Monday, September 5, 2011

PawSox heart of the order will have to pound in postseason

Hector Luna was given a day off in the Pawtucket Red Sox’ regular-season finale Monday. And by the looks of it, Daniel Nava and Lars Anderson took one of their own in a 7-3 victory over the Rochester Red Wings, owners of the worst record in the International League at 53-91.

Nava and Anderson did get on base twice, the former by way of two walks and the latter with one walk and a hit-by-pitch. That was their reward for being patient and passively exploiting the fidgeting Rochester starter Eric Hacker.

But in terms of official at-bats, the two hitters each went 0-for-2. Accordingly, the PawSox faithful can hope that Nava and Anderson are merely storing up for this week’s postseason series against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, which will commence on Wednesday at Coca-Cola Park.

If the most recent batting orders and transactions are any indication, manager Arnie Beyeler will have Nava, Anderson and Luna assuming the third, fourth and fifth slots, respectively in the batting order for the playoffs.

That arrangement would make the most sense. After all, Nava, Anderson and Luna are three of only four position players to have played in over 100 games for the PawSox this season. Of those still on the active roster, only Jose Iglesias (101 games) has seen action in more than 90.

Accordingly, these are the only four batters with an indicative gauge of their season at the Triple-A level. And the heart of the order looks to have healthy enough valves in the three regulars.

Over the past weekend, the PawSox have reluctantly deleted breakthrough catcher Ryan Lavarnway and infielder Drew Sutton, each of whom had a .295 batting average in 61 and 45 Triple-A games, respectively. While Sutton was designated for assignment by the parent Boston Red Sox, Lavarnway was joined as a September call-up by Nate Spears, who batted .248 in 96 games with Pawtucket.

That leaves it up to Luna, Nava and Anderson to keep leading the grind, as they generally have for a 2011 Pawtucket offense that is far more balanced than it is celestial.

Luna finished the regular season with a team-best .283 average and tied Anderson and Josh Reddick for second with 14 home runs.

Nava has cultivated some belated power in the latter half of the season. Within his final 27 outings, he hit seven home runs to up his total to 10, elevated his batting average seven points to .268 and batted in 22 runs after knocking in only 26 over his first 94 games. He also leads all PawSox eligible for the team leaderboard with a .372 slugging percentage.

Anderson retained a respectable .265 batting average while playing a team-high 136 games (missing only six) and leading all I.L. batters with 80 walks, the last of which forced in a run during Monday afternoon’s victory.

With Tuesday’s off-day/travel-day back to Allentown, Pa. comes the eye of the tempest that the presumptive heart of the batting order has helped the PawSox defy throughout their 2011 campaign. They have each lent a consistent presence to lead by example and help a full nine-man lineup supplement the comings and goings of Ryan Kalish, Reddick and Lavarnway.

All the while, they have pitched in the bulk of the offense in a two-and-a-half-month rush that saw Pawtucket morph a 32-32, third-place record into an 81-61, first-place finish in a span of 78 games and 83 days.

Now is the time for them to keep grinding it out in support of what could be a shorthanded pitching rotation in the playoffs. Would-be Game 1 starter Kyle Weiland was summoned to join Felix Doubront in Boston while Brandon Duckworth’s status is still uncertain.

As it stands right now, Matt Fox, the temporarily inactive Tony Pena, Jr. and late acquisitions Greg Smith and Alex Wilson could be the best Pawtucket can work with in the way of a rotation.

There are two primary reasons why the PawSox, who finished with the I.L.’s second-lowest team batting average at .253, are in the playoffs. Those would be shrewd and skilled baserunning (657 runs for third in the league) along with stingy pitching.

With Fox being the only proven ace guaranteed to go in the first round, the offense will have its chance to return a favor to the hurling brigade that kept them afloat for the last five months. For that, Beyeler has a few workable options to reap the most out of his mainstays and let the rest of lineup feed off of them.

Luna has garnered substantial time at various fielding positions and most recently has switched his primary post from third base to second with Will Middlebrooks now in the equation. And with the likes of Anderson, Ryan Khoury, Iglesias and Middlebrooks all available, Luna could make a go-to designated hitter throughout the postseason.

Either that, or Nava could fill that role on occasion and let Joey Gathright, Che-Hsuan Lin and Brett Carroll fill up the outfield, as was the case in Monday’s contest.

And the way Gathright ran on Monday, garnering two infield hits, he just might have locked up his spot as the No. 2 hitter behind leadoff man Lin. All those two will need to do is keep up their proven propensities for stopping at a bag.

Once there, Nava, Anderson and Luna will all be due up to try to usher them home. Do enough of that, and yet another late-season acquisition could be coming home to McCoy Stadium later this month.