Morning After: Conclusion

[For the first time ever, WordPress “ate my homework,” in the form of losing the last paragraphs of yesterday’s post.  They were a piece of peerless journalism, without equal in the annals of blogging, and now they are gone forever.  In their place, I attempted this clumsy restoration of my original thoughts.]

How can we not be disappointed in a team that was the best in the American League, if not all of Major League Baseball, for 4 ½ months of a six month season, but sandwiched that between a 2-10 start and an abysmal finish when they played some of the wort baseball in the majors?  And where do we go from here?  Most teams do not recover from a late-season collapse the following year, but such collapses are usually symptoms of teams on the way down.  The Red Sox don’t seem to fit that mold.  The management probably won’t blow the team apart and start over, but looking ahead to 2012 they will see a club with more to fix than they thought they had to fix before 2011.  The team is strong up the middle, though the catcher position is in transition, and they’ll be hard-pressed to match Jason Varitek’s game-calling abilities (though not his arm).  Third base, left field, and right field remain significant problems.  They need Youkilis back at third, and if they don’t get that they need a significant replacement there, plus less gimpy (Lowrie) and more skilled (Aviles) utility infielders.  They’ll probably have to tolerate Carl Crawford again in left field, but if he has another year like this one he ought to be out of there.  Right field is a black hole; I’ve been a J. D. Drew fan, but his age and physical condition obviate the possibility of his continuing as the starter.  Is platooning Reddick and McDonald going to get the job done?  Reddick showed signs this season of growing into a major league outfielder, but the jury is still out.  McDonald will aways be no more than a platoon guy.  To contend, they will have to get more out of 3B, LF, RF, and C, and at least hold their own at the other positions.  And as for the starting rotation, they need an aging but still effective Beckett, plus Lester and Buchholz, present and injury-free.  Alfredo Aceves could be moved into the rotation as a fourth starter.  The fifth starter is going to have to fall out of the sky, or come from outside.  He is not on the roster now.  I think it’s vain to hope that Erik Bedard is the answer; he’s been too injured for too long.  He might be OK as a middle reliever if he gets more rehab over the winter.  Miller is still a project, with some real upside as well as the obvious downside.  Lackey should be released; he was a sheer failure that no amount of reworking is going to fix.  Eat the money; we made a mistake.

As always, it will be fun to sit in on the Hot Stove League and see what happens over the winter.  There’s already talk that Francona, who meets today with Sox management, will ask not to have his 2012 team option exercised, essentially firing himself.  Was he losing control of the team this year?  Is he tired of the pressure?  Terry Francona brought the Sox their first championship since 1918, and another besides.  We will always love him for that.  But new human dynamics, new goals, new personalities, and just the need for change sometimes mean that it’s time to move on.  He will not be easy to replace.  But it’s not 2004 or 2007 any more, and we can’t cling to that.  So bring on the changes, bring on the new, and keep looking forward.  Meanwhile, in less than 5 months pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training.  I can’t wait.

And as for this postseason, I have only one viable option.  Go Tigers!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

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Morning After

I don’t usually blog about baseball.  On the one hand, I am not totally engrossed in the whole game but a fan of one team in particular, and one or two others a little bit.  So I am not a total metrics geek about the whole sport.  On the other hand, I also hate the raw, ragged, emotional and ignorant tone of much baseball commentary and blogging online, which reads like the dialogue of half-sloshed, aggressive partisans in some dive.  That sort of rant is not worth my time.  But this end of the 2011 regular major league baseball season was compelling for this fan.

