Gammons: Red Sox find their personality
Boston rebounds as role players develop into key parts
In many ways, their poster boys are a guy who once sat on two phone books when taking his driver's test and got released by the Chico Outlaws, a 32-year old journeyman in his 14th professional season who loved baseball so much he never gave up -- even when Butch Davis asked him to quit Triple-A ball and run back kicks for the Cleveland Browns -- and two pitchers who weren't traded for Roy Halladay and Johan Santana.
Does it make sense that on the morning of June 21, the Red Sox had two starting pitchers and two outfielders on the disabled list, had used five left fielders, six center fielders and five right fielders and were leading the Major Leagues in runs, slugging and OPS? And were a game out, with the third-best record in baseball, the best since April 20?
These Red Sox have been a tapestry of remarkable stories. Daniel Nava and his 1.100 OPS and first-pitch career grand slam have been the joy of Tim McCarver's season. Darnell McDonald, who in 1997 was considered one of the five best talents in the First-Year Player Draft, signed with the Orioles to give his University of Texas running-back scholarship to Cedric Benson and turned down Davis and the Browns to keep plugging away on bus rides, has been a vital replacement part. Adrian Beltre has hit three moon shots on one knee and has hit .375 the past month. Their catchers are far and away the most productive in either league, and David Ortiz is 10th in the league in OPS, while of the top 29 American Leaguers in OPS, six are Red Sox.
But as they await the eventual returns of Jacoby Ellsbury, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jeremy Hermida and hope Mike Cameron will eventually get back his strength, what has the Red Sox back in the fight comes down to one simple lesson -- the development of their own pitchers.
While celebrity-watchers made the return of Manny Ramirez the weekend story -- OK, Daniel Bard struck him out to end Friday's game, the only relevant moment of Manny's weekend -- Sunday night's shutout by Clay Buchholz, Bard and Jonathan Papelbon emphasized that the most cost-efficient path to success is developing one's own power pitchers.
Since becoming a regular starter last Aug. 19, Buchholz has 16 wins, most in the American League, and in 2010 is second in the league in earned run average. He makes $443,000. Jon Lester, 8-2 and considered by his teammates the best pitcher in the league, makes $3.75 million. Bard leads the league in appearances with his easy 98-101 mph gas, and makes $415,500. The fourth member of the Fab Four, Papelbon, has earned his way to $9.35 million by running up a 1.92 ERA and 371 strikeouts in 327 1/3 innings in parts of six seasons.
Less than $14 million for four of the best pitchers in the league, without mentioning Felix Doubront, and you appreciate why one of Theo Epstein's finest free-agent signings was pitching coach John Farrell.
This has not been as easy as going 9-1 on their recent homestand looked. Yes, it was five weeks ago today when they came back from a 6-1 deficit in Yankee Stadium and lost, 11-9 (part of a remarkable three-day stretch in which Mariano Rivera got two losses and Papelbon one), and were ridiculed by one columnist because Theo Epstein had built a team based on "win prevention."
"Look, there's a long, long way to go in this season," says Dustin Pedroia. "We have a long way to go, and we can be a lot better. But we've gotten ourselves into the race. We've begun to establish a personality. We have to build on it."
Pedroia is a major part of this team's personality, brash, confident, energetic, hard-working. "It's only about winning," he says, time after time. It took time for Beltre and Marco Scutaro to be comfortable in Boston.
"It's a difficult adjustment coming to a city like Boston," says Jason Varitek. "It takes time."
Each had problems with the infield. Each was very quiet for the first six weeks. Now, they fit.
"Adrian loves the crowds, the passion," says hitting coach Dave Magadan.
"I love the fact that the fans are so into it, and know the game so well," says Scutaro.
The offense is built around the diamond: Kevin Youkilis is a superstar and is third in the league in OPS behind Justin Morneau and Miguel Cabrera; Pedroia's offseason conditioning program has made him more flexible and quicker, and he trails only Robinson Cano in virtually every offensive category; Scutaro is in the top three among AL shortstops in OPS, and in 2009-10 has one more extra-base hit than Derek Jeter; Beltre's OPS is up to .899; Martinez and Varitek have Boston catchers leading the league in homers, RBIs, extra-base hits and OPS, by 82 points.
When Beltre wiped out Ellsbury and broke his ribs the first week of the season, it left a huge hole in the lineup. Oh, talk show hosts questioned whether Ellsbury was hurt, which as Varitek points out "is totally unfair, and it's stupid." Four broken ribs, then another crack in his back.
