Red Sox Spring Training Update (3/5-11): Offense Clicking Early

Daniel Butler hits a three-run home run during the seventh inning of Monday's spring training game against the Minnesota Twins. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

One thing is clear a week into Spring Training: this Red Sox team can hit. In going 4-2-1 this week, the Red Sox averaged over five runs a game. Even with Jose Iglesias missing Sunday’s “B” game with a strained right groin, this crop of hitters look just as formidable as the league-leading 2011 Red Sox did.

Non-roster shortstop Pedro Ciriaco wins this week’s “Spring Training Player of the Week,” going 5-for-8. How did everyone else do? Here’s your weekly Red Sox Spring Training Update!

Red Sox 10, Twins 2

The Red Sox put Monday’s game away with a four-run second, beginning with a double by Darnell McDonald, who later scored on a single by non-roster invitee Josh Kroeger. A wild pitch moved Kroeger to second, Kelly Shoppach singled him to third, then Kroeger scored on RBI groundout. Shoppach scored on another wild pitch from Jason Marquis, and an RBI groundout by Ryan Sweeney chased Marquis and put the Red Sox up 2-0.

David Ortiz (2-3) led off the third with his first home run, and Boston scored five more in the top of the seventh to make it a 10-2 game. An RBI single by Will Middlebrooks (2-3) and an RBI ground-rule double by non-roster player Nate Spears made it 7-2, then Dan Butler‘s homer made it 10-2.

Clay Buchholz started and earned the win, pitching two scoreless innings while giving up just two walks with two strikeouts. Buchholz’s injury last year completely derailed both the pitching rotation and probably the season. A healthy Buchholz makes Boston’s top three starters as good as there is in baseball.

Red Sox 5, Orioles 4

Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia showed exactly whey they should be the Red Sox’s first two hitters Tuesday, with Ellsbury doubling to start the bottom of the first and reaching third on a single by Pedroia. Ellsbury then scored on a sacrifice fly from Ryan Lavarnway. Lavarnway added an RBI single immediately following Adrian Gonzalez‘s RBI double in the third.

Daniel Bard started, and Alfredo Aceves relived him in the third. Two players expected to play big roles on the Red Sox this season, Tuesday they combined for four no-hit innings, striking out four and giving up just one walk.

Red Sox non-roster pitcher Alex Wilson gave away the lead with four runs allowed over 1+ innings, getting lifted with none out and a man on second in the sixth. Clayton Mortensen came on, stranded the runner and threw 2 1/3 innings in which he gave up just one hit and struck out four.

With two out and Spears on second in the seventh, Ciriaco doubled to put the Red Sox up 5-4. Michael Bowden set the last five Orioles down in order for the save and a win for Mortensen.

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2012 Red Sox Preview: Infielders

Left to right: Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis highlight the 2012 Red Sox among the infielders and DH. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images North America)

Starting this week, Sports of Boston kicks off a weekly preview of the 2012 Red Sox. We’re starting with the infielders, who last season provided most of the pop on the league’s top-ranked offense.

You’ll need to check SoB to get the entire preview, but I handled the infielders. And here they are!

Corner Infielders

Adrian Gonzalez will start at first base come April. He tied for the league-lead in hits last year with 213, came in second with a .338 batting average and ranked among the top 10 in RBIs (117, fifth), doubles (45, sixth), on-base percentage (.410, sixth), and OPS (.957, seventh). Dismissing any preseason fears of an NL hitter struggling at Fenway, Gonzalez set personal-bests in hits and OBP while playing Gold Glove-winning first base.

Some analysts say Gonzalez faltered in September, leading to the Red Sox’s historic collapse, but the numbers don’t back up that claim. Gonzalez is an absolute game-changer with maybe the most beautiful swing in baseball.

Kevin Youkilis, meanwhile, starts at third. Injuries have limited Youkilis the last two seasons, knocking his total games from 135+ from 2006-2009 to 120 and 102 since 2010. Those absences have likely affected his sense of pitch-location, something once so strong it earned a two-page spread in Michael Lews’ Moneyball.

When he’s healthy, Youkilis is an athletic third baseman with tremendous plate-discipline. He’s just as capable of hitting a home run as he is drawing a walk. He’s also adaptable, able to hit in different lineup spots and move to first base (where he won a Gold Glove in 2007) without sacrificing success.

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Movie Review: “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill

"Moneyball," starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill

I accompanied Starpulse.com writer Evan Crean to a Sept. 7 press screening of “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. Moneyball: the Art of Winning an Unfair Game is one of my favorite sports books, and I was eager to see how a book that mixes the history of sabermetrics – baseball’s statistics-based evaluation method – with a year-in-the-life look at Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and the 2002 season would translate on the screen.

The answer: not all that well.

Why is an Aaron Sorkin-helmed Film so Slow?

“Moneyball” moves incredibly slowly, crawling through dialogue scenes. That’s especially infuriating considering the script was written by Aaron Sorkin, writer of “SportsNight,” “The West Wing,” “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “The Social Network,” among others. Sorkin’s dialogue works best when it’s quick-paced and self-referential to the point of almost being cyclical:

For some reason, every dialogue scene in “Moneyball” begins and ends with extended periods of people staring at each other. They don’t talk. They don’t communicate non-verbally. They rarely emote in any way. They just look at each other. Cutting these moments would have taken 15 minutes off a 133-minute film.

