David N. Townsend
Baseball Journal

August 6, 2001
Gearing up for the stretch run

Coming back.  This has been the most fascinating and amazing Red Sox season I can ever remember, and let me tell you why.

I have a shameful secret: through my step-son, I've become a "fan" of Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation.  If you don't watch wrestling (and who can blame you?), it's probably hard to understand the fascination and popularity of this "sports entertainment".  One thing I can tell you is, no, most fans are not so stupid as to believe that the matches are "real".  That is, the athletic prowess (and frequent injuries) of the performers is certainly very real, but of course the action is all scripted and the outcomes are pre-determined, and just about everyone except the true airheads fully realizes this.  But the thing is, it's fun anyway.   This is because you never know who's going to win, how they're going to win, and what funny or diabolical plot twists are going to occur on any given night.  McMahon has an absolute genius for manipulating crowd loyalties and emotions, and he always seems to find a new way to juice up the story line just enough to keep us coming back for more.

One of the most tried and true techniques that the WWF employs to continually regenerate fan excitement is the Comeback.  Popular wrestlers are regularly removed from the scene for a few weeks or even months, either because of real injuries or fake circumstances, while other good guys and bad guys grab the spotlight.  Then, when an absent superstar is ready to return from his layoff, it is invariably with some dramatic flair, appearing unannounced to save the day or turn around some dire plot situation.   In the emotional manipulation of WWF shows, these Returns are always a highlight, and the fans invariably go wild.  McMahon fully understands the drama attached to such moments in the human psyche, which is the same feeling generated by movies where the cavalry arrives just in time, or Han Solo swoops down out of nowhere to save Luke Skywalker.

Well, the WWF and George Lucas have nothing on the 2001 Red Sox.  This season has been so full of dramatic moments, and particularly thrilling Comebacks, that you would think they have to be following a script.  Early on, we had the debuts of Hideo Nomo throwing a no-hitter and Manny Ramirez homering in his first Fenway at-bat, then beating the Yankees in the bottom of the 9th.  The trail of comebacks began with John Valentin (remember him?), who was given a hero's welcome although he barely contributed after that.  Then came David Cone, who stepped in when they needed him most and has been virtually an Ace ever since.  Although Stynes's comeback from his injury was not highly anticipated, he has nevertheless been a vital contributor since returning.  We also had the mini-drama of Bryce Florie's comeback, which didn't help the team on the field but still created a couple of days of emotional uplift.  Then came the return of Bret Saberhagen to the mound, in a truly dramatic and moving performance which boulstered the team during a rough stretch.  And all this was just prelude to the show-stopping comeback of Nomar Garciaparra, which couldn't have been more thrilling or timely.   (Carl Everett's own comeback was overshadowed by all of this.)

And it's not over yet.  With luck, we'll see Jason Varitek return from his injury and contribute in some key manner during the pennant race.  Frank Castillo should also be returning soon, and could well be an important factor himself.  Then, of course, we've still got the most dramatic comeback moment of the season yet before us, assuming Pedro returns to the mound in the not too distant future.  It may take until the end of August, which would be just in time for him to face the Yankees at Fenway Park on August 31.  If the Sox are still just a couple of games out at the time, that would shape up as one of the most exciting games of the year; hell, let's spice up the fantasy some more and put Clemens on the mound for New York.  Even Vince McMahon couldn't top that one.

Line up, everyone.  The other fascinating thing about this Red Sox team is how the roster has evolved, and how it looks heading into the stretch run.  Jimy Williams has been criticized or defended on all fronts for his attempts to juggle an impossible set of expectations and options for each day's lineup, and he must be doing something right, since the team has stayed in contention despite all its injuries, and just about everyone on the roster has contributed at one time or another.  The result is a team that is made up almost entirely of "regular" major league players.  More to the point, there are at least two legitimate choices to play *every* position on any given day:

First base: Daubach, Offerman; Second base: Stynes, Lansing, Offerman; Shortstop: Garciaparra, Lansing; Third base: Hillenbrand, Stynes; Left field: Ramirez, O'Leary, Bichette; Center field: Everett, Nixon; Right field: Nixon, O'Leary, Bichette; Designated Hitter: Just about anybody.

