Punto Powers Red Sox Past Blue Jays and Into Fourth Place

Nick Punto watches the flight of the ball after hitting a home run off Blue Jays pitcher Carlos Villanueva during the ninth inning of Saturday's baseball game in Toronto. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young)

Ask anyone – teammate, coach, manager, reporter – and he’ll tell you the same thing: Nick Punto is still finding his swing.

Punto found his swing Saturday at Toronto’s Rogers Centre, going 3-for-4 and falling a triple short of the cycle while driving in two and scoring two runs. The Red Sox beat the Blue Jays, 7-4, moving into sole possession of fourth place in the AL East.

Punto’s first hit came in a second-inning sequence of four consecutive Red Sox hits, beginning with a Ryan Sweeney single, off Blue Jays starter Kyle Drabek. After Will Middlebrooks drove in Jarrod Saltalamacchia and moved Sweeney to third with a single to right, Punto doubled to score Sweeney and make it 2-0 Red Sox.

With Middlebrooks and Punto on second and third, Daniel Nava then hit a line drive at Colby Rasmus in center field. The ball hit Rasmus in the glove and fell to the turf, and both Middlebrooks and Punto scored, putting the Red Sox up 4-0.

The play could’ve easily been ruled an error, but instead it was a called a two-RBI single.

Punto also singled in the top of the seventh but advanced no farther than second base, then homered in the ninth to make it 7-4 Boston. Facing reliever Carlos Villanueva, Punto crushed a 2-0 fastball into the second deck overlooking right field for his first home run of the season.

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Red Sox Spring Training Update (3/19-25): Lester to Start Opening Day, Jenks Charged with DUI

Dustin Pedroia reacts after getting hit by a pitch during Thursday's Spring Training game against the Yankees. X-Rays were negative, and Pedroia returned Saturday. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new Spring Training Player of the Week! With a .571 batting average, three runs, four doubles and an RBI in four games, Mike Aviles takes over. Hopefully this award propels him to a fantastic season, finally giving the Red Sox some stability at shortstop.

In other Spring Training news, Bobby Valentine picked Jon Lester to start Opening Day for the second consecutive year. And in a moment of true stupidity, Bobby Jenks crashed his car after taking too many muscle relaxers early Friday morning. Lee County police officers arrested Jenks and charged him with DUI.

The Red Sox finally had a bad week, going 1-6-1, bringing their record back to .500. Sports of Boston’s weekly Spring Training Update fills you in on the rest.

Twins 8, Red Sox 4

Jacoby Ellsbury‘s RBI single in the third Monday capped a three-run inning, and he finished with two of Boston’s nine hits.

The Red Sox led 3-2 going into the sixth, but Mark Melancon gave up a bases-loaded double to Minnesota center fielder Joe Benson, earning a blown save and the loss. Another rough outing from Scott Atchison (4.91 ERA in five appearances) made it 8-3 heading into the bottom of the ninth.

Felix Doubront started and went 4.2 innings, giving up two earned runs on eight hits, a walk and three strikeouts. Andrew Bailey allowed just a walk in a scoreless seventh.

Blue Jays 9, Red Sox 2

Daniel Bard started, giving up three runs in the second inning Tuesday but limiting Toronto to just a hit and a walk through his other four. Bard’s ability to let the second inning go suggests he has the composure to start games.

The Red Sox got two runs back in the bottom of the second on Aviles’ double and Kelly Shoppach‘s first home run of the preseason, but otherwise Blue Jays pitchers dominated, limiting the Red Sox to just five hits and a walk Tuesday.

Bard took the loss, but the bullpen really failed, allowing six additional earned runs. Of the five relievers Boston used, only Andrew Miller didn’t allow a run, and only because he left after two pitches with a strained hamstring. It was Miller’s second injury this March.