Not for the first time, I have felt deflated on the first morning after a baseball season ended.  Because for Red Sox fans like me, it ended prematurely about midnight last night with a Sox loss in Baltimore.  Boston had been playing terribly all September, winning only about five games since Labor Day.  They led their division then, but by last night they needed a win over the Baltimore Orioles.  The Baltimore Orioles!  Last in our division, patsies all year.  I was reminded by the announcers of the enormity of the Sox’ domination.  Adrian Gonzales was hitting over .500 against them on the year; Dustin Pedroia hit 4 of his 21 homers off their sorry pitching; John Lester, last night’s starter, has a lifetime 14-0 record against their pathetic lineup.  Yet here they were, having won three out of the last five meetings against the Sox, bidding fair to keep Boston out of postseason play.  Now the Sox were up 3-2, it was the middle of the 7th.  Lester had pitched 6 great innings on short rest, weakening to walk 3 batters in the 6th but still keep the tying run off the board.  A band of tropical thunderstorms was rolling through the Baltimore/Washington area, and a downpour in Charm City suspended play.  Not what the Sox needed, probably.  I’m sure they hoped to get one more inning out of Lester, and then go to their Bard-Papelbon combo to close out the game.

But funny things happen when you stop for an hour in the middle of a game.  Some players’ muscles will tighten up; a pitcher with 80 or 90 deliveries in his arm already will not be sent out to risk the health of that limb after such a pause.  While the Sox were in the clubhouse waiting for the thunderstorm to pass and trying to keep loose, they got to watch the Yankees cough up a 7-0 lead over the Rays, who needed to lose to assure Boston of at least a playoff for the last post-season American League slot.  The Yankees did the Sox no favors, treating the contest like an exhibition game, using 11 pitchers at pretty much one per inning.  They were not giving 100% to win, but the uptight Rays had dug themselves a deep hole.  Inept New York hurling helped the Rays back into a tie by the time the Sox began again.  I will say that I do not blame the Yankees; if the situation had been reversed I’d have hoped the Sox would do the same thing to them.  Give no quarter, take no quarter.  No love lost.

The Red Sox endgame was pretty much what it has been for the last four weeks.  Since September they had not won a game in which they’d scored fewer than eight runs.  They had blown many late leads, as the setup/closer duo of Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon (season-long WHIPS of 0.93 and 0.96 respectively), perhaps overworked, had alternatively or in tandem coughed up a lot of runs.  Any way you look at it, you don’t want your setup guy to have 9 losses, as Bard does, or even to have your closer own 4 victories (though Paps blew just three saves all year and lost just once, last night!).  And last night was just another bad Sox game in September.  Papelbon struck out the first two batters in the 9th, with a wicked combination of a sinking two-seamer, a slider, and high heat (97 mph).  But you could see that after that second K he wanted to throw nothing but high heat.  He lost his head, started throwing instead of pitching, and just like that gave up a double on a 2-2 count, another double (tie game), and a single (season over).  Many major league hitters can hit 97 mph pitches if they know that’s what’s coming.  The catcher was a rookie; I  am guessing Varitek would have called a different game, and enforced his calls.

