Still waiting on A-Gon


Still waiting on A-Gon

Last night, Adrian Gonzalez had another chance to give the Red Sox a much-needed lift. In fact, he had two chances. But, as we've seen all too often this year, Gonzalez came up small in a big situation.

One one hand, it's obviously early, and Gonzalez is no stranger to slow starts.

He only hit one home run last April, before exploding for nine homers in May and morphing into the most precise and dominant Sox slugger since Manny. Still, even with the impressive numbers Gonzalez ultimately posted in 2011, there were a few concerning caveats.

That he hit .183 (13-84) against the Yankees and .131 (8 for 61) against the Rays. That he hit .391 when the Sox were winning, and only .274 when they were behind. That, basically, he didn't have a feel or the fortitude to step up when the Sox needed him most.

Maybe that was unfair, but we could only go on what we saw, and Gonzalez certainly didn't help himself with some of the things he said off the field.

"I'm a firm believer that God has a plan and it wasn't in his plan for us to move forward," he said, in the moments after the Sox lost to the Orioles in Game 162, completing one of the worst collapses in more than 100 years of Major League baseball. And believe it or not, that didn't go over very well. It made everyone wonder if Gonzalez might have been better off playing out the rest of his days in a place like San Diego, where baseball plays second fiddle to things like surfing, golf and brunch.

So far in 2012, Gonzalez has done little to alter that perception.

This year, he's a .323 hitter when the Sox are winning, but comes in at a cool .216 when they're behind. He's hitting .273 with two outs and runners in scoring position. He's hitting .182 in "Late & Close" situations (defined by Baseball Reference as plate appearances in the 7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck). He went 2-9 in the Yankees series, and even though he did hit .353 in four games against the Rays, five of his six hits were singles and only one resulted in an RBI.

And that brings us back to last night.

First, the bottom of seventh inning: The Sox are trailing 4-1, but have loaded the bases and finally knocked starter Brandon McCarthy out of the game. In other words, they've got all the momentum in the world, and Gonzalez their should-be best hitter in the box. There are two outs.

Now, in Gonzalez's defense, A's reliever Ryan Cook has been lights out this season (he's now given up only two hits and zero runs over 12.1 innings), but he's also Ryan Cook. And we're talking about Adrian Gonzalez here.

Gonzalez looked awful, striking out on sixth pitches, extinguishing all the momentum and slamming his bat to the ground in disgust.

Next, it's the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Sox have Oakland closer Brian Fuentes on the ropes (where he pretty much lives these days). From the on-deck circle, Gonzalez watches Dustin Pedroia (who, by comparison, is hitting .316 when the Sox are ahead, but .333 when they're behind; .400 with two outs and runners in scoring position; .444 in late and close situations) hit a two-out RBI double to cut Oakland's lead to 4-2. Gonzalez then stepped in to the box representing the tying run and grounded out to third base.

He's now hitting .250 on the season with a .697 OPS. He's hitless in his last 17 at-bats.

However, there are still a few reasons to be optimistic after last night's ugly show.

First, I loved Gonzalez reaction after striking out in the seventh. Just the raw emotion of slamming the bat and appearing visibly angry in himself and the situation. Maybe that means he's pressing, but at least it shows that he's alive. That he's a competitive human being capable of that kind of display.

Second, after the game, he didn't blame the loss on God's plan, but instead his own failures.

"This game is all on me,'' he said. "I had two great opportunities and I didn't come through. It's one of those things that I'll make a definite point to not let happen again."

The accountability was refreshing.

And lastly, he's Adrian Gonzalez. He's averaged 33 homers and 107 RBI over the last five years. He had 213 hits last season the fourth most in Red Sox history! you have to assume that it's only a matter of time before he gets back on track and commences blowing our minds on a nightly basis.

But for now, it sure is frustrating.

Rich can be reached at Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

NCAA TOURNAMENT: South Carolina headed to Final Four, beats Florida 77-70


NCAA TOURNAMENT: South Carolina headed to Final Four, beats Florida 77-70

NEW YORK - It's only right that South Carolina's first trip to Final Four was earned through its defense.

