Tim O’Sullivan: Red Sox flawed, fun, good enough to contend
Boston Red Sox's Jon Lester pumps his fist after beating the Toronto Blue Jays 5-0 in a baseball game in Boston, Friday, May 10, 2013. Lester pitchesd nine innings and gave up one hit. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Boston Red Sox's Clay Buchholz looks to the outfield as he comes in at the end of the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays in Boston, Saturday, May 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
The Red Sox have played nearly a quarter of the season (22.8 percent, to be precise), but what to expect from this team still feels like a mystery.
Are they the rebuilding group that everyone expected before the season began? Or the team that raced to a major league-best 19-8 record after the first month? Or are they closer to the floundering group that has lost seven of its last nine?
The easy is answer is to say Boston’s fate will lie somewhere in the middle, which is also true answer. The Sox won’t lose seven of every nine games for the rest of the season, and they won’t be going 19-8 every month, either. So here’s a different answer – they will be entertaining and they will contend deep into the summer. After that, who knows?
The expectations, and record (now 22-15), have tumbled recently because of injuries in the bullpen and a sudden slump up and down the lineup. But the team’s outlook and record shouldn’t fall too far for one reason – starting pitching.
Boston probably won’t suffer through too many long losing streaks because it looks like Jon Lester has finally become what most thought he would be – a streak-stopping (and starting) No. 1, just like he was on Friday night. The big lefty’s career arc seemed headed in that direction until last year’s mess – 9-14, 4.82 ERA. But that now looks like a bump in the road, while this year’s 5-0, 2.73 ERA, 0.99 WHIP feels like the natural correction.
The Sox were desperate for a win on Friday against Toronto and Lester delivered near perfection, retiring 27 of the 28 batters he faced in a 5-0 win. He had immaculate control of all his pitches, he executed the game plan flawlessly, and he was ruthlessly efficient. He may not have gotten the perfect game or no-hitter, like he did back in May of 2008, but the reality is Lester was better last night.
On that night five years ago, Lester simply overmatched a Kansas City lineup with his best stuff, but he did walk a pair of batters and needed 130 pitches to get through the game. He said he didn’t have his best stuff on Friday, but he made up for it with command and composure, walking none and using 118 pitches.
And Lester isn’t the only Boston starter capable of such outings. Clay Buchholz, like Lester, appears to be reaching the potential so many have seen in him for so long – a top-of-the-rotation starter with filthy stuff. Forget about all the ball-doctoring nonsense that has been swirling around Buchholz, he’s not doing anything illegal, or anything different from what many pitchers do.
What Buchholz is doing is maturing and harnessing his live arm. No, he wasn’t near perfect yesterday, when the Sox really could have used another win but wound up losing to the Blue Jays, 3-2. But he did pitch eight strong innings and gave up only two earned runs, and his numbers are still amazing – 6-0, 1.69 ERA, 1.04 WHIP.
There are more question marks in the bottom half of the rotation, but that’s true with every staff. John Lackey still hasn’t come close to living up to the contract he signed with Boston in 2010, but he looks better physically than he ever has in a Sox uniform, and on Thursday he nearly delivered the streak-stopping performance Boston needed so badly, giving up just one earned run through seven innings. Lackey hurt himself with a throwing error in that game, and his record is 1-3, but he is sporting a 2.82 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP.
The 2-3 record for veteran Ryan Dempster isn’t impressing anyone, either. But Dempster has been hurt by a lack of offense and, like Lackey, his other numbers are impressive – 2.93 ERA, 1.09 WHIP. If he keeps pitching like that, more wins will come for him and the team. With Felix Dubront struggling and out of shape, and call-up Allen Webster blowing up in his last start, the No. 5 spot in the rotation is a concern, but, again, that’s the case with most teams.
The real concern for the pitching staff is in the relief corps. Once a strength, the injuries to closers Joel Hanrahan (out for the season) and Andrew Bailey (15-day DL with a biceps problem) have severely weakened the pen.
Maybe Junichi Tazawa can be effective as the new closer, but he’s never done it before, and not all relievers, even the effective ones, are cut out for that role. He didn’t handle the ninth inning too well yesterday, giving up the game-winning home run to Adam Lind. Maybe Koji Uehara can handle the extra work the injuries will mean for him, but he is 38. Maybe Andrew Miller and Alex Wilson will continue to pitch well in what will surely be expanded roles, but neither of them have long track records of success, especially Wilson, who’s made all of 10 major league appearances.
The bullpen could be Boston’s undoing, but the offense should find it’s way back to a happy median. The Sox were scoring 5.1 runs per game through their first 27 contests, but in their last 10 they’re scoring just 2.7 per game.
If that kind of production continues, the Sox will be in serious trouble. But chances are it won’t continue. After his torrid start, Mike Napoli has cooled off during the team’s recent skid, but he’s a patient hitter who should find his way back to consistency. The same goes for Stephen Drew, who struggled mightily after missing most of spring training but has made steady improvements since.
It seems probable that Jacoby Ellsbury will pick up his numbers (.259/.314/.370) as the season wears on. It’s harder to tell with Will Middlebrooks (.212/.245/.417) because he’s so young, but the Sox are going to give him plenty of time to find his swing. And the lineup does have a solid trio to build around in Dustin Pedroia (.329/.422/.399), David Ortiz (.333/.370/.613) and Shane Victorino (.308/.371/.394).
After such a great start, a slump like this recent one was practically guaranteed for Boston. No one thought they were a 100-win team. After today’s series finale against Toronto, the Sox travel to Tampa, Minnesota and Chicago before hosting the Indians and having a home-and-away, four-game set with Philadelphia.
All of those clubs are at or below .500, which means Boston will have a good chance to straighten itself out before traveling to Yankee Stadium. That’s only a two-game series, but it should hold the kind of meaning and entertainment that we’ve come to expect from the Boston-New York rivalry. It should be fun, just like these Sox will be this summer.
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)