Reinforcements Will Not Be Forthcoming

Following two losses at home to the Tampa Bay Rays (62-48), the Boston Red Sox (59-50) find themselves in need of a win to salvage a three game set at Fenway.  

At the outset of last night’s game the Red Sox looked like a team that’d just been told help wasn’t on the way.  Hearing Dombrowski yesterday describe his rationale for doing diddly-frigging-squat at the trade deadline was like hearing Admiral Wellington tell the Prussians before Waterloo that “we feel we have the ability to bring an end to the battle with the guys we currently have on the field.”  Really, Admiral?  You’re sure you don’t want some help?  Those Prussians come in handy in a pinch.  But alas, that’s where we are right now.

This isn’t to say that Boston rolled over and played dead yesterday.  Following a victorious skirmish against a pair of monitors in the dugout after a first inning that wasn’t all that bad, Rick Porcello tried to hold the line but was predictably swamped under the Tampa onslaught.  Boston’s middle innings guys out of the bullpen fared little better, fighting like Highlanders in four square (these Napoleonic Wars references doing anything for you?) but giving up just enough ground to put the game ultimately out of reach for Boston’s (admittedly talented) lineup.  Boston’s from-behind bullpen seems designed not to keep the game close, but rather to avoid catastrophic embarassment.  On that latter score last night, they succeeded, but just. 

Tonight, we’ve got Andrew Cashner (10-5) against Tampa’s Brendan McKay (1-1).  I’d be lying to you if I said I knew all that much about McKay other than the fact that he was drafted in 2017 as a two-way player (though it appears that he’s further along in his development as a pitcher than a position player) and that he pitched well in his debut and a few subsequent starts.  For the Red Sox, though, tonight’s not really about Brendan McKay, is it?  Potential positional oddities in the other dugout aside, the Red Sox need to find a way to salvage what remains of this series befoe they head down to the Bronx and a Yankee squad that’s undoutedly looking for some payback.  Boston is 2.5 back of the Rays for the second wild card spot and 5 games in back of Cleveland, and a loss tonight coupled with a rough weekend could well get some in the organization looking ahead to next year.  They’ve got to turn this ship around again, and tonight’s as good as any other night to get started.

So tonight, I’m going with Boston.  Cashner’s pitched well against Tampa in limited time this year  and the Sox need the game.  Sure, McKay could come out tonight and do what he did against Texas, New York, and Baltimore, but I say what’s life without a little hope?  Right now, that’s about all the Sox have going for them.

Only Uphill From Here

The Red Sox (59-49) suddenly find themselves looking up a bit further at the Rays (61-48) heading into tonight’s clash featuring Rick Porcello (9-7) against opener Andrew Kittredge (1-0). 

Oy.  And no, I’m not talking about the fact that the Boston Red Sox did precisely squat at today’s trade deadline, or the fact that the Astros made themselves, on paper, at least, prohibitive favorites to win the American League by acquiring Zack Greinke from the Diamondbacks.

I’m talking about last night, and how it happened just as I’d feared it would, though it came about a bit differently than I would have imagined.  Not so much Morton, but the Rays’ bullpen proved stingy when it counted most as the Sox left seven (7!!!) men on base in the late innings during last night’s 6-5 defeat.  A common dig at New England sports fans is that their knowledge and analysis tends to be, well, New England-centric.  And while I suppose that’s true, allow me to extend some credit to the Rays.  Though Charlie Morton wasn’t quite the same guy we saw last week and didn’t really resemble the guy whose virtues I extolled last night, he did just enough (though some will say he wasn’t allowed to do enough) to put his club in a position to win.  Morton’s quick hook from Kevin Cash aside, Houdini-esque work from a unit that’s blown 8 saves this month and a big night from Avisail Garcia were more than enough to sink the Sox, the latter of whom had chance after chance after chance to win the game but somehow just couldn’t quite come up Milhouse.  I mean, if winning makes everything easier, what does losing do?  You guessed it. It’s only uphill from here.

Tonight, we’ve got Rick Porcello against the entirety of the Tampa Bay pitching staff.  Of the Rays’ arms used, only Emilio Pagan and Adam Kolarek went more than 1 inning last night, so the vast majority of arms in the bullpen should be available.  As for Porcello, well – though I would normally say that it depends on which Rock Porcello we get, it just so happens that within the confines of his performances against the Rays this year, there’s decidedly less of a variance.  In two starts this year against the Rays in 2019, Porcello’s gone 11 and two thirds innings, giving up six runs, all of them earned, on fourteen hits with 9 K’s.  And you know what?  I’ll take it, and here’s why: over the last seven days, Boston is batting .351 as a team.  J.D. Martinez is 8 for his last 26 with two home runs and 6 RBI, Xander Bogaerts is 10 for his last 29 with two home runs and 5 RBI, and Andrew Benintendi?  He’s 13 for his last 26 with 3 doubles, 3 home runs, and 9 RBI.  Yikes. 

So tonight, for me, the edge goes to Boston.  No, I don’t believe that Porcello is going to equal the masterpiece he threw against the Twins back in June, but I don’t think he has to, not tonight, not the way the lineup has been swinging the bat of late.  Look, Charlie Morton couldn’t quite keep Boston down, so is it likely that Tampa’s bullpen can succeed where Morton couldn’t over the course of 9 innings?  I may be forced to eat my words, but I don’t see it.  The bottom line is, if the Red Sox are going to make the playoffs, it’s the lineup, in many ways, that will have to carry this team through, and tonight, I think they’ll do just that. 