Continue reading Red Sox Spring Training Update (3/19-25): Lester to Start Opening Day, Jenks Charged with DUI

Red Sox Spring Training Update (Opening Weekend): Sox Offense Cruises in Three Games

Lars Anderson rounds third base after hitting a grand slam during the seventh inning of Sunday's spring training game against the Twins. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Just as winter finally rears its ugly head up in Boston, the Red Sox’s Spring Training schedule kicks off down in Ft. Myers, Fla. And with preseason games comes Sports of Boston’s weekly Spring Training Update! Need a recap on a certain game? Curious which minor leaguers and non-roster invitees are making names for themselves? Want to know how the Mayor’s Cup race is going, or maybe just what the Mayor’s Cup is? Look no further!

Just two days after losing one of their longest-tenured players to retirement, the Red Sox began their new preseason Saturday with a double-header against some upstart youngsters from Northeastern and BC. They began their quest to reclaim the possibly coveted Mayor’s Cup Sunday against the Minnesota Twins.

Red Sox 25, Huskies 0

The Red Sox’s 25-0 victory over Northeastern would be more impressive if a) the Huskies were a pro team, and b) the game counted for anything. Still, 25 runs! The Red Sox homered five times in this game, including one from Adrian Gonzalez and two from newcomer Cody Ross. Ryan Sweeney, another newcomer, went 4-for-5, while Will Middlebrooks went 3-for-5, all doubles.

The Red Sox lead 9-0 after the second – more than enough for their pitching. Jon Lester started and got the win, pitching two innings while giving up a single – one of just three Huskies hits Saturday, all singles – and striking out two. Michael Bowden and Matt Albers pitched the final three innings, giving up just a single between them while striking out five with no walks.

Continue reading Red Sox Spring Training Update (Opening Weekend): Sox Offense Cruises in Three Games

Red Sox Erred in Firing Francona, Should Cut Epstein Loose

Theo Epstein's bad personnel decisions caused the Red Sox's historic collapse this season. If anyone should be fired, it's Epstein, not Terry Francona. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

It’s too late to undo firing Terry Francona, a rash decision born from the kind of rabid bloodlust that few fanbases besides Boston’s are capable of. But if John Henry wants to cut out the true cause of the Red Sox’s historic collapse, he needs to go one level higher and axe Theo Epstein.

Player misuse caused by bad lineups, rotation or bullpen order can certainly kill a team, and that’s the manager’s fault. But this Red Sox team had a faulty foundation, and that’s the responsibility of the general manager who built it.

The rotten core that killed this Red Sox team began five years ago, when Epstein signed J.D. Drew and Daisuke Matsuzaka for big-time bucks. Drew’s pedestrian .264 average, 16 home runs and 57.2 RBIs per season have not been worth the cost, but that’s nothing compared with Matsuzaka. The Japanese so-called superstar was a dud in Boston, failing to contribute anything meaningful from 2009 until Tommy John surgery essentially ended his Boston tenure early this season. On top of that, he became one of the most frustrating, least entertaining pitchers in recent Red Sox history. Fans hated him, and that likely translated into less revenue from him than other pitchers. This is the exact opposite of what Epstein envisioned when he signed Matsuzaka.

Were these the only two bad contracts of the Epstein Era, he keeps his job. But these were just the beginning of a downward trend of spending big money on big games that could never hack it in Boston. For example: the 2010 John Lackey signing – a desperate, panicked attempt to prove to the fans a year after losing Mark Teixeira that Epstein could still attract major talent to as tough a media market as Boston. Lackey didn’t even have a particularly good 2009 (11 wins, fewest since 2003; 3.83 ERA, highest since 2004), but it didn’t matter: Epstein took him and his histrionics anyway. The result? A winning percentage barely above .500 and an ERA over 5.00.

Continue reading Red Sox Erred in Firing Francona, Should Cut Epstein Loose

Longoria, Upton and Kotchman all Homer as Rays Rock Red Sox, Cut Wild Card Lead to 3

Evan Longoria hits a three-run home run during the third inning of Thursday's game at Fenway Park. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

When nothing is going right, nothing is going right. Such was the case Thursday night at Fenway, when a freakish broken-bat grounder led to four runs by the Tampa Bay Rays, who homered three times to beat the Red Sox, 9-2, and cut Boston’s wild card lead to three games.

