Talkin Sox with Dan

Where baseball fans gather for commonsensical, opinionated Red Sox banter.

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

Dethroned

It was October 29, 2007, and the best pitcher on the planet was Josh Beckett.

The strong right handed starter had just collected his second World Series title the night before as the Red Sox completed their sweep of the Rockies. Beckett did not pitch in the clinching game but to say he had done his part in the 2007 postseason would have been a dramatic understatement.

In his four starts during the playoffs, the Sox ace absolutely stuffed the opposition. He went 4-0, tossed 30 innings, fanned 35 batters, and walked two. This guy from Texas was tough. No sarcasm. Just ask the Angels, Indians, and Rockies.

The former second overall pick did not win the Cy Young Award. He was not deemed the MVP of the World Series. But Beckett won the Red Sox a championship. Boston had an excellent team that season, but the kid from Spring, Texas, drove the bus. He was the man.

A lot has changed in just under five years.

The deadline to make a trade is at 4 p.m. today, and the majority of Red Sox followers would rejoice if GM Ben Cherington found a way to move Beckett, a guy who once sat upon the throne of baseball in Boston.

I don’t believe the much-maligned former ace will find himself in a different city this time on Wednesday. There are just too many hurdles to leap. Beckett is a 10-5 guy. He is owed over $30MM over the course of the next two-plus seasons. Teams have serious and warranted concerns about his attitude. It doesn’t help that the former Marlin is in the middle of an exceptionally mediocre 2012 campaign (5-9, 4.57 ERA). Beckett is not easy freight to move.

The disciples of 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Michael Felger and most Red Sox fans for that matter would advocate brass eating a large chunk of Beckett’s salary in an attempt to expedite the departure of the heavily criticized right hander. The argument comes down to a very simple question: Is Beckett part of the solution or part of the problem? Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as the inquiry.

For me, Beckett is not obviously part of the solution enough to stand firmly against the idea of moving him. In other words, I would be okay with shipping him to another team–only if the Red Sox did not carry the responsibility of paying any of his remaining salary, for this year and beyond. I’m not stupid enough to ask for a prized prospect in return for a guy who is playing under Beckett’s contractual status and not performing at a high level. At the same time, I’m unwilling to make Beckett the scapegoat for all that is wrong with the Boston Red Sox.

Beckett’s departure from this team is not the elixir that the masses crave. Trading the polarizing righty will not erase the bad signings that this organization has made over the course of the past 5-7 years. Getting rid of the Texas Tough Guy will not solve the communication issues that plague the Red Sox. Believe it or not, trading Beckett will not make Jon Lester locate his fastball any better.

Whether the 2007 postseason hero is with this team tomorrow or not, the Red Sox face a plethora of problems that run deeper than the right arm of Beckett. But no matter what, he will never regain the status he once had five years ago.

No Thanks

Bullet dodged.

Hanley Ramirez is immensely talented. He is young. He is under team control for the next two and a half years. He’s making big money, but it’s not a price tag that would make you projectile vomit. But trust me when I say this, he is most literally the exact opposite of what this Red Sox team needs.

Ramirez does not pitch deep into games. He does not know how to locate his fastball, especially on the inner third or even just off of the plate. He can’t match up with C.C. Sabathia, David Price, or Justin Verlander. He is not a quality top half of the rotation pitcher.

Ramirez is, however, selfish and immature, two characteristics that the Red Sox need to be moving away from, not inviting in. When rumors began to surface that the Red Sox were interested in potentially acquiring the shortstop/third baseman, I immediately shook my head.

No thanks.

Just like another Ramirez we all know well, Hanley was traded to the Dodgers. He will likely succeed (at least for a period of time) on the West Coast, but soon enough, LA will be searching for an exit strategy. And like all super-talented players, Ramirez will have plenty of suitors. Let’s hope that the Red Sox are never one of them.

Red Sox Trade Talk

In a three team deal made last season, the Red Sox acquired Erik Bedard from the Seattle Mariners. The Sox shipped Tim Federowicz, Stephen Fife, and Juan Rodriguez to the Dodgers who sent Trayvon Robinson back east. Robinson wasn’t a member of the Sox for long as he and Chih-Hsien Chiang headed to Seattle while Bedard joined a staff in Boston that had been limping along.

