When I was a wee lad, I worshipped the ground Fred Lynn walked on. I marvelled at Jim Rice’s forearms and spent hours with my older brother, a wiffle ball and bat imitating Yaz’s batting stance and George Scott’s prodigious uppercut swing.
I watched every Red Sox game on television, or at least every game Channel 6 didn’t pre-empt for “Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm,” and rejoiced every time the Sox went deep.
The Boston Red Sox of the late 1970s-early 1980s were an offensive juggernaut. Their lineups were stacked with sluggers. In 1977, Butch Hobson drove in 112 runs batting eighth. One right after another, Lynn, Rice, Yastrzemski, Scott, Hobson, Fisk, Evans, and later, Perez, Armas and Easler, tattooed the Green Monster with regularity. They won by pounding opposing pitchers into submission, and I reveled in the carnage.
But somewhere between Mike Torrez and Mark Clear, I began to realize something was missing. Then one day, as I wondered aloud how a team with so much pop would inevitably fade in the dog days of August, my father enlightened me during a game of catch.
“You’re built too low. The fast ones go over your head. Ya got a hole in your glove. I keep pitchin’ ’em and you keep missin’ ’em. Ya gotta keep your eye on the ball. Eye. Ball. I almost had a gag, son. Joke, that is,” he said.
At least I think that’s what my father said. The older I get, the more I confuse him with with Foghorn Leghorn.
“It’s as simple as this,” the old man undoubtedly opined, “they don’t pitch the ball, and they don’t catch the ball. The Orioles and the Yankees, they pitch and catch.”
My father loved pitching and defense. Because of that, even though he rooted for the Red Sox, hated the Yankees, he worshipped the Orioles.
Dewey? Pudge? Yaz? The Hit Man? My father would have traded all of them for Mark Belanger and his .212 batting average.
I couldn’t argue with him. The Orioles and Yankees dominated the Carter/Reagan years. The Red Sox hit a bunch of home runs in April, May and June and then the golf course in October.
While Chuck Rainey was getting lit up like a Christmas tree for the Red Sox, Jim Palmer was mowing them down for the Orioles. While Bob Stanley was blowing five-run leads in the ninth for the BoSox, Goose Gossage was getting out of bases-loades jams. While Rice was butchering balls hit into the corner at Fenway, Paul Blair was gliding like a gazelle to rob someone of extra bases in the alleys of Memorial Stadium. While Hobson was launching routine throws into the first base box seats for the Sox, Graig Nettles was vacuuming up everything hit to the hot corner for the Yankees.
The Red Sox finally started paying attention to pitching and defense during the Dan Duquette era, but now Theo Epstein has taken it to such an extreme that we can’t call it pitching and defense anymore. We call it run prevention.
While I’ve finally come around on run prevention, a lot of people haven’t. Many are skeptical because they just don’t think you can compete with the Yankees without matching them $200 million slugger for $200 million slugger. Some get angry at the mere mention of run prevention because they think the Sox are using it as an excuse to be cheap.
Regardless of the reason, if you ask these folks what bothers them about building a team with good pitching and defense, it’s not really the pitching and defense; it’s the popular belief that run prevention is a cover for a declining offense.
There is no denying that the offense has been in decline for the last few years. But too many people forget that we’re talking about what was an historically great offense built around an historically great 3-4 combination in Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. It had nowhere to go but down. And last year, that meant, gasp, dropping to third in the American League in runs scored.
I know what you’re thinking — it sure didn’t seem like the third best offense in the league last year. My theory is a lot of folks are still scarred by one particular stretch in early August that included a season-high six-game losing streak capped by back-to-back shutouts at Yankee Stadium that essentially dropped Boston out of AL East contention.
Add in the departure of Jason Bay and the question marks surrounding Ortiz and Adrian Beltre and some folks are downright convinced the Sox are going have their most anemic offense since Scott Cooper was their only All-Star.
Virtually everyone agrees that the top half of the lineup, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez, and Kevin Youkilis, is still very productive. It’s the lower half of the order that has people nervous.
The Red Sox simply can’t afford another terrible start by Ortiz, nor do they need him to return to MVP-caliber levels. Big Papi is gone forever, but Big Papi isn’t a must for this lineup. If Ortiz can be the power threat he was after June 6 last season, when he led the league in homers and RBI, he’ll give Martinez and Youkilis the protection they need and drive in plenty of runs.
So what do they get out of Adrian Beltre, besides an extra unused cup laying around the clubhouse? Well, surely not the 48-homer blip of 2004, but he can do better than the .379 slugging percentage of last year, can’t he? Maybe take to the left field wall the way another supposedly washed-up third baseman did a few years ago? Even though he’s technically in a contract year, I’m not very optimistic. The longer Mike Lowell is on the roster, the fewer sleepless nights I’ll have.’
That’s OK. J.D. Drew will pick up the slack. That’s right, J.D. Drew. Despite battling bone spurs in his left shoulder, Drew’s OPS from July 1 on was .956 (guess he’s tougher than we thought, huh?). That’s Youkilis-type production. The bone spurs are gone and Terry Francona will probably hit him seventh since he’s slavishly devoted to the left-right thing. But don’t be surprised to see him back in the fifth slot if Ortiz struggles.
Mike Cameron is Dave Henderson reincarnated — streaky and not nearly as clutch in the post-season (.174 in 112 plate appearances). It beats having Jason Varitek or Nick Green hit eighth. Marco Scutaro may not match his career year of last season, but in the ninth spot, if he even comes close to last year’s .379 OBP, Dustin Pedroia will drive in 90 runs.
It aint Murders’ Row, but it will outscore all but three or four teams in the American League. So just settle down about the offense.
I know, you’re a Red Sox fan. It doesn’t feel like Opening Day unless something is giving you an ulcer.
If you must fret, fret over that bullpen. Yikes.