First Pitch: September a stark reminder of Sox' continued slump


First Pitch: September a stark reminder of Sox' continued slump

ANAHEIM -- So here we are again. September. Or nearly so. Put it this way: after the Red Sox play the opener of their weekend series with the Oakland A's Friday night, the waiver deadline will have passed and the calendar will have turned.

September. Ring any bells?

Exactly a year ago today, the Red Sox were almost 30 games over .500 and were in first place in the American League by a game and a half. The playoffs seemed a certainty; the prevailing question seemed to be whether the Sox would win the division or again have to settle for the wild card.

Then, the team went into a 7-20 dip, a descent that didn't end until the final inning of the final game. Even then, a ninth-inning loss to Baltimore didn't eliminate the Sox from the playoffs. But minutes later, a near-miraculous comeback by the Tampa Bay Rays against the New York Yankees did.

It was the worst collapse in baseball history. The Red Sox had gone from 9 12 games in front of the wild card chase to out of the post-season altogether.

And that was just the half of it. Terry Francona was effectively fired, Theo Epstein left town and the club's name was further soiled when it was revealed that the team's underperforming starting pitchers passed time during games treating the clubhouse like some teenagers' basement, complete with beer, chicken and video games.

A year later, the Sox barely resemble the franchise they appeared to be as August turned into September. The Sox are on their second manager since then, their third pitching coach and who knows how many players.

And yet, in some respects, they don't seem to have moved much at all.

This year, like last, will end without hope of a playoff appearance, making it three years since they last played in the post-season and four years since they actually won a post-season game.

This year, like last, the pitching has too often flat-lined, leading to too many games like Thursday night when the Sox trailed 2-0 three batters into the Los Angeles Angels' first inning. It happened last September when the rotation came unglued and presented opponents with early-inning leads on an almost nightly basis.

By other measures, things are worse. While last September's unraveling was mystifying at the time -- how does a team go from having the best record in baseball to being regularly embarrassed by good teams and bad in the span of a month? -- this upcoming September could be just as bad.

Night to night, the Sox are outclassed on the field. The lineup features exactly four regulars that the Sox envisioned back at the start of the season: Mike Aviles, Dustin Pedroia, Cody Ross and Jacoby Ellsbury.

(Jarrod Saltalamacchia might qualify as a fifth as he still plays most games, but some are as DH while the Red Sox evaluate Ryan Lavarnway's potential to replace him behind the plate next spring).

The rest of the Sox players are either role players given starting spots out of necessity (Scott Podsednik, Pedro Ciriaco) or recent acquisitions filling a lineup hole (James Loney).

As such, the Sox can't be considered favorites in many series. The nine-game West Coast road trip is off to an 0-3 start and the Sox still must play wild-card leading Oakland and a resurgent Seattle club which currently features a better record than the Sox themselves.

A winless trip hardly seems impossible, given how poorly the Red Sox are playing and how much better the upcoming pitching seems to be.

On the final day of August, the Sox sport a ghastly 9-19 record for the month, almost as poor as last September's historic 7-20.

Last year, the Sox saved their nightmarish play for the final month and crushing as it was, the skid was only the final month.

This year? It's as if the Red Sox are getting a running head start into the September abyss, entering the month with exactly the wrong kind of momentum.

Unless the Sox play 22-8 over their next 30 games, they will not finish with a winning record. In other words, it's virtually guaranteed they will finish under .500 for the first time since 2001.

There's no promise that Bobby Valentine will return for a second season, and regardless of what side you come down on regarding the manager's future, the uncertainty of the situation is troubling.

In other words: there's at least the possibility that the Sox at the end of this season could be, in its own way, finish every bit as disappointing as the last. And who thought that was possible a year ago today.

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.