Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Game 121: Red Sox at Philadelphia Phillies (August 14, 2018)

Both the Red Sox and I had rest days yesterday. For them, it was a much needed break in the middle of a long season; for me, it was the first official day of my vacation and my first day back in my native New Hampshire in over a year. Being back in the heart of Red Sox Nation meant I was surrounded by like minded Sox fanatics so after the day off, I couldn't wait for the team to get back in action with this short two game series against the Phillies. While I hate interleague play (I think I've mentioned that once or twice, no?) I was curious to see how the Sox would fare. The last two games against Philadelphia that were played in Boston back in July ended in a series split with two low scoring games. I wanted to see if those were just flukes or if there was more to Philly than I  had previously thought.

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With Rick Porcello on the mound the Red Sox had as good a chance as ever to win this game. It was scoreless until the third when Sandy Leon hit his fifth homer of the season to put Boston up 1-0. It looked like Porcello was going to cruise through the game and for the most part he did, only surrendering a solo shot to Rhys Hoskins in the fifth. It seemed a shame that he may not get the decision in this one, so he must be thanking Brock Holt because his pinch hit homer in the eighth put the Sox up 2-1 which was enough for Craig Kimbrel. He picked up save thirty-six on the season and preserved the win for Porcello, who earned his 15th. Rick went seven strong innings only giving up two hits, the single run, and struck out ten without walking any. It was as dominant an outing as Chris Sale had two days ago and helped the Sox to yet another win against a good team. They outhit Philly 6-2 in another low scoring affair: in three games against the Phillies this season, Boston and Philadelphia have each scored five runs. They're either evenly matched or (more likely) Philly is just a tough match up for Boston. One last thing: buried in those six Boston hits was a 1-2 day at the plate for Porcello, who looks to be a decent hitting pitcher (remember his bases-clearing double in Washington in early July?).  What can't this guy do?

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The Yankees loss on Monday dropped them to ten games behind Boston in the AL East and that's how the standings remained with both teams winning Tuesday. The Sox will go for the sweep of Philly on Wednesday when Nathan Eovaldi takes the ball and looks to atone for his horrific start in Baltimore last week. That will set the team up for another off day Thursday (two in a week...strange, huh?) before starting a series at home against the tough Tampa Bay Rays. With only six weeks left in the regular season and some challenging series coming up over the next month, the best part of the major league baseball season has just begun. The Red Sox are 86-35 and are chasing history while giving us one of those seasons to remember. Make sure to savor every moment because seasons like this don't come around very often, if ever.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Game 120: Red Sox at Orioles (August 12, 2018)

Having taken the first three games of this series over the last two days, the Red Sox were in prime position to sweep the Orioles. Chris Sale was making his return to the rotation after being on the DL the last two weeks with mild shoulder inflammation and all eyes were on him and how he would pitch. There had been some concern over whether this was his usual wearing down toward the end of the regular season and what this would mean for his effectiveness in the postseason. What better way to ease back into the swing of things than an afternoon start against the woeful Orioles? The caliber of opponent aside, it turned out that the rest may have been exactly what Sale needed.

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The finale was a low scoring affair that was dominated (at least for the first five innings) by Chris Sale; he was absolutely filthy in his limited work. I understand that Alex Cora wanted to limit him in this one to ease him back in, but Sale made the most of his short stint in the game. In his five innings he only gave up one hit and struck out twelve batters without walking any...and he did it all with only sixty-eight pitches. That was more than good enough to lower his ERA to 1.97 and earn his twelfth win of the season. Offensively the Sox had a relatively quiet day, outhitting Baltimore 9-5 while being more effective with the hits they got. Steve Pearce, who's been pretty quiet since the Yankees series, led off the scoring in the first inning with a solo homer. JD Martinez drove in yet another run to add to his league leading RBI total with a double in the fourth that brought in Brock Holt. It stayed 2-0 for a while until Trey Mancini got Baltimore on the scoreboard with a sacrifice fly in the eighth to bring in Cedric Mullins. As they've done all season, though, this Red Sox team responded by scoring in the next inning. Jackie Bradley singled to drive in Eduardo Nunez and then scored when Mookie Betts' double pushed him across. Craig Kimbrel picked up his 35th save of the season by striking out three to secure the 4-2 win and the sweep. Bradley and JD each went 2-4 at the plate while everyone else besides Sandy Leon and Mitch Moreland chipped in with a hit each. It wasn't the greatest display of offensive fire power, but it was enough.

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With the division lead remaining at 9.5 games, the Sox will get two days off this week which is a true rarity. After resting Monday, they'll begin a two game series against the Phillies in Philadelphia before getting Thursday off. From there, the schedule gets much more difficult with two series against Tampa Bay (one home, one away) and a series with the Cleveland Indians for the first time this season. After games against the Miami Marlins and Chicago White Sox, another rugged stretch unfolds as the bulk of September is taken up with series against tough teams like the Houston Astros, Yankees, and Indians. There are some series mixed in with cellar dwellers like the New York Mets, Orioles, and Blue Jays which will give them opportunities to pick up some easier wins in the midst of the stretch run. No matter what happens, this has been an incredible season so far and looks like it's going to be exciting all the way to the end.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Game 119: Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles (August 11, 2018)

Well folks, it's JD Martinez' world...we're all just living in it. After taking the early game in this doubleheader, the Red Sox were trying to sweep the day and win the series by taking the first three games against the Orioles. With Hector Velazquez getting the start and recent call up Dan Butler starting at catcher to give Sandy Leon some much needed rest, it wouldn't have been at all surprising if the Sox dropped this game and split the twin bill. But as we've seen time and again with this team in 2018, there is no quit in them no obstacle seems too insurmountable for them to overcome. Leading the way was the best slugger in the league who put the Sox on his back and delivered when it mattered most.

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When the O's scored first in the second inning off of Renato Nunez' double, it seemed as though the Orioles just might win a game in this series. Trey Mancini added to the lead with an RBI single of his own in the third. JD was having none of that and added to his league leading home run total by hitting number 36 in the fourth to cut the Baltimore lead in half. Butler's sacrifice fly tied the game in the fifth and in the sixth the go-ahead run for Boston scored on a wild pitch ball four to Rafael Devers that allowed Steve Pearce to score. However, the usual suspect (Heath Hembree) allowed a home run to Joey Rickard which tied the game. For everything that Alex Cora has done right this season, which is almost everything, I will never understand why he continues to go with Heath Hembree game after game and especially in close situations. He has been utterly brutal this month and I would honestly rather see a struggling Joe Kelly, an inconsistent Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Brandon Workman, ANYONE else out there besides Hembree. Lucky for him, JD saved him from being the goat when he crushed his 37th home run of the season, this one with Pearce on base to break the tie and give the Red Sox some breathing room. Brock Holt added an insurance run in the ninth when his hit drove in Mookie Betts (though Holt himself was erased at second trying to stretch it out). Mancini hit a solo shot in the bottom of the ninth off of Craig Kimbrel, but Craig picked up his 34th save of the season (and the 100th of his Red Sox career) by striking out three and slamming the door shut on the 6-4 Red Sox win.

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While Mookie had a good game (2-5 and pushing his average up to .351), JD was the hero in the nightcap. He was an on base machine, going 2-2 with two runs scored, three RBI, and two walks while bumping his own average up to .332. He added to his league leading totals in home runs and RBI and is currently second in average behind Mookie...a legitimate Triple Crown threat. This guy has been worth every penny the Sox paid him (and probably more) not only for his hitting prowess but his leadership in the clubhouse. He's one of those rare players (like Mookie or Mike Trout) where every at bat is a must see just so you don't potentially miss seeing something incredible. The doubleheader sweep increased the division lead over New York to 9.5 games and sets the Sox up nicely to sweep the O's with Chris Sale pitching in the finale. While I wouldn't be surprised at all to see some rust on Sale given his layoff, with as good and deep as this team is (and as bad as Baltimore is) I'm confident that another win is in the cards.

