How did that happen? Well, starting last year in Baltimore, Luke Scott decide to take it upon himself to talk about how he did not like Red Sox fans invading his home stadium.
This went largely ignored at the time, because we were too busy looking for anyone and everyone to blame for the way last September went down. This spring, as a member of the Rays, Scott went off again and called Fenway Park a “dump.”
That statement got some attention, probably because everybody who read it was confused about why a member of the Tampa Bay Rays was talking about Fenway Park during spring training. Little did we all know he was trying to save Red Sox fans’ tenuous grip on sanity.
Joe Maddon is called the best manager in baseball for a reason—he can help his own team achieve what once seemed impossible, and he can unify other teams in solidarity against Joe Maddon and his commentary.
In comments quoted by the Associated Press after Friday’s game, Maddon went after the team that the Rays swear are their rivals:
“To be really carelessly incompetent on their side and truly try to hit someone and throw behind somebody and hitting them in the leg for all the wrong reasons, eventually they can get their own guys hurt.”
This, of course, was in response to a beanball-inspired argument resulting from Franklin Morales drilling Luke Scott in the ninth inning (in a moment that encapsulated Morales’ entire season, he needed more than one try to hit Scott).
While losing two games out of three after the start the Boston Red Sox have had still counts as a setback, the way this past weekend’s games unfolded may have unlocked a passion that seemed to be missing before.
A near-brawl on Friday night, coupled with a few words in both directions, gave Bobby Valentine his first real chance to endear himself to Red Sox fans. Those words also gave the fans something to focus on outside of the Red Sox’s own roster.
When I watched Maddon making his comments after the game on Friday night, I became angry in my living room. "Oh, that’s it," I thought. "I’ve had just about all I can take of the Tampa Bay Rays and their holier-than-thou attitude."
This season hasn’t been easy for us in the Boston area. I know, we’re a bit spoiled lately, and we care more about baseball than any sane person ever should, but that’s the way it is around here. Baseball’s king in the local sports scene, and win or lose, the Red Sox are always the primary topic of sports-related conversation here.
To see what’s happening to the team—this team, of all teams, the one that broke the so-called “curse” and triumphed again in ’07—is uncomfortable and difficult at times. It’s all changing so fast.
The economic landscape of the sport is drastically different than it was even three years ago. The Rays are suddenly a regular contender, Francona’s gone, Epstein’s gone, Pedro’s gone and worst of all, the Red Sox are now often painted as some sort of bullies or villains.
This gave Bobby Valentine the opportunity he needed to do something—anything—to endear himself to Red Sox fans and come out in defense of his own team. Since taking over in Boston, Valentine hadn’t had many chances to do that, but it seemed as though he was running out of time.
Let’s face it—“Bobby V” is in a nearly impossible position of trying to replace a local legend. Terry Francona left Boston a baseball hero, especially to the fans. After all, we made a promise long ago that whoever Does It for us would get a “free pass” from that point on, and Francona Did It. Nobody would have an easy time following that act.
“Maybe it was the ghost of Fenway past remembering that he bad-mouthed all our fans and our stadium or something, just directing the ball at his leg,” the AP quoted Valentine as saying on Friday night.
Watching those comments on television made me nearly leap out of my chair. It reminded me of what Pedro Martinez might have said in such a situation (not that Pedro Martinez of all people would ever intentionally bean a member of Tampa Bay’s baseball franchise).
Valentine had an opportunity to stand up for his ballpark and his team’s fans, and he took that opportunity. That alone ought to get Valentine a week or two of the benefit of the doubt around here, but of course it won’t, because these are the Red Sox we’re talking about, and anything less than perfection is unacceptable.
“Bobby V” needed this sort of an incident in the worst way. At least for now, the narrative has changed. We’re not talking about slow starts, or whether Valentine was the right choice to replace Francona, or who is in charge in the front office, or who played golf or drank beer or ate chicken or did just about anything besides play baseball.
All we can talk about now is how mad we are at Luke Scott, and how Joe Maddon’s a hypocrite in our eyes (after all, before anyone hit Luke Scott, Burke Badenhop hit Dustin Pedroia in the ribs with what was likely an errant pitch). Our focus is on the Rays and how angry they are making us.
On Saturday, the Red Sox held tough against David Price while the resurgent Josh Beckett kept the Rays from running away with their ace on the mound. Turns out Beckett missed being an ace himself. Turns out the occasional round of golf doesn’t destroy his ability to pitch.
Another strong start by the snitch hunter kept the score at 2-1 going into the bottom of the ninth inning. Jarrod Saltalamacchia took a low and inside fastball deep with a runner on base, and the Fenway crowd exploded in a way it simply hasn’t yet this year.
It wasn’t just the walkoff, but the timing of the walkoff. After Friday night’s debacle, with fans on edge once again, with the focus finally on how sick to death we are of being the villain to a team with no fans, the Red Sox delivered and sent an admittedly self-important fanbase into the Boston night to dream about this weekend reminding them, in some small way, of July 24, 2004.
In 2004, with the Red Sox in a summer funk, the New York Yankees came to town for a late-July showdown. Fans locally were getting a bit anxious, like the Red Sox were letting an opportunity slip away, and a Friday night loss to the Yankees made things look even more bleak.
Then, during a game in which the Yankees led 3-0 at the time, Bronson Arroyo hit Alex Rodriguez with what may or may not have been an errant pitch. Rodriguez took a step toward the mound, only to find Jason Varitek would quickly get in front of him. A fight ensued.
Once the dust had settled, with the crowd suddenly energized and the team suddenly angry, the Red Sox came back to win on a walkoff home run by Bill Mueller.
These moments can be the kinds of moments that allow a new manager to rally his team and calm the fans. Thanks to the Rays, the Red Sox now have something besides themselves to focus on, and that can make a huge difference.
On Sunday, it looked as though the positive signs would continue. Clay Buchholz, who had been terrible in his early starts, was impressive yesterday against the Rays.
Buchholz kept his pitch count down and struck out six hitters in seven innings while only allowing two runs. A three-run Adrian Gonzalez home run gave Boston the lead in the later innings, only for Alfredo Aceves to give up a home run to Sean Rodriguez that cleared Lansdowne Street. 4-3 Rays, Rodney comes in and slams the door, Tampa Bay leaves with the series win.
Sunday’s setback was hard to take. The Red Sox once again had climbed back to .500, and once again they lost on their opportunity to finally go above that level of average-ness.
With Ryan Sweeney expected back any day now, there are questions about who plays where and what happens to Will Middlebrooks now.
Aside: How bad can an outfielder’s defense be if Manny Ramirez won two World Series rings? Gonzalez can’t play outfield for a couple more weeks until either Middlebrooks cools off—right now he’s hitting around .300—or the team trades Youkilis somewhere where he can play the first base position, where he seems far more comfortable? It amazes me how inflexible baseball players are.
A blown save by Aceves doesn’t make anything easier, another reminder of how shorthanded the Red Sox are due to injuries right now, and by the time they get healthy, it may be too late.
The Red Sox were two outs from this being a very optimistic column, but the positive signs are still there.
Before this weekend, it wouldn’t be unthinkable for a fan to question the team’s “fight.” It’s hard to question that now.
Before this weekend, Bobby Valentine hadn’t had a real chance to step out of the enormous shadow of Terry Francona and do something—anything—to win himself over with the Fenway Faithful. Joe Maddon and Luke Scott gave him that opportunity.
With another home series beginning today against Detroit, Boston needs to keep what momentum they have going, hoping that it will snowball the way that momentum often does during the baseball season.