Masterson Masterful, Bullpen Battered

The Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians continued their four-game series Wednesday night at Progressive Field. The Red Sox had won both of the first two games of the series and were going for the series victory. On the hill for the Red Sox was Clay Buchholz, who coming into the game was tied for the AL lead with eight wins and second in the AL with an E.R.A. of 2.39. He was opposed by former-Red Sox prospect Justin Masterson, who has struggled mightily since coming to the Cleveland Indians. Both pitchers were coming off of recent victories, with Buchholz’s complete-game shutout dwarfing Masterson’s 5.2 innings of one run ball.

The Indians took an early lead on a series of small ball plays. They scored in the first on a sacrifice fly, the third on a double-play grounder, and the fourth on a wild pitch from Buchholz. That was all they could do, but it was more than enough. The Red Sox could do nothing with Justin Masterson, who did an excellent job of pitching to contact. He induced sixteen ground-outs, two of which went for double-plays. In the eighth inning everything went awry for the Red Sox. The Red Sox bullpen, in dire straights between injury and overuse, faced off against 14 total Indians batters. Neither Red Sox pitcher pitched effectively, giving up numerous walks and hits. The inning was punctuated by a Travis Hafner grand slam. By the time the inning was over the Indians had put up eight additional runs and the game was out of reach. Masterson finished the game with a 1-2-3 inning, and the Red Sox lost, 11-0. Masterson took the win, Buchholz the loss.

The Red Sox at the Plate

There’s not much to say about the Red Sox offensively. They were hurried at the plate and swung early and often. Against a pitcher like Masterson, who can pitch with great movement on his pitches, this was deadly. The Red Sox hit into ground out after ground out and never got anything going at the plate. The only players to hit were Victor Martinez and J.D. Drew, both of who hit for mere singles. The only other Red Sox to even reach first base were Jeremy Hermida and Kevin Youkilis, both of who walked. In nine innings, no Red Sox hitter got past first base. In games like this, you have no choice but to tip your cap to the opposing pitcher and admit that he got you. The Red Sox were utterly defeated by Justin Masterson tonight.

The Red Sox on the Mound

The stats for this game would suggest that Clay Buchholz pitched a quality start. He went seven innings and allowed just three earned runs on three hits. His four walks, however, hurt him greatly, as he struggled with control all night long. His pitches were too often low and out of the zone, and the Indians hitters remained patient, drawing walks when the opportunities presented themselves. While Buchholz’s speed was not an issue, his control was, and his secondary pitches just weren’t there tonight. Despite all of this, Buchholz did an adequate job of keeping the Red Sox in the game, and on most nights three runs in seven innings probably equals a win. The problems came from the bullpen pitchers, Boof Bonser and Joe Nelson. Bonser failed to record an out and could barely throw a strike. Nelson threw some strikes, but they were all hit by the Indians. The bullpen gave this game away tonight, and they did nothing to inspire confidence.

The Game in Review

Who are these pitchers? Boof Bonser? Joe Nelson? When did the Red Sox bullpen become the spot injured pitchers go to rehab and recover? The Red Sox are far too competitive a team to be wasting their time with pitchers who can’t record outs. This was a winnable game until the bullpen got involved, and then it was all over in the eighth inning. Now, the Red Sox were UNLIKELY to win this game, having had no success hitting Masterson or driving up his pitch count up to that point. But all the same, the Red Sox must have reliable pitchers in the ‘pen if they want to win games. This wasn’t a bad start for Buchholz, it just wasn’t good enough. Still, a team that can hit as well as the Red Sox might’ve been able to overcome the deficit had it remained at just three runs. But on came the bullpen and and the game got out of reach. We can only hope one or both of these pitchers gets designated for assignment. A pitcher who can’t pitch has no place on a team trying to claw its way back into the playoff race.

Fisher Key in Celtics’ Defeat; Boston Down 2-1

The Boston Celtics faced off against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Three of the NBA Finals Tuesday night at the TD Garden. Tied at one win apiece, both teams were looking to seize momentum for the rest of the series by winning the pivotal third game. In the previous 32 Finals in which the series was tied 1-1, the team winning Game 3 eventually took home the championship 28 times. So it goes without saying that this was a crucial game for both teams. The Celtics got out to a strong start, but the Celtics’ shooting went cold midway through the first quarter. The Lakers suffered no such power outage and built up a 17-point lead by midway through the second quarter. The Celtics, keyed by strong play from their bench, came back to bring the score within one by the fourth quarter, but in the end they could never get over the hump. The Lakers, led in the fourth by Derek Fisher (16 points) made too many shots down the stretch, keeping the lead perpetually out of reach. The Celtics wound up losing the game, 91-84, and falling behind in the series, two games to one.

