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Soup of This Day #70: I Can See All Obstacles In My Way

September 18, 2011

The Charles River, Boston
The Charles River, Boston. Dirty water that has been getting clearerPhoto: Robert Bauer, 2010. Robert Bauer has no affiliation with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

Every so often in sport you get moments of absolute clarity, when everything is framed by brilliant blue sunshine and the only shadows are the crisp definitions of tadpoles at the bottom of a river pool. These are the moments when the game is distilled down into simple truths: Flyball, bottom of the 9th, you’re up by a run with 2 out. Catch it and game over man. See, there can be no confusion, no caveats or riders – Everyone knows what is being offered. Sometimes these defining moments are singularities, points in time that might seem to stretch forever but that are really only seconds long. Like catching that flyball. Other times the point of clarity is a whole game or even a series – Win this or your year is done. The water might be deep but it’s clear.

Most times these moments are few and far between. A season of any sport is loaded with subtle eddies and nuance. No more so than in baseball. There are 162 games in a MLB season, goes the well-worn saying. Every team wins 54, every team loses 54. It’s what you do with the other 54 that counts. So for most of those 162 games wins are to be expected and so are losses. Some of both will be close and some of both will be blow-outs but rarely do any of the individual games bespeak a clear definition of where a team will be at in October.

Take the 2011 Red Sox for instance. Publicly talked up by 1 Yankee upstart to be ‘The Greatest Ever’ they started with 0 and 6 and then stumbled on to 2 and 10. They got stirred and bit hard on the bait. Nobody though seriously believed that they’d be that bad all season long.

And they weren’t. Good in May, even better in June, maybe even great and they were winning ballgames just shy of 0.700. Nobody though seriously believed that they’d be that great for the rest of the season.

And they weren’t. Back to just good in July and ok in August and even these general monthly summaries mask more localised variations in form. There were signs of a very good ball club in there and there were signs of fragility, particularly in the pitching rotation. Despite this the Red Sox headed into September with a 1.5 game lead on AL East rivals the Yankees and a 9 game lead on post-season rivals the Rays. The play-offs were a lock and 99 wins a possibility.

But then that fragility caught Boston up and tactically and mentally they have not answered. Heading into a series with the Rays, that in August must have looked benign, the Sox were 3 and 10 for September. The lead over the Yankees had become a 4 game deficit and the lead over the Rays had plummeted to 4. Had the Rays rolled the O’s while the Sox collapsed against the Jays it could have been 3. That Jays game seemed to sum up these 2011 Sox. Leading 4-2 into the 8th, Daniel Bard gave up 3, a week after he gave up 5 and the Sox slumped to a 5-4 loss. A possible moment of clarity then, but only in hindsight and maybe only at the end of the season will we know how critical that 8th innings fade out was.

Now a 4 game home-stand vs the Rays had become 1 of those defining occurrences. The permutations were endless, ranging from a sweep to the Sox and a 8 game lead to a sweep to the Rays and a tie for the wildcard with 10 to play. A further complication was that the Angels were also in striking distance out West and a Rays series win could play them back into contention as well.

So Thursday’s opener against the Rays had some clarity to it. The Sox needed to set some tone, to gain breathing distance and to get some momentum.

They sent out Kyle Weiland.

Seems like a pitcher of the future does young Kyle. Had an 0 and 1 record in 2011 though and the decision to go with him against a firebrand in Hellickson (12-10) seemed like an admission of defeat from the off. Or maybe a stab at stealing a win while covering the pen. If the latter, it had backfired by the the 4th, when Weiland gave up 4 in the 3rd and the Sox bats could only muster a lonely Gonzalez (again) ground out RBI in response. Weiland was promptly yanked for veteran lefty Trever Miller, making his Sox debut and then Atchison, Morales, Albers, Miller (Andrew) and Bowden. The last 5 of those have been well below par this year and so it proved this time out. The rout finished 9-2 and the gap was 3. It’s hard to describe that Sox outing as anything but pathetic. If it was a gamble, designed to rest starters and preserve a suspect bullpen then they must surely win the series to justify the capitulation.

Game 2, then, took on the clarity of a mountain snow-melt. For Boston that meant the return of a rare beast, a proven winner of a Sox starter. Josh Beckett mercifully back from a sprained ankle took the mound for a game in which so much had become crystallized that you could have poured it onto your cereal like sugar. Or salt. The Sox had to win, absolutely had to. They needed to wrest some momentum back and regain a 4 game advantage. Lose and the gap would be 2 games with 12 to play.

Beckett started shakily, as befitting a man returning from a layoff. He gave up 2 in the 1st and 1 in the 3rd. The bats responded, matching the Rays across the 1st 3. Pedroia and Big Papi with RBI singles in the 1st and then a Big Papi RBI double in the 3rd kept the Sox at level pegging. It was enough for Beckett who kept the Rays scoreless across the next 3, albeit with a number of 3-2 counts with runners on. Aceves and Papelbon, the standouts in a bullpen of disappointment in 2011 then managed to maintain the rage, leaving the Rays to finish with just those 3 runs. It was Papelbon’s 1st save opportunity since August. The Sox bats were hardly more successful though than their Rays counterparts. In the end a Mike Aviles solo shot, his 1st as a Red Sox, separated these 2 contenders. It finished 4-3.

And now with 12 to play the gap was back to 4. The Angels had tanked for a 2nd night to the O’s and the Yankees had lost to a walkoff Jays. The cuffs of the Red Sox flood-pants were bone dry while their feet were soaking wet. Yep, everything was coming up Milhouse. Sox fans could breathe again, could see the path ahead through those flood-waters clearly. Jon Lester (15 and 7) was on the mound for the next game and a shot at a 5 game lead and that would surely be good enough?

Or not.

Like Beckett before him Lester gave up 2 in the 1st and 1 in the 3rd. The Sox bats though could only partially respond, garnering 2 back in the 3rd via a Aviles RBI double and an Ellsbury sac fly. Down 3-2 through to the 5th and it was the Rays who got the crucial 4th run. There was time for an Ellsbury ground out RBI in the 7th but that was all the Sox could muster. It was done 4-3 to the Rays and the gap was back to 3 and with the Yankees reversing the previous 1 run loss to the Jays in a 5-4 win, it seemed like the Sox had the wrong pants after all as the flood waters rose up to crotch level. Worse still, those flood waters are muddy and dangerously unclear.

Which brings us to tomorrow and Game 4. The Sox have to win. Lose and it’s a 2 game lead with 10 to play and momentum well offside. Win and it’s a 4 game lead with 10 to play and a real shot of October ball.

Over to you Tim Wakefield. God’s Favourite Knuckleballer will need to be wearing the right pants and he will need to tread mightily carefully for win #201.

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