Bedard was not the sturdy crutch the Red Sox rotation desperately needed. The Sox missed the playoffs, due in large part to their inability to find quality outings from their starters. As the trade deadline approaches, the Red Sox find themselves in a similar position–a World Series offense and a Little League World Series starting pitching staff.

One could argue that last year’s version of the Red Sox was much better positioned to qualify for postseason play. I’m not going to debate facts, but the point is that this year’s team, like the 2011 squad, is in the thick of the playoff hunt, despite the bed-wetting that occurred at Fenway Park over the weekend. And if the members of the Red Sox front office believe that this team is one piece away from making the postseason, I would appreciate it if they would bring in a better starter than a soft lefty with bad knees who is on the back nine of his career.

Matt Garza would be an ideal addition. Unfortunately, there are a number of things that muddy the trade waters for not only the Red Sox, but many soon-to-be active teams around baseball. The complicating agent at work here is of course baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement. But that is a story for a different day.

Let’s take a look at what we can glean from how the Red Sox approach this year’s trade deadline.

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Could the Red Sox actually be sellers?

The short answer here is an emphatic ‘no’. It’s not easy for a big market team that plays in front of a demanding fan base to begin to auctioning off pieces. The current ownership current group is obsessed with sellout streaks and commemorative bricks. It’s easier to push the product when their team is successful, or at least operating under the cloak of success. Yes, the Red Sox may be a .500 ball club, in last place in their division, and looking up at six teams in an expanded Wild Card race, but I wouldn’t look for brass to make a move that would end up qualifying the team as sellers. If the Red Sox end up going 0-6 on their road trip that will send them into the Texas heat and back north to play the Yankees, however, it may force the organization to hold a mirror up to its face and take stock of reality.

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Ben Cherington’s first crack at the deadline

The first-year GM had the right idea when he sent Jed Lowrie to the Astros for Mark Melancon and Josh Reddick to the A’s for Andrew Bailey in the offseason, but neither deal has proved to be wildly successful. Cherington will always be compared to his predecessor, Theo Epstein, who may be most well-known for the 2004 deadline deal that shipped one of Boston’s most beloved sports figures, Nomar Garciaparra, to Chicago. The three team swap netted he Red Sox Orlando Cabrera, Dave Roberts, and Doug Mientkiewicz. A historic comeback and a World Series championship later, and all of a sudden, Cherington has his work cut out for him.

It would not be an absurd deduction to think that Cherington would be conservative during his first trade deadline as GM, especially given the climate of the market–everyone’s in it and no one is out of it. It is a seller’s market. However, Cherington was part of the team in the fall of 2005 that pulled the trigger on the deal that brought Josh Beckett to Boston and sent prized prospect Hanley Ramirez to the then Florida Marlins. Epstein was on leave at the time. So what does this mean for the Red Sox, seven years later? It’s clear that Cherington isn’t afraid of parting with young, top tier talent if an opportunity to improve presents itself.

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Gauging how the team feels about its minor league assets

If Cherington and his team determine that Jon Lester and Beckett are capable of turning their lackluster seasons around, it would be reasonable to believe that they view the Red Sox as a playoff team. The second half of that contingency is necessary in order for the Sox to pursue a deadline deal. You’re typically not going to move young talent in the middle of the season if your team does not possess a real opportunity to play beyond the month of September.

For the sake of this argument, let’s assume that the Red Sox view themselves as legitimate contenders and will look to add a piece or two next week. Matt Barnes and Xander Bogaerts are two blue chips prospects in the Red Sox system that would certainly garner interest from GM’s across baseball.

Matt Barnes is a starting pitcher currently at High-A Salem. He is 22-years old, throws hard, and represents exactly what the Red Sox desperately need–a low cost, front half of the rotation starter. I can’t imagine him being moved.

Xander Bogaerts is the cream of the crop on the Red Sox farm. He is 19-years old, plays shortstop, and projects as a middle of the order hitter. He is 2012′s version of Hanley Ramirez. The Providence Journal’s Brian MacPherson does not see Bogaerts going anywhere.

MacPherson’s response is an indication of exactly how the organization feels about Bogaerts, and it is extremely likely that Cherington isn’t the only general manager who views the native of Aruba in that same light. Needless to say, Bogaerts carries a truckload of value on the market.

