For the Boston Red Sox these last few weeks, it’s been business as usual. The formula which the Red Sox have utilized each of the last two years—solid starting pitching and timely hitting—is taking shape yet again in 2008.
It hasn’t been an easy first few laps out of the gate, though. Not by a long shot.
The Red Sox, coming off a long, emotional 2007 season, saw the franchise raise its second World Series banner in the last four years. The Red Sox started off 2008 with some unique distractions.
They first flew to Tokyo for an MLB extravaganza in front of thousands of Japanese fans. Marketing exposure is all well and good, but you can be sure this is not quite how Terry and the boys wanted to start their title defense.
The trip involved a lot of miles, restricted the early season usage of Josh Beckett, and was a circus for the players involved. Two baseball clinics and a trip to the U.S. military base were squeezed in between two exhibition games and two regular season games; the latter of which the Red Sox split 1-1.
So, in essence, there was a lot of extra-curricular activity happening right out of the gate for the Sox.
From Tokyo, they flew home—sort of. Home, as in the United States, yes. But home as in Boston, no.
The Sox arrived back in Oakland and played two more games with the A’s, then flew to Canada to play three more with the Blue Jays. If you’re keeping score at home, that makes seven games in three different countries in the span of 10 days.
Unique distractions, indeed.
So by the time the Red Sox got back home, received their 2007 World Series Rings, raised the banner at the Fens, and got settled, it was already mid-April. They had been traveling around the world for the better part of three weeks.
And then a team-wide flu bug hit the team, side-lining Josh Beckett, Manny Delcarman, Coco Crisp, Dustin Pedroia, and Jason Varitek (among others) for varied amounts of time. What’s more, World Series MVP Mike Lowell (120 RBI in 2007) hit the DL with a bruised thumb and missed 20 of the team’s first 25 games.
Naturally, we saw a slow start to the season. A little bit of the ‘ol tired legs syndrome, if you will.
But now, a month into the season, the Red Sox finally seem to be getting healthy, rested, and focused on playing the type of baseball Boston fans have come to enjoy over the last four or five years.
Most importantly, the always crucial starting rotation is beginning to round into form.
Josh Beckett has not been as sharp as in ’07, but has looked better of late. Tim Wakefield has been a reliable rock in the starting five, just as he’s been for the last 10-plus years.
Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz—the young guns—have had their bumps in the road, but both have pitched exceptionally well over the last two weeks.
And Dice-K, despite his infuriating walk rate and sometimes painfully slow pace on the mound, is 5-0 with a 2.43 ERA.
Add it all up, and you get sparkling numbers. Over the last 10 games, the Red Sox rotation is 5-3 with a 1.69 ERA and has given up just 36 hits in nearly 70 innings. Impressive stuff.
We all, know, however, that baseball is a team sport, perhaps more than any other of the major sports.
Good pitching is something to build on, but it won’t get you to October unless you have an effective bullpen to protect late game leads. You'll also need an offense capable of carrying the team on nights where your arms simply don’t shine.
And that is what has been the most gratifying thing about watching the Red Sox thus far. Despite all the distractions, all the travel, all the sickness, and all the heightened expectations, the team as a whole has played a good amount of well-rounded baseball games.
By that, I mean they have competed and executed in all three facets of the game: pitching, hitting, and the intangibles (base running, timeliness, situational effectiveness, etc.)
Manny Ramirez is off to his best start in years. David Ortiz has battled knee issues and a dreadful start, but has four homers in his last 10 games. Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis have contributed their normal scrappiness and on-base savvy.
The young legs of Jacoby Ellsbury, Jed Lowrie, and Brandon Moss have all pitched in somewhere along the road. And now Mike Lowell is back from the DL, supplying his capable bat, gold glove defense, and immeasurable locker room presence to a team that looks as though it’s getting its second wind.
The only glaring weakness I see on this squad is a lack of middle-relief. It’s a hard thing to measure, middle relief, and I bet if you asked all 30 managers across the big leagues at least 20 of them would say, “We could use another arm in the pen.”
But the group of Mike Timlin (42 years old), Manny Delcarman (7.30 ERA through May 8), David Aardsma, Julian Tavarez, and Javier Lopez makes me a tad bit nervous.
The team has relied on lefty specialist Hideki Okajima and crazy-legs Papelbon heavily thus far in ’08, and that is a trend that has to change if you expect Okajima and Papelbon to be effective and healthy come September.
Perhaps first round pick Craig Hansen (once considered the best minor league arm the Red Sox had amongst a group that included Buchholz, Papelbon, Lester, and Delcarman) can emerge as a valuable late-inning righty.
If he can control his psyche on the mound and utilize his biting slider inside to lefties and away from righties, I believe he can aid the one weakness in what is otherwise a darn near complete team.
The good news is that the Red Sox—as a team—have begun to take shape despite their less than ideal start. They sit at 22-14 and 3.5 games ahead of those pesky "Rays" in the AL East.
More importantly, however, they’ve begun to play the type of ball that made them champions in 2007.
They’ve begun to take care of business.