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.

Game 106: Minnesota Twins at Red Sox (July 29, 2018)

The previous night's thrilling walk-off win in extra innings was still fresh in the mind as game three of this series got underway. I really wanted to see the Red Sox shake out of the lethargy they seemed to be in over the last week and make a statement in this game. They had Rick Porcello on the mound and were facing a team going nowhere in the Twins so it was set up perfectly for them to make some noise. With news that the Yankees had lost the first game of their doubleheader to the Royals earlier in the day, it was also a chance to add to the division lead a bit. As a nightcap to a relaxing Saturday spent outside enjoying the gorgeous weather and watching my oldest daughter play softball, this game ended being (mostly) what I had asked for.

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The scoring got started quickly in the bottom of the first inning when Mitch Moreland roped an RBI line drive to right field to bring in Andrew Benintendi. Minnesota got that run back the next inning off of Logan Morrison's solo homer and built their lead up in the third when they scored three more. Jorge Polanco's triple drove in two and was followed by Brian Dozier driving him in to make it 4-1. Porcello had looked good...not great, but very good and yet the Twins were hitting the ball hard and in all the right places. The never-say-die attitude of this team was on full display in the next inning, though. In the bottom of the fourth, the Sox pushed three runs across, first on Jackie Bradley's two RBI triple and then when Mookie Betts doubled to knock Bradley in. Tie game and from there, the Sox never looked back. JD Martinez absolutely crushed a ball over the Green Monster and out of Fenway Park in the fifth to give the Sox the lead again and from there, they kept piling on. Benintendi drove in a run in the sixth, Mookie (RBI double), Rafael Devers (a walk with the bases loaded), and Eduardo Nunez (two RBI double) all drove in runs in the eighth, and the Sox ended up winning this in a 10-4 rout. The only bad news (besides the Yankees coming back to win the second game of their doubleheader) was Devers leaving the game in the eighth. The team announced afterward that he'd be heading back to the 10-day DL with a hamstring injury. The already thin infield defense at third and second just got a bit thinner. Expect to see a lot more of Tzu-Wei Lin and Brock Holt in the coming weeks unless Dave Dombrowski can find someone effective on the market and pull something out of his hat before Tuesday's trade deadline.

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As for the pitching, Porcello earned his 13th win of the season and was effective even though he only went 5.2 innings. He struck out five, walked one, and gave up four runs on five hits but with the offensive muscle the Sox showed in this one, it was enough to get the job done. More encouraging was Tyler Thornburg in the eighth inning. He didn't allow a hit and struck a batter out in his inning of work and he may be finally rounding into the form we thought we were getting when we traded for him two years ago. Time will tell on that one, but with as inconsistent as the middle relief has been all season, it would be a welcome development. Boston is 5.5 games up in the AL East and can go for the series win this afternoon. New pickup Nathan Eovaldi will be making his Red Sox debut today as the team looks to continue keeping the Yankees at bay before facing them on Thursday.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Game 105: Minnesota Twins at Red Sox (July 27, 2018)

Another blessed Friday night and another night of Red Sox baseball. After a long week and an hour at the cages pitching batting practice to my oldest daughter, I got home to catch the Sox game. I was still fairly irritated by last night's loss but confident that Chris Sale would lead the way and that the bats would wake up. What we got instead was a rollercoaster of a game and one that was probably harder than it needed to be.

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The real shame on this night was the fact that Chris Sale didn't end up getting the win. He certainly pitched well enough to do so. He went six innings and struck out 10 batters while only walking two and gave up three hits. He surpassed 200 strikeouts on the season during this game and did exactly what an ace is supposed to do in a start following a loss (including a huge strikeout with the bases loaded in the fifth inning). Unfortunately, two things conspired against him: the first was that the Sox still struggled to score runs (this time against Lance Lynn), and the second was, as always, the bullpen. Jackie Bradley put the Sox on the board with an opposite field two run homer over the Green Monster in the fifth to break the scoreless tie and put them up 2-0. They gave a run back in the seventh in one of the more bizarre innings I've seen this season that almost felt like a slow motion trainwreck to watch. Max Kepler scored on a fielding error by Eduardo Nunez (and it really wasn't his fault) to cut the lead in half. The team ended it with one of the more unusual and impressive double plays I've ever seen which ended with Steve Pearce sprawled out in the dirt covering first base with his leg underneath a leaping runner. Things still seemed alright in the top of the ninth with Kimbrel on the mound. He had come in to get the final out in the eighth and even though he led off the ninth by walking a batter he then induced a fly out and looked on his way to another save. Then the wheels fell off the cart. First Kimbrel walked a batter when he was one strike away from slamming the door shut on the Twins. It culminated in disaster the next batter when he allowed a two-RBI double to Eddie Roasrio to put Minnesota up 3-2. You could hear the collective groan at Fenway Park and I'm sure they could hear my cussing all the way there as well! Thankfully, this team never quits. Rafael Devers smacked a solo shot in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game and then, in the bottom of the tenth, Mookie Betts hit his 25th home run of the season (and first career walkoff homer) to give Boston the exciting  4-3 win. Yes, it was another game in which every Red Sox run came from the long ball, but it was exciting enough that I didn’t find it boring. Welcome to MLB in 2018.