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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

Kinsler and Hamilton Each Drive in Three as Rangers Crush Red Sox

Adrian Beltre connects on a single, the 2,000th hit of his career, during the Rangers' seven-run sixth inning of Sunday's game at Fenway. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

If the Red Sox and Rangers face each other in the playoffs, the scorekeepers had best prepare: there will be runs, and lots of them. Sunday afternoon at Fenway was no exception.

The Rangers banged out 15 hits and 11 runs against John Lackey and the Red Sox bullpen Sunday, winning the game and the series, 11-4.

The Red Sox fell to 1.5 games behind the Yankees, who beat the Blue Jays 9-3 Sunday, in the AL East. They still lead the Rays in the wild card race by eight.

Continue reading Kinsler and Hamilton Each Drive in Three as Rangers Crush Red Sox

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.

Crawford Singles Twice, Drives in One in Return; Red Sox Clobber Orioles Bullpen

Carl Crawford went 2-5 in his return to the Red Sox Monday night in Baltimore and scored two runs, including in the eighth on a 3-RBI double by Darnell McDonald. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The Red Sox needed 16 innings to score one run Sunday night in Tampa Bay. Twenty-four hours later in Baltimore, they needed just half that to score 15. Boston broke a 7-7 tie with an eight-run eighth inning, and Carl Crawford returned to the Red Sox with two hits, two runs and an RBI. The Red Sox beat the Orioles, 15-10.

Boston Batters Baltimore Bullpen in Eighth Inning

Both Orioles starter Brad Bergesen and Tim Wakefield dominated at times (Bergesen in the first and second, Wakefield in the third and fourth), but at other times they were anything but, setting up a 7-7 tie heading into the eighth inning. Darnell McDonald drew a pinch-hit walk off reliever Mike Gonzalez, moved to second on a Marco Scutaro single, then to third on a Jacoby Ellsbury walk. Scutaro and Ellsbury saw a combined 17 pitches in their at-bats.

Mark Worrell relieved Gonzalez with one out and the bases loaded, but he fared no better than Gonzalez. Dustin Pedroia bounced a 3-2 pitch off the right-field wall to plate two, then Kevin Youkilis knocked in two more by taking the first pitch he saw back up the middle.

Chris Jakubauskas was brought in to stop the bleeding, but instead he continued Baltimore’s downward slide. Josh Reddick walked on four pitches to re-load the bases, then Crawford singled to right to drive in Adrian Gonzalez, whom Worrell had intentionally walked. McDonald capped the eight-run inning by doubling down the third-base line, clearing the bases and putting the Red Sox up 15-7. The Red Sox sent 12 men to the plate in the eighth and scored 8 runs.

Crawford 2-5 in Return

Crawford entered Monday’s game 4-10 against Bergesen, making Bergesen an excellent pitcher to face in his first game back. Crawford grounded out to second on a 3-2 pitch in the top of the second, but singled up the middle to lead off the fourth. Crawford later scored from second when Scutaro’s grounder went through Orioles first basemen Derrek Lee‘s legs and into right field. The run put the Red Sox up 4-2, and Scutaro would score on an Ellsbury sacrifice fly to make it 5-2.

Crawford showed no problems with base running Monday night, trying to steal second in the top of the fourth on a pitch that Jarrod Saltalamacchia singled, and sprinting down the first-base line in the seventh to try to beat out a soft grounder to second. Crawford was called out on a play that could have gone either way.

Crawford also flew out to center field in the fifth. He caught or fielded every ball hit to left field.

Wakefield Can’t Hold Lead, Bullpen Takes Over

Wakefield recorded the first two outs of the bottom of the first easily, but then gave up back-to-back singles. Lee then took the second pitch he saw to deep center. The hit’s trajectory must have confused Reddick, who took a very poor route to the ball, getting fully turned around before the ball bounced off the wall behind him. Two runs scored, and Lee made it all the way to third.

The Red Sox took the lead back in the top of the third, with Saltalamacchia homering before the Red Sox hit four consecutive singles. Pedroia’s plated Scutaro to tie the game and extend Pedroia’s hitting streak to 16 games, and Gonzalez’s plated Ellsbury (3-4 as a DH with three runs, an RBI and a walk) to put Boston up 3-2. Reddick’s fifth-inning home run extended the lead to 6-2 after Boston’s two-run fourth.

Wakefield was in line for his 199th win, but two-run and solo home runs to J.J. Hardy and Adam Jones in the fifth cut Boston’s lead to one, then DH Nolan Reimold doubled to left with the bases loaded to give the Orioles a 7-6 lead. Wakefield exited the game one out shy of qualifying for the decision. Because of two passed balls by Saltalamacchia, only three of the seven runs Wakefield allowed were earned.

With Wakefield unable to finish the fifth, the Red Sox turned to Dan Wheeler, who rose to the challenge, stranding both inherited base-runners. Wheeler went 2.1 innings and allowed just a walk. He picked up his second win of the season and helped minimize bullpen usage on a night devoid of fresh arms. Mike Gonzalez took the loss, but it was Worrell who allowed all three of Gonzalez’s base-runners to score.

The Red Sox tied the game in the top of seventh when Youkilis singled off Jason Berken to drive in Ellsbury, who had singled off Troy Patton.

Randy Williams struggled through the eighth, giving up three runs on three hits, a walk and a strikeout, but Franklin Morales struck out the side in a perfect ninth to secure the win.