McAdam: As players press, offense stalls

191542.jpg

McAdam: As players press, offense stalls

By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com

CLEVELAND -- In the course of analyzing the Cleveland Indians' approach to Josh Beckett Tuesday night, manager Terry Francona indirectly got to the real cause of the Red Sox' 3-1 defeat to the Indians, their fourth in a row to begin the season.

"Give them credit," said Francona. "They did a really good job grinding out at-bats. They did it better than we did."

Indeed, while Beckett was needing 106 pitches to get through five innings, Josh Tomlin pitched seven innings and needed only 91 pitches. While Beckett labored through some at-bats that appeared endless, Tomlin enjoyed three innings in which he faced just three hitters and one other in which he faced four.

From the third inning through the eighth, the Sox collected just one hit -- a leadoff single by Dustin Pedroia in the fourth quickly erased by a double-play from Adrian Gonzalez one hitter later. The Sox didn't get another hit until Pedroia added a one-out single in the ninth.

Boston had just three baserunners in scoring position all evening.

It wasn't hard to figure out what was going on. After being outscored 26-11 in Texas last weekend, Red Sox hitters evidently tried to get it all back with one at-bat.

Gone was the careful approach with which the Red Sox usually operate, wearing down the opposing pitcher by working the count and forcing him to throw the ball over the middle of the plate.

Instead, an impatient Sox' attack was overly aggressive, resulting in ground balls being pounded into the infield or hit meekly into the air. The same lineup which scored 10 runs in the first two games in Texas has now been limited to just two runs in the last 20 innings.

The starting pitching, which failed to keep them in the first two games has gradually gotten somewhat better. The offense, meanwhile, has unmistakably gotten worse.

If it's not one thing, it's another.

"We're swinging at stuff out of the zone," acknowledged Pedroia. "We're anxious. Everyone wants to do good. That's what happens when you see a lot of check swings."

Gonzalez, who has cooled after piling up five hits in the first two games, pled guilty to impatience after an 0-for-4 night.

"We did a really poor job of being selective and getting good pitches to hit," he said. "We're just going to have to get better at that."

Francona has tried juggling the lineup with little to show for his shuffling. He stuck with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who had been hitless over the first three games with 10 strikeouts, and was rewarded with a run-scoring single in the catcher's first at-bat.

But the middle third of the Boston lineup -- Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz -- was a combined 0-for-9 with three walks.

Six of Boston's regulars are hitting under .200 through the first four games.

Were this the middle of the season, the offensive skid could be written off as the byproduct of a long season, part of the natural ebb and flow of the 162- game grind. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

But because the slump is happening in the first week of a season in which expectations are almost impossibly high, the problem gets magnified. Correspondingly, the players, eager to turn things around, grind their bats into sawdust rather than grinding out at-bats.

Then there's some plain bad luck. In the ninth, with a hint of life against closer Chris Perez -- first and third with two outs -- Ortiz flicked a liner toward the left field foul line. But the Indians had Austin Kearns inexplicably shaded that way and Kearns needed only to take a couple of steps to stab the ball for the final out.

"I put a good swing on it," shrugged Ortiz. "There's nothing much you can do about it. I was surprised the left fielder was playing there. He got there easily. I guess that was one of those magical moments coaches who position fielders get right. What else can you do? Nothing. I did what I was supposed to do - put a good swing on the ball. That's about it."

The lineup is too good to continue failing like this. Ortiz and Gonzalez knocked in 100 runs each last year and Youkilis undoubtedly would have reached that milestone too had he not missed time with a thumb injury. Crawford gives the Sox another athletic table-setter to go with Jacoby Ellsbury and Pedroia.

"When you're facing this kind of situation," said Ortiz, "you definitely want to get the first one out of the way. That's how things get started. Everybody's trying; probably some of us are trying too hard. That's baseball, though - you want to make things happen."

Right now, however, they're not. And everybody knows it.

Pedroia predicted that the onslought is coming. The lineup can't be bottled up for ever.

"Once we settle in though, it's going to be good," vowed Pedroia. "It's going to be good stuff."

But just four games into the season, the losses and the frustration mounting, time is of the essence.

Sean McAdam can be reached at smcadam@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam

MLB players' union agrees to pitchless intentional walks

MLB players' union agrees to pitchless intentional walks

NEW YORK - There won't be any wild pitches on intentional walks this season.

The players' association has agreed to Major League Baseball's proposal to have intentional walks without pitches this year.

"It doesn't seem like that big of a deal. I know they're trying to cut out some of the fat. I'm OK with that," Cleveland manager Terry Francona said.

While the union has resisted many of MLB's proposed innovations, such as raising the bottom of the strike zone, installing pitch clocks and limiting trips to the mound, players are willing to accept the intentional walk change.

