Sox Defense Plays With Fire, Finally Burned in Seventh

For six innings, Josh Beckett and the Red Sox infield danced around walks, infield singles, sacrifice ground outs and bunts. In the seventh inning, the music finally ended, as two RBI singles and an errant throw on a bunt allowed three runs to score. Wednesday night at U.S. Cellular Field, the Chicago White Sox beat the Boston Red Sox, 5-2.

The Red Sox got on the board first: In the top of the fourth inning, Marco Scutaro led off with a double, then stole third base two outs later, capitalizing on the White Sox shift against David Ortiz. The designated hitter then beat the shift, lacing a single to exactly where the third basemen would normally be. Ortiz also bunted in his first at-bat, to the amusement of players and coaches from both sides. Ortiz might have been the only Boston player having any fun Wednesday.

The single put the Red Sox up 1-0, but Beckett gave the lead away in the bottom of the fourth. After inducing a quick ground out, A.J. Pierzynski smashed a 1-0 pitch over the right field wall, tying the game. Up until the fourth, Beckett had pitched superbly, allowing just a walk while enjoying two 1-2-3 innings. But Pierzynski’s home run seemed to ignite White Sox offense, though no batter would do better than a single.

Beckett got out of bases loaded jams in the fifth and sixth, but the hits and walks were starting to build up against the starter. In the seventh, it all came crashing down. Three consecutive singles, the last by the ageless Omar Vizquel, gave the White Sox a 2-1 lead. With two on and none out, Brent Lillibridge dropped a beautiful bunt on the infield grass. It rolled just far enough away from Victor Martinez to make his throw to first difficult, while simultaneously rolling slowly enough that Beckett, who rolled his ankle in the fifth and was having trouble fielding, could not get to it comfortably either. Martinez made the throw, and he airmailed it over Mike Lowell’s head and into the seats, allowing a run to score and the runners to advance to second and third.

An intentional walk and an RBI single later, Beckett was done for the night. The Red Sox escaped further damage in the seventh, but they never came back. Lowell homered off White Sox starter Freddy Garcia to begin the eighth, but that was the last run Boston scored. Garcia had a fantastic night that was likely cut short by the 26-minute wait while Chicago scored three in the seventh inning. Through seven innings he allowed just two hits, enjoying six 1-2-3 innings.

The White Sox answered Lowell’s solo shot when Brent Morel reached on an infield single (Chicago’s fourth and Morel’s second) off Tim Wakefield, took third on another single, then scored on a double play.

Matt Thornton retired all four batters he faced to pick up his eighth save. Garcia picked up his 12th win while Beckett suffered his sixth loss.

Red Sox at the Plate

Lowell’s eighth-inning home run brought the game within reach, but the Red Sox squandered Jed Lowrie’s subsequent single and never got back in the game. Lowell had the closest thing to a good night at the plate, homering and reaching on a walk, but to call that a good night would be a stretch. Ortiz drove in his 102nd RBI of the season, but you have to wonder if he shouldn’t have wasted that first at-bat, amusing though it might have been. The only other person to hit was Scutaro, who doubled and scored Boston’s first run.

Scutaro has quietly had a very good season. His batting average, .273, is the second highest of his career. He has already set a new career high in hits with 171. And he’s missed only nine games all season despite playing with a partially torn rotator cuff in his shoulder. Were he batting ninth, like he was meant to, instead of first, we would be calling him a great signing by Theo Epstein. As it stands, he has played as hard as physically possible, and at $5.5 million, he’s earned his salary. He might not be the long-term solution to the Red Sox merry-go-round of shortstops, but he was far from the worst we’ve seen in the last six years.

In general, Garcia relied almost exclusively on off-speed pitches, and the Red Sox never adjusted. They only struck out once, but they never figured out how to place Garcia’s corner-nibbling pitches. Good defense by the White Sox infield helped corral their hitting, but the Red Sox were essentially outsmarted by the opposing pitcher.

Red Sox on the Mound

Beckett will finish 2010 with the highest ERA of his career and the fewest wins since 2003. He started just 20 games this season, the fewest since his 2001 rookie year. This season was, in short, a non-starter. Beckett spent numerous days on the disabled list and never really found his groove. Even-numbered years have been a problem for Beckett since joining the Red Sox, so his struggles should not come as too great a surprise. With any luck, this season will be a motivator for Beckett in the off-season, driving him to get himself in even better shape. He should return in 2011 ready to fight for the title of “ace” that he lost this year.

Wakefield, meanwhile, looks done. Wakefield has always carried himself with a sense of honor and nobility. He has always been the veteran of the pitching staff, the longest-tenured pitcher on the roster. So now, Wakefield should do the honorable thing and retire. The franchise record for career wins would’ve been nice, but he could do worse than to end his career behind just Cy Young and Roger Clemens. That still puts Wakefield ahead of numerous pitchers who have had brilliant careers, some of them Hall of Fame-worthy. But third place is where Wakefield will stay. The 13 wins necessary to tie and 14 to take first place are not going to come in relief, and Wakefield will have a difficult time winning a starting spot on the 2011 roster. Wakefield should retire, then sit back and welcome his entry to the Red Sox Hall of Fame and the retiring of number 49. He deserves both these accolades.

Hideki Okajima looked good in the seventh inning, striking out Manny Ramirez and then inducing a double play to escape a bases-loaded, none out situation without giving up a run. It only remains to wonder why he wasn’t pitching this way the entire season. His ERA has gone up every year he’s been in the majors, and his strike outs have gone down each year. It may be that opposing hitters are finally learning how to read his pitches. For him to remain a reliable reliever in the MLB, he will need to either increase his velocity or find a new way to fool hitters. The head-drop no longer seems to be working.

Looking Back, and Looking WAY Ahead

This was a meaningless game in what turned out to be a busted season, but there are things that can give Red Sox Nation hope for 2011. Anyone not excited by the idea of several more years of the Jon LesterClay Buchholz 1-2 punch hasn’t been paying attention. These two are bona fide superstars, and they’re going to be Red Sox for a LONG time.

In his longest tenure in the majors since 2008, Lowrie has shown tremendous progress. Since 2008, his strikeouts have been cut to a third, his average is up over 20 points and his home runs have tripled. Given a full season, he might just turn out to be the player fans hoped he would be.

Finally, Red Sox Nation got a glimpse of perfection on June 12 at Fenway Park. Daniel Nava, the One Dollar Wonder of Redwood, hit the first pitch of his major league career into the Red Sox bullpen for a grand slam. It was only the second time in history where that had happened. It was a perfect moment, the kind you go to the ballpark hoping, dreaming to see and be a part of. Every year the Red Sox seem to have one magical moment, and this was 2010’s. The fact that it was Nava’s only home run of the season, or that the Red Sox will not go to the playoffs this year, does not detract from its magic. Cherish moments like that: they are few and far between.

Patriots Week 3 Report Card

Welcome back to my weekly report card. This past Sunday was much better for the New England Patriots, who defeated the Buffalo Bills, 38-30. Since the Patriots won, nobody is getting too bad a grade this week. The logic is: if one position on the team had seriously underperformed, the Patriots likely would’ve lost. Just as no one scored high when they lost to the Jets, no one scored TOO low this week. That’s not to say there won’t be some criticism. This is, after all, impartial analysis. So let’s make like a high school math teacher and give out some grades!

Quarterback: A

Tom Brady’s passing yardage only went up 8 yards between Week Two and Week Three, as he completed exactly one more pass than he did against the Jets. But his completion percentage skyrocketed, going from 55.6 to 77.8 percent. Add in the zero interceptions against the Bills and you have a FAR-improved quarterback. Brady was absolutely on his game against the Bills. He completed both long and short passes, throwing for 10 or more yards nine different times. Five of his deep passes went for 20 or more yards, including his 35-yard touchdown bomb to Randy Moss, which was thrown with surgical precision. Brady moved quickly when necessary, going 42 yards in 24 seconds to put his team within field-goal range before the first half ended. He also operated well in no-huddle situations and spread the passing out effectively, going to eight different receivers. He threw three touchdown passes and even ran for a first down! Brady was absolutely spectacular against the Bills.