Game 118: Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles (August 11, 2018)

Balance and order have been restored to the universe after last night's slugfest. After putting up a score worthy of an NFL game, these two teams got back to playing normal baseball for the afternoon half of a day/night doubleheader. David Price was on the mound and looked to continue his (mostly) strong run of recent pitching. With the news that Chris Sale's start was pushed back to Sunday (Hector Velazquez will start the nightcap of the doubleheader), it was important the Sox earned at least a split. So far, so good.

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This game was all Red Sox once the scoring started. Ironically, given the glut of scoring last night, there weren't any runs scored until the fifth inning of this one. Eduardo Nunez hit a two run homer followed by Jackie Bradley's solo shot to make it 3-0 and that was all Price needed. The Sox tacked on an insurance run in the sixth when Xander Bogaerts hit a double, stole third, and scored on a throwing error. In the ninth inning Jackie Bradley hit his second homer of the game (his 11th of the season) and Boston easily rolled over the Orioles to the final score of 5-0. Price pitched an efficient six innings, giving up five hits and walking no one while striking out ten. With the Yankees win, the division lead stayed at nine games. The Sox still have a chance to pick up a half game in the second half of the doubleheader, but quick and easy wins like this are exactly what the Sox need, especially when playing four games in three days against Baltimore.

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Saturday, August 11, 2018

Game 117: Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles (August 10, 2018)

Was that a football game or a baseball game? What it was was absolute insanity. In a season where we've seen just about everything from the Red Sox, this first game in the series against Baltimore might have been the wackiest game yet. I was at the Pawtucket Red Sox game in Indianapolis rooting on the Sox AAA team last night and watching the big league club on my phone at the same time. While the minor league game was a more typical baseball game that Pawtucket won 3-2, the parent club's game had so many wild swings and so much back and forth that I could barely keep up. It certainly wasn't what I was expecting against a bottom feeder like Baltimore, especially with the way Nathan Eovaldi had been pitching lately.

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Speaking of Eovaldi, let's get it out of the way right now: he was awful. 2.2 innings pitched, ten hits and eight runs given up (four of them earned), no strikeouts and two walks. He just didn't have it on this night, but let's face it: no pitcher on either team did. A pitcher's duel this wasn't. It actually looked like the Sox would be the ones running away with it early in the first inning when Xander Bogaerts clubbed a three run homer (his 17th of the season) to put the Sox up by three runs. The Orioles came storming back in the second beginning with Chris Davis' solo homer. Owner of perhaps the worst contract in all of baseball (at least from a team perspective), Davis pretty much only hits homers or strikeouts out...unfortunately he did the former. Cedric Mullins doubled to bring in a run and then Adam Jones singled to drive in two more. Just like that, Baltimore was up 4-3 and the madness was only getting started. A rare fielding error by Jackie Bradley (I guess he's human after all) resulted in a run scoring on a Caleb Joseph hit. It was a ball Bradley absolutely should have caught and I'm still stumped as to how he didn't, but no one's perfect so just chalk it up to happenstance. It hurt the Sox, though, because Baltimore plated a few more runs beginning with Mullins singling one in. This was followed by Jonathan Villar using a sacrifice bunt to push one across before the scoring finally ended with Tim Beckham's single. After that nightmarish sequence, the O's were up 8-3 and Eovaldi's night was finished. Bradley atoned for his error with an RBI triple in the fourth and subsequently scored on a passed ball during Mookie Betts' at bat. Brock Holt hit a solo homer in the sixth and Mitch Moreland's sacrifice fly brought in Bradely and the Sox were only down a run. With the bases loaded later in the inning, Xander walked to bring in the tying run and Rafael Devers walked to bring in the go ahead run. It's been a long time since I've seen consecutive walks with the bases loaded...that's usually what happens in my son's Little League games, not in the majors. Holt singled to bring in two and help clear the bases and give Boston the lead at 11-8. It was a lead they wouldn't give up the rest of the night, but they certainly weren't able to sit on it either. In the bottom of the sixth Beckham hit a homer and Davis hit a sac fly to pull Baltimore within a run, but it was in the seventh when Boston finally began to run away with it. Andrew Benintendi hit a three run homer to give them some breathing room and then in the eighth Mookie doubled to clear the bases. To wrap up the Red Sox scoring, JD Martinez hit his 100th and 101st RBI of the season when his single brought in two to make it 19-10. The O's got one in the eighth on Mark Trumbo's homer and one in the ninth when Villar singled, but that would be it (finally!) as the Sox held on for the 19-12 win. In one more bizarre twist to this game, who got the pitching win for the Red Sox? Drew Pomeranz.

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Boston was outhit in this game 17-16 but they made the ones they got count more than Baltimore did. There's absolutely nothing of note to say with the pitching in this one other than it utterly and totally stunk. As far as hitting, this game was a batter's dream as both teams seemed to be doing little more than pitching live batting practice to the other. Mookie went 3-4 with three runs scored, three RBI, two walks, and raised his league leading average to .352. Benintendi only went 1-5 but picked up the three RBI on his home run. He also scored three runs and walked once. JD and Mitch Moreland each went 2-5, Bogaerts went 1-4 (but with four RBI), Holt went 3-4 (three RBI, three runs scored, two walks), and Jackie Bradley went 3-4 with four runs scored, an RBI, and a walk. The important thing is that the Sox showed no quit and fought back in a game that was a pitching disaster (against an awful team) in order to take advantage of a night when the Yankees were also getting crushed by a bad team (the Rangers). The end result was Boston adding a game to their division lead and pushing it back up to nine games. The win also mathematically eliminated the Orioles from the postseason.

The series continues with a doubleheader on Saturday. David Price will get the ball for the first game and Chris Sale is supposed to return from the DL and pitch the nightcap (although that seems up in the air now). A split would be nice but a sweep of the day would be even better. I'm not concerned at all with the Sox trying to tie or break the single season record for wins, but I do want them to keep the pedal to the metal and keep the Yankees far enough back in the division to let them (New York) worry about the Wild Card play-in game. As I mentioned yesterday, the schedule gets tougher for the Sox after this week so taking advantage of teams like the Orioles and picking up easy wins is paramount, no matter what style of play it takes.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Game 116: Red Sox at Toronto Blue Jays (August 9, 2018)

This Red Sox team has been so good all season that we just expect them to win every game. Over the course of my entire life I can't remember a Sox team this good where I felt it was just a given that they were going to win every time they took the field. The 2004 team, as great as they were, didn't feel like that because of the historical baggage the franchise still carried. The 2007 and 2013 teams were excellent but even they didn't have the swagger and aura that this year's squad has. The only problem is that when they lose, it's almost a shock to the system. After taking the first two games against Toronto and clinching a win in this series it seemed like a foregone conclusion that they'd go for the sweep, especially with Rick Porcello on the mound. Coming off of his best start of the season, everything was in place for a third straight win over the Jays, but as we all know there's a reason why the games are played on the field.

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Things seemed to be continuing apace for the Sox when they scored two quick runs in the first off of a two RBI single from Eduardo Nunez. Unfortunately Porcello gave those right back in the bottom of the inning when Justin Smoak (who has been a royal pain in the neck for the Sox in this series) singled in a run followed by a Randal Grichuk fielder's choice that tied it up. From there it got away from Porcello. A Blue Jays run scored on a Nunez error in the second and Teoscar Hernandez (another pesky Jay in this series) homered in the third to make it 4-2 Toronto. The Sox tied it up in the fifth with a JD Martinez homer and a Brock Holt RBI single, but once again Toronto responded in the next half inning with more scoring. Smoak (him again!) doubled in a run and was followed by Grichuk belting a two run homer to put the Jays up by three runs. All of this was done off of Porcello who just didn't have it on this night. His control was spotty and he left far too many pitches hanging in the zone. I don't care how bad the other team you're playing is, if you leave stuff up, you're going to get hit hard. Toronto tacked on an insurance run in the sixth on a strange little play when Devon Travis singled to left field to bring Curtis Granderson in to score. The throw home was off target but Sandy Leon astutely threw to second when Travis was trying to stretch it into a double. They got him out but the run counted. It turned out to not matter since the Sox couldn't mount enough of a comeback anyway. The big highlight of the night was in the top of the ninth when Mookie Betts smacked a solo home run (his 27th of the season) to complete the cycle. He became the first player in the majors this season to hit for the cycle when he singled in the first, tripled in the second, doubled in the fourth, and homered in the ninth. Even in defeat, Mookie did something amazing that kept everyone watching. His 4-4 night also came with a walk, RBI, and two runs scored and boosted his average back up to .347. No one else on the team did much at the plate other than Nunez who had a nice 3-4 night with two RBI and a run scored. The real downer was Porcello, though. He only lasted four full innings (pitching into the fifth) and got smacked around to the tune of six hits (two of them homers), seven runs, five strikeouts, and three walks. It was just a bad night against a team that had his number. On the plus side, Tyler Thornburg worked the eighth and looked pretty good, allowing two hits but also striking out three. With the Yankees win, the Boston lead in the AL East is down to eight games but I'm not worried.

