Red Sox benefit from forcing issue on basepaths
Boston worked on improving baserunning in spring, and it's paying off in ALDS
ST. PETERSBURG -- One of the first conversations freshly appointed third-base coach Brian Butterfield had with second baseman Dustin Pedroia this spring was about defense and improving the Red Sox's baserunning. Butterfield -- hired from Toronto along with manager John Farrell -- wanted to know how to get the players all on the same page, a precarious position for any first-year coach, but a particularly tall order on a team full of fresh faces as part of an organizational overhaul.
"Just let me know what you need," Pedroia told Butterfield, "and I'll make sure we get it done inside the players' clubhouse."
Have they ever. While much has been made of Boston's high-octane offense and culture change in going from worst to first, the Red Sox's run game has fueled many of their victories and been on full display in the first two games of the best-of-five American League Division Series (Game 3 is Monday at 6 p.m. ET on TBS). Led by speedster Jacoby Ellsbury, the Sox have 42 consecutive stolen bases, dating back to Aug. 9, and they've terrorized Tampa Bay in being aggressive at every turn.
Plays like Stephen Drew legging out an infield single to extend the fourth inning and Jonny Gomes hustling to score from second in Game 1 have become as much a part of this Red Sox club as those ever-growing beards, with Farrell putting emphasis on baserunning from the day he took over the helm.
"Those are all the things you look back on at the end of the season and you say, 'That's one extra run.' That made our team that much better, that night," Shane Victorino said. "That's the kind of stuff we have to continue to do the rest of the series. Those little things will add up collectively and it will stand out. They've helped us and will continue to help us."
Victorino, who went 21-for-24 in steals this season, trailed only Ellbusy (52) for tops on the team, and the outfielder is no stranger to the importance of baserunning having come from the National League. The difference in Boston -- which perhaps wouldn't have been the case in years past-- is that the idea took so well, with the Sox doing hours of tedious drills this spring and holding meetings about pitchers' tendencies on the basepaths.
"The key thing with that is having veteran players that endorse it," Butterfield said. "Baserunning is hard to sell. I think it's the most undertaught, undersold part of the game. At every level. So just the type of guys we have in the clubhouse makes it easier because they work hard at it and they talk about it and they endorse what you are trying to sell."
"At the outset, we weren't afraid to make mistakes in Spring Training," said Farrell, who dubbed his club's running as an integral part of a diverse offensive approach. "We had to find our limits. And once we found the limits of the individual players, then we could kind of work and adjust accordingly.
"But we've got complete buy in from every guy in uniform, and they understand the importance of it that we have as a staff."
Butterfield works with new bench coach Torey Lovullo and first-base coach Arnie Beyeler to form a formidable trio, with Farrell putting trust in his players to go when they see fit. There are no repercussions for aggressive outs on the basepaths, just encouragement, and -- as Victorino points out -- knowing the Red Sox will push the envelope can lead to the opposition rushing plays later in the game.
"We've done a pretty good job offensively in categories, but the baserunning, we're getting guys to take bags that don't normally take bags," Gomes said. "There's a lot of homework going into it. We're getting pitchers' times, we're getting catchers' times, we're getting counts where pitchers pick and don't pick. And with that, none of it is 100 percent, it's still a gamble. But there's a lot of homework that has gone into the baesrunning side of it."
Beyeler studies opposing pitchers, while Lovullo watches for tendencies and helps control the run game, giving the Red Sox baserunners a wealth of information before they even dig in to the batters' box. And before each player even thinks of taking off, he knows he has his manager, and the rest of the staff, behind him.
"I think it is the most important thing," Butterfield said of giving players that kind of trust. "We tried to tell them in Spring Training, 'We want you to run into some outs.' The good baserunning teams are going to run into some outs, but it's a means to the end.
We do a good job of coaching it up, and the players do as well."
Added Victorino: "It's one of those things, you can't just talk about it. You got to go out there and do it, and we've done it all year long, we've been aggressive on the bases. You talk about the stolen-base percentage and the success we've had there. It comes from hard work and research and understanding. And all those things collectively are making us who we are on the bases and in doing the little things."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.