So we have all winter to think about it, even if we’re briefly distracted by pro football or the Bruins’ defense of the Stanley Cup.  Whom or what do we blame?  Injuries played a part.  Kevin Youkilis, the Sox’ cleanup guy, missed 1/4 of the season with injuries.  Mike Aviles, his most regular replacement at third, should not be in the major leagues as far as I can see; he hits erratically and for no power, and his glove is a liability.  The Sox starting pitching was decimated, with two of the projected five starters out virtually all year, and all the others serving time on the DL.  Weakness at a few lineup positions is another.  Left and right field were only sporadically productive, and catching was also uneven, bot offensively and defensively.  Third base sans Youkilis was a disaster.  Related to that is the issue of Theo Epstein’s effectiveness as general manager.  Theo has been good for the Sox for years, but he seems to have strayed from sound judgement of late.  He paid $100 million for Matsuzaki, and over five years Dice-K has had a 49-30 record.  That’s over $2,000,000 per victory!  Theo arguably overpaid for Carl Crawford, who got off to a horrible start but never recovered to any level above mediocrity, certainly not creating the dependable top-of-the-lineup dynamic with Ellsbury that the Sox had hoped for and needed.  And Theo overall really has blown the construction of the pitching staff.  Inept starting pitching is thus another reason for the decline.  How inept?  John Lackey, who “earned,” the home field start to begin the 2011 season, pitched to a 6.41 ERA, with only 9 quality starts out of 28 starts overall.  His propensity to give up runs early and then settle down left the Sox in many holes, and he garnered 12 victories only with the stupendous run support of the Sox’ lineup.  Josh Beckett, who was “demoted” to the fourth starter in the initial Sox rotation, ended up with 20 quality starts out of 30,  2.89 ERA, and 1.03 WHIP.  He and Lester were the only credible starters.  Sox pitching ended up depending on the likes of Andrew Miller, of great potential and erratic mechanics (12 starts, 1.82 WHIP), Kyle Weiland (5, 1.66), and Erik Bedard (8, 1.55).  The first two were expected to be in Pawtucket all year, the latter was a late-season acquisition who ended up averaging 4.2 innings for his 8 starts.  The loyal, willing, but aging and less able Tim Wakefield put up Lackey-like numbers, struggled for weeks to ring up his 200th career victory, and also failed to stem the tide of the late-season slump, in which the Bosox starters averaged 7.50 runs per start for the entire month. Things were so bad at the end that there were rumors a couple of days ago that Boston was looking to pick up a pitcher from another team to start the playoff game that would have been played today if the Sox had won last night.  An even more bizarre scenario than in 1948, when the Sox’ top hurlers were all reluctant to start the one-game playoff game against Cleveland, and Boston handed the ball to the likable but mediocre journeyman Denny Galehouse.  Finally, failed managerial leadership played a role.  I hate blaming Francona, because it is the players who perform on the field, and the manager can’t control that very much.  But Tito failed to control the team psychology and collective approach to September’s downward spiral.  I am not close to Boston scuttlebutt, but I am not aware that the Red Sox have a lot of problem personalities in the clubhouse.  They’re professionals, with relatively low egos and/or positively focused attitudes.  When things started to go downhill, Francona went with his “live in the moment” psychology, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future but focusing on the daily task at hand.  it was not evident that anyone on the team panicked or gave up.  But Francona did not find a way to turn the team’s underachieving, substandard performance around, just as he did not do that at the beginning of the season when they started off 2-10.  He couldn’t changed the dynamic, find a way to get the best from his players.  That’s got to be on him.

The Knee

As a septuagenarian, I am used to the idea that aches and pains are part of life.  Not that I’ve experienced many serious ones, but after intense exercise a muscle ache or a joint pain is not uncommon.  I have always thought that my aches and pains have been pretty minor, and reflect the normal stress of exercise: micro-tears in the muscle fiber, a bit of inflammation in a joint, or the like.  The universal truth is that more recovery time is needed at this time of life.  When I back off a little the recovery is easy and discernible.  In fact, these sore spots are almost always improved by exercise after recovery; they feel better after I ride again.

That’s why I was so taken aback about 12 days ago when I awoke in the pre-dawn to the feeling of severe pain in my left knee.  The day before I had ridden about 24 miles in my second time out after a week-long vacation.  I had not pushed myself very hard as I eased by stages back into more, longer, more intense rides.  I came home and felt unexpectedly good.  I had not gone too far, or gotten too intense, though I was pleasantly surprised both by my speed and my energy and strength level at the end of the ride.  Now here I was, twelve hours later, barely able to put any weight on my left leg.  The focal point was near the top of the kneecap, and apparent on top of it too, that is to say not “inside” the knee or the joint itself.  But the whole thing was very acutely sore, far, far worse than my usual low-level joint pains that I call (accurately or inaccurately)  “inflammations.”

For years I have been prone to “left-side” syndrome.  Everything that goes wrong with me seems to be on the left side of my body.  My left foot has a bunion.  My occasional gout-like symptoms are in that foot.  My left leg and top of the foot have varicose veins.  My left ankle was badly sprained about six years ago, and now that ankle is somewhat thicker than the other one, and perhaps a tad less flexible.  My left knee has tended to be the one that gets more “inflammations,” though the right one gets some too, and they arise in different places in and around each knee.  Ironically, I am left-handed, so I am more coordinated on that side of the body too.

