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You Can Learn A Lot By Watching – April 16, 2011 – Toronto at Boston

April 16, 2011

After a hidden pitcher’s duel last Sunday when he battled back from a tough first inning to last seven against a fiery Jered Weaver in Los Anaheim, Jo-Jo Reyes takes the hill again this afternoon against division rival (not that we’d know it through the US mainstream press that struggles to see the East outside of Boston and New York) Boston. The Red Sox bring Josh Beckett to the mound in opposition, Beckett also coming off of an inspired performance against those Damn Yankees last Sunday, striking out 10 over 8 2-hit innings.

Similar to the Angels lineup he faced last week, today’s Red Sox, slumping though they have been, are stacked with switch hitters and right-handed bats, as Red Sox manager Terry Francona looks to tests the left-handed Reyes’ ability to face opposite-sided batters. Over his career, Reyes has held left-handed batters (such as today’s starters Gonzalez, Ortiz and Ellsbury) to an OPS of 674. Right handed batters have teed off on Reyes with approximately 50% more success, putting up an OPS against of 945 entering today’s game. Reyes will have to deal with 6 of 9 batters from his weaker split to succeed today and all in a park that does not readily forgive pitching errors.

Beckett came out firing in the top of the first, mixing a fastball at 93-94MPH, along with a mid-70’s curve and a high-80’s changeup. Not ideal separation between fastball and changeup, but his first was able to coax a groundout to first base from number two hitter, Corey Patterson. Beckett needed only 10 pitches to retire the Blue Jays in order.

The Red Sox, winners of only 2 of their first 12 games entering the day brought most of their regular lineup to face Reyes, with the only notable differences being the absence of their top offseason acquisition, Carl Crawford, who was replaced by Mike Cameron, while their starting right fielder, J.D. Drew was replaced by Darnell McDonald. Getting started with a fastball thrown in the low-90’s, Reyes coaxed a groundball that looked to go through the infield out of leadoff hitter, Jed Lowrie (technically not the starting shortstop, but plays enough – and well enough) to count as a regular), which allowed Jays’ shortstop Yunel Escobar to show incredible range in getting to the ball, spinning and firing a strong throw to first. The throw beat the runner, but could not find the bag. The difficulty of the play left no one questioning the scorer’s decision to call the play a base hit for Lowrie. Dustin Pedroia dug Reyes a deeper hole by drawing out an 8-pitch plate appearance ending in a free pass to first. Adrian Gonzalez watched three Reyes pitches before offering. Although Gonzalez often draws an extreme infield shift due to his propensity to ground the ball to the right side of the infield, with two runners on, the Jays had to play more conservatively. Gonzalez lined the fourth pitch into shallow right, bringing Lowrie around to score. Kevin Youkilis followed by driving the second pitch he saw deeper to the same part of the field, a double and another early run scored for Boston. Rattled, Reyes began to nibble to David Ortiz missing inside and outside before walking the aging slugger on 7 pitches. 5 batters, 5 baserunners, no outs. Reyes finally earned his first out of the game by pitching backwards to Mike Cameron, starting the at bat with two straight changeups, before going to his heater to record the strike out. Going back to his heater, Reyes got catcher Jason Varitek to chase upstairs twice for a second strikeout. His tour of the nether regions of the Red Sox order was completed after getting the Sox’ McDonald to bounce a weak ground ball to second, ending the inning without further ado. Bad first innings are not necessarily fatal, but they’re not much fun, either.

After working the top of the strike zone to strike out Adam Lind in the top of the 2nd, Aaron Hill finds a chink and clanks a deep drive to right off of the Green Monster for a double. The lack of separation on his change came back to hurt Beckett as the next batter, Travis Snider celebrated his ascension to the 6th spot in the lineup by driving Hill home with a soft liner to right field. Having swiped 4 bases the night before, Snider clearly was demanding a lot of Beckett’s attention, drawing 4 pickoff attempts before he could deliver a second pitch to Jayson Nix. Two pitches after the fifth pickoff attempt, Snider busted out for second. He beat the throw, which sailed into centre field. So far, Snider has one stolen base for every two base hits on the season. A fun little factoid that should not be expected to last. And as I typed that last sentence, Snider easily stole 3rd base before Beckett struck out Jose Molina on a beautiful backdoor curveball that just caught the upper inside corner of the strike zone, ending the inning.

