Nation STATion: Peaks and Valleys

486540.jpg

Nation STATion: Peaks and Valleys

By Bill Chuck
Special to CSNNE.com

The baseball season is often described as a marathon, not a dash. But I see it as a long, 162-game game journey that starts with preparation in the March Florida sun, and ends in the cool evenings of September, with the ultimate destination being the Promised Land of postseason baseball in October. With that in mind, I would love to see a topographical map of the 2011 Red Sox season.

I can picture the climb up the mountain in April, as the team began below sea level (or C level for you academics) until they arrived at the top of Mt. Aleast (that is AL East, in case you dont recognize my fantasy mountain), viewing out on the rest of the baseball world. Then came the long descent of September deep into the valley (reminiscent of the quote, Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil empire, especially when they dont play their full starting lineup.) Finally, last night, as the team was about to step off the precipice, the bullpen and Jacoby Ellsbury enabled them to remain on terra firma.

But thats just the big picture. The journey of the season began on the wrong path, in the Red Sox famous 0-6 beginning, which, after this month, almost feels like the good old days. Really the farthest underwater this team went was on April 15 when they were at 2-10 after a loss to Toronto. But things started improving from that point on. After a few false steps, the team finally reached level ground, also known as the .500 mark, on May 15 when they finished off a three-game sweep of the Yankees. They stood at 20-20 on that date. I want to remind you that from that point on, the Sox and the Tigers, who everybody feels really good about, have played at virtually the same level. Boston is 69-50 and Detroit is 70-49.

Returning to our map, by the time the Sox completed that first ascent from the muck and mire of below .500, they put together a seven-game winning streak and they were on their way to the scenic route where they could begin to look down on the rest of baseball. One of the great breaks the Sox had on this journey was that neither New York nor Tampa had gotten off to a particularly great start either. Even as Boston was underwater, they were never further than five games out of first. That May day when they reached the .500 mark, the Yanks were only 20-18 and Tampa was 23-17. The Indians were 24-13 on May 15 (they are 56-66 since).

Their climb to the top of Mt. Aleast took 50 games. On May 26, they defeated Detroit and, at 28-22, they were in a virtual tie for first with the Yanks. And they kept working their way above .500. These intrepid travelers were becoming an A-team. By game 65 on June 12, the team had won a season high nine games in a row and were 39-26 overall.

Okay, take off your backpacks for a moment and as we enjoy the view; I want to give you a little perspective. Yes, the Sox were in first place at this point, with a game-and-a-half lead, but our memory is a weird tool. It can remember some things perfectly well, but can also distort others just as well. Perhaps it is the thin air you breathe at the high level of great success that may make you a little lightheaded and not enable you to think or remember clearly, but let me set the record straight: Even after the Sox went 16-9 in June and 20-6 in July, at a time when they were called the greatest team in baseball, they never had a first place lead larger than three games. Yes, I know we are talking now about the diminution of their Wild Card lead, but it is important to understand they never pulled away from the pack (read that as the Yankees) to have breathing room.

Along the 2011 Red Sox season, there are a number of key dates. We have discussed reaching .500, and moving into first place, but for me June 16 is a critical point on the map. On that date, the Sox beat the Rays, 4-2. They were in first place with a game and a half lead. Clay Buchholz earned the win going five innings. Thats the last time he pitched this season. It was exactly one month since Daisuke Matsuzaka last pitched before Boston lost him for the season. That May 16 date, to me, wasnt as significant because I regarded that as addition by subtraction. But on June 16, to lose not only another 20 of your starting five, but also to lose one of the big three of Beckett, Lester, and Buchholz, became a milestone moment on this journey. But there were six weeks to go until the trading deadline; surely the Sox would add another starter beyond the caliber of Erik Bedard. They didnt and dont call me Shirley.

It was also significant because the next day, the Sox' map led them to distant lands: the National League. This proved treacherous because of the one dimensional skill of David Ortiz (I dont regarded home run preening as a skill). Big Papi can hit. He can hit with the best of the designated hitters in MLB history. But while the Sox played eight games in a row in NL parks from June 24 to July 3 and went 5-3 (Pittsburgh and Houston helped), Ortiz came to the plate just 13 times and went 0-for-11. By the time interleague play was over, the lead again was a game and a half, but this time it was held by NY as Boston was back in second place. By the way, they led Tampa by just 2.5.

With the July 31 trading deadline approaching, on July 27 the team had reached its highest peak to date. They were 26 games over .500 at 64-38, and for the third time in three days held a three game lead over the Yankees in the division. In the Wild Card hunt, their lead was 8.5 over the Angels and 11.5 over the Rays. And John Lackey had just won his fourth straight start. All was good, but we know now that what the front office and Red Sox Nation was seeing was actually a mirage.

But it took a little over a month before the vision became clear.

The highest peak of the season was reached on August 31, when Beckett and company defeated the Yankees (again), 9-5. They were 31 games over .500 and in first place by a game and a half over New York, leading Tampa Bay by nine games in the Wild Card race. It was time for the final leg of the journey. There was just a month to go to reach the Promised Land: the postseason. This should be so much fun, well even bring the kids along. What could go wrong?

In game 137, on September 2, the Sox lost to Texas, 10-0. You can see it as just another loss, just their second in a row, or you can look back and notice that less than a week before they had lost to Oakland, 15-5. Two losses in a week by 10 runs each is not a good indicator. Their largest losses of the season were way back in April and early May, each by 11 runs, ironically by the two teams that are chasing them now, the Rays and the Angels. But that was then. This was September and the Sox were a mere half-game out of first place and 9.5 up in the Wild Card.

