Rapid reaction: Athletics 5, Red Sox 0

April, 20, 2011
4/20/11
1:00
AM ET


OAKLAND -- The narrow view will be that the Red Sox lost Tuesday night because of a balk that wasn't called, an interference that was (or was it?), and oh yes, the brilliant pitching of one of Curt Young's former proteges, Brett Anderson, who held the Sox at bay until the Athletics broke it open in a four-run eighth. Even a strong outing by John Lackey (one run over six innings) couldn't overcome that.

But the issue that is bubbling just under the surface -- and the cracks won't contain the lava much longer -- revolves around catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

The season is just 16 games old, and there are ominous signs that a worst-case scenario is developing for the 25-year-old catcher, whose throwing problems are growing increasingly impossible to ignore.

The Red Sox didn't score because Anderson held them to four singles in eight innings, Dustin Pedroia was picked off after a leadoff walk in the fourth on a play in which Anderson appeared to have begun his motion to the plate, and Jacoby Ellsbury was deprived of a stolen base in a one-run game when Mike Cameron took an ill-timed stroll in front of catcher Kurt Suzuki and was called for interference, resulting in a double play.

At least that's what the Red Sox thought, especially Ellsbury, who contended he was called out for interference.

It was still 1-0 when David Ortiz led off the eighth with a single, just the second hit of the night for the Sox, and was replaced by pinch-runner Ellsbury. With a two-strike count on Cameron, Ellsbury broke for second. But Cameron was rung up on a checked swing, and Ellsbury said he was called out, too, because Cameron stepped in front of Suzuki as the catcher was attempting to throw.

[+] EnlargeDustin Pedroia
AP Photo/Ben MargotDustin Pedroia was picked off trying to steal (he thought the pitcher balked) in one of two controversial out calls for the Red Sox on the bases.
"Still a confusing play, I don't know,'' Ellsbury said. "My understanding is that I was called out because of interference.''

Ellsbury said he saw the out call by second-base umpire Andy Fletcher. "He gave an out call,'' Ellsbury said, "but because of interference. It was delayed pretty good.''

The official scorer also included interference in the box score, amending his scoring of the play after the game to give catcher Suzuki putouts for both outs, which is what you do with an interference call.

But umpiring crew chief Tim Welke after the game told Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe that interference was not called, that Cameron was out on strikes and Ellsbury had been thrown out stealing.

Oakland showed no qualms about running on Saltalamacchia, and that played a key role in the loss. Lackey threw over to first base four times after Coco Crisp's leadoff single in the first, and Crisp still took off and stole safely on the first pitch to Daric Barton. Crisp came around to score on two infield outs.

"It definitely makes it a little more difficult to get in a rhythm, for sure,'' Lackey said of all the throws to first. "But what are you going to do? I just work here.''

That was all the scoring allowed by Lackey, who is making no secret of his unhappiness over missing a turn when Sox manager Terry Francona reshuffled the rotation after Lackey's scheduled start against Tampa Bay was rained out.

"I've never been skipped before,'' he said. "It was not fun.''

And he also pulled no punches when asked about being removed after six innings and 93 pitches.

"I definitely wanted to go one more, get up and down seven times,'' he said.

"I thought he did terrific,'' Francona said, acknowledging that Lackey had been wounded by being skipped. "It's been a long week for him. I know the layoff was tough for him, and he did a great job.''

Saltalamacchia later missed a connection on a throw back to the mound, the ball skidding well to Lackey's right. No harm, no foul, except it brought back memories of last year's struggles with the yips, and underscored why the catcher lobs all of his throws back to the hill.

But in the eighth, after Crisp failed to get a bunt down after Cliff Pennington's leadoff double, Pennington swiped third, and only an acrobatic lunge by third baseman Kevin Youkilis kept the ball from sailing into left field. Crisp flied out to shallow center, but Barton singled over a drawn-in infield to make it 2-0, and Hideki Matsui's two-run double off countryman Hideki Okajima made it 4-0.

The Sox have caught 6-of-20 base-runners attempting to steal with Saltalamacchia behind the plate, a respectable 30 percent caught-stealing rate. But of those six, three were pickoffs by the pitcher and only three have been thrown out by the catcher, meaning Saltalamacchia has thrown out just 17.6 percent of the runners who have attempted to steal (3-of-17).

Last season, teams stole a league-leading 169 bases against the Red Sox, 32 more steals than the runner-up Kansas City Royals, and Jason Varitek and Victor Martinez caught just 25 of 158 attempted base-stealers, a subpar 15.8 percent success rate.

Lackey was asked if he was concerned that teams would take similar liberties on the bases against the Sox this season.

"I think it's too early to say that,'' he said. "We worked on that quite a bit in spring training, trying to hold runners, trying to make it a point of emphasis. We'll see. We've got a long way to go.''

Warm up the Pawtucket shuttle: This was Okajima's first game this season in a Sox uniform after starting the year in Triple-A, and at this rate the stay may be a short one. Okajima is already the third lefty reliever to be used by the Sox this season, after Dennys Reyes (outrighted to Pawtucket) and Felix Doubront (optioned back to the PawSox), so the Sox clearly aren't reluctant to pull the plug if the results aren't there.

The Sox already are bringing back Matt Albers after a two-game rehab stint in Pawtucket -- he will join the club in Anaheim on Thursday, which will necessitate a roster move. And Okajima has to know he is on a short leash.

Okajima entered in the eighth after Dan Wheeler, who had worked a scoreless seventh, gave up a leadoff double to switch-hitter Cliff Pennington. Okajima was available, but Francona said he preferred to have Pennington hitting from the left side, where he was batting just .129 (4-for-31, all singles).

The stolen base changed the complexion of the inning, putting a runner on third and forcing the Sox to play in.

"I didn't expect him to run,'' Okajima said, "but I should have been more prepared.''

Okajima induced Crisp to fly out to shallow center for the first out, but Barton came through with his base hit, Okajima walked Josh Willingham, and Matsui smoked a double off the right-field wall. Hardly a triumphant return.

No, Okajima said, it was not what he'd hoped for.

Picked off, kicked out: Pedroia was erased after a leadoff walk in the fourth. He protested that Anderson should have been called for a balk because he had begun his motion toward the plate, and Francona was tossed after making the same point to plate umpire Jim Reynolds.

"The rule is you can't deceive,'' Francona said. "He went in two different directions. He started to the plate, changed his mind, landed toward the plate. For me, it was a balk all the way.''

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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