Broken Bat Ends Up Breaking Weiland

Through two innings, starter Kyle Weiland appeared on his way to at least the first quality start for the Red Sox since Sept. 6, and possibly his first major league win. Weiland retired his first seven batters before giving up a double to catcher John Jaso. Weiland walked Desmond Jennings with two outs, but his inside pitch to B.J. Upton broke Upton’s bat and started rolling towards Marco Scutaro.

The broken bat-head flew in the exact same direction as the grounder, unfortunately, landing in front of Scutaro moments before the ball reached his glove. Scutaro tried to side-step the bat and field the ball, but the two arrived so close that there was nothing Scutaro could do. The ball rolled between his legs, and Jaso scored to give the Rays a 1-0 lead.

Weiland should have been out of the inning, but instead he had to face Evan Longoria. Though Weiland reached two strikes on Longoria, he left a 1-2 pitch over the plate, and Longoria deposited it in the Red Sox bullpen in right-center to make it a 4-0 game.

Continue reading Longoria, Upton and Kotchman all Homer as Rays Rock Red Sox, Cut Wild Card Lead to 3

Red Sox Bullpen Spoils Erik Bedard’s Debut

Carlos Santana hits a two-run home run in the sixth inning of Thursday's game at Fenway Park. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The Red Sox bullpen folded Thursday night after two straight games without allowing a run to the Cleveland Indians.

Catcher Carlos Santana hit a two-run home run off Franklin Morales, and the Indians scored twice more off Andrew Miller to give the Indians a 7-3 victory and series split. Coupled with the Yankees’ 7-2 victory in Chicago, the Red Sox and Yankees are now tied for first in the AL East heading into their three-game series this weekend at Fenway.

Morales and Miller Can’t Lock it Down

Given a 3-3 tie in the top of the sixth, Morales struggled almost immediately. Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner (3-4, RBI, run) smashed a full-count pitch from Morales off the center field wall for a double, and Santana (3-4, 3 RBIs, 2 runs) crushed Morales’ very next pitch even farther, depositing it squarely over the wall for the 5-3 lead. Morales finally got a pop-up for the first out of the inning, then Alfredo Aceves gave up a double before striking out two to end the inning.

Miller struggled in his first relief appearance with Boston, pitching the final three innings and giving up two earned runs on four hits, two walks, four strikeouts and a hit batter. His command was especially off: Miller threw under 55 percent of his balls for strikes, getting called strikes only eight times. He also threw first pitch strikes to just seven of the 15 batters he faced.

Morales suffered his first loss of the season. The win went to Indians starter Justin Masterson (9-7), who beat the Red Sox for the third time in four career starts. He held the Red Sox to three earned runs on five hits, a walk and nine strikeouts (including four in the bottom of the second) in six innings.

Bedard Uneven in Red Sox Debut

Erik Bedard looked impressive in his first inning as Red Sox starter, striking out the first batter he faced and retiring the Indians 1-2-3 on 12 pitches. He looked just as strong in the fourth and fifth, not allowing a baserunner in either inning. He did not allow a leadoff Indian to reach base in any inning.

Bedard struggled in the second and third inning, however. Given a 2-0 lead to start the second, Bedard gave up a one-out single to Santana, who then tried for third on a single to right by right fielder Kosuke Fukudome. Santana was safe and Fukudome went to second when Josh Reddick‘s throw from right field hit Santana in the back.

On the next play, Bedard made a curious mental error. First baseman Matt LaPorta grounded to the right side of the infield, and both Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez went for the ball. Bedard forgot to cover first base on the play, and LaPorta reached on the infield single, with Santana scoring and Fukudome moving to third with one out. Left fielder Austin Kearns then grounded out to first to tie the game 2-2. Had Bedard covered on LaPorta’s grounder, there would have been two outs and Bedard might have escaped the second inning with the lead.

In the third, Hafner’s two-out single put runners on the corners, and Santana blooped one over the infield for the RBI single.

