Red Sox

Looking for a third Ace

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Looking for a third Ace

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

On paper, the Red Sox recently completed the most explosive offseason in franchise history, but for the smoking hot winter to translate into another World Series title, two carryovers from the 2010 team will have to step up their games.

And Im not talking Darnell MacDonald and Daniel Nava.

This week, both Josh Beckett and John Lackey arrived in romantic Fort Myers ready to move on from less-than-stellar seasons. Beckett clearly understands how deeply he disappointed Sox fans in 2010. John Lackey? Not so much. But theres one thing both players and the rest of the free world can agree on:

This year, the two supposed-to-be aces need to be better. If not, despite all the Hot Stove success, the Sox might find themselves in the same predicament as last season, and possibly, the same place in the standings.

Thats kind of dramatic. Im not trying to rain on our World Series parade. Its been a long time since Bostons been this confident about the team. Its been a while since the Sox have been so primed for a title.

They grabbed the best two free agents on the market; two killer bats that will be added into an already lethal, and finally healthy, line-up. They also went out and bolstered their bullpen with two legitimate veteran arms, which, combined with a more mature Daniel Bard and more focused Jonathan Papelbon, will give Boston one of the deepest and most reliable crews in the league.

Unlike last year, no ones worried about scoring runs (although despite low expectations and a high mortality rate, offense wasnt even the Sox issue last year: They still led the majors in OPS, were second in runs, second in homers and third in OBP); no ones worried about preventing runs, no ones worried about holding leads. No ones worried about anything except whether they can get off work for the Rolling Rally. And if all goes to plan, maybe it will be that easy. Maybe theyll win 100 games like Beckett suggested on Tuesday. Maybe the Sox will cruise.

But their ability to do so isnt resting on that new-and-improved lineup or the refurbished bullpen. Its about the one unit that remains untouched from last season; the one group most capable of taking the 2011 Sox from Paper Champions to legitimate juggernaut. And the two guys who, despite the pretty resumes and deep pockets, somehow still have the biggest fleet of doubters.

Beckett and Lackey. Lackey and Beckett. Beckey and Lackett. Whatever.

They need to step for the Red Sox to follow suit.

Becketts struggles last season arent much of a mystery. Fresh off his 68 million extension, he injured his back early, never recovered and was a non-factor. He finished with only six wins over 21 games and a 5.87 ERA so bad it offended Matt Clement. On Tuesday, he was asked about his lost season and predictably didnt mince words.

"At times it was a physical struggle," he said. "But things still should have been better than they were."

We can all agree.

Lackeys situation is a little less cut and dry. The big man certainly didnt live up to expectations last season, but speaking to the media on Monday, he downplayed the disappointment.

"There's definitely room for improvement," he said. "But there were definitely some numbers I can look at that were pretty good. My innings were good and there were a lot of quality starts. Honestly, I think all the evaluation was overblown a little bit. I'd only won more than 14 games once in my life. I led the team in quality starts and innings."

Thats how he chooses to remember it, but I think Sox fans are less impressed with the innings and more concerned with the fact that he set a career high in WHIP. That he tied a career high in walks and earned runs. That he pitched into eighth inning only six times in 2010 (with zero complete games), after doing so 10 times (with three CG) in 2009. That he honestly thinks reminding fans that hes only won more than 14 games once in his career is supposed to make them feel better.

Yeah, theres the fact that he led the team in innings, throwing seven more than Jon Lester. But theres also the fact that in those seven extra innings he gave up 66 more hits, 30 more earned runs and struck out 69 fewer batters than Lester.

And theres the 82 million contract.

Overblown evaluation or overpaid pitcher? You decide.

But this season, the decision belongs to Beckett and Lackey.

If were being honest (we are, right?), they dont even both need to come up big. The Sox could survive another mediocre season from either Beckett OR Lackey. But at least one guy needs to shake off the silliness of last season and become a third dominant force in the starting rotation. They cant leave Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester out on an island, they cant leave the team in a position to have to rely on Dice-K. They cant sit back and let another season on a high seven-figure deal slip away.

