It's too early to panic, Red Sox fans

BY Ken Rosenthal • April 7, 2011

Both the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays won games Friday for the first time this season.

If it hadn't happened then, at least one of them would have done so by Monday, since the teams begin a series at Fenway Park that night.

But I doubted that either club would be 0-9 by then, even though the Rays were playing the White Sox at Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field this weekend and the Red Sox were opening their home schedule against the Yankees (continues Saturday, MLB on FOX, 1:10 p.m. ET).

I’m not going to sugarcoat this: 1-6 is not good, particularly for the Red Sox, whose expectations were much higher than the Rays’. But in an age of limited attention spans, in which many of us seemingly exist only from tweet to breathless tweet, this bears repeating:

Baseball is not football. Teams play 162 games, not 16. Instant gratification is elusive and frankly, unnecessary. Talk to me in May, talk to me in July, talk to me in September. But don’t tell me anyone’s season is “in jeopardy” after one week. Don’t rush to foolish judgment when the schedule is only 3.7 percent complete.

“(The Red Sox) are going to be fine,” said one rival evaluator who attended the Sox-Indians series in Cleveland. “(Josh) Beckett actually threw very well — best changeup I have seen from him. The Indians had some really tough at-bats against him.

“(Jon) Lester was dominant and Dice-K (Matsuzaka), though painful, is a good No. 5. The 'pen is full of power arms . . . and they will hit. (The Indians) pitched and played well and it was miserable conditions — tougher for a veteran team.”

The point: Don’t take any of this too seriously. Did you catch any of the Red Sox’s 1-0 loss to the Indians on Thursday? It was theater of the absurd, an only-in-baseball series of calamities, one indignity after another for the Boston side.

Questionable calls by umpires erased Sox baserunners in the early innings. Adam (Babe) Everett worked a leadoff walk off righty Daniel Bard in the eighth, then surprised even NESN’s expert analyst Jerry Remy by stealing second on a 2-0 count. Asdrubal Cabrera laid down a perfect squeeze after Everett advanced to third on a sacrifice by Orlando Cabrera. And then, as the Sox mounted one last threat in the ninth, Darnell McDonald overran second base and got tagged out to end the game.

It’s not just bad luck for the Red Sox, not when The Greatest Lineup Ever Assembled™ managed only 16 runs in six games. But no one should be surprised that the predominantly left-handed Sox beat struggling Yankees right-hander Phil Hughes in their home opener on Friday, and a similar fate could await Yankees righty Ivan Nova on Saturday.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter, asked earlier in the week when Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero would start to hit, pointed to the track records of his two veterans and uttered the trusty baseball bromide, “Someone’s going to pay.” Sure enough, Lee hit his first homer on Wednesday and Guerrero followed with his first on Thursday. At some point, the Red Sox were certain to erupt in kind.

Let’s look at the 1-6 for what it is — three losses against a red-hot lineup in Texas, then three more in the cold in Cleveland. The Sox had better at-bats Thursday afternoon — “We’re hitting balls good. We’ll figure it out,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia told reporters. Heck, it has happened at Fenway countless times before. As designated hitter David Ortiz said, “We always play better at home.”

Don’t ask me how the Red Sox failed to obliterate Indians immortals such as Josh Tomlin and Mitch Talbot, but such things happen. The true concerns — the concerns that will linger — are the same concerns that the team had at the start of the season. Starting pitching. And catching.

The Sox’s dirty little secret is that if Beckett, Matsuzaka and fellow right-hander John Lackey fail to rebound, they’re essentially the same team as the Yankees — terrific offense, deep bullpen, weak back of the rotation. None of the three veterans produced a quality start in his first outing, and Beckett and Matsuzaka drew the light-hitting Indians, not the rock-'em-sock-'em Rangers.

If the results this weekend don't continue to improve — righty Clay Buchholz pitches Saturday, Beckett on Sunday — the questions will only grow louder:

• How much do the pitchers miss former pitching coach John Farrell? (Probably some, but Farrell’s replacement, Curt Young, is highly regarded).

• Where are all the Sox’s pitching prospects? (Bard is the team’s setup man; righty Casey Kelly went to the Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal; lefty Felix Doubront just got called up and righty Junichi Tazawa is injured.)

• Whose bright idea was it give Beckett a four-year, $68 million extension? (The contract will look good only if Beckett, who turns 31 on May 15, returns to an elite level.)

At catcher, the high-risk, high-reward transition to Jarrod Saltalamacchia also is off to a rough start. Saltalamacchia, who had problems throwing the ball back to the pitcher with the Rangers last season, drew mostly positive reviews in spring training, at least from Sox personnel. But he made a throwing error and had difficulty getting in sync with Beckett on Tuesday, and threw high on Everett’s stolen base on Thursday.

Saltalamaccha, a switch hitter, also has struggled offensively — scouts note that his swing is especially long from the left side.

The Sox added catcher Michael McKenry in a trade with the Rockies at the end of spring training, but that was for depth. Jason Varitek, 38, no longer can play regularly. If Saltalamacchia is not the answer, the Sox will need to find a catcher, be it the Nationals’ Ivan Rodriguez or someone else.

For now, I’m not ready to give up on Salty or anyone else, and I doubt my opinion will change much no matter what happens this weekend.

It’s seven games, people. Seven freakin’ games.

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