Running Backs: A

The Patriots gained 200 yards on the ground, the first time since October 2008 where that’s happened. BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 98 yards and Danny Woodhead picked up 42 yards on just three carries. Each ran for touchdowns, and Green-Ellis’ touchdown in the fourth quarter put the game away for the Patriots. Green-Ellis’ 6.1 yards-per-carry average is good, but his 8.4 yards-per-first-down-carry average is even better. A week after the Patriots running game absolutely failed, they responded with a brilliant game. The only knock on the corps was the running of Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris. They each carried the ball six times, and neither of them could crack 20 yards total. Taylor is old, and Morris’ yards average is plummeting. If they want to keep their jobs, they will have to prove they can still run. When a tight end can run better than you, it might be time to hang it up. Still, the running game was absolutely essential to the Patriots victory, so I can’t give the running backs less than top marks.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: A-

Moss and Aaron Hernandez bumped this group up a bit. Moss caught two more touchdowns against the Bills, and he did it in part by just outrunning his coverage. He is showing week after week that he still has gas in the tank. If he keeps up this level of production, someone will pay him a lot of money if the Patriots don’t re-sign him. Hernandez, meanwhile, led all Patriots receivers for the second straight week. The tight end duo of Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, who caught all three passes thrown to him and scored a touchdown, may be the best set of tight ends that Brady has ever had to work with. And they’re rookies! The rest of the receivers had o.k. games, but nothing to write home about. Wes Welker caught most of the balls thrown his way, but did little after catching each pass and dropped one that hit him in the hands. He’s clearly still regaining his agility after knee surgery. The tight ends also committed two offensive pass interference penalties, both of which led to three-and-outs for the Patriots. And Brandon Tate just plain dropped the football after catching and running with it, giving Buffalo the ball in Patriots territory. But with nine fewer pass attempts than against the Jets (36 vs. 27), a little less wide receiver production is acceptable. Most receivers did everything asked of them, so they get generally high marks. Just not perfect marks.

Offensive Line: A-

The one knock against the offensive line was the Brady sack they allowed. It led to a Patriots three-and-out that gave the ball back to Buffalo with them down just one touchdown with over three minutes to go. They were bailed out by the defense picking off Ryan Fitzpatrick, but for the second straight week the line could not protect Brady for four quarters. They got lucky this time, or their grade would’ve been lower. But the Patriots rushed for 200 yards against the Bills, and that’s a testament to the offensive line winning the battle at the line of scrimmage over and over again. Green-Ellis’ game-clinching touchdown run in the fourth quarter capped a drive that featured nine consecutive running plays. That takes concentration by the offensive line, and they get rewarded for their tenacity with a high grade.

Special Teams: C+

Had the Patriots lost, this would be a LOT lower. The Patriots special teams unit allowed a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, cutting the Patriots lead to one, 24-23. The special teams unit looked like a joke, missing tackles, over-pursuing returner C.J. Spiller and running over their last potential tackler, Stephen Gostkowski. Additionally, Zoltan Mesko’s punting average dropped more than 10 yards from last week. Against the Bills it was a paltry 37.7 yards-per-punt. To his credit, Gostkowski snapped a streak of three consecutive missed field goal attempts and nailed all five of his extra point attempts. That’s the only thing that kept this unit from a straight C.

Defensive Line: C

For the second straight week, the opposing team was able to run right through the teeth of the Patriots defensive line, rushing for more than 130 yards once again. However, if you discount Fitzpatrick’s 18 scramble yards, the number drops to 116, which is more respectable. But factoring in the line’s failure to sack Fitzpatrick, it’s impossible to say that they really played well. It was the definition of an average performance: not good, but not bad enough that it really cost the team a chance to win. Against a bad team like Buffalo it was good enough, but it won’t do against teams who can keep the Patriots out of the end zone. For its own sake, the defensive line has to figure out how to stop the run and pressure the quarterback.

Linebackers: B

Jerrod Mayo sacked Fitzpatrick after Tully Banta-Cain flushed him from the pocket. Additionally, the linebackers only allowed four runs of more than 10 yards, one of which was a Fitzpatrick scramble. When the Bills running backs penetrated through the defensive line, the linebackers were usually there to quickly make the tackle. And of the 247 passing yards Fitzpatrick picked up, only 21 went to a tight end, the position usually covered by a linebacker during passing plays. This wasn’t a bad performance from the linebackers. It didn’t contribute greatly to the Patriots victory, so they don’t get an A. But they definitely did their job more times than not, so they get a B.

Defensive Backs: B-

Two interceptions are two interceptions. Patrick Chung’s interception was in the Patriots end zone, killed a Bills scoring threat, and led to at least a 10-point swing in the Patriots’ favor. Brandon Meriweather’s interception ended the Bills’ final offensive drive. Were the intercepted passes overthrown? Yes, absolutely. But Chung especially and Meriweather to a lesser extent picked those throws because they were in the correct positions to do so. They didn’t get lucky: they played smart. Give the safeties at least a B+. The cornerbacks, meanwhile, are another story. The Bills wide receivers racked up 203 yards against the paltry Patriots corners. Kyle Arrington missed a point-blank tackle that allowed Roscoe Parrish to pick up 31 yards on a third-quarter catch. He also got lucky on a pass attempt to Lee Evans in the end zone, a play in which Arrington never turned to see the ball, facing Evans the entire time. The ball hit him in the back of the helmet, and he was fortunate that both the ball was under-thrown and that he was not flagged for pass interference. Darius Butler, meanwhile over-committed on a Spiller run in the second quarter that wound up being a 19-yard play. And Devin McCourty was beat by Steve Johnson to the end zone for a touchdown reception in the fourth quarter, which cut the score to 38-30. The corners get a C-, the safeties get a B+. That averages to a C+, and I bumped them up a half-letter because the Patriots won.

Coaching: B

Bill Belichick gets credit for making the necessary adjustments at half-time to not allow another second-half Patriots meltdown. The defense wasn’t exactly good, but it didn’t kill the Patriots on Sunday. This was a game that to me at least never felt in question. The Patriots seemed to be in complete control of the game, even during the first half when they were behind some of the time. Belichick came up with a creative game plan, one that featured the most rushing attempts since December 2009. And despite allowing two touchdowns in the second half, the defense allowed fewer appoints (14) on fewer offensive (two) drives than they did in the first half (16 points on four drives). So not only did Belichick come up with a way to SCORE more points in the second half, he also came up with a way to PREVENT them, at least to a small degree. Was it the greatest game plan ever? No, probably not. But it got the job done. Toss in the judicious use of timeouts in the first half, which gave them a chance for the 24-second drive that ended in a field goal and the lead, and you have a decent coaching performance. The offense had to perform at an exemplary level to overcome a shaky defense and secure the win, so clearly more defensive preparation and coaching is necessary. That kept Belichick out of the A-range. But the Patriots won, and to the head coach that’s the bottom line.

Most Rushing Yards in 23 Months Propel Patriots to Victory

The New England Patriots had already run the ball eight straight times. So they decided to run it again. BenJarvus Green-Ellis’s 7-yard touchdown run capped off a rush-heavy Patriots drive that pushed the lead to two touchdowns with just over eight minutes to go, and the Patriots held on to beat the Buffalo Bills, 38-30. It was their 14th consecutive victory against the Bills.

The Patriots rushed for 200 yards against the Bills Sunday in Foxborough, 128 of which came in the second half. This second-half rushing success allowed the Patriots to eat up over 20 minutes on six drives. Three drives resulted in touchdowns. Their 200 yards on the ground were the most since gaining 257 against the Denver Broncos in an October 2008 victory.

While Green-Ellis’s 98 yards and 6.1 yards-per-carry average were the best on the team, newcomer Danny Woodhead also showed why the Patriots signed him. Woodhead rushed for 42 yards on three carries, including a 22-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

After the game, Woodhead was quick to credit his teammates with springing him on that play. “I just tried to run the ball like I do every day, and the line did a phenomenal job,” Woodhead said.

