Red Sox

Spring Training Countdown: Did Red Sox make up ground in AL East?

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Spring Training Countdown: Did Red Sox make up ground in AL East?

From 1998 through 2011, a period of 14 years, the Red Sox finished either first or second in the American League East on 11 occasions.

Then came last year, when the Sox bottomed out and finished with their worst record since 1965, landing them in last place in the division.

Not since 1932 had the Red Sox finished last in a division or league.

Their descent comes at a time when the A.L. East is more competitive than ever. In addition to the Yankees (who have qualifed for the post-season in every season but one since 1995) and the Tampa Bay Rays (who've won the division twice and reached the playoffs three times in the last five seasons), the Baltimore Orioles last season enjoyed their best year in
more than a decade, snapping a string of 14 consecutive losing seasons and pushing the Yankees to six games in the ALDS.

Finally, there are the Toronto Blue Jays, who haven't qualified for the post-season since 1993, but engineered the biggest trade of the off-season in an attempt to compete in the East.

Where does all of this leave the Red Sox? A look at the rest of a division that's grown more competitive than ever:

Even with all question marks -- Will Derek Jeter make a successful return from a broken ankle? Can Alex Rodriguez overcome hip surgery and another PED link? Does the veteran rotation stay healthy? -- the Yankees must be considered formidable.

The lineup isn't as fierce as it once was, with Jeter and Rodriguez hobbled and Mark Teixeira in decline. But the Yanks still boast Robinson Cano -- more motivated than ever as he approaches free agency -- and Curtis Granderson, who has hit 84 homers in the last two seasons.

The rotation has workhorses in CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, while Andy Pettitte proved that, when healthy, he can still win at 41.

Less certain is the bullpen, where ageless Mariano Rivera returns from a major knee injury. Worse, Rivera and the Yankees don't have Rafael Soriano as an insurance policy anymore. But David Robertson has emerged as one of the game's most reliable set-up options.

The Yankees may not be a powerhouse anymore, but they're still very much a threat.

Tampa Bay narrowly missed out on qualifying for the playoffs last fall, then dealt off its most seasoned starter, James Shields, in return for, among others, Wil Myers. Myers profiles as an All-Star and should give some additional thump to a lineup which has sputtered beyond Evan Longoria.

The Rays' strength, even with the departure of Shields, remains the starting rotation, now led by David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore. The bullpen, as always under Joe Madden, is formidable.

Even a modest improvement offensively should enable the Rays to ride their young arms into October.

Toronto is something of a mystery, having changed managers -- John Gibbons returns to replace John Farrell -- and pulled off a massive 12-player trade with the Miami Marlins.

That deal gave the Blue Jays two established starters -- Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle -- and an All-Star shortstop. Later in the winter, the Jays added outfielder Melkie Cabrera and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.

That makeover will help the Jays compete. But what impact will the roster shuffling have? The last two seasons, the team that "won the winter'' -- the Red Sox after 2010 and the Marlins themselves after 2011 -- fizzled in the following seasons.

Perhaps too much change isn't good. Expect the Jays to improve, but probably not as much as they should on paper.

After more than a decade spent as an also-ran, the Orioles dramatically reintroduced themselves to the division last year, in the running for the division title on the final weekend before bowing out in the the Division Series.

The Orioles' resurgence rekindled interest in Baltimore. But the Orioles did almost nothing to improve last year and their success in both one-run games (29-9) and extra-inning contests (16 straight wins at one point) suggest that they're perhaps due for a market correction.

The rotation remains a giant question mark -- Wei-Yin Chen was the only starter with double-figure wins -- and the bullpen may have been overworked. Look for the O's to take a step backward.

As for the Sox themsleves, much will depend on the rotation. If Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz rebound and John Lackey can be closer to his 2010 performance (14 wins), the Red Sox will show significant improvement and could climb into the middle of the division.

The lineup, so inept in the second half last season, will be better, thanks to the addition of Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino. The bullpen, a strength most of last season, has been bolstered by the addition of Joel Hanrahan.

Fresh off a 69-win season, a return to contention would be too much to ask. But the Red Sox should be more respectable, with an eye toward the arriving class of prospects (Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Rubby De La Rosa, Matt Barnes) expected to contribute in 2014.

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.
 

NLCS: Cubs avoid sweep, top Dodgers 3-2 to cut series deficit to 3-1

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NLCS: Cubs avoid sweep, top Dodgers 3-2 to cut series deficit to 3-1

CHICAGO -- Javier Baez sensed he was ready to bust out of his slump and give the Chicago Cubs the lift they needed.

As breakthroughs go, this was a big one. Just in time to keep the season going for the defending champs.

