Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Local Sports Scene

Shifting our attention to the local Reading sports scene today ...

In a heated battle against the Reading Fire Department, the Silva Brothers softball team took Game 1 of the best-of-five series last night, fending off a late rally for the 14-9 victory.

Though most teams take a friendly approach to Division 4 games, it’s painfully obvious there is no love lost between these two opponents once they take the field. Having faced each other in the playoff numerous times over the years, Silva Brothers and the RFD approach every game against each other as if it’s Game 7 of the World Series.

After dropping two of three games against the RFD during the regular season, Silva Brothers claimed sole possession of second place, and home team advantage, over their rivals in the final game of the season. As the 2 and 3 seeds in the playoffs, these teams will meet in a Round 1 rematch of last year’s Finals.

The matchup is by far the Red Sox – Yankees of the Reading Men’s Softball League. But unlike the recent 5-game flop the Sox performed at the hands of the Yankees, the good guys prospered this time around.

Silva Brothers jumped out to an early lead, plating 3 two-out runs in their first at-bat. Several extended rallies provided a 9 run lead, thanks in part to two home runs from Bobby Eaton. Eaton blasted shots deep into the night of the cavernous right field, allowing him plenty of time to round the bases.

Pitchers Chuck Mottola and Eaton tag-teamed a potent RFD lineup, limiting them to only a handful of runs through the first 4 innings. It wasn’t until the 5th and 6th innings that the RFD squad began to line the ball into the gaps and plate runs, pulling within 4 with only two innings left to play.

But the Silva Brothers defense held strong. Eaton made a run-saving, not to mention life-saving, snag of a line drive up the middle that nearly took off his head. Johnny Douglass, or Johnny One More to his teammates, tracked down a long fly ball that traveled beyond the light poles in right field.

Chris D’Ambrosio, manning the right-center position in the outfield, made a spectacular inning-ending double play with an outfield assist to help squash a mounting RFD rally. With a runner on second and one out, D’Ambrosio camped under a high pop fly and launched a strike to third baseman Charlie Tool to nail the tagging runner.

The first scary moment of the game came when catcher Bobby Kamina was struck above his left eye by a foul ball. The blow sent Kamina to the ground for a few minutes and opened a gash along his eyebrow. He was able to walk from the field on his own, but left the game after the incident, replaced by his son Jack.

Another hushed silence occurred when One More was sent tumbling past first base trying to beat out an infield hit. The covering second baseman slipped while covering and ended up laying across the bag, cutting One More’s legs out from underneath him and driving his shoulder into the ground when he landed. Though banged and bruised up, One More was able to take his position the next inning.

As is usually the case with games between these teams, this contest wasn’t without its controversy. An RFD batter had harsh words for Silva Brothers first baseman Dave Salomon that almost erupted into a larger melee. The runner overran first base on an infield hit, and Salomon, not receiving a Time Out call from the umpires, gave him an insurance tag after the play to make sure he hadn’t made an attempt at second base. The RFD runner took offense, but Salomon quickly diffused the situation and retaliated with his bat, driving in a run and scoring in the bottom half of the inning.

That same RFD player received a warning from the home plate umpire in later innings, as well. As the pitcher, he questioned a Ball call, only to have the home plate umpire stride out to the mound and warn the player about his comments. No further incident occurred in the game.

Game 2 is scheduled for Thursday evening at 6:30, and is sure to bring more excitement and highlight-reel action to the field. The Silva Brothers look to enjoy the return of several regular-season stars unable to make the first game, including starting shortstop Erik Stortz and hobbled power-hitting first baseman Paul Schille.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Red Sox Nation, Meet Dustin Pedroia

Pay close attention to the game tonight, Red Sox Nation. We just may be witnessing the ushering in of a new era in Boston Baseball.

Tonight for their series-opening game against the Angels in Anaheim, the Red Sox will be joined by AAA-callup Dustin Pedroia. This 24-year old infielder has been tearing up Boston’s minor league system since being drafted out of Arizona State in 2004, and his arrival in the bigs rivals that of Hanley Ramirez before he was shipped off to Florida.

I’m well aware that the casual fan has probably never heard of Pedroia, as following the minor leagues isn’t always easy to do. Players get shifted from A to AA to AAA so often, its amazing these teams even have time to sew player names on the backs of the jerseys. I myself only know of Pedroia thanks to my time spent lurking on the Sons of Sam Horn website (, a virtual playground for fan geeks and aspiring GM wannabes.

