While hanging around Fenway Park one afternoon last month, I found myself with an hour or so to kill before the Cask'n Flagon opened for business. I spent a few minutes talking to my buddy Mike at the Sausage King and then moseyed over to do some shopping time with one of the street corner t-shirt entrepreneurs.
Once I was done thumbing through t-shirts that explained what A-Rod allegedly does to Derek Jeter and what Jeter then in turn does to Mark Teixeira, I spotted a less explicit dud which read, "Caution Yankees: Objects in Rear View Mirror Are Closer Than They May Appear."
I chuckled and knew this fine-looking, 100-percent cotton dud would find its new home to be smack dab in the middle of a bunch of previous "must haves."
On Aug. 1, the Sox were clearly visible in the Yankees' reflection, a mere half-game behind first place, and the shirt seemed to be a prophetic addition to my endless Red Sox wardrobe. However, after a 16-12 August, which included a 1-6 record against the Bronx Bombers, my soiled and wrinkled tee is just about ready for the wife's dust rag bag.
As the two teams enter the final month of the regular season, both are likely dressed for the postseason dance, with the Yankees looking like the belle of the ball, while the Sox may be attired a bit more like Cinderella.
In looking at the two schedules for the final 31 games, I look for the Sox to go 22-9 down the stretch against a formidable lot including the Rays, Yankees, Jays, White Sox, Orioles, Indians, and Angels. The Yankees would therefore need to limp to the line at 16-15 for the Sox to capture the AL East crown.
I sense that Terry Francona and the team would just as soon wrap up the Wild Card early and get their pitching in line for a prospective first round playoff date with the Angels or Rangers.
As we've done each month, we'll grade the Sox hitters for the month of August's performance today, with the pitching grades coming tomorrow.
Kevin Youkilis: A (Last month: B+)
Including his helmet-throwing incident against the Tigers, Youk was red-hot during the summer's most sweltering month, hitting .337 with four HR and 16 RBI. It was an eventful month for the team's top hitter.
In addition to his five-game suspension following his stop, drop, and roll against Detroit, Youk got himself in additional hot water when his words were misinterpreted following an interview with the Globe's Dan Shaughnessy.
Talk radio callers interpreted Youk as being angry at the fans and not enjoying playing in Boston. In an attempt to quell the firestorm, the fiery first sacker had this to say:
"I've heard from a couple of people around here that I'm angry at the fans. Couldn't be farther from the truth," explained Youkilis. "I've also been told I don't like playing here. That's way far from the truth.
"I've always said how much I love playing here. Greatest time for me is seven o'clock to the last pitch. There's nothing better than playing baseball here at Fenway Park. The greatest part of my day is coming here and being with all the great fans."
Aside from his time in the media spotlight and in the team doghouse, Youkilis had his fifth consistently solid month in a row. Over the course of the season to date, Youk has driven in monthly totals of 15, 16, 14, 16, and 16 runs per month and has hit over .325 in three of those months.
Victor Martinez: A (Last month: Not Graded)
Martinez had just arrived on the scene at this time last month after being acquired from the Cleveland Indians in a trade deadline deal. No player has been as directly responsible for inserting life into a stale lineup as Martinez.
For the month of August, Martinez hit .306 with five HR and a team-leading 19 RBI while providing manager Tito Francona with as much versatility as he's ever had.
When Martinez plays behind the plate, it has allowed catcher Jason Varitek to get a much needed rest. When Martinez plays first, it allows either Youkilis or Mike Lowell (Youk goes to third) to take a breather. When Martinez has batted DH, it allows Big Papi to sit against a tough lefty or two.
All in all, Martinez' acquisition may prove to be one of the top trade deadline deals in team history. His 33 hits and 13 walks were both tops on the club for the month.
Mike Lowell: A (Last month: A-)
At the end of August 2008, Lowell was hobbling around on one hip and trying to crawl to the end of the season. His numbers for August last year were .195 with one HR and only four RBI in 41 total at-bats.
What a difference a year makes. Though still struggling with a balky right hip, Lowell is miles ahead of last season. He finished August hitting .319 with a season-best five HR and 15 RBI. For the season he too has been the model of consistency, hitting over .300 in all months except June.
For the season, Lowell rests at .299 with 16 HR and 65 RBI and should easily surpass his '08 numbers of .274, 17, and 73.
J.D. Drew: A (Last month: C-)
Well, at .329 with six HR and 13 RBI for the month, Drew should finally feel good about cashing his paycheck. Dropping him to seventh or eighth in the batting order may be just the reduction in expectation needed to put J.D. in his comfort zone. August was perhaps his most productive month as the Red Sox right fielder after nearly three lackluster years.
J.D. needs one home run and 11 RBI the rest of the way to meet his previous highs with the Sox of 19 HR and 64 RBI. Not too much to expect for $14 million a year.
Dustin Pedroia: A- (Last month: A)
Pedroia's .305 average with five homers and 13 RBI was certainly acceptable by most standards, considering he also managed to be by his wife's side as she gave birth to their first child midway through the month. It was his most productive month from a power perspective and earns him an A for the month, but it's still not the MVP type of numbers he put up last season.