"We're a different team with Jacoby in the lineup," says Pedroia, appreciating what it will mean when Ellsbury gets healthy and is in the leadoff spot, between Sctuaro at nine and Pedoria at two.
Cameron has been playing hurt, with a torn abdominal muscle. J.D. Drew has had a solid season but has had to play through two pulled hamstrings. Hermida also suffered cracked ribs in a collision with Beltre.
Earlier in the season, Terry Francona was stressed, with David Ortiz struggling, removed for a pinch-hitter and, at times, benched. Mike Lowell has not been happy about his playing time. Tim Wakefield felt slighted about being removed from the rotation for Matsuzaka.
With Ortiz regaining his strike zone and getting to 15 homers in fewer games than in any year in his career except 2006, most of those problems have been ameliorated. In the meanwhile, they have transitioned into a team based not around stars, but role players.
"Where would we be without McDonald and Billy Hall?" asks Francona. McDonald has played all three outfield positions and has gotten better. His plate discipline has improved. Hall has started at all three outfield positions, shortstop and second base ... and even pitched, hitting 92 on one gun.
And, of course, there is Nava. His story -- listed at 100 pounds on his driver's license, equipment manager his freshman year at Santa Clara, non-drafted, released and re-signed by the Chico Outlaws -- became well chronicled when he hit a grand slam homer on the first big league pitch he saw, on June 12. "How did this happen?" asked Dodgers coach Don Mattingly. "He's got a really nice swing. He looks like he can hit."
What was significant was that when Nava hit that grand slam, the Red Sox dugout erupted. Youkilis mobbed Nava as if he'd just hit a World Series walk-off piece. Ortiz lifted him out of the dugout for a curtain call. "This has been more than I could ever dream," says Nava. "After all these years, to be treated this way is unbelievable."
Francona deserves a lot of credit for molding the personality transformation. This is all you need to know about Francona: Over the weekend, Matsuzaka had to throw a simulated game, but with all the injuries and a day game after a night game, the Red Sox invited five players from the independent Brockton Rox to come to Fenway and provide the opposition for Matzusaka.
Between innings, the Red Sox went around to thank the Brockton players, and handed each a $100 bill. The manager, who has won two World Series in Boston, embraced them -- as the organization embraces Nava and embraces one of their top Triple-A relievers, Roberto Coello, who was released by the Reds and Angels as a catcher, pitched for Edmonton and Calgary in the Golden West League and was signed by the Red Sox. Pro scouting directors Allard Baird and Jared Porter even went to the Golden League tryouts this spring.
Varitek has also become a major ingredient in the team's personality. Here is an All-Star catcher who lost his everyday job when the Red Sox acquired Martinez, yet, according to Victor, "spent as much time with me preparing for games as he does with pitchers" earlier this season. When fans were booing Martinez, Varitek peered out of the dugout and implored one very vocal and beered-up fan to be quiet. "He's been playing for a month with an injured toe, and never offers an excuse," Varitek says of Martinez.
Varitek has been outspoken in his defense of Ellsbury, "when," says Varitek, "there should be no defense needed because he was seriously hurt. But ignorance should be called out." When Hideki Okajima recently struggled, it was Varitek who pointed out that circumstances dictated Okajima having to warm up several times in several games without going in. "That takes a lot out of him," says Varitek. Farrell agreed. "We're fortunate," he says, "that we have someone who cares as much about his teammates as Jason."
Perhaps the most fun part of these Red Sox is Beltre's swing from his knees. Three times he has dropped to one knee and jacked home runs; his shot Thursday night against Arizona almost cleared a parking garage across Lansdowne Street.
"The first thing I have to say is not to let kids do that," says Beltre, laughing. "It just happens. In every case, I was looking for a fastball and got a breaking ball. What I try to do is drop down and follow the downward flight of the pitch. I got lucky and hit a couple out."
Matsuzaka returns Thursday in Colorado, while the returns of Beckett and Ellsbury have no current timetables. Epstein has been looking for another outfielder and more depth for the bullpen, with no luck. Texas wouldn't even discuss David Murphy, and the Royals are waiting to think about whether they would trade David DeJesus or Rick Ankiel.
"I'm not certain exactly what we need right now," says Epstein. "We'll see in another month. In the meanwhile, we've really played well and gotten important contributions from people like Darnell McDonald, Nava, Hall and Scott Atchison."
Before the July 31 Trade Deadline, the Red Sox will know what they need and who they covet, and they will be able to afford one or two moves and may be in the heat of the race because they developed their four most important pitchers, who are costing them far less than what it will take next winter to sign Cliff Lee or Ted Lilly.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.