x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Sweep leaves the Sox down at heel

Historically speaking, it was not the Boston Red Sox's worst series sweep at the hands of the New York Yankees. But it sure felt like it at the time.

Historically speaking, it was not the Boston Red Sox's worst series sweep at the hands of the New York Yankees. But it sure felt like it at the time. The infamous "Boston Massacre'' in 1978, when the Yanks swept the Sox in Boston in September, keying their comeback from a 14-game deficit earlier the season, was worse. So, too, was the five-game sweep the Sox suffered in August of 2006, a series that sent Boston spiralling downward for the rest of the season.

Still, the four-game sweep by the Yankees over the Red Sox stung plenty. For one thing, it widened the New Yorkers' lead in the American League East with less than two months remaining in the season. They are now seven and a half games ahead. For another, it highlighted some of the Sox's inherent weaknesses, including a sputtering offence that went some 31 innings during the series without producing a single run.

Finally, it called into question whether the Sox have the talent - and time - to overtake the Yankees for the division title. The Sox were wild card entrants both times they won the World Series this decade (2004 and 2007), but, like any other team, would prefer to win their division if only for the home field advantage it provides in the first round and beyond. Six head-to-head meetings still remain on the schedule, providing the Sox with an opportunity to make up ground. But first, they had to solve some issues, not the least of which was their offence, which got shut out three times in the span of seven games.

David Ortiz, after finishing with the second-most RBIs in July among all American League hitters, was back in a slump (four-for-41) in August, eerily similar to the one that nearly derailed his entire season in April and May. Shortstop continued to be a concern after Jed Lowrie was once again sidelined with a left hand injury and Nick Green, who had over-achieved for two months as the emergency starter, began to revert to journeyman form - in the field and at the plate.

There were also questions about the depth in the starting rotation. Two starters - Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield - landed on the disabled list while John Smoltz (with an 8.18 ERA) was released. Brad Penny went more than two months while winning just twice. The Sox have one of the best home records in the majors, but, as they began a six-game road trip that stopped in Texas for an unexpected wild-card showdown with the Rangers, they were four games below .500 away from Fenway.

A couple of trades at the deadline served as an upgrade, but they also created a log jam at a couple of positions for their manager, Terry Francona. After obtaining first baseman/catcher Victor Martinez, he was forced to choose between sitting out either third baseman Mike Lowell or catcher (and team captain) Jason Varitek, both popular veterans. With seven weeks to go before the end of the regular season, the Sox held the slimmest (one half game) lead for the wild card, so the possibility existed that, for just the second time since 2002, they could miss out on the play-offs altogether.

That seemed unlikely; the club's chief competitors for the wild-card - Texas and Tampa Bay - are also deeply flawed. The Rangers had remained in contention longer than expected, but as a whole, the team look a season away from being ready for the post-season. As for the Rays, the defending American League champions, they have been unable to get on any kind of roll all season. But if Boston's October hopes seemed reasonable, there was another nagging question: if they get to post-season, will they be capable of doing any damage?

smcadam@thenational.ae