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With the Yankees rained out yet again, Boston picked up a half game and is now five games up in the division. I'm not trying to indulge in hyperbole when I say that this was a much needed win for the Red Sox. They've been sluggish coming out of the All Star break and needed to avenge for the previous night's showing. They scored more runs in this one (although still not a lot) and managed to outhit Minnesota 8-6. The real shame was that Sale got yet another no decision...he's pitched far too well this season to only have eleven wins thus far. That's the nature of the game, but it's got to be a little frustrating for him as it is for us fans. Still, it was an important, dramatic win and a relief; I'm hopeful that the team will carry the momentum from this one over going forward. Rick Porcello will take the ball for game three of the series tomorrow and should again give the Sox a great chance to win. As long as they can score runs and keep swinging the bats better, they should be fine. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Game 104: Minnesota Twins at Red Sox (July 26, 2018)

I'm just going to cut to the chase and say that this was a bad loss for the Red Sox. The first game of a homestand against a bad team and not only did they lose, but they lost in a complete offensive power outage. Even worse, it was on a night where they were actually getting a good outing from Brian Johnson. I know it was only one game and the Sox are still in great shape, but it was also a microcosm of valid concerns (mainly the bullpen) that could continue to hurt this team come the postseason. After a long, tiring day at work and coaching my son's practice for a couple of hours, the last thing I needed was the utter aggravation of a game like this, but as the Rolling Stones sang "you can't always get what you want."

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As I said, Johnson started in this one and he did a fine job. 5.2 innings pitched, no runs, five strikeouts, and three walks...that's a better line than anything Pomeranz has given us this season and completely acceptable for a start out of the fifth rotation spot. However, the offense only gave him one run of support which came when Blake Swihart scored on a fielder's choice hit by Mookie Betts. That single run was all the Sox could muster the entire night and I tweeted out once Heath Hembree came on in relief in the sixth inning that I had a bad feeling that the bullpen would blow the lead. I'm sorry to say that I was right once again. Robbie Grossman scored on a fielder's choice to tie the game in the seventh and then in the eighth Mitch Garver drove in the winning run with a double to left field off of Matt Barnes. The Sox threatened in the bottom of the ninth by loading the bases with two outs but Jackie Bradley couldn't deliver at the plate (although he made a fantastic defensive play in the first inning) as he struck out to end the game. With that, the Sox went down meekly with a 2-1 loss.

On the other side, Kyle Gibson completely shut the Red Sox down. He went eight innings and only gave up for hits and the single run while striking out seven and walking two. He wasn't throwing heat, but his off-speed stuff and his slider just kept the Sox off balance and out of sorts all night. It got more frustrating as the game went on, but sometimes the other team just has your number regardless of how good or bad they are and that was the case with the Twins in this game. Boston was outhit 8-5 and even the hits they had were nothing special. Even their one run was scored on a fielder's choice when Mookie hit into a double play. As I'm sure those of you who read my posts regularly are tired of hearing, I always say that if your pitcher is only giving up one or two runs, you'd damn well better win that game. All you can do is tip your cap to Minnesota, forget about this one, and move on to the next game. Chris Sale will be taking the mound in game two so the Sox should be set up to bounce back with a win as long as they can score some runs.



With the Yankees winning, the Boston lead in the AL East was cut down to 4.5 games. What makes a night like this really frustrating is that with the Yankees scuffling , the Sox were primed to really bury New York deeper in the division, but they haven't been able to capitalize and are letting them hang around. The Sox have played .500 ball since the All Star break (3-3) and while there's still a lot of the season left to play, the loss of momentum that I was afraid of due to that layoff is starting to be a bit of a concern. As yet another one of my old baseball mantras goes, you have to beat up on the bad teams and there have been spells this season when the Sox haven't done that. They did get a bit of a break (no pun intended, I swear) when Aaron Judge was hit by a pitch last night and suffered a broken wrist. He's out for at least three weeks (and I've read some reports that say for the rest of the season), so even though I hate to see guys get hurt, that will definitely benefit the Red Sox. Judge is actually one of the few players on the Yankees who I like and it's always exciting to watch him play, but anything that hurts the Yankees is fine with me. Now we just have to see if Boston can take advantage of it.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Game 104: Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles (July 25, 2018) (POSTPONED)

It appears as though Mother Nature has found the only way to stop the Red Sox this season: rain them out. The mid-Atlantic has been receiving rain of biblical proportions over the past week which affected the first two games of this series with severe rain delays. For the series finale, David Price was on the mound to try and help the Sox get the win, and it looked like he was well on his way before the weather had other ideas.

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There's not a lot to write about this game although there was a lot of action for the Red Sox. Andrew Benintendi ripped a solo homer in the top of the first and was followed by JD Martinez who did the same. With a 2-0 lead heading into the second, the Sox piled on some more when Mookie Betts clubbed a three run shot in the second inning. Boston had raced to a 5-0 lead and looked like they were going to run away with the game and series before the rain dashed those hopes. After yet another rain delay in Baltimore, the game was called and just like that POOF those home runs were erased. The game will be made up as part of a doubleheader on August 11th. The good news for the Sox was that the Yankees lost so even though they didn't get the game in they picked up a half game in the standings; they're now 5.5 games ahead in first place. The Sox will begin a new homestand tonight against the Minnesota Twins with Brian Johnson on the mound so I'm looking for them to continue their winning ways as they march through this next week in preparation for a big series with the Yankees starting next Thursday.

