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The Hunt for Red Sox October

September 14, 2011

Rob Bland (Baseball Writer – MLB reports): Red Sox Nation is panicking. On September 1, the Boston Red Sox held a 9 game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays.  Today, on September 13, they sit only 3 games ahead.  Since then, the Red Sox have gone 2-9, while Tampa has gone 8-3.  Many people believe that Tampa Bay has the pitching to get the job done.  Led by “Big Game” James Shields and David Price, they have a rotation that has been one of the top in the league all season.  As a team, they have given up the least amount of hits by 80 in the American League.  Their team ERA is also tops in the American League at 3.56.

Boston is limping into the end of the season, with 3 of their 5 opening week starters injured in some fashion in the last month.  Jon Lester has been every bit of the ace the Red Sox need him to be, with a 15-7 record and 3.07 ERA.  However, when the Sox leaned on him on September 11 against Tampa, he lasted only 4 innings, giving up 4 runs on 8 hits and 3 walks.  John Lackey has been awful this year.  I cringe when I look at his stats.  6.30 ERA, 180 hits in 144 innings, and 18 hit batsmen to lead the league.  How has he won 12 games?  Buchholz was solid before going on the disable list, giving up only 76 hits in 82 2/3 innings, but hasn’t pitched since June 16.  It is believed he could be back as soon as next week, but in a limited bullpen role at best, so his impact won’t be felt much.  Josh Beckett has been great this year as well, but rolled his ankle in the 4th inning of his last start. At one point, after throwing a complete game, 1 hit shutout on June 15, his ERA sat at 1.86.  He is currently 12-5 with a 2.49 ERA, and a WHIP of 0.985.  Daisuke Matsuzaka was a bust this year and required Tommy John Surgery in June.  In his place is knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who currently sits at 200 wins on his career.  Wakefield hasn’t made it look pretty this year, but has put in 139 2/3 valuable innings to date.

Tampa Bay boasts one of the top rotations in baseball, with Opening Day starter David Price pitching very solid, without much run support.  He has a 12-12 record but his ERA is 3.40 and has reached the 200 strikeout plateau for the first time in his young career.  Big Game James doesn’t need much of an introduction, as his 11 complete games and 4 shutouts lead the MLB.  He has already thrown 226 innings, a career high, with 210 strikeouts, also a career high.  Wade Davis has thrown 165 solid innings as a follow-up to being 4th in Rookie of the Year balloting last season.  Jeff Niemann is really blossoming into a dependable middle of the rotation pitcher, going 10-7 with a 3.97 ERA in 129 innings.  He doesn’t strike out a ton of hitters, but doesn’t walk many either, shown by his 3 K/BB ratio.  One of the frontrunners for AL Rookie of the Year is Jeremy Hellickson, who has been pretty much lights out all year.  With a 2.96 ERA and only giving up 135 hits in 170 innings, he will surely garner some votes.  The one wild card that the Rays hold, however, is Matt Moore.  Moore was just called up to fill a role similar to David Price in 2008.  He will be electric out of the bullpen after a minor league season that will rank him in the top 5 of all prospects going into next season.

Boston’s offense is abound with potential MVP’s and great hitters.  1 through 9, the Red Sox boast one of the best lineups I can remember.  Jacoby Ellsbury may win the MVP, but he will have to go through Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez first.  Also, David Ortiz is again proving the naysayers wrong, as he is hitting .313 with 29 home runs and 92 RBI.  When a player of JD Drew’s caliber can go on the disabled list and be replaced with Josh Reddick, who is hitting .298 and slugging .491 in 250 plate appearances, it gives a lot of confidence to a pitching staff.  Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia finally seems like the player who the Atlanta Braves envisioned when they drafted him in the 1st round in 2003.  Jason Varitek is also enjoying a fine season as a backup to Saltalamacchia, hitting 11 home runs in only 234 plate appearances.  This offense is one that no team will want to face in the final weeks of the season or the playoffs if they reach that far.

Tampa Bay may not have the “sexy” offensive players that the Red Sox do, but they have some players having mighty fine seasons.  Ben Zobrist has overlooked his mediocre 2010 season, and has put up numbers closer to his breakout 2009.  Although he probably won’t ever match that season, his 45 doubles lead the American League, and has a very good OPS of .820.  Casey Kotchman is still an on-base machine with little pop from first base.  He has hit at a .313 clip with a .382 on-base percentage, setting the table for the big run producers.  Evan Longoria may be having a down year by his standards, but most teams would be happy with a third baseman hitting 25 home runs and slugging .818.  Through May, Matt Joyce was an early favorite for AL MVP, but really tapered off in June and July, before turning it back up in the last month.  His .843 OPS leads the team, and he also has 12 stolen bases.  BJ Upton continues to be a low average, high power type of hitter, with 20 home runs and 27 stolen bases while hitting just .234.  The worst position in terms of offensive production has been shortstop, where Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez have handled most of the duties.  The Rays’ high-tempo style of offense has wreaked havoc on opposing batteries, as they have stolen 130 bases, good for third in the American League.

Both teams have completely different styles and techniques, but are successful in their own ways.  With the Rays aggressive style, and the Red Sox more reliant on taking pitches and making pitchers work, getting deep into bullpens early, this could be a battle to the bitter end.  The schedules they play the rest of the way will also dictate who is more likely to win the race for the Wild Card.

