First pitch: Bats make Red Sox shortcomings a total team effort

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First pitch: Bats make Red Sox shortcomings a total team effort

TORONTO -- From the very first week of the season, the Red Sox' starting pitching failed them.

Josh Beckett had five different starts in which he allowed six runs or more. Clay Buchholz, perhaps mindful of the lower back stress fracture he suffered last season, seemed tentative until late May. Daisuke Matsuzaka has more trips to the DL than he has wins. And Jon Lester, who began the season with one of the best winning percentages in franchise history, is now three games under .500.

Had Beckett -- when he was here -- Buchholz and Lester pitched better, perhaps the Red Sox would still be on the fringe of the wild card race, rather than playing out the string and facing an uphill battle to match last September's total of seven wins in the final full month of the season.

But in a 5-0 loss to the Blue Jays Sunday, there were reminders that pitching is not the only sore spot for the Sox going forward. Sunday represented the seventh time this season that the Sox were blanked.

That's only half of it, however. Eighteen other times, the Sox have been limited to just a single run. So, in 25 of their 145 games -- or, on average more than once every five games, the Sox have scored zero or one runs.

That's once per week over the course of a six-month season. And, of course, it's way too often.

For the last month or so, the Red Sox have admittedly been playing with something far less than their regular lineup. Will Middlebrooks broke his hand in the first week of August and won't play again. David Ortiz, except for a brief one-game return, has been out since the end
of July.

Those injuries have robbed the Sox' offense of two of their three biggest run producers. Thought a rookie, Middlebrooks has the second-highest slugging percentage on the team. The only player with a higher percentage? Ortiz.

Throw in the trade that sent away Adrian Gonzalez, who seemed to be re-discovering his power stroke in the weeks before the blockbuster deal that sent him to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Sox are missing three players, who were they here and available, would literally represent the middle third of the Boston batting order.

Those absences can't be absorbed without some cracks showing in the offense.

But the fact is that the offensive shortcomings didn't just materialize in the last few weeks; they've merely been highlighted. And it's painfully obvious that in addition to bolstering their rotation, the Sox must also pay attention to their offense this winter.

Middlebrooks will return, presumably healthy, and will get better in his second year in the big leagues. But both Ortiz and Cody Ross -- the next-most productive offensive force on the roster -- are free agents and while both have said it's their wish to returned, they can't be
counted until new deals are signed.

Further, the team may have to investigate trading Jacoby Ellsbury for pitching. One major league executive, asked recently about the chances of the Sox getting Ellsbury to agree to a contract extension before he reaches free agency, replied without hesitation: "Zero.''

Even if Ellsbury fetches a quality starter in return, his departure will only create another opening in the batting order, throwing, for now, all three outfield spots open -- to say nothing of DH, first base and shortstop.

Should Ross and Ortiz rejoin Middlebrooks, the Sox need more punch.

There may be no more misleading stat than the Sox ranking fourth in runs scored among the 14 American League teams. Anyone watching the club this year understands that their total is skewed by the Sox scoring double-figures in runs in one-sided games, though, tellingly, also in two games in which they still lost.

So while the rotation remains the chief focal point to get the Sox back to contender status -- or merely respectable again -- it's not as if the offense is trouble-free. If upgrades aren't made alongside pitching improvements, next year could see the team losing again, in low-scoring games.

Ortiz provides magical moment for young fan

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Ortiz provides magical moment for young fan

David Ortiz has hit 507 career homers during the regular season. Some of them have won games. Some have come in extra innings, sending the Red Sox to immediate victory.

But it's doubtful that Ortiz has hit a homer that's meant more to an individual fan than the one he hit Friday night against the New York Yankees.

Former teammate Kevin Millar told Ortiz about a young boy named Maverick who has been battling a life-threatening illness. The two sent Maverick a video before Friday's night game that closed with Ortiz pointing to the camera and saying: "I'm going to hit a home run for you!''

Then, in the eighth inning, with the Red Sox and Yankees tied 2-2, Ortiz did just that, driving a first-pitch curveball from New York reliever Dellin Betances into the Monster Seats in left field.

"I would say this is just God putting his hands on things like that,'' Ortiz said, "because we all know that it is not that easy to come through like that. I've been able to get things done like that on a few different occasions. I guess I've been lucky.

"I would say God is the one who takes over this stuff.''

