Price Silences Red Sox as Rays Take Rubber Match

David Price scattered three hits and three strikeouts over eight scoreless innings to beat the Red Sox Wednesday and win his 11th game of the season. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

One shudders to think how good the Tampa Bay Rays might be if they ever built an offense as good as their starting pitching. The Red Sox got a taste of that scenario Wednesday afternoon at Fenway.

David Price pitched eight innings of three-hit baseball, and the Rays homered twice off John Lackey to beat the Red Sox, 4-0, and win the series.

The Red Sox have now lost consecutive series for the first time since losing three straight series to the Padres, Pirates and Phillies in late June. The Red Sox also fell to a full game behind the Yankees in the AL East.

Rays Play Smallball Early, Long-ball Late

Lackey struck out left fielder Desmond Jennings to start the game, and for a moment it looked like Lackey had the stuff to win his seventh consecutive decision. An error changed all that.

Johnny Damon bloop-singled to right, but Darnell McDonald over-ran it, allowing Damon to reach second. Damon took third on a wild pitch, then scored on a slow roller to second by second baseman Ben Zobrist to make 1-0 Rays.

Price so dominated the Red Sox that the game was over right then and there, but Lackey continued on, always pitching well enough to stay in the game but rarely dominating. He pitched only 1-2-3 inning – the fifth – and allowed solo home runs to B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria in the fourth and fifth, both on middle-in pitches hit into the signs above the Green Monster.

Lackey ran into trouble again in the seventh, hitting catcher Kelly Shoppach for the second time to lead off the inning. A sacrifice moved Shoppach to second, but Lackey struck out Damon for the second out before walking Longoria on five pitches. Zobrist followed Longoria with double off the Green Monster to score Shoppach and make it 4-0 Rays.

Zobrist’s double chased Lackey, who gave up four runs (three earned) in 6 2/3 innings, giving up six hits and three walks while hitting two and striking out seven. His record fell to 11-9, but his ERA dropped to 6.02.

Alfredo Aceves got a grounder to first to end the seventh, then gave up a double before striking out the side in the eighth. Dan Wheeler pitched a perfect ninth.

Price Shuts Down Red Sox

Price made very few errors against the Red Sox Wednesday, and he always re-asserted control of the game after making one. The Red Sox as a result had very few scoring opportunities, none of which produced any runs.

Dustin Pedroia singled to left in the bottom of the first, and Adrian Gonzalez worked a full-count walk off Price to put two men on with one out. Price responded by getting the slow-footed Kevin Youkilis to ground into a double play to end the threat.

After going 1-2-3 in the second, Jacoby Ellsbury worked a two-out walk in the third and stole second on the first pitch he saw. He advanced no farther.

The Red Sox went 1-2-3 again in the fifth, but Ellsbury led off the sixth with a triple to deep center field. Again Price clamped down, striking out Pedroia on a borderline pitch over the outside corner.

Gonzalez then grounded back to the mound, and Ellsbury incorrectly broke for home. Ellsbury stayed in the run-down long enough to get Gonzalez to second, but Youkilis grounded out to first on one pitch to end the inning.

The Red Sox managed single runners in the seventh and eighth, but neither even made it to second base. Rays closer Kyle Farnsworth retired the Red Sox 1-2-3 in the ninth to end the game and get Price his 11th win of the season after pitching eight shutout innings, scattering three hits, three walks and a hit batter while striking out six. A road warrior this season, Price has now won seven games away from Tropicana Field.

The Red Sox’s vaunted offense was held completely at bay by the Rays’ excellent starting pitchers, who for the first time ever held the Red Sox to three hits in three consecutive games. Boston’s fifth through ninth hitters went a combined 0-for-16 Wednesday, with only McDonald reaching on a hit-by-pitch  in the seventh. Gonzalez went 0-for-9 with a walk in the series.

Lester Dominates, Ellsbury Homers to Give Red Sox Game 1 Victory in Rays Doubleheader

Jacoby Ellsbury hits a third-inning three-run home run off James Shields and the Rays during Tuesday's afternoon game at Fenway. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The Red Sox only hit against Rays starter James Shield in one inning Tuesday afternoon at Fenway, but sometimes one inning is all it takes.

Jacoby Ellsbury‘s three-run home run capped a three-hit third inning, and Jon Lester struck out eight in seven innings to pick up his 12th win. The Red Sox beat the Rays 3-1 in Game 1 of a doubleheader. With the win, Boston now leads New York by a half-game in the AL East.

Lester Pitches Better and Better Across Game

Two of Tampa Bay’s three hits off Lester Tuesday came in the first inning, and all came on high cutters to Rays batting righty.

Left fielder Desmond Jennings led off the game with a double to left, then stole third before scoring on a one-out ground out to third by Evan Longoria to put the Rays up 1-0 in the first. DH Ben Zobrist followed it up with a double to center, but a ground out stranded him.