Leading off the bottom of the second, Jacoby Ellsbury showed that, in spite of his injury-marred 2010, he still has a top-of-the-lineup skill set, earning a free pass after starting off the plate appearance with an 0-2 count. Making Reyes work with five pickoff attempts in a long at bat to Lowrie, Reyes hung a changeup in the heart of the zone which Lowrie deposited over the Monster to give the Red Sox a 4-1 lead. Lowrie, generally the catch-all infield reserve, backing up Pedroia at 2nd and former Blue Jay Marco Scutaro at short, continued to state his claim for more playing time. The question that he might be asking himself is whether his overall utility is harming his chances at a more set role. Adrian Gonzalez then walked on four straight pitches. While Reyes was able to settle down after a rough first inning last week, in today’s game, the second has looked much like the first, even as he got out of the inning without further damage. Through two innings, the Red Sox held a 4-1 lead.

After a 1-2-3 third inning on 9 innings, Reyes again started an inning on the wrong foot, giving up a leadoff single to Mike Cameron. Most of Reyes’ pitches to this point have been thrown from the stretch, and that ratio will only climb. The Jays’ own McDonald, John, making his first start of the season at third base, as Edwin Encarnacion deals with a death in the family back in the Dominican snared a short hopped liner off the bat of Varitek and quickly turns around to start a sharp 5-4-3 double play. Given a reprieve from base-runners, Reyes is unrepentant, quickly giving the Sox two more base-runners on a broken bat flared single by Darnell before losing his grip and hitting Ellsbury with an errant fastball. As the Blue Jays’ bullpen, recently bolstered by young lefty Luis Perez began activity, Jed Lowrie struck another hard hit ball that was corralled by a backtracking Bautista in right field to end the inning, Reyes’ first scoreless (though not painless) attempt.

After not using the pitch in the first, Beckett began to display a fine cut fastball in the second, giving him a middle ground for velocity between the fastball and the change-up, a pitch that moves towards his arm-side. One of those pitches was grounded back to the mound by Adam Lind in the top of the fourth inning, a bounder which, were Beckett not able to deflect it marginally to the right, would likely have got past Pedroia into the outfield. However, that slight deflection was enough to allow a ranging Pedroia to reach the ball and record the out. With two outs and Aaron Hill on first base with Beckett’s first walk of the afternoon, the Jays tried to test Varitek’s arm again. Showing more trust in his pitcher’s arm than in his own, the catcher did not rise to the challenge, giving Hill the extra base uncontested. Cito Gaston’s 2010 Blue Jays stole 56 bases on the season. With Hill’s thievery, John Farrell’s 2011 team has taken 18 bases mid-way through their 15th game. His faith was well-founded as Travis Snider grounded out weakly to end an eight-pitch at-bat and end the inning.

To some surprise, Farrell let a struggling Reyes start the 4th. Pedroia greeted him with another base-runner, this time on a groundball single by an awkwardly diving Adam Lind at first base. Having used 4 relief pitchers for a total of 68 pitches in the previous night’s game, Farrell wanted to get as much as possible from his starter. For today, that meant a total of nine outs, as Farrell gave up any pretences for his starter after he walked Adrian Gonzalez to give the Red Sox multiple base runners in each of their first four innings. Considering the preponderance of right-handed bats playing for the Sox, Carlos Villanueva, a right-hander with multiple inning durability and strike-em-out ability took over. The move paid quick dividends, as Villanueva’s second pitch to Youkilis led to a double play ground ball, 4-6-3 and two outs on the board. Villanueva, atypical for a relief pitcher, cooks without gas, his fastball topping out around 91MPH, a deficiency he makes up for with a wider assortment of pitches than most bullpen arms, as he also throws a slider (83 MPH), a change-up (80MPH – 10 MPH separation from his heater) and a curveball thrown in the mid-70’s. After carefully pitching to David Ortiz, leading to a walk, Villanueva struck out Mike Cameron to end the threat and the 4th inning, still 4-1 for the Sox, all runs charged to Jo-Jo who needed 94 pitches to record nine outs.

