Friday, June 01, 2007

Sox/Yanks: Round 3

"We don't cause trouble, we don't bother nobody."

The arch-rivals square off tonight in what could be a make-or-break series for the struggling Bombers. First though, I would be remised if I didn't talk about what happened last night in the NBA.

LeBron James made his case for being the best player in the league last night, turning in perhaps the greatest playoff performance of my lifetime, as the Cavs pulled off a miracle win at The Palace in double OT, 109-107. In the win, James simply took over in the final minutes of regulation, scoring 11 in the last frame to push the game to overtime. Once the free basketball started, you might as well have called it LeBron vs. Detroit. James controlled the tempo of the game in both overtimes. Not only was James driving to the dish, but he was also making impossible jump shots from the perimeter to pull his team from behind and, in the end, put them on top for good. In the end, James scored Cleveland's final 25 points, with his final line looking like this:

18/33 FG (54.5%), 10/14 FT (71.4%), 48 PTS, 9 REB, 7 AST, 2 TO

Simply amazing stuff. My first instinct when picking this series was that James was a tremendous factor, but that he alone could not will the Cavs to a series victory, but now, with Cleveland being just one win away from reaching the Finals to play the Spurs, it seems as though I severely underestimated the kind of impact he could have on this series. The Pistons simply do not have any answer for James, as he has been able to penetrate down low, and has had his jumper working seemingly non-stop since Game 3, when the series was 2-0 in favor of the Pistons, and many were questioning whether or not James could rebound off of two mediocre starts. Well, it appears as though James has answered the call, and answered it with vengeance. In Game 3, James nearly compiled a triple-double (32-9-9) and scored 12 in the fourth, including a huge slam over Rasheed Wallace, for an 88-82 Cleveland win. In Game 4, James, in an attempt to get more of his team involved, dished out 11 assists to go along with 25 points and seven boards, as the Cavs knotted the series up at two games a piece with a 91-87 victory. This game also signaled the coming-out party for Daniel Gibson, who played 35 minutes off the bench, scoring 21 points, going 11-11 from the free-throw line. With the breakout performance of Gibson in Game 4, he proved that he could be the guy coming off the bench to give the kind of spark the Cavs need to overcome the depth of the Pistons. With all that being said though, there is nothing you can say to detract from James' outstanding performance in Game 3. As of right now, the only comparable playoff performance I can think of was Magic's game against the Sixers in the 1980 Finals as a rookie replacing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center, where he scored 42 points, grabbed 15 boards, and handed out seven assists as the Lakers captured the title in six games. James has all-of-a-sudden been thrusted into the same spotlight as prolific performers like Magic, Larry, and Michael in terms of players who have simply willed their teams to victory by taking over in crunch time. With the Pistons on the ropes going back to Cleveland, I don't see James letting up, and further more, I still don't think Detroit has any effective means to stopping him, so I think Cleveland's momentum will be enough to get by the Pistons, and claim a spot in the Finals for the first time in franchise history.

So, of course, how could I not talk about the upcoming Sox and Yanks series taking place at Fenway this weekend. Everyone knows the story by now. The Sox have jumped out to a 13 1/2 game lead on the Yanks, and with it not being "early" any more (we are in June after all), panic has clearly set in in the Bronx, and now, with yet another injury to deal with (the "Giambino" was just put on the DL with a heel injury, which will sideline him for at least three weeks), the Yanks are reeling, and although it's still only June, if the Yankees cannot take two of three in this series, then they are going to have a real tough time even attempting to make their way to the postseason in my opinion. If the Bombers leave Fenway after losing the series, they could be as many as 16 1/2 games back, and although their schedule is getting "easier" after their trip to Boston, there is simply too much for the Yanks to overcome if they end up getting swept this weekend. My partialness to the Sox still has not completely blinded me yet though, and I actually expect that NY will take two of three in the series, and it's not as though I am at all rooting for this outcome, but to me, this series, although critical for the Sox in terms of adding to their division record, is so much bigger for the Yankees from the perspective that they cannot lose this series. I know it, they know it, the Sox know it...everyone knows it. If they leave even 14 1/2 back, they're pretty much done. They probably won't be able to sniff the postseason unless something goes haywire in the Central, where it appears the Wild Card will be coming out of. On Friday, Wake will be pitching against Wang in a mirror match from a week-and-a-half ago, where Wang came out and dominated the Sox over 6 1/3 innings, and the bullpen actually was able to throw shutout ball in the final 2 2/3 to preserve the win. Wake looked terrible on the hill, giving up four quick runs in the first two to put the Sox in a 4-0 deficit. Again, in a Wake start, the offense looked terrible, which has been a common trend throughout this season (3.94 runs per start; compare that to 8.54 for Beckett, 8.04 for Dice-K, and 4.69 for Schill). A reason why the Yankees have been so successful against Wake (his record is 9-15 with a 4.76 ERA in 25 career starts) has been the fact that the Yanks are willing to make Wake throw strikes. Clearly, the bulk of Wakefield's success is all about his ability to make hitters swing and miss at balls outside of the zone due to the drop off his knuckler going away from the zone. The last game, in particular, it was clear that this was the strategy all along, and it paid off, as Wake was touched up for six runs in five innings, giving up six runs, including two homers to A-Rod and Giambi, and threw 109 pitches overall, with only 59 going for strikes. Wake has struggled recently, giving up 15 runs in his last three games, bumping his ERA from 1.79 to 3.36. Another important thing to note is Wake's effectiveness with runners on. With the bases empty, batters are hitting .180 off him, but with runners in scoring position, the opposition is hitting .320, a pretty sharp increase for sure. Wake's only chance is if the Yanks suddenly disregard their original gameplan and become free-swingers. I just don't see that happening though, so it will be up to the Sox offense to try and comeback from their last game against Wang. The Sox main problem was their inability to drive in runs with men on base. They were able to get seven hits off Wang and draw three walks, but they were 1-9 with runners in scoring position, and left 12 men on base, with Papi providing the only two RBIs on the game. Wang is definitely beatable, as he allows a lot of baserunners, but has a knack at being able to avoid a lot of trouble. Also, he has gone six innings in each of his seven starts this year, so clearly, he has had the ability to get people out in key situation despite his lack of control. This is one of the games that I'm basically 50/50 on. Sure, the Sox could come out and bash their way to a win, which is what they're going to have to do, but I think that pitching will drive this series, and in particular, the effectiveness of the starting pitching. If a team can get six-to-seven strong innings from its starters, it will take a lot of pressure off the bullpen, which clearly would affect New York even more than Boston when talking about keeping the bullpens out of the game. If the Sox get through six or seven with a lead, then it's going to be very tough for the Yanks to come back given the Donnelly/Okajima/Papelbon trio backing the bullpen. I will be posting my preview of Saturday's game in the next couple of hours, but I'll let you guys pour over this for now.