Lester continued to struggle early in the second, hitting second baseman Sean Rodriguez and walking catcher Kelly Shoppach on four pitches with one out. Perhaps the walk shook off whatever rust Lester was pitching through, because after that Lester absolutely dominated, retiring the next two to preserve the one-run deficit.

Lester sailed through the next three innings, retiring all nine batters he faced. Given a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the third, he struck out the side swinging in the fourth, then retired the side 1-2-3 on six pitches in the fifth. The Rays did not put another runner on until Longoria singled with one out in the sixth, breaking up a string of 12 consecutively retired Rays. Lester responded to the single with two more strikeouts to end the sixth.

Lester’s strong middle innings allowed him to go a full seven innings (the last of which also went 1-2-3) despite needing over 50 pitches to get through the first three. He finished the game giving up just the one earned run on three hits, a walk, seven strikeouts and a hit batter. He earned his 12th win of the season, picked up his fifth day-game win (now 5-0, 1.55 ERA) and lowered his ERA to 3.22.

Lester’s control wasn’t perfect: he threw just 65 of his 113 pitches (57.5 percent) for strikes, and just nine first-pitch strikes to 26 batters. Nor was his power quite what it can be: Rays hitters fouled off 25 pitches to just 11 swings-and-misses.

Lester’s domination Tuesday, rather, was aided by the Rays always making easy outs when they put the ball in play. Of the 13 non-strike outs Lester recorded, nine were ground balls that Red Sox infielders handled with little difficulty. Of the remaining four, two were lazy fly balls and one was a muffed-bunt popup. Only Shoppach’s foul-out to end the seventh required any kind of defensive display, and that was only because Jarrod Saltalamacchia almost over-ran it.

Daniel Bard struck out two in a perfect eighth, and Jonathan Papelbon pitched a 10-pitch perfect ninth for his 28th save, aided by a diving grab by Dustin Pedroia on a B.J. Upton liner up the middle to end the game.

Shields Dominates Red Sox in Every Inning but the One that Mattered

Boston hitters entered Tuesday’s game having already combined for 12 career home runs off Shields, so their free-swinging approach to him early in the game made sense. Unfortunately, it didn’t produce any results, as the Red Sox went 1-2-3 in both the first and second innings, flying out three times in the first.

Shields stopped relying on the fastball in the third, instead going to more change-ups. The Red Sox responded by switching from power to contact hitting, and the switch paid off. Josh Reddick led off the bottom of the third with a single to left, then took second two batters later on a single up the middle by Mike Aviles.

Shields next faced Ellsbury, getting the count to 1-1 before leaving another change-up over the middle of the plate. Ellsbury crushed it beyond the Tampa Bay bullpen in right-center for the 3-1 lead and Ellsbury’s 21st home run of the season.

Shields bore down after the home run however, and did not allow another hit in the game. Only Kevin Youkilis even reached base after that: on a leadoff walk in the fourth. Shields went the full eight innings in his 10th loss of the season and 8th career loss at Fenway (1-8, 6.99 ERA). He allowed three runs on three hits, a walk and six strikeouts.

Holding Their Manhoods Cheap

The Warrior Dash: All fun and games until someone dies. Then it becomes a pointless tragedy.

(Thanks Shakespeare)

A friend and I were chatting early Monday morning. She mentioned “zorbing,” so I looked it up. OK, people running in giant bubbles. Reminds me a bit of “The Avengers” (an utterly forgettable Uma Thurman flick from the late 90s), but seems harmless. So zorbing leads to the “Spartan Race,” which I’ve also never heard of. I looked it up, it’s an obstacle course like the Warrior Dash, just longer. As if running, climbing and crawling through three miles of mud, water and fire (not necessarily in that order) wasn’t enough, now people want to do this for as long as two straight days.

I have to ask: has this country gone crazy?

There was a time, maybe even as recently as 10 years ago, when running a marathon was considered the pinnacle of athletic achievement. It took years of commitment to both fitness and diet to train for one, and one was where it stopped and started. Now, marathon running has become a hobby (another friend even called it “nerdy”). I know at least two people who have run multiple marathons, and a third who will join that group by the end of 2011.

I think the Internet has a lot to do with this: new exercise and nutrition strategies can be shared so quickly that bona fide training revolutions can happen in a matter of days, with people easily finding scours of like-minded racers to train with and motivate each other. Ultra-marathons seem to have replaced marathons as the new challenge, adding upwards of 75 more miles to a race whose original claim to fame was that the first guy to run the distance died afterwards.

People have always sought physical activities as a means to prove their… something. “Manliness,” I guess, if you’re a man. “Strength,” maybe. Or perhaps just “worth.” But as time goes on, we seem to keep inventing more extreme measure by which to prove whatever it is these activities prove.

I wouldn’t have any problems with this except that it’s dangerous, even lethal. Two people died from heat stroke after a Warrior Dash in Kansas City in July. A third was paralyzed from the chest down the same day at another Warrior Dash in Michigan. Granted, two fatalities does not equal a trend, nor does it suggest anything other than that the race administrators probably should’ve considered the heat before running the race (there were 57 cases of heat stroke). But you have to ask: was there a purpose to these people’s deaths?

