Red Sox

First pitch: Reality is it can get worse from here

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First pitch: Reality is it can get worse from here

The losses pile up now, like yesterday's trash, one on top of the other, each indistinguishable from the next.

Nobody mentions the playoffs any more, for good reason -- the Red Sox are now closer in the standings to the worst record in the league (Minnesota) than they are to the team leading the wild card chase (Oakland).

There are now more hollow promises about "getting healthy and making a run,'' no predictions that, pretty soon, things will click.

Those are all gone now. Wednesday's one-sided loss to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim pushed the Red Sox one day closer to the end, one step closer to total irrelevance.

And here's the thing: It can still get worse.

There are still 38 games remaining, almost a quarter of the season. Included in that stretch are 22 road games, almost all against teams with better records.

Actually, when it comes to the home-road split in the final six weeks, location is almost irrelevant. At 29-36, Sox have one of the worst home records in the league.

You name it, and it's a concern. Two games into the Randy Niemann Era, the starting pitching is as poor as it's been all season, though Niemann can hardly be expected to exact an overnight turnaround in performance.

The offense has scored three runs or fewer in 8 of the last 12 games and seem to limit their damage to an inning -- sometimes two -- per night.

The fight seems to have left them. Rallies are almost non-existent; comebacks appear to be a thing of the past. Over the last five games, the Red Sox have been scoreless in 36 of the last 45 innings, or 80 percent of the time.

Injuries, of course, are a factor. David Ortiz remains sidelined and there's no telling how much his mere presence is missed in the middle of the lineup. It doesn't help that Will Middlebrooks, one of just two righthanded regulars with a slugging percentage above .420, is out for the remainder of the season with a broken wrist.

And so, the lineup takes on the look of a split-squad sent to Bradenton on March morning -- journeyman and role players sprinkled in among some regulars in the hopes of passing as a major league lineup.

With Middlebrooks and Carl Crawford gone for the year and Ortiz still at least a few days away, Bobby Valentine is left to mix and match almost daily. In late August.

And it shows.

"We just can't seem to string a good inning together here and there and gain any momentum offensively,'' lamented outfielder Scott Podsednik. "When you look at good offensive clubs, they do that -- they take what's given to them, they grind out at-bats and keep coming at you.

"We're potetnially trying to do too much. Each player is trying to be that guy to get things going and it's counterproductive.''

In part because of the injuries and roster churn, the team lacks an identity, and as such, lacks consistency.

"There's been so many new personalities coming in and trying to jell,'' noted Podsednik. "You've got to have 25 guys, day-in, day-out all on the same page. So, yes, that might have something to do with it. The goal should be, each and every night, is to play for one another, pick each other up. We've had so many new faces, so many guys trying to come in and establish themselves, that I think it's hard for this whole team to get into a good rhythm and get in the right frame of mind to play, day-in and day-out.''

And here's the hard part: It's not over yet. Not by a long shot.

Red Sox trade LHP Roenis Elias back to Mariners

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File photo

Red Sox trade LHP Roenis Elias back to Mariners

The Boston Red Sox have traded left-hander Roenis Elias to the Seattle Mariners for future considerations.

The Red Sox announced the trade Monday.

Elias was 1-0 with a 1.23 ERA in Triple-A Pawtucket this season. In 55 major league appearances, he is 15-21 with a 4.20 ERA.

The 29-year-old native of Cuba was originally signed by Seattle as a free agent in 2011. He was sent to Boston four years later in a trade with Carson Smith for Wade Miley and Jonathan Aro.

The Red Sox will receive a yet-undetermined player or cash.

Drellich: Still a lot we don't know about Cora's managerial strategies

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AP Photo

Drellich: Still a lot we don't know about Cora's managerial strategies

There aren't many in-game moves to weigh when a team is decimating its opponents. After the Red Sox dropped consecutive games for the first time this season, we have a reminder of how little we know about Alex Cora's in-game managing philosophy.

The 2018 Red Sox have been a wild success so far, and the changes in the atmosphere alone make Cora a success as well. But he may need to reconsider a few things when it comes to that other part of the job, managing the lineup and the bullpen and the X's and O's. (Even if it means sacrificing some good will in the clubhouse at times.)

Managers have to constantly balance keeping players happy, fresh and the present. The present cannot -- and should not -- always be favored. Sometimes, though, the present can be pushed too far aside. Sunday's 4-1 loss to the A's seemed like one of those days.

MOOKIE MUST BAT

The most egregious mistake Cora made on Sunday was leaving Mookie Betts in the on-deck circle, with Christian Vazquez at the plate for the final out.

If Cora were determined to give Betts a full day off for a health reason, that would be one thing. Betts was available, and it's therefore inexcusable to let the game slip by with him in waiting.

"It has to be the perfect spot for him," Cora told reporters in Oakland, including MassLive.com. "He was ready to run earlier in the game. If J.D. [Martinez in the eighth inning] were to get on with two outs and they had the closer, we felt we could run on him and put pressure on him and get the go-ahead run at second. Probably he was going to run there. But besides that, it would have to be the perfect spot for him to change the game.”

Had Vazquez reached, Betts would have represented the tying run at the plate. Is that the so-called perfect spot Cora sought? The chances Betts hits a game-tying home run are not high. The rally needed to continue in some form, and Betts needed to be given a chance to do so.