Of Bedard’s 70 pitches – purposefully kept low while he continues to regain arm strength after a knee injury put him on the DL – 49 were for strikes. He threw 19 called strikes and 14 first-pitch strikes to 21 total batters. He also occasionally showed some power, blowing the fastball past hitters.

Boston Scores off Masterson, Can’t off Bullpen

Masterson entered the game with a 1.25 ERA against the Red Sox, but the Red Sox raised that in the first inning alone. Jacoby Ellsbury (2-3, walk, run) led off the bottom of the first with a single and moved up on a fielder’s choice by Pedroia. Gonzalez doubled an 0-2 pitch off the Green Monster, scoring Ellsbury giving Boston a 1-0 lead and extending Gonzalez’s hitting streak to 14 games. David Ortiz later singled in Gonzalez to make it 2-0.

Reddick’s fourth-inning solo shot tied the game 3-3.

The Red Sox almost erased Santana’s home run in the bottom of the sixth, when a walk and an error put men on first and second. Reddick lined out to right, however, and Jason Varitek struck out for the third time to end the scoring opportunity.

The sixth would be Boston’s last chance to get back in the game: Cleveland’s bullpen allowed just a walk over the final three innings of the game, retiring the Red Sox 1-2-3 in both the eighth and ninth.

Red Sox Risk Little With Bedard and Fields

Erik Bedard didn't cost the Red Sox much, so he doesn't have to do much to make the trade successful. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

The Red Sox didn’t make a big splash before the 2011 Trade Deadline. There was no Victor Martinez brought in, no Jason Bay. On the other hand, it’s unlikely the Red Sox traded for the next Eric Gagne, either.

The Red Sox traded for Seattle starter Erik Bedard and right-handed reliever Josh Fields. They in turn had to give up pitchers Juan Rodriguez (a Single-A Greenville pitcher about whom it’s too early to tell) and Stephen Fife (11-4, 3.66 ERA at Double-A Portland), and catcher Tim Federowicz (a .275 hitter with .397 slugging at Portland). Federowicz might have eventually made it to Fenway, but Jarrod Saltalamacchia‘s development this year has solved some of Boston’s catching needs for the immediate future.

In exchange for three minor leaguers, the Red Sox get a decent but not spectacular pitcher in Bedard. Although Bedard is just 4-7, his record has as much to do with Seattle’s league-worst offense as it does Bedard’s pitching. Before injuries killed his last few seasons, Bedard was at least a B+ pitcher. He pitched from 2002 to 2007 with the Orioles, compiling a 40-34 record with a 3.83 ERA. Not bad numbers, especially in the AL East.

Against the AL East (excluding Boston), Bedard is 18-13, although that is helped out greatly by an 11-4 record and 3.41 ERA against the Rays. If Bedard can sustain that level of success, the Red Sox will most likely be satisfied with the trade. Ideally, Bedard provides a stop-gap measure through August that lets the Red Sox ease off Andrew Miller, then maybe takes Tim Wakefield‘s place once Clay Buchholz returns. Miller doesn’t have the consistency yet to be a starter (especially in the playoffs), and Wakefield suddenly has a Pedro Martinez-like pitch limit of about 85 pitches, after which he becomes almost completely useless. A healthy Buchholz and Bedard is the best possible combination of three-four (or three-five, depending on Bedard’s spot in the rotation) pitchers.

Fields was good in Double-A but has struggled in Triple-A. He’s probably not in the Red Sox’s long-term plans unless he dramatically improves. These weren’t the two biggest names out there, but the Red Sox this year brought in relatively cheap talent that shouldn’t hurt the team too badly and might pay dividends.

The Red Sox never did get a right-handed outfielder, and this might anger Red Sox fans. What fans don’t understand is that the Red Sox didn’t need a righty who can platoon in the outfield, starting every game against lefty pitchers. Boston’s starting outfield of Carl Crawford (a career .262 hitter against lefties), Jacoby Ellsbury (.261 this season) and Josh Reddick (.409 this season) can all hit lefties with at least enough success to justify their playing time.

