DENVER — VER - Facing the best pitcher in this Year of the Pitcher — Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez — on Wednesday night, the Boston Red Sox ran out an outfield of Daniel Nava, Darnell McDonald and Josh Reddick.
That would be, in order, a 27-year-old rookie/refugee of the independent-league Chico Outlaws, a 31-year-old journeyman with five more big-league at-bats this year than in his previous 13 pro seasons combined, and a 23-year-old prospect who has shown more arm than bat at this point.
The reasons why that was so were mostly medical: Jacoby Ellsbury (cracked ribs) remains on the disabled list, J.D. Drew was nursing a hamstring strain that had idled him for five days, and Mike Cameron (abdominal muscle) was getting a night off as he works his way back to every-day duty. But there it was — the major-league-high 23rd different starting outfield combination Red Sox manager Terry Francona had written onto a lineup card this season.
But until an eight-pitch, ninth-inning nightmare for closer Jonathan Papelbon, the Red Sox — much as they have done in a season-changing stretch that has lasted just more than a month — had pulled off the unlikely. They added almost half a run onto Jimenez's stingy ERA by knocking him around for six runs in 5.2 innings — with, of course, Nava doubling, tripling and driving in three runs, and McDonald smashing a rare Jimenez mistake for a two-run homer in the sixth.
Jason Giambi's monstrous two-run walkoff homer — the second of two allowed by Papelbon — brought a crushing and dramatic end to all of that. But one hard-to-swallow loss doesn't change what has been going on as the Red Sox once again have made it a three-teams-for-two-playoff-spots race in the American League East.
"We're just playing good baseball; we played awful baseball in April,'' Kevin Youkilis said. "That's probably the worst we'll play all year. Now we're playing the game the right way; we just didn't do that in April at all. The first month doesn't dictate the whole year.''
Before the Red Sox arrived in the mountain time zone, they had crept back to within one-half game of the first-place New York Yankees, who had pushed them to a season-high deficit of 8 1/2 games with a crushing May 17th loss. That was another of those nights you remember in the 162-game grind — with an eerily similar end to Wednesday's game in Coors Field: ninth-inning homers by Alex Rodriguez and Marcus Thames off Papelbon.
In between sits a 24-9 run complete with what you expected from the Red Sox, and some of what nobody could have dreamed up:
"I saw two at-bats (Tuesday) night that reminded me of the guy I managed in 2004, and those were the ones that he went out there,'' Rockies manager Jim Tracy said as he pointed to right field. "I thought, that's the same guy that was performing to the tune of 48 (homers) and 126 (RBI) in 2004.''
No wonder that for all their off-season run-prevention manuevering, the Red Sox lead the majors in runs, hits, RBI, doubles, slugging percentage, total bases and OPS.
Few knew of Nava as recently as two weeks ago, let alone six years. One swing of the bat changed all that — that first-pitch grand slam against the Phillies on June 12th — and since that defining moment, Nava keeps banging out extra-base hits to keep his OPS above 1.000 while learning how the Sox's hard-working and confident team leaders go about their business.
"It's been a great experience,'' Nava said. "I've learned a lot in terms of how guys do things; and how everybody wants to win. It's good to be around that. (The veterans) lead the way. They're great. They're there to help me. It's a testament to what kind of team we have here. They just want to win. They don't care where a guy has been, or what he's done. As long as he can help us win. That makes it easier for you to come in and do your job.''
McDonald has been around since April 20th, but there has been no bigger hit off his bat than the homer against Jimenez — the perfect homecoming for the Denver-area product who led his high school team to three consecutive state championships in football and baseball, earning a full ride to the University of Texas as a running back that he turned down to sign with the Baltimore Orioles as their first-round pick way back in 1997.
"The thing that kept me going was believing in myself,'' McDonald said. "Knowing I could be in the big leagues, if I was in the right place at the right time.''
Added Youkilis: "Some of these guys weren't even looked to be here at all. But they're here, and man, they're doing a great job. They've come into a pressure situation in Boston, and not let it affect them.''
And it's a good thing, too, because just as it looked like Boston's DL would begin to empty, Buchholz and Dustin Pedroia went down with injuries. Pedroia is expected to miss six weeks, though Buchholz could avoid the DL.
"You want guys to be healthy, but you can't control that,'' Youkilis said. "We just rely on guys we have here every day. It's going to be a tight race all year. You can't really worry about the standings. September is the only time you have to worry about where you are in the standings. You can be 10 behind. next thing you know, two ahead. You just have to come out and play, and not worry about little things that come up.''
A: If I owned the Mariners, I'd be doing everything I could to lock up Lee with a long-term contract and keep him out of free agency. I don't think there is a pitcher in the game who commands his fastball any better. And in fact, looking at Lee's stunning 76-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio, you can make a case for nobody throwing more quality strikes with his entire arsenal of pitches. And, he's a proven post-season stud.
That said, the Mariners are 13 games out in the AL West even after a six-game winning streak, so they are hanging by a thread as the season nears the halfway mark. Getting back in the race in the next month is highly unlikely, so as of now, it's an easy decision to deal Lee — assuming they can't keep him out of free agency, which is the way it figures to go.
Still, you can be sure Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik will wait another couple of weeks before deciding to deal Lee. Possibilities include the Yankees, Twins, Phillies, Mets and Rangers — and the Mariners need young big-league position players, especially a catcher.
A: Piniella is far more patient and even-tempered than those base-throwing days from his distant past. But this Cubs team leaves him exasperated to the point where on a few occasions both this year and last, his frustration has boiled over.
I tend to side with him on this issue. He recently said he has 'tried everything' with this roster; I don't particularly like the Cubs' mix of players on the field or in the clubouse, and don't think they are capable of challenging in the NL Central. I picked the Cubs fourth in the division, and still feel that by this winter — if not sooner — general manager Jim Hendry will be forced to shake things up.
The problem is the burdensome and expensive long-term deals that will make it very difficult to deal Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Zambrano or Kosuke Fukudome. With Ted Lilly and Derrek Lee headed to free agency this winter (if they aren't traded sooner), you could see a much different team on the field next season.
A: The White Sox suddenly have gotten very hot, winning eight in a row and nine of 10 through Wednesday to climb over the .500 mark and creep into the AL Central race behind the Twins and Tigers. So trading anybody at this point is out of the question. As long as this keeps up, the Sox will be buyers, not sellers.
That's a dramatic switch from just a couple weeks ago, when Buehrle as well as catcher A.J. Pierzynski were part of speculation as both neared the point of earning 10-5 status (10 years of major-league service/the last five with the same team), which means also earning trade-veto rights.
The other issue with Buehrle is his salary — $14 million this season and $14 million in 2010. That's a pretty hefty obligation for any team to pick up, especially with Buehrle pitching inconsistently since his 2009 perfect game.