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Notes from the AL East
AL or Nothing
Written by Jason Mastrodonato   
Wednesday, 13 April 2011 00:00

I hate to be just another AL East homer, but I’ve spent the last four days at Fenway Park with the Yankees and Rays in town, and there’s actually a lot to get to.

Jed Lowrie has gotten himself in the lineup for the third time in four days and is hitting well enough to cause some chatter of a shortstop controversy. Lowrie turns 27 later this week and has seen action at first, second, and shortstop. He’s 7-for-16 in seven games and making the most of every opportunity to get in the lineup.

His approach has been solid; a quick swing with most of his hits firm line drives that drop in the outfield. He continues to display good patience at the plate, and manager Terry Francona felt comfortable slotting him in the five-hole against Rays’ lefty David Price on Tuesday.

Lowrie cranked a double to left-center in his first at-bat, and after falling down 0-2 his third time up, he fought back make the count full and poked a 97 mph heater to the right field gap.

It looks like he’ll keep making somewhere around two or three starts a week for now, with pinch-hitting appearances when appropriate, and I believe that schedule will probably stick for a little while. Marco Scutaro isn’t playing great, hitting .185, but he’s gotten two big-time hits for the Sox and those are the things managers remember. Francona has said all along Scutaro will continue to be the shortstop, and unless his struggles continue for a few more weeks, Lowrie won’t be getting a ton of at-bats.

With that said, one injury to anyone in the Sox infield and that all changes drastically. With every-day playing time, he can be quite useful.

Mike Cameron is probably going to see the same treatment, as long as J.D. Drew continues to play good baseball. Drew is hitting .308 in 28 at-bats, but he’s been sitting against tough left-handers, yielding way for Cameron to take some swings. Cameron looked great in Spring Training, but if Drew stays hot, his action will be limited.

The biggest question, I think, is what the Red Sox do at the catcher position. Jason Varitek can still hit the ball with some authority, and there’s no question he’s still a big-time leader in the Sox clubhouse. He works so well with the pitching staff, and after he caught Josh Beckett for his eight-inning shutout gem against the Yankees Sunday, striking out 10, speculation about Tek being his personal catcher has continued to rise.

Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe reports that Beckett’s ERA with Boston is 3.90 in 731 IP with Varitek, compared to 5.33 in 201.2 IP with other catchers.

Add to that Jarrod Saltalamacchia has looked incredibly uncomfortable at the plate – though his defense has been exceptional, specifically controlling the running game – and Varitek could start sneaking in the lineup more and more. Salty is 4-for-26 this season with 11 strikeouts and two walks. He’s had a hard time laying off low breaking pitches. Salty should have a long leash, but I do think Varitek could get himself 200-plus at-bats this season and make them count.

Kevin Youkilis owners are getting worried. His swing doesn’t look right and he doesn’t appear comfortable at the plate. The good news though, is that he’s leading the AL in walks and still has the same approach he’s always had. I’m sure he’ll find his stroke soon – it’s only been 11 games.

Carl Crawford owners? You can relax too. He’s hitting the ball hard – they just aren’t finding the holes. Add to it that he’s playing with a new team and getting adjusted, and I think we’re a couple weeks away from seeing the old Crawford back in action. Another guy I wouldn’t worry about.

Last thing on the Red Sox, I promise. Dice-K had a brutal outing on Monday. He was shelled by the Rays for seven runs in two innings of work before being lifted to a cheering crowd at Fenway. His ERA is now 12.86 in two starts this year.

The voices have cried out. Trade him. Drop him. Send him to the bullpen.

Listen, it ain’t happening. At least not soon. If there was something good to be taken out of his Monday outing, he threw the first 12 pitches for strikes. He just had a problem locating his changeup and left it hanging dead-center more than a few times. Dice-K told reporters he found something on tape after the game and he’s going to fix it. If the magical remedy works, great. Chances are though, this is a long process of rediscovering his ability, if it’s even there to be found.

But at least for a little while, his job is safe.

"It was a horrendous second inning,” Francona said. “If we do things like that we'll set ourselves up for some really bad mistakes. If you make decisions based on emotion and a bad start we wouldn't have a team left. I thought he was flat and flat in the middle.”

If you want to start speculating though, Alfredo Aceves has been throwing the ball well. He’s given up just three hits in 5 2/3 innings, though two have been solo shots, while striking out five. When lefty Felix Doubront is fully healthy, he could get a few starts, though Francona said he likes having him in the bullpen. Andrew Miller or Rich Hill are potential options later in the season.

If you have to pick up one, Aceves is the guy.

On to the Rays. I talked about Sam Fuld Monday night, and the fact that Joe Maddon kept him in the leadoff spot against left-handed Jon Lester on Tuesday is a huge sign of confidence. Fuld stole his sixth base and could have a lot of value going forward.

With Evan Longoria out and Maddon’s obsession with playing the numbers, there won’t be a lot of every-day players in the Rays’ infield. Sean Rodriguez and Felipe Lopez will split time at third base, Reid Brignac is losing at-bats to Elliot Johnson against lefties, and Dan Johnson and Casey Kotchman will share first base duties.

I think the most interesting guy on the Rays right now is J.P. Howell. Howell is still recovering from left shoulder surgery, but he’s getting close to pitching to live hitters and could be back as soon as May 1. Tampa had its first save opportunity of the season on Tuesday night and Kyle Farnsworth got the job done, but I think once Howell comes back and proves he’s healthy, Maddon will start turning to him in the ninth with some regularity.

As for the Yankees, I got a chance to see Eric Chavez take some hacks over the weekend and man, the guy can still hit. Jason Varitek said Chavez did a pretty good job filling in for Alex Rodriguez, who was out with flu-like smypoms, and Chavez banged two hard hits off the Green Monster for doubles. He’s 4-for-9 on the season and speculation has starting brewing about him stealing DH at-bats from Jorge Posada, and it’s not that crazy of an idea.

Russell Martin is the only catcher to have played every inning of every game for his team this year. Isn’t that ironic? The guy who was over-worked in Los Angeles and had health concerns to begin with is leading the league in innings caught.

Surprised? No, of course not. With Jesus Montero looming in the minors – and hitting .450 at Triple-A right now – Joe Girardi would be smart to squeeze everything he can out of the 28-year-old catcher. Martin is hitting .300 with three home runs and eight RBIs through nine games, not a bad start, but he also makes for a decent trade chip if someone in your league will buy high. Montero won’t be in the minors all season, and you can be assured that he won’t spend every game on the bench when he gets the call.

And last but not least, if you haven't seen Joe Maddon's ejection from the weekend, it's a must-watch. Classic stuff.

 

 

 

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