Thursday, October 6, 2011

Seven Games in September, Part II

Continued from Part I, "The Mathematics of Emotion."

II. The Chase
The first game of the doubleheader on Monday, September 19 is a solid Baltimore win, but there's no feeling of destiny to it. The Orioles start Jeremy Guthrie, a nice guy and solid, back-of-the-rotation starter that they got serious about trading two years too late.

The Sox start Kyle Weiland. Francona gambles here; the cupboard's a bit bare of major league-ready pitching since graduating Lester, trading Justin Masterson last year for the now-departed Victor Martinez and dealing Casey Kelly to the San Diego Padres as part of the package for Gonzalez. After injuries, they're left with Weiland. He might one day be a solid number-four starter, but this will likely be his last start of the year, even before he takes the mound. Once he leaves it, it's all but certain.

Weiland lasts 4 and 2/3 innings and gives up six runs, five earned. Looking back, there are rumblings on the horizon. In this marginally safer and more innocent time for Red Sox Nation, very few Boston fans have any real conception of who or what a Robert Andino is.

He is a utility infielder who was acquired in 2009 from the Florida Marlins for a Double A pitcher named Hayden Penn who has not contributed much of anything past that level since. As far as baseball players go, he is smallish, listed at six feet but looking more like 5'10". He’s a good defensive player.

On September 19, Andino hits a home run off Weiland. Fans of both teams write this off as a freak occurrence and make mental notes to send Weiland sympathy cards to mark the passing of his time in the starting rotation. It's only Andino's fourth home run of the year.

More Sox fans have heard of Nolan Reimold, even if they have no idea what he looks like. They've seen him around in the box scores; they might even know he's spent this month hitting like an All-Star, but there's no reason to connect the name to the tall, young left fielder with the intense, blank stare and hypnotic batting stance until he does something important—like homering off Weiland a few minutes before Andino. It's his twelfth of the year. But, again, Kyle Weiland; isolated incident. The Orioles win 6-5.

Game Two is downright heartening for Sox fans; they get to watch the hapless Brian Matusz chained to the mound, Boston hitters like vultures tearing the tendons from his throwing elbow and lower back. Both Reimold and Andino have nice enough games, but even Reimold's 3 RBI aren't likely to raise red flags when the Sox drop Tom Brady bombs on poor Brian. The Sox win 18-9.

Meanwhile, the Rays watch and wait; September 19 is their final day off before the end of the regular season.

Tuesday is the first sign that something is about to go perversely wrong for the home team. Not in the sense of Boston's entire season; everyone is well aware that the Sox are backing into the playoffs. September 20, however, is the first night in this last stretch that the Orioles and Sox play concurrently with the Yankees and Rays; it is the first time the eyes of a player in the dugout can drift over to the Monster in Fenway and see time running out, updated every at-bat.

This does not help their defense.

When the nightmare ends and only pointing fingers remain from their ruined season, Sox fans will blame conditioning, amongst other things, for their team's troubles down the stretch. Beckett, Lackey and Bedard remind many of them uncomfortably of, well, themselves. Each of these thirty-something men has visibly put on weight over the course of the season (or, in Bedard's case, since the last time Boston fans saw him in an Orioles jersey); each of them is bothered by lingering aches and pains that shots of cortisone don't fix for long. They don't look how modern sports have taught us athletes should look. That's fine if they're pitching well. They're not.

But this game doesn't start to fall apart because Bedard wears a brace on his plant leg. It starts to fall apart because of a defensive miscue by 24 year old right fielder Josh Reddick. In an ideal world, Reddick, with plus defensive skills and a league-average bat, would be Boston's fourth outfielder following the departure of Mike Cameron. But starting right fielder J.D. Drew is playing terribly when he's not hurt, so Reddick assumes the majority of the starting duties in right, with 32 year old minor-league journeyman Darnell McDonald reprising his intended 2010 role as the team's utility outfielder.

McDonald, as fate would have it, was the first-round pick of the Orioles in the 1997 Amateur Draft 14 years before. He did not live up to it. The Orioles gave him a 17-game look in 2004, decided they'd seen enough, and McDonald saw all of 11 major league plate appearances—all with Minnesota in 2006—before the Reds gave him an extended look in 2009 as their fourth outfielder. He signed a minor league contract in the Boston system the following offseason, the emergency option just in case Mike Cameron couldn't stay healthy in centerfield. As it turned out, no one on the team could stay healthy, and McDonald got to spend most of the year on the major league roster.