Ultimately, I agree with MacPherson. The Red Sox are not likely to include Bogaerts’ name on a list of prospects that another ball club can pick from when negotiating a potential trade. However, the only caveat is that the Sox possess three quality young players who play on the left side of the infield. Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, Jose Iglesias could eventually be vying for two spots in the Red Sox infield. Bogaerts is a player who could become at least somewhat expendable if the Red Sox had confidence in Iglesias’ ability to hit at the major league level. I don’t, so I can’t believe they do either.

Going forward, even beyond this year’s trade deadline, it will be interesting to monitor the availability of both Iglesias and Bogaerts. If one guy’s name is consistently tied to potential trades, it would simultaneously serve as a testament to the confidence that the organization has in the other player.

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My thoughts

It is starting to sound redunant, but it is true: If the Red Sox do not get drastically better performances from Lester and Beckett, they will not seriously contend as the season progresses. In that respect, the trade deadline is almost meaningless in terms of its potential impact on the 2012 season. Garza, tricep cramping aside, would be a solid pick-up. He is young. He would not be a rental as he is signed through next season. He is a guy that would come here and compete his butt off. But without Lester and Beckett pitching up to their expectations, Garza’s efforts would not propel them into October.

Youkilis Returns

It feels like it was just three weeks ago when I was driving home after a nice weekend on the Cape, listening to the WEEI broadcast of the Red Sox, Braves game. Kevin Youkilis, in what proved to be his final at-bat in Boston uniform, tripled. Nick Punto, who pinch ran for the bulky corner infielder, met Youkilis, his good friend, with a hug at third base. As he jogged off of the field, Youk emotionally acknowledged the Fenway Park crowd that stood together in praise of the two-time World Series champion.

Wait a second. It was three weeks ago.

Roughly 21 days does not provide enough of separation to truly understand and appreciate Youkilis’ body of work in a Red Sox uniform. Is it enough time to analyze his injury plagued and trade-shortened 2012 campaign? Not a chance. Wait till after the season.

The Red Sox are in the middle of a playoff race. Make fun of the second Wild Card all you want, but the fact remains that it exists, and it’s just as good as the first spot. That’s where fans’ sight should be set–making the playoffs.

Look, I’m as much of a Youk fan as the next guy, but one standing ovation during his first at-bat is more than enough.

He is now a contributing member of the opposition. The White Sox are more than in the hunt, and tonight represents the next opportunity for the Red Sox to record a win, to get closer to the dance.

And that’s what it’s all about, right? Winning ballgames, making the tournament, and seeing what happens once you get there.

So whether you’re at Fenway, watching on television, or listening in the car, tip your cap to Youk, but then move on. Hope the opposing third baseman grounds out to short and then makes an errant throw in the field.

Save the gushing for off-season NESN programming.

Sunday’s Notes

The Red Sox lost last night 5-3 at the Trop in St. Petersburg, FL., which is a total diaper of a stadium. Will Middlebrooks hit a big two-out two-strike two-run home run. The blast was a big hit within the context of the game but also personally for the young third baseman who is attempting to fill the void left by one of Boston’s most beloved sports figures in recent history, Kevin Youkilis, who returns to Fenway Park in a White Sox uniform on Monday.

Here is more on the Red Sox.

Josh Beckett will get the ball today, opposed by James Shields. Beckett is typically excellent against the Rays, especially at their place. He will look to rebound after letting up five first inning runs to the Yankees two Fridays ago. You will remember that it was Beckett who threw one-hit complete game gem against the Rays last year. He was one Reid Brignac dribbler up the third baseline away from being perfect. If you don’t remember the game, that’s okay. It may have something to do with the fact that he did it the same night the Bruins won the Stanley Cup.

—The Red Sox have a slew of difficult games on the docket, including today. As the trade deadline approaches, the front office will have some difficult decisions to make. If baseball operations on 4 Yawkey Way believes that this team can not only make the playoffs but compete for a World Series in October, then they should go out and seek a pitcher like Matt Garza to augment a starting staff that has struggled. If they feel as though this year’s team does not possess the capability of playing up to the level of the Yankees, Rangers, and Angels, GM Ben Cherington and company should look to sell some pieces. The latter option is not very likely as Red Sox brass is dedicated to putting a winning team on the field, or at least a group that can successfully be sold as a winning team. My point is simple: Pick one or the other. Fold your hand or go all in.

