McAdam: It was Giveaway Night for the Sox

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McAdam: It was Giveaway Night for the Sox

By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com

BALTIMORE -- Between stretches of poor starting pitching earlier in the year and a lineup which, even now, has had difficulty producing timely hits, the Red Sox had seemingly cornered the market on ways to lose.

Then, Wednesday night, they discovered another.

In a brutal display of fundamentals, the Sox saw one outfield misplay result in a three-run fourth, then, with the game freshly tied in the eighth inning, a breakdown between pitcher and catcher led to the winning run crossing the plate.

Four of five runs scored by the Baltimore Orioles in the Red Sox' 5-4 loss were essentially gift-wrapped, as the momentum built on their recent five-game West Coast winning streak ebbed further with a second straight loss.

Worse, the setback was largely self-inflicted, or, at the very least, avoidable.

There was one out and nobody on in the fourth when Derrek Lee skied a ball into shallow center. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia broke back. Problem was, so did center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury -- at least for an instant.

Believing the ball had been hit harder than it had, Ellsbury's initial step sent him away from the ball. By the time Ellsbury recovered, sprinting toward the infield with Pedroia scrambling backward, the ball dropped between them, untouched.

Vladimir Guerrero followed with a soft liner to short that should have been the third out. Instead, starter Josh Beckett next surrendered a 423-foot two-run homer to Luke Scott and a solo belt by Adam Jones.

"I've got to limit the damage there," lamented Beckett. "Gotta make a better pitch to Scott."

But there was no getting away from the nagging feeling that the Red Sox should have, could have, been out of the jam without a run scoring.

"Obviously, that's a huge play," Terry Francona said of the ball that wasn't caught. "Any time you give extra outs . . . That ball was up there a long time. It's not an error. But you give them an extra opportunity and it turns out to be three runs.''

A still-frustrated Pedroia practically spat out his words.

"It's got to be caught," he said.

Asked if Ellsbury didn't see the ball well coming off the bat, Pedroia said: "I'm not sure. You'll have to ask him."

"The ball went up and I kind of broke back real quick," Ellsbury recounted. "I was playing him in the left-center gap. It was a split-second back and it fell in between us. We need to make that play for Josh."

In the eighth inning, Kevin Youkilis ripped a three-run homer to left-center to forge a 4-4 tie and suddenly, and it seemed like the fourth-inning mishap wouldn't be as crippling.

"We were scrambling and not doing much offensively,'' said Francona. "Then Youk hit the home run and we get to set-up man Daniel Bard and it's like, 'Let's go.' "

Except more breakdowns were on the way.

Bard allowed the first two hitters to reach in the bottom of the eighth. He then thought catcher Jason Varitek had called for a slider, when, in fact, Varitek had signaled for a fastball.

"We crossed up our signs," said Bard. "My mistake, not his. I didn't see the fingers he put down. I saw them wrong. He put down the right thing, but I saw 'breaking ball' and threw the wrong pitch."

Predictably, it got past Varitek and the wild pitch led to both runners advancing into scoring position.

Next, a sinker handcuffed Varitek "just enough, where I didn't have my glove turned on either side," said the catcher.

Nick Markakis, attempting to score from third, was cut down when Varitek scrambled to corral the ball and flipped it to Bard, whose foot blocked the plate from the oncoming baserunner.

"I'm thinking strikeout of Guerrero for the second out, and then find a way to get the next guy out," said Bard.

The Sox, however, still had Lee at third, and he rode home when Guerrero lined a pitch through the drawn-in infield.

Bard blamed himself for mislocating ("I was yanking the ball over the plate") on all three base hits that inning.

The defeat stung.

"Kind of a roller coaster," grumbled Francona. "It turned in a hurry for us. It's a tough loss . . . Hurts. That could have been an exciting win."

"It sucks," concluded Pedroia. "We want to win."

Harder to do, of course, when they're playing as they did Wednesday night.