Reddick should be getting playing time over him. Reddick is almost a decade younger and better in the field by every quasi-reliable measure: Total Zone, Ultimate Zone Rating, the eye test—especially the eye test. Some scouts think Reddick has the defensive ability to play a competent centerfield, and his bat is above-average for the year and only getting better.

None of this matters on Tuesday night in the top of the third, the Sox leading 1-0. Reimold leads off; Bedard gets him to pop out. Andino—there he is again—works the count full over the course of an exhausting 13-pitch at-bat, then singles to left. J.J. Hardy also pops out. The Orioles' new shortstop is having a poor September by his 2011 standards; the guy batting after him, though, is not. Baltimore right fielder Nick Markakis doubles in the gap, and Andino scores. With Markakis standing on second and with two away, Vladimir Guerrero steps to the plate.

Guerrero is six hits shy of becoming the all-time hits leader for a player born in the Dominican Republic. Vlad knows this and publicly campaigns for legendary Dominican player and manager Felipe Alou to be in attendance when he breaks the record. He looks at a breaking ball in the dirt and then a strike on the outside corner. Bedard gets the ball back, takes the sign, sets and delivers his third pitch: a hanging curve to the same part of the plate. Guerrero will be a Hall of Famer. Even at age 36, he knows what to do with those.

He smokes it to right and Reddick... comes in on it. To his credit the Sox right fielder realizes his mistake, backpedals once, jumps and, really, he almost makes an ice-cream cone catch, the ball sticking out of the webbing like the top scoop. Then it's gone. As Reddick flaps his mitt trying to get it back Markakis scores from second. Baltimore takes the lead.

Bedard falls apart. He walks Matt Wieters and Adam Jones, gets a visit from the pitching coach, gives up a hard single to Mark Reynolds which plates two more, and by the time the bottom half of the inning rolls around the Orioles have gone from down one to up three.

The Orioles are still the Orioles, though, and that means their starter has no business standing on a major league mound. In fact, he has so little business being there that he was only brought up when rosters expanded, even though the Orioles had stopgaps in their rotation for months. His name is Rich VandenHurk, and he busily goes about giving the lead right back to the Sox. He allows five runs in less than four innings of work—one in the first, two more in the third and fourth each—and is quickly spirited away for, of all men and beasts that roam the earth, relief pitcher Jo-Jo Reyes, formerly of the Blue Jays.

Somehow, the Sox do not score off him. Nor off Willie Eyre, who hadn't pitched in the majors for two years before the Orioles called him up midway through the season. Nor Pedro Strop, the minor league player named later in the deal that sent Mike Gonzalez to Texas. Strop joined the Orioles on the first of the month and is already the most reliable pitcher in the pen not named Jim Johnson.

In the bottom of the seventh, Francona decides he's seen enough of Josh Reddick for one evening; he pinch hits for the right fielder with all-bat no-glove "shortstop" Jed Lowrie. This year Lowrie hasn't had much of a bat either. He flies out to center.

The Sox go to the top of the eighth leading 5-4. McDonald makes an appearance in right field as a defensive replacement, of all things. Daniel Bard, the man Boston dreams of as The Closer of Baseball Future, has pitched since the top of the seventh. He strikes out Jones with a breaking ball that's—ha ha, okay, what else?—low and away for the first out. Like Bedard, he's unable to keep Wieters or Reynolds off the basepaths, so Francona brings in Boston's Closer of Baseball Present: Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon strikes out Chris Davis on a breaking ball almost above the letters, because, well, umpires.

Reimold singles to left with Crawford playing shallow due to the Monster. Bases loaded. With two outs, the bases loaded, and the Sox leading 5-4, Papelbon stares 60 feet six inches down toward home as, once again, Andino steps into the batter's box.

This at-bat only lasts six pitches. The Orioles win 7-5.

