Rapid reaction: Sox 8, Jays 1

April, 17, 2011

BOSTON -- Pitching is the key to winning games. That’s no secret.

“You can have inconsistent hitting and still win, but if you pitch [well], you give yourself a chance to win every night,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said Sunday morning.

After beating the Blue Jays, 8-1, Sunday at Fenway Park, the Boston Red Sox boasted their first winning streak of the two-week-old season. That’s what two well-pitched games will do for a struggling club, as Boston improved to 4-10 and pulled to .500 (4-4) on its current homestand, which comes to a close Monday.

On Saturday, Josh Beckett limited the Jays to three hits and one run in seven innings as the Sox won 4-1. On Sunday, Jon Lester followed that solid outing with one of his own, also holding the Jays to one earned run, over six innings plus two batters, the only run scoring on a double steal in the second.

Lester (1-1) gave up six hits and fanned five in winning for the first time in four starts, though he struggled a bit with his command, going to three-ball counts 10 times (three walks). He was lifted after shortstop Jed Lowrie botched a potential double-play ball, having thrown 110 pitches.

Lester was aided offensively by the bottom of the order. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the No. 8 hitter, had three RBIs, as did No. 9 hitter, Jacoby Ellsbury, whose three-run homer in the second put Boston on top 4-1.

TIME TO DROP HIM DOWN? To say that Carl Crawford is struggling and pressing is a major understatement.

And while hitters tend to find their level over the course of 162 games, Crawford, a career .286 hitter is batting a paltry .127 after his first 13 games in Boston since signing a seven-year, $142 million free-agent contract this past offseason

Crawford was given Saturday off as much for a mental breather as for an opportunity to work on his swing mechanics. He was back in the lineup Sunday, again hitting leadoff, but it's apparent that his poor start has gotten into his head.

Crawford was passive in his first at-bat, taking the first two pitches for strikes. When you’re in a slump, it always seems as if you are behind in the count 0-and-2. After taking a pitch for a ball, Crawford looked unsettled in the box, waving at and missing a cutter for a strikeout.

In his second at-bat, he was caught badly out on his front foot on a changeup and hit a roller to first base for an out. In his third at-bat, he was so clearly desperate for a hit, the speedy outfielder took a strike, squared to bunt and took a pitch in the dirt for a ball, then tried to drag-bunt his way to a hit. But his bunt wasn’t hard enough and Jays pitcher Jesse Litsch scooped up the ball and easily threw Crawford out.

Squaring twice to bunt on back-to-back pitches is a signal that Crawford doesn’t have enough confidence in himself to swing the bat and get a hit.

In his final at-bat, an anxious Crawford swung at the first pitch and tapped a bouncer to the mound.

While players try to separate offense from defense, it’s not always easy to do. Crawford may still have been thinking about his hitting woes when Corey Patterson laced a drive his way in left field in the third. Crawford didn’t take the best angle to the ball, which got past him for a double.

Clearly Crawford has to stay in the lineup to swing his way out of his slump. But it might not be a bad idea to drop him down to seventh or eighth in the order to take a little pressure off him.

COMING BACK AT YA: In the backs of their minds, pitchers have a fear of being struck by a batted ball. In a split-second, a pitcher’s career can be shortened or even ended by a sizzling liner off the face. Herb Score comes to mind. So does Bryce Florie, who nearly lost his eyesight when struck by a liner off the bat of the Yankees’ Ryan Thompson in 2001.

Lately, though, there has been another danger for pitchers. With players favoring skinny handles and big barrels in order to generate more whip and bat speed, shattered bats are becoming an occupational hazard.

During Saturday’s game, Beckett had to dodge a shattered bat, and on Sunday, Lester was the inadvertent target.

Yunel Escobar shattered his bat on a grounder to shortstop with a runner at first and none out in the third. The split, jagged-edged barrel of the bat flew toward the right side of Lester’s head, forcing him to scramble out of the way.

The bat didn’t hit him, and the ball was turned into a double play behind him, but as second baseman Dustin Pedroia was relaying shortstop Jed Lowrie’s feed to first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, Lester was almost trotting toward the Sox dugout.

Once the play was over, Lester seemed to be trying to collect his wits. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia talked to him as Lester walked slowly back to the mound.

Lester’s next pitch was whacked to left for a double by Corey Patterson, but Lester settled down, fanning Jose Bautista to end the inning.

It isn’t just pitchers who have to be on the lookout for shattered bats. Juan Rivera’s bat split down the middle in the fifth, a large chunk heading in the direction of third baseman Kevin Youkilis, though it didn’t come close to reaching him.

KANGAROO COURT VIOLATION: Jed Lowrie is the hottest hitter the Sox have. Everything he hits seems to find a hole, including a popup down the left-field line in the second inning Saturday.

The ball seemed headed toward the stands. Lowrie barely got out of the box, watching it. The 21-mile-per-hour wind pushed the ball back toward the field. The ball fell just fair, out of the reach of Toronto outfielder Juan Rivera.

It should have been a double. But because he wasn’t even trotting out of the box, Lowrie was forced to settle for a single.

But how good is life for Lowrie these days?

Well, his base-running gaffe didn’t hurt because following his base hit, J.D. Drew rifled a single to center, Jarrod Saltalamacchia dribbled a single through the right side, scoring Lowrie, and Jacoby Ellsbury crushed a three-run homer inside the right-field foul pole.

When you’re hot, you’re hot.

TIME FOR A TURNAROUND? Daisuke Matsuzaka (0-2, 12.86), who may find himself pitching for his big-league life in Boston soon, if he isn't already, will try to redeem himself for his last outing, a stinkeroo in which he was cuffed around for seven runs on eight hits in only two-plus innings by the Tampa Bay Rays a week ago.

Dice-K starts Monday’s Patriots Day 11 a.m. game against Toronto in the finale of the homestand. Left-hander Ricky Romero (1-1, 1.66) will start for the Jays.



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