There are many professions in which people assume a degree of risk, even life-threatening risk. Firefighters take risks every day, but their actions save lives. Soldiers risk death as well, and whether or not their actions save lives, serving your country is an ideal lofty and honorable enough to justify dying for it. Even professional athletes take on a degree of risk (especially in football), but those giant paychecks glitter so brightly that many can’t help but be drawn to them like flies to the bug zapper.

This is something different, something incredibly unnecessary. There are some things whose proof might be worth dying for. But is saying you ran the Warrior Dash one of them? The two men who died had neither wives nor children. Thank God. How could a widow reflect on her husband’s death and not conclude he thought running through mud was more important than she was? How could a child maintain optimism in a world where deaths as pointless as this can happen? As the mother of one of the deceased said, “What a waste.”

It may challenge conventional notions of “manliness,” but true strength doesn’t come from being able to scale a wall or swim through frozen water. It comes from seeing that challenge, admitting one’s interest is inherently selfish, and then subsuming that urge in the need to provide for one’s loved ones. That’s being strong. If you can run 20 miles, great. Make your kid want to go to college or join Doctors Without Borders, then come talk to me.

This extreme obstacle trend continues to grow, not fade, which means I can’t help but think the next course will be even tougher. The risks will be even greater, which means the value we ascribe to life must inversely decline to justify participation. The Spartan Race already calls its two-day version the “Spartan Death Race,” advertising it as www.YouMayDie.com.

Perhaps we’ll ultimately reach this:

God help us all.

BarstoolSports Readers Also At Fault for Naked Photos of Tom Brady’s Son

BarstoolSports.com CEO Dave Portnoy should be punished for posting a pornographic photo of Tom Brady's 2-year-old son, but his readers created the situation that led to the posting. (Boston Phoenix/Matt Teu)

I’m pretty sure I know who 99 percent of my regular readers are, and I’m pretty sure all of them are intelligent, critical and feminist enough to recognize BarstoolSports.com for the piece of misogynist, disgusting, unfunny shit that it is. So it’s possible this column will seem like preaching to the choir, and the true sources (and targets) of my vitriol and ire will never read this. Still, some measure of reaction is necessary.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Dave Portnoy – CEO and “el Pres” of BarstoolSports.com – posted a photo of Tom Brady‘s 2-year-old son, Benjamin, Thursday. A naked photo. A naked photo with comments pointing to the size of the toddler’s genitalia.

I won’t include the link because a) I don’t want to encourage anyone to look at something as horrific and reprehensible as this, and b) because mother Gisele Bundchen already sent a cease-and-desist letter to Portnoy to have the photo removed, and Portnoy has complied (for now). Portnoy also made a video essentially justifying his actions and calling himself a victim after WEEI’s afternoon show “encouraged” violence against him.

Portnoy crossed a line that really shouldn’t even need discussion. How can you argue it’s “o.k.” to put a naked photo of a 2-year-old online and then tell people to gawk at it? What possible justification could you have? Do you think the public has a “right to know” what Benjamin Brady’s penis looks like? Do you think a child who can’t even read “was asking for it” by being naked on a beach? Are children too young to form memories mature enough to make their own decisions about selling their bodies? If this were your kid, instead of a famous athlete’s, would you hesitate for a second to sue Portnoy for everything he has, then fight back the urge to beat Portnoy to a bloody pulp when you faced him court?

Portnoy is an awful human being for doing this, but he’s not the only one to blame. To everyone who’s ever read BarstoolSports.com (and I can thankfully say I’ve not, beyond this column and a class assignment), who’s said how great the site is, who’s given his or her consent (intentional or not) for Portnoy and his staff to perpetuate every misogynistic stereotype on the face of the planet: this is also your fault. Your support led to this. You gave Portnoy an aura of invincibility, of authenticity. Every time you cheered him on, you killed a bit more of his consciousness. Faced with overwhelmingly positive reinforcement, Portnoy spiraled into depravity… because you told him that’s what you want. You devoured his content like a drug, and he became as dirty as a drug dealer.

Barstool Sports readers created a monster, and now he’s done something monstrous.

I’ve met Portnoy: he’s an arrogant, disrespectful jackass. Or, if you like him, he’s a “rascal.” Either way, it’s possible this could put Portnoy in jail, and rightly so. Massachusetts law states: “Whoever, with lascivious intent, disseminates any visual material that contains a representation or reproduction of any posture or exhibition in a state of nudity involving the use of a child who is under eighteen years of age … shall be punished in the state prison for a term of not less than ten nor more than twenty years or by a fine of not less than ten thousand nor more than fifty thousand dollars or three times the monetary value of any economic gain derived from said dissemination … or by both such fine and imprisonment.” They define “lascivious intent” to include if “the focal point of a visual depiction is the child’s genitalia.” On its own, the photo may or may not be pornographic. With Portnoy’s comments however, it becomes lascivious, and Portnoy could be in trouble.