There's a funny little moment when Reimold is coming in to score on Andino's double in the eighth; Papelbon stands two-thirds of the way down the line as McDonald scratches around the dirt in right field for the ball. The Sox closer stares at the Orioles left fielder as Willie Randolph, former Mets manager and currently Buck Showalter’s third base coach, waves Reimold toward the plate. Papelbon watches him come down the line, waits for him to make it most of the way there at full speed, then steps up and throws his chest at the runner, feinting a body check. Reimold doesn't flinch; it’s not clear if he even sees him.

Papelbon looks like he hits an invisible wall stretching up from the third base foul line into the Boston night air; he spins, falls back, then turns to see where Andino ends up. Reimold is barreling down on Boston catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who is 6'4" and wearing body armor; if the Baltimore left fielder is willing to run into that, he's more than willing to shoulder a closer without flinching. It’s as if Papelbon knows what he’s doing is useless and ludicrous but he’s compelled to at least try.

There is, perhaps, no better metaphor than this half-hearted feint for how Papelbon will do business over the next week. From now until the final, bitter end on the night of the 28th, he will throw his fastball almost exclusively. Papelbon—famous for, among other things, the development of the short-lived "slutter" (you see, it is both a slider and a cutter)—will revert halfway into what some analysts call "a thrower, instead of a pitcher," probably out of fatigue. Papelbon's fastball is his best pitch, leaving his hand in the upper nineties and breaking late and hard, but it's becoming a paper tiger because right now he has nothing else. He normally throws a nasty splitter, but he either can't locate it or has lost confidence in its ability to get hitters out, and neither his slider nor his curveball have ever been impressive at the major league level.

When a pitcher tires, his fastball slows and flattens out. When he only throws fastballs, they become predictable. When a pitcher is slow, flat and predictable, bad things happen.

Francona calls on Papelbon for five innings in eight days, and he labors through each appearance. Credit to Boston's closer: he looks no more or less frustrated in these tight, late games than he does any other time things don't go his way.

So it's a good thing, then, that the only thing more viscerally pleasing than Papelbon struggling to get through an inning is Mariano Rivera doing so. The latter happens just this side of never. The Orioles induce the former three times in ten days.

If there's a saving grace to Tuesday night for the Sox faithful—and really, there isn't, because Willie "Not Scott" Eyre just won a game against Boston in late September in a tight playoff race—it's that the Rays lose to the Yankees 5-0. The Red Sox lead doesn’t widen, but it holds.

Wednesday, now—the final game of the year in Fenway Park. Francona throws Beckett, an established ace with two rings, against Tommy Hunter, the fifth starter on the Rangers until they decided it'd be nice if they had someone to pitch the eighth inning and they traded him. Things do not go as planned.

Some fans have lumped Beckett into a nebulous group of "unconditioned, soft" players that emerged when Lackey signed his mega-contract and immediately underperformed. After Beckett left a promising September 6 start against the Blue Jays with a sprained ankle, his injury became "something else" when examined in the clubhouse, according to team trainers and Beckett himself. Lost in a swirling vortex of rumor and innuendo was the rational conclusion that, if Beckett hurt his foot in a way he'd never felt before, it was probably worse than a sprained ankle, not better.

Beckett pitches through it, and on Wednesday night he pitches well despite the grumbling and his inability to beat Jones to first when he grounds out weakly to second in the seventh inning. The Orioles centerfielder escapes a double play, while Wieters is forced out as second. Bad wheels aside, Beckett induced the out in one pitch, resulting in the same number of men on base and in the same position with one away. And the Sox still lead 4-2.

Reynolds has already hit one homer tonight off Beckett, a moonshot over the Green Monster, and as Jones stands on first with one out they pitch to him anyway. Why wouldn't you pitch to Reynolds? As nice as it sounds when you say that a player does nothing but hit home runs, there's a reason Wily Mo Pena doesn't stick in the majors. Reynolds, horrific defensive issues aside, is a very likely candidate t0—oh good Christ, that ball is gone and the game is tied.

The fans... deflate. That's the nice thing about Fenway; it's so cozy, you can see the faces fall as homers clear that mountainous abortion of a left field wall. Perhaps if they had a real stadium they'd be in the playoffs right now, but they don't, and since either way you’re going to have to hear about the Monster every time your team visits, enjoy it when it turns two deep flyball outs into knives in the ribs. The game is tied.

The Sox fail to score off the Orioles bullpen in the seventh. This is becoming a recurring theme.

