Kevin Youkilis Was Theo Epstein’s First Super-Prospect

More than anything he did in the Majors, Kevin Youkilis heralded the arrival of the Red Sox farm system as one that could create superstar after superstar. (ianonsports.wordpress.com/Sports Illustated)

Former Red Sox Kevin Youkilis wrote a letter to Red Sox Nation Sunday. Youkilis thanked his coaches, his teammates, his family and his fans for what he called the “honor and a privilege to play every home game of my career in Boston before a sold out Fenway Park.”

Classy move by a classy guy, no matter what anyone else may say about his character. But Youkilis brought so much more to the Red Sox than just class.

Youkilis Soared From Game 1

Youkilis’ arrival signaled the beginning of a new age in Red Sox history. From his first game on May 15, 2004 – a 4-0 win over the Blue Jays in which Youkilis batted 2-for-4 with a home run – Red Sox Nation knew they had someone special.

The Red Sox knew it too, putting him on both ALDS and World Series rosters that season. He only appeared in one postseason game, going hit-less in Game 2 of the ALDS, but Terry Francona had him stick around, just in case.

Youkilis played with the fire and grit Red Sox fans have always loved and identified with, making him an instant favorite. “Yoooouk” chants at Fenway Park filled became as commonplace as Fenway Franks or Wally the Green Monster.

Youkilis may never have been the most popular player on team – David Ortiz pretty much has that role locked down – but he was always a fan favorite.

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Boston Sports Review, 2011 Edition

Tim Thomas hoisting the Stanley Cup in triumph was easily the highlight of 2011 for Boston sports. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Humankind has always felt a deep need to chart the passage of time.

I’m a human.

That’s as much of a transition as you’re getting into my third annual review of the previous year in Boston sports, which in 2011 saw three teams win their division and one win it all.

Boston Bruins

• 2010-11 Final record: 46-25-11, Northeast Division Champions; defeated Vancouver Canucks in 2011 Stanley Cup, 4-3

The Bruins ended a 39-year championship drought on the back of Tim Thomas, who submitted perhaps the greatest single season in NHL goalie history. He set an NHL record for best save percentage, then won his second Vezina Trophy (top goaltender in the league), the Conn Smythe Trophy (MVP of the playoffs) and, oh yeah, the Stanley Cap.

Before they could win the Stanley Cup, the Bruins would submit three spectacularly entertaining playoff series. They beat the Canadiens in seven games in the quarterfinals, overcoming an 0-2 deficit and winning three games in single or double overtime. They next swept the Flyers, flushing the bitter taste of the previous season’s blown three-game lead against them. Finally, the Bruins played a hard-fought, evenly matched series with the Lightning that culminated in a penalty-free, 1-0 victory in Game 7 at the TD Garden.

The Bruins’ blue-collar hockey succeeding against the much flashier Canucks validated Boston’s long-suffering Bruins fans. The 2011 NHL playoffs so entertained me that I can finally count myself among them.

Continue reading Boston Sports Review, 2011 Edition

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.

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.