When the Patriots weren’t running the ball up the middle, they were passing to eight different receivers. Tom Brady was Tom Terrific Sunday, completing over 75 percent of his passes for 252 yards and three touchdowns. Unlike last week, there was great balance between his passing performance in each half. 116 of his passing yards came after halftime. “Everyone contributed,” the quarterback said. “I think that was the great part about today.”

The top receiver for the second week in a row was rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez, who caught six passes for 65 yards and also rushed for 13 yards on a reverse play. His counterpart, Rob Gronkowski, caught all three passes thrown his way for 43 yards and his second touchdown in three games.

Brady had little fear of going deep with the football Sunday, completing nine passes for 10 yards or more, five for 20 yards or more. His longest throw of the day was a 35-yard bomb to Randy Moss, who for the second week in a row caught a touchdown pass in impressive fashion. Moss was jammed on the line, but then cut back inside and sprinted towards the middle of the end zone. The Bills had Moss surrounded on three sides, but Brady floated a pass that landed squarely in Moss’s hands. It was Moss’s second touchdown reception of the game, the 150th and 151st of his career. In his post-game press conference, Moss was nonchalant about this accomplishment. “Just going to work,” the wide receiver said.

Brady also pointed to what he called “good situational football” in his press conference. With 24 seconds left in the first half, Brady engineered 42-yard drive that ended in a 43-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski, which broke a streak of three missed field goals from the newly-extended place kicker. The drive featured two consecutive passes of more than 10 yards. The first was a 29-yard pass to a diving Brandon Tate, who had made the drive possible with a 32-yard kickoff return. The second pass was a 13-yard strike to the leaping Hernandez that put the Patriots in field goal range. The Patriots converted the opportunity and went into the locker room up 17-16. They received the second-half kickoff and scored a touchdown on that drive, setting the tone for the second half.

A week after giving up 28 points to the New York Jets, the Patriots did little to silence their defense’s detractors by giving up 30 to the Bills. The Patriots allowed their opponent over 130 yards rushing for the second straight week, and they allowed Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw for 247 yards, his highest total since a November 2009 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in which he threw for 297 yards.

However, when the Patriots absolutely had to have a stop, the defense made plays. On the first play of the fourth quarter, with the Bills down just one touchdown and facing a second-and-5 from the New England 20-yard line, Patrick Chung intercepted a Fitzpatrick overthrown pass in the end zone and returned it to the 25-yard line. The Patriots offense then drove down the field and scored on Green-Ellis’s touchdown, completing at least a 10-point swing in the Patriots’ favor.

A Patriots interception began the fourth quarter, and it ended it as well. Once again down one touchdown, Buffalo began its final drive at their 35-yard line with 3:04 to go. On the first play from scrimmage, Fitzpatrick once again overthrew his intended receiver. This time it was Brandon Meriweather who collected the overthrown pass. After that the Patriots ran it four times, including a 22-yard gain from Green-Ellis, and then knelt three times to run out the clock.

While both Brady and head coach Bill Belichick were ultimately pleased with the win, they also stressed the need for consistency in their play. They both said that while it was great to get a win Sunday, there was much improvement to be made. Belichick in particular described the victory as “far from perfect.” However, Brady also said that in the end, the win is all that matters. “It doesn’t really matter if you win by 50 or by one,” Brady said. “The goal is to win the game.”

Matt’s Mail

I’ve written 187 articles for Goose’s Gabs. That’s a lot. I couldn’t come up with any good ideas for Friday’s article, so I decided to put the burden of creativity on my readers. I asked my Facebook friends to pose questions and issues in the world of sports, and I would answer them. Lucky for me, my friends came through. I received questions about baseball, basketball, soccer, and football. Which is great, because those are the professional sports I feel qualified to talk about. So without further ado, here’s my first ever “mailbag” style article:

James from New Zealand wants to know about “the inherent redundancy of the Celtics having Shaq and Kevin Garnett on the same roster.”

Actually, there is little redundancy in having Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett on the same team. They play two different positions, each of which requires height, but otherwise demand a very different set of skills. Shaq is a center. Garnett is a power forward. The center’s job is to stand almost exclusively underneath the basket while on offense or defense. Offensively, the center receives passes and then dishes them back out to perimeter shooters, usually small forwards or guards. If he chooses to shoot, he relies almost exclusively on quick-motion layups or dunks. Centers almost never shoot from outside of the key. Defensively, they are there to contest driving layups to the basket, block shots and collect rebounds. There is an incredible amount of physical contact between centers, who are always jockeying with each other for ideal position.

Power forwards, meanwhile, CAN play under the basket, but generally position themselves NEAR the basket but outside of the free-throw lane, an area called the “low post.” This means that power forwards need to be able to shoot from a distance as well as from up close. While defensively they also block shots and rebound, they are not there to cut off layup drives unless the center is pulled out from the under the basket (which can happen). Garnett is a particularly strong low post player, usually able to out-maneuver his mark and get to the basket. And when he has to, he has a very accurate twenty-foot jump shot.

So in effect, Shaw is there to guard the basket, and Garnett is there to play from the post and shoot from a distance when the opportunity presents itself. They are not redundant at all. Also, while KG is tall, he is also somewhat lanky, with not nearly the upper-body presence of Shaq. If he had to repeatedly contend with true centers, he’d get destroyed.

Sara from Weymouth (and her dad) wants to know, “How come the Pats don’t have a (good) running back that’s under thirty?”

While I can’t argue that the Patriots running game has always been old and then gotten older, I wouldn’t say it has always been actually bad. Let’s take a look at the performance and age of their running backs over the last ten years:

In 2001, the season when the Patriots won their first Super Bowl, their primary running back was Antowain Smith (Kevin Faulk was on the team, but he only gained 169 yards, serving as always as a “third down back”), 29 at the time. In that season, Smith rushed 1,157 yards and 12 touchdowns. That’s 72.3 yards a game. That’s not amazing, but it’s certainly serviceable. And he put up 92 yards in Super Bowl XXXVI to lead all rushers. Not too bad.

Smith turned 30 before the 2002 season, a season in which the Patriots missed the playoffs due to tie-breaker rules. At 9-7, they didn’t really deserve to go, and the running game can at best be called “partially responsible.” In fact, Smith’s yards-per-carry average dropped just 0.1, from 4.0 to 3.9. It seems that other factors were more responsible for that season’s failings than Smith, who essentially produced at the exact same level.

2003 marked the next season in which the Patriots won a Super Bowl. Smith was 31 and still the starting running back. His production dipped to 3.5 yards per carry, but he also touched the ball 105 times less in 2003 than in 2001. Tom Brady, meanwhile threw the fourth-highest number of passes in his career (only 2005, 2007, and 2009 were higher). We all remember the Super Bowl in which Brady and Jake Delhomme just traded deep bombs for the last two minutes of the game before Vinatieri won it at as time expired. It should also be noted that 2003 was Faulk’s best running year, in which he rushed for 638 yards on 178 carries, both career highs. Faulk was 27 at the time. The two running backs combined for 1,280 yards, or 80 yards per game. So in effect the team ran the ball BETTER in 2003 than 2001.

In 2004, the Patriots knew that Smith was starting to decline, released him, and signed veteran running back Corey Dillon, 30 at the time. Dillon alone rushed for over 1600 yards that season, averaging more than 100 yards per game. That’s a spectacular performance, and the Patriots saw no reason to go after new running talent. They won the Super Bowl that year, with Dillon piling up 106 all-purpose yards and a touchdown.

Dillon’s 2005 season was marred by injury, with Dillon not playing in 4 games and only gaining 733 yards. So in 2006 the Patriots made a smart move AGAIN and drafted a running back: Laurence Maroney. In 2006, the two shared rushing duties, with Dillon rushing just 24 times more than the 21-year old rookie. They combined for 1,557 yards, average nearly 100 yards per game. This was the season that ended when the Colts engineered one of the greatest comebacks in NFL playoffs history, and the Patriots still would’ve won if not for a couple of gaffes by wide receivers (which led the way to Belichick bringing in Randy Moss and Wes Welker in 2007).