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This was one of those games where you just have to brush it off and move on to the next one. In this case, that means starting a new series in Baltimore where the two teams will play four games in three days (the doubleheader on Saturday helping to make up the aborted game from a couple of weeks ago). It will be interesting to see if Nathan Eovaldi can keep his hot streak going, but more than anything it's a prime opportunity for the Sox to pick up some wins against a truly terrible team. After this series, the Sox will get two days off next week which will be helpful as there's a bit of a rugged stretch with series against the Phillies, Rays (twice), and Indians before they finish the month with some layups against the Marlins and White Sox. The schedule doesn't get easier in September, so the time to make hay is now.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Game 115: Red Sox at Toronto Blue Jays (August 8, 2018)

There was no shortage of interesting story lines to follow in this second game north of the border. The Red Sox were able to overcome Drew Pomeranz' putrid start the night before to win in extra innings, so how would they fare with Brian Johnson taking the mound for this middle game against Toronto? Johnson was very good against the Yankees his last time out and has been giving the Sox what they need in spot starts. This game also marked the return of Rafael Devers from the DL; he'd been scuffling a bit before being put on the shelf. How would he fare in his first game action in two weeks? All of those questions were emphatically answered by the time this game was over...

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...and the answers were very, very encouraging. We'll get to both of those talking points a bit later because this game was almost all Red Sox from the very start. Andrew Benintendi has been quietly having an excellent season in the shadows of Mookie Betts and JD Martinez and he got things started with a sacrifice fly in the third with the bases loaded and no outs to get Boston on the scoreboard first. Mitch Moreland followed a couple of batters later with a double ripped over Kevin Pillar's head to the center field fence that brought in two more, followed by a sac fly from Xander Bogaerts to bring Moreland in. That made it 4-0 Red Sox and it was nice to see them do some damage with the bases loaded because far too many times this season they've come away empty handed in those situations. (As an aside it seems strange to find things to complain about with this team, but they've been so good that sometimes that's all you can do!). Xander picked up another RBI in the fifth when he walked with the bases loaded. Devers showed he was back in a big way with his second hit of the night, a towering two run blast to center field that made it 7-0 Boston. With the way Johnson had been flummoxing the Jays, it seemed a comfortable lead. However, the Jays managed to get on the board when Teoscar Hernandez hit a two run shot in the sixth followed by Randal Grichuk hitting a three run homer in the seventh. Xander added an RBI double in the top of the seventh so heading into the eighth, it was suddenly a lot closer at 8-5. As this team has done all season, though, they responded to put the game out of reach in the later innings. JD Martinez socked an RBI single in the top of the eighth and a few batters later Benintendi scored on a wild pitch from Joe Biagini. Ryan Brasier and Joe Kelly each pitched an inning to close out the game as the Red Sox cruised to the 10-5 win.

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Back to Devers and Johnson, both of them were really good in this game. Devers made some nice plays at third and looked good at the plate. He went 2-4 with a double and the two run homer, scored two runs, and walked once. He had been slumping in the weeks before his stint on the DL, so it looks like the time away to recover and clear his head may have been all he needed to get back on track. It's only a one game sample size, but I'm hoping this is indicative of how he's going to hit the rest of the season. As for Johnson? He was excellent and really, he only threw two bad pitches all night. Unfortunately, they both just happened to land on the wrong side of the fence. Besides the two homers given up, he was superb over seven innings, giving up six hits while striking out six and only walking two. I think he's earned the fifth spot in the rotation for the time being and with Nathan Eovaldi in the fourth spot it would be a good time to demote Pomeranz to either the bullpen or the "DL"(read: Pawtucket). When Eduardo Rodriguez comes back Johnson will head back to the pen as Eovaldi will slide into the fifth spot, but for now he (Johnson) is giving them exactly what they need at the back of the rotation. The final two Sox I want to highlight are Benintendi (2-2, an RBI, a run scored, two walks, now hitting .305) and JD (3-4, an RBI, a walk, a run scored, now hitting .332 and catching up to Mookie). Both of these guys have been having stellar seasons and with Mookie's average dipping to .340, JD has a real shot at the Triple Crown this season. The Sox will go for their seventh win in a row and the series sweep with Rick Porcello on the mound. Boston is an incredible 81-34 on the season and at this point we need to just sit back, enjoy the ride, and see how they can amaze us next.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Game 114: Red Sox at Toronto Blue Jays (August 7, 2018)

After a sweep of the Yankees and a day off, the big question in my mind was how the Red Sox would come back to begin their latest road trip in Toronto. There was definitely a chance for a letdown after the emotional high of this past weekend. Speaking of letdowns, did I mention Drew Pomeranz got the start for game one against the Blue Jays? Uninspiring to watch when he's at his best, it's been borderline torture to watch him pitch this season. After his less than impressive previous start (and that's being kind), I was bracing myself for the latest chapter of the Drew Pomeranz experience. Lucky for him, there's a hell of team behind him because they needed every bit of that talent against the pesky Jays.

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The typical Pomeranz slog was in full effect, complete with poor control and high pitch counts. When he gave up a two run bomb to Devon Travis in the third, you just knew that the Sox would be playing catch-up for the rest of the game. JD Martinez added to his league leading RBI total with a single in the fourth to drive in Andrew Benintendi, but otherwise Marcus Stroman (seven innings, two hits, one run, four strikeouts, three walks) kept the Sox off balance and quiet all night. Pomeranz was mercifully lifted after 4.2 innings and his pitching line is about as ugly as you'd expect given his recent history: four hits, two runs, one strikeout, and five walks. Those are not the numbers of a legitimate number four starter in your rotation and at this point, I have to believe (hope?) that the Red Sox do something with him. Whether that "something" as in demote him to the bullpen or put him back on the DL with some phantom injury I don't care, because what he's doing right now simply is not working at all. Scoreless innings from Heath Hembree (for real!) and Brandon Workman (who was actually put in a game that wasn't a blowout) led to Joe Kelly giving up a run on Teoscar Hernandez' sacrifice fly in the seventh to extend Toronto's lead to 3-1. As we've seen all season, though, this Red Sox team has no quit in them. They started to claw their way back in the eighth when Mitch Moreland hit into a fielder's choice with the bases loaded to drive in Sandy Leon. JD then crushed his 34th home run of the year to plate three runs and put the Red Sox ahead for the first time all night at 5-3. Even Luke Maile's RBI double in the bottom of the inning to cut the lead to a run didn't seem to hurt, especially with Craig Kimbrel coming on in the ninth. While he's been shaky lately, it looked like he was well on his way to an easy save when he quickly struck out Travis for the first out. However, the next batter (Justin Smoak) ripped a solo shot to center field to tie the game and blow the save for Kimbrel. He got the next two batters to strike out, but I'm going to say it again: he's been very good this season, but something is a bit off. His control is just not as sharp as it's been in years past, his walks and home runs are up a bit, and I don't know why. Between this and the Yankees game he almost blew over the weekend, it's not feeling as automatic as it typically does when he comes in games. As with Pomeranz, though, he had an amazing team behind him and they lifted him back up in a big way. Mitch Moreland continued to (hopefully) bust out of his recent slump with a huge three run homer in the top of the tenth which was followed later in the inning by Jackie Bradley hitting a two run blast of his own. Just like that, Boston doubled their run total and were up 10-5. It's a good thing, too, because Toronto didn't go quietly. In the bottom of the inning Kevin Pillar hit a two run homer to make it 10-7, but it was too little too late as the Sox hung on for the win.