Portnoy, you’re a disgusting, despicable turd, and I hope when you go to jail you’re made to stand in a shower naked while inmates gawk at your genitalia. Then maybe you’ll understand what Benjamin Brady might go through for the rest of his life.

Portnoy should and hopefully will be punished for his actions. But his readers should know they share some of the the blame.

Long Red Sox-Yankees Games Not Beckett’s Fault

Josh Beckett might take his time pitching to the Yankees, but their speed and power make it necessary. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

In recent years, Red Sox-Yankees games have morphed from simple baseball contests into battles so epic in size and length you could probably get through half of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and still catch the ninth inning. Baseball is inherently slow, and these extra-long games make it even more monotonous. Few have seriously tried to speed up Red Sox-Yankees games, the notable exception being umpire Joe West.

With Sunday’s 3-2 extra-innings Red Sox victory, which took 4 hours and 15 minutes, many critics have begun to lay the blame at the feet of “entitled” pitchers like Josh Beckett, calling for measures as drastic as a pitch clock similar to basketball’s shot clock.

Beckett certainly takes his time between pitches, but is he really to blame?

Beckett Works Faster Than You Think

Games Beckett has started this year have averaged 3:27. A bit on the long side, sure, but a whopping six of Beckett’s starts have gone to extra innings. As the team’s ace and most consistent pitcher, Beckett often finds himself matched up against the best pitcher on the opposing staff. The Red Sox have averaged just 3.7 runs in games started by Beckett. Low-scoring games often mean extra innings.

Removing Beckett’s extra-innings games (21 total extra innings), average game time drops to exactly three hours. If you’re an NL baseball fan – where the pitchers having to hit usually means a full inning of quick and easy pitching – transitioning to the AL, that might seem like a long time. Longtime AL fans know that with the DH making lineups stronger one to nine with fewer sacrificed at-bats, three hours is downright breezy.

Beckett is also a slightly faster pitcher when he faces the Yankees, extra-inning slogs like Sunday’s notwithstanding. In 28 career starts against the Yankees – including two with the Marlins in the 2003 World Series – Beckett’s starts have averaged 3:23.

Beckett has been victimized by great opposing pitchers, extra-inning games and occasionally rain. Beckett can’t control any of these factors, so blaming him for the length of his games is ridiculous.

With the Yankees, Caution is Wise

Even if Beckett takes too long with his pitches against the Yankees, there are some compelling reasons why:

  • The Yankees are patient: The Yankees lead the majors with 441 walks this season. They have the 11th-fewest strikeouts with 785 (seventh in the AL). They rank second behind only the Red Sox in on-base percentage at .344. The Yankees are very good at discerning a bad pitch from a good pitch, and if their hitters are going be that deliberate in their at-bats, shouldn’t Beckett be as deliberate with his pitches? Beckett takes his time because he doesn’t want to risk even a single bad pitch. Which is good, because…
  • The Yankees are powerful: The Yankees lead the majors with 153 home runs, 12 more than the second-place Red Sox. More than that, their offense this season is built around their power. They aren’t an offense that strings together five or six hits and walks, but rather clobbers teams with a lineup in which every hitter is threat to go deep at any moment. Sunday’s game was exactly like that: the Yankees scored just twice, but on solo home runs from their one- and nine-hole hitters, who saw a combined six pitches in two at-bats. The Yankees can score quickly, so it behooves Beckett to make sure every pitch he makes is what he wants and where wants it. Except he can’t just pitch them outside all the time, because…
  • The Yankees are fast: The Yankees lead the AL with 119 steals and are tied with the Rangers for highest success rate at 76 percent. Teams have stolen 16 bags off Beckett (11th most among AL starters) and been caught only four times (bottom 40 percent in success rate). If Beckett takes his time on the mound with Yankees on, it’s because he knows they want to run, and his slowness gives them a good chance of doing so successfully. So he holds the ball as long as he can to disrupt their timing and increase his chances for a fly out or a double play.

Beckett isn’t as slow as people say he is, but he has good reason for taking his time against the Yankees. Beckett owes nothing to a bored and easily distracted t.v. audience, and the fans in the stands want more than anything else to see the Red Sox win. If Beckett’s pace increases the Red Sox’s chances of winning, then how can anyone naysay him?

Lester and Bullpen Peter Out in Eighth; Twins Avoid Sweep

Jim Thome follows through on an RBI single – his first of two, including the game-winner – in the first inning of Wednesday's game in Minnesota. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

It wasn’t one bad inning that did in Jon Lester Wednesday night in Minnesota: it was three mediocre innings, and a Red Sox bullpen that didn’t help.

The Twins scored in three separate innings off Lester, and Alfredo Aceves struggled in eighth-inning relief to give the Twins a 5-2 victory. Combined with a Yankees victory over the Angels, the Red Sox now lead the AL East by just 1.5 games.

