RSCTBNL: Opening Weekend Debacle

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The Red Sox opened their 2021 season at home for the first time in the traditional spring season opener since 2017.  The schedule makers appeared to give the Red Sox a favor when the rebuilding Baltimore Orioles were tapped to be their Opening Weekend opponents.  All signs pointed to the Sox getting off to a good start to the season, but someone forget to tell the Orioles.  In my first Red Sox Column to be Named Later of the 2021 season, let’s take a look back at the debacle that was Opening Weekend for the 2021 Boston Red Sox.

Photo courtesy of bostonglobe.com

The Hot Bats Stayed In Florida

One need only look at the offense to figure out why the Red Sox have gotten off to an 0-3 start this season.  In Spring Training the Sox were raking, and it seemed like scoring runs wouldn’t be a problem for this team.  In Florida the Sox slashed .270/.344/.487 and clubbed 45 home runs and scored 159 runs in 29 games.  Unfortunately, most of those bats cooled off mightily when they were brought out in the crisp New England spring air.

The Sox scored only five runs in the three game set at Fenway, and received virtually no contributions from anyone not named J.D. Martinez or Christian Vazquez.  Leadoff man Kiké Hernandez slashed a single to right in his first at-bat for the Sox, was subsequently picked off first base, and has not gotten into the hit column since.  Xander Bogaerts was 1 for 12 in the series, and the quartet of Alex Verdugo, Rafael Devers, Hunter Renfroe, and Bobby Dalbec were a combined 0 for 34 with 11 strikeouts. 

To add insult to injury, the Red Sox were only 2 for 18 (0.111) with runners in scoring position in the series.

The Sox were stymied in Game One by Orioles starter John Means, who allowed the aforementioned single to Hernandez to lead off the game and the promptly shut down the Boston offense, retiring 18 batters in a row at one point.  The offensive malaise carried over into game two when the Sox could only put up single runs in the fourth and fifth innings.  And in the finale on Sunday, the Sox fell behind the O’s 10-0 in the third inning, and the boos rained down from the 4,458 in the stands.

The lingering concern from last season was the Red Sox starting pitching, which was abysmal in the abbreviated 2020 season.  However, that concern was not a factor Opening Weekend, at least not in the first two games.  Nathan Eovaldi continued his dominance over the Orioles, going 5 1/3 innings and allowing only one earned run (which scored after he exited the game in the sixth with a runner on first), and struck out four.

Tanner Houck took the mound for Game Two, a late addition to the Opening Day roster thanks to Eduardo Rodriguez beginning the season on the Injured List.  Houck continued his impressive work from last season (3-0 in three starts), but unfortunately was a victim of no run support in picking up his first loss in the big leagues.  Houck pitched five strong innings and allowed only two earned runs while striking out eight Oriole batters, featuring a nasty sweeping slider that buried into the feet of left-handed hitters.

The stretch of good starting pitching unfortunately came to a crashing end with Garret Richards’ Red Sox debut in Game Three.  As mentioned above, the Orioles scored 10 runs in the first three innings, with Richards on the hook for six of them when he left in the third inning with the bases loaded and no outs.  Not the debut Chaim Bloom was hoping for after inking Richards to a one year - $10 M free agent contract in the offseason.

Last season the Red Sox got off to a 6-18 start and the season, and being as the season was only sixty games long, it was essentially over.  An 0-3 start in a 162 game season is no reason for panic, but there should be concern.  Losing a three game series at home to a team like the Orioles to start the season is even more concerning - which leads to another troubling trend.  The Red Sox are a combined 51-62 at Fenway Park since the start of the 2019 season.  Good teams take care of business at home, which would be a good place for the 2021 Red Sox to start their turnaround.

Too Cool For School

Red Sox Manager Alex Cora touted the versatility of new additions Kiké Hernadez and Marwin González coming into the season.  “We’ve got a lot of versatile guys,” Cora said. “We’ve been talking about this the whole offseason.  Having (Kiké) and Marwin on the same team, we can be creative.  People talk about creative teams and how cool that is.  Well, we have a cool team, too.”

Three games into the 2020 season, and Cora seems to be taking this versatility to the extreme.  González got the start in left field on Opening Day, at second base in Game Two, and at third base in GameThree.  Hernandez, expected to be the primary second baseman, had a tough game defensively in Game One and then started the next two in center field.  Alex Verdugo has started at all three outfield positions, and Cora has penciled in a different second baseman in each game (Hernandez, González, and Christian Arroyo).

