Thursday, July 21, 2011

Many opportunities lost, but not all, for PawSox in fall to IronPigs

On the whole, Pawtucket Red Sox rooters should be pleased in the present and stimulated going forward. After all, within the last four nights, their team has effectively sawed the Lehigh Valley IronPigs lead in the International League North.

It is naturally disconcerting that the PawSox didn’t let their appetite to pull even in the standings carry them far enough for a sweep when the opportunity came after pulling to within one game with wins Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

They had earned themselves that opportunity for extra gains in this midweek series and they whiffed in vinegary fashion Thursday night. They spilled 2-0 and 3-2 leads en route to the 5-4 loss at McCoy Stadium that bumped them back to two games behind.

With that being said, there is abundant reason to believe the momentum is with the trailers as this two-team derby presses on into the last 52 games of the season.

With the titans raring to converge again next Tuesday through Friday at Coca-Cola Park to polish off their 16-game season series, the PawSox will need at least a sweep, or better yet three out of four to make a come-from-behind divisional title plausible. But arguably, now more than at any other point in the 2011 season, that scenario should not come off as so off-putting.

The primal postgame topic Thursday night easily could have been the nine men the PawSox left on base when they could have regained their lead or added to it. Or it could have been Hideki Okajima’s game-changing implosion in relief that amounted to his fifth blown save and first loss on the year. Or it could have been the lack of production out of heart-based batters Lars Anderson (0-for-5 and a game-ending pop-out) and Drew Sutton (1-for-4).

Instead, most of the attention was drawn unto shortstop Jose Iglesias, who sparkled in his first game back from a concussion sustained via Scranton/Wilkes-Barre pitcher Andrew Backman’s errant throw that left him concussed July 3.

Iglesias’ return lasted longer than originally slated as he consumed seven innings worth of defensive action, having a hand in nine putouts. None of those were more dynamic than one he pulled off in the sixth, when he threw out a hot-hitting Delwyn Young upon bolting to the second base bag and consuming the grounder for the second out of the inning.

Meanwhile, he joined four other teammates in the evening’s multi-hit club.

Iglesias did nothing but set a promising tone in his return just in time for the homestretch. And he is hardly alone amongst relatively new PawSox inserts making an impact.

Sutton saw action in only his second game back from a protracted promotion to Boston. Nearly concomitant with Iglesias’ return, his reinstatement to manager Arnie Beyler’s clubhouse makes for a welcome overload of capable infielders.

And barring another summons to The Show, Sutton ought to be available the rest of the way, an enticing proposition given he is one of only two active Pawtucket players to at least be hovering around the range of a .300 batting average.

The other? Duh, Ryan Lavarnway. The radiant rookie has now seen action in 35 games since he was promoted from Double-A Portland on June 13. In that time, he has gone on an unremitting sugar rush for 49 hits, a dozen doubles, a dozen dingers and 33 RBIs. If he hasn’t let up yet, odds are he will only cool off to a negligible degree between now and when the playoff picture develops on Labor Day.

And in his presence, the PawSox are 22-13, whereas they were 33-31 prior to his debut. That includes a 6-2 run against the IronPigs, who split a four-game set at Lehigh Valley while Lavarnway was still an afterthought most anywhere south of Maine.

Similarly, the likes of centerfielder Che-Hsuan Lin and right fielder Ronald Bermudez have climbed up the Red Sox rungs to McCoy this spring and summer, subsequently contributing to the hotter part of Pawtucket’s season.

With a pair of singles in Thursday’s loss, Lin has a seven-game hitting streak in the works, including three multi-hit outings against the top dog IronPigs, who committed three errors in the winning effort for a total of eight in the last three games.

And much like Josh Reddick with the parent club, Bermudez’s performance in right field and from the lower third of the batting order has all but negated initial plans to reassigned him to Single-A.

Although the PawSox still rank No. 11 in the 14-team I.L. in terms of team batting average, they are No. 4 (188) in the way of total doubles, RBIs (458) and runs-scored (458). And only the Columbus Clippers have drawn more walks on the year.

On the other side of the ball, Pawtucket ranks second behind only Gwinnett in team ERA (3.57). The likewise trail only the G-Braves with 804 cumulative strikeouts. And the staff has combined for a league-low with only 777 runs-allowed.

The return of Kyle Weiland, who still has a team-best eight wins on the year, is likely contingent upon the health of Boston’s aces. But with or without him, the PawSox still have a corps bolstered by midseason acquisition in Kevin Millwood, whose performances are improving and whose record is 5-0 since being claimed off waivers from the Yankees system.

All the while, the best that first-place Lehigh Valley can hope for in its season series is a split.

If that is somehow achieved, then it would threaten to drown the active talks of these teams reconvening for the first round of the Governor’s Cup playoffs. (The matchup would be inevitable if both parties make the dance as it is already predetermined that the wild card winner will face the North Division champion in the semifinals.)

In that event, the bubble is virtually burst and that’s that. Otherwise, the peaking PawSox are in a position to tighten their stranglehold on the IronPigs’ psyche next week.