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

Here’s a switch: Red Sox last in A.L. in HRs, but first in steals

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Here’s a switch: Red Sox last in A.L. in HRs, but first in steals

BOSTON - It's an admittedly small sample size, but somehow, after the first 21 games of the season, the Red Sox' offense is going against type.
     
The Sox are somehow last in the American League in homers, but first in stolen bases.
     
The Red Sox have successfully stolen 20 of 22 bases, for a 90.9 percent success rate. The 20 steals are the most through the first 21 games of a season for a Red Sox team since 1995, when they had 21.
     
By contrast, the Sox needed 51 games last season to steal their 20th base.
     
"We spend quite a bit of time studying our opposition,'' said John Farrell, "and if there are certain things that might present opportunities for us, we'll look to take advantage of those as best possible. I think it speaks to the attention to detail. The success rate of stolen bases is not just a function of speed - it's clearly our guys being aware of certain things and paying close attention and staying focused to capitalize.''
     
Farrell wouldn't detail who has the "green light'' to run on their own, but pointed out that there are triggers of sorts for players to run.
     
"Guys are trusting the information being provided and exposed to,'' he said. "They take it upon themselves at that point.''
     
In 2013, when the Sox won the World Series, they were similarly aggressive and took advantage of chances to run and take extra bases.
     
"You try to create a characteristic of your team,'' Farrell offered. "Certainly, a lot is going to be dependent on the talent of your team, depending on your roster. We can't create speed for guys [where] it just isn't there. But in combination with that, there's the mental side  of it, paying attention and playing smart baseball. I think that's  what we're saying.''
     
Farrell also recalls the downside of that same aggressiveness when, in 2014, just one year removed, the Sox ran into a lot of early outs on the bases.
     
"Stolen bases are valuable, but giving away outs is not, obviously,'' said Farrell, who recalled reining in some baserunners who weren't successful. "As long as guys are trusting [of the program] and understand what's acceptable - there are certain game situations where the runner, in his mind, has got to be 100 percent sure he's going to get that extra 90 feet.''
     
Beyond the extra bases, Farrell likes the idea of putting pressure on the defense and distracting the pitcher on the mound.''
     
Of the two caught stealing the Red Sox have had, one was Tuesday night in Atlanta when a planned hit-and-run backfired as Brock Holt swung and missed and Travis Shaw was cut down at third. That means, incredibly, that the Sox have been thrown out just once in a true steal attempt.
     
As far as homers, the Sox have hit just 17 homers, ranking them 15th in the American League. Only two other teams Texas (19) and Cleveland (18) have fewer than 20 homers.
     
"I don't know what to make of that,'' Farrell noted. "I do know this: our offense is working well as a unit [leading the league in runs scored]. We've used the whole field. We play in a ballpark that's a really good doubles ballpark (the Sox are far and away the leaders there with 59; next best in the A.L. is Houston with 46) and hopefully that's playing to our advantage.
     
"But the overall approach - the situational hitting, that's been really good. I think our guys have a pretty good vibe about themselves offensively.''
     
In the Red Sox lineup, only two hitters -- Mookie Betts (four) and David Ortiz (three) -- have more than two homers.
     

Thursday's lineups: Red Sox vs. Braves

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Thursday's lineups: Red Sox vs. Braves

BOSTON -- The Red Sox and Braves play the finale of their home-and-home, four-game series tonight . . . to the Sox' dismay, no doubt.

Boston has won the first three games by a combined score of 21-8, extending its overall winning streak to four. The Sox have also won five of their last six, and six of their last eight, as they've closed to within a half-game of the first-place Orioles in the A.L. East. In addition, they now hold one of the two A.L. wild-card positions.

