There isn’t any real point in following the 2014 Boston Red Sox anymore if you aren’t paid to do so. The lifeboats were seen pulling away vigorously at the deadline, when four-fifths of the Opening Day rotation wound up elsewhere, including ace Jon Lester in a transaction that may yet turn out to be either brilliant or a front-office debacle unlike anything seen since the team peddled Sparky Lyle for Danny Cater back in the dim times. It could be brilliant if Lester plays out his deal in Oakland and then re-signs with Boston as a free agent. However, this would appear to be a real possibility only if Lester’s agent were drunk; if the Red Sox determined they couldn’t afford Lester when they still had him under contract, then how are we supposed to believe they’ll pony up with half the teams in baseball bidding for his services? The worst can be avoided if Yoenis Cespedes turns out to be absurd in left field and/or if they can spin him in a deal elsewhere in the offseason. (Hello, Giancarlo Stanton. Ever ridden a swan boat, big fella?) In any event, the Red Sox could have gone for a redesign; instead, they gutted the building for the second time in three years. So the string gets played out all the way to the end, and all you really have is a beautiful summer’s night at Fenway, and the Yankees in town, and three hours and 42 minutes of intermittently entertaining baseball that is being played in both the present and the future.
The game was a sprawling mess. The Red Sox staked their only returning starter, Clay Buchholz, to leads of 3-0 and 7-4, neither of which he could hold. Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz both hit home runs; in particular, Pedroia seems to be on one of his annual dialed-in streaks, hitting .400 over the last five games, albeit a couple of months too late. But Buchholz was a tire fire. He walked five and threw 114 pitches in only five innings. There is no stopper left on the staff. The stopper’s in Oakland, stopping things. Even though both the Yankees and the Red Sox are famous for milking at-bats down to the last drop, it was Buchholz who was most responsible for the game extending into early Monday morning and an 8-7 New York win.
Which is not the worst way to spend a summer’s evening, here at the yard with the soon-to-be college senior who’s been the baseball companion ever since shortly after she could walk, who once wrote a short essay in a major newspaper about what it was like to be alive in 2004, when It finally happened. (She was 11. When I was 11, the Red Sox lost 100 games, and I was my grandfather’s baseball companion. Me, and a quart of Narragansett Lager and a couple of packs of the unfiltered Camels that eventually got him.) Now, she’s old enough to order her own coldie with a hot dog, and there have been three World Series wins. And, at the beginning of the game, for at least another month and change, the team can be introduced as the Defending World Champions of Baseball, even though quite a few of the individual Defending Champions are Defending the Championship in places like Oakland, and St. Louis, and Chicago now. (Felix Doubront, we hardly knew ye, but you pitched the hell out of that World Series.) That all may be enough, as long as it doesn’t rain. There were 38,000-odd people there on Sunday night, and most of them stayed long enough that public transportation had shut down before they started home. It was still the Red Sox and the Yankees, and the event was terrific. The game? Not so much.
“Is it possible for a game to be this close and still be boring?” the baseball companion asked.
She had me there.
Cespedes is a reason to keep coming to the ballpark. He has some substantial pop in his bat, and his defense, particularly his arm, already is legendary. (There was a play in June in which he appeared to throw out Howie Kendrick of the Angels from the moons of Neptune.) On Sunday night, he had a couple of chances off the wall. Once, he froze a runner, holding him to a single. Later, he got too close on a carom, and the ball bounced back over his head toward the infield. (In Fenway 101, this is often known as the Greenwell Effect.) It will be increasingly interesting as the season goes along — and, particularly, if he’s not spun off in an offseason deal — to watch Cespedes learn to play in an outfield where he really only needs half his present arm to play well. The Red Sox have not had a real gun from the outfield since Dwight Evans retired. Now, they have two — Cespedes and Jackie Bradley Jr., who is not that character that Martin Short used to play, although I can’t hear his name without thinking that he is. Which brings us to another interesting reason to come to the ballpark. Can the Red Sox manage to carry a Gold Glove center fielder who appears to be completely incapable of hitting anyone’s weight? He put up an oh-fer against some truly mediocre pitching, dropping his average down to .218. (So, it should be noted, did Jacoby Ellsbury, whom the Red Sox allowed to go to New York in part because they had JBJ in the system behind him.) But Bradley ran down everything that was hit to him. Between them, if they stay together, Bradley and Cespedes are going to make strategizing the beer run far more complicated. Now you can’t even go down there when the Yankees are batting. You might miss something great.
Pedroia is a reason to keep coming to the ballpark. He nearly got the game even with two outs in the ninth, when he slammed a pitch over everything in left field, but hooked it just left of the foul pole. This was in the middle of a prolonged at-bat in which he kept fouling off pitches even though he swung at everything as if he were auditioning for a role in Game of Thrones. It is a kind of trompe l’oeil at which Pedroia excels at the plate; his swing looks completely unbridled, but his approach to how and when he unleashes it is very tightly disciplined. As recently as a month ago, there was serious, analytics-based discussion of the proposition that Pedroia may have slipped over the hill when nobody was watching. Over the past two weeks, he’s turned his whole season around. More than that, with the wholesale bartering of virtually the entire pitching staff, Pedroia is, with Ortiz, the unquestioned face of a franchise again in flux. He is one of two great constants of a remarkable decade.
Koji Uehara is a reason to keep coming to the ballpark. There was some informed speculation that the closer would be part of the exodus at the trading deadline. This caused me to wonder whether trading Koji might well be the final straw for me. It has been a very long time since I have enjoyed a player as much as I enjoy the man with the drop-dead splitter. He comes on with Darude’s techno-anthem “Sandstorm” blaring throughout Fenway, and people hopping and dancing around and having a high old time, largely because most people there feel the same way about him that I do, that he was the best thing about that improbable 2013 world championship.
(I should note here that the only reason I know the name of Uehara’s entrance song is through the good auspices of the baseball companion, my own knowledge of the hits of the day having stalled at half-past Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds. Well, the baseball companion and YouTube.)
He’s been bounced around a little bit this season, at least by the standards he set last year during which he drove me to combine the Japanese my father taught me with certain 12-letter incest-implying nouns. But on Sunday night, with the Sox down a run in the ninth, he came on, gave up a hit, but then forced a double-play grounder for what might have been an easy win had Pedroia’s blast not drifted foul later in the inning.
There’s a reason, after all, why they call it “playing” out the string. You keep playing because playing is fun, and fun is always its own justification.