The Celtics on Offense

First the good news: Kevin Garnett. After struggling as much as he has in the first two games of this NBA Finals, it was refreshing to see him bust out of his slump so emphatically. He put up a more-than-adequate 25 points to go with his 6 rebounds and 3 assists. Unfortunately, he had virtually no help. Paul Pierce, despite some key three-pointers down the stretch, and Ray Allen combined to go 5-25 from the field, and all five of those made shots belonged to Paul Pierce. Ray Allen followed up his record-setting Game Two performance with an unbelievable zero made shots from the field. He was 0-13 from the field, missing multiple open shots that he was able to drain two nights ago. And while he had a strong start, Rajon Rondo slowed down from the second quarter on, putting up only 11 points and 8 assists. The bench almost made up for it with 26 points (as compared to the Laker bench’s 22), but in the end too many missed shots from key shooters doomed the Celtics offense, which didn’t have trouble getting open so much as it did knocking down shots (except for Garnett). The Celtics’ offense requires multiple contributors to work, and Tuesday night there was only one player contributing. It was not enough to match the Lakers’ offensive production.

The Celtics on Defense

Anytime you can hold a team to 91 points, your defense has done a pretty good job. The biggest problem once again was rebounding. The Celtics got out-rebounded 43-35, and it led to too many second chance points for L.A., most of which came via the free-throw (21 made from the line, as opposed to the Celtics making just 16). But overall, the defense was not the problem for the Celtics tonight. Up until now, they had won all but one game in which they held their opponents to under 100 points. And the defense held the Lakers’ shooting percentage to under %45, which is not bad, all things considering. Overall, the defense did its job tonight. A couple of more rebounds would be nice, but the Celtics did not get outscored in the paint (50-38 in the Celtics favor), so the rebounding troubles were not quite so debilitating as they were during Game One.

The Game in Review

The problem with teams that thrive on perimeter shooting is that when the shooting goes cold, as it did tonight, it’s tough to score. The Celtics got good post play from Kevin Garnett, and his offensive explosion is hopefully a sign of good things to come. The defense played well too. This was a game that the Celtics really should have been able to win. But they didn’t, and the fault really lies with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. If either of them  had even decent shooting nights, the Celtics likely would’ve won. But with them not scoring, the Lakers were free to double-team inside and concentrate on the only Celtic able to do anything: Kevin Garnett. For the next game, we’d better hope Pierce and Allen find their shooting stroke again. The Celtics’ success in the playoffs (and the Lakers’ too) has shown that teams with just one top performer (Miami, Cleveland, Orlando) do not do well. To win at this level, you need contributions from multiple sources. Tonight, the Celtics only got a game from Kevin Garnett (although, to be fair, Glen Davis played pretty well off the bench). If this continues, the Celtics will lose this series. If one or two more green players step up, the Celtics can absolutely win this series. They still have a great chance to go 2-3 at the Garden and head back to the Staples Center up one game. But to get there they’ll need more from their shooters.

The Finals So Far

Awesome. Pure awesome. What an amazing game. Great defense. A record-setting offensive explosion from Ray Allen. A triple-double from Rajon Rondo. And key contributions and effort from Glen Davis, Rasheed Wallace, and Nate Robinson. The Finals are heading back to Boston tied 1-1. This is exactly where I expected them to be before the series began, and it keeps the Celtics on pace to win it in 6 (2-3 at home, Game 6 in L.A.). Now it just remains to determine what the Celtics did in Game 2 that they did not do in Game 1 that led to this victory and try to determine how to use that to win the championship.

The first difference between the two games, and probably the most important one, was rebounding. In Game 1, the Celtics lost both the offensive rebounds battle (8-12) and the total battle (31-42). In Game 2 they won both of those battles, 13-10 and 44-39, respectively. Rebounding makes a huge difference for the Celtics because it affects both their defense and their scoring. Securing the rebound allows the Celtics to get the ball to Rondo in tradition, who can then push it up the court before the Lakers defense can respond and get back into position. Tonight this enabled better inside shooting. Whereas in Game 1 Boston was out-shot in the paint 30-48, tonight they were the better inside shooters, putting up 36 while allowing L.A. just 26.