But let me assure you, the word on this guy is a good one. Though not much of a physical presence on the field, standing only 5’8” and 180 lbs, Pedroia has impressed scouts and fans alike with his keen baseball instincts that eliminate an otherwise average range. Skilled at both shortstop and second base, Pedroia uses athletic footwork and a strong arm to make plays that might otherwise sneak by your average major league infielder.

Think David Eckstein, only better. Hopefully less annoying, too.

Pedroia’s lack of power at the plate is fully compensated by his high on base percentage, a statistic that most GMs drool over in this day and age. Speculation abounds, but rumors are flying that Pedroia might replace Coco Crisp and Kevin Youkilis atop the Sox order if all work out according to plan.

There’s good reason to get excited to watch this guy play besides his obvious talent. Pedroia is a product of the Red Sox Farm System, a mechanism Theo Epstein has pushed to build up since the lean years of Dan Duquette diminished the prospect ranks. 2006 has seen many of these types of players make debuts in the bigs, including Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Craig Hansen, and Kevin Youkilis, to name a few. All have made an impact on the team at some point or another, and there’s little doubt that Pedroia will do the same.

This just may be what the Sox need to kick-start the final two-month sprint to the playoffs. After a rough month of ballgames that saw them get swept by New York and Kansas City, Boston needs an injection of something to get them going. This young talent may provide just that.

Some might view it as the front office giving up on the season, giving playing time to a rookie since the season is lost. But with Gonzalez more than likely landing on the DL with a back strain, and Loretta being shopped around as trade bait, it’s the perfect time to bring up yet another future star and let him get a feel for the bigs.

Papelbon got his taste at the end of last season, and came into this year roaring like a thousand lions. The guy was simply unhittable for the majority of the season. Who’s to say the same formula won’t work for Pedroia? Who wouldn’t want a young, cheap slick-fielding on base machine up the middle next season?

A new era of Red Sox baseball. Young, home grown talent.

So sit back and enjoy the show, Sox fans. We’re about to get treated to the next chapter in Theo’s grand plan.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Dog Days Indeed

After two full weeks of avoiding having to write about the Red Sox, I’m sitting back down in front of this computer to hack away at my thoughts and ruminations about the season that has seemingly come to a crashing end over the weekend.

At the hands of the Yankees, nonetheless.

The Baseball Gods wouldn’t have had it any other way, though. Of course the Sox were going to sputter at the last minute. Of course our meager 3-game lead wasn’t going to hold up through August and September. Of course the Yankees would surge back into the race and eventually overtake the faltering Sox. You lay out that generic script for any Boston fan, and they’d have a hard time telling you which year it occurred, as it seems to happen continuously.

But an eerie calm overcame me as I watched Boston’s bullpen blow another lead in last night’s 8-5 loss, condemning the Sox to a nearly insurmountable 5.5-game deficit in the AL East, 4 games back in the Wild Card. Sure, I was upset, as any fan must be after losing 4 straight to our archrivals. But as in years past, when the Sox had the talent and ability to go far, I didn’t feel as if this team was failing to meet expectations or underachieving in any way.

For the first time in a while, I was cutting them some slack.

Sure, its infuriating to watch our bullpen blow lead after lead after lead, and have a young Ace in the rotation consistently serve up gopher balls. I forced myself to take a step back, however, and re-realize the big picture:

This team has been overachieving all season. Its just caught up to them now is all.

Think about it. The Sox started the year with a lot of new faces, including a completely new infield. Youkilis was even playing out of position. Our pitching staff had been overhauled, introducing a new face to the starting rotation (Beckett) and saying goodbye to an old friend (Arroyo). The bullpen shuffled new guys in and out in the offseason, retaining only a few of the veterans from years past.

No one really expected much from the Sox in the preseason. Lots of speculation about learning a new environment, new teammates and the such flew around. With the Yankees making some high-profile additions to their club, it was all but assumed they’d run away with the division.

But they didn’t. The Sox surprised everyone, even themselves, by playing some amazing baseball through the All Star break. They didn’t exceed expectations; they blew them out of the water.

Even in the face of daunting injuries to key players, the Sox kept on winning and fending off the Yankees for first place in the AL East. The Sox lost Coco Crisp only 6 games into the season. Nixon made his annual trip to the DL. Varitek sustained a rare injury recently.

Boston’s once formidable pitching staff was cleaned out by bumps and bruises as well. Wakefield busted a few ribs somehow. Wells’ knee finally gave out under the weight of his stomach. Clement’s bruised ego successfully ended his season, and probably career with the Sox.

