Commentary

Red Sox faced with some legitimate concerns

Originally Published: October 13, 2008
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- The gloriously reassuring thing about Boston fans is that even after the recent years of staggering success, they can still turn apocalyptic at the drop of an infield popup, which is why it wasn't all that surprising to hear a few of them booing in the second inning Monday after the Red Sox squandered a scoring opportunity and trailed by one entire run.

After all, it has been nearly four whole months since the city last celebrated a championship. Oh, how they've suffered!

Thus, many fans began fleeing Fenway early when Rocco Baldelli's three-run homer in the top of the eighth iced the eventual 9-1 loss to Tampa Bay. And a handful of fans even booed David Ortiz after he grounded out to first base in the bottom of the inning. What have you done for us lately? And a Nation that fully expected Josh Beckett to win Game 2 and Jon Lester to win Game 3 will head into Game 4 feeling, at the very least, a little nervous.

Granted, one team had to be trailing in the series after Monday's game. And it always seems as if the losing team in a short series will never win again. And the Red Sox have rallied from worse situations than this (they trailed the Indians 3-1 in last year's American League Championship Series) as well as much worse situations than this (that whole thing with the Yankees in 2004). And if Boston wins Game 4, everything will look much, much different. As former Cleveland pitcher Paul Byrd said, "It was a similar type thing last year. We had them 3-1, and then their hitters got hot and the pitchers couldn't get them out and the momentum changed like that."

But there are some legitimate concerns here.

David Ortiz
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesDavid Ortiz went 0-for-4 and stranded three baserunners in the Red Sox's 9-1 loss in Game 3.
For one thing, Ortiz -- for all his previous postseason glory -- is really struggling. He doesn't have a hit this series; he hasn't hit a home run in his past 54 postseason at-bats; and he just doesn't look very good at the plate right now. He popped up one pitch Matt Garza threw in his wheelhouse, and he fouled off another. He just seems off-balance. That he still has managed to get on base four times via walk is a tribute to his eye and the high regard (i.e., fear) in which opponents hold him. But with Big Papi slumping and Manny Ramirez batting on the other side of the continent rather than right next to him in the lineup, the heart of the Red Sox order just doesn't have that same intimidating, Oh My God, Here They Come Again, Someone Please Call The Bullpen feel to it.

Are Ortiz's wrists hurting him? He chose not to speak to reporters after the game, so that question went unasked. But it's something you have to wonder about.

"I'm not going to speculate on what David's doing," left fielder Jason Bay said. "He's one of the best postseason hitters, and you get another chance tomorrow. But that's all I'll say on that."

"He's right smack in the middle, and when he does get hot, it will certainly be welcome," Boston manager Terry Francona said, later adding "I've been around David long enough to know that it can change with one swing of the bat."

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Ortiz isn't the only problem. Jacoby Ellsbury is hitless in his past 20 postseason at-bats, which isn't exactly what you're looking for from your leadoff hitter. Veteran Jason Varitek, who had ice on both knees, his upper left leg and his lower back after the game (and, for good measure, also mentioned a very sore neck), doesn't have a hit this series, either. He struck out looking for out No. 2 in the second inning when he had a chance to tie the score or put the Sox ahead with runners on second and third.

"It comes down to we don't need to score 10 runs to win," Bay said. "I mean three or four could possibly be enough with the way we've been pitching."

Well, now that you mention it …

The pitching is another concern. Boston has allowed seven home runs in the past two games. Beckett, who carried a glittering postseason record into the series, allowed eight runs in less than five innings in Game 2, and there is speculation that he isn't fully healthy, regardless of what the Sox say. Lester, meanwhile, hadn't allowed a run this postseason and hadn't lost a game at Fenway since April, yet he allowed five runs in the first three innings Monday, and Boston was never able to recover. "Hopefully I'll get a chance again in Game 7."

If Lester and Beckett don't bounce back, and if Tim Wakefield's knuckler isn't dancing the lambada in Game 4, winning the series will be very difficult. And if Ortiz and the rest of team don't perk up offensively, they might not get a chance to pitch again.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Ellsbury
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesJacoby Ellsbury is hitless in 14 at-bats and hasn't reached base in any of the first three ALCS games.
"David's in the middle of the lineup, and when those guys hit, usually we score a lot of runs," Varitek said. "They're pitching David tough. They're pitching him backward and not giving him much to hit. Sometimes as a guy who likes to carry the club, you start to expand your strike zone, but I don't think I've seen him expand. I just think we're in the ALCS and that club over there has great pitching."

Which brings up perhaps the most troublesome area of concern. The Rays might be young, inexperienced, relatively unknown and paid vastly less than the Red Sox, but remember, they did win the AL East. They did beat the Red Sox in two big series in September. And that they're leading this more important series might be thanks to one reason that has nothing to do with Big Papi or the absence of Manny or Beckett or any of the Red Sox struggles.

They just might be the better team.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com