"As part of a broader discussion with other moving pieces, the answer is yes," union head Tony Clark wrote Wednesday in an email to The Associated Press. "There are details, as part of that discussion, that are still being worked through, however."

The union's decision was first reported by ESPN .

"I'm OK with it. You signal. I don't think that's a big deal," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "For the most part, it's not changing the strategy, it's just kind of speeding things up. I'm good with it."

There were 932 intentional walks last year, including 600 in the National League, where batters are walked to bring the pitcher's slot to the plate.

"You don't want to get your pitcher out of a rhythm, and when you do the intentional walk, I think you can take a pitcher out of his rhythm," Girardi said. "I've often wondered why you don't bring in your shortstop and the pitcher stand at short. Let the shortstop walk him. They're used to playing catch more like that than a pitcher is."

Agreement with the union is required for playing rules changes unless MLB gives one year advance notice, in which case it can unilaterally make alterations. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed hope Tuesday that ongoing talks would lead to an agreement on other changes but also said clubs would reserve the right to act unilaterally, consistent with the rule-change provision of the sport's labor contract.

Some changes with video review can be made unilaterally, such as shortening the time to make a challenge.

"I know they were thinking about putting in a 30-second (limit) for managers to make a decision," Francona said. "I actually wish they would. I think it would hustle it up and if we can't tell in 30 seconds, maybe we shouldn't be doing it anyway."

Bean: There's no way to spin a potential Ortiz return as a bad idea

Bean: There's no way to spin a potential Ortiz return as a bad idea

As if there weren’t enough storylines with the 2017 Red Sox, there figures to be the lingering possibility that, at any point, one of the franchise’s greatest hitters will return to make a push for his fourth World Series title.

As Pedro Martinez keeps saying, he won’t believe David Ortiz is retired until season’s end.

And with that possibility comes a good ol’ fashioned sports debate: You’re maybe the biggest lunatic in the whole wide world if you’re hoping for the latter.

There are exactly two potential downsides to Ortiz coming back. One is that the team would be worse defensively if it puts Hanley Ramirez in the field, a tradeoff that seemingly anyone would take if it meant adding Ortiz’ offense to the middle of the order. The other is that we would probably have to see Kenan Thompson’s Ortiz impression again . . . which, come to think of it, would be the worst. Actually, I might kill myself if that happens.  

All the other drawbacks are varying degrees of noise. It basically boils down to the “what if he isn’t good?” fear. Which may be valid, but it shouldn’t be reason enough to not want him to attempt a comeback.

Ortiz is coming off a 38-homer, 127-RBI 2016 in which he hit .315 with a league-best 1.021 OPS. It's probably the best final season of any hitter over the last 50 years.

We also know Ortiz is 41 and dealt with ankle and heel injuries so vast in recent years that he was “playing on stumps,” according to Red Sox coordinator of sports medicine services Dan Dyrek. There is the possibility that he was almost literally on his last legs in 2016 and that he doesn’t have another great season in him.

Unless Ortiz is medically incapable and/or not interested in returning, what would the harm be in rolling the dice? Is it a money thing? It really depends on just how intent the Sox are on staying under the luxury-tax threshold, but it’s hard to imagine that holding them up given that they’ve bobbed over and under the line throughout the years.

The one unacceptable argument is the legacy stuff, which expresses concern that Ortiz would tarnish his overall body of work if he came back for one last season and was relatively ineffective.  

If you think that five years after Ortiz is done playing, a single person will say, “Yeah, he’s a Hall of Famer; it’s just a shame he came back that for one last season,” you’re absolutely crazy. The fact that one could dwell that much on a legacy shows how much they romanticize the player, meaning that in however many years it's the 40-homer seasons, and not the potentially underwhelming few months in 2017, that will stand the test of time.

But he’ll have thrown away having one of the best final seasons ever for a hitter.

Oh man. That’s a life-ruiner right there. A 10-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion totally becomes just another guy if you take that away.

Plus, the fact that he’s a DH limits how bad it could really be. You won’t get the sight of an over-the-hill Willie Mays misplaying fly balls in the 1973 World Series after hitting .211 in the regular season. Ortiz will either be able to hit or he won’t, and if it’s the latter they’ll chalk it up to age and injuries and sit him down. Any potential decision to put him on the field in a World Series would likely mean his bat was worth it enough to get them to that point.

The Red Sox, on paper at least, have a real shot at another title. Teams in such a position should always go for broke. Ortiz has absolutely nothing left to prove, but if he thinks he has anything left to give, nobody but the fans who dropped 30-something bucks on T-shirts commemorating his retirement should have a problem with that.