On Friday, the Boston Red Sox rode into town with a swagger you rarely see outside of the Bronx. Three days later, they leave Arlington with their horse shot from beneath them, their tails between their legs, and themselves entrenched in last place in the AL East with an 0-3 record, three games behind the perennial bottom feeders from Baltimore.
What had happened?
The Red Sox were supposed to be the complete package, the Big Red Sox Machine, the best thing to happen to the big leagues since peanuts, Cracker Jack and flood lights. Never mind that they would have to go through the traditional bone and meat grinder that is the AL East, or that they had inexplicably missed the playoffs the year before. The recent splurge and new addition of lumber would more than correct that.
After three games, the only lumber making noise following Sunday’s loss came from a broom sweeping them out of Texas.
The Texas Rangers were supposed to be a mere afterthought.
Sure, they were the AL champs, but they’d been left high and dry in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes in the offseason, an early, and what people thought to be a decisive, blow to their chances of repeating. So they would win the AL West, a division consisting of the declining Angels, the Mariners, A’s, and the Peanuts.
Meh. Big whoop.
With Lee gone, their pitchers would be iffy, at best, fueling talk of kicking flamethrower Neftali Feliz out of the bullpen and into the rotation. Their biggest addition in the offseason would be Adrian Beltre, a Boston reject despite his lone All-Star season in 2010.
Sure they had an offense that could score runs, but the right pitchers—the Jon Lesters and the Sabbathias and the Felix Hernandezs—would put them in their place, a place that would eventually find them in front of the TV set beyond the first round of the playoffs, while their fans would turn their hopes to the football season.
Twenty-six runs, 20 extra basehits, and 11 dingers later, the Rangers are three games ahead of the Red Sox. They outhit the Sox. Outpitched them. Outhustled them. Outmanaged them. The only way the Red Sox still reign supreme is how they outspend the Rangers. And on the positive side, the Red Sox only committed one error in the field, a Pyrrhic victory if there ever was one.
What must have been most disheartening were the quick responses the home team had in store each time the Bosox would light up the scoreboard. You hit a double, I hit a home run. You hit a home run, I hit two. You say tomato, and I say hit the friggin’ ball out of the park.
In the season opener, the Bosox put forth a blueprint of their offensive prowess in the first inning, an early flexing of their muscle to demonstrate to the home crowd how the balance of power in the American League had shifted. Double for Kevin Youkilis, one run. Single by Adrian Gonzalez, another. All right, so the big sticks hadn’t been quite broken in yet. They could wait.
The Rangers’ response was more simplistic. Kinsler goes yard, Cruz goes yard, tie ballgame. The Bosox put up two more the next inning, again courtesy of the Rangers’ lost son Gonzalez to quiet the crowd.
The Rangers’ response? A three-run bomb by Napoli to take the lead. Visibly annoyed, Ortiz went yard to tie the game before the Rangers put it away with four runs and three more extra base hits in the eighth.
The faces of the Red Sox after the game were nonplussed, as if to say, ‘Cool, so you won your home opener’. Youkilis in a post-game interview said what everybody felt, the ubiquitous, stomped-into-the-ground ‘It’s only one game of 162’ cliché.
Youkilis and his mates wouldn’t have to worry. Soon it would be two out of 162.
Enter John Lackey, native Texan and owner of an annual paycheck that equals that of the entire Rangers pitching staff combined. In defiance of the American League favorites, the Rangers handed out their American League Championship rings in a pregame ceremony after hoisting the AL banner the day before.
Whereas game one was little more than a crowd-pleasing home opener, game two would be end up to be something far more profound than that: a statement.
The Bosox this time would keep it close for three-and-a-half innings when a questionable managing call would ice this one prematurely. With the Rangers leading by two and runners on second and third in the bottom of the forth, the Sox were struck with a poser: pitch to MVP and reigning batting champion Josh Hamilton with two out, or walk him intentionally and pitch to Beltre?
Hamilton was given a pass, and up came Beltre.
Having virtually been given his walking papers by the Red Sox in the offseason, Beltre would not be denied again. His ninth career grand slam would shut up the scores of raucous Sox faithful at the Ballpark and send Lackey and his $18 million salary and season opening 22.09 ERA to an early shower. To add a few more kicks to the groin, the Rangers would go yard twice more before settling for a 12-5 thrashing.
The season finale saw the Rangers score a comparatively measly five runs, and yet this would be the only game in which Boston would never lead. Another Texas native, Clay Buchholz, a 17-game winner last season, one victory more than Ranger’s starter Matt Harrison’s career total, would finally shut up those Ranger bats, right?
Backed by four solo homers, Matt Harrison would throw seven quality innings, leading the AL champs to an improbable sweep of the Bosox.
How to put this into proper perspective for the Red Sox, who threw their best three pitchers and the 2011 version of Murderers' Row at the seemingly decimated Rangers?
If Red Sox Nation is optimistic, they will shrug it off and chalk it up to the season opening blues. They can offer the rationalization that there are nearly 160 games left in the season, something their $160 million payroll will eventually more than compensate for.
If they are realistic, they will do what people expect of an organization that’s run as solidly as Boston’s: take their lumps, leave town and get ready for the next series, this time with the realization that World Series titles are won in October and November, not in April.
In the meantime, they will grudgingly tip their caps to the rightful AL Champs, the Texas Rangers, whose cracking bats by now have been heard by contenders on both coasts. The message is clear: take them lightly at your own risk.