Whelan n’ Dealin’

Ben Whelan

It’s a universal fact across the world of sports that superstars can get you to a championship, but role players are the difference between hoisting a trophy and going home empty handed. Where would those dominant Bulls teams have been without Steve Kerr, John Paxson and Horace Grant, those dominant Yankees teams of the ’90s without the timely post-season hitting of Scott Brosius and, of course, the magical 2004 postseason for your Boston Red Sox without the contributions of Dave Roberts, Mike Myers and Mark Bellhorn? If the Red Sox are to continue their winning ways and justify their highest payroll ever, they will have to continue to get contributions from their role players, the unsung heroes who don’t make headlines but will ultimately make the difference between winning and losing. Here’s a list of the guys who are making the difference in the season so far.

Dustin PedroiaPedroia won’t make anyone forget Mark Loretta any time soon, but at the same time he’s not the offensive black hole that many make him out to be. Yes, he is hitting below the Mendoza line at a paltry .188 and has batted in no runs and hit no homers. However, a closer look at Pedroia’s offensive reveals that he is, in fact, tied for the team lead in walks and despite his anemic batting average, is getting on base at a .333 clip which is better than the likes of Mike Lowell, Manny Ramirez and supposed on-base machine Kevin Youkilis. Furthermore, Pedroia sees more pitches per at-bat than any player on the team (4.38), an invaluable skill that highlights both his patience as a hitter and his ability to boost the pitch counts of opposing pitchers. For all of the complaints about the bottom third of the order, Pedroia is actually a valuable weapon hitting in the nine spot and for a rookie is producing more than enough. Throw in his solid play around the bag at second and you have a player who will make his mark on this season one way or another.

Hideki OkajimaComing in to the season everybody talks about a teams “question marks”, which is just a simple way of saying that no team is perfect. The Red Sox biggest “question mark” was the bullpen, which last year was a gas can fanning the flames of the woeful starting pitching. Mike Timlin was the only reliable reliever in last year’s pen and at the age of 41 can no longer be expected to carry the load on his own. Enter Hideki Okajima, the second-best Japanese pitcher signed this off-season. Originally advertised as a security blanket to make Dice-K more comfortable, Okajima has shown in the early season that he is the most reliable lefty pitcher in the Sox pen and at times has been downright dominating. After a shaky first appearance in which he gave up a home run and a walk, Okajima has since gone five perfect innings while striking out six. He is tied with the Dice for second on the team in strikeouts per nine innings (10.80) and has pitched more innings than any other reliever. Good bullpen pitching is extremely valuable and Okajima is worth his weight in sushi and twice as satisfying.

Tim WakefieldAny discussion of role players would be woefully incomplete without mentioning Mr. Versatility, Tim Wakefield. Since joining the team in 1995, Wakefield has been the ultimate role player filling in wherever he is needed, whether it is as a starter, reliever or closer. The knuckleballer was slated to start the season as the team’s fifth starter, but with Papelbon moving to the bullpen has assumed the fourth starter role and has been sparkling ever since. While often overshadowed by the more loquacious Curt Schilling and the electric stuff of the pair of aces that follow him, Wakefield is quietly putting up spectacular numbers. In his three starts this season, Wake has gone at least six innings and has never allowed more than one run, making him the current American League leader in earned run average, while striking out 11. No other team in the league, much less the majors can boast such production from their fourth starter. And if the offense is struggling, the all-time home run leader at Florida State surely wouldn’t mind filling in for David Ortiz if Papi needs a rest.