The lineups:

BRAVES:
Nick Markakis RF
Daniel Castro 3B
Adonis Garcia DH
Freddie Freeman 1B
A.J. Pierzynski C
Jeff Francoeur LF
Jace Peterson 2B
Erick Aybar SS
Mallex Smith CF
---
Jhoulys Chacin P

RED SOX:
Mookie Betts RF
Dustin Pedroia 2B
Xander Bogaerts SS
David Ortiz DH
Hanley Ramirez 1B
Travis Shaw 3B
Chris Young LF
Jackie Bradley Jr. CF
Christian Vazquez C
---
Clay Buchholz P

Hanigan on handling the knuckler: ‘It’s always a battle’

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Hanigan on handling the knuckler: ‘It’s always a battle’

BOSTON - Major league catchers take a beating behind the plate. It goes with the territory.
      
There are foul tips off fingers, jarring blows to facemasks and, even in the aftermath of new rules regarding slides, vicious collisions with baserunners.
      
Those are all well-known parts of the job. Goes with the territory, catchers will shrug and say.
      
But what happened to Ryan Hanigan Wednesday night -- and last Friday night in Houston, for that matter -- was a different sort of test.
      
It was Hanigan's job to coral Steven Wright's knuckleball, dipping and darting in most unpredictable ways. Even the Atlanta Braves hitters seemingly had an easier time hitting the pitch than Hanigan did catching it.
      
Forget 99-mph fastballs; the toughest pitch for a catcher to handle is a knuckler that may not top 75 mph. 
      
From the second through the fourth inning, Hanigan battled and boxed balls, almost blocking and tackling them -- when he wasn't chasing them to the backstop, that is.
      
"It was really dancing tonight,'' said Hanigan after the Red Sox' 9-4 win over Atlanta. "I think the wind played a factor. It was going all over the place.''
      
And, so, at times, was Hanigan, scrambling to keep the ball in  front of him, and, occasionally, going to retrieve it.
      
In the fourth inning, Erick Aybar reached on a strikeout passed ball, took second base, and eventually third on two more passed balls. He was one more floating, errant knuckler away from circling the bases despite never making contact with a pitch, or being advanced by a teammate making contact.
      
All Hanigan could do was hold on -- make that try to hold on -- for dear life.
      
"I was talking to the [home plate] umpire back there,'' chuckled Hanigan. "It was going up, down, left, right...It's always a battle. It's tough - every time I catch it, it's a small victory. Some days, it's more consistent in the way it moves. Some days, it's darting left and right and all over. It was one of those nights. I struggled a little bit with some of them back there.
      
"You're not going to catch all of them. That's just how it is. You have to try to stay positive, try working with him back there, keep him in his rhythm and [have him] throw as many strikes as he can.''
      
Problem is, even the strikes can be difficult to catch. At the last possible instant, the knuckleball can evade Hanigan's mitt, like a butterfly eluding capture. 
      
Wright can't help but have some sympathy for his batterymate.
      
"There's times where it can get frustrating [for him],’’ said Wright. "He does a great job. I can't give enough credit to him and what he's done.''
      
The paradox, of course, is that Wright wants the ball to move as much as possible to confound the hitters. Hanigan does too, but he has to deal with the consequences.
      
"The ones that stay high,'' he explained, "you expect a little drop. But they just don't. They tip off the top [of the catcher's mitt]. Those are tough. He had them really darting tonight. It just takes a  left turn on me. Those are tough. But that's what you want. So I just try to knock 'em down.
      
"You just can't really anticipate which way it's going to go. One will go right, one will go left, one will be flat, one will kind of  take off. And I think the wind [is a factor]. It helps [Wright].’’
      
While at the same time, hurting Hanigan.
      
Wright lasted seven innings, allowing just one unearned run.  Hanigan then went back to conventional pitchers Tommy Layne and Matt Barnes.
      
"Man, when I put the other glove on...it's all gravy after that,'' he said. "There's predictability as to which way the ball is going to move, at least to some extent. With the knuckleball, it does what it wants.''
      
And it's Hanigan's thankless task to catch it. Or chase after it.