Lester Can’t Get Through Eighth

Lester retired the Twins on three batters – twice in 1-2-3 innings, twice through double plays – four times in the first seven innings of the game, but the Twins went up 2-0 on a Jim Thome RBI single in the first and a Joe Mauer ground-rule double in the sixth in which second baseman Trevor Plouffe was awarded home plate on fan interference.

Lester got out of the seventh with a bases-loaded ground out, and the Red Sox tied the game 2-2 in the top of the eighth. Terry Francona let him pitch the bottom of the eighth despite Lester having already thrown over 100 pitches.

It was a poor decision.

Lester began the inning by walking Mauer, then two batters later Thome knocked in his second run of the night with a double to deep left to put the Twins up 3-2. Francona then went to Aceves, who’d already thrown 45 pitches across four appearances in the last six games.

Aceves faced four batters and could not retire any of them, giving up an RBI double to third baseman Danny Valencia and a bases-loaded single to shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka to put the Twins up 5-2 before left fielder Delmon Young (2-2 with two walks) was thrown out trying to score from second.

Joe Nathan pitched a perfect ninth for his ninth save of the season, becoming in the process the Twins’ all-time saves leader.

Lester suffered his sixth loss of the season, giving up four runs on eight hits, five walks and four strikeouts in 7.1 innings. He threw 113 pitches, 79 for strikes, and at times showed good command with his fastball and cutter, getting 25 called strikes. He also kept the ball on the ground, getting 12 ground ball outs and one double play to just four flyouts.

Ortiz’s Solo Shot Highlights Light-Hitting Night for Red Sox

The Red Sox could do very little with Twins starter Nick Blackburn through the first six innings, managing just five hits and no runs. They put two men on with one out in the top of the fourth, but Carl Crawford flied out and Jarrod Saltalamacchia struck out (the two went a combined 0-for-7) to end the inning.

Blackburn’s command – 19 first-pitch strikes out of 29 batters, 20 called strikes – and sharply breaking change-up kept Red Sox hitters off-balance until the seventh, when Mike Aviles (starting at second Wednesday) drew a two-out walk. Aviles had already singled and doubled, and he started a neat double play in the second, making an over-the-shoulder grab on a blooper to right before spinning and firing to first to nail the runner.

Aviles advanced to second when Jacoby Ellsbury reached on an error, then Marco Scutaro drove him in with a single to left to make it 2-1 Twins.

Lefty Glen Perkins relieved Blackburn and retired Adrian Gonzalez (0-for-4) on a flyout to get out of the seventh, but David Ortiz took an eighth-inning, 98 mile-per-hour fastball from Perkins into the center field bullpen for a solo home run to tie the game 2-2. Ortiz finished his series against his former team 7-for-11 with two walks, two home runs and five RBIs.

Because of the Twins’ eighth-inning runs, Perkins vultured the win, his fourth of the season. Blackburn took a no-decision despite holding the best offense in baseball to just six hits and no earned runs in 6.1 innings.

For the second straight game, the Red Sox could not generate much offense in support of Lester, their winningest pitcher in 2011. With the previous three games decided late in the game or in extra innings, the bullpen lacked the arms to hold down a 2-2 tie. Lester tired, the bullpen couldn’t back him up, and the Red Sox lost because of it.

Previewing Thursday’s Patriots Preseason Opener vs. Jaguars

Can Ryan Mallett do more than carry Tom Brady's jersey? We'll find out Thursday night, when the Patriots open the preseason at home against the Jaguars. (Photo from @realpatriots, http://yfrog.com/khii5plj)

It seems like just yesterday that the NFL lockout finally ended and training camp began for the New England Patriots.

Actually, it was less than two weeks ago. And now the Patriots are less than 48 hours from their first preseason game, against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium.

Patriots starters usually play for just a few plays in preseason games, then the reserves take over to fight for roster spots. With such a short preseason, and no off-season training beyond what players did on their own, that tendency will probably be even more noticeable. Don’t be surprised if BenJarvus Green-Ellis gets fewer than eight plays, if Chad Ochocinco runs fewer than six routes, if Tom Brady throws fewer than five passes.

Nor will there be any likely revelations about the Patriots defense, whether it will use the 3-4 or 4-3 defensive alignment. Bill Belichick has delighted in toying with the media over this issue, and it’s doubtful he’ll show his hand in a game that doesn’t matter.

This game will be about the lesser-knowns and the unknowns, but who will stand out? Here are six players worth checking out on Thursday.

Offense

Brandon Tate: Brandon Tate showed his blazing speed in Week 17 against the Dolphins, when he beat his mark deep for a 42-yard touchdown bomb from Brian Hoyer. The Patriots are loaded at wide receiver this season, but Tate may be the deep threat the Patriots could use to keep safeties from creeping up over the middle. He can also contribute on special teams. He’ll have to prove he can consistently outrun NFL cornerbacks if he wants to move up the depth chart, however, and Thursday will be his first chance to show that.