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Before finishing this curtailed game recap, I want to touch on one final baseball thought. You may remember early in the season how I wrote about the proliferation of home runs in the game today and how I thought it cheapened their value and excitement. It's also been a big talking point nationally over the last couple of seasons. MLB has broken the overall single season home run record season after season, Hitters are going for more all-or-nothing at bats and the result is less action taking place on the field. Strikeouts are up, home runs are up, but balls put in play are way, way down. MLB denies the balls are juiced but most players, fans, and independent testing labs (who have actually looked at the new balls and compared them to balls from years past) believe they've been changed. Combined with the over reliance on statistics and analytics and the ridiculous "launch angle revolution" where so many hitters have changed their swings to result in either pop flies or home runs, the result is a game that has become as boring and one dimensional as I can ever recall. Where this is all going is that last night my wife turned to me and said "you know, it's so boring when all of the runs come from home runs." She was dead on correct and that's exactly what I've been saying for a while now. What made her comment even more impactful for me is the fact that while she's a fan of the Red Sox and baseball, she's not a baseball junkie like me. She doesn't watch the games every night and doesn't obsess over the stats and standings and box scores the way I do. I'd say she's more than a casual fan but less than a diehard fan. And still she cut right to the chase and identified the problem. Home runs used to be somewhat rare and special and exciting, but they've been cheapened a bit with how often they're being hit (and the fact that so many lesser hitters are hitting more and more of them). When you get too much of anything, it becomes less special. How and when the league addresses this once they finally acknowledge the problem, I don't know, but I thought it was an interesting and telling observation nonetheless. I know that personally I get as excited about a stolen base, a clutch hit, a squeeze bunt, etc as I do a big home run because to me, that's real baseball. The same with watching the defense make great plays in the field. The over reliance on the long ball has taken a lot of that away and it makes me sad to see it. I have no doubt the game will correct itself as it always has throughout its history, but for now, it's made the game a bit less interesting and exciting than it should be.

(One last bit of news: the Red Sox yesterday traded prospect Jalen Beeks to Tampa Bay for starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi. This will give the back of the rotation some much-needed depth with Wright still out and Pomeranz a complete trainwreck. Still, I'd like to see some middle relief or infield help before the deadline if possible. Let's see if Dave Dombrowski can pull any other moves off before then. )

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Game 103: Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles (July 24, 2018)

In a way, I've been thankful for the rain delays the Red Sox have had to endure so far in Baltimore. They've allowed me to watch the games without missing anything even though I've been busy. It was because of the rain delays that I was able to coach my son's practice and still get home to watch the entire game, although after seeing what I saw I almost wish I hadn't. This middle game of the series was the return of Drew Pomeranz to the rotation and it reminded me of the old adage "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

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Pomeranz had looked awful in his rehab starts apart from the final one before he was recalled to the big league club. All I was hoping going into this game was that he could keep it close so the Red Sox could win, and I was also thankful he was easing back in against a bad team like the Orioles. Unfortunately neither of those things came to matter in the end. Things got off to a good start when JD Martinez hit home run number 30 in the top of the first to give the Sox the early lead, but Pomeranz gave it right back when Jonathan Schoop hit his second two run homer in as many days against the Sox in the third inning to put Baltimore ahead. The Sox tied it on Blake Swihart's solo home run in the fifth and Mookie Betts put the Sox ahead when he hit a solo shot of his own (number 24 for him) later in the inning. In what seemed like deja vu, Pomeranz coughed it up again when he gave up another two run blast, this time to Tim Beckham in the bottom of the inning. That was it for Drew whose final line looked as bad as I'm trying to make it seem: 4.2 innings pitched, six hits, four runs, four strike outs, two walks, and two home runs given up. Unfortunately, the bullpen wasn't any better. The ever-struggling Joe Kelly really put the game out of reach for the Sox in his 0.2 innings of work: 2 hits, three runs, two walks, and no strikeouts. He gave up a sacrifice fly to Beckham and an RBI single to Schoop which gave the O's a 6-3 lead. The coup de grace to the Sox was later in the sixth when Hector Velazquez allowed an RBI single to Adam Jones. It was 7-4 Baltimore and looked like an utter trainwreck of a game for the Sox, but to their credit they didn't give up. JD hit another homer in the eighth with Andrew Benintendi on base to cut the lead to two runs and Rafael Devers drove in Jackie Bradley with an RBI single in the ninth. However, it was a case of coming up just short as they couldn't get anything else and lost to the final score of 7-6.



This loss was so frustrating on multiple levels. Pomeranz was as maddening and shaky as he's been his entire time in Boston apart from last season (which now looks like a real outlier, and let's be honest: his record in '17 was deceptive as he wasn't nearly as dominant as it makes him seem). Even worse, the middle relief continued it's trend of letting games get away from them; they couldn't even keep this game close for an inning. It's a real shame because had they even only allowed a couple of runs the Sox would have won, but four runs was too big a hole to dig out of on this night. Finally, with the Yankees winning, the division lead was shaved down a game and sits at five as of today. On the plus side, the bats never quit and the Sox fought back to the very end. The power was good to see as Boston clubbed four homers and even got one from Swihart (his first of the season). However, heading into the trade deadline there are areas of real concern for this team: the middle relief is putrid and needs an upgrade, and second base is an offensive and defensive black hole that needs shoring up. I wouldn't mind a veteran upgrade at third base on the cheap if possible, either. I like Devers a lot, but his defense hasn't improved as much as it should have and he's been slumping badly the last month or more (although he did go 2-4 in this one). The problem is the Red Sox have almost no one of value in the minors to offer in return and they're right up against the biggest luxury tax threshold. It will be interesting to see what Dave Dombrowski does (if he does anything) between now and the 31st.  David Price will take the ball for the rubber match and all I'm hoping for is that he'll pitch well and the Sox will continue to dominate in series ending games so that they can take this one before heading back to Fenway Park for their next homestand. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Game 102: Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles (July 23, 2018)

That was one of the most baseball-filled nights I've had in a while! After work and dinner, I took my oldest daughter and son to the cages to get some work in. We got home in time to catch the first few innings of the Sox game (which had already been rain delayed once). I'd been waiting all month to watch the new PBS American Masters documentary on Ted Williams that was premiering at 9pm so I figured I'd miss most of the Sox game for that, but another rain delay hit and I was able to watch most of the Ted film before play resumed. I then watched the rest of the game which didn't finish until after 11pm...it almost felt like a west coast game. Before I dive in to the Sox game, a word about the Williams documentary: if you didn't watch it last night, you need to. It was excellent. It took a look at his entire life and revealed a lot of new bits of information that I didn't know. There was also amazing newly discovered color footage of his final game and at bat. It was thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating. I watched it with my son (who is a huge Ted fan) and we both loved it. I highly recommend it if you're a Williams and/or Red Sox fan.