A couple of encouraging signs came from yesterday's telecast of the PawSox on NESN. First, Jon Lester threw another bullpen session, and although he is battling forearm cramping, it appears as though it is just as a matter of time before he rejoins the big club in Boston (he was even seen wearing a Boston pullover). When Lester is able to return to the starting rotation, it will effectively bump back the bullpen. With Tavarez reclaiming his role as the "long man," you will be seeing more of him and less of a guy like Joel Piniero, who has struggled mightily this year, especially at home (6.75 ERA in six appearances, compared to a 3.86 ERA in 12 appearances on the road) where it seems as though he cannot get his bearings on how to pitch at Fenway. Lester also provides a lefty that is lacking in the rotation right now, which is huge when you consider facing a team like the Yankees and how they would have to adjust to him (Damon, Abreu, Giambi, Matsui, Cano...all lefties). Another guy that will help out the bullpen once he is back to full strength will be Mike Timlin, who made an appearance in yesterday's game against Columbus (who is now affiliated with the Nationals after being the AAA team for the Yankees for 28 years). After giving up runs in each of his two prior appearances (two runs on the 27th against Syracuse, and one run against the Clippers on Tuesday night). Timlin looked sharp in terms of his location, and in terms of velocity, he was in the mid-80s consistently, so he will probably need one or two more rehab stints to grow his strength up to pitching in the high-80s to low-90s, where he has been for the last few years. Again, Timlin will create a bump in the bullpen, and when you consider the bullpen's ERA is already the best in the AL, having both Timlin and Tavarez added to that group will probably enhance the effectiveness of that unit. Manny Delcarmen, yet another guy you will eventually see in the bullpen, also pitched strong yesterday, hitting the mid-90s on occasion in striking out four batters over 1 2/3 innings. Delcarmen, after struggling for a good portion of April and early May, has settled down in dramatic fashion, not allowing a run in his last six appearances, while striking out 12. On one final note, yesterday was my first opportunity to watch Jacob Ellsbury this year. You cannot underestimate the potential impact Ellsbury may have in terms of what the Sox will do in terms of a centerfielder. It is clear that Coco Crisp, although a wiz with the glove, simply does not have the kind of bat that a guy like Theo Epstein, who is all about sabermetrics and producing runs, wants in his lineup. Clearly, there is going to be a tough decision to be made at the end of the season. I would say that the Sox are going to call up Ellsbury at the end of the season, once the rosters expand to 40, to expose him to some major league pitching. Ellsbury will likely struggle in his first go-around, but I don't think the basis of the Sox' decision will be based on that. It will be based on three things:
1.) Is this the best we're going to get out of Coco? If so,
2.) Would putting Ellsbury out in center to start the 2008 season be too soon? Or will he react much like Dustin Pedroia has this year, where he struggled out of the gate, but over time, has settled into his position and role on the team? Or,
3.) Ellsbury is being groomed for potential trade bait, and the Sox are really looking at grabbing Ichiro, which would create an even bigger Japanese presence on the Sox. Or, they may go after Andruw Jones, who is struggling right now, meaning that his price is dropping by the day, while Torri Hunter's price tag, which was presumed to be the cheapest of the three, is now going up rapidly.

These are the decisions that will have to be made. Keep in mind the Sox' reluctance to go over the luxury tax threshold, as although they spent in a frenzy in the offseason, it has already been known that next year, they are looking to stand pat with the players they already have, with the main possible exceptions being Curt Schilling and Mike Lowell, who account for about $22 million of this year's payroll. If they are trying to cut back a little bit on spending, then Ellsbury would seem to be a great option to plug in. Although starting a rookie on a team with a payroll north of $100 million is rare (let alone two years in a row), I feel that Ellsbury could hit down in the nine spot, and is a guy who can get on base with great consistency (.432 OBP so far this year), and once he gets on, is a big-time candidate to swipe bases (19 steals in 22 chances). So, from what I can gather, you're going to take a little bit of a hit in terms of fielding, but in terms of a bat, Ellsbury definitely has the advantage in terms of getting on base, which is what the Sox put a priority on.

Well, I'm going to go enjoy my Friday, and I suggest you do the same. Take care now. Peace.


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