Boston Red Sox: Why They Are Still American League Contenders

John Andre@TheJohnAndreContributor IApril 13, 2011

Boston Red Sox: Why They Are Still American League Contenders

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    Red Sox Nation is reeling over the horrendous start to Boston's season, stumbling out of the gate and playing no better than a last place team. They were picked by many, including many New York Yankees fans, to be formidable foes in the American League. Some even picked them as World Series winners. Of course, the Red Sox have yet to truly show their hand.

    Opening the 2011 season 0-6—swept in back-to-back series—was something unexpected of the Red Sox. But with their All Star lineup composed of veterans and young players alike, one of the league's best lefties in Jon Lester and a proven skipper in Tito Francona, Boston is equipped to contend. And deliver.

    After Tuesday night's 3-2 loss, the Red Sox are sitting in the cellar. Still, there remains much to be hopeful about in this team. There's a reason why there has been much hype surrounding the Boston Red Sox, and why many tagged them as viable World Series champions.

    Tampa Bay and New York don't have the type of teams that in the past gave the Red Sox trouble down the stretch, when it really counts. And the Baltimore Orioles are currently flashing an over achieving team.

    Here's a look at just a few reasons why they've earned such a following, and why this 2011 Red Sox club means business, even at a dismal 2-9.

Two-for-one: Bobby Jenks and Tim Wakefield

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    The right-handed Jenks has been a bright spot in the Red Sox bullpen. His 0.00 ERA in four innings of work is just the beginning of his role as a solid anchor to keep Boston alive in close games.

    Jenks is so far showing he can be counted on to set up Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon. Jenks is dependable and not likely to turn the ball over to the closer with runners on base. This is key in Papelbon's occasional lapses in locating his pitches.

    Not long ago, Tim Wakefield was fighting for a roster spot. He's been roughed up, from tough outings in the spring to Monday's disaster. But the 44-year-old knuckleballer wasn't all bad in his four appearances of the season. He gave up two hits and two runs in six innings of work. A respectable outing.

    Seeing Wakefield as a possible starter, perhaps on the road, isn't that far fetched. With the future of John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka uncertain, having Wakefield available every five days is a benefit.

Jon Lester

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    Known as a slow starter, the lefty is still the same pitcher previously touted as a possible Cy Young winner in 2011. Lester is coming off an impressive 19-9 season after the same unremarkable start.

    He has now had two strong starts back-to-back, at Cleveland and in Monday's loss. With the exception of the fifth inning Monday, where he seemed to lose his way as he gave up three runs, Lester struck out eight and walked two.

    This early in the season, Lester runs into command problems when he's not getting run support. Look for all that to change soon.

Dustin Pedroia

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    The scrappy, backyard brawler's contributions at the plate are nothing new to Red Sox fans. Pedroia's .378 batting average is responsible for what little success Boston has had on offense, but his defense is what's truly going to fire up this team.

    He has also taken on an unassuming leadership role. Pedroia, in his sixth season with the Sox, has earned that right. The former Rookie of the Year and league MVP brings a boost of energy and determination to the park every day. Without him, 2-9 looks a lot worse.

    His strong personality on the field and in the clubhouse will play a big part in Boston's ability to shake off the alarming bad start. It won't be much longer before his teammates recognize Pedroia's is the only soiled uniform after the final out.

Carl Crawford

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    Perhaps one of the most eagerly anticipated Red Sox players to watch, Crawford has yet to show what he's capable of at the plate.

    It's much easier for a hitter to evaluate and dissect his performance when he's struggling in the batters box if he doesn't let the slump get the best of him. In Crawford's case, it's obvious he's had a tough time getting comfortable in his new surroundings.

    It's probably the reason why Crawford, unlike Red Sox Nation, isn't panicking. He remains cool and collected. Far be it for anyone to question his ability or work ethic. He is a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner. Now in his 10th season, he has 411 career stolen bases.

    Expect Crawford to snap out of it soon. Although he is not as dangerous an addition as Adrian Gonzalez, he is an explosive game changer.

The lineup

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    While it's easy to hit the panic button, the fact remains that the Boston Red Sox are loaded with talent. What's important not to forget is that this is the same group of players expected to make a run at 100 wins. It may seem impossible now, but the reality is that the American League champions will not need to reach the century mark.

    This is a lineup without any question marks other than Jarrod Saltalamacchia and his dangerous throws to second base. But who better to groom him than Jason Varitek?

    Perhaps Tito Francona over thinks the batting order, but no one can question his ability to micro-manage his players. Just a glance back into 2010 and the predicament he was in, all the while posting 89 wins, is enough evidence to support confidence in his leadership skills.

    The Red Sox have a potent offense which has yet to claim its fame. But with just two weeks into the season, abandoning all hope is premature.

    Before the rest of the league gets too comfortable with the pad they've put between themselves and the Red Sox, a crystal ball isn't needed to see into the future. Just look at Boston's lineup card. It reads like a fall newspaper headline: Red Sox Headed To World Series.