In 2007, the Patriots threw more than ever before. Brady broke the NFL record for most touchdown passes, and Moss broke the record for most touchdown receptions. The Patriots didn’t need to address Maroney’s mounting injury issues (he did not play in three games that season), and they came very close to an undefeated season. No need to bring up sad memories.

After 2007, things get dicey. The Patriots maybe should’ve looked to augment their running game as it became clearer that Maroney was an injury-prone back, but there was much less out there than you think. The 2008 free agent running backs featured a bunch of backups and franchise players unlikely to leave their former teams (and free agents are not viewed nearly as favorably in the NFL as they are in the MLB or NBA because you don’t know how well a player can unlearn an old system and learn a new one; plus it’s harder to sign them). In 2009, the crop was even thinner, with the best back, Brandon Jacobs, labeled as injury prone. So that avenue was closed.

But what about the draft? In 2008 they only had one first-round pick, the tenth. Only two running backs in the first round went after the Patriots. Chris Johnson has turned out to be a monster back for Tennessee, but Rashard Mendenhall is adequate at best. And Ray Rice looks like a second-round steal NOW, but at the time he was a good back coming from a weak college football conference (Big East). The Patriots used their pick to select Jerrod Mayo, one of the best linebackers in the draft. Can you blame them? They expected to have another solid year on offense after 2007, but realized their defense had gotten old under their noses. So they used both their first and second round draft picks on defense, and I support that decision.

The 2009 draft was strange. New England dealt most of its early-round draft picks. Honestly, none of the running backs drafted have yet to show much. And the 2010 draft didn’t feature many strong running back prospects either.

So there you have it: New England had a very good running game from 2001-2006, then didn’t really need it in 2007. After that, a combination of forces beyond their control- injuries, poor draft options, few free agents- kept them from rebuilding it. Now, at least one reporter thinks the Patriots might be trying to position themselves to get Alabama running back Mark Ingram in the 2011 NFL draft. And if that happens, the Patriots running game may turn itself around, and QUICKLY.

Magnus from Norway asks, “Why isn’t soccer catching on in the US?”

Let me first say that I don’t think it has anything to with the way soccer is played. Hockey is low scoring, and soccer game-play itself is not nearly as slow as it’s stereotype. The answer has three parts:

1) The best players aren’t playing in the U.S. The average MLS soccer play makes $138,000 a year. The average EPL (English Premier League) player makes $1.75 million per year, over 10 times more. Several of the European soccer leagues, such as Spain’s La Liga (which contains Real Madrid, one of the most successful football clubs of all time), also average salaries over $1 million. Where would you want to play? The only games Americans would watch on a routine basis are those played in the evening. And rebroadcasting doesn’t work because the real soccer fans will just look up the score as soon as the game ends. The games have to air live and in the evening to attract viewers, and the competition level in the MLS is so comparatively bad that no one wants to bother. And when it comes to live games, several teams play in stadiums that are too large to support a soccer crowd, leading to semi-empty stadiums and a diminished viewing experience. The New England Revolution play at Gillette, for instance, which has a capacity of 68,756.

2) The best players aren’t American. As I said, the average MLS salary is $138,000 a year. The average salary for the MLB is $3.3 million. The league average in the NBA is $3.4 million. The league average in the NFL is $957,000 for running backs and $1.05 million for wide receivers. Kids who show athletic ability are encouraged to redirect it to other sports, because that’s where the money is. The direct effect of all of this is that we don’t breed too many good soccer players in the U.S. (we’ve had some great female soccer players, but I honestly don’t believe women’s professional sports will ever achieve equal standing with men’s in terms of either exposure or pay. It sucks, but it’s true). I think our recent performances in the World Cup prove that.

3) Not as many people play soccer as kids in the U.S. as you may think. In urban settings, children mostly grow up playing basketball. In rural settings, football or baseball is king, depending on the region. Soccer seems to mostly fall into the realm of the suburban. The classic image is the mom driving her kids to practice in an SUV or minivan, yelling on the phone about a business deal, then redirecting that ire to the coach or referee of her kids’ game.

Let’s take a look at some recent high school state soccer champions:

Ludlow, MA, has one of the most successful public school soccer programs in the country. They were state champions in 2008 and runners up in 2009. Their town was 95.8% white as of the 2000 Census.

Collins Hill High School is a Sunawee, Georgia, public high school that has won the state championship for two straight years. It’s a town that is 84.9% white.

La Cueva High School is a public high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that has won the past two state championships. That city is 71.59% white.

South Salem High School is the 2009 6A state championship team from Oregon. It’s 83% white.

Lastly, Lyons Township High School won the 3A championship, playing in LaGrange, Illinois. 91.2% white.

It’s important to remember that the 2000 Census showed the U.S. to be 75% white. Are you starting to get a picture of who actually PLAYS soccer as a kid? We’re drawing from a specific demographic within the country and even if that group is the majority ethnicity, we’re still not getting an accurate depiction of the athletic abilities of Americans on the whole. There’s a quarter of the population of the U.S. who have minimal or no interest in soccer. That suggests that soccer will lose popularity in any town where there is even a decently large minority population. Soccer isn’t catching on because it seems to only appeal to a certain race in America (not worldwide, obviously, there are many Hispanic or African-descended players who are AMAZING soccer players) enough that they want to excel at it. Everyone else watches or plays something else.

Kim from Cotuit and California asks “What are some random sports that most people don’t know about, but are awesomely cool?”

OK, here are the top 5 sports I found while looking online that seem random, awesome, or both.

1) Chess boxing: It’s exactly what it sounds like. You chess, which requires you to use your brain. Then you box, which requires you to punch the other guy in the head (no one ever gets knockouts on body blows). Whoever checkmates or knocks the other guy out first wins. I can’t think of anything more entertaining than watching two people suffering from post-concussive syndrome trying to play chess with each other.

2) Unicycle sports: Basketball, handball, and hockey, and polo all have organized unicycle leagues. No news as to whether you have to wear skates while playing unicycle hockey, however.

3) Mindball: In some ways, this is the opposite of the sport. Two players put on headsets which measure brain activity. The more you can calm your mind down and focus, the more a ball on a screen is pushed towards the opponent. Whoever gets the ball all the way to the opponent’s side of the table wins. I think this may the first sport whose pursuit will help us develop our telekinetic powers faster than our athletic abilities.

4) Bossaball: this little gem from Spain (invented by Belgians) took the already awesome game of volleyball and added the one thing that could make it even awesomer: trampolines. Players bounce off of trampolines and other inflatable objects to gain additional height, allowing for massive spikes. You can also kick the ball over the net. The object, like volleyball, is to hit the ball to the opponent’s court.

5) Blind soccer: you play soccer with blindfolds on. I assume there are a lot of bone-crushing collisions. And if there aren’t, there ought to be. Online research suggests that Brazil might be the best at blind soccer. Well, is that all that surprising?

And finally, a friend who shall remain anonymous wants to know, “Where does one go to meet single Red Sox players?”

Personally, I don’t recommend dating baseball players. They spend half the year playing, which means being on the road for upwards of two weeks at a time. Then they spend the off-season sitting around with nothing to do. I’d think they’d get awfully clingy. But if you insist, my guess would be Game On, the soulless, overpriced, source-of-all-evil bar that sits at the corner of Brookline Ave and Lansdowne St. Check out this gallery of photos from their 2007 AL East division-clinching party at Game On, taken by my friend’s coworker (or his coworker’s friend, or something). There are some great photos, including Coco Crisp dancing with every girl he could find, Pedroia tending bar, and Josh Beckett leading the crowd in a “Cy Young” chant while wearing a “Stay classy, San Diego” t-shirt. But the belle of the ball is without a doubt Clay Buchholz. Four pics in, there’s a shot of him taking a shot. I can’t tell what, but it’s a light yellow color. Maybe tequila? Who knows.  Whatever it was, fast forward to four pics from the end to see the effect. Clay is trashed! One eye is looking up, the other is looking down. I’ve never seen a person drink so much their eyes literally shift levels, but now I know it’s possible! Ladies and gentlemen: your 2010 AL Cy Young runner up (sorry folks, he ain’t winning)!