Said manager John Farrell: "It's a storybook situation. You can say that the legend of David Ortiz is far-reaching. I don't know if players fully understand their impact and how far-reaching their impact can be. But to have it play out like that is really a cool thing.''

Ortiz recalled a similar situation from a few years ago, when he visited a young girl dealing with brain damage at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital.

"When she got a little better,'' Ortiz recalled, "she came to Fenway and we celebrated her birthday here in the family room. We lit up some candles with the cake, sang Happy Birthday to her and that day I told her I was going to hit a home run for her. And I ended up doing it.''

Once the game began, Ortiz was focused on his at-bats. The fact that he was facing Betances in the eighth inning, against whom he was 0-for-7 lifetime with four strikeouts, didn't make it any easier.

"Everyone knows how good Betances has been through his career,'' Ortiz said. "When things like that happen, it makes you believe that there's something special out there that we should believe in.''

Ortiz said he wasn't focused on hitting the homer during the game.

"Listen, the promise is not a guarantee,'' he said. "This is baseball. This is not, 'I'm going to shoot a free throw' when no one's playing defense on you. Or 'I'm Steph Curry and I'm going to shoot a three-pointer.' You know that's going to happen regardless. This is baseball. What you're trying to do was make Maverick feel better, have that connection with him. And you throw that out there to make sure he has a friend that he can count on right here.

"But while the game is going on, I'm not thinking about it, to be honest with you. But I can get away with it because I'm a power hitter and if I put a good swing on it, it can happen. But everybody on planet earth understands that it's not that easy. But that when it happens, everyone understands. Me personally, I'm a huge believer in God and I think he had a lot to do with this.''

In fact, it wasn't until Ortiz rounded the bases, crossed home plate and was trotting back to the dugout that he saw Millar and Millar's own kids sitting right next to the dugout that he recounted his pre-game video to Maverick.

"That's when I started thinking about it,'' said Ortiz.

Maverick sent a video back to Ortiz -- via Millar -- after the game-winning homer.

"After the game,'' Ortiz recounted, "Millar came to me and he was crying when he showed me the video that Maverick sent. It was very touching. I started thinking about it right after. When I got home, I was like, 'I can't believe this really happened.' Millar told me that his parents haven't seen (Maverick) him that happy in a long time. He has been very sick. But I always say there's something special out there. I'm a huge believer in God.

"I'm crazy about kids. When you see a sick kid and see what he's going trough I can't imagine. I don't think I'm prepared to see my child struggle like that. It's good. It's a good thing when you can put a smile on a child."

Saturday's lineups: Red Sox vs. Yankees

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Saturday's lineups: Red Sox vs. Yankees

Christian Vazquez is behind the plate catching Rick Porcello (4-0, 3.51 ERA), who looks to remain unbeaten, as the Red Sox continue their three-game weekend series with the Yankees on Saturday night (7:10) at Fenway Park.

The Red Sox won the series opener 4-2 on Friday night with a rally from a 2-0 deficit capped by David Ortiz' two-run homer in the eighth inning.

The full lineups:

YANKEES
Jacoby Ellsbury CF
Brett Gardner LF
Carlos Beltran RF
Mark Teixeira 1B
Alex Rodriguez DH
Brian McCann C
Starlin Castro 2B
Didi Gregorius SS
Chase Headley 3B
--
Michael Pineda RHP

RED SOX
Mookie Betts RF
Dustin Pedroia 2B
Xander Bogaerts SS
David Ortiz DH
Hanley Ramirez 1B
Travis Shaw 3B
Brock Holt LF
Christian Vazquez C
Jackie Bradley Jr. CF
--
Rick Porcello RHP

Ortiz's winning HR fulfills his promise to young fan

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Ortiz's winning HR fulfills his promise to young fan

David Ortiz's exploits with the Red Sox over the years can easily be described as "Ruthian."

That description became more fitting and Big Papi's legend grew Friday night when Ortiz made like the Babe by promising and delivering a home run to young fan named Maverick. 

Ortiz connected with a two-run shot over the Green Monster in the eighth inning to break a 2-2 tie and give the Red Sox a 4-2 victory over the rival Yankees. 

Here's the video Ortiz and former Red Sox teammate Kevin Millar, now with the MLB Network, made for Maverick before the game.

And here's Maverick's response, via Millar: