LONGSHOTS: Season’s second half is when it’ll get interesting for the Sox
by Dave Long
With Sunday’s 8-4 win over Seattle, the Red Sox closed out the first half of the season. This is when the fun begins, with the All-Star break on the horizon, the looming trading deadline at the end of the month, two series in August with the Empire and then the stretch run. The Sox are 49-32 as I speak and are clinging to a one-game lead in the East over the red hot Yankees, so we’re not talking cake walk. So as we move forward here are some things to keep an eye on in the second half of the baseball season.
Triple Crown Dreams: If you ain’t been paying attention — with him leading the majors in homers, runs batted in and second in the batting race, Albert Pujols has a legit shot at the Triple Crown. And while that’s great in itself, here are two Red Sox ties to give it more spice. First, if he does it, he’ll be the first since Carl Yastrzemski did it during the miracle of 1967. And if you’re rooting for Yaz to remain the last, you’ll be pulling for an ex-Red Sox farm hand in Hanley Ramirez to stop Pujols in the batting race. But, since he already has a .357 and .359 season in the books, Ramirez’s current .344 isn’t anything he can’t beat. And since he’s the best hitter of his generation, which includes Manny and A-Rod, as well as maybe any generation before his career is done, don’t bet against him.
The Evil Empire: The disturbing thing about having just a one-game lead is that they’ve beaten the Yanks every time they’ve played them so far. Shouldn’t it be larger as a result? And the flip side is, on the law of averages you know the Yanks have to win a few going forward. Plus the schedule favors them after the All-Star game when they play 10 straight at home vs. Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland while the Sox are on the road for six. Then they go on the road for eight and return to the new Stadium for a four-game weekend showdown with the Sox in early August. Their big question is — with an 11th-ranked ERA of 4.42, do they have enough in the bullpen before Mariano Rivera and depth at the bottom of the rotation? Another is — can anyone slow down their hitting, which at the current pace has eight guys hitting at least 20 homers and a team-record 250 homers overall? Since this is the team called the Bronx Bombers for the last 90 years, that’s saying something.
Jonathan Papelbon: Yes, he made his fourth straight All-Star team. Yes, his ERA is under 2.00 again. Yes he’s second in the league in saves and has blown just two. So this is like complaining when Tiger only wins by a stroke or two. But his first half just doesn’t feel like it was that good — when heart-attack saves were common. Stats that jump out are 31 hits in 36 innings. Not too far off last season’s pace, but not close to his first two seasons in Boston. The 17 walks he’s allowed are more than he had in any FULL season. And finally, for the first time he’s not averaging more than a strikeout per inning. So is it going to catch up to him in the blown save department, or has he done it all when he’s been a bit out of sync and he’s likely to be the killer’s he’s been when he gets back in sync? It’s probably the latter, but it bears watching.
Wake Going for 20: I’ve never been a huge Tim Wakefield the pitcher guy, have always felt his innings-eater rep was overdone and the knuckle ball worries me in the post season when he’s 3-7 with a 6.00 ERA for Boston. But he takes the ball, is versatile and an excellent team guy, so we’re hoping he doubles his 10 first-half wins to get his first 20-win season.
Santana for Jon Lester and Jacoby Ellsbury: You may recall this was a very hot topic two winters ago when many wanted to follow the old axiom “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” in taking a star for two youngsters with potential. A season and a half later, Santana is 9-7 in ’09 after going 16-7 last year as Lester was going 16-6 and Ellsbury was stealing 50 bases while hitting an up and down .280. This year he’s over .300 with 35 more steals as Lester struggled early and has had little run support in going 7-6. And since Santana costs $18 million, while the two youngsters are a combined $1.5, it’s like a four-for-one deal as the money saved went to Brad Penny and John Smoltz. Would you do the deal now? I didn’t think so, and it’s only mentioned here to give you a little extra confidence in Theo’s judgment as the trading deadline looms.
Trading Deadline: With Chen Ming Wang at 1-6 with a 9.64 ERA and back on the DL, the Yanks probably are looking for a starter and bullpen help. With Dice-K an issue, Brad Penny isn’t going anywhere now, so while a month ago I was thinking blockbuster, now I’m not so sure. Especially since Theo learned a lesson from moving Bronson Arroyo for Wily Mo Pena and then got caught short when injuries hit in 2006. And with David Ortiz hitting .320 in June with seven homers the need for a basher has been reduced too. So now it’s focused on evaluating Mike Lowell and getting hitting depth to step in at first or third if he’s not going to be able to go the distance. So it doesn’t look like an active time, but Theo’s made some dynamic trades at times, so you never know.
Tampa Bay: They bear watching because the Sox have eight left with them and even though they have not been a good road team recent history says they can win at Fenway. But they are just 18-26 on the road, they trail the Sox by six games, and they open the second half with 10 straight on the road. And when they do finally get back home it’s for four with the Yankees. So they could be on life support by the time they come to Fenway in early August. But they can hit and pitch so I wouldn’t count them out just yet.
Manny and the Dodgers: With the Dodgers having the best record in baseball and the Sox the best in the AL, there’s a real possibility Manny could be at Fenway in October. That would be the best return since Roger Clemens got hooted out of the joint vs. Pedro in the 1999 ALCS.
Dave Long can be reached at email@example.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.