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There was so much to both like and dislike in this game. The good: the ability of the Red Sox to seemingly always come back from any deficit, Moreland seeming to break out of his slump, JD Martinez going 3-5 with four RBI and basically putting the team on his back, the Red Sox becoming the first team in MLB to hit eighty wins, and this win keeping the division lead at nine games. The bad: Drew Pomeranz (enough said), Kimbrel's continuing inconsistency, two Red Sox errors, and...too damn many home runs. I bet you didn't see that last one coming, but if you've been reading me all season you'll know that I think there are too many being hit across the league this season. It's a subject best left to a future post so I can really dive deep into it, but while they're exciting (and in the case of this game, very impactful), the over proliferation of them this season cheapens them a bit. As I've said before, too much of a good thing can be too much. For now, though, it's time to savor this win, hope we don't see Drew Pomeranz pitch again for a long time (ever?), and get ready for game two of the series. Brian Johnson gets the ball for the Red Sox and all I'm hoping for is that he can pitch as well as he did against the Yankees to help keep this team rolling. With the way they're playing right now (five wins in a row, 12-4 since the All Star break), I fully expect it. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

PRODUCT REVIEW: B-Ram Sports Line Drive Hitting Rope

As someone who has been playing baseball my whole life and now coaches my own kids, I'm always on the lookout for new training tools that can help us achieve our goals. We have training balls, tees, nets, a rebounder, and I spend a lot of time with my kids at the batting cages and fields working on hitting, fielding, and throwing.  A few months ago my wife mentioned something she'd seen on Facebook called a line drive hitting rope from a company called B-Ram Sports. Intrigued, I decided to investigate a bit more into what exactly this hitting rope was and who was behind it.

The hitting rope is made and sold by B-Ram Sports, a company started by Mike and Chelsea Bramlett. Mike Bramlett devised the hitting rope to help his daughter Chelsea get her swing on a plane and hit line drives. Combined with her natural talent, it was very successful because Chelsea ended her collegiate career at Mississippi State University as the career leader in batting average (.461), runs scored (219), hits (359), and stolen bases (207). She has the single season batting average record when she hit a whopping .536 in 2010, a year in which she also set the stolen base record with 61 thefts. She also played for Team USA. She has now set up B-Ram Sports to make and sell the hitting rope line drive trainer, and they were kind enough to send me one to use myself and with my kids for the purposes of this review.

The Hitting Rope, instructions, and optional handle attachment
First, the design. The hitting rope is so simple in its design and function that it's elegant. It consists of a rope (it comes in either 16' or 18' lengths) with six wiffle balls strung on it. There are turnbuckles and hooks at either end and a U-clamp to adjust the length of the rope. B-Ram Sports has a patent on the this and credit must be given to them for thinking of this design before anyone else. The hitting rope is then set up between two walls, posts, fences, or whatever anchors you have by hooking it on to eye bolts at either end. The rope is tightened so that it's taut and straight by adjusting the turnbuckles or shortening the rope with the U-clamp. If there's only one anchor point available, an optional handle can be purchased in order for someone to hold the rope taut during use. This latter set-up is how I used it since I don't have a fence at the end of my yard. I also put three eye bolts in a post at differing heights, not only to accommodate the different heights of my kids and me, but also to work on high, middle, and low pitches with them.

Using the hitting rope is simple: you bring a ball out to a spot in the middle of the rope where you can hit it, you get in your batting stance, and you swing. What's great is that you get instant feedback on whether you've swung properly on a plane or not. Do it correctly and the ball will zip down to the other end in a smooth line with no rope movement. Do it wrong and the ball won't move much, but the rope sure will! I was able to step right up to it and do it properly from my very first swing, but it took a lot of concentration to make sure my swing was level each and every time. After doing it multiple times, it became second nature. A few days into using it and I was hitting everything on a plane straight down the rope without even thinking about it. I will say that beyond the improvement in technique that the hitting rope helped with, it's also a lot of fun to use!

My son starting his swing

The follow through


It took my kids a little while to get used to it. My oldest daughter had a trouble with getting the ball to travel all the way down the line; a huge part of this was her fear of swinging at her full speed and strength. She also had a tendency to swing down at the ball instead of on a plane. A few days after starting her training, she was swinging much more level and once I was able to convince her to swing normally, she got the hang of it and was hitting balls down the rope with minimal movement. My son picked it up pretty much right away although at first he was hitting the balls down the line while swinging under the rope. I corrected that and he leveled out his swing and started hitting them correctly. My youngest daughter struggled a bit (but she's only seven years old and just started playing softball this past spring). However, she's gotten better the more she's used it...I've already seen improvement in her swing and we're going to continue to work on the rope during her fall season.

When my kids and I work with the hitting rope, we do several different drills. We do standard hitting where the rope is set up belt high. I also adjust the height so they get used to swinging at high and low pitches. I do this both by changing which of the three eye bolts it's hooked into at the end and also by varying the angle I hold the other end with the handle. I do the same with the handle for inside and outside pitches so they have to work on the entire strike zone. We also do one hand drills with both hands to build up strength and to keep their hands from dropping. Our goal is to get 100 swings a day in, each, and so far we've been able to stick to that.

Below is a sequence of photos showing my oldest daughter swinging through on the rope and hitting the ball properly down the line.









As for results, I'm not exaggerating when I say that we saw almost immediate improvements. With only a couple of days using the hitting rope under their belts, both my oldest daughter and my son were hitting more line drives and hitting the ball a lot harder. Both of them had tryouts for their travel teams for the upcoming season and both were hitting the ball even better than usual. I would say the proof is in the pudding since both of them made the teams they wanted to. Also in my son's first fall game this past weekend he went 3-3 with two screaming line drives, one to left field and one that short-hopped the fence for a double. He's always hit the ball hard, but he was hitting them even straighter and harder than usual and I know it's because he's been working on the rope every day since we got it. We continue to use the hitting rope as part of our regular workouts and as soon as the weather gets colder, I'll be moving it inside and setting it up in the garage so we can keep working all winter.

The hitting rope is a valuable, effective, and fun tool we have added to our training repertoire. The combination of it being fun and easy to use, the instant feedback it generates, and the results mean it's something I'm also going to recommend to the teams I coach. Whether you coach, play, or just like to swing the bat, no matter what age you are or what level you play at, the hitting rope is a great addition to any practice regimen. I highly recommend it.

To purchase the hitting rope, go to B-Ram Sports website HERE. They have two different length ropes and either white or colored wiffle balls.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Game 113: New York Yankees at Red Sox (August 5, 2018)

What a game and what a series. Having taken the first three against the Yankees, I and the rest of Red Sox Nation got greedy and wanted the sweep heading into Sunday night's finale. Boston had beaten New York by bashing out runs, shutting them down with pitching and defense, and everything in between; the question was what could they possibly do to top everything we'd seen so far? The answer was one of the most thrilling, heart stopping, and defining games of the season.

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All eyes were on David Price in this one...he's been notoriously bad against the Yankees, most recently in his disastrous start in the Bronx a month ago. If ever there was a time for him to exorcise his demons against them, this was it. He was pitching under relatively little pressure since the Sox had already won the series and he was in front of a supportive home crowd. He actually had some margin for error in this one and so he should have been relaxed and confident. What he did was toss one of his best games against the Yankees, pitching into the seventh inning without giving up any runs. He allowed four hits and while his five strikeouts and three walks weren't dominant, he was very good. He left the game with runners on first and second and no outs...that's when the Heath Hembree horror show happened. Before that, though, let's back up to see where the Sox were at that point. Masahiro Tanaka had stymied Boston all night, only allowing a solo homer to Mookie Betts (his 26th) in the bottom of the fifth. Boston had put the leadoff man on base in just about every inning to that point but couldn't convert (they ended up stranding a whopping twenty-four runners in the game). Hembree came in to the game with the Sox clinging to that one run lead and he absolutely botched it. True, a fielding error by Xander Bogaerts on a sure double play ball allowed two to score on Aaron Hicks' bases loaded grounder, but Hembree had walked the bases loaded before that. After the error, he gave up an RBI single to Giancarlo Stanton before getting pulled by Alex Cora. I don't care what the ESPN guys in the booth said about Hembree being one of the top relievers in the game when inheriting runners...every single time I see him in those situations, he makes it worse for the Sox. I'm going to come right out and say that he's a bum, a guy who I groan with disgust every time he comes in a game (and have done so his entire Red Sox career), and someone I hope to never see in high pressure situations again. Ryan Brasier came in to clean up Hembree's mess and gave up a sacrifice fly to Gleyber Torres to give the Yankees a 4-1 lead. With as lightly as the Sox were hitting the ball to that point (by then, JD Martinez had struck out three times), it seemed like Price was going to get the hard luck loss since the first two runs Hembree allowed were charged to him.

