Of all of the frustrating losses this year by the Boston Red Sox, they have in the last two evenings, Thursday in Toronto and last night in Arlington, TX, perhaps reached the zenith (or is it nadir?) of frustration for themselves and their fans. Ugly is a word that does not do justice. First, a look at Thursday night's meltdown:
Just when the Red Sox were building the momentum needed to turn their fractured season into something hopeful, Papelbon cast it away. Handed a two-run lead to protect in the ninth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays, the closer allowed three runs, and the resulting 6-5 loss left the Red Sox stunned.
“These days happen,’’ Ortiz said. “It never gets easier.’’
The Sox took a 5-2 lead into the ninth, seemingly poised to win their fourth straight game and draw closer to a playoff berth. With John Lackey having thrown only 91 pitches, manager Terry Francona let him stay in the game.
Lackey threw a gopher ball to Jose Bautista leading off the ninth inning. Bautista has done that to a lot of pitchers this year, and Lackey had thrown less than 100 pitches. The manager, Terry Francona, played it "safe" and brought in the closer. This did not work out as planned. Two pitches later the lead was one run, and one out later it was tied. The winning run would score on a medium depth sacrifice fly to a weak-armed Jacoby Ellsbury.
Last night may have been worse. Handed an 8-2 lead after 3 1/2 innings, Sox "ace" Josh Beckett did not pitch like it.
One night after the Sox had squandered a three-run lead in Toronto, they did themselves one worse, giving up a game in which they had knocked the opposing starter out after just three innings and held a six-run lead.
“Those are games we certainly need to win, and we didn’t,’’ Francona said.
In the end, though, this was about Josh Beckett.
Coupled with Beckett’s last performance, against the Yankees Aug. 8, the Sox starter has now allowed 13 earned runs over his last 9 2/3 innings, his ERA ballooning even further to 6.51. He failed to get out of the fifth inning in his last start, and just made it through the fifth last night, each time putting a burden on a bullpen that hasn’t always been up to the challenge.
The Sox and August "swoons" are the stuff of legends ... and photoshop contests. Well, the truth hurts sometimes. There will certainly be nights when a Cliff Lee or a C.C. Sabathia pitches a gem. And there'll be nights when your own starter is roughed up and knocked out. But losing three run leads in the ninth inning, or six run leads in the fourth after roughing up the opposition starter leaves a lasting hurt among the players and the fans.
Sure, they've had a lot of injuries this year, with a lot of games lost to injury by star players. Josh Beckett, Victor Martinez, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis Mike Cameron. You're not going to win them all. But you have to win the ones you should. And right now the Sox aren't doing it, largely due to an inept bullpen and a closer, Jonathan Papelbon, who lacks command of the strike zone.
Former Baltimore Orioles' pitching coach Ray Miller used to teach the mantra, "work fast, change speeds, throw strikes" to his pitchers to get them to be successful. For a closer, Papelbon doesn't work fast, rarely changes speeds, and when he does he rarely throws that change for strikes. On top of that, his 94-96 mph fastball is wild in the strike zone, outside when it should be in, or finding the middle of the plate. The opposing hitters wouldn't be in the bigs if they couldn't hit fastballs. He has a lot of saves this year, but not many of them were "easy saves," retiring his assigned three hitters in order.
At this point you can only really hope that the bullpen comes around a little and at least doesn't blow the easy ones. That the other four starters - Lackey, Lester, Matsuzaka and Bucholz - continue to pitch well and deep into games. And that Dustin Pedroia returns to help an offense that hasn't been as bad as predicted.