A third of the season is past, and the Boston Red Sox are still first in the AL East. This despite their impenetrable, unshakable pitching staff started the year looking like the Washington Nationals, instead of the Red Sox.
This despite the fact that their key slugger, who carried the team to two world championships, was in the slump of all slumps, batting barely half his weight in May.
This despite the lights-out closer has turned each of his innings into long epic battles, and though injuries and their aftermath left the team reliant on a backup backup shortstop.
The '09 Sox have been perplexing. For every gaping hole, there's been some unexpected turn to fill it in. And somehow, in some mysterious way, it has all worked...
But what has really been going on?
This is the true* story...
(* read: completely made up)
It happened during spring training, 2009. A quiet evening after an uneventful day of drills. Players mill about in the locker room, chatting quietly, changing, applying ice packs. Someone turns on a radio. And, standing by his locker, Jonathan Papelbon hears his cell phone ring, and takes an international call from Daisuke Matsuzaka:
Dice-K: Hey, Papelbon. I've been wanting to talk to you.
Paps: Dice-K! Sure, man. How's Japan treating you? And hey, uh... how come you're not using that interpreter guy?
Dice-K: He's vacationing in Maui while I'm back home. That's all just for show anyway. Look, I want to talk to you about your pitching.
Paps: It's awesome, isn't it? Jonathan Papelbon is the MAN! I ROCK!!
Dice-K: Yeah, yeah. It's great. But look, you only ever get to pitch in these tiny, one-inning stints, sometimes an out or two more. You get up there and knock the batters down so fast, no one gets to enjoy it.
Paps: But...I'm supposed to get outs.
Dice-K: Of course, but why rush it? You should be savoring your time up there. Cherish it. Let it linger. Enjoy the spotlight.
You can throw three balls every batter without doing any damage, so why waste that? Let them foul off a few, too, before you finish them. And there's nothing wrong with walking the bases loaded with no outs now and then, just to add a little drama. Crowds appreciate that.
Paps: They do?
Dice-K: Absolutely. These fans have to go nearly half the year without any baseball at all, and when the season finally starts again, we owe it to them to make the games as long as possible.
Usually I'd take care of this myself, giving the fans that extra suspense they crave, but I've got kind of a hunch that when the WBC ends, I may not be, uh... Never mind. But you'll give it a try? At least while I'm gone?
Paps: Sure, but.... uh, Dice-K? If I suddenly start loading the bases with no outs and taking 35 pitches to get through any inning, won't people start to say I'm not looking as sharp, and losing my...
Dice-K: I no understand. No speak good English. Gotta go, man. Best of luck. You rock.
Paps: I ROCK!!
Papelbon hangs up his phone, and stands quietly for a moment, considering Matsuzaka's advice. Then he pumps his fist. This just might work.
. . .
Five minutes later, David Ortiz approaches the bench where Jason Varitek is packing up the last of his gear.
Big Papi: Hey, Tek.
Tek: Hey Papi, how's it going, man?
Big Papi: Good, man. Pretty good. Look, Tek, I need a favor.
Tek: Sure, Papi. What do you need?
Big Papi: Well, see, I've been thinking of taking a little time off from the whole “super hero” thing. It gets stressful, you know? Year in, year out, nothing but home runs and extra bases and carrying the team on my back all the time...I need a break. But I don't want to leave the team in trouble.
So, yeah, man, you think you could pick up a little of that extra home run hitting for me?
Tek: Ah, man...that's a lot to cover. I mean, I want to help, but you know I've got the pitching staff to take care of too, and now this whole 'mentor' gig with a new backup coming in...
Big Papi: Just short term, I promise. Two months, yeah? April, May, and then I'll pick up my end again first thing, start of June. It's for the team, man.
Tek: Ok, ok. You got me. For the good of the team...
Big Papi: Thanks, Tek. I owe you one. Hey, just an extra five, six homers should do it—nothing over the top. But you know, however you want to play it.
Tek: Ok, man. I'll see what I can do for you. But you promise me you'll be Superman again by the All-Star break, right?
Big Papi: You got it.
. . .
And as the players finish packing up and head out for the afternoon, Tim Wakefield, Jon Lester, and Josh Beckett walk together toward the parking lot.
Wake: So, you two aces ready to make another Cy Young run this year?
Lester: Actually, Wake, Josh and I were just talking about that.
Beckett: Right. How about you taking a turn? Being the @^&$#!#% ace, I mean?
Wake: What are you talking about?
Beckett: I $%^#&%!& mean it, man. You should take a turn.
Lester: You've been here longer than any of us, right? I mean, I did the 'Ace' thing most of last year, and Beckett here's been doing it pretty much since he got to Boston.
Beckett:@#$^%&!% right, I have. And it's a $%!^&*# long season. Plenty of @!#$%#& starts to go around.
Wake: Josh, I'm not the press, or an umpire...
Beckett: What? Oh, sorry. But like I was saying, there are plenty of starts to go around. You start the season as ace, and if you get tired of it, Jon or I can take over later on.
Lester: Right. I'm a bit of a slow starter anyway, right? And you know Dice is gonna' be exhausted after that WBC. So it would be a big help.
Wake: Wow... Sounds fun, to tell the truth. But 'tell you what, I'll just do April, while Johnny here is warming up. You two carry things from there.
Lester: You sure about that? Just April? I was thinking through May at least.
Wake: Nah, April is plenty, maybe a start or two more. Thanks, guys. I look forward to it.
Beckett: No #$%^%#!& problem, man. Enjoy.