Theyre supposed to be the leaders. They should be pacing Lester and Buchholz, not the other way around. Theyre the two big money arms. Theyre the two World Series MVPs. Theyre the guys who youre supposed to roll out there once a week and know the other teams scared. The fact that Buchholz and Lester are as dominant as they are should be icing on the cake. People should be talking about the Sox in the same league as the Phillies Big 4. Or if not quite at that level, then at least to the point where those four starters, the new-and-improved lineup and the suddenly deep bullpen would absolutely run away with this division.

No one can match that. And no one would.

But right now, whether its a matter of physical or mental concerns (or a combination) with Beckett and Lackey, those two guys arent there, and for now, thats the largest hurdle standing between the Sox and the team everyone hopes theyll become.

And its up to either one (or both) of the veterans to carry the Sox over the top.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

NLCS: Dodgers win first pennant since 1988 with 11-1 Game 5 rout of Cubs

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NLCS: Dodgers win first pennant since 1988 with 11-1 Game 5 rout of Cubs

CHICAGO -- Enrique Hernandez put a Hollywood ending on an LA story three decades in the making.

Fueled by a home run trilogy from their emotional utilityman, Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers are finally going to the World Series.

Hernandez homered three times and drove in a record seven runs, Kershaw breezed through six crisp innings and Los Angeles ended the Chicago Cubs' title defense with an 11-1 rout in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series on Thursday night.

"It feels good to hear World Series," Kershaw said. "It's been a long time coming for this team."

After years of playoff heartache, there was just no stopping these Dodgers after they led the majors with 104 wins during the regular season. With Kershaw firing away at the top of a deep pitching staff and co-NLCS MVPs Justin Turner and Chris Taylor leading a tough lineup, one of baseball's most storied franchises captured its first pennant since Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda managed Kirk Gibson, Orel Hershiser and Co. to Los Angeles' last championship in 1988.

"Every night it is a different guy," Turner said, "and this is one of the most unbelievable teams I've ever been a part of."

Kershaw will be on the mound again when the Dodgers host the New York Yankees or Houston Astros in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night. The Yankees have a 3-2 lead heading into Game 6 of the ALCS at Houston on Friday night, so one more New York win would set up another chapter in an old October rivalry between the Yankees and Dodgers.

Los Angeles made the playoffs eight times in the previous 13 seasons and came up short of its 22nd pennant each time, often with Kershaw shouldering much of the blame. The three-time NL Cy Young Award winner took the loss when his team was eliminated by the Cubs in Game 6 of last year's NLCS at Wrigley Field.

The ace left-hander was just OK during his first two starts in this year's postseason, but Los Angeles' offense picked him up each time. Backed by Hernandez's powerful show in Chicago, Kershaw turned in an efficient three-hit performance with five strikeouts and improved to 6-7 in the playoffs - matching Burt Hooton's club record for postseason wins.

"To get to be on the mound tonight and get to be going to the World Series on the same night, it's a special thing," Kershaw said. "Who knows how many times I'm going to get to go to the World Series? I know more than anybody how hard it is to get there. So, I'm definitely not taking this one for granted."

When Kenley Jansen retired Willson Contreras on a liner to shortstop for the final out, the party was on . The Dodgers poured out of the dugout and mobbed their dominant closer near the mound, and a small but vocal group of Los Angeles fans gathered behind the visitors' dugout and chanted "Let's go Dodgers! Let's go Dodgers!"

On the field, manager Dave Roberts hugged Lasorda and told the iconic skipper the win was for him.

"I bleed Dodger blue just like you," Roberts said. "Thank you, Tommy."

Hernandez connected on the first two pitches he saw, belting a solo drive in the second for his first career playoff homer and then a grand slam in the third against Hector Rondon. Hernandez added a two-run shot in the ninth against Mike Montgomery.

The 26-year-old Hernandez became the fourth player with a three-homer game in a league championship series, joining Bob Robertson (1971 NLCS), George Brett (1978 ALCS) and Adam Kennedy (2002 ALCS). Hernandez's seven RBIs tied a postseason record shared by four other players who all did it in a Division Series.