—For a period of time, just about a month ago, the Red Sox had gotten in the habit of taking two out of three games from teams. They were winning series after series, typically against teams who were just as good them or worse. Today is a great opportunity to get back into that groove.

Franklin Morales has been solid since Bobby Valentine moved him to the rotation. However, the story does not simply end there. Earlier this season, the Red Sox had the luxury (and I mean that literally–it was a luxury) of having three capable lefties in the bullpen. The aforementioned Morales, Andrew Miller, and Rich Hill were all capable of coming into a game to get one tough left handed hitter or multiple batters. Hill has since moved to the disabled list, and Morales is firmly entrenched in the rotation. Miller is the only left-handed weapon that Valentine has left at his disposal. As a result, the manager has to be much more conservative with how and when he calls upon his lone lefty. It is a small issue but one that looms large as games move towards the later innings.

Quietly Unproductive

The Red Sox misbehaved. Their starting pitchers have been escorted to the principal’s office, while the members of the offense got to take their recess.

Somehow, the hitters have gotten off the hook. And I don’t believe that’s very fair.

The arms and the bats have worked together to get this team in the perilous situation it is in.

Have the starting pitchers, notably Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz, fallen well short of their preseason expectations during the first half of  the 2012 season? You bet. If you could augment only one area of this ball club as it is currently constituted, starting pitching would be the unanimous selection.

Pitching has been so consistently terrible throughout the course of the season that it has actually drawn attention away from the deficiencies of the offense. The first three weeks of the season, it was the bullpen taking the grenades. Alfredo Aceves and Co., have righted the ship, but the starters have not experienced the same success.

When one is asked about the failures of the 2012 squad, it is almost instinctual to immediately point towards the top of the starting pitching staff. The Red Sox have lacked consistency since the first toss towards home plate of the season was thrown in Detroit, but one theme for this team has remained the same–it is the pitching, not the hitting, that is to blame.

Beckett is an apathetic boat anchor on a staff that doesn’t need any help sinking. Buccholz cares more about vodka and partying than he does about the welfare of his team. Lester is fat.

These days, it seems as though whenever a starter not named Felix Doubront or Aaron Cook toes the rubber, fans, writers, and experts alike almost root, or at least expect, a poor performance. It has become trendy to hate the Red Sox, especially the three “aces”.

Whenever there is a scapegoat, there is a person or group of people tiptoeing away, looking over their shoulder, hoping that no one notices.

The point is not that the Red Sox lineup deserves the bear all, more, or even an equal share of the burden for the failures of the team as a whole. Instead, it is to highlight that its league-wide perception of being comprised of a group of hitters who consistently throw up crooked numbers against the opposition at will does not quite run parallel to the reality of the situation.

Let’s get a couple things out of the way now.

1) This is a lineup that has operated without two of its biggest offensive pieces for the majority of the season. Yes, it is true that Carl Crawford has yet to appear in a regular season game, and Jacoby Ellsbury has been sidelined since the home opener. Ellsbury’s absence has certainly taken a toll, especially when the Sox have faced right handed pitching. Crawford, on the other hand, is paid like a savior but is far from one. Evan Longoria, you’ll remember, has played in a grand total of 23 games for offensively bereft Rays. It wouldn’t be difficult to make a case that he is more vital to his team than any other player is to his respective squad in all of baseball. Have injuries negatively impacted this team? Of course. But don’t look to the DL for bailouts–the Red Sox have enough bullets in the chamber to spare a couple and still have enough to succeed.

2) The Red Sox offense, for all intents and purposes, has been good. Through 86 games, Sox hitters have produced 432 runs, good for second in Major League Baseball. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that the Red Sox are stellar in blowouts and lackluster is close, grind-’em-out games. They’re excellent at winning the contests that lack pressure and relatively poor in the white-knuckle affairs.

Despite the Red Sox statistically robust offense, they often corner themselves into situations that require a clutch hit in order to score a run. In other words, Sox hitters, in spite of those classic 10-5 wins, tend to put themselves in favorable situations at the beginning of innings, only to fail to produce productive outs in key situations that ultimately lead to a plethora of stranded runners and missed opportunities. 