Baez snapped an 0-for-20 skid with two home runs, Wade Davis hung on for a six-out save and Cubs avoided a sweep, holding off the Los Angeles Dodgers 3-2 Wednesday night in Game 4 of the NL Championship Series.

"We have to be much more offensive," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's got to start happening tomorrow. We're going to do this. Going to pull this off, we have to become more offensive tomorrow."

Baez finally got going with a pair of solo drives .

Jake Arrieta pitched three-hit ball into the seventh inning to help the Cubs close their deficit to 3-1. Maddon got ejected for the second time in this series in the eighth, and a packed Wrigley Field crowd watched Davis get Cody Bellinger to ground into a game-ending double play.

Maddon was heavily criticized for not using Davis during a 4-1 loss in Game 2. This time, the Cubs closer threw 48 pitches to finish the job.

Willson Contreras also homered for the Cubs. Bellinger and Justin Turner connected for the Dodgers, who had won a team-record six straight playoff games.

Game 5 is Thursday, with Jose Quintana pitching for Chicago against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.

"They're the world champs, and you know they're going to fight to the end," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "So today, they did. We got beat today."

Baez hit solo drives in the second and fifth after going hitless in his first 20 playoff at-bats. He had been watching videos and felt his timing was starting to come back in recent trips to the plate.

"I just need to take a step back and see what's going on," he said.

Contreras added a long homer against Alex Wood.

Davis entered with a 3-1 lead in the eighth. He gave up a leadoff homer to Turner, who went 2 for 2 and drew two walks.

Maddon became incensed that a swinging strike three against Curtis Granderson was ruled a foul after the umpires discussed the play. Maddon got tossed, and Granderson struck out swinging at the next pitch.

And after walking Yasmani Grandal to put runners on first and second, Davis struck out Chase Utley , who is hitless in his last 24 postseason at-bats.

All seven of Chicago's runs in this series have come on homers. And long drives in the second by Contreras and Baez made it 2-0.

"Great to have this win, because if not we were going home tomorrow," Baez said. "But I feel like we're still not on track as a team. But I think if we get back on track, everybody as a team, we're going to be the best again."

Contreras' 491-foot homer banged off the left-field videoboard and Baez sent a towering drive out to left.

Bellinger cut it to 2-1 with his drive to right in the third. But Baez got the lead back up to two with a shot to the left-field bleachers in the fifth, the raucous crowd chanting "Javy! Javy!" for the flashy young star who was co-MVP of the NLCS last year.

No Cubs player had hit two in a playoff game since Alex Gonzalez went deep twice in Game 2 of the 2003 NLCS against Miami.

Arrieta exited with runners on first and second in the seventh after walking Chris Taylor on a 3-2 pitch. He tipped his hat as fans gave him a standing ovation, a fitting show of appreciation for a pitcher with an expiring contract.

"Hopefully, it's not a goodbye, it's a thank you, obviously," Arrieta said. "I still intend to have another start in this ballpark. If that's where it ends, I did my best and I left it all out there."

Arrieta turns 32 in March and figures to land a huge deal in free agency. The trade that brought him from Baltimore helped fuel Chicago's rise, with the right-hander capturing the 2015 NL Cy Young Award and contributing to last year's drought-busting championship run.

Limited by a right hamstring injury in the final month of the season, he threw 111 pitches. Brian Duensing retired Bellinger on a fly to end the seventh.

Turner made it a one-run game with his homer off the left-field videoboard against Davis in the eighth.

A career-high 16-game winner, Wood gave up three runs and four hits in 42/3 innings.

"The only frustrating thing is we fell a run short," Turner said. "We played a great game, they played a great game. They just hit one more ball over the fence than we did."

FINISHING UP

Maddon said Davis would not be available on Thursday.

"So other guys got to do it," Maddon said. "We have to be much more offensive. It's got to start happening tomorrow. We're going to do this. Going to pull this off, we have to become more offensive tomorrow."

QUOTABLE

Chicago's Kyle Schwarber on all the Cubs' runs coming on homers in the series: "That's fine. A run's a run, anyway you can get them in. Obviously, we want to manufacture some runs, but we won a ballgame 3-2 hitting homers; I'll take that, too."

UP NEXT

Dodgers: The Dodgers turn to Kershaw to try to wrap up the series. The three-time NL Cy Young winner went five innings in Game 1, allowing two runs, and has a 4.76 ERA in two postseason starts this year.

Cubs: Quintana pitched five innings of two-hit ball in Game 1, one day after his wife, Michel, was taken off the team plane in Albuquerque with a medical ailment.

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