1 vs Toronto
4 vs Tampa Bay
7 vs Baltimore
3 vs New York

Tampa Bay:
1 vs Baltimore
4 vs Boston
7 vs New York
3 vs Toronto

It is quite evident that Boston has a much easier schedule, and should win a fair number of them.  The Red Sox have gone 11-4 against the Yankees this year also.  Tampa has gone 5-6 against the Yankees, whom they see 7 more times.  Boston gets Baltimore 7 more times, and have beaten them 8 out of 11 games so far.  The pivotal series of all will be this weekend when the two teams square off against one another.  The game of the weekend may be on Friday September 16, where James Shields faces off against Josh Beckett.

I believe that Tampa Bay will come within a game or two, but the schedule differences give Boston a HUGE advantage.  The Red Sox 18-6 drubbing of the Blue Jays on Tuesday will be a catalyst for the team over the next two weeks, where they will produce runs and pitch just well enough to get into the postseason.

***Today’s feature was prepared by our Baseball Writer, Rob Bland.  We highly encourage you to leave your comments and feedback at the bottom of the page and share in the discussion with our readers.  You can also follow Rob on Twitter.***

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MLB reports:  Rewind to the 2010 season.  If I told you there was a 27 year old catcher that hit .280 with 17 home runs in only 105 games that year, I bet that you would be impressed.  Add in 62 walks, a .393 OBP and .497 SLG and I would fathom that you would be very high on this player.  The same player that in 2008 hit 23 long balls in 141 games and managed a .285 average, with a .364 OBP and .504 SLG.  Again, very impressive for a catcher, as top hitting catchers are hard to find in baseball.  Yet this same player, who was an 11th round pick in 2001, was the same player that hit .218 in 2009, with 11 home runs in 102 games, with a measly .321 OBP and .381 SLG.  Fast forward to 2011 and this player is hitting an embarrassing .189 with 1 home run.  Confused?  Many baseball experts are.  Welcome to the mystery that is Geovany Soto, catcher for the Chicago Cubs.

In 2006 and 2007, Soto had barely a sip of coffee in his brief appearances in the show.  Having showcased some good pop though in 2007, Soto was handed the job in the 2008 season and ran with it.  At the conclusion of that season, the sky was the limit for Soto.  Entering the 2009 season, Soto was selected to play for his native Puerto Rico in the 2nd edition of the World Baseball Classic.  However, the discovery of marijuana use during the WBC tainted Soto’s reputation and results for that baseball season.  The mystery surrounding Soto was whether he had suffered a mere relapse or was already hitting a decline.  Reports indicated immaturity and laziness on his part and Soto’s play and results on the field were indicative of his reputation.  Much like Russell Martin was due for a change of scenery in leaving the Dodgers this past offseason, experts questioned whether Soto still had a future as a Cub going into 2010.  A rebound was in order.

2010 turned out to be a bounce-back year for Soto, despite reports of a hurt shoulder and various ailments that caused him to miss over 50 games in the season.  Having alternated good and bad seasons, 2011 represents Soto’s chance at redemption by showing consistency in consecutive outstanding seasons.  That would be the hope if one is a Soto and/or Cubs fan.  However, as his slow start has indicated, the future of Soto remains unsettled to this day.  How Geovany Soto performs remains a mystery to us all, let alone what the next few years have in store for the stocky catcher.  If I had to look into a crystal ball though, I would predict big things still for the Cubs backstop.

For all the doubts surrounding Geovany Soto, I propose that the potential is there and has never left this underrated talent.  2009 was a strange year for Soto that never seemed to get untracked.  The marijuana story created a distraction for Soto as part of the WBC and then in the MLB regular season.  Embarrassed I am sure for the negative exposure in his native country, Soto ended up having one of those years that just need to be written off.  After all, Tim Lincecum faced similar charges and scandal this past offseason and his reputation seems to have recovered more than ok.  As long as Soto is healthy, the opportunities should still be there for him and all Soto has to do is work hard and play the game the right way.  The Cubs are a team in desperate need of leadership, both on and off the field.  Geovany Soto can finally make the Cubs “his team” and help the team rise as a result.

As long as Albert Pujols is hitting .150 (already up to over .200 with a strong game tonight), Soto can be allowed a slow start to the 2011 season.  Having shown that he can produce in the past, there is no reason why Soto should not succeed this year.  Hitting in the middle of the lineup in the cozy confines of Wrigley, Soto is of  the right age and experience tha a monster season should be coming.  I truly believe that Geovany Soto has all the talent in the world and that we are just scratching the surface as to what he can do.  Why he has taken step backs and where he is headed may be a mystery, but there is no doubt that the potential and promise is still there.  In my opinion, any so called “baseball expert” that can write off a catcher with power and patience like Soto is foolish.  Jason Varitek is a name that often comes to my mind when I think of Geovany Soto.  Their style of play, bats and hustle are cut from the same cloth.  The Cubs would be thrilled if Soto could grow into the captain of their team one day.  With a breakthrough year this year, I think the Soto that was expected will emerge that will dominate and likely erase all the negative images of his past.  If all goes according to plan, by the all-star break can erase the mystery portion of his life and create a positive image and results for himself.  Gut feel, I can see this coming together for him soon.


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