But then the ninth inning happened. Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman was in the game to seal the deal and allow New York to salvage a game in this series and while the Red Sox usually hit off of him pretty well, the fact of the matter is that he routinely throws 100 mph and Boston hadn't done much of anything at the plate all night. However, they loaded the bases for JD Martinez, who ripped a single to drive in two runs and cut the Yankee lead to one. In some sort of redemption, Xander Bogaerts reached on a fielding error by Miguel Andujar to bring in another run and tie the game at four. You could just see the wind taken out of New York's sails while the Red Sox were pumped up. That set the stage for the bottom of the tenth when Andrew Benintendi knocked in the winning run on a single to center field to complete the 5-4 comeback win and the sweep. Benintendi had himself a good night overall, going 3-6 with only one RBI, but it was a big one. Mookie went 2-4 with an RBI, two runs scored, and two walks, while the rest of the lineup scraped out hits but made them count when they needed to.

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With the win Boston all but buried New York in the division, swelling their lead to 9.5 games and sending the Yankees to their fifth straight loss. The Sox now get a welcome day off to rest before heading out on the road for the next week and a half. Series against Toronto, Baltimore, and Philadelphia should give them a chance to add to their lead and continue to pile up the wins, but that starts tomorrow. For now, it's time to savor this sweep off the Yankees while remembering (see: 1978) that there's still a lot of baseball left to be played.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Game 112: New York Yankees at Red Sox (August 4, 2018)

In the first game of this series the Red Sox outslugged the Yankees and in the second game they outpitched them. What could they possibly do to top either of those in this third game? Having earned at least a split in this series, Boston was looking to win the third game and really put a stranglehold on the division. Due to forcing New York to use their scheduled starter (Luis Cessa) during the first game disaster, the Yankees were forced to turn to minor league call-up Chance Adams in the match up against Nathan Eovaldi and the Red Sox. As expected, this game was all Boston although it did get more than a bit hairy toward the end before balance was restored and dominance was reasserted.

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Mitch Moreland hit his thirteenth home run of the season (with Andrew Benintendi on base) in the bottom of the first inning to help the Sox jump ahead quickly 2-0. JD Martinez got in on the act later in the fourth when he smacked his league leading 33rd homer to make it 3-0. Boston tacked on another run in the seventh when Sandy Leon's ground rule double pushed Eduardo Nunez across. With the way Eovaldi was pitching, that looked like it would be more than enough. Perhaps inspired by Rick Porcello's performance the night before, he went eight innings and only gave up three hits and one walk, striking out four. He did it all on 93 pitches and I'll admit I was a bit surprised when Alex Cora brought Craig Kimbrel in for the ninth instead of letting Eovaldi finish the game. It almost cost them dearly as Kimbrel's control issues perhaps reached their nadir this season. After getting two quick outs, he gave up back to back doubles to Giancarlo Stanton and Didi Gregorious to blow the shutout and keep the Yankees alive. He followed this up with consecutive walks to load the bases and put the go-ahead run at the plate. It was absolutely maddening to watch and you could hear the tension rising among the fans at Fenway Park. Luckily, he was able to get Greg Bird to hit into the final out to preserve the win. I don't know what's wrong with Kimbrel this season, but it's been concerning to me all season and it almost cost them the game here. He's still one of the top closers in the game, but he's been very erratic at times and hasn't been as dominant as he's been in years past. It's something that hopefully won't cost them games when it matters most (see: October) but for now, consider me officially concerned.

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Setting aside that angst, a win is a win and there was a lot to be encouraged by in this game. Eovaldi again gave the team a great start and has proven (so far) to have been a shrewd acquisition and some much needed stability at the back end of the rotation. The Sox have won each of these first three games against the Yankees in different ways which shows off their depth and versatility. Most importantly, the win pushed Boston's division lead to a season high 8.5 games. Heading into this series, I was hoping for a split at worst and taking three of four in a best case scenario. Now, I'm greedy and want the sweep. The final game pits Masahiro Tanaka against David Price. As we all know, Price has been awful against the Yankees (and especially at Yankee Stadium). I'll be looking for him to have a good start in front of a raucous home crowd where he can hopefully exorcise some of his big game demons. There's no better place to do that against the Yankees than at home in Fenway Park. If he can't win a game against them there, he won't beat them anywhere. We shall see...

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Game 111: New York Yankees at Red Sox (August 3, 2018)

After last night, what do you do for an encore? Rick Porcello and the Red Sox answered that very question with one of their most dominating and enjoyable wins of the season. After outslugging the Yankees in the first game of this series, game two looked to be more of a pitcher's duel. The match up pitted Yankees ace Luis Severino against Rick Porcello. Both men were having great seasons up to this point and most of us weren't expecting there to be as many runs scored in this one as there were the previous night. While we didn't necessarily get the pitching showdown we expected, what we did get was one of the most dominating pitching performances of the season.

Things got chippy in this one in a hurry, though! Porcello hit leadoff man Brett Gardner accidentally on an 0-2 count in the top of the first. In the bottom of the inning, the first pitch Mookie Betts saw was at his head and sent him sprawling to the ground to get out of the way. The home plate umpire warned both dugouts, to which Alex Cora took umbrage. I don't blame him: while Porcello's hit batter was clearly a pitch that just got away from him given the count and location (it was a fastball that ran in on Gardner a bit too much and hit him on the arm), Severino's was clearly intentional. No matter because the instant Cora got to home plate, he was tossed. That was the worst thing for the Yankees, though, because all it did was fire up the Fenway crowd and the Red Sox.

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Unlike the series opener where the Yankees jumped out to an early lead, this time the Red Sox did. The red hot Steve Pearce continued his torrid hitting with a two run homer in the bottom of the first to quickly stake the Sox to a 2-0 lead. They added to it later on when Eduardo Nunez drove in Ian Kinsler, although it was noticed after he crossed home that Kinsler came up wincing a bit. He ended up leaving the game necessitating Mookie moving to second base (remember, he was drafted as a middle infielder before the Sox converted him to an outfielder in the minors). Pearce moved to right field and Mitch Moreland, who was supposed to get the night off, manned first base. Mookie did a nice job at second, making a couple of good plays and showing off his athleticism. In the top of the third, Miguel Andujar hit a solo shot to make it 3-1 Yankees, but that would be the only hit Porcello would surrender all night. From that point onward, he retired every single Yankees batter he faced, all twenty-one of them. Moreland drove in an insurance run in the fifth (how silly does it sound to call it an insurance run that early in the game?) to put Boston up 4-1 and Rick took care of the rest. He tossed an absolute gem, going the distance without walking a single batter and striking out nine. The Andujar home run was the only hit he allowed and other than a hit batsmen (Brett Gardner) to lead off the game, no other Yankee reached base. To cap it off, Porcello did it all on only eighty-six pitches (and sixty-eight of those were strikes). The Sox only had seven hits on the night but that was more than enough to get the win.

