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July 27. 2013 3:22PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Chilly bats a concern

When the ball glances off a fielder's glove, or a throw sails awry, or a play isn't made behind him, John Lackey's body language has a way of screaming disappointment. Yet Jarrod Saltalamacchia says the starting pitcher is, bar none, one of the best teammates he's had in the course of a career that's now a decade long.

So it's unsurprising Lackey voiced confidence Friday night that the Boston's slumping offense would soon awaken.

"We've got a lot of guys who are really great hitters," the right-hander told reporters in Baltimore. "They'll come through and get it going."

Lackey had just been pinned with the loss in Boston's 6-0 setback at Baltimore, which marked the 10th time in 18 starts that the Sox failed to support his effort with more than three runs - though more alarmingly the second time the team had been shut out in the span of four games, as well as the continuation of a stretch in which it has scored a total of 23 runs in nine contests. Eight of those came in a single night.

Entering Saturday night's rematch with the Orioles, the Sox were collectively hitting .216 (65-for-301) since July 13, in no small part due to a few individuals who'd hit the skids. Dustin Pedroia was hitting .143 over that time. Jarrod Saltalamacchia .125. Jose Iglesias .094. And Stephen Drew .067. The club was also walking significantly less than usual, at a rate of 5.2 percent lately, compared to 9.1 percent for the season.

And while it might be easy to blame Boston's struggles on the high caliber of pitching they've found themselves facing recently, that might almost be worse than if this was merely a bunch of guys coincidentally slumping at the same time.

Over the past two weeks, among those the Sox have faced have been 2013 All-Stars Bartolo Colon, Hiroki Kuroda, Matt Moore and Chris Tillman, 2012 American League Cy Young winner David Price, promising young righty A.J. Griffin and venerable veteran lefty Andy Pettitte. They've also faced a quartet of formidable bullpens in the A's, Yankees, Rays and Orioles. That'd be a tough slate for any lineup.

But that's exactly the type of pitching a club can expect to encounter come October, and that's where this run becomes particularly disconcerting for the Sox.

While the team's focus has likely been on fortifying the bullpen (with three late-game relievers done for the year), or the starting rotation (with Clay Buchholz now unlikely to pitch again before September), now Ben Cherington must determine whether this recent spell is just a rut or if it's something that requires his attention.

The general manager from Meriden must decide whether the Sox need to upgrade either in left field or on the left side of the infield, or maybe add another right-handed bat off the bench. And while that's a decision he'll need to make with some urgency because baseball's non-waiver trade deadline is Wednesday afternoon, it's a decision he'll need to make with the postseason in mind.

And that could be a tricky consideration. After all, through Friday the Red Sox were .02 runs per game behind the Tigers for the distinction of the highest-scoring team in the major leagues, so the entire body of work says Boston's bats are good enough. But if this recent slide is indicative of what it's going to be like when the riffraff are on the golf course and the elite are climbing the bump, it appears as though the Sox could be in some trouble.

"I think a lot of guys are trying too hard right now," Pedroia told ESPN Boston on Friday. "There are times two or three guys go into funks and other guys step up. It seems right now everybody's trying to be the guy that gets us out of it. That makes it tough because then you try too hard, get out of what makes you good."

Good is fine. But success in October tends to be reserved for the very good, even the great.

And that's why the Red Sox could be in some trouble when - and if - it comes.
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WITH their win Friday, the Orioles continued a dominance of the Sox that dates to their dagger-wielding role in the collapse of September 2011, since when Baltimore was 24-9 against Boston entering Saturday night.

In a way, the O's triumph in the series opener was something of a microcosm of that success. They slugged four home runs Friday, bringing their total to 38 in the 24 games they've played against the Sox since the start of last season. And they continue to pitch better against Boston than they do against the rest of baseball.

From the beginning of 2012 through Friday, the Orioles' overall earned run average sat at 4.05. With the Tillman-led shutout, though, against the Red Sox it was a full run lower - 3.05 - as Boston's batters compiled a .231 average against the Baltimore staff.

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ALTHOUGH Iglesias made a pretty over-the-shoulder catch of a foul pop, and Shane Victorino notched his team-leading seventh outfield assist, Friday night's game was generally illustrative of the sloppiness that has crept into the Sox defense of late.

After calling off Victorino, Ellsbury let what appeared to be a catchable ball glance off his glove for a Nate McLouth triple; Mike Napoli made a high throw that cost Lackey a double play; then Napoli failed to catch Lackey's throw to first on a comebacker.

With that, the Sox entered Saturday tied for fifth-worst in the AL in defensive efficiency (essentially the rate of turning balls in play into outs), and were 18th in the majors according to defensive runs saved. Boston was at a negative-1 for the season.

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STAT OF THE WEEK: One positive for the Sox offense has been the return of Napoli's power. Before Friday he had seven extra-base hits in a span of eight games. Prior to that he had seven extra-base hits in 33 games.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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