McAdam: Problems right at the start

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McAdam: Problems right at the start

By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com

BOSTON -- Remember when everyone thought the Red Sox' primary problem was producing with runners in scoring position?

Seems almost quaint now.

Actually, as was painfully obvious Monday night, the real issue is starting pitching.

Daisuke Matsuzaka's stinker Monday night against the Tampa Bay Rays would seem to validate that. Matsuzaka labored through the first two innings, couldn't retire a hitter in the third, and was gone after allowing seven runs on eight hits. The same Rays who had scored just 11 runs in eight previous losses topped that figure last night by the sixth.

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Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon stacked his lineup with left-hander hitters -- between nautral lefties and switch-hitters, he had just one right-hander, B.J. Upton, in his batting order -- in the hopes of gaining an edge on Matsuzaka.

But left, right . . . it didn't seem to matter.

"We love when guys throw strikes," rued Terry Francona. "But there were balls that were middle-middle for seven straight hitters."

The evening constituted Matsuzaka's shortest start since April 14, 2009 in Oakland, after which, it's worth mentioning, he was placed on the disabled list because of shoulder weakness.

(For the record, Francona insisted that Matsuzaka is healthy and there are no physical issues.)

The beating eliminated any hint of momentum the Red Sox had gained the night before with Josh Beckett's brilliant effort against the Yankees. Suddenly, the Sox' first series win of the season seemed very long ago.

And that's the issue with the team's poor starting pitching. Without solid outings from the rotation, a winning streak -- or a stretch in which the Sox make forward progress -- seems almost unimaginable.

Momentum is the next day's starting pitcher, goes one of baseball's oldest bromides. But for now, momentum for the Red Sox is non-existent.

After two full turns through the starting rotation, they have exactly two quality starts. Their collective starters' ERA sits at 7.24; take away Beckett's effort Sunday against New York and Lester's all-for-naught effort in the road trip finale in Cleveland, and the starters' ERA soars to 10.25.

The offense still hasn't righted itself completely, either. On Monday night the team stranded 11 more baserunners, bringing their total in the last two games to a staggering 27. The Sox continue to hit below .200 with runners in scoring position.

But in 10 games so far, the Sox have scored five runs three times and still lost. In precisely half the games, they've managed four or more runs -- and lost, anyway.

On Monday night, the frustration was evident in the clubhouse after the eighth loss in 10 tries. Matsuzaka sat, still in uniform, staring into his locker for nearly 25 minutes after the loss, seemingly shell-shocked, invoking memories of a similar postgame meltdown following a poor outing in the 2007 ALCS against Cleveland in his first season with the Sox.

Per usual, he offered precious little insight about his failings, speaking only in the most obvious platitudes.

The inability of the team's starters to get into the middle innings on a consisent basis seemed to be wearing on others, too. Dustin Pedroia, normally one of the club's most upbeat members, looked over his shoulder as a crowd of reporters approached and said: "I've got nothing to say, guys."

And indeed, the Sox look lost.

There seems little doubt that the lineup, projected as one of the game's most fearsome, is coming around. Two slumping regulars provided clues that they're about to break out: Kevin Youkilis doubled in his final at-bat, one plate apperance after he had hit hit a vicious line drive which resulted in a double play, and Carl Crawford, matched against his former team, had a two-hit game.

But no such signs are visible for the rotation. Both Matsuzaka and John Lackey have been pasted in their two starts, and newly-extended Clay Buchholz,while not quite as bad, has also been hit hard both times.

Two quality starts in 10 tries is not going to lift the Sox from the division's basement.

For now, expect no drastic shakeups in the rotation. The Sox must hope that Matsuzaka can correct his issues on the side and keep his team in the game more times than not -- a modest enough goal, to be sure, but reasonable for a No. 5 starter, regardless of international pedigree and salary.

There are options beyond Matsuzaka, including Alfredo Aceves, who turned in 2 23 innings of hitless relief, and more intriguingly, Felix Doubront, whose spring was interruped with elbow tightness.

But once the Sox yank Matsuzaka from the rotation, he becomes dead weight. It's hard to envision him being productive out of the bullpen.

And yet, surely, the Sox can't let this continue for much longer. While the Yankees' lineup has bailed out some below-average starts from their equally uncertain rotation, the Red Sox haven't had that luxury.

Even if the hitters begin producing as expected, the season is too long to fully rely on one component to continually compensate for the failings of another.

