April 9, 2009

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LONGSHOTS: Red Sox Nation springs back to life
by Dave Long

Opening day arrived this week after sneaking up in a way I can not remember ever happening before. Maybe it was the intrusion of the uninspiring World Baseball Classic. With Manny gone and no one like Wade Boggs around to will himself invisible, maybe it was the lack of controversy. Or maybe it was the economic meltdown that had many in Red Sox Nation under the desk in the fetal position for the last nine months. But it was something.

But that’s over with and it’s time to start talking baseball as the Sox begin what looks to be a very interesting three-way race in the AL East. Joining Boston and the Empire in pre-season chatter about who’ll win and who’ll get the wild card is Tampa Bay. Yes they won the division last year, when the Yanks were out of the money for the first time in 14 years. But most thought they were a year away from making serious noise. Thus it’s their first time in this particular conversation.

The Sox enter with what most of us feel is a formidable club, though I think there are enough things that could go wrong to let them be the one left without a chair when the music stops playing in September. So here’s a look at the storylines to play out and a few predictions for what may happen as well.

Will Varitek bounce back? Many believe after hitting just .220 overall and .201 left-handed he will. But history says he won’t. Only Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza among top catchers have been productive hitters at 37 — which he turns Saturday. On his side are players today. As evidenced by the puny bodies on display in the 30th-anniversary TV re-play of the famous Michigan State – Indiana State 1979 college basketball final this weekend, today’s players are more physically developed and thus likely to last longer than earlier models. And he did have four lefty homers in the spring, so we’ll see. Prediction: Since, with a divorce in progress, he had a lot on his mind, he’s a little better, but not much in hitting .237 with 13 homers and knocking in 51.

Will eight starters work? I like the approach. It’s Patriots-like in spreading the money around to build depth at the expense of laying out enormous dough for a couple of guys as the Yankees did. The last several years have shown you need more than five guys sooner or later to weather the storm. Plus they also have the formula for post-season success with three who can dominate when hot in Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and two-time WBC MVP Dice-K. And while it’s not certain what John Smoltz will do after missing most of last season, if right, he’s 15-4 in the post-season. Brad Penny is a believe-it-when-I-see-it gamble who doesn’t look in great shape. Ditto for Clay Buchholz for different reasons, although his spring work was encouraging. And Tim Wakefield is what he is — a reliable guy who takes one for the team whom many clubs would like as their fifth guy. Wakefield vs. Buchholz: This depends on whether Buchholz continues as he did this spring — a big if. But if so, he should get the fifth spot when ready. For all the nice things I just said about Wake, he’s a supposed innings eater who’s done 200-plus once since 2003, who needs his own catcher and is 5-7 in the playoffs with a gruesome 6.75 ERA. Prediction: It’s all moot if Smoltz is healthy and Penny is close to what Theo hopes.

Injury risk: The roster is a disaster waiting to happen and is the biggest negative issue they have given the recent injury history of Smoltz, Penny, Wake, J.D. Drew, Rocco Baldelli, Julio Lugo (already hurt), Mark Kotsay (on DL), Mike Lowell and David Ortiz. Throw in the Varitek question and age issues and it could be 2005 or 2006 all over again, when Wade Miller, David Wells, Wake, Varitek, Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke and others hurt (’05) or decimated (’06) them. On the good side, they do have depth everywhere, outside of catcher, to withstand it. Prediction: Half of these guys do time on the DL — which challenges them. 

Will it be the 2007 or 2008 Josh Beckett? Injuries were also an issue for him, as they’ve been in all but two years of his career. That track record makes you wonder. But he seemed injury-free in the spring and looks poised to get back on track. Prediction: 17-9, 3.46 ERA.