But we know what happened: potholes, mudslides, and alligators biting butts. The map never showed how dangerous traversing the land could be. It got so bad that last night, in the Yankee Stadium darkness, they were just one step from stepping into the abyss of being tied for the Wild Card with three games left. But the Yanks brought in Scott Proctor, who is a one-run-worse-per-game pitcher than John Lackey (7.41 to 6.41) and, between him and Jacoby, the night had a happy ending.

Maybe this long 2011 journey can have a happy ending as well. The homer last night might prove to be the impetus to help this team unload the baggage it has been carrying and reach its destiny. Im referring to the postseason, not Baltimore. Maybe they have peaks ahead, maybe they have valleyed-out. Maybe they stop singing Paul Simons Slip Slidin Away and start singing the Grateful Deads Truckin because, as Jerome Garcia and the boys sang, Lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it's been.

McAdam: Walk-off loss quickly washed away by Red Sox celebration

McAdam: Walk-off loss quickly washed away by Red Sox celebration

NEW YORK -- Worst to first.

Again.

Sound familiar?

It should, since the Red Sox are now making this a habit. For the second time in the last four years, the Red Sox have rebounded from a last-place finish -- two, in fact, in this instance -- to claim a division title.

On Wednesday, they won it the hard way -- by losing the game, 5-3, on a walk-off grand slam by the New York Yankees' Mark Teixeira, but clinching first thanks to a loss by the second-place Toronto Blue Jays.

It's as though the Red Sox were determined to win it on a trick bank shot. They had already won the A.L. East more conventionally in 2013, by actually winning their clinching game. But the awkwardness of blowing a three-run lead in the ninth was soon washed away in a spray of champagne and beer in a raucous clubhouse.

"One inning,'' declared John Farrell, "should not take away from the fact that we're champions.''

Indeed, the Red Sox had already paid the price to get to this point with two consecutive finishes in the division basement. They had to wait for their young foundation to mature and evolve.

Mookie Betts went from being a good, promising player to a legitimate MVP candidate. Jackie Bradley Jr. transformed from defensive marvel and streaky hitter to solid, all-around All-Star. Xander Bogaerts continued to improve and finally checked the "power'' box.

"I don't know what expectations we had coming in,'' confessed Bradley. "You just know that as long as you play hard, do the right things, keep together. . . We knew we had a talented team, but you still have to play the game. We were able to play the game at a high level this year.

"I think we knew this could happen in spring training, that we could be a pretty special team.''

By this year, the growing pains were over. The young stars had arrived and were ready to not just flash potential, but this time, do something with it.

"Everything came to fruition,'' noted Bradley, "and we're here.''

Along with the expected developments, there were surprises: Sandy Leon went from fourth-string journeyman to starting catcher, unseating several teammates along the way. Steven Wright went from bullpen long man to All-Star starter. Andrew Benintendi came from nowhere to claim the left field job in the final two months.

Some of this was planned. The rest -- and this is the beauty of sports -- was not.

The team showed a powerful finishing kick down the stretch, obliterating anything and anyone in its way in the final month, winning 11 straight, including seven in a row on the road -- all against division opponents.

The road-heavy second-half schedule that threatened to derail them instead toughened them and served as a springboard.

Comparisons will be made, of course, to the last two championship teams - 2004 stands alone for obvious reasons. Farrell was the pitching coach for one (2007) and the manager of another (2013).

"This is a more dynamic offense than those other teams,'' said Farrell. "We've got more team speed, we've got more athleticism. I can't say that this is a better team; it's different.''

"Better'' may have to wait until November, and the end of the postseason. It will require a World Series victory to match 2007 and 2013.

Time will tell. But for a night, there was enough to celebrate.

"By no means,'' said Farrell, dripping in champagne, "is this the end. This is just the beginning of our postseason.''

 

Quotes, notes and stars: Red Sox lose, but 'celebrate anyway'

Quotes, notes and stars: Red Sox lose, but 'celebrate anyway'

NEW YORK - Quotes, notes and stars from the Red Sox' 5-3 loss in New York.

 

QUOTES:

"I feel pretty good. Let's put it this way: Where we are now, I wouldn't want to play us going into the playoffs." - Red Sox principal owner John Henry

"I wanted to celebrate on that field so bad, but it is what it is. We end up being the first place team in the American League, and we're going to celebrate anyway." - David Ortiz, after the Red Sox lose on a walkoff, but clinch the division anyway.

“I’ll still be trying to hit the next four games, but if it just happens to be my last one (homer of his career), it’ll be pretty special." - Mark Teixeira, who's retiring Sunday and hit the walk-off grand slam.

 

NOTES:

* Joe Kelly became the first Red Sox pitcher to allow a walkoff grand slam since Julian Tavarez in 2006.

* Craig Kimbrel failed to record an out -- in 28 pitches -- marking the third time in 410 career appearances that that happened.

* Koji Uehara posted his 14th straight scoreless appearance.

* Brad Ziegler hasn't allowed an earned run in his last 19 appearances.

* Dustin Pedroia has scored five runs and knocked in seven in his last five games.

* Mookie Betts posted his major league-leading 66th multi-hit game.

* Clay Buchholz has a 2.63 ERA in his last seven starts.

* The one hit allowed by Buchholz marks the fewest hits allowed by him in a non-injury-shortened game since his no-hitter in 2007.

* The win marked only the second time the Red Sox have clinched the A.L. East away from home. The other time was in Cleveland in 1998.

 

STARS:

1) Mark Teixeira

The first baseman is going out in style. In the final week of his career, he hit his second game-winning homer of the week, with Wednesday's being a walk-off grand slam.

2) Clay Buchholz

Buchholz was brilliant, allowing three baserunners -- an infield hit and two walks -- in six shutout innings.

3) Mookie Betts

Betts delivered what appeared to be the game's biggest blow -- a two-run chopped double in the eighth to break open a scoreless tie.