Andino leads off the top of the eighth by popping out to first. Remember that Andino is not a great hitter. He is not even a good one. He certainly is not JJ Hardy, the castoff Brewer and Twin who steps up to the plate next and lines a Beckett fastball the other way for a single. Hardy's year has been nothing short of fantastic; he ends with 30 home runs, a career high, and a new contract keeping him in Baltimore for the next three years. That’s fine. The Twins front office doesn’t want him back anyway. In fact they’re happy he’s gone. The Twins will finish the season with 99 losses. No, don't feel sorry for them: the Twins deserve nothing except everything that they get.

Markakis hits a ground-rule double on fan interference; the umpire places Hardy on third base. Markakis has become a modest, disappointing player, especially since he's making $11 million a year. But who cares? He's Nick Markakis. He's the closest thing Baltimore has to a franchise player. He's a good defensive right fielder; he's got a good eye, and hey, maybe his power returns. And he just chased Beckett, who Francona pulls for Alfredo Aceves.

Vladimir Guerrero, second half champion, immediately bullshits a single back up the middle. Two runs score. Jim Johnson comes in. He has six saves in the last 15 calendar days. Three outs later he has seven. Orioles win 6-4.

A brief pause as the Orioles play three games against Detroit, the Sox play three against the Yankees, and the Rays play three against the Jays. New York takes two from Boston; Tampa, two from Toronto. Notable is the second Rays win, where the Jays seemingly give up in the field and allow Tampa to comfortably extend their lead to three runs. With two wins to Boston's one, the Rays gain another game. As the Sox travel down I-95 toward Baltimore, the noose again tightens.

There's still enough time left discuss this disaster of a season for the Orioles from a developmental standpoint. There was a time—geologically speaking, it wasn't even that long ago—when the Orioles were a respectable franchise. They finished in the top three of the old American League East on a regular basis and in the top two often enough that making the playoffs was a reasonable goal every spring. They developed pitching well and had possibly the best manager in the history of the sport, Earl Weaver. His teams won with a strategy best summarized as "pitching and three-run dingers."

This was supposed to be the year that pitching prospects Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman and Zach Britton dragged the franchise back down the road toward respectability. Only Britton will post an ERA under 5 for the year: 4.51. An elbow bone spur shut down Arrieta. He will undergo surgery to repair it and hope he fares better than Adam Loewen, currently a Triple A outfielder for Toronto.

Tillman cannot go more than five innings without giving up that many runs. Britton pitches so poorly he is demoted to Double A, where he immediately puts up an HR/9 of 2.31 over 11 2/3 innings. He's brought back to the majors, where he finds and then loses the strike zone three times for every 15 minutes of play.

Matusz pulls a muscle in his lower back and immediately ceases to be a major league pitcher. His fastball loses six miles per hour; his slider stops sliding; his curve stops curving; his changeup, well, it stays exactly the same. When Matusz returns from his lower back injury, everything out of his hand is 86 miles per hour and straight as an arrow. Scouts stare at his game tape and say he looks like a journeyman minor league pitcher.

He was supposed to be the ace, to start Opening Day. Instead, Matusz finishes the season with twelve starts, 49.2 innings pitched, and an ERA of 10.69. Due to the front office's belief that he can work through his problems, he breaks the previous modern record for season ERA by a pitcher with 10 or more starts: 10.64 in 13. That record was set in 2000; it's an impressive body of terrible, terrible work, and the pitcher, a Blue Jay, was sent down and forced to relearn all of his mechanics. The pitching coach who fixed him focused on repetition as almost a drug—repeated delivery and motion everything else following after.

That pitcher is still in the majors; to say that it is unlikely that Matusz will follow his career path understates how good the man in question is at throwing a baseball. But he shows that it's not impossible to come back from a horrific year. Of course, Phillies ace Roy Halladay has a much better nickname.

Men like Chris Jakubauskas, Brad Bergesen and Clay Rapada linger in the corners of the bullpen, only visible out of the corner of your eye: when you look at them, they turn into runs scored. They're perfectly nice human beings, to be sure. It's less certain why they're pitching in Major League Baseball games. In the midst of a fight for their playoff lives, the Sox have just dropped three of four games to this team.

Part I: The Mathematics of EmotionPart III: Birds in Fall