Will Jacoby Ellsbury take the next step? When last we saw him he was on the bench in lieu of Coco Crisp as they were eliminated in Tampa. That followed an uneven year that started OK, fell off the cliff in June and July and closed with a rush in September when he hit .340 and scored 20 runs. Maybe he’s just a good September hitter, as ’08 was like the September 2007 that had everyone agog. At the root of his problem was an inability to hit/lay off the low inside fastball and a .336 OBP that was exactly 100 points lower than league leader Milton Bradley’s. Both need to improve. On the good side — despite his low OBP he led the league in steals, was very good and versatile in the field and played through a shoulder injury that affected his June, July hitting. Prediction: I love the guy, so my judgment is probably clouded, but after seeing the OBP was just .329 in the spring I’m wary. So while he’ll be a bit better to around .285 with more consistency and improved power numbers, he won’t make a big leap until he gets greater control of his at bats.  

Will age start to show? Yes. So don’t expect 50 and 140 from Papi or the Lowell you saw in 2007. But still, they’ll be productive. Prediction: Oritz’s projected full-season homers and RBI numbers during his injury-riddled ’08 would’ve been 32 and 127. Expect something similar. For Lowell, 20-83-.280.

The five hole? I just don’t get the fascination with J.D. Drew. Whether he’s brittle, soft or just has bad luck, to quote Coach B — he is what he is. A guy who plays 135 games and has been over 90 RBI twice. Take out his two contract years, the number drops to zero and his per-year average is around the 64 he’s had each year in Boston. So why in the name of Trot Nixon is he batting fifth? The 3-4-5-6-7 in the order should be this: Youk, Ortiz, Jason Bay, Drew and Lowell. Prediction: If Mother Francona makes the adjustment to be stronger in front of Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia they score more runs than in 2008.  

I have a few more, but no more space. So I’ll have to work them in as we go along through the year.

Dave Long can be reached at dlong@hippopress.com. He hosts Dave Long and Company from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.