Now, for the game. With Rick Porcello going up against Kevin Gausman and the woeful O's (even more woeful now that they've traded Manny Machado), it seemed like this would be a cakewalk. For the first seven innings, it was. Mitch Moreland put Boston on the scoreboard first with a solo shot in the second inning and in the fifth the team pushed four more runs across. Jackie Bradley walked with the bases loaded to make it 2-0, and then Andrew Benintendi doubled to knock in two and quickly make it 4-0. JD Martinez finished the Red Sox scoring with a single to drive in Bradley and give the team a 5-0 lead. That seemed like it would be more than enough until, you guessed it, the bullpen took over. Once again reminding us why Alex Cora only puts him in blowout wins or losses, Brandon Workman gave up a two run homer to the slumping Jonathan Schoop in the eighth to get Baltimore in the score column. Things got even dicier in the ninth when the rain started coming down again and Craig Kimbrel gave up a couple of hits that resulted in another run for the Orioles. Thankfully, a heads up double play by Mitch Moreland ended the threat and preserved the Red Sox 5-3 win. With the Yankees losing in comic fashion to Tampa Bay (Gary Sanchez was a true bum last night, especially on that out to end the game), the Red Sox are now six games ahead in the AL East. 

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Porcello looked much better in this game than he did in his last start before the break. He tossed six shutout innings and struck out six, only walking one. Workman had a brutal inning of work, giving up two hits and two runs, and even Kimbrel looked shaky out there in earning his 32nd save of the season. He's still one of the top closers in the game, but he hasn't looked quite as dominant this season as he was last year. On the offensive side, everyone had a hit in this game except for Brock Holt and Bradley, but they still found ways to help despite the team being outhit by Baltimore 11-7. The same can't be said of Rafael Devers. He's still slumping badly at the plate, with his average down to .239 after the game. His defense has still been suspect, but the most egregious blunder he made in this one was getting doubled up off of second base on a line drive to center field with one out. It was the type of baserunning you might see in little league (although even my son's team knows that you don't take off running on a ball in the air with less than two outs). Just inexcusable and not a good look for the rookie. Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing if the Sox look for veteran help at third base before the trade deadline next Tuesday.

Anyway, the Sox now have their largest lead in the division and welcome Drew Pomeranz back to the rotation. He'll be starting the second game of the series and hoping to recapture the form that made him successful in 2017. I'll be looking for that and for the Sox to continue putting up runs as they try to win this series. My hope all along was for Boston to be at least four games ahead of the Yankees before they face off at the end of next week...so far, so good. 

Monday, July 23, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Eight Arms to Hold You: The Solo Beatles Compendium


For as many books as there have been written about the Beatles as a group, there have been almost as many written about the individual members and what they did after the split in 1970. While most Beatles books focus on the lives and music of the four men, a handful are more like day-to-day guides to their activities during the post-Fab Four period. There are two indispensable books from Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronicle (both of which I will review at a later date). As for the solo Beatles, there's only one book that merits comparison to those two: Chip Madinger and Mark Easter's Eight Arms to Hold You. Published in 2000, the book immediately became a bible for fans and collectors of John, Paul, George, and Ringo's solo work and activities. My personal copy has been well worn and sits proudly on the shelf in my library. The impetus for this review was the news that an updated version of the book is due to be published on August 1st of this year. That was enough to spur me to re-read the book and write this review.



Containing a whopping 718 pages, Eight Arms to Hold You is laid out with a section devoted to each individual Beatle. Within each section, their solo activities are presented in chronological order from their first baby steps into solo work in 1966 through the band's breakup in 1970 all the way up to 2000 (or in John's case, up until his murder in 1980). Contained within each section is literally everything that each of them was up to during that time. This includes not only recording sessions, but also radio and TV appearances, interviews, concerts, music videos, and everything in between. Looking at the amount of detail that has gone in to the book is staggering as no stone was left unturned. Each entry has a synopsis of all the pertinent information there is to report. Also, for every single and album release there is detailed information including catalog numbers, track lists and times, reviews of each song, and notes on subsequent versions. In that way, this book also acts as the definitive solo Beatles discography (at least up to the year 2000). Beyond that, there's a wealth of information pertaining to bootlegs and unofficial releases. Some of the most revealing and fascinating bits, for instance, are the authors' accounts of John Lennon's diary tapes from his reclusive late 1970s years. The descriptions of what's on the tapes are frankly a bit upsetting, but all of it is interesting and acts as good motivation to seek out this and other similar material.

As I mentioned before, the amount of research that went into this book was clearly huge. If you're familiar with Chip Madinger's more recent book on John and Yoko, LENNONOLOGY, which I've previously reviewed then you will understand the amount of information and detail contained in Eight Arms to Hold You. One of the nice things about both books is that they can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. They can be read front to back in chronological order or used as a reference guide. I've done this with both books. After first reading through from cover to cover I continue to use Eight Arms to Hold You as a reference book, pulling it off the shelf and flipping to whichever section I'm interested in to answer any questions I have. My one and only complaint with the book is that it stops at 2000, but I was really excited to hear about the new edition being released in August. The authors describe it as a "remastered" edition where a few things have changed. The book hasn't been updated with any post-2000 entries. Rather, they've first gone and fixed any typos or printing errors that were present in the original version. Then, they've used the new information they've unearthed in the ensuing eighteen years and updated/corrected/enhanced the entries. The result will be a refreshed version of the original book as described by the authors on their site (you can purchase it there as well). The nice thing is that this new version will be available for download immediately upon release. This is good news for anyone interested, especially those who doesn't already have a copy of the original; the book is out of print and fetches some ridiculous prices on the secondary market (if you want to see how much, click on the link below. And no, I'm not planning on selling my copy!).