It was last August that Peetie put on his MVP push, when he hit .373 with six HR and 20 RBI en route to a .326 average with 17 HR and 83 RBI. Pedroia is currently hitting .301 with 10 HR and 57 RBI. This projects out to be a decrease of .25 points, five HR, and 16 RBI from his MVP campaign.
Jacoby Ellsbury: A- (Last month: A-)
For a second-year player who had some question marks after a hot and cold rookie season, Ellsbury has been the model of consistency. Whether batting leadoff or towards the bottom of the order, Ellsbury has hovered around .300 the entire year. For August he hit .295 with a season-best 11 RBI, mostly from the leadoff spot.
He has played sparkling defense and set a Red Sox record for steals in a season when he stole his 55th base at the end of August. The previous club record of 54 by Tommy Harper held up for 25 years, and it too should be left in Ellsbury's rear view mirror by season's end.
Jason Bay: A- (Last month: D)
Bay seems to have regained his batting eye, as he hit a Bay-like .289 with nine HR and 18 RBI after two very concerning months. In fact, his nine round-trippers are nearly twice as many as he hit in June and July combined (five).
Bay seems to have found his stroke at the perfect time, as the Red Sox really need his bat to be productive heading into the final month and the playoffs. Not to mention the fact that he is jockeying for salary, being a free agent at the end of the season.
In the 13 months since he was acquired from the Pirates in a three-way deal which sent Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers, Bay has hit 38 HR and 129 RBI compared to Ramirez' 32 HR and 102 RBI. Of course, Ramirez missed 50 games due to a positive test for Performance-Enhancing Drugs.
David Ortiz: B (Last month: B-)
Well, I guess we have to come to accept that the average is going to remain between .220 and .230 for the rest of the season. If David drops a pound or two, he is at least in the same neighborhood as his weight. However, if anyone told me that Papi would be sitting at 22 HR and 78 RBI for the season after that putrid first two months, I'd call them crazy.
For the month Ortiz hit only .222, but with seven HR and 18 RBI, including a walk-off against the White Sox, he resembled the Papi of old. His 21 round-trippers since June 1 is amongst the highest total in the AL, and if not for his inauspicious beginning, he'd perhaps be amongst the league leaders for the season.
I suspect Papi will continue to sit against tough lefties but get the bulk of the time hitting out of the five spot. If the Sox should make it to the World Series, however, he will expect to sit in any National League parks.
Jason Varitek: D- (Last month: B)
We heard talk for much of the month that the captain is hurt worse than he lets on, and the numbers are perhaps doing most of the talking for Varitek.
An average of .135 with one HR and four RBI for the month looks more like the stats of a weak-hitting National League pitcher than the captain of a playoff-bound team, but as we've come to expect, fans are clinging to Tek's handling of the pitching staff as his entry into the lineup.
To date, Varitek finds himself at a season low of .219 with 14 HR and 48 RBI. When he's behind the plate, opposing runners are seemingly stealing at will, making him a real liability outside of his ability to calm his staff and call a good game. If the rest of the lineup continues to hit, look for Varitek to continue in his role as "pitcher in the lineup."
Alex Gonzalez: B (Last month: Not Graded)
After being reacquired from the Cincinnati Reds to man the shortstop position, Red Sox fans hoped that A-Gon would field the position cleanly and perhaps contribute a timely hit. This is what they learned to expect from the sure-handed middle infielder in his previous tenure with the team.
In the field, Gonzalez has certainly not disappointed with his spectacular play and regular appearances on the team's web gems of the day. At bat, Gonzalez has delivered more than expected, hitting .293 with three HR and seven RBI. He has all but supplanted pleasant surprise Nick Green in the starting lineup and makes the loss of Jed Lowrie to a recurring wrist injury an afterthought.
Having Gonzalez hit out of the nine spot provides some punch at the bottom of the order and provides a nice transition to Ellsbury at the top—and at last, a player in the lineup who can lay down a bunt.
Bench: B- (Last month: B)
The addition of Casey Kotchman in lieu of Mark Kotsay has provided a late-inning defensive replacement, as well as some flexibility for Francona. Kotchman has added nothing at the dish, hitting only .216, but can be relied upon when needed.
Rocco Baldelli hit .286 for the month with a couple of round-trippers and has been steady throughout.
Nick Green took the title utility man to a new level in August, pitching two no-hit innings against the White Sox in a quasi-mop up role.
With 10 solid players in the everyday lineup (with some platooning), a thin bench will only come into play if there is an injury. With the expansion of the roster on Sept. 1, in the form of perhaps Josh Reddick, Jeff Bailey, and Brian Anderson, George Kattaras, and Lowrie, the Sox will have some additional bodies on the bench for pinch running and spot start duties.
Though a 16-12 record cost the Sox five-plus games in the standings, the hitting was relatively solid despite an early August slump. The numbers all told were encouraging, and the additions of Martinez and Gonzalez make them solid going into the final month.
I expect the Sox to be an unwelcome opponent come playoff time and still see them as the team to beat coming out of the AL. The final 31 games should prove to be exciting as the Sox battle with Texas and the Rays for the AL wild card spot.
He is a supporter of A Glove of Their Own, the award-winning children's story that teaches sharing through baseball. Please visit the site and purchase the book under today's donor code JNF636, Joe Niekro Foundation, as $3.00 from each book sale will go to that wonderful organization.