4/2/2009 Climbing sports Mt. Rushmore

3/26/2009 Mount Rushmore offerings and other spring thoughts
3/19/2009 B-Ball, Coach B and Baseball in the mailbag today
3/12/2009 Great talent a rush but not all it's cracked up to be
3/5/2009 In Bill we still trust?
2/26/2009 A mountain over this molehill
2/19/2009 Steroids muscle in on game's strength
2/12/2009 Bonner bombs away on Cs in garden party homecoming
2/5/2009 Nation's angst ends as V-Tek says what the heck and rejoins flock
1/29/2009 Super Bowl Sunday brings to mind past and present
1/22/2009 The elusive quality of greatness is the topic of the day
1/15/2009 Spring cleaning of the sports mind a little early
1/8/2009 Will hall have Rice on the menu come July
1/1/2009 Predictions and wants for the year ahead
12/25/2008 A look in the rear view mirror at 2008
12/18/2008 The Pats' playoff run and new Yankees contracts make big news
12/11/2008 Random thoughts and associations
12/4/2008 Pats should consider options when it comes to Cassel and Brady
11/27/2008 Putting the thanks in Thanksgiving
11/20/2008 News of the week has people talking
11/13/2008 Cassel's in the clouds compared to early expectations11/6/2008 Mail bag delivers some interesting questiont10/30/2008"Yankees Suck" - like mentality fuels political discontent10/23/2008 No ray of hope as season closes in Tampa Bay
10/16/2008 Going to the nines a thing of the past
10/9/2008 C-eeing some interesting stories unfold this week
10/2/2008 "How come?" is the main question of the day
9/25/2008 Observations on baseball in 2008
9/18/2008 If I were a QB, a DB, a stat geek or a soccer mom ...
9/11/2008 After disaster Brady's bunch won't pass on season
9/4/2008 Pats start off with high expectation and some concerns
8/28/2008 A race to the finish to take all month long
8/21/2008 National news items of interest for local folks
8/14/2008 A little of this and that from the good side of sports pile
8/7/2008 Manny happy returns from the Evil Empire
7/31/2008 Manny being Manny - the sequel Part XXXII
7/24/2008 Open the mail bag for some Red Sox questions
7/17/2008 Hall-worthy or not the latest question on Schilling
7/10/2008 Baseball season has actually started
7/03/2008 UL editorial in denial — stop the presses
6/26/2008 Boston turnaround makes NBA green with envy
6/19/2008 Letters from the NBA finals
6/12/2008 A Father's Day letter to dad
6/5/2008 Twenty-one and six are the lucky numbers for the Cs
5/29/2008 Sometimes a bat is just a bat
5/22/2008 Some questions for folks right up there in the front row
5/15/2008 Numbers don't add up to supposed Fenway
5/8/2008 Cavalier attitude nearly derails first meeting with LeBron
5/1/2008 I'm so old,I remember ...
4/24/2008 Sox Line-ups, Celtics and ESPN investigations are in the mail bag
4/17/2008 Show me the way to that All-Star Game
4/10/2008 For C'ing a great time ahead as playoffs arrive this spring
4/3/2008 Bill James and the stats for 2008 — Take Two
3/27/2008 Drowning in the NCAA office pool
3/20/2008 Whether forecast is right or not is the question
3/13/2008 Comment sparks wonder over just what I did
3/6/2008 New hires, new trades in pro sports
2/28/2008 Celtics issues far from black and white in the early days
2/21/2008 Congressional ineptitude muscles in on steroid hearings
2/14/2008 Basketball rounds into form under the cover of Pats football
2/7/2008 A giant win leaves Patriots fans feeling blue
1/31/2008 Foxboro lads earn pats on the back, and old Celtics mystique makes sense
1/24/2008 Mail bag asks about Rice, the hall and wild-eyed liberals
1/17/2008 Peyton manning the fort back home as Pats take on Chargers
1/10/2008 Grumpy old Dolphins are lost at sea on this one
1/3/2008 The primary concern is getting a clear picture
12/27/2007 The annual sports awards close out 2007
12/20/2007 Holiday gifts for the deserving and not so deserving
12/13/2007 Jets land in Foxboro as pat go number 14
12/06/2007 To include or not to include Ellsbury — that is the questione
11/29/2007 Yanked from the sports pages in the Big Apple
11/22/2007 Here's what I'm thankful for at Thanksgiving
11/15/2007 Waiting game leads to a series of random thoughts
11/8/2007 OK — it's week nine and I'm ready to talk
11/1/2007 Finally a little shut-eye for a sleep deprived nation
10/25/2007 A rocky mountain high for Red Sox Nation
10/18/2007 Time to go to the mailbag
10/112007 Who'd more popular, Patriots or Red Sox
10/4/2007 IA weekend chock full of nuts, chokes and great moments
9/27/2007 I hate to say I told you so...
9/20/2007 Media and fan bias shades the severity of sports crime
9/13/2007 All round baseball week starts with a look at leaders
9/6/2007 It's Superbowl or bust for Pats in 2007
8/30/2007 The race is on as baseball enters September
8/23/2007 Spine vs. lack of spine theme for school board debate
8/16/2007 Time for thoughts from the summer mailbag
8/9/2007 Will this three make it big in Boston?
8/2/2007 Trading places all in a day's work for Boston GMs
7/26/2007 Getting out of a slump; an ameteur golfer can feel Sox' pain