In short, Eight Arms to Hold You is the best guide to everything the four solo Beatles did in their brave new post-Fabs world. I've recommended this book a ton on message boards over the years and I'm continuing to do so here. You won't be disappointed.


MY RATING: 10/10


Game 101: Red Sox at Detroit Tigers (July 22, 2018)

After only scoring a single run over the previous two games, I was hoping beyond hope that the Red Sox would score some runs for Chris Sale in the series finale. He's been the recipient of some poor run support a few times this season even while he's pitched brilliantly. I was also hoping the Sox could get back to mashing the way they had before the break. This was a lazy Sunday spent at home listening to the constant thunder and rain outside...a perfect set-up for relaxing on the couch and watching the game.

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I and many others have mentioned this season that the Red Sox are almost unbeatable in the final games of series this season and today was no different. Leading the way was Sale, who had absolutely filthy stuff and pitched six strong innings. He struck out nine, walked none, and only gave up two hits. On this day, the team gave him plenty of run support from the very beginning. Rafael Devers drove in the first run on a fielder's choice in the second and Eduardo Nunez did the same later that inning to make it 2-0 Red Sox. Nunez was at it again in the fourth with an RBI single to make it 3-0. The way Sale was pitching, that seemed like it'd be enough but Jackie Bradley had other ideas by smacking a three run homer to left field to give the Sox a 6-0 lead. Boston kept piling on in the seventh: first, Andrew Benintendi crushed a two run triple to left center field and then JD Martinez brought him in with a sacrifice fly. It was 9-0 Boston and it seemed like they'd cruise to the easy shutout win, but the bullpen let them down. Alex Cora only seems to put Brandon Workman in games this season when the Sox are either up by a lot or down by a lot and today we perhaps learned why. He gave up a solo home run to Jeimar Candelario in the bottom of the seventh and was hit hard, giving up three in his single inning of work. The struggling Joe Kelly was almost as bad in the eighth, loading the bases and looking incredibly shaky but somehow getting out of the inning unscathed. He was helped by some good heads up defensive play (and some bad Tiger baserunning). Tyler Thornburg's ninth inning to end the game was much better. It only took him seven pitches to get the three outs he needed. While keeping in mind that he did it against a bad team like Detroit, it was encouraging to see Thornburg pitching better than he has so far this season. At the plate, the Sox had nine hits on the day and got contributions from all spots in the order. Xander Bogaerts, Steve Pearce, and Bradley each had two hit games while the RBI were spread throughout the lineup. If this type of production, which we saw the few weeks before the break, is back then this Red Sox team is going to continue tearing through the rest of the league.

The win gave Boston seventy on the season and slightly increased their division lead to five games since the Yankees were rained out. They now head to Baltimore to take on the pathetic Orioles for a three game series before heading home to Fenway Park. Rick Porcello will take the mound in the series opener and honestly, not only do I expect a series win but I'm fully hoping for a sweep. I thought the same about the Detroit series, though...as the old saying goes, that's why you play the games.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Game 100: Red Sox at Detroit Tigers (July 21, 2018)

Here we are, the one hundredth game of the season. Overall we can't be anything but pleased with where the Red Sox are right now, but what happened in this game was exactly what I was afraid of coming out of the All Star break. They were sluggish and none of the momentum from before the break carried over after the long layoff. It was even more apparent in this second game against Detroit since the black hole that is the fifth rotation spot was due to pitch. Brian Johnson got the start and I wasn't feeling very confident that the Sox would win if they didn't hit better than the night before. One run isn't going to cut it no matter who you face.

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The longer this game went on, the more it became obvious that the Sox got lucky the night before. The scoring in this game was all Detroit, aided and abetted by a bad play in the field. Former Red Sox Jose Iglesias did the most damage in this game, doubling in two runs in the second and hitting a two run homer in the sixth to drive in four of the Tigers' five runs. (Remember when the knock on this guy in Boston was that he was all glove, no bat? He always seems to do damage at the plate when he faces the Sox!). The other came off a Jeimar Candelario sacrifice fly earlier in the sixth. Those final three runs were off of Tyler Thornburg while the first two came off of Johnson. There was also a brutal throwing error by Rafael Devers, his twentieth of the season. Boston actually outhit Detroit 8-7 but they left a whopping fifteen men on base; it's hard to win any game when you strand that many baserunners. The worst culprit was Xander Bogaerts, who for the game left six men on base. Mookie Betts, Rafael Devers, Eduardo Nunez, and Jackie Bradley each left two while Steve Pearce stranded the remaining runner. There's not much more the dwell on with this game. Johnson actually pitched well enough to win: five innings, two runs, five strikeouts and no walks. The team just couldn't give him any run support and by the time Tyler Thornburg was done (one inning, three runs, a walk, and a strikeout) the game was out of reach. The lone bright spot for the Sox came in the bottom of the third when Mookie made a ridiculous leaping catch at the wall to rob Leonys Martin of a sure home run. If it wouldn't get me shut down by MLB, I'd share the video here because it was one of the greatest catches I've seen this season. It was another reminder (along with his 2-5 day and .355 average) that's he's one of the rare five tool players in the game today.



With the Yankees somehow managing to hold on for a win despite Aroldis Chapman's awful performance, the Sox lead in the AL East was cut by a game. They're still 4.5 games up and in good shape to win the series today with Chris Sale on the mound. They just need to convert all of those hits they've been piling up in Detroit into runs. At least they've got back-to-back series with cellar dwellers like Detroit and Baltimore to get back into the swing of things coming out of the break before the stretch run really heats up. 

