-behind, extra-inning win, and it continued all through the end of April as Boston won no fewer than eight games by scoring runs in the eighth inning or later. Our own Mike McDermott yesterday put together a slide show of all eight games.
MONTH OF NOTHING: ESPN.com's Jayson Stark doesn't mention the Sox, positively or negatively, in his April recap.
ON THE CLOCK: McAdam and Kenyon report that word on the Sox' potential spring move to Sarasota may come sooner rather than later. It's the lead of a newsy notebook that includes items on David Ortiz' ailing knee, other injury details, Terry Francona praising Brandon Moss, and a kudo for the Sox' farm department.
CONGRATULATIONS . . . to our own Joe McDonald, who's in Salisbury, N.C., this weekend to pick up his award as Rhode Island's 2007 Sports Writer of the Year for his work on the Red Sox and PawSox, among other assignments. And kudos to PawSox play-by-play man Steve Hyder, named the R.I. Sportscaster of the Year.
BOSTON -- Another game, more poor baserunning by the faltering Blue Jays.
With usually heady David Eckstein on second and Scott Rolen on first and the Jays ahead, 1-0, with none out in the fifth, Matt Stairs lofted a ball toward the wall.
Eckstein wasn’t sure if Coco Crisp would track it down, so he didn’t break hard for third. Instead, he hung close to second, looking as if he might tag up if the catch were made.
Crisp, though, turned to look at the wall, making it obvious he wasn’t going to catch it and would have to play it off the Monster. At that point, Eckstein took off.
Crisp caught a break when the ball hit the lip of the scoreboard and popped in the air right to him. While Eckstein was streaking toward third, Rolen had his head down and rounded second base, expecting to steam into third base.
Eckstein’s belated jump, though, put him in jeopardy of scoring. As he rounded third, the coach there, Marty Pevey, was pointing to the third-base bag, telling Rolen to stand up as he got to the bag, figuring Eckstein was past him and on his way home.
Eckstein, however, put the brakes on as he zipped a few feet past the bag and down the line.
The upshot was that Eckstein and Rolen both were at third base. Eckstein eventually was put out in a rundown as Stairs took second.
So instead of a run in, a 2-0 lead and runners at first and third with none out and number five hitter Vernon Wells coming up, Toronto had runners at second and third and one out and still a 1-0 lead. Wells hit a sacrifice fly to center, making it 2-0, but the messed-up baserunning cost the Blue Jays at least a run in the inning.
One night earlier, pinch runners Marco Scutaro (failure to tag up) and John McDonald (picked off) hurt the Jays with baserunning mistakes.
It could have happened even with Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of the order.
But with Ellsbury on the bench for the three-game series against the Blue Jays because of a sore groin, the Sox had to find a replacement for him in the leadoff spot in the batting order.
Ellsbury has an on-base percentage of .396.
The on-base percentage of the Sox’ leadoff hitters against Toronto was .000 – 0 for 12.
Coco Crisp went 0 for 4 in the opener of the series. Dustin Pedroia led off the last two games and went 0 for 4 in each game.
The Blue Jays, having trouble getting clutch hits in going 1-7 on the first eight games of their road trip, turned their attention last night to the stolen-base game against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.
Eckstein walked with one out in the first inning. On the 0-and-1 pitch to Rolen, Eckstein took a few steps toward second but stopped, realizing he hadn’t gotten a great jump. Unfortunately for Eckstein and the Jays, Rolen hit that pitch on the ground up the middle. Dustin Pedroia grabbed the ball, stepped on the bag and fired to first for the double play.
If Eckstein had continued on his stolen-base attempt, Pedroia might not have been able to turn the two.
In the third, the Jays’ Alex Rios swiped second on a one-out bloop single to right-center. Most of the time, the opposition gets to steal on a knuckleball, in the 64-68 m.p.h. range, which puts the catcher at a disadvantage, both for the fluttering nature of the pitch and the lack of speed.
Rios actually went on a 2-and-0 fastball (73) and made it safely when catcher Kevin Cash couldn’t get a good grip on the ball. The stolen base paid off when Rolen threaded a two-out single through the right side.
Toronto’s plan to run on Wakefield continued in the fourth. Shannon Stewart swiped second with two outs and raced to third when Cash’s throw sailed into center field. Stewart was left stranded.
If you didn’t know better, you might have thought it was Doug Mirabelli back behind the plate last night catching Wakefield.
When Matt Stairs hit a soft foul popup with two outs in the third, Cash took off his mask, tracked down the ball to the left of home plate and made the catch without throwing aside his mask. That was one of Mirabelli’s trademarks, hanging onto the mask as he one-handed the foul popups.
The more prescribed method is to find the ball and throw the mask as far away as necessary to make sure it isn’t stepped on as the catch is made.
When a team is in a slump, sometimes a manager tries to reach too deeply into the bag of tricks to find something that works.
Toronto manager John Gibbons fell into that category in the ninth.
Already leading, 3-0, the Jays had runners at first and second with none out. Lyle Overbay, hardly a speedster, was at second. Gibbons called for a hit-and-run with Eckstein at the plate.
Normally Eckstein is one of the best at getting the bat on the ball for a hit-and-run or a squeeze. But he was unable to get a piece of a tough sinker from Javier Lopez, missing the ball. Catcher Kevin Cash easily threw out Overbay at third base.
Gibbons called for the play because he had a lot of confidence in Eckstein’s ability to get the bat on the ball, but with runners at first and second and none out while boasting a 3-0 lead? Against a pitcher who had faced two batters and given up two hits?
It seemed as if Gibbons was trying to force something good to happen when he really didn’t need to, given the circumstance. A bunt might have been a better call because there would have been less risk.