Anyway, that’s all for now. I had a blast reading, researching, and answering your questions. Let’s do this again real soon!

Ortiz Drives in 4 as Red Sox Dominate Orioles

It was something David Ortiz had experienced over 300 times before the season even began. It was something Josh Reddick had experienced once. Yet Wednesday night at Fenway the Red Sox superstar and the Red Sox call-up experienced the same thing: the joy of the home run. Ortiz and Reddick each homered to right, and the Red Sox beat the Baltimore Orioles, 6-1.

Ortiz struck first for the Red Sox. Down 1-0 in the bottom of the fourth inning, Ryan Kalish led off with a single. One out later, Victor Martinez followed suit. Then it was Ortiz’s turn at the plate. He took a 1-0 offering from Orioles starter Kevin Millwood, who had not allowed a hit before the fourth inning, and deposited it into the bullpen in right field. Just like that, the Red Sox were up 3-1, and they never looked back.

Reddick’s opportunity came one inning later, and he didn’t even wait to see a pitch. Reddick took the first pitch Millwood threw him and gave it to the fans in the right-field bleachers. Just like Ortiz’s homer, it came on a pitch that Millwood left over the heart of the plate.

The Red Sox tacked on two additional runs in the sixth. J.D. Drew led off the inning with a single to center field, Martinez singled to left three pitches later. With the count full, Ortiz then singled to right, scoring Drew and sending Martinez to third. Adrian Beltre then drove in Martinez, pushing the Red Sox lead to 6-1.

Red Sox starter John Lackey, meanwhile, gave the Red Sox a textbook “quality start.” After retiring the first 10 Orioles he faced, Lackey gave up a one-out single to Nick Markakis. Five pitches later, Ty Wigginton plunked a 3-1 pitch off the Green Monster, allowing the speedy Markakis to score. However, that was the last run Lackey allowed. Over his final three innings of work, Lackey allowed just three hits while striking out two, inducing a double-play and fielding a ground ball hit right at him.

Lackey pitched seven innings of one-run ball, striking out four and walking none. He picked up the victory, moving to 13-11, while Millwood picked up the loss, falling to 3-16. He leads the American League in losses.

Red Sox at the Plate

The hero of Wednesday’s game was clearly Ortiz. He hit a three-run home run and drove in a fourth run with a sixth-inning single. He now has 31 home runs on the season and 96 RBIs. He could easily go over 100 before the season is finished, a feat which he has not accomplished since 2007. He has clearly proven this season that he can still hit with exceptional power. All that remains is to decide whether to pay him $12.5 million to see if he can do it again next year. With so many power hitters potentially leaving this off-season (Martinez and Beltre, namely), it seems that the Red Sox have a very easy decision to make.

Kalish and Martinez also had two-hit games. Martinez scored two runs and reached on a walk. Kalish scored once, on his solo home run.

Red Sox on the Mound

Lackey gave an excellent performance tonight, snapping a four-game losing streak in the process. Had his previous four starts, in which he pitched 24.2 innings and gave up 15 earned runs, gone a little differently, we’d probably be guardedly calling his first season with the Red Sox a success. As it is, he will likely finish with a .500 record, or close to it. Lackey certainly did not live up to the $18.7 million he was paid this season. $1.4 million is too much to pay per victory. But he will start next season with a better understanding of what it’s like to pitch in Boston. And if Martinez is brought back, he will have a catcher who will have had a year to learn his pitching preferences and strengths. His 2011 season will be better than his 2010 season.

The two bullpen pitchers the Red Sox used Wednesday were Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon. Bard pitched a perfect eighth inning, striking out two. In a season marked by bullpen deficiencies, he has been an absolute rock. Whether he is moved to the closer’s role or remains a set-up man, the thought that he might actually be BETTER next year- he is just about to finish only his second career in the majors, after all- should fill Red Sox fans with excitement and glee. Papelbon would’ve had the exact same line, but Martinez dropped a foul ball that would’ve been the third out, which led to a single. So what did Papelbon do? He struck out the last batter, striking out the side. A day after a meltdown, Papelbon showed that he still has that unique mentality of being able to immediately forget the last outing and focus on the inning at hand. Perhaps he has pitched his last as a Red Sox member. If so, this was a great way to go out.

The Crowd at Fenway

The best way to describe the Fenway Faithful tonight would be “interested.” When Boston scored runs, people cheered, but not too loudly. When Baltimore struck first, Boston grumbled, but the loud, desperate booing so common to Lansdowne Street was nowhere to be found. When Papelbon faced his final batter, people stood, but not everybody. And when music came on, people sang, but only with measured voices. Boston has long since realized and accepted that the Red Sox season will end October 3. There won’t be any playoffs this year. The thrill of October baseball will be someone else’s to enjoy and experience (and if the standings hold, several fan bases will be experiencing it for the first time in quite awhile). So there’s no point in obsessing over the team. That energy is better directed towards other teams: the Patriots are playing, the Bruins will begin in just over two weeks, the Celtics will start just two weeks after that. And then, before anyone knows it, the 2011 Red Sox will begin. The records will be wiped clean, and the thrill of the game will be back. The crowd’s heart may not have been in the game Wednesday night. But on April 8, 2011, the Red Sox will play their home opener against no less than the New York Yankees (who might very well be defending World Series champions). And it will all start again, as strong as ever.

Patriots Week 2 Report Card

Common practice these days is for sports writers to give a report card to the Patriots for their previous Sunday’s performance. Borges does it. Felger does it. Minihane does it. So I’m doing it! Let’s get started.

On Sunday the Patriots were beaten in all three facets of the game. Head Coach Bill Belichick said as much in his post-game press conference. It’s impossible, then, to give anyone a good grade for this game. Therefore, my primary criterion in assigning grades was whether or not any one position’s play was SO bad that it actively contributed to the loss. If it did, then I had no choice but to assign a failing grade. If it did not, then that position passed. However, had even one position excelled, this game probably would’ve been remarkably different. So no one is getting an A. Now then, on to the grades they DID get.

Quarterback: B-

Tom Brady threw for two touchdowns, which is good. One was a particularly beautiful pass 34-yard bomb to Randy Moss that landed in his outstretched right hand. Moss’s catch was spectacular, but Brady gets credit for putting the ball in a spot where cornerback Darrelle Revis had zero chance of knocking it down. However, Brady also overthrew Moss twice in the second half, and both times led to interceptions. In both instances, Moss did not seem to be in the right place. I’ll critique the wide receivers and tight ends next, but Brady gets at least half the blame for badly placed passes. Now, none of his other incomplete passes were egregiously off-target, so his accuracy for the most part was there. The strip-sack that killed their last drive was not his fault. I think Brady’s overall performance, while not great, was not so bad that it gave the Patriots no chance of winning the game. A better defensive performance and slightly more effective receivers and the Patriots probably overcome Brady’s miscues and win the game. Not a performance you want to see repeated, but one that I’ve seen a lot of teams win with (Oakland, for example, beat St. Louis while throwing two interceptions and just one touchdown pass).

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: C+

The play of the tight ends kept this grade from being even lower. Aaron Hernandez caught all six passes thrown his way for 101 yards, and Rob Gronkowski added 14 yards on his lone reception (he was only thrown to twice, and the one he missed was thrown behind him). Combine their numbers and you average more than 19 yards per catch. That’s exceptional production, especially from tight ends, especially from ROOKIE tight ends. If I could grade them separately, I’d give them an A. Unfortunately, the wide receivers brought the grade down. Moss and Wes Welker each caught touchdown passes in the first half, but they disappeared in the second half. During that half, against a secondary WITHOUT their top cornerback, neither wide receiver was able to get open. Welker had two catches that combined for 5 yards. Moss had no catches and was overthrown three times, twice leading to interceptions. The Jets cornerbacks completely outplayed the Patriots wide receivers in the second half, and the Patriots loss can absolutely be attributed to their lack of production. Their first-half production kept them from failing, but if I could grade them separately, I’d give them a C-. So average an A and a C- and you get around a B-. Since the Patriots lost, I took off an additional half-letter grade.

