Epstein: all the right moves

ON BASEBALL

September 12, 2004|By JOE CHRISTENSEN

On July 21, 10 days before the Boston Red Sox traded franchise shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, they played the Orioles at Fenway Park with a defensive lineup that would have been the envy of beer-league softball teams across the nation.

Garciaparra didn't play - just as he didn't in 63 of the team's first 101 games - because of an Achilles' tendon injury. So the lineup included the slow-footed Kevin Youkilis at third base, Mark Bellhorn at shortstop, Bill Mueller in a rare start at second base, and Kevin Millar at first.

Manny Ramirez policed the Green Monster in left, and Johnny Damon manned center, with neither in the lineup for defense. Added together, one major league official said it might have been the worst defensive lineup he had ever seen.

The Orioles blitzed the Red Sox and starting pitcher Pedro Martinez for a 10-5 victory that night, with David Newhan starting the first rally with an infield single. The loss dropped Boston eight games behind the New York Yankees for first place in the American League East.

So Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein knew exactly what he was doing when he traded Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs in a four-team deal that brought shortstop Orlando Cabrera from the Montreal Expos and Doug Mientkiewicz from the Minnesota Twins.

It's time to give Epstein his due. A year ago, he learned the hard way that a bullpen-by-committee approach wouldn't work in Boston, no matter what the stat gurus said. He addressed the problem by bringing in closer Keith Foulke.

This year, the main problem was defense - a facet that often gets ignored in this "Moneyball" generation - and the Garciaparra deal addressed that, while removing his lingering discontent from the Red Sox clubhouse.

The results have been staggering.

The Red Sox entered the weekend with 20 wins in their past 23 games, and they looked like the best team in baseball when they went 8-1 in a tough stretch against playoff contenders Anaheim, Texas and Oakland.

"We've been making teams beat us," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "We didn't necessarily always do that [earlier in the season]. We were giving teams extra outs and giving them more opportunities."

Between Aug. 1 and Wednesday, they had allowed just seven unearned runs (compared with 74 before the trade). And besides cutting down on errors, they are cutting down on the hits allowed, with Mueller back to his old form at third base, Cabrera doing things Garciaparra never did at shortstop, and Mientkiewicz grabbing everything in sight.

As a result, the pitchers have improved, especially ground-ball specialist Derek Lowe, who is 5-0 with a 3.51 ERA in his past six starts.

"You can't really put a number on it as far as runs, but just look at the plays they make," Lowe said. "And that's the one thing I've been impressed with. They make every play and keep the momentum in our favor."

Bautista impresses Royals

Orioles castoff Denny Bautista returned to the majors last week, showing a 98-mph fastball and an effective changeup in a six-inning start Monday for the Kansas City Royals.

Bautista, 24, went to Double-A Wichita after the Orioles traded him for 37-year-old reliever Jason Grimsley. The Royals promoted Bautista when the rosters expanded for September, and he allowed four runs on eight hits against the Detroit Tigers in a 7-3 loss.

But the Royals played poor defense behind Bautista, and the Kansas City Star's game story said he should have allowed only one run.

"He showed me a little something," Royals catcher John Buck told the newspaper. "The wheels started turning and could have fallen off. As a rookie, your head starts spinning. So for him to buckle down and throw those zeroes was impressive."

Bautista makes his next start today against Tampa Bay.

Harris' stock falling

Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen has been using Juan Uribe at second base, cutting into the playing time for former Orioles prospect Willie Harris, and the chances of Harris playing more next year don't sound good.

Harris, 26, entered the weekend batting .261, but just .185 against left-handers.

"I wish Willie Harris could give me more everyday playing time," Guillen said. "I would love to see this kid play every day. I think he's got good talent - it's there - but I wish he would put himself together to be an everyday player."

Jottings

You knock the St. Louis Cardinals' regular-season success, saying they don't have the dominant starting pitching it takes to win in the postseason. And then you look at what Woody Williams, Matt Morris and Jason Marquis did in their sweep over the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers last weekend: 23 innings pitched, two earned runs, 26 strikeouts and one walk. Oh, yeah, and Chris Carpenter (14-5, 3.37 ERA) is probably their ace.

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