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Nau: No reason for Red Sox fans to panic

April 13, 2011

This column represents the opinion of sports editor Terry Nau

The problem with Red Sox fans is they don’t know how to deal with slow starts. During the Terry Francona Era, their favorite team has never been worse than 28-24 on June 1. That mediocre beginning, which looks downright red-hot compared to this season’s 2-9 start, occurred in 2005. Yes, Boston rebounded to make the playoffs that year, bowing to eventual champion Chicago White Sox in the Division Series.
Otherwise, Boston has boasted strong records on June 1, an arbitrary date I picked out that goes beyond the “small sample” size and unusually entails at least 50 games. In 2004, Boston was 31-21 on June 1. The Sox were 31-20 on the same date in 2006. They were 36-17 in 2007 and went on to win their first outright A.L. East title since 1995. The Sox were 35-24 in 2008, 29-22 in 2009 and 30-23 in 2010.
There was some talk on the radio yesterday about how Boston has to play .616 baseball the rest of this season to attain 95 wins, which seems to be a playoff plateau favored by fans who have done the math while chewing on their fingernails.
Yankee fans must be chuckling over their counterparts’ feelings of desperation here on April 14. They have seen their team get off to a pair of below-.500 starts in recent years and still make the playoffs. The Yankees started 2005 with a 12-19 record after 31 games and still won 95 games that season. So did Boston but the Yanks won the division title on a tiebreaker.
That season will always be remembered by Yankee fans as the summer of Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon, two journeymen pitchers who combined for a 17-3 record that put the New York into the playoffs.
In 2007, Joe Torre’s final Yankee team carried a 38-40 record on June 30 and then went on a remarkable run, playing .667 ball the rest of the way, finishing with a 95-67 record that put them two games off Boston’s pace. That was the summer of Joba Chamberlain.
The 2005 and 2007 Yankees were not built anywhere near as well as the 2011 Red Sox. But they had the same advantage Boston does, a superior edge over opponents in financial resources that allowed New York to add on players in July to fill holes on the roster. Small and Chacon were basically never heard from again. Chamberlain came up from the minors, fresh out of college, to throw dominating setup relief for two months. He has never been that good again.
So how will this season play out for Boston? Do the Red Sox need pitching help? Is that really the problem? Or is it way too early to even think about the Red Sox being in trouble? Maybe we should include the Yankees in this discussion of slow starts because they have been less than awesome so far in 2011. In fact, they are the only team Boston has defeated in April!
Boston could end the panic quickly with a short winning streak. The Red Sox go on the road to the west coast next week, a good place for the players to relax away from their demanding hometown fans and media. With the pressure off, Carl Crawford may find his hitting groove. Slumping cleanup hitter Kevin Youkilis will start ripping the ball sooner or later, possibly when the weather warms up.
Do the Red Sox need pitching help? Well, there’s no question the pitching staff was overrated coming into this season. The middle of the bullpen is soft. And at least two of the starting pitchers (Dice-K and John Lackey) are capable of getting knocked out early, forcing manager Terry Francona to open the bullpen gates too soon.
Francona, much like Joe Torre with the Yankees, is well-suited to turning this ship around. It’s interesting how their respective careers in the A.L. East parallel one another. Both managers had great early success that gave them total respect from their players. Torre won four World Series in his first five years in New York. Francona won two in four years with Boston. Torre went 0-for-7 in terms of World Series titles before bowing out. Francona is 0-for-3 right now.
Torre’s calm demeanor in the dugout relaxed his own players during those early slumps in 2005 and 2007. The grind of dealing with the media and his bosses took a toll on Torre, who was forced out of his job in 2007 after 12 seasons in pinstripes.
Francona is in his eighth year in Boston. The expectations for winning it all keep getting raised. When Boston signed free agent Carl Crawford and traded for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez in the offseason, all the “experts” anointed the Red Sox as the team to beat in the American League, even though defending champion Texas seemed to warrant that title.
Francona and general manager Theo Epstein will hold the fort between now and mid-July, remaining outwardly calm while nursing their players’ egos through a difficult start to the season. Theo even went into the locker room last Friday to reassure the players that he believes in them.
By the end of the summer, Boston should be back in the playoffs. Theo may have to trade off a starting pitcher and find another one in the woodpile, the way counterpart Brian Cashman did in 2004.
Bottom line: this Boston team is too good not to make the playoffs, just as the Yankees were in 2005 and 2007. Talent and teamwork will eventually demolish small market teams with big dreams. Let the Orioles, Blue Jays and Indians have their early-season fun. By July, the Red Sox and Yankees will throw some money (or elite farm prospects) around if they need to add a player or two for the playoff push.
This is the way modern baseball pennant races are won. Boston and New York are rich, and they are smart, too. That’s a tough combination to beat, no matter how poorly a rich team starts its season.

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