7/19/2007 Does second chance guarantee a great outcome?
7/12/2007 Masse still a honeymooner in local baseball culture
7/5/2007 Brown Monster a big Fisher Cat hit
6/28/2007 Rambling along with some random thoughts
6/21/2007 The future is now for the C's come Thursday night
6/14/2007 Homers create bonds among fans for generations
6/07/2007 Sox win by losing two of three this weekend
5/31/2007 Lutz of things to think about
5/24/2007 Down 2-0 M’s for playoff payoff
5/17/2007 Baseballs' conventional wisdom is for the birds
5/10/2007 The Rocket lands in Gotham during Monarchs' playoff break
5/3/2007 Raiders say "No Moss" in fight with talented wideout
4/26/2007 A little history on the ancient Sox and Yanks rivalry
4/19/2007 Lessons to be learned from Robinson, Monarchs and I-Man
4/12/2007 A few questions for the sports gods
4/5/2007 Stanton his case on a variety of current topics
3/29/2007 Sox spring back into action on Monday
3/22/2007 A guide for having fun on NCAA hockey weekend
3/15/2007 The madness of March kicks off on Thursday
3/8/2007 Jumping through hoops after an odd season
3/1/2007 A trip to the mail bag for Hippo Sports
2/22/2007 Six degrees of Muhammed Ali
2/15/2007 Monarchs rule as streak reaches 12
2/8/2007 Talking a good game ahead on all-sports WGAM
2/1/2007 Manning the Super Bowl watch more difficult in '07
1/25/2007 Winning and what else matters in college coaching
1/18/2007 ESPN polls are fanning the flames of national lunacy
1/11/2007 Patriots marching to MIami promised land
1/4/2007 Predictions for 2007
12/28/2006 REcognizing the best on the national front
12/21/2006 Present under the tree for all
12/14/2006 Mailbag open for busines at a time filled with questions
12/07/2006 Lions and Gators and Bears, oh my
11/30/2006 Does Fenway frankness roll to the negative side?
11/23/2006 Turkeys and thanks as the big day arrives
11/16/2006 Green-around-the-gills Celts looking to earn some respect
11/9/2006 Blame game reaches new local low
11/2/2006 A week of highs and lows in sport
10/26/2006 Curses! The U is foiled again
10/19/2006 Time for a trip to the sports mailbag
10/12/2006 U turns Granite Stare around on football
10/05/2006 James' gang riding into town to face the Celtics
09/28/2006 Words to describe a lost Red Sox season
09/21/2006 Football Friday can't stack up to Saturday
09/14/2006 A lesson to be learned in remembering a somber day
09/07/2006 Usual pat choice to win AFC East questioned
08/31/2006 Whining won't yank AL East away from NY
08/24/2006 Spring forward or fall behind for Sox
08/17/2006 Trash talking abounds in the Empire over Sox and Pats
08/10/2006 Monarchs call press conference to crown new leader
08/03/2006 Deadly Fenway duo leave mark on history
07/27/2006 Word of the wise gets lost in sports translation
07/20/2006 Looking beyond the Big Three
07/13/2006 Cream rises to the top of baseball talk at the Dot
07/06/2006 Greetings and salutations toThe Nation at mid-year
06/29/2006 Being dealt is a consequence of the trade
06/22/2006 A year later, Boudreau's cup runneth over
06/15/2006 See dogs and cats battle for a different fan experience
06/08/2006 Not Bad Anymore league makes a comeback
06/01/2006 Luck goes Sox way with Lowell in Massachusetts
05/25/2006 Pitching in to help the Sox trade a few places
05/18/2006 Going to school by cutting Red Sox payroll
05/11/2006 Columnist blows his mind; here are the results
05/04/2006 Yanks stormed Manchester 37 years ago this week
04/27/2006 Regular crowd nowhere to be found come playoff time
04/20/2006 Questions and answers from the mailbag
04/13/2006 Local sports teams spring into action
04/06/2006 Predictable Red Sox season lies ahead
03/30/2006 Analyzing this and that as Pats roster shrinks
03/23/2006 A week of following the bouncing balls
03/16/2006 The beginning of four days of basketball bliss
03/09/2006 Many miss the central point of the story
03/02/2006 Better late than never to jump through local hoops
02/23/2006 Celtic green means raw, not envy as it once did
02/16/2003 An issue that is all black and white
02/09/2006 Nomar curses from the UL's Sullivan
02/02/2006 Super memories from 40 years of watching the big game
01/26/2006 A certain uniformity to the inquiries in the mailbag
01/19/2006 Sudden end to Pats' season leave just one thing to do
01/12/2006 Pats on the back for the football team
01/05/2006 Predictions for Manchester Sports 2031
A lesson for Leo the Lip and nice guys everywhere

Chop House opening is Berra of good news
Event-filled weekend missed en route to evil empire
Hero’s death lays to rest misuse of the word
Saint Theo ascends to new heights in The Nation
Santa sack filled to the brim with sports
Patriots march through injuries toward threepeat
Sports talk should be on the air
Stars shine brightest when winning is in the mix
The Demonization of Johnny Damon
Thirty-seven topics and so little space
Too many holes in Sox for repeat
Trip to the injured list makes it a long weekend for local scribe
Turkeys and giving thanks take center stage this week
Yanked from the edge of your seat