Running Backs: F+

Had a single running back rushed for 52 yards, I’d give him a decent grade. But it took THREE running backs to gain 52 yards, with no one back getting even half of them. Even worse, it took them a whopping 20 attempts to get those 52 yards. That’s 2.6 yards per attempt. That’s unacceptable. Of the 20 attempts, only six times did a running back gain five or more yards. I consider 5-yard rushes to be the threshold for successful runs, so they ran successfully 30% of the time. In baseball that’ll fly, but in football, that’s a failing grade. Had the Patriots running backs played as poorly against the Bengals, a game in which the Patriots won, I could give them a D because while they were bad, the team’s offense clearly is structured to not rely on rushing. However, they gained over 100 yards against Cincinnati. So they definitely have the potential to run well, they just failed to do so against the Jets. I gave them the F+ only because, as much as they contributed to the Patriots losing, the cornerbacks contributed even MORE so.

Offensive Line: C+

They only allowed one sack, and it came late in the game at the hands of the always-annoying Jason Taylor. Matt Light, the lineman who let Taylor go, didn’t do himself any favors come free agency with that play. So in terms of quarterback protection, the line did o.k. However, the failure of the running backs lies at their feet as well. There was not a single play where I could find a sizable hole through which a running back could break off a large run (if we discount the run nullified by holding in the first quarter, which wasn’t the line’s fault). The offensive line got beat at scrimmage over and over again, and the running backs paid the price for it. If one back had had a bad day, I’d place the blame mostly with the running corps. But with all three backs playing so ineffectively, the fault lies with the line as well. They played slightly better than average and did a decent job of protecting Brady until the end, but I had to ding them for not opening up significant holes on any rushing attempt.

Special Teams: C

Stephen Gostkowski missed a 37-yard field goal after punter Zoltan Mesko committed a delay-of-game penalty that cost the team three points. Add that to Kyle Arrington’s fair-catch interference penalty on a punt that would have pinned the Jets within the 10-yard line and you get a special teams group that certainly under-performed Sunday. The saving grace was Mesko’s punting, which averaged 48.7 yards per punt (the best punter in the league this year, Shane Lechler of the Oakland Raiders, is averaging just a yard better per punt, according to SI.com). That balances out a poor kicking performance and a decent but unspectacular kick- and punt-return game. All told, the special teams didn’t actively contribute to the loss, but they didn’t really do the Patriots any favors either.

Defensive Linemen: C-

Yes, Gerard Warren had a terrific game, recording two sacks against Mark Sanchez. But the defensive line also needs to plug the center against the run, and they did not do that. The Jets rushed for 136 yards against the Patriots defensive line and linebackers. And what’s worse, they did it almost exclusively by moving within the linemen. The line allowed way too many rushing yards, but they DID sack Sanchez twice. They didn’t fail at their assignment, but they didn’t perform at even an average level. Warren saved them from the D-range.

Linebackers: C

Most of the success of the Jets running backs lies with the defensive line. But the linebackers didn’t do much to help their cause. They hit Sanchez just twice, and neither time resulted in a sack. And they usually plugged up the holes after the running backs got through, but not always. LaDainian Tomlinson broke off three runs of more than 10 yards, and those were as much the linebackers’ responsibility as the defensive line’s. There were very few pass plays where the ball went in their direction, so they either did a decent job in coverage or Sanchez just opted to pick on the Patriots cornerbacks (more on them next). Either way, their performance wasn’t good or bad. Just average. So give them a C.

Defensive Backs: F

Darius Butler and Devin McCourty, you guys got beat. The safeties had unremarkable games (no defensed passes, but no missed tackles either), so they don’t count. The cornerbacks, though, got destroyed. Over and over again they were out-ran, out-jumped, and out-muscled for the ball. Twice Butler was so far off his man that he had no choice but commit pass interference against the receiver and hope he didn’t get flagged (he did, both times). All three of the Jets touchdown passes came because their wide receivers either eluded the Patriots cornerbacks or jumped over them. The same thing happened on the Jets two-point conversion. It didn’t matter who the Patriots matched up with which Jets wide receivers or tight ends: all of the Patriots cornerbacks were out-played every single time. They looked borderline incompetent, and that incompetence more than anything else led to the Patriots losing. By themselves, the cornerbacks get an F- (although I’m not sure that’s an actual grade). The average safeties bring them up a half-grade, but that’s still unacceptable. Straight up, they failed.

Coaching: C-

Belichick definitely had a good game plan coming into the game. The Patriots moved the ball successfully in three of their first four drives, scoring touchdowns in two of them and missing a field goal in the third (which isn’t the coach’s fault). And the defense held the Jets to a three-and-out in their first drive and forced them to punt again in the second quarter. The Patriots outplayed the Jets in the first half and went in up 14-10. They even held the Jets to another three-and-out on the opening drive of the second half. But after that, everything went to hell. In the second half, Belichick got out-coached by Rex Ryan. Nothing the Patriots did offensively worked, and the defense allowed the Jets to score on three of five drives in the second half (not counting their last one, where they rushed enough to run the clock out). Anytime you go scoreless for the second half, you got out-coached. Ryan figured out what the Patriots were doing and schemed a way to stop it (with a depleted roster, no less), and Belichick did not respond. Give him credit for the first half, but he loses SERIOUS points for the stagnant offense and unsuccessful defense of the second half.

So there you have it. The loss lies primarily at the feet of the ineffective running backs and the even LESS effective cornerbacks. Tom Brady comes away the least responsible, since without him the Patriots don’t score ANY points, plus his wide receivers didn’t get open for him at all in the second half. No one, however, looked good against the Jets. Average all the grades together, and you get around a C-. And that’s exactly what the Patriots were last Sunday: a below-average team that got beat by a team that played well, but not exceptionally.

3 Second-Half Turnovers Doom Patriots in New Meadowlands

Tom Brady never saw it coming. And by the time he picked himself up off the turf, the New York Jets had the ball and the victory. Down 14 in the fourth quarter, Jason Taylor’s blindside strip-sack of Brady ended the New England Patriot’s final attempt to get back in the game and sealed the victory for the Jets.

Up 14-10 going into the half, New England committed three turnovers en route to a scoreless second half. The offense could not sustain long-enough drives to rest the defense, and Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez picked apart the Patriots secondary, throwing two second-half touchdown strikes as part of a three touchdown, 220-yard performance. The Jets defeated the Patriots 28-14 Sunday at New Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey.

In particular, Sanchez picked on Darius Butler, who could not handle his wide receiver assignments. On a fourth-quarter Jets drive, Butler committed two pass interference penalties for 39 total yards. The second half of the Patriots young duo of cornerbacks, Devin McCourty, was then beat to the left-side for the touchdown. Butler and McCourty were repeatedly beat by Jets wide receivers, frequently being out-jumped by their marks.

Offensively, everything the Patriots did well in the first half seemed to stall in the second. In the first half, Brady hit Wes Welker and Randy Moss each for touchdown passes. Moss’s catch was particularly spectacular, a 34-yard bomb from Brady that Moss caught with one out-stretched hand while outrunning cornerback Darrelle Revis to the back of the endzone. Revis re-aggravated his injured hamstring on the play and did not return, but the Patriots were unable to take advantage of his absence. Moss and Welker combined for five yards on two receptions in the second half.

“We couldn’t do anything in the second half,” Brady said in his post-game interview. “We just didn’t execute.”

