In 2005, the Houston Astros, a team many felt was as strong as any in the National League, were 15-30 just past the quarter-pole of their season, around which time the Houston Chronicle wrote an obituary for their season, complete with a fake gravestone on the front page of the Sports section.
As those same Astros were turning their season around, sneaking into the playoffs as the wild card and advancing to the World Series, they never let the poor Chronicle beat writers and columnists live down the gravestone thing.
The lesson is obvious: Don’t write off a good team too early.
This lesson warrants repeating after the first week of the 2011 season, as the Boston Red Sox – a near-unanimous pick to win the AL East this season – are off to a gruesome 0-5 start. You’ll hear a lot of numbers thrown around, such as the fact only two teams in history have won their division after starting the season 0-5.
But there’s a good reason why that’s the case: Most teams that start 0-5 aren’t very good. (As a matter of fact, the 2011 Astros, also 0-5 this morning, fit that description, although I’m certainly not going to go all R.I.P. on them.)
The Red Sox, though? Still a good team. Just an underachieving one so far.
They have been guilty of some unpardonable sins, such as soon-to-be-released reliever Dennys Reyes, having already hit two batters with pitches, walking another batter on four pitches when the batter was trying to bunt, or catcher Jason Varitek inexplicably failing to tag a runner at home plate because he thought it was a force play when it wasn’t. Both transgressions occurred in Wednesday night’s 8-4 loss at Cleveland.
(After which game, a despondent Red Sox Manager Terry Francona said, “I don’t think many of us are going to sleep.”)
I also was not a big fan of Francona’s decision to drop left fielder Carl Crawford from third to seventh in the lineup after three games. Managers are always accusing the media of overreacting to a handful of bad games – but here was a manager showing signs of panic, and signaling a lack of faith in his new $142 million star, just three games into the season.
These five losses have underscored the fact the Red Sox are far from perfect. Like most teams, they might struggle when they have to deploy the least reliable members of their bullpen. Daisuke Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett remain unreliable starting pitchers. They miss departed catcher Victor Martinez.
But let’s not overreact. (Go ahead and get some sleep, Tito.) The only reason this five-game losing streak is so scary is because it has occurred at the start of the season. The 2010 San Francisco Giants endured separate losing streaks of five and seven games during the course of the season, and still won the World Series. Likewise, both the 2009 Yankees and 2008 Phillies suffered through five-game losing streaks (the Phillies’ was a six-gamer) during their World Series campaigns.
The Red Sox wrap up a road trip this afternoon in Cleveland, then return to Boston for their home opener Friday against the Yankees. Maybe we’ll revisit this topic next week. But for now, I would caution against writing any obituaries for the 2011 Red Sox.