Opening Day, 2003: An FTM excerpt explaining one more reason why it makes sense to put Papelbon in the pen…

March 27th, 2007 → 5:22 pm @ // 2 Comments

Last Friday, I posted some quick thoughts about the Pap to the pen move; I also promised to post a historical lesson that would provide some insight as to why installing the Baby Faced Killer as the closer was a good idea simply because of the distraction it would cause if the Sox blew so much as a single game in the first weeks of the season because Tavarez (or the corpse of Mike Timlin) was closing.

And yes, at the time I promised that second post would come “in a few hours.” So here I am, sticking to my word…so long as you’re willing to consider 100 or so “a few.” Anyway, without further ado, here’s an excerpt from Feeding the Monster^ that takes us all the way back to Opening Day, 2003…a quaint and innocent time that feels like it was several lifetimes ago. Theo was the newly appointed GM, Jeremy Giambi was ahead of Ortiz on the depth chart, and the Sox’s “closer by committee” experiment was being derided even before the season started. It only took one game — one blown Opening Day game against the Devil Rays, to be precise — to fire up the populace’s bloodlust. But did that game actually say anything about the possibilities of a closer by committee? Nope. It did show a lot about the stupidity of Grady Little. Read and learn…

^I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to point out that FTM is available from Amazon for only $17.16 (cheap!) and that free signed and personalized bookplates are here for the asking. It’s a perfect gift for Opening Day. For yourself, even.

***

The Red Sox began the 2003 season hundreds of miles away from their Fenway home, in Tampa’s Tropicana Field, a domed stadium that housed the moribund Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The first inning of Opening Day seemed like it could serve as a microcosm for the two teams. In the top of the first, the Sox scored three runs off of two Tampa Bay errors, a pair of singles by Nomar Garciaparra and Kevin Millar, and a two-run double by Shea Hillenbrand. In the bottom of the inning, Pedro Martinez retired the Devil Rays in order, with a strikeout sandwiched between a pair of groundouts. For most of the game, that was as exciting as it got. The Red Sox scored again in the fifth, and Tampa scratched out an unearned run off of Martinez in the seventh. After finishing that inning, Martinez’s night was complete, and he seemed to be in prime form. He’d thrown 91 pitches, striking out six while allowing only three hits. Ramiro Mendoza came in on relief to retire the Devil Rays in order in the eighth, and Boston was three outs away from its first victory of the season. With a three-run lead against a team that had finished in last place every year of its existence, it was the perfect opportunity to test out the Red Sox’s closer-by-committee approach in a low-stress situation.

With three left-handed batters coming up to the plate, lefty Alan Embree was the first pitcher summoned out of the Boston bullpen in the ninth. Embree, a former member of the Padres, had been picked up by the Red Sox on June 26, 2002, four days after he struck out seven of ten Yankees—including the last six in a row—in a game in San Diego. For the remainder of the 2002 season, he had thrown well, pitching in 32 games for Boston with a 2.97 ERA. Epstein was hoping that, in 2003, he’d become one of the linchpins of the Red Sox’s bullpen.

Embree gave up a single to Travis Lee, the first batter he faced, prompting Tampa manager Lou Pinella to send up the right-handed Terry Shumpert to pinch-hit for the Devil Ray’s lefty designated hitter, Al Martin. Shumpert, in his 13-year Major League career, had only 47 home runs and had batted only .235 in 2002. Before the game, the Red Sox advance scouting team had prepared a report on Tampa Bay and left it for Grady Little. With regards to Shumpert, the instructions were clear: Shumpert was all but useless at the plate so long as you don’t, under any circumstances, throw him an inside fastball. Embree soon demonstrated that Little had either never read the report, or never shared the information with his pitching staff, and Shumpert hit one of Embree’s inside fastballs for his 48th home run (and the second to last of his career).* After Embree gave up another single, this one to right-fielder Ben Grieve, Little summoned Chad Fox to the mound.

Fox struck out the first batter he faced, and then, with one out and a man on first base, induced a bouncer up the middle that looked like it would result in a routine, game-ending double play. But after stepping on second base for the force out, Nomar Garciaparra fumbled the ball as he prepared to throw to first, leaving a man on with two out and the Red Sox clinging to a 4-3 lead. After a seemingly rattled Fox walked pinch-hitter Marlon Anderson, Carl Crawford, the Devil Rays’ leadoff batter, came to the plate.

Crawford fouled off four straight pitches, putting him in an 0-2 hole. Fox’s fifth pitch was high, bringing the count to 1-2. His next pitch was low and inside, exactly where he wanted it, but Crawford got his bat around on the ball, golfing it in to the right-field stands for a game-winning, three-run homer.

It was a tough loss, but it didn’t predict anything one way or another about the Sox’s bullpen plan. Save for Garciaparra’s bobble, Chad Fox would have been out of the inning, and the pitch Crawford hit to end the game was an excellent one. Still, the reaction in Boston was swift and harsh. After a grand total of one game, the Herald’s Jeff Horrigan dubbed the Red Sox’s bullpen experiment “loser[s] by committee.” The Globe said the opening night loss had given “rise to the darkest fears of the scheme’s architects” and reported that a 73-year-old woman had been prompted to call the paper for the first time in her life. She relayed this message: “I’m so disgusted. What’s with this closer by committee?” Dan Shaughnessy wanted to “start with a memo to Bill James: Perhaps the seventh inning is not the most important inning to hold a lead.” After an offseason “spent reinventing baseball,” Shaughnessy wrote, “young Theo saw it all implode in the hideous confines of Tropicana Field.”

The bullpen brouhaha was just one of the distractions that would occupy the team during the first half of the season. In April, soon after his $17.5 million contract extension for the 2004 season was picked, Martinez seemed to falter, sparking a round of hand wringing and second-guessing. When the team’s relievers continued to struggle, the closer-by-committee experiment was more or less discarded, as Grady Little announced that Brandon Lyon and Chad Fox would, until further notice, both serve as the Red Sox’s closers. And in late May, after Martinez landed on the disabled list with a strained muscle in his back, Epstein succeeded in swapping an increasingly bitter Hillenbrand for some pitching help, trading him to the Arizona Diamondbacks for their 24-year-old Korean pitcher, Byung-Hyun Kim.

* One member of the team’s baseball operations staff said of that night, “That’s when I had a feeling Grady wasn’t going to work out.”


Post Categories: Feeding the Monster Outtakes & Grady Little & Jonathan Papelbon

2 Comments → “Opening Day, 2003: An FTM excerpt explaining one more reason why it makes sense to put Papelbon in the pen…”


  1. kinshane

    10 years ago

    Mnookster, you schill. Still talking up that book just because it is an incredibly in-depth look at Red Sox issues that have strange relevance even today? How dare you.

    Reply

  2. HFXBOB

    10 years ago

    Right, the opening day 2003 disaster illustrates the importance of the closer, both the tangible part of protecting leads and the intangible part. It’s the psychological effect that can’t be measured by statistics. When the closer is shaky it puts pressure on the whole team. And when the closer is solid it takes pressure off you and puts it on the other guys. When teams play the Yankees, they’re thinking they can’t fall behind after 8 innings with Rivera out there.

    Reply

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