Brady started strong, but finished the game with two touchdown passes, 248 yards, and two key interceptions. Perhaps worse than the interceptions themselves was Brady’s and Moss’s lack of understanding as to their cause. “The first one was just a mis-communication. Second one was just a good play,” Moss said in his post-game interview. On both plays, the Jets cornerback assigned to Moss was in better position to catch the ball than Moss was. Neither Moss nor Brady was clear as to whether those passes were overthrown or under-run.

Brady described the game as “very frustrating,” a sentiment echoed by Moss and head coach Bill Belichick. “They did a good job. Played better than we did. Coached better than we did,” Belichick said. According to the head coach, his team was out-played in “all three phases of the game.”

The lone bright spot for the offense was its tight ends. Aaron Hernandez caught all six passes thrown in his direction for 101 yards. The young tight end corps of Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski continue to impress, giving Brady an array of weapons to utilize.

However, Brady seemed to run out of ammo in the second half. “Way too many third-and longs today. That was a joke,” said Brady. The Patriots offense faced third-and-8 or worse five times. They converted all three times they were in that situation in the first half, but failed both times in the second half, with Brady throwing his first interception on a third-and-13 in the third quarter.

The Patriots were also beat on both sides of the line. On offense, they were never able to establish holes for a running game, as no Patriots running back went over 25 yards rushing. On defense, while the line sacked Sanchez three times (tackle Gerard Warren had two), the sacks stopped after the first play of the second half, and the Jets running game kicked into high gear. LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene finished the game with 76 and 52 yards rushing, respectively. The Jets pounding running game opened up its passing game, as the backs would frequently gain at least five yards on first down, making the later-down situations much easier for Sanchez.

Jets head coach Rex Ryan out-coached Belichick in the second half. The Jets came out of halftime with a far better game plan as to how to counteract the Patriots passing game while simultaneously opening up their own. The Patriots had no answer. “The plays they made in the second half, we didn’t make in the second half,” Moss said, a sentiment which Brady echoed.

“We were trying to do everything we could to gain a yard,” the Patriots quarterback said. Frequently, the Patriots could not even do that. The Patriots gained eight first downs in the second half- two via penalty- as opposed to 12 in the first half. Brady was clearly frustrated with his performance. “I gotta do a better job leading this team,” Brady said.

In a game of what Moss described as “will and determination,” the Patriots came up short. It now falls to them to recover from the loss and move on. It is still early in the season, and in their first two games the Patriots have shown two very different sides to themselves. It remains to be seen which side will be the dominant one: the near-unstoppable force they showed against Cincinnati or the stagnant, out-of-rhythm offense that marked their second half against New York. In either case, this game is one the Patriots said got away from them. Perhaps Moss said it best: “You take the wins with the wins, and the losses with the losses. This one hurts.”

Is Boston the Best Sports Town?

A week ago, I called the Boston sports media scene “over-saturated.” My specific complaint was that “the Boston sports media scene is ripe with writers who seem to enjoy exaggerating loses and undervaluing victories to the point that readers come away believing their teams are losers and and they are too for following them.”

I haven’t taken what I would call “flack” for this post, probably because I don’t have many readers, and those that I do have are mostly family who a) all come from Wisconsin and have no real ties to Boston sports, and b) love me and would tell me my article was good no matter what. But those who don’t share my blood that I’ve discussed this notion with don’t seem to agree with me. Their consensus is that there’s no better place to be a sports fan than Boston. They might be right.

There is no denying that Boston sports fans are very, very knowledgeable. Your average attendee at a Red Sox game will know every current player, plus be able to go on at length about prospects. At the TD Garden you’ll quickly find someone who could intelligently compare the Bill Russel-era Celtics with the Larry Bird-era Celtics. And after he was done, he’d throw in Len Bias, a man who never played a single game in a Celtics uniform but still earned a dark place in Celtics lore. And every Bruins fan could tell you where he or she was when Bobby Orr scored his May 1970 flying goal that gave the Bruins their first Stanley Cup in nearly 30 years. If the fan is too young to remember that game, he or she will tell you where his or her parents were. Sports fandom is hereditary in Boston, passed through families like religion or physical characteristics.

The Boston media scene reinforces and feeds our obsession. But it also breeds negativity. The most well-known writers in Boston seem to be those that complain the loudest. Even as we disagree with them, we still read them. Nobody ever says nice things about Dan Shaughnessy, and yet everybody follows him. What does this say about us? Even as we decry our most well-known sports reporter we still feel the compulsion to know what he has to say. We respond to negativity better than we respond to positivity. There are few homers in the Boston sports scene, no positive counterbalance to the Shaughnessies and Ron Borgeses of the media. Those that do not criticize tend to favor neutrality. The best example is Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston, an excellent sports analyst with an unmatched ability to get information that other reporters cannot. And yet far fewer people could name him or describe his writing style. It would seem that the only way to be famous in the Boston sports scene is to be notorious. How dissapointing.

To prove my point, compare Reiss’s and Borges’s breakdowns of Tom Brady’s new contract. Reiss’s piece is straightforward, laying out the terms of the deal clearly and succinctly. Borges, on the other hand, goes on a 621-word rant about how confusing the numbers are. Are they really? Mike Reiss seams to make sense of them. Borges is not dumb, he just likes presenting information in such a way as to make US feel dumb. Such little respect for his readers is deplorable, yet they seem to respond with “thank you sir, may I have another?” Just like Kevin Bacon getting spanked in “Animal House,” it would seem that the price of admission to the fraternal brotherhood of Boston sports is abject and repeat humiliation.

All of this is compounded by the fact that, objectively, it seems to work. In an August 2 article, Forbes Magazine released its analysis of the best fans in sports. Using home and away attendance, merchandise sales, and “in-market popularity,” an undefined term that I assume means what percentage who could watch a game on TV choose to do so, Forbes concluded that the Red Sox have the most loyal fans of any major sports team in the country. The most faithful basketball fans (fifth overall) watch the Boston Celtics, and the New England Patriots come in seventh (third-highest football fanbase behind the Steelers and Colts). Whether or not I agree with the Boston sports media’s methods, I can’t deny that objectively it drives more interest in its teams that any other city in the country.

Maybe Boston does have the best fans. But the long-term psychological effect of being constantly hammered by the media has yet to be determined. The West Coast teams do not enjoy as devoted fans. But perhaps their fans are happier. There are advantages to viewing sports with a measure of disinterest: It makes the loss easier to take, but it also tempers the win, and keeps the thrill of victory from bubbling over. That might explain why when I Googled “sports riots” and looked at various “worst ever” lists, few of them included riots after victories by California sports teams (though one did mention a post-Lakers victory riot). Interestingly, most of the really bad riots seem to involve soccer, and usually European soccer. In a sport that encourages (or at least does little discourage) hooliganism, that makes some sense.

But I think Boston takes its fanaticism too far. Our hatred of the Yankees got so bad that it cost someone her life. In 2004, Victoria Snelgrove was shot in the midst of our ALCS victory riot by Boston Police officers. Accidental? Yes. Tragic? Yes. Avoidable? Maybe not. When fanaticism runs as deep as ours does, when the need to win reaches such a point that we feel like we HAVE to win to justify ourselves, control is forfeited. Fans didn’t shoot Snelgrove, but they rioted so violently, so chaotically, that police officers had no choice but to disperse the crowd with pepper spray projectiles. Signs were torn out of the ground. Fires were lit. Cars were destroyed. Had police officers not attempted to disperse the riot, the damage to the city could have been catastrophic. And more lives could have been lost. I missed this particular riot, but I was present a week later when we won the World Series. It was more subdued, but I still believe that had someone fallen on the ground that night in Kenmore Square, he or she easily could have been trampled to death.

None of this is meant to justify Snelgrove’s death. It’s more meant to point out the ridiculousness of rioting in the first place. C’mon everyone, it’s just sports! If your reaction to victory is to destroy the very city your team represents, then you need to take a step back and reevaluate your relationship and level of commitment to your team. Go to the games. Root for your teams on television. By their shirts and hats. Celebrate their wins and mourn their losses. But don’t let the fortunes of others come to define you to the point that their loss becomes YOUR loss.