Essentially, the Red Sox have a hard time hitting their foul shots.

Free and easy opportunities to score runs without getting a base hit do not often present themselves in close, well-pitched games. Let’s take a look at two recent, glaring examples that occurred in back-to-back innings in a game that should have been an easy win.

On July 3rd, while the East Coast was getting ready to celebrate its independence, the Red Sox were busy giving away a victory. In the top of the eighth inning, the Sox were clinging to a 2-1 lead. Here is how the inning unfolded:

Pedroia walk — Pedroia steal — Ortiz walk.

As a reminder, that is a runner on first and second with no one out, and Cody Ross due up. The best case scenario here is obviously a base hit by Ross. But here, expectations are not that high. It would be unfair to ask the powerful righty to lay down a bunt, and a ground ball to the right side could easily result in a double play. It is fair, however, to look for Ross, at the very least, to lift a semi-deep fly ball to right, right-center, or center field–all three of which would have resulted in Pedroia tagging up and getting to third base with less than two outs, a prime run-scoring position.

Instead, Ross failed to produce a productive out and struck out swinging. At this point, the Red Sox officially lost the opportunity to score a “free run”. They now needed a base hit to record any insurance in a tight ballgame.

Adrian Gonzalez came to the plate and drove a deep fly ball to center field, which is the exact result the Sox needeed one batter earlier. Pedroia tagged and went to third. First and third with two outs. Jarrod Saltalamacchia proceeded to strikeout looking to end what initially appeared to be an extremely promising inning.

Thanks to some nifty pitching in the bottom of the eighth by Vicente Padilla, the Red Sox headed to the top of ninth still gripping a one-run lead. Here is how the inning unfolded:

Ryan Kalish single — Mike Aviles walk.

Here we go again. First and second, no one out–a situation where the Red Sox had the opportunity to score a run without a hitter getting a base hit. Nick Punto is headed towards the dish, the players on the field and the dozens of people at O.co Coliseum knew the bunt was coming. Punto squared and attempted the bunt, which was popped up and resulted in a double play for the Athletics. Kalish, for some strange reason, attempted to steal third and was promptly dispatched to end the inning.

Aceves went on to blow the save, as the Athletics came back to the tie and win the game in the bottom of the ninth. The loss went to Ace, but it really belonged to the Red Sox offense.

In close, well-pitched games, the margin for error is slim and opportunities are few and far between. Runs are often not doubled home or delivered by a round tripper. Instead, they are carved out by getting timely hits, earning walks, and selflessly finding ways to make productive outs.

The Red Sox have struggled against quality competition this season. According to the Boston Globe’s Tony Massarotti, they are 24-35 against American League teams who are at or above .500. The Red Sox are rarely able to match-up with the quality teams in their league. That is a fact. But it not just a pitching problem.

To pin the failures of this year’s Sox squad solely on the starting pitching staff is shortsighted, incorrect, and most of all, entirely too easy. It is the lazy fan’s excuse for why their team is perpetually treading water.

If the 2012 Boston Red Sox hope to succeed in the second half, it will be contingent upon their ability to find ways to beat quality teams. Improved starting pitching, combined with a more efficient offense will certainly increase their odds of nabbing a postseason berth.

A Diamond Near the Shore

Since I was a kid, baseball has played a very big role in my life. Aside from the obvious steps of tee ball, little league, and eventually evolving into an extraordinarily mediocre high school player–I have always found a way to experience the game of baseball no matter my circumstances . Tennis balls to bounce off the base of chimneys, simulating ground balls up the middle or in the hole. Baseball cards to sort, collect, and trade. Autographed balls and photos to brag about.

At times, it can be difficult to stay connected to the game. Friends lose interest. The shallow well of physical tools you once relied on begin to become especially unreliable. Ticket prices force you to second guess yourself before nabbing a pair on an impulse.

However, If you’re lucky enough to find yourself on Cape Cod for an evening or two during the summer months, baseball is never hard to find.

You can almost reach out and touch it.

Ten teams. Ten towns. Three months. Premier collegiate level talent. Free admission. Wooden bats.

