Most Red Sox fans agree that this would describe the first half of the season pretty well. If you missed the entire first half and saw the Red Sox with a half game lead in the division at the break, you would think "OK, not a total shock, the east looked like a three team race in the preseason." That they had to wrestle first place away from the Tampa Bay (No longer Devil) Rays would come as a huge surprise. On top of that, this was fueled by a lineup where JD Drew was hitting third and with David Ortiz on the shelf for nearly two months...
Needless to say fans weren't expecting the AL East to go from a predicted three team race between the Sox, Yanks, and Jays to a two team race between the Sox and Rays with the Yanks playing inconsistently all season. Perhaps most surprising of all, the rivalry with the Rays has changed dramatically (In that their actually is one now). The June 4th brawl got the blood boiling, and the sweep by the Rays a month later served to galvanize it (More on the Rays later, when I do a writeup on the AL East as a whole). Injuries certainly played a big factor in the play of the Sox in the first half, but the team has truly embraced the "next man up" mentality with some highly touted prospects and some unexpected contributions from the regulars.
A few thoughts on the half-season that was
Biggest Surprise: JD Drew and Jon Lester
When Ortiz went down with a wrist injury in June, the prognosticators predicted the Sox to absolutely take a nose dive. When it was announced that JD Drew would be taking Ortiz' spot in the lineup, the calls of gloom and doom grew louder.
After a thoroughly disappointing 2007 season, very little was expected of Drew. Then again, despite the 70 Million dollar contract he signed in the 06 off season, nothing was expected of him to begin with (Reputations are hard to break). However, after an excellent first half (highlighted by his torrid numbers in June), The Nation seems to be warming up to ol' JD. If you look at his place among league leaders, you wonder if this is the same JD Drew we've been hearing stories about for over a decade. As of the break, he ranks in the top three in On-Base Percentage (and by extension ranks in the top ten in Base on Balls), Slugging, Runs Scores, and OPS (Ranking second behind Milton Bradley). He's on pace for more strikeouts overall this year, but he's also on pace for 100+ walks and has already surpassed his Home Run total from 2007. I feel that he'll cool off a bit in the second half, but will still contribute at a high level.
On the pitching side of matters, Jon Lester has truly made the jump that many were hoping he would make. With a no hitter under his belt, 125 innings pitched and 20 games started, Lester ranks among the league leaders in both categories. His strikeout to walk ratio has risen (1.61 to 1.86) while his WHIP has declined a bit (1.46 to 1.33). Granted, WHIP still may be a bit high, but Lester is still only 24 years old, and has pitched well enough to work some things out at the major league level.
Additionally, Lester is beginning to emerge as the stopper on this team, possessing a 4-1 record following a loss. With all of these factors put together (coupled with his comeback last year), Lester is starting to truly reach his potential.
Continuing to Dissapoint: Julio Lugo and the Bullpen
Not worth the 9 million dollars Boston's paying him per year. His below average offensive skills coupled with his putrid Renteria-like play defensively is enough to draw ire from any fan. His recent injury means more playing time for Alex Cora and Jed Lowrie, potentially creating a controversy at shortstop.
As for the Bullpen, blown leads and saves abound with them. Hopefully Delcarmen and Hansen can stabilize themselves. Justin Masterson will be joining the bullpen soon, and both he and Lowrie bring me to my next point
Players to Watch in the Second Half: Jed Lowrie and Justin Masterson
Some above play by Lowrie could render some issues concerning Lugo's playing time, and Masterson's masterful (See what I did there?) pitching in the starting rotation could bring a desperately needed cohesiveness to the bullpen.
Biggest Non-Manny Elephant In The Room: Jason Varitek
This is more for the off season, but the problem is still there. Any student of the game knows that Jason Varitek works wonders with a pitching staff, but his bat is becoming an absolute liability. I'll be chiming in with an article on this very soon as well.
I'll be working on another article on where the Red Sox go from here within a day or so. As for now, I'm off to see Dark Knight! Stay safe, and have a great weekend everybody!