Well, this knee inflammation was more difficult than anything of the sort that I have had to deal with.  For a couple of days I could walk only with great effort and will power.  Driving was difficult.  I had to climb stairs as if I were lame.  I could not sit in any position comfortably for very long, and even finding a comfortable sleeping position was hard.  Regular strength Ibuprofin was doing little for this, and the ice pack I used was keeping the swelling down but not decreasing the pain.  Finally, on the eve of a long Saturday drive, I discovered that soaking it in a hot bath loosened up things.  The epicenter of the pain was causing adjacent muscles to cramp up, and the heat was very relaxing.  On that Saturday I found a comfortable position for the drive, but still had trouble in sitting positions on chairs or in other cars as a passenger.  I was now taking prescription-strength Ibuprofin from an old bottle (yes, I know this does not conform to best practices), and these 600 unit bombs were starting to do the job.

Finally, by the following Tuesday, the pain was manageable, my knee was more flexible, and I had rested it enough so I started riding that Wednesday.  Now things are back to the way I expect them to be in a period when I am recovering form from a layoff.  Both knees are a little ginger right after i ride; within an hour they feel fine, and by the next day I am ready to exercise them again.  They’ll get stronger in the weeks ahead.  But I do wish I understood what happened to cause this recent very painful episode.  In recovery I had to skip riding on a couple of beautiful days, and I hate having to do that!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

“That other fall we name the fall”

I recently read that the seasonal term “fall” is an abbreviated version of an English expression “fall of the leaf,” dating to the 17th century.  “Autumn” goes back to the 14th century and derives from Latin.  While the English rejected their own phrase and prefer “autumn,” “fall” has taken on new life in the new world, and is the term preferred by Americans.  And American poets such as Robert Frost, whose lyric poem “The Oven-Bird” contains the (often misquoted) phrase that I use as the title above, have seen the connection between the waning of life in the fall season and the loss of innocence and spiritual purity.  Life itself in the Frost lyric has become a “diminished thing.”

As I resume serious post-vacation autumnal blogging, I feel all sorts of diminishings.

  • The days are shorter, and within a day or two the hours of darkness will be greater than the hours of light.
  • The weather has changed.  Coming home from the Dominican Republic after a week of warm sun, we were greeted by many gloomy days, and the news that 7 inches of rain had fallen in our absence.  Then during last weekend’s excursion to Ithaca, NY, “high above Cayuga’s waters,” it got downright cool.  Now it’s slightly warmer again, but humid and showery.
  • My conditioning has waned.  My body finally succumbed to too much indulgence and too little exercise.  Then I had to play catch-up with my teaching duties when I got home.
  • My left knee gave out.   When I did go out on conditioning rides, thinking I was working my way back gradually, my left knee got the mother of all inflammations.  Only a few days of staying off it and treating it with industrial strength Ibuprofen have got it under control.

But today was my first ride of what should be a 6-week rehab, involving both outdoor and indoor riding.  It was cool yet oddly humid, with air blowing in off the ocean.  The morning fog was just lifting, slowly because there were clouds above it and so no sun to burn it off.  The trail was empty.  I wore a long sleeve jersey for the first time this season.  And it felt great.  You know my knee is responding normally when it feels better after the ride than before it.

I was out there pretty much alone today.  A few joggers, dog-walkers, and baby strollers.  A couple of cyclists, and one bike rider of a genre I am seeing more of on the trail.  he seemed to have all his possessions on his person or his bike, in baskets and in backpacks.  He’s perhaps the suburban equivalent of the urban homeless guy who has all his possessions in a shopping cart.  He’s likely the victim of the ruthless economy, and the more ruthless economics of cutting social programs to balance budgets.  I hope I am wrong, but I would not be surprised if there are more of him in our future, the “hobo” of the new economy.  I think all of us as Americans, and the American virtue of compassion and caring, have “fallen” a bit when poverty increases and people lose their “place” in an affluent but ungiving community.

But we can all choose, I guess, to respond to things in cycling and in life as the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley did, hearing in the winds of autumn not the death knell of winter, but the “trumpet of a prophecy” of the coming spring.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.