The last couple of days have felt like it was supposed to go. Excellent starting pitching, dependable bullpen work and big hits from star players have led to consecutive, impressive Red Sox wins. Last night Josh Beckett outdueled C.C. Sabathia, with Jacoby Ellsbury and Adrian Gonzalez supplying the big hits. Last night the final score was 6-0.
Beckett struck out nine in six innings while allowing just four base runners against one of baseball’s very best offenses. Peter Abraham suggested that had Gonzalez not hit his 7th inning home run to give the Sox a six-run cushion (more on that in a bit), then Beckett would have been back out in the bottom half of the inning. As it stood, it was a nice opportunity to rest him up a bit.
Beckett’s resurgence has been as vital to Boston’s limited 2011 success as just about any other factor. Yes, the 1.75 ERA figures to jump up as Beckett’s balls in play and HR/FB luck level off, but he’s still sixth in the AL in FIP and eighth in xFIP. Beckett had a 5.78 ERA in 2010. It was reasonable to wonder if we might ever see the 2007-2009 Beckett again.
Another player whose rebound from a rough 2010 has meant a ton to the Sox is Ellsbury. He doubled in the game’s first two runs, and on the year is now hitting at a 130 wRC+ clip. That puts him behind only Curtis Granderson among American League center fielders.
At this point, what the heck is there to say about Gonzalez? When the Red Sox lost 4-1 in Baltimore on April 26th, Gonzalez finished that day .281/.354/.416. Today he’s at .325/.374/.588. In his last 17 games, he’s slugged .803. Over his last nine games, he’s slugged .925. During the bad times, it was hard to fault Gonzalez since he was playing pretty well. Still, I wanted some bombs, some style, and I let a Red Sox FO exec know as much one day a few weeks back. “They’re coming,” he BBM’d back to me. I guess they were.
The story of his home run last night, courtesy of Gordon Edes, tells us a lot about Gonzalez’s exceptional talent. Frustrated because he couldn’t clear his hands on inside fastballs from Sabathia, he decided he would try a new approach. Just like Ichiro Suzuki, he would guess fastball and thrust forward with a big stride so as to open his body up early and position himself to get through Sabathia’s inside heat. Knowing it might come off gimmicky if he failed, Gonzalez asked his Manager if it was ok for him to do so. From the Edes piece:
“He amazes me,’’ Francona said after Gonzalez hit his fifh home run in his last four games and seventh in his last 11 to turn a close game into a 6-0 romp over the Yankees. “When you say you’re going to do it and then you do it, that’s pretty impressive.’’
Here’s how the conversation in the dugout went, according to Francona.
“He said he was going to have a little bit of Ichiro in him, a little bit of a leap,’’ Francona said. ‘’He said, ‘Do you have a problem with that?’ I said, ‘Not if you get a hit.’ ’’
To excel as a Major League hitter requires both talent and technical precision. Players enter prolonged slumps and then work with hitting coaches because they know they need to get their mechanics straightened out. The talent never leaves, but the swing mechanics come and go. That’s why players have batting stances that are the same each time at the plate. If they were to deviate, it would make more difficult the already insane task of trying to club pitches moving every which direction at 90+ miles per hour.
For Gonzalez to wing it like this because Sabathia is a certain style pitcher would be like Luke Donald today at Sawgrass deciding he needs to employ the Happy Gilmore technique in order to crank out an extra 20 yards off the tee. It requires extraordinary confidence and natural ability to abandon the routine.
Since the 2-10 start, the Red Sox are 17-10. That’s a 102-win clip extrapolated to 162 games. Clay Buchholz, about as bad as any pitcher in baseball to start the season, has won three straight starts with a 3.75 K/BB and a .557 OPS-against over that stretch. Beckett has been one of the American League’s best starters. Gonzalez is going crazy. With the emergence of Matt Albers and perhaps even Rich Hill, the bullpen seems to be solidifying. Tonight it’s Jon Lester in the Bronx to try for the sweep and for the fifth time, try to get to .500 for the first time in 2011. The Red Sox are just 2.5 games out of the playoffs. Things feel like they’re headed in the right direction.
That’s not to say they’re out of the woods by any stretch. The catching situation and John Lackey could very well demand attention. Bobby Jenks has been a disaster. Carl Crawford’s resurgence has been nice – he’s raised his OPS 190 points in his last 20 games – but it has also been gradual. He has just a .309 on-base during the stretch. Dustin Pedroia is slugging .329, while J.D. Drew’s slugging percentage isn’t much better, just .352.
The task for Tito and the Red Sox front office is to figure out which problems merit attention in the form of playing time shifts or roster moves, and which problems will work themselves out. In the meantime, I’m just thankful that the team has stabilized to a point where they can win consistently despite some lingering flaws.