Epstein: Red Sox still 'pretty close' to a championship

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Epstein: Red Sox still 'pretty close' to a championship

By Art Martone
CSNNE.com

You know what they say about best-laid plans?

Well, Theo Epstein lived it in 2010.

"I wish we could rewind right to the end of spring training . . . I wish we could go back and replay it," the Red Sox' general manager said a bit wistfully in an extensive interview Thursday afternoon on WEEI's Dale and Holley Show. "Stay a little bit healthier, pitch a little bit better, play a little better defensively, and I think there'd be a different result."

But none of that happened . . . and it certainly wasn't what Epstein and the Red Sox anticipated.

"We felt like we had a really good team, one of the best two or three in all of baseball," he said. "Some things went right, some things went wrong and we had a lot of injuries."

The things that went right?

"The offense performed pretty much as we anticipated," said Epstein. "We're probably going to finish second in runs scored, and lead the league in OPS."

And the things that went wrong?

The plague of injuries, certainly. But, he added, "the pitching and defense underperformed pretty dramatically."

Epstein said injuries to key defenders -- outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron, first baseman Kevin Youkilis, second baseman Dustin Pedroia -- was "largely" the reason the team didn't field as well as antipated. "We had a lot of key defenders go down, and that's an important part of your pitching."

But he said "the greatest weakness" was the bullpen.

"We didn't have a third guy emerge" behind Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon, he said. "Coming into the year we thought we had internal candidates (such as Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez) . . . Perhaps we waited too long to find the third arm, but all the while were actively looking outside the organization."

Epstein was particularly frustrated by the lack of available relievers on the open market.

"Trust me, we looked all year," he said. "There just weren't that many guys moved and not many guys at all who helped their teams. Of the guys were were moved by the July 31 trade deadline, there were four major-league relievers traded who ended up helping their clubs, five if you count players who were traded in August.

"Matt Capps traded by the Nationals to the Twins on July 29 would have cost us Daniel Bard.

"Brian Fuentes was claimed by a team, the Twins, that at the time was behind us on the waiver list.

"Then there was Kerry Wood traded by the Indians to the Yankees on July 31. He became available at the last minute. We made what we thought was a pretty aggressive financial bid for him, and we were outbid by the Yankees.

"I feel bad. I feel like we didn't get it done. But there weren't that many relievers available, and not that many guys who did get traded helped their teams."

Epstein also defended embattled closer Jonathan Papelbon, saying Papelbon's past success may have made 2010 seem worse than it was.

"It's an impossible standard," Epstein said. "You're talking about someone who, for a couple of years there, was near-perfect . . .

"He's still good. He still helps us win. It was a tough year for him at times . . . Do we still consider him a very good closer and someone who can help us win a lot of games? Absolutely."

He's similarly optimistic about Josh Beckett and John Lackey returning to form in 2011.

"To be top-of-the-rotation type guys and pitch up to previous levels," he said when asked what his expectations were for Beckett and Lackey going into the season. "And those are still my expectations for those guys going forward."

"Josh, the injury to his back really cost him. He clearly wasn't himself all year . . . We trust the person, we trust the pitcher, to be able to bounce back, and we think he will.

"With Lackey, it was a mixed bag. He did some good things -- leading our club in innings pitched, tying for the club lead in quality starts. That said, there was definitely an adjustment period moving into the A.L. East.

"The biggest issue with him was against left-handed hitters. He was pretty much the same as he's always been against righties. That could have been a result of moving into this division, where there are a lot of good left-handed hitters."

Epstein was predictably vague about the team's specific offseason plans, but he was careful to stress that the organization wouldn't let 2010's disappointments cloud their vision and take them off their long-range plans.

"I think pretty close," he said when asked if the team was close to a championship. "I think this offseason presents us with a lot of challenges, but at the same time I think it presents us with a lot of opportunities."

There are some areas he knows have to be addressed.

"We have to completely fix the bullpen," he said. "We have a lot of important position players eligible for free agency Adrian Beltre, Victor Martinez, perhaps David Ortiz if the Sox don't pick up his contract option and we have to keep them or replace them, or some combination of the two . . .

"But we have some foundational pieces in place. Some young players who we think can help us next year -- Jed Lowrie, Felix Doubront, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, maybe Ryan Kalish -- and others who may be ready by 2012 . . . Those pieces, combined with the strong nucleus we have and what we do this winter, I think adds up to an organization is in a really good position."

And a championship?

"We could very well win one next year," he said, "and that's the goal."

Art Martone can be reached at amartone@comcastsportsnet.com

First impressions from Red Sox' 8-0 win over Yankees: Bradley on a tear

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First impressions from Red Sox' 8-0 win over Yankees: Bradley on a tear

First impressions from the Red Sox' 8-0 win over the Yankees:

* Rick Porcello doesn't seem like a weak link in the rotation now.

Porcello blanked the Yankees for seven innings and is now 5-0 with a 2.76 ERA for the season. For the fourth time in five outings, he pitched into the seventh innings.

The Yankees threatened only once - in the fifth, when they had runners at the corners and two out. But Porcello got Jacoby Ellsbury to ground out, stranding two and was never in trouble again.

Porcello's command is improved over a year ago. In his first five starts last year, covering 30 innings, he walked 10. This year, he's pitched 32 2/3 innings and issued just five walks.

* Jackie Bradley is swinging it like he did last August.

Bradley went on an extra-base tear late last summer, rocketing doubles, triples and homers for a stretch of a few weeks that was completely unexpected.

The last week has been like that stretch, with seven extra-base hits in the last seven games. He knocked in the first run of the night with a double to left, then delivered another in the sixth with a triple to the triangle and two more in the seventh with a triple into the right field corner.

In the two games against the Yankees, he's got four extra-base hits, a walk and five RBI.

* David Ortiz has started 20 games this season. He's knocked in 19 runs.

Ortiz added his second homer in as many nights, to go along with a single and walk.

It's doubtful that he's going to keep up his RBI-per-game pace, but when he's locked in the way he is now, he impacts virtually the entire lineup from the cleanup position.

* If you think Pablo Sandoval was bad, maybe you haven't been watching Chase Headley.

The Yankee third baseman was a free agent the same winter that Sandoval was and some argued that he would have been a better fit for the Sox than was Panda.

But 22 games into the 2016 season, Headley has yet to collect a single base hit and has an OPS of .405. He's hitting .153 and has virtually no range to speak of at third base.

* A lot has changed for Junichi Tazawa.

A year ago, Tazawa was overworked in the first half of the season. On Saturday night, he got an inning of work in the ninth in a blowout game because he hadn't pitched since last Sunday -- thanks to strong starting efforts from the rotation over the past two series.

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