April 23, 2009

On Behalf of Red Sox Nation

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Yes, the Sox got off to a slow start (3-6 earlier this season). But if this were the NFL, they would be halfway through the fourth quarter of their first game. There are plenty of games still to be played, so there’s no reason to worry yet. Not to mention the fact that four of the games they lost were decided by just one run. They’ve played some tough teams too — the Rays and Angels both made the playoffs last year and with the addition of Matt Holiday, Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera (forever a hero in Red Sox Nation), and of course Nomar “I definitely took steroids” Garciaparra, the A’s are primed to make a run for a playoff spot this year.
But we have learned that two components consistently win Championships: Pitching and defense. The Sox have the best bullpen in the Major League, along with the deepest starting rotation. They currently have seven legitimate big league starters who could step in at any point in time: Beckett, Lester, Matsuzaka, Wakefield, Penny, Buchholz and Smoltz along with Michael Bowden (3.44 ERA in 144.1 Minor League innings last season) and Junichi Tazawa (1.00 ERA in Japan’s Industrial league) waiting in the wings. The bullpen was solid last season, posting an ERA around the league average despite several injuries. But with Takashi Saito (81 saves in three seasons with the Dodgers) and Ramon Ramirez (2.14 ERA in 105 innings outside of Coors Field) joining the likes of Okajima, Masterson, Delcarmen and of course the closer Papelbon, the starters don’t need to hang on the mound too long before handing it over to the bullpen. The depth is the key for the Sox; they will be able to withstand the in­evitable injuries of a long season.
Looking at the Devil Rays (excuse me, the Rays) and Yankees, they simply are not as strong. There’s no question that each team has very good pitching, but in the case of the Rays, who is the lights-out closer to shut the door in the ninth every night? Troy Percival? With a 4.53 ERA in 2008, it’s doubtful Rays fans feel completely comfortable handing him the ball, and, as last year’s Mets can attest to, a shutdown closer is a necessity. We all saw what the Rays bullpen was made of in Game 5 of the ALCS last year when they blew a 7-0 lead in the seventh inning to let the Sox win. And in the Yankees’ case, they have no depth, even with all that money can buy. Who’s the bridge in front of Rivera to eat up the sixth, seventh and eighth innings? Brian Bruney? We’ll see how that works out. Chien-Ming Wang has been a complete disaster, there’s no question that something isn’t right with him. Scouts are reporting that Chamberlain’s fastball is down and his arsenal just isn’t what it used to be. Plus, It’s only a matter of time until A.J. Burnett makes his first trip to the DL. All this piled on with the fact that CC Sabathia clearly never wanted to play for the Yankees in the first place, but that’s for another day, is going to make them more of a broken down sports car than a well oiled machine. They’re going to need help down the road, but they just don’t have it. But hey, apparently Nick Swisher can pitch: in one game this season, he was the only Yankees pitcher not to give up a run.
Defensively, the Sox have Gold Glove winners in Youkilis, Pedroia, Varitek and Lowell; and above-average fielders at every other position (except the $9 million utility man Julio Lugo). Offensively, all three teams are very even. The Sox could very well produce the fewest runs out of the three teams; they’re clearly not the same in the middle of the lineup without Manny Ramirez. But Kevin Youkilis has developed into an All-Star clean-up hitter, and from top to bottom they’re full of good hitters who can aim for the fences. J.D. Drew and Jason Bay would likely hit third or fourth on most Major League teams but hit fifth and sixth for Boston. Not to mention the fact that their No. 2 hitter was the AL MVP last season, the al­mighty Dustin Pedroia. In the end though, it’s about the pitching and the defense. Good pitching shuts down good hitting. The Sox are loaded with great players at every position that excel in all different aspects of the game. They’re good, they’re deep, and they’re well managed and will ultimately be standing alone at the end of October.