A team known for a swarming zone used it effectively down the stretch to beat Florida 77-70 on Sunday and win the East Regional at Madison Square Garden.

Sindarius Thornwell scored 26 points for the seventh-seeded Gamecocks (26-10) against the fourth-seeded Gators (27-9) in the all-Southeastern Conference matchup.

South Carolina will face Gonzaga, the No. 1 seed from the West Regional, in the Final Four on Saturday at Glendale, Arizona.

"Gamecock Nation, we heard you loud and clear," coach Frank Martin roared as the team prepared to cut down the nets. "We'll see you in Phoenix."

The game was as close as expected until the final minute. There were 14 lead changes and 10 ties. The last lead change came on two free throws by Thornwell with 2:24 left that made it 65-63. Florida managed just three field goals over the final 3:55.

Thornwell, the regional MVP, followed the deciding free throws with a nice assist to Maik Kotsar for a 4-point lead. It seemed Thornwell, who scored eight straight points for the Gamecocks, was always where he needed to be including making a steal with 40 seconds left that turned into a 73-68 lead.

"I just made plays," Thornwell said. "Plays needed to be made down the stretch and I stepped up and made plays."

"Thornwell was just being Thornwell," Florida coach Mike White said of the SEC player of the year. "He's one of the best players in the country."

PJ Dozier added 17 points for the Gamecocks, Chris Silva had 13 and Kotsar 12.

It all totaled to a Final Four trip for Martin, he of the booming voice and terrifying faces.

Justin Leon had 18 points for the Gators who managed a 40-33 halftime lead on 7-for-12 shooting from 3-point range. But that was it. Florida was 0 for 14 from beyond the arc in the second half, a lot like the 0-for-17 effort the Gators had in their first meeting with South Carolina this season.

South Carolina, which forced Florida into 16 turnovers, finished 23 for 31 from the free throw line, including a 9-for-10 effort from Thornwell.

Nash stepping up when Bruins need him most


Nash stepping up when Bruins need him most

BROOKLYN -- It took most of his first season in Boston, but Riley Nash is hitting his groove with the Bruins at exactly the right time.

Nash came up huge in a must-win game Saturday night against the Islanders, scoring both goals in a 2-1 win over the Isle. The unheralded Nash and equally unheralded backup goalie Anton Khudobin were the two most important performers in the tight, playoff-style win that snapped a four game losing streak while pushing the B's back into playoff position.

"That's part of [a big win], right? Big performances,” said interim coach Bruce Cassidy. "Generally you look to your best players, but [Nash] did a really good job. He's got a sneaky shot, so hopefully he uses it a little bit more. You can't say enough about those goals. We needed them tonight.

"Generally our top guns have been good offensively and have come through. But tonight it was the lesser lights for us in terms of offense, so good for us.”

Both Nash goals were titanic. The first came on the first shift following the Islanders goal in the first period. The fourth-line winger stripped Isles defenseman Scott Mayfield in the neutral zone and then flipped a shot past Thomas Greiss to the short side that tied the game at 1-1. Then in the third period, Dominic Moore hit Nash in stride as he sped into the offensive zone, and Nash weaved through defenders before sneaking one past Greiss for the game-winner.

The two goals give Nash four goals and six points in 21 games since the All-Star break, in line with his normal offensive output during his NHL career, and a step up from the three goals and nine points in his first 52 games this season.

The affable Nash was more than happy to contribute in a big win, and enthused at seeing the offense finally starting to flow on a semi-regular basis when the Bruins can really use it.

"It's quite the output as opposed to the season I've had so far, so I'll take it and be happy that we won the game,” said Nash. "I think everyone in here knew that was the biggest game of the year. It was going to be a really big uphill battle if we lost that one.

"Both teams came out desperate in a pretty tight, playoff-style game, but that's what it's going to be like for the rest of the season. So we've got to hunker down and take it one game at a time as the saying goes.”

With the Bruins third line fading a bit in these tight, physical games where players have to battle for their ice, it's been vital that Boston's fourth line step up and provide big minutes at both ends of the ice. Nash and Co. did more than that on Saturday night by potentially saving the season with his biggest, best game in a Bruins uniform.