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


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.

NLCS: Cubs eliminate Dodgers, reach Series for first time since 1945


NLCS: Cubs eliminate Dodgers, reach Series for first time since 1945

CHICAGO -- Cursed by a Billy Goat, bedeviled by Bartman and crushed by decades of disappointment, the Chicago Cubs are at long last headed back to the World Series.

Kyle Hendricks outpitched Clayton KershawAnthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras homered early and the Cubs won their first pennant since 1945, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 Saturday night in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series.

The drought ended when closer Aroldis Chapman got Yasiel Puig to ground into a double play, setting off a wild celebration inside Wrigley Field, outside the ballpark and all over the city.

Seeking their first crown since 1908, manager Joe Maddon's team opens the World Series at Cleveland on Tuesday night. The Indians haven't won it all since 1948 - Cleveland and Cubs have the two longest title waits in the majors.

"This city deserves it so much," Rizzo said. "We got four more big ones to go, but we're going to enjoy this. We're going to the World Series. I can't even believe that."

All-everything Javier Baez and pitcher Jon Lester shared the NLCS MVP. Baez hit .318, drove in five runs and made several sharp plays at second base. Lester, a former World Series champion in Boston, was 1-0 with a 1.38 ERA in two starts against the Dodgers.

Deemed World Series favorites since opening day, the Cubs topped the majors with 103 wins to win the NL Central, then beat the Giants and Dodgers in the playoffs.

The Cubs overcame a 2-1 deficit against the Dodgers and won their 17th pennant. They had not earned a World Series trip since winning a doubleheader opener 4-3 at Pittsburgh on Sept. 29, 1945, to clinch the pennant on the next-to-last day of the season.

The eternal "wait till next year" is over. No more dwelling on a history of failure - the future is now.

"We're too young. We don't care about it," star slugger Kris Bryant said. "We don't look into it. This is a new team, this is a completely different time of our lives. We're enjoying it and our work's just getting started."

Hendricks pitched two-hit ball for 7 1/3 innings. Chapman took over and closed with hitless relief, then threw both arms in the air as he was mobbed by teammates and coaches.

The crowd joined in, chanting and serenading their team.

"Chicago!" shouted popular backup catcher David Ross.

The Cubs shook off back-to-back shutout losses earlier in this series by pounding the Dodgers for 23 runs to win the final three games.

And they were in no way overwhelmed by the moment on Saturday, putting aside previous frustration.

In 1945, the Billy Goat Curse supposedly began when a tavern owner wasn't allowed to bring his goat to Wrigley. In 2003, the Cubs lost the final three games of the NLCS to Florida, punctuated with a Game 6 defeat when fan Steve Bartman deflected a foul ball.

Even as recently as 2012, the Cubs lost 101 times.

This time, no such ill luck.

Bryant had an RBI single and scored in a two-run first. Dexter Fowler added two hits, drove in a run and scored one.

Contreras led off the fourth with a homer. Rizzo continued his resurgence with a solo drive in the fifth.

That was plenty for Hendricks, the major league ERA leader.

Hendricks left to a standing ovation after Josh Reddick singled with one out in the eighth. The only other hit Hendricks allowed was a single by Andrew Toles on the game's first pitch.

Kershaw, dominant in Game 2 shutout, gave up five runs and seven hits before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the sixth. He fell to 4-7 in the postseason.

The Dodgers haven't been to the World Series since winning in 1988.

Pitching on five days' rest, the three-time NL Cy Young Award winner threw 30 pitches in the first. Fowler led off with a double, and Bryant's single had the crowd shaking the 102-year-old ballpark.

They had more to cheer when left fielder Andrew Toles dropped Rizzo's fly, putting runners on second and third, and Ben Zobrist made it 2-0 a sacrifice fly.

The Cubs added a run in the second when Addison Russell doubled to deep left and scored on a two-out single by Fowler.


Maddon benched slumping right fielder Jason Heyward in favor of Albert Almora Jr.

"Kershaw's pitching, so I wanted to get one more right-handed bat in the lineup, and also with Albert I don't feel like we're losing anything on defense," Maddon said. "I know Jason's a Gold Glover, but I think Albert, given an opportunity to play often enough would be considered a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder, too."

Heyward was 2 for 28 in the playoffs - 1 for 16 in the NLCS.


Kerry Wood, wearing a Ron Santo jersey, threw out the first pitch and actor Jim Belushi delivered the "Play Ball!" call before the game. Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder and actor John Cusack were also in attendance. And Bulls great Scottie Pippen led the seventh-inning stretch.