Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 17, 2011

For A Day At Least, The Red Sox Right The Ship

April in New England is unpredictably variable. As winter grudgingly yields its place to spring, a sun-drenched day with the temperature threatening 70 can be immediately followed by one with leaden skies, the thermometer struggling to top 40 while a chill and blustery wind makes it feel even colder. Unfortunately, my first trip of the young season to Fenway Park was on one of the latter days.

Still, the chill bite in the air did not stop more than 37,000 of the faithful from finding their way to the little old ballpark just across the Massachusetts Turnpike from Kenmore Square. They came on a Saturday afternoon in the second and final weekend of the first home stand of the season for the Red Sox.

That they are still coming to the corner of Lansdowne Street and Yawkey Way is in itself remarkable. Fenway Park is now in its 99th season, the oldest Major League stadium still in use. After the demise of long-time owners Tom Yawkey, in 1976, and his wife Jean in 1992, the Red Sox were controlled by their family trust for the next decade. Starting in 1999, management declared the old ballpark “economically obsolete” and started to push for a new stadium. When the trust put the team up for sale a short time later, many of the prospective buyers joined the chorus of those insisting that Fenway was too antiquated and too small to generate the kind of revenue needed to help ensure that a competitive team took the field every year.

Fortunately for both the stadium and lovers of history, the team was eventually sold to a consortium led by billionaire futures and foreign exchange trader John Henry. In contrast to most of the would-be buyers, Henry was committed to maintaining and improving both the team and the old ball yard that the Red Sox have long called home.

To the delight of Red Sox Nation, Henry has delivered on both promises. On the field the Red Sox ended more than eight decades of frustration with a world championship in 2004, and added another three years later. Meanwhile Fenway Park has seen steady improvements every year, with thousands of new seats added on top of the Green Monster left field wall and on the right field roof of the stadium, a new luxury club behind home plate, enhanced amenities and concessions throughout the park, and this year, three new high-definition video screens in center field.

But on this day there is a decided undercurrent of anxiety among the well-bundled thousands making their way to their seats. Success breeds increased expectations and the expectations for these Red Sox are sky-high.

Beset by injuries and with key elements of their pitching staff having off-years, the Red Sox missed the playoffs in 2010, finishing 3rd in the AL East. That led to an extremely busy and productive off-season, highlighted by five days in December that began with a trade for 3-time All Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and ended with the signing of prize free agent outfielder Carl Crawford. With the prospect of Kevin Youkilis, Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury returning from injury, the Red Sox looked to be loaded. When Sports Illustrated picked Boston to win their third championship in eight years, fans throughout New England couldn’t wait for the season to start.

Boston opened the year on the road in Arlington, Texas, where the Rangers swept a three-game set from them. Still fans reasoned that Texas is the defending AL champion. But when the Sox then traveled to Cleveland and lost three more to the lowly Indians, it was clear that things were not going according to plan. Now after six games at home Boston takes the field for a game against Toronto sporting a record of just 2-10, the team’s worst start ever.

The problem for the Red Sox has been pitching. Two of their starters, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka, sport ERA’s of 15.58 and 12.86 respectively. A third member of the rotation, young Clay Buchholz, has an ERA of 6.60 that looks good only in comparison to those of his two teammates. John Lester has pitched well, but has been something of a hard luck case, facing opposing hurlers who pitched even better. And the bullpen has been somewhere between mediocre and dreadful.

But for all that on this day the fans are rewarded for braving the cold, and the hero all in the stands wind up saluting the longest and loudest is the starting pitcher. For the second outing in a row, Josh Beckett, the once and perhaps future ace, is magnificent.

Beckett came to the Red Sox prior to the 2006 season in a trade from the Florida Marlins, part of the Marlins’ infamous “Market Correction” salary dump when they were unable to win approval for a new stadium. He was a 20-game winner and the MVP of the ALCS in 2007, and two years later posted an outstanding record of 17-6. But last year shortly after signing a $68 million, four-year contract extension he went on the disabled list with a lower back strain and missed more than two months. He finished the 2010 season with a 6-6 record and an unsightly ERA of 5.78. Based on his spring training performance, Beckett was pushed to the back of the Red Sox’ rotation, ahead of only the conundrum named Matsuzaka.

Rather than seethe over the demotion Beckett has pitched as if he believes he has something to prove. Five days after a dominant performance against the Yankees, the 30-year old right hander is again overpowering. He throws 101 pitches in seven innings of work, surrendering just three hits and a single run in the top of the second. Nine Blue Jays go down swinging. Meanwhile the Red Sox offense does enough, tallying two runs in the first and two more in the second on a Jed Lowrie home run off of Toronto starter and loser Jo-Jo Reyes.

Given Boston’s early-season troubles, the fans aren’t entirely comfortable with a 4-1 lead. There are some anxious murmurs when first Daniel Bard in the 8th and then closer Jonathan Papelbon in the 9th each surrenders a single. But both pitchers respond by shutting down the nascent rallies before they can really get going. When Mike Cameron settles under a Travis Snider fly ball in left field, the Red Sox have their third victory of the season.

As we make our way to the exits, the old blues song “Dirty Water” blares through Fenway’s loudspeakers. It’s been more than four decades since that ode to Boston’s once polluted harbor hit the charts. In those years the harbor has been cleaned up, and Red Sox fans have known a lot of heartbreak, and more recently, much joy. This new campaign has gotten off to an unexpectedly rocky start. But it’s still very early, with 149 games left in sports’ longest season; and today Josh Beckett was his old self. Red Sox fans are allowed to look ahead to the coming months rather than back at the past two weeks, as they exit friendly Fenway, chilled to the bone but happy.

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Responses

  1. Maybe a miracle will happen tomorrow!


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