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

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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.

Drellich: Sale may be Red Sox' most electrifying pitcher since Pedro

Drellich: Sale may be Red Sox' most electrifying pitcher since Pedro

The newest lefty ace can succeed where David Price did not.

Chris Sale might be the most electrifying pitcher the Red Sox have had since Pedro Martinez.

Josh Beckett had his moments. Jon Lester was steadily excellent.

But the stuff Sale brings is a step above.

A spaghetti-limbed motion and a fast pace. The ability to throw any pitch in any count, something said of many pitchers, but noted here without exaggeration. A delivery that disguises each pitch as another until there’s no time to react.

MORE ON CHRIS SALE

There's been a lot of talk about how competitive Sale is. That's great.

Let's acknowledge how filthy he is before going crazy about the intangibles. He carves hitters better than he does jerseys.

Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has made some questionable moves, but he deserves some optimism here. Some early praise, even -- no matter how well Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, the best prospects he gave the White Sox for Sale, are faring this spring.

Where Dombrowski failed with Price thus far, he may succeed immediately with Sale.

Yes, Sale's 10-strikeout performance against the Yankees on Tuesday night was just a spring training game. But he was dominant to the point that a Grapefruit League game was actually made interesting.

Must-watch, even.

“You guys saw,” Sale told reporters in Florida. “Just felt good.”

All three pitches were working for Sale, the fastball, slider and changeup, and the variants thereof.

“I've been working on my changeup a little bit more the last couple of outings,” Sale said. “My last time out it wasn't great, but just working on it in between starts, just throwing it on the flat ground, it's a pitch that doesn't take a whole lot of stress on your arm. So even when you're just playing catch, you can flip it around, work on grips, things like that.

"As far as my slider, I feel good about it. . . . Obviously when I'm throwing harder, I think it's a little bit flatter. When I take some off of it, not only do I have a little bit more control, but I think it has a little bit more depth. Plus, it kind of creates another pitch in there. It's like an in-between fastball-changeup type of thing. Anything to give them a different look or try to throw them off. That’s kind of the name of pitching."

American League Rookie of the Year runner-up Gary Sanchez was miles in front of the 2-and-2 changeup he swung over in the first inning. Matt Holliday was frozen by a slider at the belt on the inner half.

Chris Carter, he of 40-home run power, was beat by a 2-and-2 fastball an inning later, clearly thinking off speed and unable to decipher just what was coming in time.

Aaron Hicks tried to golf an 0-and-2 slider by flinging his bat into the stands, somewhere behind the third-base dugout.

That’s just the first two innings.

"He added his third pitch more this evening than five days ago, when it was more fastball-changeup," manager John Farrell said. "He had his breaking ball to both sides of the plate, and got underneath to some right-handed swings. And any time he needs to, he's got such good feel for the changeup to get him back in counts to give him a different look. He was impressive."

Opening Day at Fenway Park will be exciting. But Game No. 2, when Sale is to make his Sox debut, should bring the most intrigue.

Chris Sale dominant again in Red Sox' win vs. Yankees

Chris Sale dominant again in Red Sox' win vs. Yankees

By Pat Bradley, CSN Staff

Chris Sale was treating this like a regular season game, and delivered an excellent, midseason performance.

The Boston Red Sox got a taste Tuesday of the star pitcher they acquired last offseason, when Sale dominated the New York Yankees in a 4-2 spring training road win in Tampa, Florida.

Sale, who entered the game having thrown 63 of his 68 spring pitches for strikes (92%), continued to show off his incredible command, throwing 58 of his 86 pitches for strikes (67%) in the victory.

The 27-year-old struck out five of the first six Yankees he faced, and finished with an even 10 strikeouts on the night. He’s now struck out 20 batters to just one walk this spring.

"Obviously, anybody who knows anything about sports knows about Boston and New York," Sale said, via The Providence Journal’s Tim Britton. "Coming in here, playing against the Yankees, playing at their park in a night game, it gives it more of a regular-season feel. That's what we're here for. Anytime you can get that much closer to a regular-season game, the better off we're going to be."

His single blemish came on a 2-2 pitch to Yankees designated hitter and noted masher Matt Holliday, who sent the ball sailing to the opposite field for a two-run home run that at the time tied the score at 2.

Sale quickly regrouped, lining out Chris Carter to left field on his very next pitch to end his outing. His final line: two runs on four hits with 10 strikeouts and a hit batsman in six innings on 86 pitches.

That’s quite a debut to the rivalry, and something the Red Sox are well aware could become a regular thing.

“I don't want to say tonight is the norm,” began Red Sox manager John Farrell, via The Providence Journal, “but certainly he is very capable of doing that every time he walks to the mound.”

Sale wasn’t the only one strutting his stuff on Tuesday, though. Youngsters Marco Hernandez and Sam Travis continued to hit and were pivotal parts of a Red Sox offense that pounded out 13 hits.

After Mike Miller opened the scoring with a solo homer for Boston in the third inning, Travis kept things rolling a few batters later when his base hit scored Hernandez.

Travis was back at it again in the seventh inning, when his groundout scored Heiker Meneses for what proved to be the game-winning run.

Hernandez and Travis each finished 2-for-4, with Hernandez tripling (his fifth of the spring) and scoring a run and Travis driving in two runs of his own. They raised their spring averages to .422 and .351, respectively.

Every member of the starting lineup -- which did not feature regulars Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval or Xander Bogaerts -- recorded at least one hit, save for Jackie Bradley Jr., who went 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts out of the cleanup spot.

Boston is back in action Thursday with a 1:05 p.m. start against the Pittsburgh Pirates.