OAKLAND, Calif. -- Eight things to know about what lies ahead for the suddenly high-flying Red Sox, who take a three-game winning streak into their three-city, nine-game trip, looking for their first win on the road after sweeps in Texas and Cleveland at the start of the season.
1. Impress the old pitching coach, Part II: After a weekend in which Sox pitchers strutted their stuff in front of their former pitching coach, Toronto manager John Farrell, two of the Oakland Athletics’ best young arms will have the chance to do the same for their former coach, Red Sox pitching coach Curt Young. Brett Anderson faces John Lackey Tuesday night, and on Wednesday afternoon, Gio Gonzalez goes against Clay Buchholz. Anderson has a 2.29 ERA; Gonzalez has allowed just one earned run in three starts and is at 0.47.
Daisuke Matsuzaka said he wanted to make a good showing in front of Farrell when he threw one-hit, shutout ball for seven innings. But when parsing all the reasons why he pitched so well Monday after being booed out of the Fens the week before, there’s one flashing like a giant neon sign in Shibuya: FEAR.
“If I did pitch badly,’’ he told reporters after Monday’s win, “I thought there wouldn’t be the next chance.’’
The threat of the ball being taken out of his hand looks like it improved Matsuzaka’s aim dramatically. He threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of 23 batters he faced, which is almost 70 percent. That’s a big jump over his career percentage of 59 percent.
When he got pummeled by Tampa Bay last week, Matsuzaka gave up 7 hits in 12 at-bats to lefthanded hitters. Monday, lefties were 0 for 7 against him. And after getting a total of four swings and misses in his first two starts, Matsuzaka induced 11 swings and misses Monday. Can he build on that progress? We’ll see on Saturday, when he is scheduled to face the Angels in Anaheim.
And let’s hope the strong performances over the weekend by Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Matsuzaka put to rest any notion that Young has to prove his bona fides as a pitching coach. Mulder, Hudson, Zito. Haren, Blanton, Harden. Gonzalez, Anderson, Braden. Let’s give it a rest, shall we?
2. Gentlemen, start your body clocks: The schedule makers did the Red Sox few favors, although even Sox fans are unlikely to send sympathy cards. But it’s tough to maintain a routine when you play on Monday morning, which is already a departure from the norm, fly across the country, then play the next night on the West Coast, followed by a 12:30 start (West Coast time). Ambien, anyone?
The only upside is that because Monday’s game started so early, the Sox were scheduled to arrive at a civilized hour in the Bay Area. Still, as any frequent flier would tell you, that kind of schedule can beat you up in a hurry.
3.Bruised feelings: Terry Francona can sell it any way he wants -- and he offered sound reasons for why he did it -- but there’s no getting around that only three turns into the season, the Sox manager skipped John Lackey, who came into 2011 billed as the team’s No. 2 starter. Yes, we know that’s only a number, but teams customarily don’t skip their No. 2’s. Lackey lost a start last week to a rainout against Tampa Bay, so it will be 10 days since he last pitched when he takes the mound Tuesday night against the Athletics.
He made it clear on Monday that he wasn’t enchanted by the enforced rest.
“It’s not fun,” he said. “Early in the season I don’t think 10 days off is especially what you need to get right, but it is what it is.’’
Lackey can’t afford to show any rust, not with a 15.58 ERA after two starts. The Sox deliberately lined him up against Oakland because he has handled them better than any other opponent -- he’s 17-5 with a 2.90 ERA against the Athletics -- but they tried that with Josh Beckett in Cleveland and that didn’t work out. ESPN stats maven Jeremy Lundblad came up with an absolutely terrifying stat on Lackey: He has given up at least six extra-base hits in each of his first two starts, and if that happens again Tuesday night, he will be only the second pitcher in 90 years to do that three times in a row. Danny Graves did it in 2003, and he went 1-13.
4.Leadoff lottery: You open the season 0-6 and stand at 2-10 through the first dozen games, it’s understandable that you juggle your lineup, and Francona has done just that, using 13 different batting orders in the first 15 games.