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Game 99: Red Sox at Detroit Tigers (July 20, 2018)

The Red Sox were finally back in action after the All Star break with this series opener in Detroit. My one concern after such a long layoff was whether they'd be a little sluggish. They had been playing incredible baseball the two weeks heading into the break and I was a bit worried they'd lose that momentum. As I sat down at the end of a long week to watch the game, I was treated to an interesting and oftentimes bizarre game instead.

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David Price got the start for this first game of the second "half" of the season and at least in my mind, needed to show that he could be better than his three uneven (if not downright bad) starts from before the break. On the whole, he passed the test although I'm keeping in mind that he did it against a pretty bad Tigers team. He went 6.1 innings and struck out five while walking one and giving up four hits. He was also involved in a potentially scary play in the fourth when he backed up a wild Andrew Benintendi throw at home. Price held the runner at third but didn't notice Brock Holt waving at second to throw it to catch Jeimar Candelario in no man's land. By the time Price threw it, Holt was vulnerable and took Candelario's spikes to his knee. It initially looked like it could've been really bad, but after the game Holt and the team said it was just a contusion and that he would be day to day. If that ends up being true, the Sox dodged a bullet because they are thin on depth at second base and Holt has been having a very nice year to this point. The only scoring for the Red Sox came in the top of the first when Steve Pearce's double drove in Benintendi. That was all they'd end up needing as the pitching and defense held fast and kept the Tigers scoreless. That's not to say there weren't some threats, though. In the fourth Detroit loaded the bases with no outs but came away empty handed. And the eighth inning was one of the most bizarre innings I've seen in a long time. Matt Barnes struck out the first two batters but both were on dropped third strikes (his damn curveball!). The first batter (Niko Goodrum) reached first safely and then advanced all the way to third on the second one. The Sox got him out in a rundown between third and home and managed to get out of the jam unscathed. Craig Kimbrel came on in the ninth and picked up his 31st save but it wasn't as easy as he usually makes it look. He allowed a hit and his control wasn't quite as sharp as it usual. In fact, the whole team didn't look as smooth as we've come to expect...the rust of having five days off is what I'm chalking it up to. In any event, a win is a win and the Red Sox took this game 1-0.

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In news almost as good as Boston winning their 69th game of the season, the Yankees lost to fall 5.5 games behind in the division. The Sox have a few more series against some bad teams (after the Tigers, they visit Baltimore before hosting the Twins and Phillies, who aren't bad but are not nearly as good as Boston). That leads into a series against the Yankees at Fenway Park to kick off August. If the Sox can hold or even increase their current division lead by then, they can really do some damage and hurt New York's chances in the AL East. But that's looking too far ahead; for now, they need to focus on getting win number 70 and winning this series in Detroit. Game two will be the bullpen game with Brian Johnson getting the spot start so they're going to need a whole lot more than one run of offense in order to make that happen.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The 2018 State of the Red Sox: The Midseason Report

The 2018 Boston Red Sox have reached the All Star break and the unofficial midpoint of the season (although they've already played 98 games out of 162). I thought it would be fun during a respite from games and daily recaps to sit back, take stock of where the Red Sox are right now, and assess the team's performance to this point. Please keep in mind that while I am taking as many stats as I can into consideration, I'm also going by what my eyes and brain tell me; because of this, a lot will be my opinion with which you may agree or disagree. As such, I welcome lively debate and discussion either here in the comments section or whichever social media platform you may have reached this post from. With that out of the way, let's begin.

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THE HITTING: 2017 was the first season AO (After Ortiz) and it showed. The team had a power outage and finished dead last in the AL in home runs and struggled to generate a lot of offense for much of the season. Coming in to 2018, the roster wasn't retooled much beyond signing free agent slugger JD Martinez. There were many questions as to how the bats would perform: would Martinez be able to carry over his hot half season from Arizona to Boston? Would the bounceback seasons from Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley that we expected actually happen? Would Andrew Benintendi avoid the sophomore slump and build upon his impressive rookie season? Would Rafael Devers hot half-season translate into a good rookie campaign? Would the Red Sox actually hit a grand slam this season? (They had none in 2017).

I'm happy to report that the answers to most of those questions have trended in the right direction for the Red Sox so far in 2018. I'll tackle them in order.

- JD Martinez has been everything the Red Sox were expecting when they got him, and then some. At the All Star break, he's hitting .328 with 29 home runs and 80 RBI. His OBP is .393 and his OPS is 1.037. He's been a consistent threat in the order and his methodical approach to hitting has rubbed off on his teammates as he's helped elevate their play this season; in short, he's been as much a benefit as a leader as he has been a player. He would easily be considered as the Red Sox player having the best season if it wasn't for the next guy.

- I've just about run out of words to describe the season Mookie Betts is having thus far. We all thought his MVP caliber season in 2016, when he finished second in the AL to Mike Trout, may be his high-water mark. Mookie even said as much after a disappointing 2017 when he admitted that '16 "might be as good as it gets for me." He must have taken those words to heart because what he's doing this season blows away what he did two years ago. He's leading the league in batting average by hitting a whopping .359. He's got 23 HR and 51 RBI, but when looking at those RBI keep in mind that he's hitting out of the leadoff spot; were he hitting out of the 3-5 spots, he'd surely have as many RBI as JD. Mookie's OBP is a gaudy .448 and his OPS is a ridiculous 1.139. He's stolen 18 bases, scored 79 runs, and lest we forget he continues to play Gold Glove defense in right field. Combined with his perpetual smile and infectious personality, Mookie is one of the most exciting players to watch in MLB today. A third Gold Glove and the AL MVP are both within his reach. Regardless, he's already put together one of the greatest half-seasons I've seen in my 30+ years of following baseball and the Red Sox.

