- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
BOSTON -- Tell yourself that it is early. Tell yourself that the Red Sox have played just 13 games, and unless it's after the All-Star break (or you happen to follow the Baltimore Orioles), 13 games cannot tell you much of anything about a baseball season -- especially on April 19.
The Red Sox are 4-9, their worst record after 13 games in 15 years, the weird old days of 1996, of Jose Canseco and Kevin Mitchell, the final year of Roger Clemens, another transition year when nothing quite fit right.
If you're worried about the Red Sox, caution is the right mindset to adopt, because by the time the Tampa Bay Rays were finished with their four-game embarrassing of the Red Sox this Patriots' Day weekend, one could only conclude that the Red Sox were simply under-stimulated. The Rays did not only sweep the Red Sox in a four-game series for the first time in their history but were frighteningly better, running harder and faster, quicker to the ball in the field, better on the mound, able to score with versatility. They were younger, more energetic, and more ready to play.
Maybe the Red Sox were concerned about the volcanic ash cloud over Europe, or unimpressed by the Pope's vows to do better, or maybe they thought they were playing the Kevin Stocker-Jorge Cantu-Toby Hall Devil Rays, the tomato cans of yesterday.
The Red Sox have too many professionals who have accomplished too much with too much pride to play so flatly over an extended period of time. In addition, the Red Sox played with a wounded Mike Cameron (kidney stones and further abdominal pain) for three games and all four without Jacoby Ellsbury, otherwise known as 66 percent of the starting outfield.
"We caught them at a time when they were a bit down," said Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. "That's a very good team over there."
But if you're worried less about the play and more about the plan, that the Red Sox entered this season relying on pitching and defense having not addressed their catching defense or the uncertainty of the run-producing players in the middle of the batting order with significant upgrades, then perhaps now is as good a time as any to wonder whether the Red Sox are built to compete for a full season with the Rays and Yankees, the only two teams that have come into Fenway Park this season.
These Red Sox, transitioning into a new era with a new identity and new signature players, have played two home series against their top competition for the division and have come out 1-6, having lost two of three against the Yankees and four straight to the Rays. The last time the Red Sox started a season this poorly at Fenway Park was 1932, before Tom Yawkey purchased the team, before a fire in the bleachers resulted in what is now the Green Monster.
The Yankees series certainly could have gone either way, but the Rays were dominant. They outscored the Red Sox 24-9. They hit big -- stunning home runs by Longoria and Carlos Pena, two decisive homers over the weekend by B.J. Upton -- and often: seven times over the four games did the Rays produce multiple-run innings.
Despite being in from the cold, the Rays are still smarting historically from the annual humiliations at the hands of the Red Sox, and they played with the kind of urgency that served as a statement. Victor Martinez is now the full-time Red Sox catcher, and Tampa Bay stole 10 bases on Red Sox catching in four games. Carl Crawford, the fleet Rays left fielder, has stolen 31 consecutive bases against the Red Sox, dating to Sept. 21, 2005.
The Red Sox are about pitching, and this weekend with Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey on the mound Boston lost all three games, only Beckett holding his own. The rest of the weekend was a demolition.
The Red Sox are about defense, but they made five errors over the weekend. They were flustered by the Rays' speed, resulting in plays not being made that could have been.
In the old days, the Red Sox could cover dips in the plan with the hammer, but those days are over. David Ortiz, benched against Matt Garza on Saturday, is hitting .158. The core of this team offensively is Dustin Pedroia, Martinez and Kevin Youkilis, the latter two hitting .212 and .217, respectively. J.D. Drew is hitting .146.
The Red Sox are currently in an 0-for-32 stretch with runners in scoring position.
Two moments over the weekend crystallized the Red Sox's predicament. In the 11th inning of Saturday's continued game, the Red Sox loaded the bases with none out and could not score, only to see Pat Burrell hit a two-run homer a half-inning later that served as the game-winner.
Conversely, Lackey nearly escaped the third inning Monday, trailing 1-0 with two out only to give up five runs, fueled by a double by Longoria and a long home run by Upton into the bullpen near the triangle.
"We don't have a lot of things going on right now," manager Terry Francona said. "We scored some late, but we're not bunching things together. We're going through a tough time."
So much has been made of the Superpowers from the Fens and the Bronx, of how they move the needle in Major League Baseball financially, in the standings and in the imagination, but this weekend provided a glimpse of the Rays we thought we were going to see last season, dangerous and scary defending American League champions.
They now seem to be here, a year tardy, the hangover of last year finally lifted. Since becoming a good team two years ago, the Rays have had to face a hard truth: In a division with the Red Sox and Yankees, one team will not make the playoffs. In 2008, when the Rays went to the World Series, they caught the Yankees in a transition year.
Last year, Tampa Bay won 84 games last season and yet couldn't quite get it right. Underfunded to fight round-for-round with Boston and New York, the Rays rely on that nucleus -- Upton, Crawford and Longoria -- to offset their big-payroll rivals.
Some of it was the players. Despite his ability, Scott Kazmir never amounted to the reliable front-end starter he was projected to be, nor did Upton follow his electric display in the 2008 ALCS against the Red Sox with an encore.
The rest of the trouble was fueled by management. The Rays were the AL champs, but on-field success did not translate into immediate financial success. Burrell was a jarring fit. The Rays still did not draw in 2008, did not go hard after a closer -- in a division where their two biggest rivals use Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon to finish games and a free-agent year where Francisco Rodriguez and Brian Fuentes were available -- and in a cost-saving move waited until weeks after the season began to call up David Price, the hero of Tampa Bay's Game 7 win over the Red Sox that put them in the World Series.
This year, the Rays are more complete, with Rafael Soriano finishing games. As a first act, the Rays reminded the Red Sox not to sleep, or it might be the Red Sox on the outside looking in.
"This feels good. It's unheard of for teams to come in here and sweep them, especially four games," Upton said. "People on the outside might not believe, but other teams around the league know we're for real. This is what we expect from ourselves."
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," to be published in May. He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/hbryant42
1dInterview by Buster Olney
22hDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com