Commentary

Theo's pitch hits the mark

Red Sox GM's rare pregame speech to players seemed to help lift the cloud

Updated: April 8, 2011, 11:05 PM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Our long (not so national) nightmare is over.

Red Sox win! Red Sox win! Red Sox win!

Take it at face value. This is not the appropriate time to scrutinize the beauty of a pockmarked 9-6 victory over the New York Yankees in the Fenway opener. Hey, when you go six games without a win, it's kind of like going six months without a date. You simply aren't in a position to complain whether her eyes match her sweater or whether her lipstick is glossy enough.

The beleaguered players admitted it has been tough to sleep since the losses began mounting.

Losing often breeds doubt and negativity, so general manager Theo Epstein, a normally low-key and somewhat elusive figure in the Red Sox clubhouse, made a rare foray into his team's inner sanctum and delivered an impassioned pregame speech to remind them they are a championship-caliber team that would emerge stronger from their recent struggles.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Papelbon
Jim Rogash/Getty Images"Once in a while the lead man has got to light the fire. Thats what he did. He let us know we're a good team," said Jonathan Papelbon, who pitched a dominant 9th inning to close out the win.

Slugger David Ortiz said Epstein's words were both inspiring and surprising.

"I was shocked,'' admitted Ortiz. "Theo doesn't talk. Sometimes he walks right by you and doesn't see you.''

If the general manager had been speechless over his team's recent play, who could blame him? Epstein went out and assembled a lineup that cost $160 million and was forecasted to be the best in baseball.

Instead, the Sox stumbled out of the blocks with anemic offense (7-for-44 with men in scoring position before Friday) and a starting rotation that, with the exception of Jon Lester, was imploding before his eyes. Newcomers (Carl Crawford, Jarrod Saltalamacchia) were pressing. Old-time veterans (Kevin Youkilis) were pressing, too. The manager, a model of consistency, was juggling his lineup daily.

The pressure was mounting. The Sox came home with some trepidation, unsure how their discerning fans would respond to a team that was clearly scuffling.

Epstein's pre-emptive move to bolster his players was met with almost universal approval.

"Once in a while the lead man has got to light the fire,'' said Jonathan Papelbon, who pitched a dominant ninth inning to close out the win. "Thats what he did. He let us know we're a good team. And when it comes from the top, it trickles on down.''

When it came time for a show of leadership, once again the redoubtable Dustin Pedroia stepped forward. Boston's fiery second baseman wasn't about to be the guy holding up the wall at the dance, waiting until they played Stairway to Heaven to make his move.

Ortiz I was shocked. Theo doesn't talk. Sometimes he walks right by you and doesn't see you.

-- Red Sox DH David Ortiz, on Theo Epstein's pregame speech in the clubhouse

The Yankees had already put two runs on the board in the first inning when Pedroia deposited a homer into left field a couple of feet to the right of the foul pole. The ball wasn't crushed, nor did it sail out of the park onto Landsdowne Street, but it was classic Pedroia: scrappy and timely.

"The more pissed off he gets, the better he hits,'' reported reliever Bobby Jenks.

Pedroia (3-for-5, three RBIs) was not the only one who delivered at the plate. J.D. Drew punched out two singles and a pair of RBIs. Ortiz submitted two hits and drove in a run. The embattled Saltalamacchia collected two hits to raise his average to .167. Adrian Gonzalez, who continues to live up to his reputation as a professional hitter, collected two hits, scored two runs and vaulted his average to .321.

All of those positive results almost made you forget that once again John Lackey was decidedly underwhelming, and that Crawford (0-for-5) still hasn't discovered his groove, and that Youkilis, who drew three walks against New York, continues to take some uncharacteristically bad swings.

Take this to the bank: Youk won't bat .105 this season and Crawford won't finish the year at .174. It's been only seven games, but now that Win No. 1 is finally in the books, the players were able to concede the futility was getting to them.

"It's been a tough week,'' Drew conceded.

"We didn't want to let anyone down,'' Pedroia added.

David Ortiz has been down this road before. His notoriously slow starts have led to wild speculation in recent years that he was all done, that he could no longer hit, only to rebound in the final months to post respectable numbers.

"Before I saw it totally differently,'' Ortiz said. "Before it was, 'What the [expletive] is going on? People want to go crazy after 10 games.' But now I see it. This is the Boston Red Sox, not the Pittsburgh Pirates. I'm not trying to say anything bad about their organization, but you know what I mean.

"Every hit, every play, every at-bat, every swing, these people, they care. They worry about everything, and sometimes it gets out of hand.

"Trust me, there were a lot of sad faces these past six games. Even [with] the guys who had good games.''

The theory is that once the new players settle into their new uniforms and their new routines, the Red Sox will come together and begin to resemble the team that so many baseball experts predicted would win 100 games.

That lofty prognostication may be unrealistic, but it seemed downright laughable 48 hours ago.

One win, one speech, one afternoon of baseball has changed everything -- at least for the moment. It is April at Fenway, and once again hope springs eternal.

Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

EDITORS' PICKS