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The win was Boston's 77th on the season and pushed their division lead to a season high 7.5 games. With New York having to start minor league call-up Chance Adams in game three in place of Luis Cessa (who was forced into bullpen duty in the first game debacle), the Red Sox look to be in good shape to keep rolling. Nathan Eovaldi will take the ball for Boston and if he's anything close to how he was in first outing with the Sox, they can really bury the Yankees in the division. The intensity and mutual hatred between the two teams and fanbases are just a couple of reasons why this is the best rivalry in all of baseball and I'm looking for more snippy play in the final two games of this series. It's time for the Red Sox to continue doing damage to the Yankees, to coin a phrase that's popular with the New York GM these days. 

Friday, August 3, 2018

Game 110: New York Yankees at Red Sox (August 2, 2018)

Hey Brian Cashman, how's that for damage? For those of you who aren't aware, earlier this week the Yankees GM said that he wondered what the Red Sox record would be if they hadn't played the Yankees because they're the only team who has "done some damage" against Boston. I guess the fact that the Yankees were 5-4 (with six of those games in New York) thus far against Boston with a negative run differential counts as "damage" in his mind. Also, we're finally in August...can you believe it? This is where the season really begins; from here on out, every game counts and the pennant races heat up as we hurtle toward the end of the season. October baseball is just around the corner and it doesn't get any better than a late season series between these two teams when both are having great years. There was a little bit of trepidation on my part heading into the game since Chris Sale, who was due to start, is on the DL. In his place was Brian Johnson and while he's done an acceptable job holding down the fifth spot in the rotation, I didn't exactly want to see him pitching in a big game like this. My worst fears seemed to have been borne out in the early innings, but the faith of Red Sox Nation was rewarded the longer the game went on.

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When Didi Gregorius launched a three run homer in the top of the first to give the Yankees a quick 3-0 lead, it seemed like it was going to be one of those games. Aaron Hicks added a run to their lead with a solo shot in the second and while it wasn't that surprising that Johnson was getting rocked, it was pretty disheartening. In the bottom of the second, Mookie Betts walked with the bases loaded to drive in a run and Steve Pearce hit a solo homer in the third to cut the New York lead in half. That was enough to knock CC Sabathia out of the game and by then it just felt like the momentum was shifting in Boston's favor. I turned to my oldest daughter and told her I had a feeling the Sox were going to come back; it all came to fruition in the fourth inning. The Sox exploded for eight runs starting with a fielder's choice from Andrew Benintendi where Jackie Bradley made one of most incredible slides into home I've ever seen. How he evaded that tag I don't know, but that put the Sox within a run and from there the rout began. Steve Pearce hit his second homer of the night, a three run shot to give Boston their first lead of the game and they never looked back. An RBI single from Ian Kinsler, RBI doubles from Eduardo Nunez and Jackie Bradley, and an RBI single from Benintendi finished off the scoring in that inning and once everyone caught their breaths it was 10-4 Red Sox. The Yankees added a few more runs here and there: Didi Gregorious hit a solo shot in the fifth, Giancarlo Stanton hit his own in the seventh (and added a sacrifice fly in the ninth), but the Yankees never got close or seriously threatened. Boston added five more runs off of Kinsler's RBI double in the fifth, Benintendi's RBI double and Steve Pearce's third home run of the game (of the two run variety), both in the sixth, and JD Martinez' RBI single in the eighth. It all added up to a 15-7 win for the Red Sox (and they outhit New York 19-8). Normally in games like this I always ask the Sox to save some runs for the next game, but when it's against the Yankees I want them to embarrass and humiliate them as much as possible so I loved the rout.

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Mookie had a monster night, going 4-4 with three runs scored, two walks, and an RBI. Benintendi went 3-6 with three RBI and two runs scored, and Kinsler continued to show in only his third game with the Sox that he was a great acquisition by going 3-6 with two RBI and two runs scored (plus two incredible defensive plays in the seventh).  The real star of the night was Pearce, who went 3-5 with three home runs, three runs scored, and six RBI. Also, Brian Johnson needs to mentioned: after his shaky start, he settled down and stymied the Yankees. He only pitched five innings and yes, he gave up four runs on two homers, but he also struck out eleven and only walked two. He did what was asked of him in the absence of Chris Sale which was to keep it close and give the bats a chance and it paid off. Brandon Workman (again, only getting Cora's trust in a blowout win or loss) gave up a run in his two innings of work but was otherwise fine, as were Joe Kelly and Ryan Brasier.

The bottom line is not only did the Red Sox survive without Chris Sale, they routed the Yankees and extended their division lead to 6.5 games. Game two looks to be a stellar pitching matchup pitting Luis Severino (14-4) against Rick Porcello (13-4). While Severino shut down the Sox last time they faced him, he's also had some bad outings against them. As long as Boston keeps hitting like they did in the first game, they should be just fine. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Game 109: Philadelphia Phillies at Red Sox (July 31, 2018)

I suppose they can't win every game, right? A night after the exciting walk off win in extra innings, the Red Sox were back at it against Philly to wrap up this short two game series with Drew Pomeranz on the mound. I mentioned yesterday that it was almost a do-or-die type of start for him given how bad he's been this season and the result ended up being a mixed bag.

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The Phillies once again got on the scoreboard first when Jorge Alfaro doubled to drive in Maikel Franco in the top of the second. They added to their lead in the fourth off a sacrifice fly from Scott Kingery with the bases loaded to drive in Franco again. By some miracle Pomeranz was able to get out of that jam only giving up the one run and in fact, by the time he left the game after the fifth inning the Sox were only down 2-0. For as poorly, inefficiently, and erratically as he pitched Drew left his team in a great position. And what's that old baseball adage I have that regular readers of mine are probably sick of hearing? "If your starting pitcher only gives up one or two runs, you'd damn well better win the game." Unfortunately for Boston, their mysterious and sudden power outage was on full display again. They were outhit for the second game in a row (this time, to the tune of 10 to 6) and even when they hit the ball hard and put it in play, they hit it right at a Philly fielder. Worse than that, they continued to shoot themselves in the foot by squandering prime scoring chances. A few times they had the leadoff batter on base in an inning and advanced them into scoring position only to come away empty handed. Even the one run they did score came on a fielder's choice in the sixth inning when Xander Bogaerts grounded out to first base. The Phillies tacked on another run in the ninth when Carlos Santana's RBI single drove in Rhys Hoskins and the Red Sox went down quietly 3-1.

Pomeranz' final pitching line looks pretty ugly: five innings, four hits, four walks, and three strikeouts, but he only gave up two runs. His velocity was down to the high eighties, his control was bad (two hit batters), and he just looked lost out there. You'd think that surviving a terrible outing like that and only being down two runs would keep the team within striking distance, but despite the score this game never felt that close. Phillies starter Jake Arrieta was very good (but not spectacular) in giving up six hits over seven innings (and he struck out out seven without walking anyone). Yes, Philly is a good team and they're battling for first place in the NL East, but they're not in the same class as Boston. Still, the Red Sox are lucky to have split this series despite being outscored 4-3 and outhit 20-13. The Boston bats suddenly going quiet in this series is an ominous sign and hopefully a minor blip because with four games against the Yankees (who are now five games back) starting on Thursday, they're going to need to score all the runs they can. Granted, Mookie Betts sat this game out as a scheduled rest day and every starter (including new guy Ian Kinsler) got a hit except for Mitch Moreland, Eduardo Nunez, and Brock Holt, but the team couldn't convert when they had runners on base. They stranded eighteen runners in this game and twenty-eight total in the two games against Philly...and only scored three runs combined. That's not going to cut it.

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One last little bit of bad news: before the game, the team announced that Chris Sale would be going on the 10 day DL with left shoulder inflammation. Sale and the team insisted it's a minor precautionary move and that he'll be fine, but it seems as though right on schedule a repeat of last season is unfolding where Sale may be wearing down as the end of the season nears. Alex Cora and the coaching staff talked all spring about how they were going to reduce Sale's usage and keep his innings and pitches down so that he'd be fresh in October, but if you look at the numbers he's basically exactly where he was last season in both categories. We can only hope that it really is minor and that he'll continue to dominate the rest of the way because if he can't, this team will be in big trouble. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Game 108: Philadelphia Phillies at Red Sox (July 30, 2018)

After work and dinner, I took my son and oldest daughter to the cages to get some swings in. We missed the first five innings of the game by the time we got home, but little did I know that there would still be eight more innings of baseball to watch! For as much as I hate interleague play, I was actually intrigued by this game for a couple of reasons. First was that it was a matchup of two teams who were leading their divisions, and second was the pitching matchup of David Price vs. Aaron Nola. As it turned out, the game delivered in just about every way.

