First Pitch: Thursday, September 15

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First Pitch: Thursday, September 15

By ArtMartone
CSNNE.com

Welcome to First Pitch, aquick spin around the world of Major League Baseball . . . or at leastthe corner of it that most concerns the Red Sox. For a complete wrapupof Wednesday's action, check out Craig Calcaterra's AndThatHappened(hardballtalk.nbcsports.com).

IT'S ALL GOOD . . . MOSTLY: When you're in September and you have a four-game lead on your nearest rival, the next-best thing to gaining ground is tearing a day off the calendar.

Especially when you hand that rival a golden opportunity . . . and they let it slip through their fingers.

When this happened (csnne.com) on Wednesday afternoon, it naturally led to this:

.bbpBox114075070737022977 background:url(http:a2.twimg.comprofile_background_images185572572cologo.jpg) 0099B9;padding:20px; p.bbpTweetbackground:fff;padding:10px 12px 10px 12px;margin:0;min-height:48px;color:000;font-size:18px !important;line-height:22px;-moz-border-radius:5px;-webkit-border-radius:5px p.bbpTweet span.metadatadisplay:block;width:100;clear:both;margin-top:8px;padding-top:12px;height:40px;border-top:1px solid fff;border-top:1px solid e6e6e6 p.bbpTweet span.metadata span.authorline-height:19px p.bbpTweet span.metadata span.author imgfloat:left;margin:0 7px 0 0px;width:38px;height:38px p.bbpTweet a:hovertext-decoration:underlinep.bbpTweet span.timestampfont-size:12px;display:block Lots of cheers and clapping in Rays clubhouse as Red Sox lose.less than a minute ago via Twitter for BlackBerry Favorite Retweet ReplyMarc Topkin
SPTimesRays

.bbpBox114094669209669632 background:url(http:a2.twimg.comprofile_background_images185572572cologo.jpg) 0099B9;padding:20px; p.bbpTweetbackground:fff;padding:10px 12px 10px 12px;margin:0;min-height:48px;color:000;font-size:18px !important;line-height:22px;-moz-border-radius:5px;-webkit-border-radius:5px p.bbpTweet span.metadatadisplay:block;width:100;clear:both;margin-top:8px;padding-top:12px;height:40px;border-top:1px solid fff;border-top:1px solid e6e6e6 p.bbpTweet span.metadata span.authorline-height:19px p.bbpTweet span.metadata span.author imgfloat:left;margin:0 7px 0 0px;width:38px;height:38px p.bbpTweet a:hovertext-decoration:underlinep.bbpTweet span.timestampfont-size:12px;display:block Rays Maddon on watching Sox: "It's very good when they happen to lose."less than a minute ago via Twitter for BlackBerry Favorite Retweet ReplyMarc Topkin
SPTimesRays
But about five hours later, the cheering stopped in Baltimore. (St. Petersburg Times)

So we're a day closer to the finish line and the Red Sox still have a four-game lead over the Rays in the wild-card race. In fact, they didn't even lose ground in the A.L. East race, as the Yankees lost in extra innings to the Mariners. (New York Post)

Could have been worse.

LET'S NOT KID OURSELVES, THOUGH: The Sox have plenty of problems that need attention, particularly the suddenly unreliable Daniel Bard. (csnne.com) Boston's pitching is shaky enough as it is -- though Friday's return of Josh Beckett should help (csnne.com) -- and it's safe to say the Sox are going nowhere if they head into October with only three dependable pitchers (Jon Lester, Alfredo Aceves and Jonathan Papelbon).

DON'T FORGET ME! John Lackey, though, acquitted himself pretty well Wednesday. (csnne.com)

AND NOW . . . The Rays come to town for four games. (csnne.com video) Need we say more?

New photo surfaces of noticeably thinner Pablo Sandoval

New photo surfaces of noticeably thinner Pablo Sandoval

When it comes to Pablo Sandoval and his weight, a picture is worth a thousand words.

During spring training it wasn’t a good thing. Sandoval made headlines when a number of photos revealed significant weight gain for the Red Sox third baseman.

But the last two images have been more positive for Sandoval.

In October, a noticeably thinner Sandoval was photographed at an FC Barcelona game.

On Monday, Dan Roche of WBZ tweeted a more recent picture of the new-look Sandoval.

Sandoval, 30, is entering the third season of a five-year, $95 million contract. In his lone full season in Boston, 2015, Sandoval hit .245/.292/.366 with 10 homers and 47 RBI.

Red Sox taking stricter luxury tax penalties into consideration this offseason

Red Sox taking stricter luxury tax penalties into consideration this offseason

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The newly agreed upon Major League Baseball collective bargaining agreement features higher taxes and additional penalties for exceeding the competitive balance threshold -- and don't think the Red Sox haven't noticed.

The Red Sox went over the threshold in both 2015 and 2016, and should they do so again in 2017, they would face their highest tax rate yet at 50 percent. Additionally, there are provisions that could cost a team in such a situation to forfeit draft picks as well as a reduced pool of money to sign its picks.

None of which means that the Red Sox won't definitively stay under the $195 million threshold for the upcoming season. At the same time, however, it remains a consideration, acknowledged Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski.

"You would always like to be under the CBT (competitive balance tax) if you could,'' offered Dombrowski. "And the reason why is that are penalties attached for going over, so nobody likes to (pay) penalties.

"However, the Red Sox, if you follow history, have been up-and-down, right around that number. We were over it last year and the year before that. So I would prefer (to be under in 2017). However, a little bit more driving force in that regard is that there are stricter penalties now attached to going over. And some of them involve, for the first time, differences in draft choices and sacrificing money to sign players and that type of thing. So there's a little bit more drive (to stay under).

"But I can't tell you where we're going to end up. Eventually, does it factor (in)? Yeah. But until we really get into the winter time and see where we are, will I make an unequivocal (statement about staying under the CBT)? Maybe we won't. But there are penalties that I would rather not be in position to incur.''

Dombrowski stressed that he's not under a "mandate'' from ownership to stay under the CBT.

"But I am under an awareness of the penalties,'' he said. "Last year, I would have preferred to be under, too, but it just worked for us to be above it, because we thought that would be the best way to win a championship at the time.''

He added: "I think we're going to have a good club either way.''

But it's clear that the CBT is part of the reason the Red Sox aren't being more aggressive toward some premium free agents such as first baseman/DH Edwin Encarnacion, who is said to be looking for at least a four-year deal at an annual average value of more than $20 million.

Currently, the Red Sox have nearly $150 million in guaranteed contracts for 2017, plus a handful of arbitration-eligible players, some of whom (Drew Pomeranz, Jackie Bradley Jr.) will see significant raises.

Together, with insurance premiums and others costs tallied, the Sox stand at nearly $180 million, just $15 million under the 2017 tax.

"I've said all along I've wanted to stay away from long-term contracts for hitters at this point,'' Dombrowski said of the current free agent class, "(especially) with some of the guys we have in our organization coming. I just haven't felt that that's a wise thing to do.''

The Sox saw two potential DHs come off the board over the weekend, with Carlos Beltran signing a one-year $16 million deal with Houston and Matt Holliday getting $13 million from the Yankees. Either could have filled the vacancy left by David Ortiz's retirement, but Dombrowski would also be taking on another another eight-figure salary, pushing the Sox well past the CBT.

"I figured we would wait to see what ends up taking place later on,'' said Dombrowski, "and see who's out there.''