But before the end of this nine-game, three-city trip, we suspect that Francona will restore Jacoby Ellsbury to the leadoff spot, and leave him there. It probably doesn’t begin Tuesday night against the Athletics, not with Ellsbury 0 for 9 in his career against Oakland starter Anderson.
But Ellsbury, who got off to a slow start after a terrific spring, is back on track, homering in three of his last five starts to take over the team lead in that category with 4. Ellsbury has not had a season in pro ball in which he has reached double figures in home runs, but hitting coach Dave Magadan said this spring, “He has it in him,” and that forecast looks right on the money. Time for Francona to tacitly acknowledge that the Carl Crawford leadoff experiment was a bust -- Crawford has not led off the last two games, with Jed Lowrie and J.D. Drew both productive in that spot. He also has said that the team’s best lineup is with Ellsbury in the leadoff spot. OK, then.
5.Come ’n’ listen to my story about a man named Jed: With his fabulous start, Jed Lowrie has become the People’s Choice, especially after a weekend in which he shredded the Blue Jays with a .600 average (9 for 15), hit two home runs and drove in 8 runs. There’s little question Francona will find a way to keep Lowrie in the lineup while he’s this hot. But does that mean he should displace Marco Scutaro as shortstop? Looks like a no-brainer right now with Scutaro hitting .188 in 10 games.
But let’s hold off on that one a bit, shall we? You don’t make such a big decision based on just one weekend. It wasn’t that long ago when some people wanted a struggling rookie second baseman to be replaced by Alex Cora in the starting lineup, until Dustin Pedroia stuffed a sock in that argument.
Yes, the pro-Lowrie crowd will argue that this is about far more than just one weekend, that he was mashing last season when he came back from mononucleosis, and that is absolutely true. And maybe this will ultimately be about flipping roles, Scutaro going back to being the utilityman he was earlier in his career and Lowrie winning by TKO the everyday job.
But the Sox came into this season believing they could win a World Series with Scutaro as their shortstop, and it’s premature to alter that course already. Scutaro won a lot of respect with the way he played hurt all last season, and Francona won’t toss him overboard this fast.
6.Note to CC -- Chill: If you haven’t checked it out already, we strongly suggest reading the diary Carl Crawford is doing for ESPNBoston. Pretty remarkable for its candor, IMO, and judging by most of the comments posted in response, folks responded positively to his openness and are really pulling for him.
“I want to end with saying something to Red Sox Nation,’’ he writes in conclusion to his latest entry. “Everybody has been telling me to relax, so I guess I can say that. Just know that everything is the worst it can be right now. There is only one way to go now, it's up.
“I haven't talked to that many fans yet here in Boston. I've been kind of secluded right now. I won't even stop and get gas. But that's all I can say, things are at their worst right now and I think we can only go up from here.’’
Maybe it started with an RBI double on Monday, his second extra-base hit of the season and incredibly his first hit in a Red Sox win after going 0 for 18. The road trip could be coming at a good time for him, although he’s hitting just .224 for his career in Oakland, .246 in Anaheim. The winning should help, too, to alleviate some of the pressure. One of these days, the real Carl Crawford is going to show up, and everyone -- especially the man who is signing $142 million in checks -- will be breathing a sigh of relief.
7.Coco goes retro with ‘fro: He said he did it because the braids were itchy, but former Sox outfielder Coco Crisp last week unveiled an Afro that instantly conjured memories of Oscar Gamble. The hair alone is worth staying up to watch Tuesday’s game against the Athletics.
8.Hot, cold and in-between: The Sox opponents on this trip are the Athletics, Angels and Orioles. The Athletics are at .500 after winning their last two, but sport the best ERA in the league at 2.72. The Angels had their five-game winning streak snapped by the Rangers Monday night, but are just a game out of first place in the West. Jered Weaver and Dan Haren are both 4-0, but the Sox will miss Weaver. The Angels are the league’s Whiff Kings in the early going, striking out 130 times in their first 16 games, an average of 8 K’s per game.
The Orioles, meanwhile, have lost eight in a row after a 6-1 start. They’ve been outscored 54-20 during the streak, and their prized young ace, Brian Matusz, is still weeks away from pitching after going on the DL at the start of the season with an intercostal muscle strain.