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Price and Nola gave us something that is increasingly rare in modern Major League Baseball: an honest to goodness pitcher's duel. Both of them pitched eight fantastic innings and each man only gave up a single run. Nola struck out six and walked one while giving up four hits, while Price struck out five, walked one, and gave up eight hits. Philadelphia scored when Maikel Franco drove in Asdrubal Cabrera with an RBI single in the second, and Boston's run came on an RBI triple from Eduardo Nunez that brought Jackie Bradley home in the fifth. Both teams had legitimate scoring threats from there on out but neither could convert. A great play by Sandy Leon and Brock Holt to throw out a runner stealing second in the ninth inning rubbed out a Philly chance, and Brock Holt doubled to lead off the bottom of the ninth and twelfth innings but was left stranded on base both times. The game winner came when Blake Swihart hit a ground rule double in the bottom of the thirteenth with Eduardo Nunez (who had singled and stolen second) on base. By that point, both bullpens had been emptied and the still sizable crowd at Fenway Park went nuts (as did my wife and daughters and I on our couch). I was happy for the win and for the chance to finally go to bed!

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The Red Sox were outhit in this game 10-7 and the top of the order went completely hitless, with Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, JD Martinez, Mitch Moreland, and Xander Bogaerts all having 0-fer nights. The Boston hits came entirely from the bottom of the order: Bradley (1-5), Nunez (2-5), Holt (2-4), Sandy Leon (1-3), and Swihart (1-2). The fact that the Sox survived a night like that from their sluggers and still held on to beat a good team speaks volumes as to how good they are. The win extended their lead in the AL East to a season high six games over the Yankees and was their 75th win of the season. This mini series concludes tonight when Drew Pomeranz makes his second start back from the DL. I've got to think this is a do or die start for him...I know he's been hurt, but he's been lousy all season and looked awful in his previous start. If he spits the bit in this one, the team has to shut him down and/or send him away for the rest of the season. Whether that means he goes to the bullpen or back on the DL with a phantom injury I don't know, but what's clear is that they can't afford to give away any more wins every time he starts. It would be so nice to sweep the Phillies and head into the rest day on a high before the Yankees come to town on Thursday. I'll be looking to see if Drew and the top of the order can bounce back tonight.

(One last thing: it was announced immediately after the game that the Red Sox acquired Angels second baseman Ian Kinsler for a pair of minor league prospects. It'll be interesting to see how this move works out, but on paper it's a good one as our defense up the middle instantly got a lot better. This also means that Dustin Pedroia's future is even murkier than before. Stay tuned.)

Monday, July 30, 2018

Game 107: Minnesota Twins at Red Sox (July 29, 2018)

Would the Red Sox go for the series win or would they have to settle for a split? That was the question on my mind as I got ready to watch this game. Newcomer Nathan Eovaldi would be making his Red Sox debut and while he seemed like a solid pickup on paper, I had to remind myself that he was the fourth or fifth starter in this rotation and as such, we shouldn't be expecting too much. New Yankees reliever Zach Britton was booed by the New York crowd in his debut appearance a couple of days ago...would the same fate befall Eovaldi at Fenway Park?

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His day was made easier when JD Martinez drove in two runs (Brock Holt and Mookie Betts) in the second inning with a bases loaded double. JD drove in another run in the fourth when his single pushed Andrew Benintendi across. That gave him a league leading 89 RBI on the season and ended up being more than enough for Eovaldi, who was stellar in his Boston debut. He pitched seven innings (which in and of itself seems to be a Herculean feat in 2018) and struck out five while walking none and giving up four hits. Even better, Matt Barnes was able to hold the lead and keep the Twins hitless in his inning of work before turning the ball over to Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel did the same and notched save number 33 on the season as the Sox took the series and their third win in a row with a 3-0 victory. The Yankees win kept the Red Sox lead in the AL East at 5.5 games.

Boston outhit Minnesota 10-4 and when you stop and think about it, it's perhaps a bit concerning that they only scored three runs (there were a LOT of runners stranded on base in this game...ten to be exact), but their ability to win games in so many different ways means that no matter what, the Sox always have a chance. Alex Cora put a rather strange lineup out there, with Blake Swihart making his first career start at third base in place of the injured Rafael Devers, Brock Holt at shortstop, and Eduardo Nunez at second base. It still worked because this team is very talented and has good depth. The highlight was yet another dazzling defensive play by Jackie Bradley in the third inning where he made a diving catch and crashed into the Green Monster. He was unharmed but it seems like he's been making at least one play like this every day over the last few weeks. He's certainly made a bunch of them throughout the season and if this isn't the year he finally wins a Gold Glove, I don't know if/when he ever will.
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David Price will get the ball for the first game of a two game series against the Phillies on Monday (have I mentioned how much I hate interleague play?). Since he got rained out in the second inning at Baltimore during his previous start, he's had a rather long layoff. I'll be looking to see if he can be as good as he was the last time he took the mound. I will point out that it seems more than a bit coincidental that he's not in line to pitch at all in the Yankees series (or if he does, that it will be the final game of the series). The Sox have these two games against Philadelphia before a much needed off day Wednesday. After that short rest, the showdown with the Yankees begins on Thursday. It'll be four games where Boston can really do some damage and bury the Yankees. It's going to get fun, that's for sure!

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Cream

Cream in early 1968. Left to right: Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce
The most incredible thing about Cream is that they were and continue to be such an influential band and yet their actual lifespan was but a mere three years. However, between those years of 1966-1968 they produced some of the greatest rock music ever recorded and completely changed the way bands approached live performances. They were the first rock supergroup and the first to meld virtuoso musicianship with songwriting sensibilities. For a brief time they were the biggest concert draw in America and one of the top rock bands in the world before exhaustion and animosities blew it all apart. It seemed fitting, if not sad, that a band who burned as intensely as Cream would go down in a ball of fire. Even so, they continue to be revered and influential over fifty years after their demise and are still one of my favorite bands. For this entry in my band profiles series, I'll take you through Cream's career and touch on what they mean to me on a personal level.

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Cream was formed when three of the best musicians at their respective instruments decided to come together to form a band in order to play the kind of music they wanted to play with the freedom to do it. Eric Clapton (guitar, vocals) had been the first of the Yardbirds famed trio of lead guitarists (the others being Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page) but left the band in 1965 when he deemed their musical direction becoming too "pop." That led him to John Mayall's Bluesbreakers where his combination of fiery blues playing and his sound (a Gibson Les Paul played through an overdriven Marshall amp) led him to be declared "God" by music fans and fellow guitarists throughout London. However, after the release of the legendary album Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton in 1966, Eric was looking for a new direction and wanted to form his own band. He had two musicians in mind. The first was Jack Bruce, a Scottish classically trained vocalist and multi instrumentalist who specialized in playing bass and writing music. Bruce was heavily into the blues/R&B and jazz scenes in London, playing with Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporatted and most notably, the Graham Bond Organisation. After a brief stint in the Bluesbreakers with Clapton, Bruce moved on to a short tenure with Manfred Mann when Clapton came calling. It was their brief time playing in the Bluesbreakers together that impressed Clapton enough that he asked Bruce to form a band. Bruce leapt at the chance and inquired as to who should play drums. When Clapton gave him the answer, it gave Bruce pause because it was none other than a former bandmate and nemesis of his, Ginger Baker. Baker was a powerhouse drummer who was very well known on the London R&B and jazz circuit of the 1960s. He had formed the rhythm section with Bruce in both Blues Incorporated and the Graham Bond Organisation and while they meshed impeccably together musically, in terms of personalities they were more akin to gasoline and fire. However, Clapton was able to bring the two men together because each of them was eager to play with him.