Looking for a future moment that may not arrive for your best hitter is not sound managing in the ninth inning. 

The same logic that surrounds Betts appears applicable to Hanley Ramirez and Eduardo Nunez, who were both out of the starting lineup as well. There's no indication those two were unavailable, so what were they being saved for?

Both Vazquez and Tzu-Wei Lin batted with two men on in the seventh inning, when the game was tied at 1-1, and did not get the job done. Cora could have pinch-hit then too.

Lin and Vazquez are important defensively. Delaying pinch-hitting appearances until after the seventh came with a leg to stand on: Save the bullets for later to better the defense. But those bullets were never used.

HOW MUCH REST IS NEEDED, AND WHEN IS BEST?

At some point, Cora's strategy of resting players was going to invite wider scrutiny. The concept is great: increase performance by keeping players fresh. Cora recently pointed out that Sox players are physically small relative to some  teams. Their bodies, in turn, may need more downtime.

What remains something of a guess is how much rest is really needed. What's the right number? Probably, for each player, it varies. Not every move made with rest in mind is equally smart.

It's one thing to rest players. It's another to rest three regulars -- and two of your best hitters -- at once. Every game counts, whether you're resting players in April or the day after a division clincher.

Cora before the game told reporters he was resting the regulars to take advantage of the scheduled off-day Monday. Was the trade-off worth it? Did Nunez and Ramirez need the entirety of the day off?

Nunez, coming off a knee injury to end the 2017 season, has been playing complete games regularly. Perhaps he could be pulled sometimes for a defensive replacement to gain rest. 

For example: Nunez played every inning of the sweep of the Angels, during which the Sox outscored Anaheim 27-3. He played every inning of the next two games in Oakland, as well.

Someone who did not play a single inning in the field during that stretch: Blake Swihart, who seems exempt from Cora's plan to keep everyone fresh defensively. Swihart was the designated hitter Sunday, seemingly forced into the lineup more than strategically used.

WAS SUNDAY ALL ABOUT CONFIDENCE?

As speculation: Maybe Cora didn't pinch-hit Betts for Vazquez in the ninth because he wanted Vazquez, his starting catcher, to have the opportunity to earn the right to future big at-bats. Vazquez has been struggling. Maybe the choice was made so that, in a similar spot in the future, Vazquez cannot turn around and tell Cora he feels slighted if someone does bat in his place.

And maybe that's why Swihart was not asked to bunt with men on in the seventh inning.

Same goes for David Price in the eighth inning. Perhaps Cora was trying to give Price some confidence and leeway when he left him in with two on, the Nos. 3-4-5 hitters up, one out and a tie gamed at 1-1. Going forward, after Price did not come through, perhaps Cora will have an easier time taking Price out in a key spot.

Would that be worth the loss on Sunday?

Even if Cora boosted Price's confidence by letting him stay in, he might have sent the opposite message to others in the Red Sox bullpen, who were kept away from a key moment.

The Sox have been careful with workload all April. As a jam developed Sunday, it felt a perfect moment to establish some confidence in the eighth-inning crew. The inning was high stress and Price was creeping up on 100 pitches. Plus, between the relievers and Price, who needed the moment more?

Carson Smith was warming. Once Price got the second out of the inning with a strikeout of Jed Lowrie, Cora went with a gut feeling rather than something pre-planned.

“We had Smith ready, but it doesn't matter,” Cora told reporters, including NESN. "The way [Price] got [Jed Lowrie] out, you know, you could see, you know, he still had his fastball was good enough, and the pitch to Jed was probably the one that made me make the decision.”

In other words: One pitch to Lowrie made Cora think Price was better equipped than a fresh arm. Gut feelings are fine for a manager occasionally, but this seemed a textbook moment: go to the 'pen. Pulling Price was an easy first guess, not second guess:

KIMBREL'S BEING SAVED FOR SAVES, NOT BIGGEST MOMENTS

The Red Sox can win the division with Craig Kimbrel as an old-school, saves-hungry closer who does not want to pitch in the eighth inning -- and only the eighth -- if the game is on the line. They've shown they can do that. But their chances are worse for it.

Brewers manager Craig Counsell on Sunday had a former traditional closer, Jeremy Jeffress, escape a bases-loaded jam in the sixth inning of what wound up being a 4-2 Milwaukee victory.

"Today's sixth inning by J.J. was absolutely incredible. You can't do any better than that," Counsell said. "We make a big deal about the ninth inning but that was the game right there."

Counsell's not talking about the eighth. He's talking about the sixth.

Entering Tuesday, Kimbrel will have pitched once in eight days, in a blowout in Anaheim just to get work in. He did not warm in the eighth inning Sunday. There is no argument to be made that using Kimbrel on Sunday for two outs in the eighth would have tired him out. 

Here's what Cora said during spring training about Kimbrel in the eighth: "We'll sit down with him throughout spring training. People think it's a big adjustment. If you start looking at the numbers, you don't lose too many saves if it's the way you want to use him. We're not talking about the lower third of the lineup. We're talking the middle of the lineup, eighth inning, certain situations. What I feel is the game on the line . . . We'll sit down and talk about it and he'll understand where we're coming from. And as long as he's healthy he'll do it.”

He's healthy. He's not doing it. The pitcher appear more concerned with saves than what's best for the team, and the manager appears at the pitcher's mercy.

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