EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 27, 2009

Sox again can't find offense

By David Willis

BOSTON — After a promising win on Saturday, Boston fell right back into the offensive slump that has plagued it since the All-Star break.

The Red Sox managed just six hits, falling to the Baltimore Orioles 6-2 yesterday. It was seventh time in eight games they have scored three runs or fewer.

"I think we have people that are trying to do too much," said Red Sox outfielder Jason Bay. "When you're in position to drive in a run and you're scoring 10 (runs) a night, you're telling yourself it's going to happen. When you're struggling, you're telling yourself it has to happen. When you go up and tell yourself it has to happen, you lose your ability to relax and react."

Jacoby Ellsbury and Adam LaRoche each recorded two hits, and Dustin Pedroia and J.D. Drew each added a single hit to provide all of Boston's offense against Baltimore rookie David Hernandez, who notched his third win of the year.

"We have to relax and let it happen," said Bay. "We have too many people that are gripping the bat harder and swinging harder. We want so badly to do it."

One play that could have changed the outlook was Jed Lowrie's blast in the fifth that looked as if it was destined for the bullpen and a three-run homer. But Baltimore outfielder Nick Markakis raced back to the wall and made a nice catch.

"We had a chance when Lowrie hit that ball that could have been a homer," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "But we ended up with just one run (a sacrifice fly). (Hernandez) elevated his fastball and we didn't get on top of it all day."

Wakefield on comeback trail

Francona said yesterday he hoped Sox All-Star pitcher Tim Wakefield would throw today as he rehabs a back injury. But he was not setting up a timetable for the knuckleballer's return.

"(Throwing Monday) that would be the best-case scenario," said Francona. "He is feeling better, but it's minimal. He's improving, but it's not like he's going to be running a marathon anytime soon."

Wakefield, who was tied for the league lead in wins (11) heading into the All-Star break, was placed on the disabled list on July 22 with a lower back strain. The move was retroactive to July 18, so he will be eligible to be activated on Aug. 2.

Tek rests

Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek's absence from the starting lineup yesterday was not a cause for concern. George Kottaras, Wakefield's personal catcher, was in the starting lineup as Boston explores how to use the backup in the knuckleballer's absence.

"We'll probably use him more conventionally," said Francona. "We won't necessarily keep him on a set (once a week) cycle. I think we'll try to see who pitches for us and them. We'll mix him in a day here and there."

Last night was Kottaras' 22nd start of the season, and sixth in a non-Wakefield start. In his first full major league season, Kottaras is hitting .207 with a home run and nine RBIs. Yesterday, he finished 0 for 2, but did score a run.

Lester throwing fire

While many fans have commented that Sox starter Jon Lester doesn't appear to be throwing as hard as the radar guns indicate, Francona had a different opinion.

"From where I am," he said, "it looks like he's throwing very hard. He's a young pitcher throwing with no arm pain. He has flawless mechanics, and gets great extension."

Asked who the hardest thrower he ever faced was, Francona didn't hesitate.

"(Nolan) Ryan, hands down," he said. "Some say (former Met) Doc Gooden, and I don't want to say it wasn't close, but it wasn't close. Nolan once threw a ball that I thought was going to hit me in the ribs. It didn't, but I whimpered. ... I thought, 'If that hit me, it would have killed me.'"

Ryan, who retired in 1993 at 46-years-old, is Major League Baseball's all-time leader in strikeouts (5,714) and no-hitters (7). Francona broke up another Ryan no-hit bid in the eighth inning on April 12, 1989.

Has their number

Baltimore outfielder Nick Markakis is well on his way to earning a reputation as one of the league's premier Red Sox killers.

Yesterday, the 25-year-old slugger was 2 for 4 with a home run, three RBIs and two runs scored. Against Boston this season, he has hit .316 with 10 RBIs. A big-game player, he has also hit .362 with five home runs against the Yankees.

In 62 career games against Boston, Markakis has hit for an impressive .278 average with six home runs and 29 RBIs. Overall, he is batting .296 with 11 home runs and 33 RBIs this year.