Meanwhile, if we assume Pedro and Castillo are coming back, the Sox will have 7 legitimate starters (Pedro, Castillo, Nomo, Cone, Wakefield, Arrojo, Saberhagen), plus potentially 3 legitimate closers (Lowe, Urbina, Beck).  I don't think any other team in the majors comes close to this degree of flexibility and depth.  Just look at what guys like Lansing, O'Leary, and Hillenbrand have been doing lately (and even Mirabelli), when they're supposedly the backups.  It's certainly a headache for Jimy to keep everyone happy and fresh, but if they can stash their egos and play as a team, this is a recipe for winning.  I think the next two months are going to be as thrilling as we've experienced in many years.

Races.  The stretch run in both leagues has the potential to be very exciting, and the post-season offers some intriguing possibilities.  Other than the ridiculous Mariners, every Division has a tight pennant race going, and there still are as many as five Wild Card contenders in each league.  The guessing here is that the Red Sox will either win the AL East or capture the Wild Card, and the Yankees will take the other slot, with Cleveland winning the AL Central.  In the National League, I think the Braves will hold on, and San Francisco seems to be a team of destiny this year.  Among the Cubs, Astros, Dodgers, and Diamondbacks, it's going to be down to the wire.  I'll predict the Cubs and Diamondbacks to make the cut.  Then we need a Chicago-Boston World Series to make this a truly storybook season.

The other tight races to keep an eye on are for the various post-season awards.   In the National League, Luis Gonzalez would appear to have the upper hand for MVP, although Barry Bonds is obviously making a strong case, and Sammy Sosa and even Moises Alou would have to be considered in the running.  The NL Cy Young is neck-and-neck among Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, and Greg Maddux, with an outside shot for the surprising Jon Lieber of the Cubs.

As for the American League, here's where I have to vent a little.  I am so tired of hearing Ichiro Suzuki's name being mentioned as MVP material.  It's bad enough that he will win the Rookie of the Year award, when it should go to a "real" rookie such as Mark Buehrle, C.C. Sabathia, or Alfonso Soriano.  But there is NO WAY that Ichiro has been the Most Valuable Player in the A.L. this season.  Heck, he's not even the MVP of the Mariners.  Bret Boone has certainly been better overall, and you can make a strong case that Sele, Garcia, and Sasaki have all been more valuable to the team than Ichiro.  In fact, I'd argue that John Olerud is more valuable, too: he's got a much higher OBP, far more homers and RBIs.  Ichiro only leads the league in Hits and Runs because the rest of his teammates have hit so well that he's gotten more at-bats than any player in the league.  Put him on another team, and he's about equal to Shannon Stewart or Christian Guzman.  American League players who DO deserve MVP consideration include Boone, Manny Ramirez, Juan Gonzalez and Jim Thome, and incumbent Jason Giambi.  Voters may have trouble deciding between Boone and Ichiro on the Mariners, and Gonzalez and Thome on the Indians, which could help Manny to slip in and win the award, which he would certainly merit.

For A.L. Cy Young, in the absence of Pedro Martinez, there is also a good race.   Amazingly, Roger Clemens would have to be considered the leader at this point, especially if he finishes about 20-2, which would only give him his sixth Cy.  Again, Aaron Sele and Freddy Garcia could cancel each other out a little in the voting, as they appear to be neck and neck for 2nd and 3rd place at the moment.  Ditto Mulder and Hudson in Oakland.  I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that Clemens will finally slow down a little, and the voters might be a tad tired of him winning so much, so that Aaron Sele may just edge him out to win his first Cy Young award.

See you in October.

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