Versatility is one thing, but there is also something to be said for consistency.  Professional athletes in any sport are creatures of habit and perform at their best when in a routine.  The Sox defense was sloppy in the first two games of the season.  The cold weather was certainly a factor, but continuing to shuffle players around the diamond is not a formula for turning that around.

Having a super-sub like a Ben Zobrist, who can play multiple positions well and give regular players the occasional night off, is a valuable commodity for a roster.  But too much shuffling of a defensive lineup is going to be tough for the players to develop consistently.  It will be interesting to see if Bogaerts can adapt to multiple partners at second base, and if that unfamiliarity will come back to bite the team in a crucial situation when a double play is not turned because the timing was off.

Taking a Knee

Red Sox catchers have taken to the practice of going down on one knee even when runners are on base.  The reason they are doing so is to try to take some of the burden off their legs during a long season.  This plan came back to bite the Sox in the second game of the season when Houck snapped off one of his nasty sliders with a runner on third and catcher Kevin Plawecki, down on his right knee, could not shift over fast enough to contain the sweeping pitch and surrendered a passed ball and allowed runners to move into scoring position.  Catching a break is all well and good, but doing it with runners on base and a pitcher throwing a nasty breaking ball is not the right spot.

Photo courtesy of providencejournal.com

Trading Places

Speaking of defensive lapses, Rafael Devers continues to be an adventure at third base.  He has already been credited with one throwing error, and was saved of at least two more thanks to Dalbec digging out low throws at first.  One has to wonder how much longer the Sox will continue to go with Devers at third.  Dalbec came up through the system as a third baseman and is a plus defender with a strong arm.  If he hits and stays in the bigs, the Sox will have to seriously consider flip-flopping the two and moving Devers to first, where his defensive lapses of concentration on throws will not be a problem.

Mirror Image

If you did not read my Syndicate colleague’s Chris Henriques article on Tanner Houck’s performance in Game Two, check out the side-by-side comparison of Houck and Chris Sale.  Houck’s image is flipped and super-imposed on Sale’s delivery.  The comparison is uncanny!

Trending Up

J.D. Martinez had a slow start in Spring Training, which is not unusual for him.  He began to pick it up in the last week of camp and, unlike most of his teammates, carried his hot bat north with him.  Martinez went 6 for 12 (.500) in the three game series with a homer and three doubles.

Garrett Whitlock made his Major League Debut on Sunday and threw 3 1/3 scoreless innings with five strikeouts.  Sure, the Orioles had already scored 10 runs by the time Whitlock took the mound, but he kept them in check through the middle innings.  The Rule 5 Draft Pick, who has never pitched above AA, should get some higher leverage looks now that he has gotten his feet wet in the major leagues.

Also making his MLB debut this weekend was Hirokazu Sawamura.  The Japanese right-hander got into two games in the series and pitched a pair of innings, striking out three.

Trending Down

Bobby Dalbec lead the Grapefruit League in home runs.  Now that the games count, Dalbec has started the season 0 for 10 with five strikeouts.  In the season opener, with the Sox trailing 4-2 in the eighth and runners on first and second with two outs, Dalbec came to the plate with a chance to put the Sox ahead.  Instead, he was called out on strikes, seeing only three pitches in the at-bat.

Hunter Renfroe - 0 for 7, three strikeouts.

Alex Verdugo - 0 for 11, though he did have a few hard hit line drive outs.

Rafael Devers - 0 for 6, one error.

Garrett Richards struggled earlier in Spring Training, but then made mechanical adjustments which was believed to have corrected his problems.  Think again.  In his Sox debut, Richards could not get an out in the third before being lifted from the game.  He ended the day with six earned runs charged to him, and an ERA of 27.00.

Look Ahead

The Red Sox stay at Fenway and will look to turn things around against the defending American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays.  The Rays opened up the season with an interleague series against their Florida rivals Miami Marlins.  The Rays took the first two games of the series before dropping the finale by a score of 12-7. 

The Rays traded away Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell in the offseason and lost starter Charlie Morton to free agency, but they still have quality starters in Tyler Glasnow, the returning Chris Archer, and former Cardinal and Met Michael Wacha.  The Sox will face Wacha in the opener on Monday, and while starters for Tuesday and Wednesday have not yet been identified as of the writing of this article, it’s a safe bet they will see Glasnow in one of those games.  Not an ideal formula to turn around an offense off to a rough start.

The Sox will then travel to Baltimore for the O’s home opener, and will look to exact some revenge on the Birds for this past weekend.

 

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Boston Sports Syndicate: RSCTBNL: Opening Weekend Debacle
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