Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Sox need to find momentum
A couple of years ago, before the collapse that would cost Terry Francona his job and essentially throw the franchise into a state of flux, the Red Sox began to show cracks after looking almost flawless for much of late spring and early summer.
They lost a couple of close games on a disappointing road trip against bad teams, their offense went through a frustrating slump and their defense suddenly turned sloppy for a period of about a week in mid-August. Prior to that they were a team playing with confidence and looking like contenders, sitting 29 games over .500 and having 13 times rattled off win streaks of at least three straight.
But from that point forward, that later-seen-as-disconcerting stretch during which they lost five of eight, only once more did Boston win three in a row. Including that span, they went 18-29 after getting their 72nd win. And the rest, rather infamously, is baseball history.
This reminder isn't meant to scare Red Sox Nation, or to suggest that its club is on the cusp of a 2011 redux. The present team is quite different than that one, particularly in terms of toughness and accountability, which are two qualities that tend to quell losing streaks before they become lethal. As far as we know, there are currently no issues with chicken, beer and blatant insubordination, either.
Rather, this reminder is meant as a suggestion that the Sox had better quickly figure out how to get back to the type of baseball that helped hoist them atop the American League East for much of the year - because momentum lost at this point in the season can be hard to recover, and bad trends can be hard to reverse with little time and lots of pressure.
"We're very confident in our team," manager John Farrell said Friday, after the Yankees dealt his team its third straight defeat, and fourth in five games. "We have a good team. And yet we're going to go through some peaks and valleys."
The peaks and valleys are just part of the game in baseball, where even a very good team will lose 40 percent of its contests. But the troubling part isn't just that the Red Sox are losing. It's the way they're losing.
Boosted by a couple of big outbursts, their offense still ranks among the AL leaders in hits and runs for August, but they've been limited to four runs or fewer in seven of their 11 games since the start of their recent 10-game road trip - and that's not a good formula, considering they're 16-44 when scoring less than five runs this season.
Their pitching has been even worse by comparison, entering Saturday's tilt with the sixth-worst earned run average (4.62) in all of baseball since the start of the month. Opponents were batting a robust .280 against them, with a .776 on-base plus slugging, and it had been almost two weeks since a Red Sox starter had been credited with a victory. The bullpen, meanwhile, had been pinned with three blown saves in five opportunities.
Even more glaring than either of those shortcomings, though, has been the general ugliness. Baserunning has been something of an issue all season, but it's been worse over the past month, and Friday night alone the Sox ran into three outs on the bases. That same night they committed three errors for the second time in three contests. And after months of seizing the moment and capitalizing on the chances that presented themselves, they've recently struggled to deliver in those situations.
For months, this was a team that had proven itself more talented than many considered it to be coming out of spring training - ownership admittedly included - but a team that had put itself in first place by way of its preparation, its focus, its fundamentals and by perpetually putting itself in positions to succeed simply by doing things right.
Suddenly, though, they're doing things wrong. And the results haven't been pretty. It's not dire yet, with first place still in their grasp and a playoff berth still considered a strong statistical likelihood. But losing six of 10 on a roadtrip that visited two last place teams, then returning home to get pummeled by the fourth-place Yankees, is the type of stretch that at least raises the question about whether these Red Sox are regressing.
And whether they can stop it before September stings badly again.
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One of the more frustrating aspects of the Red Sox' recent failures has been their struggles with runners in scoring position - which was a strength early in the season.
Since going 8-for-15 on the second night in Houston, the Sox were 18-for-79 in the nine games before Saturday's evening affair. That's a big reason why they scored only 33 runs over that span (3.7 per game), and that's a .228 batting average; prior to that, Boston was hitting .277 in those situations, and scoring 5.1 runs per contest.
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One Boston hitter who has continued to hit is David Ortiz - and it's put the designated hitter on the verge of another milestone. He began the middle piece of this three-game series against the Yankees needing 11 hits to reach 2,000 for his career. If and when he gets there, he would be just the 39th player ever with 2,000 hits, 400 homers and 1,400 runs batted in, and would join Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols as the only active members of that club.
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Stat of the week: Just how important has it been for the Sox to score early and often? Entering Saturday, they were 47-12 when scoring first and 56-8 when plating at least five runs.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.