No, what the Red Sox might have needed was a right-handed bench player – ideally one who can play in the outfield – that can pinch-hit against lefty-specialist relievers. So far, Darnell McDonald and his .173 average (.212 vs. lefties), .333 slugging (just three homers and four doubles) and poor base-running has not been that player.

The problem with a player like that is that it’s really easy to over-value him. The Red Sox wanted someone who might very well get just 40 at-bats the rest of the season (maybe even just 30), and there was no way they were going to over-pay for that production. Carlos Beltran, Hunter Pence, Cody Ross – these were all players too good for what Boston wanted, so they didn’t bother shredding the farm system to do so.

The Red Sox have the best record in the American League. They have the best offense of either league, and they play better on the road than any other team as well. This last attribute suggests that even if the Red Sox don’t win the AL East, they would still do very well in the playoffs. They didn’t need to add more bats to their lineup; all they really needed was some insurance pitching just in case.

For what the Red Sox had to give up, Bedard and Fields remain low-risk, low-reward trades. Boston didn’t need to add much to continue winning, so they simply didn’t.

Ellsbury Homers Twice in the Heat to Give Red Sox Series Win in Baltimore

Catcher Craig Tatum looks on as Jacoby Ellsbury hits a third-inning solo home run during Wednesday's game in Baltimore. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

It was hot in Baltimore on Wednesday: 92 degrees, with enough humidity and sunshine to make it feel like 100. But not even the high temperatures could match the heat of Jacoby Ellsbury.

Ellsbury homered twice Wednesday afternoon, leading the the Red Sox to a 4-0 victory against the Orioles. The win gave Boston its fifth series victory in the row, a 4-2 road trip and a two-game lead in the AL East.

Ellsbury Generates the Power, Rest of Lineup Plays Smallball

Ellsbury broke a 0-0 game in the top of the third, when he took a 1-2 fastball from Orioles starter Jake Arrieta into the right field seats for the solo home run.

The Red Sox went up 2-0 when Josh Reddick (2-3 with a run and a walk) led off the fourth with a single, then took third on a double to deep right from Carl Crawford (2-3 with a walk and a stolen base). Two batters later, Jason Varitek successfully pulled the ball towards second base, grounding out but driving in Reddick.

Ellsbury homered again off Arrieta in the seventh, golfing a low 0-1 change-up to right field to extend Boston’s lead to three. His 15 home runs rank him third on the Red Sox.

The Red Sox tacked on one more smallball run in the eighth, with Crawford drawing a bases-loaded walk off Mark Hendrickson to score Adrian Gonzalez (4-5 with a run).

Dustin Pedroia extended his hitting streak to 18 games in the fifth, hitting a dribbler down the third-base line and beating out the throw for the infield single. Pedroia then stole second base, but advanced no further.

Miller Effectively Wild, Bullpen Wildly Effective

Andrew Miller didn’t exactly command the strike zone in his fifth start for the Red Sox – the heat probably influenced that – but he was good enough to get his fourth win. The ball frequently appeared to slip out of his hand, sailing far to the left. He threw first-pitch strikes to just 12 of the 24 batters he faced, and nine times went to three-ball counts. He walked six batters and struck out just three, throwing only 58 percent of his pitches for strikes. He enjoyed just one 1-2-3 inning (to be fair, Arrieta enjoyed none).

Miller’s wildness, however, might also have kept Orioles hitters out of rhythm. Baltimore managed no runs and just two hits – both singles – off Miller, and the first hit did not come until the fifth inning.

The Orioles best chance to score came in the bottom of the second, when Miller walked the bases loaded with one out. Even then the Orioles could not score, with catcher Craig Tatum grounding into a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning.

Miller exited with two outs and men on first and second in the bottom of the sixth. On came Matt Albers, and with him Boston’s bullpen domination. Albers needed just two pitches to strand the two base runners and end the inning. He then pitched a perfect seventh, striking out two.

Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon pitched with the same precision (even though it was no longer a save situation), with neither pitcher allowing a base runner in perfect eighth and ninth innings. The trio of pitchers need just 35 pitches – 27 for strikes – to retire the final 10 batters of the game.