This decimation of the ranks did little to slow the Sox down, however. Newcomer Wily Mo Pena filled in admirably for the injured Crisp and Nixon (before going down with an injury of his own), and a slew of minor-league call-ups plugged the gaps in the field and the pitching staff. When the dust settled, the Sox still sat atop the AL East by 3.5 games.

Then that damn bird showed up.

For some reason, that seemed to mark the beginning of the end for the Sox. Something about that black bird on second base seemed to spark a thought in the team’s head that maybe they shouldn’t be playing this well. Ever since the little aviator perched on the Fenway dirt, the Sox have been in a freefall.

Mainly, our pitching staff returned to earth. The minor-league fill-ins so successfully employed by Boston began to give up runs at an alarming rate. Even our ace closer, Rookie of the Year and Cy Young candidate Jonathan Papelbon began to blow saves left and right.

That’s what being thrown into the fire will do to young players, I suppose. Very few of the pitchers out of the bullpen have spent an entire season in the bigs, and it began to show all at once. Arms got tired. Concentration waned. Games lost.

So I guess I’m not surprised that the Sox have faltered so dramatically lately. They grit their teeth and sharpened their nails and fought through adversity the entire season, and finally reached the breaking point. They simply couldn’t hold on any longer.

And though its depressing to think the Sox will probably miss the playoffs completely, especially disheartening after leading the league for so much of the season, I’m able to step back and appreciate how much they actually accomplished this year, a year when no one realistically expected much from them.

I’m sure people will read this as a Sox’s fan loser attitude, trying to rationalize another letdown by my team. But its really not. I’m just looking at this horrible situation, a 5-game sweep on our home turf at the hands of the Yankees, in the best possible way. I’m not about to give up on the Sox; true fans of any team never 100% dismiss their team until the final out is recorded.

I’m simply preparing myself for a postseason without Boston, because the way they’ve been playing, it’s far more than a distinct possibility; it’s a near certainty. I’m recognizing their shortcomings, and keeping an eye on the news to make sure Theo and company take the necessary steps to ensure a similar fiasco doesn’t take place next season.

And even though I’m starting to turn my attention to the upcoming football season, I’ll always have one hopeful eye on my Red Sox. Always.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

What’s the Word?

Omens come in all shapes and sizes. From ominous sightings of animals to burnt toast depicting the visage of the Virgin Mary, people around the world pick seemingly mundane occurrences and spin them into horrifying signs of the apocalypse.

Last night, the Red Sox Nation was visited by just such an omen. This one came in the form of a little black bird.

During the waning moments of a crushing 6-3 loss to the Indians, a little black bird found his way to the infield dirt, drawing the attention of fans and players alike. The poor fellow seemed to have suffered an injury of some sort, as he was unable to simply fly away when confronted by players trying to shoo him out of harm’s way.

The longer the bird hopped around the field, the more attention he attracted. Fans laughed and cheered the fowl when he darted along the basepath in an attempted steal of second base. Though he managed to swipe the bag fairly easily, the official scoring was Defensive Indifference, as he failed to even draw a throw.

During the height of his comic relief appearance, a welcome intermission to the Red Sox loss, the little bird perched upon second base for a while, surveying his surroundings. As if checking the signs coming in from the sideline, he peered down to the base coach before making another heroic jaunt towards third. Whether the bird had the green light or not is still a mystery.

But as the night drew to a close, fans began to realize their little temporary mascot was not there for the mere entertainment of a downtrodden Fenway crowd. This bird had another purpose that night than simply coaching Doug Mirabelli proper baserunning techniques.

This bird brought a message, and it wasn’t a good one.

As the dust settled on the morose evening in Boston, the Nation soon came to realize just how ominous this little blackbird’s appearance was. Soon after the game ended, word came down from the front office that Varitek’s knee suffered more than a simple tweak; cartilage was torn and he requires surgery, placing him on the DL for at least a month.

Though a bum knee would certainly help explain his season-long struggles at the plate, it also means our starting catcher is out for the final playoff push. The Sox won’t have Tek calling signs for either the veteran pitchers or the rookie hurlers for a while.

The Red Sox are without their Captain.

Doug Mirabelli, usually relegated to the role of Tim Wakefield’s Personal Catcher, will have to step up as a full-time player in Tek’s absense.

