The Boston Red Sox pounded the Chicago Cubs into submission, 15-5, yesterday to win their seventh straight ball game. The Sox have now won 10 of 12, 13 of 18 and 22 of their last 32. They have the best record in baseball since April 16 and, more importantly, they sit just a half game behind the Tampa Bay Rays for first place in the AL East.
How did this happen?
It was just two weeks ago that Red Sox Nation was ready to call it a year and go back to rooting for the Celtics and Bruins in the playoffs. But much has happened in those two short weeks, including Rajon Rondo almost single-handedly beating the Miami Heat with one arm (try getting your kids to believe that one in about 20 years).
The Red Sox, meanwhile, have come together as a team and started playing like the club that everyone and their uncle picked to win the World Series.
The good news? They're going to get even better.
Much of the blame for Boston's poor start was placed squarely on the shoulders of the $142 million man, otherwise known as Carl Crawford. In reality, at least half the lineup was struggling. The Red Sox hit just .243 as a team in April and Crawford finished the brutal month hitting .155.
Since then, however, the star outfielder has really turned it on. He opened May with an 11-game hitting streak and has his batting average up to .212. He's hitting .294 so far in May and has a couple of nice game-winning hits on his resume.
He's still stuck in the eight spot in the lineup and will remain there until further notice, but this is still a perennial All-Star who's only now beginning to play like one.
Crawford's worst season in his 10-year major league career was in 2008, when he missed over 50 games and finished with a .273/.319/.400 line. He's currently at .212/.247/.282. Crawford averages 13 home runs and 53 steals over 162 games. Right now he has one and six, respectively. Clearly there's room for improvement.
It's only a matter of time before Crawford unleashes a string of multi-hit games and gives the Red Sox offense yet another weapon.
John Lackey/Daisuke Matsuzaka
The Red Sox felt pretty confident with what they were going to get out of the top of their rotation, and the trio of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz has certainly delivered so far this season. But the same can't be said for the back end of the rotation.
Matsuzaka somehow rolled off two consecutive scoreless starts in mid-April, but the rest of the season has been a disaster. He hasn't made it past the fifth inning in five of his eight starts and has almost as many walks (23) as strikeouts (26). He's been so bad that the Red Sox couldn't wait to get him off the field, putting him on the disabled list with a sprained right elbow. He's not expected back until July, if ever.
Remarkably, Lackey has been even worse. The big righty has a 8.01 ERA and is getting smacked around like he's playing T-ball. In 39.1 innings he's surrendered 53 hits and 18 walks. In other words, an opposing batter has a better chance of reaching base than he does recording an out. Lackey's crap fest earned him a spot on the disabled list alongside Matsuzaka, with what the Red Sox call a sprained right elbow.
It's almost inconceivable that the two of them can continue to pitch this poorly, but even if they spend the rest of the season sitting on the bench (a trade is impossible at this point) the Red Sox can still take solace in that they have other options.
There's the ageless Tim Wakefield, who's already made two serviceable starts this season. There's Alfredo Aceves, the former Yankee with starting experience. There's lefties Rich Hill and Felix Doubront, just waiting for their shot to get back on the mound. There's even the recently signed Kevin Millwood!
If the Yankees can make it through the first quarter of the season with Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon in their rotation, then odds are the Red Sox can find a competent pitcher somewhere.
The Bobby Jenks signing has been a disaster. The supposed seventh inning guy has a 9.35 ERA in 11 games and is currently on the DL with a strained right biceps. Dan Wheeler has been even worse with a 11.32 ERA in 11 games, thanks in large part to the four home runs he's given up (tied for fourth on the team, including starters). Denys Reyes didn't even make it through a week with the big club, earning his release after just 1.2 awful innings.
But there is hope on the horizon.
The bullpen has been anchored by Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard and newcomer Matt Albers, but they've gotten positive contributions out of other pitchers. Scott Atchison is back after a strong year in 2010 and he pitched three scoreless innings last night against the Cubs. Ditto for lefty Rich Hill, who has yet to give up a run in 4.2 innings.
The Red Sox also recently acquired Franklin Morales, a lefty reliever who has a 3.86 ERA in 14 innings pitched for the Colorado Rockies. And don't forget former prospect Michael Bowden, who was lights out in AAA Pawtucket and is now just waiting to get his name called.
It's going to take some time, but the Red Sox have the resources to build a great bullpen.
This may sound like a collection of if's, but every team in baseball has question marks. The biggest question for the Red Sox early in the season was could they get out of their slump? The answer, of course, was yes.
Now the question turns to guys like Carl Crawford, John Lackey and Bobby Jenks. History suggests that all of these guys will turn it around, but even if they don't the Red Sox have Plan B already in place.
It's going to be a fun season.