Ryan Mallett: Ryan Mallett is the first high-quality college quarterback the Patriots have drafted in the Brady era. The Patriots may see him as the quarterback of the future, which is why they gave him a four-year, $2.2 million contract. Then again, they might just be setting up to trade him, á la Matt Cassell. Thursday night will be Mallett’s first opportunity to show what he can bring to the team. If he can really excel, he might steal Hoyer’s job as primary backup, putting him in an ideal position to learn from the one of the great quarterbacks in NFL history.

Defense

Leigh Bodden: Leigh Bodden led all Patriots cornerbacks with 55 tackles in 2009 before a shoulder injury cost him the entire 2010 season. In the year Bodden was away, Devin McCourty transformed into one of the elite shutdown corners in the NFL. McCourty never had a second elite corner helping out, however, and teams realized they could neutralize him without sacrificing offense by just throwing to the opposite side of the field. Bodden might be that second corner the Patriots need to beef up a defense that was ranked 30th in the NFL in opponent passing yards. With the second starting cornerback job up for grabs, look for Bodden to try to seize it Thursday night.

Mike Wright: Mike Wright looked poised to become one of the Patriots’ better pass rushers last season, recording 5.5 sacks in six weeks before a concussion sidelined him for the final six games and the playoffs. The Patriots recorded no sacks against the Jets in the playoffs and were soundly beaten. Better corners help, but the real key to disrupting a passing game is to get to the quarterback faster. Thursday night will be Wright’s first opportunity to show he is symptom-free and ready to contribute once again.

Special Teams

Stephen Gostkowski: Stephen Gostkowski was on his way to a career year in 2010 before a quadricep injury ended his season after eight games. He averaged 67.9 yards per kickoff, often contributing three, four, even five touchbacks a game. He was also perfect on extra-point kicks and kicked his first overtime game-winner against the Ravens in Week 6. Can Gostkowski retain last season’s power and stay healthy at the same time this year? He can start to answer that Thursday night.

Chris Koepplin: Belichick doesn’t want to have to scramble for a replacement place-kicker should Gostkowski go down again, so the Patriots signed former UMass and Arena Football 2 kicker Chris Koepplin, who set multiple records at UMass as a junior. These include most single-season field goals (16), single-season points by a kicker (99) and single-season PATs (51). He finished his Minuteman career having converted a record 98 percent point-after attempt. Gostkowski has always been a bit streaky, and Koepllin might take over if the accuracy isn’t there this season. Koepplin can start to show his strength and accuracy Thursday.

Do I Really Need to Explain Why 7-Year-Olds Shouldn’t Sign Professional Contracts?

Real Madrid signed 7-year-old Leonel Angel Coira to a one-year contract with their developmental program Monday. Am I the only one who thinks this crazy? (AP Photo/Coira Family)

Real Madrid, perhaps the most successful soccer team in the world, announced Monday they had signed Leonel Angel Coira from Argentina to a one-year contract. Not really newsworthy, except that Coia – who goes by the nickname “Leo,” after favorite player Lionel Messi – is 7 years old. Seven. He’s a second grader. And he has a professional contract.

Before I start to rant, let me make it clear what Coira does and does not have. Coira will not be playing on the Real Madrid team that competes in La Liga, Spain’s uber-competitive professional soccer league. He will not play adult professionals, unlike Diego Fagundez, the 16-year-old from Leominster, Mass., who’s now a member of the New England Revolution.

Coira is signed to Real Madrid’s “Benjamin” squad, the youngest Real Madrid team, made up mostly of players under 9. Basically, Coira has an annually renewable contract with Real Madrid’s development program, and if Coira sticks with soccer long enough to reach the top level (around age 16), he will be on the fast track to signing with a club whose players average more than $7 million a year. Until then, neither the parents nor the team are at fiscal risk: the team pays for transport and training without further compensating Coira’s family.

The deal is about as sensible as a deal for a 7-year-old can be. All the same, this is lunacy.

No 7-year-old is mentally prepared for the rigors of a professional training program. Children that age are barely self-aware enough to even know if they like something or not, let alone to weigh the pros and cons of the time commitment joining a program like this will be. Starting a child on a program this intense is a mistake. Coira is going to burn out on soccer, and burn out fast.

I learned in sports psychology that giving your child the best competition and the best coaches won’t actually make him or better better. Starting him or her early will lead to earlier excellence but a briefer athletic career. Limiting him or her to one sport early will stunt the child’s social growth and put him at higher risks for drugs and behavioral issues. Don’t believe me? Just ask Jennifer Capriati.

So, so many child prodigies get pushed too early to the big stage, and they crash and burn. If Coira’s parents really want him to be a soccer superstar, they should take him out of this program immediately. It is a mistake to push him this far so early in his life. He might be a fantastic soccer player for his age, but the social skills he would develop learning how to teach weaker teammates in less competitive leagues will be far more beneficial to him later in life.

