By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008
BOSTON, Oct. 15 -- The ball was in the first baseman's mitt, but the speedy hitter, 27 years old and at the peak of his career, was safe by a step, and the pitcher, 42 years old and looking every creaky minute of it, was lying face down in the grass. And there you had it -- the perfect metaphor for the glaring differences between Carl Crawford's youthful Tampa Bay Rays and Tim Wakefield's suddenly age-worn Boston Red Sox, at least as things have played out so far in the American League Championship Series.
Crawford's infield single and Wakefield's fruitless belly-flop in the third inning of Tampa Bay's 13-4 win in Game 4 on Tuesday night at Fenway Park was more than a metaphor -- it was a turning point.
As Wakefield picked himself up gingerly off the grass, the game was still within reach for Boston, which trailed by just three runs. But two fluttering knuckleballs later, Crawford stole second base easily, and two pitches after that Willy Aybar, himself just 25, smashed a two-run homer onto Lansdowne Street, effectively ending the competitive portion of the game -- if not the series itself.
Game 5 will be Thursday night, with Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka facing Tampa Bay's Scott Kazmir at Fenway Park, and if the Red Sox can't figure out a way to beat a team that has outscored them by a 22-5 margin the past two games, their season will end and a round of uncomfortable questions about the future will begin.
Increasingly, in the post-steroids and post-amphetamines era, baseball is a young man's game, and the Red Sox, as other dynasties and mini-dynasties before them, are being betrayed by their age.
Two of the three straight losses they have suffered to the Rays in this series have been charged to 42-year-old pitchers -- Wakefield on Tuesday night, and reliever Mike Timlin in Game 2. Their 36-year-old captain, catcher Jason Varitek, is hitting .125 with no extra-base hits and no RBI this postseason. Their 34-year-old third baseman, Mike Lowell, is out with a hip injury that will require surgery on Monday.
And their 32-year-old designated hitter, David Ortiz, looks years older, playing with a wrist injury that, according to one of his agents on Wednesday, makes clicking noises every time he swings and prevents him from accelerating his bat through the strike zone. A lumbering triple during garbage time Tuesday night does not hide the fact Ortiz is hitting .161 in the postseason with only one RBI.
"We've had a difficult time," Manager Terry Francona said. "We have not had an answer for a lot of things."
The Red Sox are to be commended for their cultivation of a core of young players through their farm system -- a group that includes ace left-hander Jon Lester and shortstop Jed Lowrie, both 24; second baseman Dustin Pedroia (an AL most valuable player candidate this year) and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, both 25; and closer Jonathan Papelbon, 27. They hardly need a complete roster overhaul -- merely a tune-up.
Still, all around that young core is a constellation of aging players who present some problems for the team as it moves forward. In this sense, the Red Sox are in much the same position -- though not as acutely -- as their rival New York Yankees the past few years, saddled with expensive long-term contracts for players who are no longer as productive, or healthy, as they were when the deals were signed.
Lowell, for example, is under contract for two more seasons at $12 million per, but hip injuries are notoriously dire. Ortiz also has two more years, at $12.5 million annually, and it is fair to question whether his days as one of the game's elite run-producers are over. Varitek, meantime, is a free agent at season's end, and the team's hesitance to re-sign him to anything more than a one-year deal is tempered by the lack of an obvious successor at catcher in their farm system.
Time was, postseason experience made a difference this time of year. Now, it is almost as if the opposite is true. The Rays brought only 30 combined postseason at-bats and 36 1/3 combined postseason innings of experience (shared among two hitters and four pitchers) into these playoffs, and their average ages of 27 for pitchers and 27.5 for position players, according to data at Baseball-Reference.com, made them the second youngest in both categories in the AL.
"They call me the old man of the staff," said James Shields, 26, the Rays' presumptive Game 6 starter and the oldest of their four starting pitchers. "It's kind of an ongoing joke in our clubhouse."
The Red Sox, meantime, despite their young core, have the league's second-oldest pitching staff (29.2 years) and sixth-oldest group of hitters (29.8).
While Red Sox fans may be pining for the days when slugger Manny Ramírez anchored their lineup, the brilliant swap of Ramírez, 36, for Jason Bay actually made them six years younger in left field, and the team, infused with new energy (not to mention improved defense and base-running), went 34-19 down the stretch following that trade while scoring roughly one extra run per game than they did with Ramírez.
No, the absence of Ramírez is not the problem in Boston. The Red Sox made that move because they knew they needed to get younger and less reliant upon aging stars who have grown too comfortable, too immobile and too prone to injury.
Perhaps what the Red Sox have discovered in this series is that they need to go even further in that direction.