Red Sox winning at OF roulette
BOSTON -- It's a daily shell game played by Red Sox manager Terry Francona, one the crew could put up on the Fenway Park video board if such novelty acts were tolerated here the way they are in, say, Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh, by the way, is where one of the kids who climbs inside a pierogi costume for the Pirates' daily pierogi races (ask your Polish or Russian neighbors, a pierogi is a filled dumpling) was fired by the team because he criticized the contract extensions given to Pirates GM Neal Huntington and manager John Russell on his Facebook page.
The kid might not be out of work for long -- the independent Washington (Pa.) Wild Things offered him a job as one of their racing hot dogs -- but still, someone might want to alert Alan Dershowitz.
Anyway, Francona's business is conducted in the privacy of his office, where he regularly is challenged with drawing up an outfield for the next day's game. That is no simple task, not in a season in which he has lost two left fielders, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jeremy Hermida, in collisions with the diesel truck who plays third base, Adrian Beltre, and his center fielder, Mike Cameron, is trying to gut through the season with an abdominal tear. The latest to go down is right fielder J.D. Drew, who is known to accumulate assorted dents and dings over the course of a summer.
In 2007, when the Sox won their second World Series in four seasons, Francona had Manny Ramirez in left field for 120 games, Coco Crisp in center for 137 and Drew in right for 123. In 2004, when they won their first World Series, he had Ramirez and Johnny Damon almost every day in left and center and essentially divided right field among Gabe Kapler, Kevin Millar and Trot Nixon.
Saturday afternoon, with Drew unavailable while awaiting results of an MRI on a right hamstring he strained the night before, and Cameron getting the day off to make sure he doesn't overdo it, Francona unveiled his 20th different outfield alignment of the season in the team's 70th game: rookie Daniel Nava, a big leaguer for all of a week in left; Darnell McDonald in center; and Bill Hall in right.
"I don't really think about it that much," Francona said of his outfield shuffle. "I make out the lineup, and I think our guys expect to win. That's a good feeling.
"Rather than worry or complain about what we can't do or what we don't have, it's been seeing what we can do. Guys have been terrific about picking each other up. Whoever's playing has done a good job. That's not a bad way to do it."
It wasn't pretty -- Hall allowed two balls to skip past him for errors, the second leading to the Dodgers' tying run in the seventh -- but, as has happened more often that not this season, it all worked out in the end, with the Sox winning their fifth straight game, 5-4.
"Some days you're going to have bad days defensively, some days you're going to be unbelievable," Hall said of the Sox, who made a season-high four errors, with third baseman Beltre and shortstop Marco Scutaro both throwing balls away. "Today, obviously, I wish I could have made those plays, but we still won the game, and that's what good teams do. They win when they don't play their [best] baseball."
Nava doubled home a run in the second, and Hall's leadoff single in the ninth led to pandemonium, with Dustin Pedroia delivering the first walk-off hit of his career as Nava scored from second with a headfirst slide while McDonald sprinted from the dugout and hoisted Pedroia like a gunnysack over his shoulder.
Cameron, who was preparing to pinch run if Victor Martinez had gotten on base, laughed when told how many outfield permutations the Sox have gone through this season.
"Sometimes it bodes well, man," he said. "You got guys who are hurt, so it just kind of keeps everybody ready to play. It's good. You pull for each other all the time, you know at any given moment you have a chance to play."
Hall was making just his third start in right field. In the second inning, he decided against diving for Garret Anderson's liner, thinking that if he missed it, Anderson would wind up with a triple. The ball got by him anyway, but Anderson was able to advance only to second.
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In the seventh, after Anderson hit a ground-rule double that hopped into the right-field grandstand, Blake DeWitt hit a ball that whipped around the low wall like a hockey puck around the boards. Hall thought he had the angle, but the ball whizzed past and DeWitt reached third. He scored on Matt Kemp's sacrifice fly to tie the score at 4.
"Right field [at Fenway] is probably the toughest right field to play in the big leagues, with the way the wall comes down the line and the gap in center field," Hall said.
"It's something that you can't really work on or perfect anything like that. You just have to go over there and try to make a play. Sometimes that wall is gonna bite you. J.D. told me he asks the wall not to hurt him every day, so I don't feel that bad."
No need, not on an afternoon when Boston's winning rally made a footnote of Manny Ramirez's home run off Tim Wakefield. Cameron expects to be back in the lineup Sunday night. The MRI results were encouraging on Drew; best-case scenario, Francona said, is that he'll be in the lineup Tuesday night.
But with the team playing .667 ball since April 20 -- the Sox's 38-19 record is the best in baseball since that date -- the names might change, but Francona has been hitting the winning combinations.
As exciting as racing pierogies? We suspect Pirates fans would gladly switch places.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Sox for 12 years and reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.