Cream was officially born in July 1966 and took their eventual name because they considered themselves the "cream of the crop" of musicians in London. While they'd sometimes be referred to as The Cream, officially they were just Cream. After weeks of rehearsals and getting some songs together, they made their debut with a warm-up gig at the Twisted Wheel before their formal debut at the Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival at the end of the month. Since they didn't have much original material at this time, their set consisted of blues and R&B covers. Still, they went down a storm and their debut single was one of the most anticipated releases of the year. While everyone was expecting a high-powered electric blues song, Cream instead defied convention (and not for the first time) by releasing the laid back and jazzy "Wrapping Paper." It was perhaps the antithesis of what was expected, but it showed that the band were going to pursue their own direction regardless of what was expected of them. It was also around this time that the songwriting team that would guide the band was former. Poet Pete Brown was initially brought in to form a partnership with Baker but ended up hitting it off with Bruce instead. The Brown/Bruce songwriting team would write the bulk of Cream's original material as well as all of Bruce's solo material until his death in 2014. In October they were joined on stage by a young American guitarist who had just arrived in London and wanted to jam with the band before he put his own band together. His name was Jimi Hendrix and he would quickly become a close friend of Clapton's at the same time that his band would be Cream's chief rival. A second single, "I Feel Free," was released ahead of their first album and was more like what the public expected: upbeat, electric, and intense. It showed Cream's blend of instrumental prowess married to a catchy pop song. Their debut album was finally released in December of 1966 and was full of heavy electric blues and catchy hard rock originals. In addition to cover versions of blues standards "I'm So Glad," "Spoonful," "Cat's Squirrel," and "Rollin' and Tumblin" were great originals like "NSU," "Sweet Wine," and "Sleepy Time Time." While it wouldn't be the best album of their career, it was a fine debut and laid the groundwork for what was to come.



In early 1967 Cream went to America for the first time, playing on a bill with The Who and others for Murray the K's bizarre Music in the Fifth Dimension showcase in New York City. In May of that year they returned to New York to record their second album. Disraeli Gears would eventually be released in November of 1967, wrapped in a day-glo psychedelic collage designed by Clapton's artist roommate Martin Sharp. The album was a perfect encapsulation of the merging of psychedelic rock with electric blues and is seen by many to be Cream's best album. It contained their signature song, the pile driving "Sunshine of Your Love," as well as other classics like the bluesy "Strange Brew," the psychedelic mythology of "Tales of Brave Ulysses," and the brooding "We're Going Wrong."
There were some wry social commentary wrapped up in bluesy tunes ("Take it Back" and "Outside Woman Blues") as well as the pure psychedelic pop of "World of Pain," "SWLABR," and "Dance the Night Away." The album even closed with an English music hall singalong, "Mother's Lament." The album was eclectic, concise, and masterful and it completely fulfilled the promise that was hinted at with the debut. Around this same time, in August of 1967 Cream played their first headlining concert dates in America. Unbeknownst to them, they were expected to play longer sets than they were used to. Egged on by appreciative audiences and as a matter of necessity in order to fill the time allotted, they began stretching their songs out with wild and fiery improvisations. Word spread and in time they became famous for their high volume and unpredictable jams. This combined with the excellent new material they were writing and releasing contributed to them becoming one of the top concert draws in the US.



1968 would see the release of Cream's magnum opus, the double album Wheels of Fire. It would also unfortunately see the end of the band. They spent the end of 1967 and the first half of 1968 recording the sprawling double album, half of which was made up of studio recordings and half live. The studio cuts represented the apex of their studio craftsmanship, merging their hard rock and blues leanings with innovative productions and arrangements. Among the songs is perhaps their defining anthem "White Room," which in my opinion is one of the greatest songs of all time and has one of the greatest rock guitar solos ever recorded. Other great cuts are the covers "Sitting On Top of the World" and "Born Under a Bad Sign," Jack Bruce's brooding "As You Said," the psychedelic "Passing the Time," the epic "Deserted Cities of the Heart," and Ginger Baker's grandiose "Those Were the Days." There was also the pummeling riff and social commentary of "Politician," perfect for the tumultuous year that was 1968. As far as the live cuts, the band's version of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" is one of the greatest live performances ever captured on record. A staple of the band's live set throughout their career, this version was the greatest they ever performed and absolutely smokes. When people talk about Clapton's greatness, this is one of the examples they always use and for good reason. A sprawling "Spoonful," the chugging "Traintime," and Baker's drum workout "Toad" round out the live disc. While Wheels of Fire went on to be a massive seller and topped the charts, by the time it was released the band had decided to split up. There were numerous reasons for this decision, among them: the constant touring schedule their management set up exhausted them; the old animosity between Bruce and Baker reared its head, with Clapton increasingly being caught in the middle playing peacemaker; the effect of the the band's volume damaged Baker's hearing; Clapton wanting to pursue a more song-based direction (and his smarting over a scathing review of his playing in Rolling Stone from around this time); and resentments over Bruce's role as frontman and chief songwriter.



And so, at the height of their popularity Cream called it quits. They did a farewell tour of the US in the autumn of 1968, wrapped it up with two shows at the Royal Albert Hall in London in November, and that was it. A final album, Goodbye, was released in early 1969 again consisting of a mix of live and studio cuts and was a fitting farewell for the band. The live side kicked off with a blistering version of "I'm So Glad" and was followed by a sinewy "Politican" and incendiary "Sitting On Top of the World" (where Clapton just shreds). The studio cuts include one of the band's signature songs, the Beatley "Badge" co-written by Clapton and George Harrison, as well as Bruce's psychedelic "Doing That Scrapyard Thing" and Baker's gloomy "What a Bringdown." With that, Cream were no more. Clapton went on to do some session work for Harrison, formed two more short-lived but great and influential bands (Blind Faith in 1969 and Derek and the Dominos in 1970-71) before embarking on a successful solo career. Baker played with Clapton in Blind Faith and formed other groups before embarking on a very colorful and interesting life, while Bruce enjoyed a long and creative solo career before his untimely death in 2014. There was a mini-reunion at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1993 where they played onstage again and then in 2005 the unthinkable happened: a full-blown Cream reunion. They played a series of shows at the Royal Albert Hall in May of that year that were recorded and released on CD and DVD. The shows were warmly received and led to another series of shows that October in NYC. Those weren't as enjoyable for the band and led to a final, irrevocable split. With Bruce's passing in 2014, the door was finally shut on Cream.



As for what they mean to me personally, they were one of the first bands that I really, REALLY got into when I was a kid. Growing up and getting into music in the 1980s and 90s,  I had heard my dad playing his records of Fresh Cream, Wheels of Fire, and Goodbye for years and I started taking them to listen to myself. By the time I was ten and started teaching myself how to play guitar, I completely immersed myself in Cream's music, playing along to the songs and figuring out the chords and riffs. I couldn't get enough of the studio records, but it was the live stuff that completely blew my mind. One of the things that struck me was how great all three members of the band were. This wasn't like some bands where there's clearly one or more members who are so much better than everyone else. Jack Bruce had this powerful voice that could veer between a growl, a sweet falsetto, and everything in between. Behind it all he played this ridiculously complex yet melodic lead bass guitar that, coupled with his distorted sound, was unlike anything my young ears had heard. Clapton was one of my first guitar heroes and really pushed himself out of his blues comfort zone while in Cream. He still stuck relatively close to his roots with his playing during his tenure in the band and if you had to choose a weak link in the band, he would be the one, but he was never as inventive, fiery, or daring in his playing ever again after 1968. If he had never played another note of music once Cream ended, he would still be regarded as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. As it was for all three members, Cream was the best work they ever did. Baker was just bombastic and thunderous, but when I really focused in on his drumming I heard all sort of intricate patterns, polyrhythms and a deft, dexterous dance of his limbs across the drum kit. It all added up to this wholly unique sound that still raises the hairs on the back of my neck even after having heard their records thousands of times before. Those of you who are fellow Cream fans will know what I mean and those of you who aren't will be in for a treat. If you're so inclined and want to dig deeper, I've also reviewed a very good comprehensive biography of the band as well as the memoirs of Baker, Bruce, and Clapton. I recommend all of those books and especially the most important testament to all of their greatness, the music.