Red Sox take on new role in aftermath of Boston Marathon tragedy
Would evil wish to harm the very fabric of American life and spirit, Patriots' Day in Boston holds unique vulnerability. The third Monday in April is a civic holiday in Massachusetts, as well as in Maine, a part of Massachusetts until its statehood in 1820. The occasion of honor is nothing less than the birth of the spirit of this country. Locals celebrate and re-enact the battles of Lexington and Concord, where the Revolutionary War began, and the ride of Paul Revere.
The Boston Marathon and Red Sox baseball have been folded into this tableau of Americana. The Marathon has been held since 1897. The Red Sox have scheduled Patriots' Day games at Fenway Park since 1959, adopting an 11 a.m. start time since 1968.
At one moment on Patriots' Day you can find 23,000 runners making their way through Kenmore Square and 500,000 spectators on the streets of Boston while the Red Sox play baseball in front of 39,000 fans, soon after men on horseback in the role of Paul Revere and William Dawes shouted warnings of British encroachment. Restaurants and bars fill with merriment, food and drink.
The detonation of bombs, which by definition produce shock waves, strike as even more jarring and insidious against the innocent, Rockwellian portrait of Patriots' Day.
Until about 2:50 p.m. Monday, I intended to write about how the Boston Red Sox, under the guidance and pitching expertise of manager John Farrell, have stabilized a wobbly organization on the strength of expert starting pitching. The 2013 Red Sox have become the opposite of the 2012 Red Sox: likeable. Then, just as the Red Sox dressed in their clubhouse after another tidy victory, 3-2 over Tampa Bay, two bombs near the finish line of the marathon, not more than a mile away from Fenway Park, changed forever the innocence of Patriots' Day.
The Red Sox were just about to depart for Cleveland for the only three games away from Fenway in a 20-game stretch of their schedule. They will be back at the Fens Friday night, and no doubt heavy hearts will fill the field and grandstands alike. Baseball, even in a city where it has become a civic religion, suddenly seemed so small.
Every tragedy is, however, an unwelcome reminder that life goes on for the survivors. Baseball, which, unlike any other sport, is there for us virtually every day, is entwined with what is the comfort and curse of that daily challenge. However small, however unimportant baseball seems today, the Red Sox remain a part of daily life in Boston. These Red Sox, win or lose, now play for a broken city. Whatever comfort or distraction they provide in the best of times assumes a different weight in these worst of times.
The first game back in Boston, Friday night against Kansas City, recalls for me Game 3 of the 2001 World Series in New York. It wasn't the first game in the city since 9/11, but it was the first major sporting event. The tension, what with the snipers on the rooftop of Yankee Stadium, the metal detectors at every gate, the president on the premises, was palpable. It was a strange mixture of comfort and discomfort. The armaments and skittishness confused: Was I in the safest place in the world, or the most dangerous?
Until 2:50 p.m. Monday, the Red Sox were top of mind in Boston again. They had been reclaiming some of the goodwill and import they forfeited last year in the workaday world in their city. Boston, like a jilted lover, turned away from its team last year, a 93-loss disaster with bad manners and a manager, Bobby Valentine, who turned out to be the equivalent of a casting director's worst nightmare. Among the litany of failures last year, this struck me as the worst: not a single Red Sox pitcher improved in 2013. Most failed epically, especially Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, Mark Melancon and Daniel Bard.
Re-enter Farrell, the former Boston pitching coach who took a two-year sabbatical to manage a nondescript team in Toronto. This time he returned as the successor to Valentine, which is to say he immediately was welcomed in the clubhouse the way Neil Armstrong was down the Canyon of Heroes. With the longest spring training in history, thanks to the concessions for the World Baseball Classic, Farrell imposed his will and ideologies upon the team; he devoted much of his time to getting underneath the hoods of the sputtering pitchers.
"Yes, I was able to be there in the bullpens for their sessions," Farrell said Saturday. "I don't have the time to stand in on bullpens now [during the season] because of the time demands of the job. And [pitching coach] Juan Nieves does a great job with these guys. But spring training? Yes, I had plenty of time to work with them."
