Fear is a Force of Habit in Boston

(published September 15, 2011)

They understand panic in Boston.

There are few settings that focus and magnify the tension of impending disappointment like Fenway Park.  Most crowds roar; none can murmur or hold their breath like Red Sox crowds can.

Boston opens a four-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays tonight, and if the Rays are somehow able to sweep, the two teams will be tied for the wild-card lead, with the LA Angels likely breathing down their necks.

This was unthinkable three weeks ago when the Red Sox were cruising, two games ahead of the Yankees in the AL East, with a comfortable nine game advantage over Tampa Bay.

Since August 27, the Red Sox are 4-11; the Rays haven’t exactly been burning up the league in that time, going just 10-7, a mark that includes their three-game sweep against Boston in St. Pete last weekend.

Over that fifteen-game stretch, Boston has scored 5.8 runs per game, a healthy clip.  In four of those games, however, the Sox scored 10, 12, 14, and 18 runs; in the other eleven they averaged three runs per game, scoring two or fewer six times.

On the other side of the line score, it’s been grimmer.  The Sox allowed four or fewer runs just three times, while giving up single-game totals of 11 (twice), 10, and 9.  Their average for the stretch was the same 5.8 runs allowed per game.  Over the course of the season, the Sox have scored an average of 5.4 runs and allowed 4.4 per game; it’s been a good stretch for the offense and a poor one for the pitching and defense.

Logically, if you score and allow the same number of runs over a given set of games, your record should be more or less around .500.  Analytics tell us that a team going 4-11 over such a set has mostly been unlucky, and such ill fortune will even out in the long run.

Analytics have not spent much time at Fenway in September, and the fourteen games remaining in the season do not constitute a reliably long run.

The Red Sox entered the season looking loaded; they had a lineup that was potent from top to bottom, a seeming overabundance of starting pitchers, and a bolstered bullpen.

The hitters have been at least as good as expected.  While Carl Crawford has been a disappointment, that’s been more than offset by a stunning power surge from Jacoby Ellsbury,  a vintage season from David Ortiz, routine outstanding production from Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia, and a boost in offense at the catcher spot from Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

The pitching, however, has struggled.  Daisuke Matsuzaka has been gone since May.  Clay Buchholz’s breakout 2010 season was followed by a 2011 breakdown, his last start coming in June.  John Lackey’s 6.19 ERA is one of the twenty worst since World War II among ERA qualifiers.  Tim Wakefield went eight starts before finally posting his 200th win on Tuesday.  Josh Beckett has had an exceptional bounceback season after a disappointing 2010; he will start on Friday after missing his last turn with a sprained ankle.   Jon Lester and Beckett present a formidable one-two, but the starting pitching was expected to be one of the club’s greatest advantages, and it’s been a source of questions instead.

One such question will take the mound for the Thursday opener against the Rays: 25-year-old right-hander Kyle Weiland, making his fourth major-league start.  Terry Francona has certainly earned the trust of Red Sox fans, but some are undoubtedly having flashbacks to Bobby Sprowl, a 22-year-old rookie whose second major-league start came against the Yankees in September 1978, with Boston in free-fall and clinging to one game of its once double-digit division lead.  It was the fourth game of that year’s “Boston Massacre,” a sweep by New York in which the Red Sox were outscored 42-9.  Sprowl lasted two-thirds of an inning in his Sunday start.

The schedule for the last week and a half of the season favors Boston; they play seven games against Baltimore and three in New York, while the Rays have seven against the Yankees and host the Blue Jays for three.

Still, there will be no light hearts in Boston unless and until the Sox are safely in the playoffs.  The curses of the past have been broken, but anxiety is a tough habit to shake.






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