Better rebounding also enabled more and better perimeter looks for our key shooters. And by key shooters, I mean Ray Allen, who was ungodly tonight. He shot eight treys, an NBA finals single-game record, as part of his 32 total points. However, this is not to say that the Celtics were selfish with the ball. Their assist total went up from 19 to 28. They did a much better job of driving, forcing defenses to shift, then passing out of the rotation to find the open man. This led to four of five starters scoring in double digits, and three bench players getting at least seven (the bench also increased its scoring production tonight, putting up 24 to last game’s 15).

Overall, the Celtics played tonight with greater energy and urgency, not wanting to return home down 2-0. The defense did an excellent job of swarming their shooters and contesting every shot. While this put them on the line too many times (41 free throw attempts), the defense still refused to back down. Despite Garnett, Davis, Wallace, and Perkins all finishing the game with four or more fouls, none of them fouled out of the game, nor did they allow easy layups to their Lakers counterparts. L.A.’s low number of assists shows that Boston did an excellent job of cutting off extra passes and forcing the Lakers into a one-possession offense, only capable of getting off one shot each time they came up the court. This is also evident in Boston’s edge at in offensive rebounds.

Maybe the most interesting thing about this game is how Boston won despite good games from just two of its starters. Ray Allen was insane, showing us what he can do when he’s not sitting due to foul trouble and is in proper shooting rhythm. And while it took awhile, Rondo finished the game with a quiet little triple-double, putting up 12 rebounds and 10 assists to go with his 19 points. But that was it. Kevin Garnett was just about useless during this game. Paul Pierce did his damage defensively, but most of his points came from the free-throw line. When your third-best scorer only puts up 12 (Perkins), it says something about your offense. The Celtics made it happen with just two players contributing more than token amounts offensively, and that does not bode well for the L.A. Lakers. God knows what would happen if the Celtics had the kind of game they’re capable of, where six or seven players score in double-digits. Were this to happen once, the Lakers would get destroyed (assuming the same defensive intensity and rebounding success). Were this to happen a few times, the Celtics would raise Banner 18. And after two games, that’s exactly what I see happening.

Papi Powers Red Sox to Victory

The Boston Red Sox faced off against the Oakland Athletics on a beautiful Wednesday night at Fenway Park. The Red Sox were coming off a solid come-from-behind victory in which they fell behind 4-0 but came back to win the game in convincing fashion, 9-4. On the hill for the Red Sox was Daisuke Matsuzaka, coming off a rough outing wherein he walked eight batters in less than five innings of work while giving up three earned runs. He faced off against Ben Sheets, who had recorded a win in his last outing, going seven innings while also allowing three earned runs.

From the beginning of the game, one might have been led to believe this was going to be a slugfest. The A’s scored three in the top of the first, capped off by a two-run home run from Kurt Suzuki. The Red Sox promptly answered with two runs of their own on a Kevin Youkilis single, who then advanced to second on the throw. However, both pitchers settled down after the first inning. The score stayed 3-2 Oakland until the bottom of the fifth, when David Ortiz connected for his twelfth home run of the season, this time a two run shot. The Red Sox put up single runs the seventh and eighth innings to push their lead to 6-3, then on came Jonathan Papelbon to close out the game. While he allowed a solo shot to pinch-hitter Kevin Kouzmanoff, he shut the Athletics down after that. The final score was Boston 6, Oakland 4. Matsuzaka picked up the win, Sheets the loss, and Papelbon the save (number 13 for the season).

Red Sox at the Plate

The most dramatic contributor to the Red Sox offense tonight was obviously David Ortiz. He went for 2-2, drove in two, scored twice, and walked twice. The fact that he was intentionally walked in the seventh inning is testament to how much Ortiz has rebounded since his early-season slump, and also how much opposing pitchers are starting to fear him once again. Two other major offensive producers for Boston Wednesday night were Marco Scutaro and Darnell McDonald. Scutaro went 3-5 with two runs scored and an RBI. McDonald went 2-3 with a walk and a run scored. The top of the Red Sox lineup really proved its ability tonight, and it’s great to see David Ortiz back in the third spot where he belongs.

Red Sox on the Mound

Despite a rough first inning, Daisuke Matsuzaka didn’t pitch all that poorly. In 6.2 innings he struck out seven while walking none. While he gave up those three earned runs, they were all in the first inning when he was still finding his pitches. After that, he mostly gave up singles (only 3 of the 10 hits allowed were for extra bases). His control was impeccable tonight, as he threw 84 of his 109 pitches for strikes, good for a %85.6 strike percentage. He also did an excellent job of throwing first-pitch strikes, keeping Athletics hitters uncomfortable all evening long. The bullpen, despite Papelbon’s home run, did a more than capable job of finishing what Daisuke started. In 2.1 innings of work, the bullpen combined to allow just two hits while striking out three and walking none. When you have a three-run lead going into later innings, you can afford to make a couple of mistakes. The bullpen (more specifically Papelbon) made them, but he didn’t make enough to cost the team the game, so there’s not much that needs to be said. The game was saved, the victory was preserved. That’s all you can ask from a bullpen.