Most MLB teams have at least one “academy” in the Dominican Republic, signing players as young as 17 (and actually paying them) to come live and train and learn. When they reach the proper age and developmental level to transition to the U.S. minor leagues, they’re already in a team’s system, with experienced administrators having long since handled paperwork issues like work visas. Teenagers have already gone through at least a few stages of social development, and their self-awareness and resolve are strong enough that their professional aspirations can be taken more seriously.

Soccer in Spain takes the “get ’em while they’re young” strategy to a far more dangerous extreme. According to the AP report, most of the Spanish soccer teams have developmental programs, including Barcelona’s “La Masia,” a soccer complex and dormitory for dozens of players 11 and older. How can you trust the intelligence of children that young enough to think this is what they really want? And if they don’t know what they want, how can you?

When I was 7, I wanted to be a “library go-to.” My parents treated that goal as the adorable ramblings of a young child, as they should have. All desires are brief flights of fancy at that age. Any push to achieve those desires is far more reflective of the parents’ dreams than their child’s.

Coira is a 7-year-old who will now be expected to continue with soccer for the next 30+ years of his life. At some point, the thought of doing the same thing for that long is going to feel toxic.

When that happens, hopefully Coira will be mature enough to get out with his soul intact.

Five Thoughts from Red Sox-Yankees

Josh Reddick's 10th-inning single gave the Red Sox the victory Sunday night in a series that highlighted both teams strengths and weaknesses. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The Red Sox beat the Yankees 3-2 in 10 innings Sunday night, a game that took well over four hours and had maybe two exciting innings. With the victory, the Red Sox won their fourth consecutive series against the Yankees this season, clinched the tie-breaker for the AL East and retook the division lead.

So what did we learn? Here are my initial five thoughts:

1) The Red Sox and Yankees will see each other in the ALCS. Despite my concerns about Justin Verlander (my pick for AL Cy Young) or Jered Weaver in a short series (notice I fear no Rangers pitchers), I don’t see any teams in the AL on par with the Red Sox or the Yankees. The Yankees lead the wild card by seven games, and they rarely collapse late in the season. The AL East will send two teams to the postseason this year, and no team has the offense to hang with them or beat them, setting up the first Red Sox-Yankees ALCS since 2004. While I certainly would prefer the Red Sox to win the AL East, they are the best road team in the majors. The wild card would not be catastrophic for the Red Sox, even with the enhanced atmosphere of the playoffs.

2) Boston’s rotation is still better than New York’s. Just one starting pitcher recorded a victory this weekend: John Lackey… the guy with the ERA over 6.00. Three starting pitchers took no-decisions, and two – Jon Lester and CC Sabathia – lost. Lester’s loss was due to one bad inning, the same problem that has plagued him throughout his career. Given Lester’s career winning percentage of 70.6, however, the Red Sox can still confidently send him out in a Game 2 of a playoff series. Sabathia’s loss is far more problematic for the Yankees. Sabathia is 0-4 with a 7.20 ERA against the Red Sox this season. By comparison, Josh Beckett – who took a no-decision Sunday after making basically one bad pitch in six innings – is 3-0 with a 1.00 ERA. Given a seven-game series, the Red Sox are far better set up. Beckett can beat Sabathia, and Lester can beat anyone. No matter how many stem cells Bartolo Colon eats, I still go with Lackey in a Game 3, because he always has the potential for a quality start (Erik Bedard pitches Game 4, or maybe reverse that if Bedard pitches well down the stretch). With or without Clay Buchholz, you still have to like Boston’s odds. However….

3) The Yankees have the bullpen edge. Yes, the Red Sox won Sunday by beating Mariano Rivera, in no small part because of Marco Scutaro‘s third four-hit game ever with the Red Sox. Most nights, however, Rivera is going to get it done. Phil Hughes, the Yankees’ losing pitcher Sunday, was a starting pitcher getting extra work in. Take them out of the equation, and you have two games (Friday and Sunday) in which the Yankees’ bullpen completely dominated the Red Sox. If a starting pitcher for the Yankees can’t get it done (which frequently seems to be the case), they should feel way more comfortable with turning a game over to the bullpen. The Red Sox have some decent relievers: Jonathan Papelbon is pitching for a mega-deal, Daniel Bard has shook off his early-season jitters, and Dan Wheeler – who I thought was a great off-season pickup – is finally coming around. But Boston’s overall bullpen ranks just middle-of-the-pack in the AL, whereas New York’s ranks near the top. Blowouts are hard to come by in the playoffs, and the Red Sox might need one more quality arm to lock down late-game leads. Which brings me to…

4) When is Tommy Hottovy coming back? Seriously, can someone explain to me why Franklin Morales and Randy Williams are still on the big-league roster? Morales has an ERA of 4.40 and looks out-of-sorts on the mound. Williams (6.48 ERA) is a complete mess. The Red Sox may need two lefties, but shouldn’t one of these crap factories be sent down or even DFA’d? They bring nothing to the table. Tommy Hottovy, meanwhile, has a 2.16 ERA and .171 opponent batting average in the minors this year. I don’t know that Hottovy is the lefty specialist the Red Sox need; he certainly wasn’t in his first trip to the majors. But if what the Red Sox currently have isn’t working, isn’t the definition of insanity to keep trying it and hope something different happens? The rosters will expand in three weeks. If both Morales and Williams haven’t settled down completely, I say the Red Sox bring up Hottovy and at least give him another shot.