It is no coincidence that Lester and Buchholz, who were a combined 36-16 in 2010, Farrell's last season as Boston pitching coach, suddenly have returned to form. Lester fell into poor mechanical habits last year and posted a 4.82 ERA while losing 14 games -- only the third Red Sox lefthander ever with such poor numbers and the first since Fritz Ostermueller way back in 1936.
"He was collapsing his back side in his delivery," Farrell said, "and when you do that your release point lowers and it's like you're pushing the ball up to the plate. We wanted to get him back to more of a downhill plane. We needed to get him taller in his delivery."
Lester once had pinpoint mechanics. The downhill angle he created was the envy of baseball and imparted depth and tilt to his cutter. With poor mechanics and the lower release point, the cutter stayed on the plane of a hitter's swing, and often on the barrel. This year, the downhill angle is back. Lester's release point is noticeably higher than it was last year -- probably by a few inches. The horizontal movement on his cutter has jumped by 103 percent, according to Pitch F/X information -- an inch-and-a-half break has become more than a three-inch break. The league is hitting .231 off his cutter, after whacking it to a .292 tune last year. The ball is away from the barrel.
Buchholz is a prime case study in why we are four years into the Great Pitching Era. Buchholz established early success in the big leagues primarily on the strength of a traditional mix of fastball, curve and especially his signature changeup. The changeup was his primary weapon against lefthanders. But in 2010 Buchholz began developing a cutter to run into the hands of lefthanders. And as he developed the cutter, Buchholz worked on the two-seamer, which is the yin to the cutter's yang. As the cutter dives into a lefthander's hands, the two-seamer darts in the opposite direction.
The cutter/two-seam combination establishes a quandary for hitters. Because both pitches are fastballs, which means the seams spin too fast to see, a hitter sees two pitches that for 50 feet look exactly the same: same speed and same blurry baseball. But in the last 10 feet the baseball could move left or it could move right.
You can talk all you want about how hitters today don't mind striking out and don't have a two-strike approach; but those truths have been in play for years. Nothing, however, is more responsible for the significant increase in strikeouts these past four years than the widespread adoption of the cutter/two-seam combination. Many of the strikeouts are derived without the batter swinging -- so effective is the subterfuge.
Over four years Buchholz has learned to master the combination. He is carving up lefthanded hitters without using the changeup as his primary weapon. (Beware some game information services that often misidentify pitches. Buchholz can throw his two-seamer as hard as his four-seamer, or about 93-94 mph, so archivists, who often register pitches based on velocity alone, miscount his two-seamers -- which was especially true in his April 8 start against the Orioles. He was credited with just one two-seamer, but raved after the game about how effective his two-seamer was against the Baltimore lefties.)
What's obvious is that Buchholz has more weapons than the changeup against lefties. His changeup still is a plus pitch, but check out the usage pattern since 2008 of his changeup against lefties, tracked by percentage of his pitches against lefties: 29, 25, 18, 20, 15, 13. What happened to the changeup? The cutter/two-seam combination became a weapon.
Last year Lester and Buchholz were a combined 20-22 with a 4.70 ERA and 6.7 strikeouts per nine innings. This year, in six combined starts, they are 5-0 with a 0.88 ERA and 9.0 strikeouts per nine. Go ahead and throw out your small sample disclaimer. But forget the numbers; the fact is both Lester and Buchholz look like different pitchers under Farrell.
Boston's pitching acumen doesn't stop with those two. It starters are 5-2 with a 1.99 ERA and 10.5 strikeouts per nine. It's an unsustainable rate, of course, but it reflects what Farrell and Nieves did in the long spring training to get their pitchers ready for the season. The analytically-minded Red Sox may have disregarded the Carmine computer program to put an emphasis on extroverted, high-motor guys who fit the Boston fishbowl (Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, David Ross, Jonny Gomes, etc.), but the mechanical fix of getting Lester and Buchholz back on track is more important to the re-establishment of the Red Sox as contenders and a relevant brand than any other factor.
Because Lester and Buchholz look like aces, the Boston Red Sox look like serious contenders again in the American League East. Until 2:50 yesterday afternoon, that seemed very important in a town that loves its baseball. Then everything changed in an instant. Terrorism came to Patriots' Day, the day that is as American as America gets. The depth of grief and horror it wrought will be met with commensurate strength to go on, for that, too, is at the heart of Patriots' Day.