With one out in the top of the fifth, Slowse Molina picked up the Jays’ third hit of the afternoon, clanking a liner off the base of the Monster. But he’s slow, and was held up for hard single. That proved somewhat costly as the McDonald of Toronto hit a double play grounder to third base. Well, it would have been a double play had Molina not gone hard into second, giving McDonald just enough time to beat the throw to first base a small, non-symbolic victory negated as Escobar then ended the inning on another ground-out. Through five innings, Beckett has largely kept the Jays on the ground as ground outs outnumber the air variety by a count of 9-1.

For the first time in the game, the Red Sox failed to get the leadoff hitter aboard in the home-half of the 5th. In fact, they had to wait until two outs were already recorded before Jacoby Ellsbury dented Villanueva’s pitching line by walking. To add to the general excitement, Ellsbury stole second on the first pitch to Lowrie, before the inning ended a fly ball to the adventurous Travis Snider in front of the Monster. Snider has enough athleticism to have backed up in Centre Field last week, and enough arm strength and accuracy to have racked up three baserunner kills already in the young season, he is nonetheless clumsy, matching his kill count with three fielding errors.

As impressive as his pitching has been today, the back-door curve has been his most filthy pitch. A risky pitch that can bite back if it slides a few more inches over the zone, Beckett risked one to open up an at bat against Bautista, a man who knows what to do with mistakes. Once again, the pitch broke just right and Bautista could only watch it for a called strike before popping out for the second out of the inning. Two batters later, Beckett took the same tactic against the red-hot Aaron Hill and got another called strike. This time, he went way outside and made Hill chase for strike two. With masterful sequencing, Beckett threw a third breaking ball, this one over the zone but dropping out. Hill could not hold up, try as he might and the inning ended with the third base umpire confirming the swing. Rising to the challenge of an opposing pitcher on the top of his game, Villanueva coaxed two fly balls to right field before striking out Youkilis to end the inning. Through six innings, the Red Sox still held a 4-1 lead.

I would hazard to state now that Josh Beckett, whatever ailed him last season, is back. With another 1-2-3 inning in the seventh, ending on his 101st pitch of the game, Beckett was still firing his fastball towards the plate at 93MPH, sustained velocity and control allowing him to effectively use the rest of his arsenal to put the Jays away. Moving into the home half of the seventh, Octavio Dotel took for Toronto, his third appearance since being signed in the offseason to a one year deal (with options) to ostensibly become the Jays’ closer. Ostensibly quickly became not bloody likely, as the Jays then signed Jon Rauch and traded for Frank Francisco. Dotel’s complete inability to pitch effectively to left-handed batters could not have worked in is favour, either. Oddly then, Dotel’s first batter faced was David Ortiz, batting from the left side. To no great surprise, he lost that battle, walking the aging slugger. Right handed hitting Mike Cameron followed with a single to left field, forcing Dotel to work to another lefty bat, as swicth-hitting Jason Varitek naturally made sure he would have the platoon advantage. Which he proceeded to waste, dropping a bunt down the third base line. While it succeeded in giving the Red Sox two runners in scoring position and only a single out, he would likely have given the Sox better chances of scoring had he swung away. No longer needing his right-handed bat, Francona lifted the Red McDonald for J.D. Drew, more dangerous in general and infinitely more dangerous in this situation as another left-handed bat for the platoon-disabled Dotel to work against. Following the blind squirrel-nut credo of Ed Wade, Bill Bavasi and other old-time GM’s, Dotel gets his man on an infield flyball before Farrell turned the ball over to MLB debutant Luis Perez to keep the deficit at three runs as another left-handed bat entered the batter’s box in the person of Jacoby Ellsbury. With two fastballs over the plate in the low 90’s, Perez got Ellsbury to ground the ball to third-baseman Blue McDonald, who made like a blind squirrel on his own, before he picked up the squirming ball and fired to first on a hop (good scoop by Lind) to end the inning.

Not able to beat Josh Beckett, entering the eighth inning, the Jays had to hope that they had outlasted him, as Francona went to his bullpen to bring in Daniel Bard and his high-90’s fastball, thought by many to be the Sox’ closer of the future. Leading off the inning with a grounder to deep short, Blue McDonald earns the Jays’ 4th base hit of the game, as the ranging Lowrie’s throw came to first base a mere fraction of a second too late. Down by three runs, with 6 outs remaining, McDonald erased himself on an ill-advised steal attempt, getting a slow jump, allowing Varitek’s throw (this time on line) to beat him to the bag. Somewhat dejected, Escobar then struck out and Patterson hit a ball sharply to the newest multi-millionaire in Boston, who gathered in the ball without incident to end the inning. Red Sox fans were able to chant their inexplicably iconic song three outs away from their third victory of the season.