In response to a similar degree of fanaticism with regards to political activism, Jon Stewart announced on The Daily Show last night that he’d be sponsoring a “Return to Sanity” rally in Washington on October 30. Perhaps Boston sports fans should attend. They might learn something.

Patriots Links 9/15/10

Welcome back to my weekly Patriots links. With running back Laurence Maroney trade to the Denver Broncos today, the web was ablaze with breakdowns and analyses. No one could say that they were surprised by the deal or that it did not make sense. Maroney’s seasons with the Patriots were plagued by increasingly fewer games due to injury and increasing ineffectiveness when he did play. The man just never seemed to learn how to cut up field with any success. Tom Brady and Jets coach Rex Ryan also spoke to the press today, with Brady calling out Patriots fans for leaving early in last Sunday’s victory, and Ryan discussing the upcoming game against the Jets. Finally, Randy Moss called in to ESPN’s SportsCenter yesterday, then gave an interview to the Boston Herald. He wants the issue of his contract dropped now that he’s aired his grievances, it just remains to be seen whether the media will allow this to happen.

Mike Reiss reports on Brady’s Wednesday locker room press meeting, wherein Brady says Patriots fans’ early exit from Sunday’s game angered him. Reiss also breaks down Brady’s new contract, explaining what’s guaranteed, what’s a signing bonus, what’s a workout bonus, and what’s his base salary.

ESPN Boston also has a recap of Moss’s Tuesday morning call-in to SportsCenter.

At the Boston Globe’s website, Steve Silva has the full transcript of Brady’s press meeting. Among his many comments, Brady said that yes, the Patriots play harder in Jets games, fueled by the crowd intensity and the importance to the division standings.

Shalise Manza Young has the practice report and a breakdown of today’s Maroney trade, and Albert Breer tells us that while Jets cornerback Darelle Revis won’t back down from calling Moss a slouch in January, Revis still thinks Moss is “one of the best receivers in the game today.”

Tony Massarotti wonders whether Ryan’s boisterousness shows he wants to win, or perhaps just wants the attention.

Over at the Herald, Karen Guregian interviewed Moss and reports that he spoke after the win because he felt that “if any person let’s something like that stay in, it causes problems. So the best thing to do is let it out.” Guregian and Ian Rapoport have Maroney’s reaction to his trade, and they wonder whether the Patriots might have traded him because they want to draft Alabama running back Mark Ingram in 2011, since they have the Oakland Raiders’ first-round draft pick at their disposal.

On his own Rapoport argues that with Jets nose tackle Kris Jenkins out for the season, the Patriots offensive line’s task gets “gets just a little easier.”

At csnne.com, Danny Picard reports on Ryan‘s Wednesday conference call, where Ryan calls Wes Welker “a matchup nightmare.” Tom Curran, meanwhile, says that while the Jets have been talking all along, the Patriots are making themselves scarce, preferring not to engage in a shouting match with the Jets before gameday.

At weei.com, Jerry Thornton admits that he was glad to see Maroney go, mostly because convincing anyone that he was an asset to the Patriots got harder every year. Christopher Price says that Maroney’s downfall started during the 2009-2010 season, when he had four particularly bad fumbles.

Mike Petraglia gives Rex Ryan’s comments that the Jets are not likely to sign former Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas, then links to a Miami Sun Sentinel article that says the Dolphins, however, might.

Lester Strikes Out 12 in Efficient Victory in Seattle

The phrase “one bad inning” has often been associated with Red Sox starter Jon Lester. Monday night at Safeco Field it would as well, but the one bad inning would belong to the Seattle Mariners pitcher FACING Lester, Doug Fister. Fister gave up four of his six hits and three of his five earned runs in the top of the second, and that proved enough for an extremely economic Jon Lester.

Adrian Beltre led off the second inning with a single, moving to third on a Jed Lowrie double. Beltre then scored on a Josh Reddick ground out to put the Red Sox up 1-0. Back to back doubles from Daniel Nava and Lars Anderson followed, pushing the lead to 3-0.

Lester, after giving up an infield single to Chone Figgins in the first, cruised through the middle innings. From the second inning through the sixth, Lester gave up one hit (again to Figgins) and zero walks. He enjoyed four 1-2-3 innings. Lester opened the fourth inning with a strikeout, giving him 200 for the season. Only four other Red Sox have struck out 200 or more in consecutive seasons, and their names include Cy Young and Pedro Martinez. Not bad for a 26-year-old.

Lester finally slowed down in the seventh, giving up a walk and single that put men on first and third with one out. Casey Kotchman then bounced a grounder to the left of the pitcher’s mound. Lester fielded it, but it had bounced so high that Lester had no chance to throw the runner out at home or start a double-play. Rather than risking an error, Lester through Kotchman out at first, giving the Mariners their one and only run.

The Red Sox got the run back in the next inning. Marco Scutaro, who had made a nifty defensive play in the third inning, fielding a slow-roller to second and underhanding the ball from his glove to the first basemen for the putout, led off with a walk. 2 pitches later, Ryan Kalish crushed an 0-1 offering to right field, putting the Red Sox up 5-1. Fister and the Mariners’ relievers pitched perfectly after that, but the damage had been done. The Red Sox beat the Mariners 5-1 in a game that took a brief 2:23 to complete. Lester picked up his 17th win of the season, while Fister picked up his 12th loss.

Red Sox at the Plate

This game was a showcase for the Red Sox farm system. Every RBI came at the hands of someone who had spent time in the Red Sox minor leagues. Lars Anderson hit the first double of his major league career. A minor accomplishment, yes. But when we look at it from the perspective of his performance since his September 1 call-up, we begin to see what Boston’s development personnel have been touting since Anderson joined the team. He could yet be a star for this team, and he might provide an answer a few years from now as to what to do at first base. He also made a nice diving stop in the fifth inning, showing he has definite fielding prowess to complement his hitting ability.

Reddick and Nava, meanwhile, are building major league resumes that might land them major league contracts, either with the Red Sox or elsewhere. Nava has been one of the greater returns-on-investment in Red Sox history. Signed from the Chico Outlaws for $1 and $1499 more if he made it out of Spring Training, he has proven himself to be a major-league caliber player (though maybe not a starter). Reddick needs a full year in the majors to prove his worth, but I think he can do it.

Ryan Kalish is another Red Sox minor leaguer who, like Nava, picked up his first major league hit in his first at-bat and his first RBI in his first game. The Red Sox have produced two minor leaguers who have hit grand slams in their first years in the majors. Though this has little significance, it has made a few games of an otherwise meaningless season more fun to watch.

Red Sox on the Mound

Had it not been for the seventh, Lester likely would’ve finished the game. However, with a four-run lead and the potential of a 20-win season still a possibility, there was no reason to overuse him. But Tuesday night Lester was pristine. Every pitch- curveball, slider, cutter, fastball- was on target. Lester struck out 12 batters in eight innings, giving up just three hits and three walks (two of which came in the seventh). Of his 112 pitches, 76 were strikes, good for a 67.8 percent strike ratio. His first pitch strikes were about the same, throwing 20 of 30 first pitches for strikes. He was ahead of the Mariners’ batters in nearly every at-bat. He worked fast and he threw hard. He overpowered both right-handed and left-handed batters. It was one of his strongest performances of the year, the fourth start in a row in which he struck out 10+ batters. He has shown why the Red Sox gave him a 5-year, $30 million contract extension back in March 2009.

In his one inning of work, Daniel Bard did not allow a run. He lowered his ERA .03 to 1.86.

The Future Looks Bright

While 2010 will go down as a pointless season, Boston fans are beginning to see a very bright light at the end of the tunnel. The Red Sox have produced a crop of extremely talented young players, and fans will get to enjoy them for many years to come. Whether it’s Lars Anderson at the plate or Jon Lester on the mound, the Red Sox have taken steps to invigorate what was once one of the oldest teams in baseball. Every player who contributed tonight has yet to reach his peak. They will all get better. That is very exciting.