5)The Red Sox and Yankees have different offensive strategies. The Red Sox lead the majors in hits, runs, RBIs, doubles, total bases, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and (logically) OPS. The only offensive category the Red Sox don’t rule is home runs, a category which belongs to the Yankees. Sunday night highlighted the differences in how the Red Sox and Yankees score runs. The Red Sox use a “continuation” offense: leadoff hitters get on base, then power hitters drive them in without clearing the bases via the homer, forcing pitchers to always throw from the stretch and leaving them always vulnerable. The Yankees, on the other hand, score in brief, powerful moments. When the Red Sox offense is on – like it was Saturday – the team has 10-run games or even innings. In close games, however, the Yankees’ offense is more likely to get that one game-changing hit. One Red Sox hitter – Sunday night it was almost Jacoby Ellsbury, who personally stranded nine base-runners – can derail their offense. The Yankees don’t run that risk. We’ll see which strategy works better in the playoffs.

Examining BUDA Hat’s Orientation Towards Novice Ultimate Players

BUDA's hat league show stay oriented towards rookies

At a post-victory BBQ a few weeks ago, my Ultimate teammates and I discussed an interesting question: is the BUDA (Boston Ultimate Disc Alliance) hat league’s orientation towards newer players bad for the league? Some of us argued that creating a rookie-friendly league increases the likelihood of people returning for future seasons, making Ultimate a larger part of their lives. Others argued that the prevalence of rookies has so watered down the competitive level that the many high-level club Ultimate players in Boston have left BUDA to play elsewhere.

Having sat through over half a dozen captains’ meetings, I can’t deny that BUDA – especially the hat league – is geared towards less experienced players. BUDA has instituted multiple rules to further that end, including prohibiting the more complicated “zone” defense until at least the third game, banning the effective but potentially dangerous foot-block while marking, and allowing stoppages of play to explain rules (with occasional do-overs). These rules seem to help: I’ve seen multiple Ultimate novices join teams and so enjoy the slow learning curve that they return for future seasons. As a captain, nothing gives me more pleasure than working with rookies, then seeing how much they’ve improved a year later.

In college, I played for Nietzsch Factor, Wesleyan University’s men’s team. We were a highly focused, highly intense, but also highly negative Ultimate team. For three years, this style was fun because, á la the early-2000s Patriots, we believed everyone hated us and it was us against the world. It stopped being fun when our negativity turned inward in my senior year.

I graduated from Wesleyan in 2005, and I’ve never played men’s Ultimate since. I played in an Ultimate tournament in Wisconsin last summer, and during a bye went to watch a men’s club game. That same intensity, that same anger, that same negativity were all still there. Up until that tournament, I had planned to play for Boston University’s men’s team in the fall. After watching that game, I realized I didn’t want to go back to that style of play. I no longer cared enough about a possible travel, a weak foul or a questionable pick. It no longer seemed worth all the bitching.

I love playing for BUDA because it offers a style of Ultimate devoid of all that. I won’t say I’ve never seen an argument on the field or a player with terrible spirit. I will say the majority of the BUDA games I’ve played have been positive experiences. I’ve played on teams that didn’t win a game, but the players still had fun were proud of their development across the season. And I’ve played on highly successful teams, and none have felt the need to show up their defeated opponents.

After watching an Ironside game, I believe that even if there are many high-level club Ultimate players in Boston, I do not believe want these players in my league. The idea of a higher competitive level at the expense of fun-loving teammates (it’s been my experience that regardless of gender, the more talented an Ultimate player is, the more obnoxious the on-the-field personality) does not appeal to me.

The teammates who argued for kicking Ultimate novices to a year-round learning league (for which no one could suggest a method of funding, by the way) talked about how playing more talented players “takes their game to the next level.” Quite simply, I don’t give a shit about that. I don’t believe there’s an Ironside or DoG player hidden inside of me that better competition would draw out. I would not improve playing far better opponents; I would just get discouraged and frustrated. I like when my teammates and opponents are all around my level. Some variation – a lot, even – is fine, but ultimately I want to feel like a contributor on my team, not a detractor. I want to get exercise, meet new people and have fun playing my favorite sport.

I imagine many BUDA hat players think the way I do. I’ve played enough seasons to recognize (and maybe even be counted among) the true veterans of the league. If they wanted a higher level of play, by now they would have left or at least supplemented BUDA Hat with a club team (as many players I know have done).

Those who stick around must surely do so because they like this level of competition. So I say keep letting the rookies in, acclimating in drips and drabs to the techniques and strategies of this most awesome sport. And If a player from Bhodi mocks our game behind my back, screw ’em.

It’s not their league, anyway.