May 14, 2013

Tom Caron: Hitting slump fuels Sox woes

BOSTON — The Red Sox begin a nine-game road trip in St. Petersburg Tuesday night. It's the start of a challenging journey that will take them from Tampa Bay to Minneapolis to Chicago.

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Boston Red Sox's David Ortiz holds his bat after striking out in the seventh inning of a game against the Toronto Blue Jays in Boston on Friday. As a team, the Sox have already struck out 317 times this season. Only the woeful Houston Astros have more punchouts in the AL.

AP

TUESDAY'S GAME

WHO: Red Sox (Lackey 1-3) at Tampa Bay Rays (Moore 6-0)

WHEN: 7:10 p.m.

TELEVISION: NESN

Let's hope they remember to pack their good bats, not the ones that let them down through a seven-game homestand that ended Sunday with a 12-4 loss to the Blue Jays. The Sox scored just 29 runs in their first seven home games this month. That's about 2 runs a game fewer than they were scoring in April. They finished April 18-8, tying the franchise record for wins in that month. They're 4-8 since.

The frustration was obvious after Sunday's loss. The team went 0-8 with runners in scoring position, making it 0-19 in the category over the final two days. The Sox have hit just .163 with runners in scoring position over the past 10 games. 

"We've got a number of guys dealing with some frustration right now," said Manager John Farrell.

"There's no question about it. The key for us is to maintain our preparation and our work routine. Those are the two things we can control. We can't direct the ball after it's hit. And I know with the attitude of this group, it's a resilient one. We're getting tested right now, there's no doubt about it."

The Sox have consistently been missing that key hit and that they have often been one key at-bat away from taking control of a game. 

We saw that Saturday when the Sox had two baserunners on each of the first three innings against Mark Buehrle. Not one of those runners scored, and by the fourth inning Buehrle found his rhythm. 

There have also been a staggering number of strikeouts by Red Sox hitters this season. As a team, they have already struck out 317 times this season. Only the woeful Houston Astros have more punchouts in the AL.

They're not the only ones swinging and missing. Major League Baseball is on a record strikeout pace this season, a clear sign that the philosophy of hitters has changed over time.

In this OPS (on-base plus slugging)-driven world, a walk is as good as a single. If you're going to hit, you want to hit for power since slugging percentage is so important. 

The bottom of the order has been an ongoing issue for the Sox all season. Will Middlebrooks is hitting .206 in the eighth spot while No. 9 hitter Stephen Drew is at .228. Add a struggling leadoff hitter (Jacoby Ellsbury is at .257) and you've got a third of the lineup struggling to produce.

That's putting a lot of pressure on the heart of the order. Mike Napoli was signed this offseason to serve as the right-handed power complement to David Ortiz. Yet he rarely served as a cleanup or No. 5 hitter in Texas. He is clearly still adjusting to his life in the middle of his new team's order.

For the first time this season, the Sox awoke Sunday morning without at least a share of the division lead. 

Yesterday, they had fallen two games back of the Yankees. New York has put together a terrific run with the likes of Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay, and Travis Hafner getting the job done at the plate.

No one has done much offensively for Boston over the past 10 games. We've said all along that the team was only going to go as far as its starting pitching would take it. Yet the pitchers can't do it alone. Clay Buchholz went eight innings and gave up just two runs. That should be enough to get it done. Yet the Sox were beaten 3-2 as Buchholz took his second consecutive no-decision.

We knew coming into the season that this month would be challenging. Monday was the only scheduled off-day in May, and they spent it traveling to Florida. Yet a road trip might be just what this team needs. Boston has hit .269 with a .355 slugging percentage in road games this season compared to .266/.333 at Fenway Park. They're scoring close to a run more per game on the road. That's hard to imagine when home is a hitter-friendly park like Fenway. 

Getting the bats to wake up in Tampa Bay won't be easy as the Sox face 6-0 Matt Moore, reigning Cy Young Award winner David Price, and up-and-coming star Alex Cobb. It's the start of another long stretch of baseball -- 20 games in 20 days taking them through the first weekend of June.

We've heard a lot about the great character this team has shown to start the season. They'll need to draw on the strength of that character to get through the frustration of an offense that has been sputtering for the past two weeks.

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.

 

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