- Xander Bogaerts has been a very good player for the Red Sox since he first came up toward the end of the 2013 season, but the knock on his has been that he hasn't taken that next step in his evolution from "very good" to "great." He's typically had good first halves of his seasons before seemingly wearing down over the course of August and September. Last season this was exacerbated by an injury to his hand after being hit by a pitch. His power numbers drastically decreased last season after his All Star season of 2016. The big hope heading into 2018 was that he could repeat his 2016 first half over the course of an entire season. So far, so good. Xander started the season red hot, leading the team in average and home runs before a minor foot injury sidelined him for a few weeks in April/May. Since coming back and getting back into rhythm, he's been one of the team's best and most consistent hitters. He currently sits with a .284 average with 16 home runs (including THREE grand slams!) and 64 RBI. He's also playing much better defense at shortstop. In all, he's having an All Star caliber season and hopefully getting some rest so that he can finish the rest of the season strong. The team will need him if they're going to make any noise in the postseason this year.

- In any other year but 2017 where Aaron Judge wasn't there to hit 51 home runs, Andrew Benintendi would have been the AL Rookie of the Year (he finished second). After his sizzling play upon being called up to the big leagues in July 2016, he put together a great rookie season in '17. Heading into this season, the hope was that he would avoid the sophomore slump and build upon the successful rookie campaign. He got off to a bit of a slow start this year, but since May he has been on a tear and narrowly missed out on being named to his first All Star game. Right now, he's hitting .297 with 14 home runs and 57 RBI. He's swiped 17 stolen bases and scored 68 runs and while his aggressiveness on the basepaths still results in him running into a lot of outs, overall he's having a great second season.

- I'll touch on Bradley and Devers in another section down below.

THE FIELDING: Coming in to the season, the Red Sox were generally considered to have one of the best defensive outfields in the game, while the infield defense left a bit to be desired. While the outfield trio of Betts, Bradley, and Benintendi has definitely lived up to expectations, the infield has been a pleasant surprise. Most people will I'm sure immediately point out that Rafael Devers has more errors (19) than any other third baseman in the league, but I have been impressed with his increased range and his aggressiveness at going after balls. I chalk it up to growing pains and am fine with how he's played as long as he continues to improve. At the other corner infield position, Mitch Moreland has continued to play solid defense at first (remember, he's won a Gold Glove). Xander Bogaerts has been much improved at shortstop and the platoon at second base (especially Brock Holt) has been better than expected in the absence of Dustin Pedroia. As a team, the Sox have committed 46 errors this season for a .987 fielding percentage, both second best in the AL.  

THE STARTING ROTATION: On paper, this looked like a real strength for the team. Chris Sale was coming off one of the greatest seasons for a Red Sox pitcher ever having struck out 308 batters in 2017. Drew Pomeranz somehow won 17 games last year even though he routinely barely made it into the sixth inning. Eduardo Rodriguez had shown glimpses of his talent over the last two seasons and looked to finally be putting it all together. Rick Porcello had a bad year in 2017 but won 22 games and the AL Cy Young award in 2016 and was due for a bounceback. And then there's David Price. A real enigma, he had a very good 2016 season but completely squandered 2017 both to injuries and his behavior. Still, based purely on what they've all done over the past two seasons, it looked as though 2018 was set up to be a great year for the Boston rotation. Reality has been a bit more of a mixed bag. Sale has been his usual brilliant self, entering the break with a 10-4 record, 2.23 ERA, and 188 strikeouts. He'd have even more wins but he's been the victim of a few games where he only gave up one or two runs but didn't receive any run support. Porcello is 11-4 and while his ERA is a bit on the high side at 4.13, he's second on the team with 115 strikeouts and has been the team's second best starter. Rodriguez was having a fantastic first half before he left his final start before the break with an ankle injury. He currently sits at 11-3 with an ERA of 3.44 and 110 strikeouts. And then there's Price. He's 10-6 with an ERA of 4.42 and has struck out 109, but his last few starts heading into the break have been poor and the constant drama and excuses that always swirl around him have made him about the polar opposite of a fan favorite. Still, if the team is going to be successful this season they're going to need him to continue to pitch well and somehow break through his inability to deliver in the postseason (and against the Yankees). 

As for Pomeranz, he's been a disaster. Injured since early in the season, he looked bad before we went down and from all reports has been awful in AAA Pawtucket on rehab assignment. Steven Wright came back from the DL in June and was pitching great out of the fifth rotation spot until his surgically repaired knee caused him to go back on the shelf. Hector Velazquez and Brian Johnson have been ably filling that fifth spot with emergency starts, but with Rodriguez now out for the near future the Red Sox are going to have to rely on these two (or someone else) a bit more than anyone should be comfortable with. This is one area where there is no relief coming from the farm system so the Sox are going to have to patch it together and hope that the trio of Sale, Porcello, and Price can carry them until Rodriguez and either Wright or Pomeranz come back.

THE BULLPEN: My griping about the bullpen will be well known to anyone who's been reading my daily game recaps here. Statistically they're one of the better bullpens in the majors, but apart from Craig Kimbrel at closer, who inspires confidence? The middle relievers who have to bridge from the starters to the closer (because as we all know, starting pitchers almost never go beyond six or seven innings any more) have been the team's Achilles heel for the last few seasons and while it's better this year than it's been in years past, it's not by much. It seems as though right when one or two guys pitch consistently and are ready to take the mantle, they revert back into a pumpkin and set everything back to square one. That's happened with Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes, and Carson Smith (before his bizarre shoulder injury ended his season). Tyler Thornburg is finally back in the majors and in the lineup but has been inconsistent while reacclimating to the game. Alex Cora doesn't seem to trust Brandon Workman unless it's a blowout win or loss. And Heath Hembree...well, the less said, the better. I really hope that either these guys can tighten up and be consistent for the rest of the season or Dave Dombrowski can work some magic at the trade deadline to pick up some middle relief help on the cheap because if there's one area that will be this team's undoing in 2018, it's this one.