Want more baseball?  Check out past posts below or browse all posts here, or check out my podcast here.  Thanks to fangraphs, statcast, and baseballreference.com for the outstanding job they do. 

Gotta Beat the Best to Be the Best

It’s Charlie Morton (12-3) against David Price (7-4) as the Red Sox (59-48) try to keep the good times rolling in Fenway as the Tampa Bay Rays (60-48) come to visit for a three game set.  Both the Rays and the Red Sox are currently on the outside looking in in terms of the Wild Card, at a half game and a game, respectively, behind Oakland for the second spot.     

Ah, Christ, not these guys again.  News of possible bullpen relief notwithstanding, this Rays team has been a thorn in Boston’s side all year and a consistent intradivision competitor.  Not only have the Rays played the Red Sox tougher this year than in years past, but this year, they always seem to come around, like the ever-present raven in the eponymous poem, when they’re least wanted.  To wit: the first time the Rays played the Sox this year up in Fenway was on April 27.  Boston was still trying to right the ship at 10-15, but had recently won 5 of their last seven, including a couple nice wins to close a series with Detroit and a sweep of those same Rays in a three game set at Tropicana Field.  So what happened?  A two game sweep, which in turn bought the Red Sox another 10 days before they’d see .500 on the year, on May 8th, in Baltimore. 

The next time the Rays came to visit, Boston was 33-29 and looked poised to build on recent successes and race to 10 games above .500.  Sadly, it wasn’t to be, as the Rays pasted an at-times-uncompetitive looking Sox squad in three games out of four.  Now I know that the Rays have lost 6 of their last ten and have seemed, at times, to be in freefall, and I know that the Red Sox have taken Morty’s advice to a certain degree and seem to have gotten their s*** together, but the fact is, and despite the fact that the season series is knotted at 6-6, Tampa’s been just a little bit better than Boston, scoring 4.3 runs and only allowing 3.7 per game.  So will Tampa politely and quietly move out of the way as Boston tries to catapult themselves back into division competition?  Quoth the Rays-vens: Nevermore. 

Which brings us to the biggest impediment to not only a win tonight, but also to a series win, and that’s Charlie Morton.  Over the last couple series, the Red Sox have used the first game of each series to set a tone, beating the Rays 9-4 last Monday and the Yankees, in delicious, glorious fashion, 19-3, but as the title of this post says, if you want to be the best you’ve got to beat the best, and Charlie Morton has been, I would argue, not only among the best in the American League this year, but among the best he’s ever been in his career.

At 12-3, Morton is on pace not only for most wins in his career in a single season, but also the lowest ERA, lowest FIP, highest K/9, lowest BB/9, and most IP of any single season in his career.  He could win the Cy Young and, ah, seems to have gotten better as he’s gotten older. For him, he’s having a fantastic year, and even a cursory look at the underlying metrics provides some indication as to why.  For instance, per statcast, though the average velocity of Morton’s four-seamer is down a tick to 94.72 Mph from last year’s high of 96.10, he’s generating the highest average spin rate in the last three years on that pitch.  But oh, that curveball.  Per statcast, Morton’s thrown his curve more often than his four seamer over the past three years, and it’s not hard to see why: though he’s generating slightly less average velocity on it than in years past, it’s spinning, ducking, and darting just about as much as it ever has.  Not only that, but he’s freezing batters in their tracks: in 2019, of the 133 called strikes he’s thrown with the pitch (also on pace to be easily the most in any season in his career), fully 20, or 15%, have been called third strikes, good for the highest rate of called third strikes with the curveball over the last three years, nearly doubling the rate from 2018. 

As for Price and the Red Sox, their success off of Morton has been, in a word, spotty.  Though Boston batted .338 off of Morton last year and had an OPS against him of 1.052, that success has not carried over into this year, where they’re batting a scant .178 and slugging a mere .265.  As for Price, he’s been good-but-not-great this year against the Rays, showing a 1-2 record with a 3.13 ERA, but he’s been able to hold them to a .217 BA in 23 innings, the most against any opponent this year.  He has, however, had a couple of stellar games against them, throwing 6 innings of one-run ball on June 8th at Fenway (their only win of that series, you’ll recall) and giving up a mere 2 runs in a gutty 5 innings on April 21 in a no-decision at the Trop. 

Still, tonight’s game seems like it’ll be an uphill battle for the Old Towne Team.  Charlie Morton seems like he’s at the height of his powers, and the Rays, like the Sox, are right in the thick of the wild card chase.  If the Red Sox don’t get to Morton early, it doesn’t seem all that likely that they’ll get to him at all.  While the off-day should have benefitted the bullpen and Price should get a relatively quick hook in case of trouble in the middle innings, the Sox are going to have trouble using this game to set the tone for the series.  Of course you never know and That’s Why They Play the Games, but it feels like the Rays have the edge tonight.      

Want more baseball?  Check out past posts below or browse all posts here, or check out my podcast here.  Thanks to fangraphs, statcast, and baseballreference.com for the outstanding job they do.