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

Are Red Sox entering spring training with fewer questions than ever?

Are Red Sox entering spring training with fewer questions than ever?

BOSTON -- Every year it seems like there are major issues or question marks to start spring training where the answers are up in the air.

In 2015, the Red Sox lacked an ace, had Hanley Ramirez moving to left field and Pablo Sandoval coming to town.

In 2016, Ramirez was moving back to the infield, but at a new position, and his bat was in question. Sandoval was coming off a year where he couldn’t hit his weight (he hit .245 and he last weighed in at 255 pounds). How would the starting rotation look after David Price?

This year, there seem to be three questions, but in a way, they’ve already been answered.

How will the Red Sox make up for David Ortiz’s absence?

Well, for one, the Red Sox have three Cy Young-caliber starting pitchers (Price, Chris Sale and Rick Porcello) in their rotation.

And two, Hanley Ramirez is coming off a career year with his highest career output in RBI (111) and second-highest home run total (30). And while Mitch Moreland isn’t the greatest hitter, he’s good for 20 or more home runs. Plus, it seems he’s holding a spot for a certain Red Sox prospect who’s bouncing back well from an injury.

 

Will Sandoval earn the starting third base job back?

The weight loss is a good sign, not only for the physical reasons, but it shows he’s mentally committed to being better.

However, that doesn’t guarantee he gets his job back.

“I’m not going to say [third base] resolved itself,” John Farrell told CSNNE.com, “but you know Panda’s done a very good job of committing to get himself in better shape and we’re looking forward to seeing that play to in spring training.”

Even if Panda can’t put it all together, Farrell told reporters before Thursday’s BBWAA dinner, both Brock Holt and Josh Rutledge would be competing for the job as well.

Holt as plan B -- in the infield? Who wouldn’t take that?

Who’s going to start at catcher?

Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart each have their pros an cons.

Leon did it all last year, but went from hitting .383 in his first 39 games to .242 in his last 39.

Vazquez has Ivan Rodriguez-esque abilities behind the plate, but couldn’t keep the staff under control last year and cannot hit.

Swihart, who turns 25 April 3, is the youngest of the three, has the most potential at the plate, but is far and away the worst of the three defensively at the most important defensive position -- excluding pitcher -- on the field.

They all have their drawbacks, but they’ve all shown at some point why they can be the Red Sox starting catcher in the present and future.

Everywhere else, the Red Sox seem to be in a comfortable position as pitchers and catchers reporting to camp draws ever nearer.

“I think the fact that we’ve got veteran players that have done a great job in staying healthy [and] young players that are getting more establishing in their return, we’re in a pretty good place in terms of the overall status of our position player group,” Farrell told CSNNE.com.

And it seems some players are confident in the team’s options as they ready for camp.

“We’re looking good in a lot of areas,” shortstop Xander Bogaerts told CSNNE.com. “Especially the pitching staff, [since] we just got Chris Sale one of the best in the game.”

“Pablo’s definitely going to bounce back, especially with the weight he’s lost."

Francona, Epstein receive grand ovations at BBWAA dinner

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Francona, Epstein receive grand ovations at BBWAA dinner

BOSTON -- “I didn’t feel that love after I made a pitching change in the sixth inning,” Terry Francona said after a 45-second standing ovation from Boston fans upon receiving the MLB Manager of the Year award from the BBWAA Thursday.

It’s without question the love for Francona runs deep in the city. Why wouldn’t it? He was the leader in breaking the 86-year old curse, and wound up winning another World Series title for Boston three years later.

Actually, he was more of a co-leader, working alongside the same person who won the MLB Executive of the Year honors from the BBWAA for 2016.

Theo Epstein -- who received an ovation 17 seconds shorter than Francona, but who’s counting -- reminisced about the Red Sox ownership group that took a chance on a young kid who wasn’t necessarily the ideal candidate to take over as GM of a team, but now that’s helped him build the Chicago Cubs into a winning franchise and establish a great working environment.

This October marks 13 years since the ’04 championship, 10 years since ’07 and six years since the pair left Boston. Without question they’ve left their mark on the city and forever changed Red Sox baseball.

And while the fans showed their undying gratitude for Francona with an ovation almost as long as his acceptance speech, the Indians manager recognized the favor the current Red Sox brass has done for him.

“I’d like to thank Dave Dombrowski and the Red Sox for getting Chris Sale the hell out of the Central Division,” Francona said.