It is baseball at its finest, cleanest, most pristine level. And still, as I sat in the crowded metal bleachers at Whitehouse Field in Harwich three Friday nights ago, amid a sea of regulars, I couldn’t help but think about what time I could safely leave the park, drive back to my hotel in Yarmouth, and catch the final segment of the Red Sox, Braves game.

I immediately felt like I was in the vast minority. The crowd of roughly over one thousand fans was immersed in the game at hand. Mariners versus Braves. It wasn’t Seattle taking on Atlanta. Instead, it was Harwich hosting Bourne, two small Cape towns who take pride in their teams, their boys.

So what was it then? Why aren’t these people more concerned with the Red Sox? Save the snide remarks about chicken and beer, about under-performing, overpaid players. It wouldn’t matter if the Sox had the most likable cast of farmhands who were paid three schillings every nine innings, had a six game lead in AL East, and were vegans. These fans on the Cape are invested in their respective teams, no matter what. But why?

Sitting in those bleachers, it hit me–much the same way it did when I was much younger. This league, its players, its managers, its coaches, its volunteers are all incredibly accessible. It’s unique. It is almost intoxicating.

—–

I went to my first Cape League game with my father, who grew up in Harwich, when I was in my early teens. It was a night game at Whitehouse in early August. I spent my time along the first base line among the trees, hoping to nab a foul ball along with dozens of other youngsters who had the same goal. Ultimately, my attempts proved to be fruitful. I’d like to be able to tell others that I tracked a high fly ball and made the catch with one hand. In reality, I somehow out ran a gaggle of other potential suitors, dropped to the ground, and snagged the white ball that had come to a peaceful rest against the base of a tree stump.

Boy, was I proud. And hooked.

Soon after, I was having a hard time putting down Jim Collins’ The Last Best League, an excellent read that chronicles the season of three Chatham A’s. It is a beautifully written narrative concerning the ups and inevitable downs of playing amateur baseball at its highest level. Immediately, I started connecting the dots.

John Schiffner, the long-time Chatham skipper, spent a great deal of his time coaching varsity baseball in Plainfield, CT., during the spring.

Just over eight years ago, I was a scared, skinny sophomore in high school playing shortstop for Tourtellotte Memorial High School in Thompson, CT. (Good luck finding it.) Twice during the short 20-game season, we would square off against a tough, gritty Panthers team. The guy with the can’t-miss-mustache hitting infield with a wooden bat, its barrel wrapped in tape? That was Coach Schiffner.

A year later, I was still a skinny, slightly-less scared second baseman, walking away from our home field after a game against Coach Schiffner’s Plainfield Panthers alone. I took a deep breath and turned towards Coach Schiffner and said “Hey Coach. When do you guys open up on the Cape?” In a raspy, eager voice he responded “mid June!”

“Good luck, Coach.”

“Thanks a bunch.”

I felt pretty cool.

—–

The best part of a decade later, just three Friday nights ago, I was back at Whitehouse Field. I made my way over to the visitor’s side of the field. Casually leaning up against the chain-link fence was Mariners’ assistant coach Pete Pasquarosa who has spent a lifetime surrounded by the game of baseball. He’s now in the middle of his ninth season with Harwich.

For quite sometime, I had been wondering about how teams on the Cape handle players who are participating in the Super Regionals and, ultimately, the College World Series. Ballgames on the Cape commence well before the collegiate season formally culminates. So what happens to the players who have an agreement to play for Team X on the Cape when their respective college team is in the CWS? Do they forfeit their roster spot? If not, who fills it in the interim?

Just as I had done years earlier, I took a deep breath. I approached Coach Pasquarosa. I began the conversation by apologizing for taking a moment of his time. Just as quickly, he insisted that I wasn’t a bother. I explained my question, and he was more than receptive.

Coach Pasquarosa explained that CCBL teams honor all agreements made with players, no matter how deep their teams go in the collegiate postseason. However, rosters still need to be filled. Players who may not have received a formal invitation to play on the Cape end up getting the opportunity to serve as fillers. Coach Pasquarosa admitted that it can be difficult when a fill-in player performs well, just to be dismissed when an individual returns who has been competing in the College World Series.

The conversation was both brief and informative. But it is that transparency, that accessibility, that pureness that continues to bring old fans back and new fans in.

The Cape Cod Baseball League is a diamond near the shore.

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