THREE UP:

Mookie Betts - See above. Quite simply, he's the Red Sox best player and the best player in the AL apart from that Mike Trout fellow who I hear is pretty darn good himself. The Red Sox need to make sure they sign Mookie long term. He's the face and future of the franchise.

JD Martinez - He's been even better than I expected, both as a player and as a clubhouse guy. The fact that he's now saying he's open to restructuring his contract to stay here longer is even better. The Sox need to do what they can do keep him here for a long time as long as it doesn't financially cripple them.

Chris Sale - I was a bit wary of trading for him in the wake of the whole "scissor-gate" thing when he was with the White Sox, but he's been a fantastic competitor on the mound and a great influence in the clubhouse, to say nothing of how dominant he's been. He's the definition of what an ace should be.

THREE DOWN:

Christian Vazquez - His defense hasn't been nearly as good as we were all led to believe this season (the stats say he's actually worse than Sandy Leon) and he's been atrocious at the plate. The Sox pitchers all seem to prefer pitching to Leon, too (Sale and Porcello only throw to Leon). His injury for a broken pinkie finger may be a blessing in disguise for the team as Leon is now the primary catcher. While Sandy is no Johnny Bench, I'll take his solid defense and .242 average over Vazquez' .213.

Drew Pomeranz - He looked awful before his injury and the reports coming out of his rehab starts at AAA Pawtucket aren't good, either. This guy has gobs of talent, but durability and efficiency always seem to be an issue. Last year he put it all together to win 17 games (even though he never went deep in any of those starts). Perhaps that was as good as it's going to get? The Sox need him to be the 2017 version of himself, and fast.

Dustin Pedroia - It's not Pedey's fault, but I think age and injuries, not to mention how hard he's always played the game, may have finally caught up to him. He only lasted three games after coming back from his knee surgery and the word is that he's done for the rest of this year. It wouldn't shock me if he retires after 2018; if he does, it'll be sad but understandable. While I've never thought he was as good a clubhouse guy as a lot of fans did (and I think 2017 showed that once and for all), I always loved the way he comported himself on the field.

MIDDLE OF THE PACK:

The Bullpen - Some nights they look great, other nights they look as inept and bumbling as ever. The only sure thing coming out of there is Craig Kimbrel. The inconsistency has cost the Sox a few games this season, but so far not as many as it did when John Farrell was managing. The team needs one or two of the middle relievers to step up and take the reins as the go-to bridge guys for the rest of the season. I'll be looking for that in the second half.

Jackie Bradley & Rafael Devers - Both of these guys are among my favorite players but have had up and down years. Bradley's defense has been as stellar as ever, but he started off so miserably at the plate that he was benched for a couple of weeks in May/June. He's been on a tear the last month, though, and seems to have turned it around. Devers started off hot with the bat and has been slumping badly since June. His defense has improved but it's still an adventure any time anything is hit to him. I have no doubt both guys will continue to improve and be important parts of the team, but both need to turn it on and trend in the right direction for the remainder of the season.

Sandy Leon - Like Bradley, he started off brutally at the plate but has been hitting really well over the last month. With Vazquez out for 6-8 weeks, he's now the primary catcher again and needs to show that he deserves that (I think he does).

THE MANAGER:

Alex Cora - What a difference from John Farrell. I've written a lot about Cora over the season, but I'll write some more. The team seems to really like playing for him and all seem to respect him; neither of those things were evident in the last couple of years under Farrell. As a tactician, he may not be a Terry Francona or Joe Maddon, but he's a hell of a lot closer to those guys than he is to the bumbling Farrell. If I have one gripe with Cora, it's perhaps his over-reliance on analytics and schedules. He had a tendency earlier in the season to rest guys according to schedule regardless of their performance. This led to some truly strange and/or weak line-ups being trotted out there and also guys sitting who were in the midst of red-hot streaks. The one that always sticks out in my mind is the stretch in June where Benintendi was absolutely tearing the cover off of the ball but ended up sitting a few games in a row because it was "scheduled." In those cases, I don't care if the guy is due for a day or two off...it he's that hot, you keep him in the line-up. These are small quibbles, though, because overall Cora has been great. There's accountability again, there are consequences for things both good and bad, and the team feels like the manager is running things again instead of the tail-wagging-the-dog feel of the Farrell years. Plus, it's hard to complain about a 68-30 record at the All Star break.
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THE VERDICT: How can this first "half" of the season be anything other than a resounding success? The Sox are 68-30, 4.5 games ahead of the Yankees, and have the best record in MLB. They've played the most games of anyone in the league to this point and have 2/3 of their remaining games at Fenway Park. They can play .500 ball the rest of the way and still finish with 100 wins, but no one expects them to only play .500 baseball. The team is fun to watch and the guys seem like they're having a blast playing. They can beat you with their pitching, they can beat you by outslugging you, and they're deep enough so that different guys can beat you on different nights. I was avoiding giving out "grades" during this midseason assessment, but if I were do so it couldn't be anything other than an A+. Are there areas where they could improve? Of course (looking at you, bullpen). But compared to most other teams, the Red Sox flaws are minor and need tweaks more than a complete overhaul. I'm still a bit nervous about how this team will fare in the postseason given their flameouts the last two years, but I'm confident this is the group and manager to get over that hump. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy the rest of the season when play resumes on Friday. It's going to be a fun race to the finish line, that's for sure.