Having ranged far to his right to almost take away a base hit earlier, with Jed Lowrie at the plate, Escobar now ranged far, far to his left to turn the trick again. Escobar made a great diving stop of a hard hit groundball, rose to his feet and threw to first, just a wee bit too slow, and Lowrie got his batting average back up to .500. Following Blue McDonald’s lead of the half inning before, Lowrie ran himself into an out on an always exciting strike-‘em-out, throw-‘em-out double play. After 15 straight fastballs to start his MLB career, Luis Perez finally showed the world his breaking balls, greeting Adrian Gonzalez with two sliders and a curve in his first four pitches to the left handed masher, before going back to his heater to earn his first career strikeout. Through eight innings, the Sox held on to their 4-1 lead and turned the game over to the experienced arm of Jonathan Papelbon, looking for his second save of the season.

The Jays, down to their final three outs, brought the heart of the order to the plate. In danger of going through his first game on the year without reaching first base, Bautista drilled a 2-2 belt-high fastball to left field where it was caught on a line in front of the Monster by Mike Cameron. Adam Lind then got himself into a quick 0-2 hole. He worked the count back even before swinging over top of Papelbon’s splitter, down and away leaving the Jays down to their last chance. Hill worked the count in his favour before hitting a hard ground ball towards Youkilis at third. Youkilis could only deflect the ball towards Lowrie backing him up and Hill beat the throw to first base. Not wanting the game to end on a force play, Hill scampered over to second base with an indifferent defense not bothering to play the runner. On a 3-1 pitch, Travis Snider drove a ball towards the foul line in short left. An aging but still very rangy Mike Cameron sprinted towards the line, diving in front of stands (feet first, Hamilton), and coming up with the ball to end the game. Final score, Red Sox – 4, Blue Jays – 1.

The story of today’s game was Josh Beckett. Masterful pitching, allowing a mere five baserunners over seven strong innings. Beckett started the game with a three pitch mix of 4-seam fastball, change-up and curve. Not able to get too much separation between fastball and change, with one of the changeups resulting in Travis Snider’s base-hit that gave the Jays’ their only run of the game, he moved away from the pitch, instead changing speeds with a  cutter that had less separation but more late movement with less predictability. Jays’ batters could not overcome the quality of his curveball, which he was able to throw to both sides of the plate, notably backdooring three for called strikes to right-handed batters. That curve, which Fangraphs rated as one of the best pitches of its kind in the majors in 2005 (behind only A.J. Burnett and Brett Myers) and 2007 (behind only Erik Bedard, Wandy Rodriguez, Burnett again and John Lackey) was not evident over the last three seasons, ranging from adequate in 2008, to slightly above average in 2009 to well below average last year. That curve is back, ranking third in the Majors in value before this start, behind only Gio Gonzalez and Jon Niese. Today, Beckett threw 22 curves, varying in speed from just under 74MPH to just over 75MPH. 13 of the curves were thrown for strikes, generating six outs for the Texan, three groundballs that were pulled or up the middle and three strikeouts, two called and one swinging. The pitch was effective against both left-handed and right-handed batters. For all of the concern in Red Sox nation, some justified, over Diasuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey, Josh Beckett is at least giving them full value on his contract. As for Jed Lowrie, he may be better than Marco Scutaro right now, but is Scutaro better than Mike Cameron? Can Lowrie play in left field? Can he catch? He should be on the field until his play starts degrading.

As for the Jays, in spite of their poor performance for my last few game blogs, particularly in terms of their hitting, going into the game, they had a team-wide OPS of .742, compared to the League-wide OPS of .707 and they had scored 5.23 runs per game in an environment of 4.43 average. In a small sample of a small sample, they have done no less than what could have been expected.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. NorthYorkJays permalink
    April 16, 2011 10:22 pm

    Cameron is a bench player too – Crawford is their LF.

    • April 17, 2011 2:23 am

      You are right – I knew about Crawford, but forgot about Drew, who came in late to pinch hit. I realized that I missed that late in the game and neglected to go back and edit that out. Fixed now.

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