The Game in Perspective

The Red Sox have shown great resiliency in their ability to come back from sizable deficits to win these last two games. Even when the starting pitching can’t get it done (not that tonight’s start wasn’t a quality start, which it was), the offense has shown that it can. When both the pitching and the offense are on, this is an incredibly tough team to beat. The Red Sox would probably be in first place if the AL East wasn’t so stocked with quality teams. They have the misfortune to play in probably the toughest division in baseball. As their recent series victories have proven, they can hang with the big guns in the MLB. If they can keep this quality of play up WITHIN the AL East, look for them to make a major push up the rankings. Wednesday night they moved into third place in the division. Second place is not too far away.

Book Review: “Unseen Academicals,” by Terry Pratchett – Wizards Playing Soccer

Terry Pratchett is not a sports writer. The world he writes about, Discworld, is a flat world borne through space on the backs of four elephants, who are in turn borne through space on the shell of a giant turtle. It is a world filled with wizards, witches, trolls, dwarves, and other fantastical creatures. Perhaps in preparation for the upcoming World Cup, Pratchett’s newest “Discworld” novel, Unseen Academicals, is about the first organized modern soccer match in the history of Ankh-Morpork, principal city of the Disc (based off of London).

The state that football finds itself in at the book’s inception is not a good one. The games are played primarily in back alleys and on the streets. Play is amateurish and violent, with little in the way of organization or even real talent. And the crowd, collectively known as “The Shove,” is just as violent as the players or worse, with frequent rioting and even the occasional death. Worst of all, the crowds seems reluctant to any form of change for the better. “It was something that people themselves had put together and rickety and stupid though it was, it was theirs” (241). Despite this all, it is beloved by the citizens of Ankh-Morpork, and Pratchett has a good enough understanding of sports fandom to understand why: “‘The noise, the crowds, the chanting, oh the chanting! It becomes a second blood! The unison! To not be alone! To be not just one but one and all, of one mind, of one purpose (121)!'” This unity lies at the heart of community sports, and any sports fan should find themselves nodding along with the explanation of why a sport as violent and poorly organized still gathers a crowd so devoted as to engender violence.

Unseen Academicals is the story of how the game of football in Ankh-Morpork went from this highly disreputable state to one of organization, rules, and elegance. This is conducted through a joint venture by the city’s tyrant ruler and the staff of the local wizard school, Unseen University (hence the team name). The manner by which they go about doing this are at times devious, and Pratchett uses them to make an interesting point about the role organization and organizing bodies play in the conduct of athletics. The shortest answer is that given enough time, organization and power structures will win out.

Overall you have a very well written novel about love and soccer (there are a couple of love stories thrown in on top of the soccer for those interested in that sort of thing). Sports fans will enjoy the training periods for the wizarding school, and much of what they go through will ring true for athletes of any sport (at one point they all go to the ballet to learn poise). Commentary on athletics, such as “they are a team… you have to train a team to be a team” (340) appears throughout the novel. And fans of sports writing will enjoy the final game between the Unseen Academicals and Ankh-Morpork United. It is written almost entirely from the perspective of a local journalist who, for the first time, is trying to cover a sporting event. The result is the “birth” of modern sports journalism, and readers will get a lot of joy watching the writing form come into being.

I won’t give away much of the ending, however it brings together many of the themes presented throughout the novel, including the unifying nature of sport, the role of the fan, and the ever-present conflict between organization and player (despite the changes to the rules made by the city tyrant, Ankh-Morpork United still plays dirty and their fans still descend into hooliganism, even attempting to sabotage the other team’s players). The final scenes are most satisfying.

I’m a huge fan of the Discworld novels, so I can’t say I read this book objectively. However I do believe there is much in this novel that sports fans will find enjoyable. If you can get past the fact that the goalie is a wizard librarian who is a giant orangutan, and if you can get past the coach of the team being a goblin (or is he?), and if you can get past all of the other elements in this book that make it at its core a work of fantasy (or maybe parody), then you will find yourself caught up in the lives of all of Terry Pratchett’s wonderful characters. And you just might learn something about soccer, to boot.