I can’t remember the last time Mirabelli was a full-time player. Hell, I doubt HE can remember the last time he was a full-time player. The Nation can only hope his less-than-ideal physique can withstand the rigors of daily play, and that his meager Mendoza-line batting average is merely due to lack of extended playing time. Hope.

But the little winged demon that soiled the hallowed confines of Fenway last night wasn’t done there. The harbinger of doom wasn’t content with simply taking down a key cog in the Red Sox machine.

After Boston’s loss, a win from New York placed them in first place in the AL East … by .002 percentage points. Having played two less games than the Red Sox, New York technically sits alone atop the standings because of a mathematical calculation.

Though the difference in schedule will eventually even itself out as New York plays its make-up games, seeing the Yankees looking down on the Sox shrouds the city of Boston in a disheartening cloud of despair. Even after dispelling the ghosts of 87 years back in 2004, Boston still seems to peer over its shoulder in anticipation of the inevitable Yankee surge to first. It happens so often, and this year suddenly seems no different despite the success this team has enjoyed so far in the season.

So while the antic of the little black bird in Fenway gave the fans a momentary release from the reality of Boston’s recent slump, and while Boston websites are having cute little contests to name the base-stealing bird, the true meaning of his visit is becoming all too clear today.

Shoo, bird, don’t bother us. We’re in the midst of a Pennant Race.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Same Old New Thrill

David Ortiz is a force of nature. There’s no two ways about it.

Boston’s premiere clutch hitter came through once again for the Sox, crushing a 3-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning for the come-from-behind victory. As Ortiz strolled to the plate with two on and one out, facing a 2-run deficit, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind what was about to happen.

Its just incredible to watch this man pick up a bat. He seems to feed off those pressure situations, derives great strength and poise in those moments where the weight of the Red Sox Nation weighs upon his shoulders. And he never seems to buckle.

Mr. Clutch. Mr Automatic. Mr. Greatest Damn Pressure Hitter in History. Call him whatever you want, the names all mean the same thing:

Big Papi is the man.

Going into last night’s matchup, it was looking dire for the Sox. Clinging to a half-game lead over the Yankees going into last night’s game against the Cleveland Indians, a victory would put them an even one game up on their division rivals. With the Yankees picking up the coveted Bobby Abreu from the Phillies, along with teammate pitcher Cory Lidle, New York initially seems to have beefed up their weak spots and are ready to rumble into the finish line of the season. At this point, every game counts.

But heading into the ninth inning at Fenway last night, the Sox faced a 2-run deficit, and it looked like sole possession of first place might slip away.

David Wells, making his first start since getting drilled in his knee by a liner that put him on the DL, did his best to keep the Sox in the game, and almost escaped the 5th inning with the lead. But he hung a curveball to Casey Blake with two on and two out, and Blake deposited it in the Monster seats, his second homer off Wells, to give the Indians an 8-6 lead.

The Sox battled all night at the plate to keep it close. Manny Ramirez got the ball rolling with a two-run shot in the first inning off Indians starter Paul Byrd.

Wily Mo Pena, getting the start in right after Trot Nixon strained a bicep in Sunday’s game, made the most of his return to the lineup, falling a double shy of hitting for the cycle. His solo shot to lead off the fourth inning helped put to rest worries of him losing power after surgery on a bone in this wrist. Pena belted an absolute bomb to left on the first pitch he saw that was easily headed for the Mass Pike.

And still the Sox found themselves down by 2 heading into the final frame. And that’s usually where the magic starts for the Sox this season.

Alex Cora led off with a single to left, and Kevin Youkilis followed with a gutsy 7-pitch walk. Falling behind 1-2 to the Indians rookie closer Fausto Carmona (they traded their regular mop-up man Bob Wickman to the Braves), Youkilis didn’t chase two pitches in the dirt and took the free pass, giving the Sox two on with no outs.

Mark Loretta failed to advance the runners by popping out to the shortstop, but that didn’t diminish the spirits of the fans in Fenway. Not with Ortiz coming to bat.

Its weird the feeling of calm that comes over Sox fans when Ortiz is batting in a clutch situation. It used to be dread and resignation to a loss, especially down by a couple in the last at-bat. But these days, with Papi on the team, the fans just seem to know that Ortiz will come through with the big hit, a long bomb, the game winner.

And why shouldn’t we expect it? In his three seasons with the Sox, Ortiz has delivered 15 walkoff hits, 9 of them home runs. He’s had five already this season.

Last night was no exception. Big Papi delivered yet again.

And the Nation rejoiced from atop his shoulders.