Troy O'Leary was the previous player to have seven RBIs in a playoff game, for Boston at Cleveland in the 1999 ALDS.

It was a stunning display for a player with 28 career homers who remains concerned about his native Puerto Rico, which is recovering from a devastating hurricane. He delivered a historic performance in front of his father, Enrique Hernandez Sr., who was diagnosed with a blood cancer related to leukemia in December 2015, but got word last November that he was in remission.

"For me to be able to come here and do something like this is pretty special," said Hernandez, who also goes by Kik�. "My body's here, but my mind's kind of back home. It's hard being away from home with what's going on.

"All I want to do right now is go to my dad and give him a big hug."

Kris Bryant homered for Chicago, but the NL Central champions finished with just four hits in another tough night at the plate. Each of their eight runs in the NLCS came via the long ball, and they batted just .156 for the series with 53 strikeouts.

Long playoff runs in each of the last two years and a grueling five-game Division Series against Washington seemed to sap Chicago of some energy, and its pitching faltered against sweet-swinging Los Angeles. Jose Quintana was pulled in the third inning of the final game, and the Cubs never recovered.

"They executed their plan," Bryant said. "They pitched great and the bullpen was lights out. That makes for a tough time scoring runs."

Turner and Taylor helped put it away for Los Angeles, contributing to a 16-hit outburst while closing out a pair of impressive performances.

Turner singled home Taylor in the Dodgers' five-run third, giving him seven RBIs in the series and 24 throughout his postseason career. Taylor finished with two hits and scored two runs as the Dodgers, who have won five straight NL West titles, improved to 7-1 in this postseason.

Taylor's versatility helped Los Angeles cover for the loss of All-Star shortstop Corey Seager, who missed the series with a back injury, but is expected to return in the next round. Coming off a breakout season, the 27-year-old Taylor hit .316 with two homers and scored five times against the Cubs.

"I couldn't be happier to be a part of this and be with these guys," Taylor said. "It's been an unbelievable year, and I'm just super excited."

OUT WITH A BANG

Hernandez joined Kennedy (2002), Adrian Beltre (2011), Reggie Jackson (1977 vs. the Dodgers) and Babe Ruth (1928) as players to hit three home runs in a postseason series clincher.

LIGHTS OUT

Dodgers relievers have thrown 23 consecutive scoreless innings, a postseason record.

Are Red Sox playing a waiting game before naming their new manager?

Are Red Sox playing a waiting game before naming their new manager?

BOSTON — As soon as the American League Championship Series ends, the Red Sox could make a move for their manager.

Industry sources continue to expect Astros bench coach Alex Cora will be the Sox’ pick. No offer had been officially made as of midday Wednesday, one source close to the situation said. But the belief is such an offer waits out of respect to the Astros-Yankees ALCS that can end no later than Saturday if the series goes a full seven games. 

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“Not a doubt it is him,” the source said.

Sunday and Monday would both be off days ahead of the Tuesday night start of the World Series. That leads to the potential for at least a Red Sox announcement of Cora, if not a press conference, before the Fall Classic begins. (If the Astros advance to the World Series, it may be harder to have Cora in Boston for any length of time.)

All those who know Cora praise his ability to connect with players. The former Red Sox infielder is good friends with Dustin Pedroia. Cora’s previous knowledge of the Boston market works in his favor, as well, as does his mettle handling the media. Some question his readiness as a first-time manager, considering he would be taking over a team with great win-now expectations and complicated clubhouse dynamics.

Nothing takes the place of experience and there is such a thing as being too close to players. Ultimately, if the Sox do land Cora, 41, they would be adding the hottest up-and-coming managerial prospect who’s available on the market. The everybody-wants-him reputation could give Cora added cachet with players and certainly becomes a public-relations win for those fans following the search.

The Sox interviewed Ron Gardenhire on Wednesday. Gardenhire was the third candidate the Sox talked to and could well be the last. Cora met with the Sox on Sunday, followed by Brad Ausmus on Monday.