The Boston Red Sox have been competitive ever since Theo Epstein made a splash this offseason acquiring superstars Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford.
Yeah, they stated a bit slowly, but as we ease into the dog days of summer, the Sox are in a prime position to live up to their offseason expectations.
With the All-Star game in the books, and the second half underway, let's take a look at the keys for the Boston Red Sox down the stretch-one letter at a time.
There's been Josh Beckett's knee, Jon Lester's shoulder, Clay Buchholz's back, Daisuke Matsuzaka's elbow, John Lackey's inconsistency and in the middle of it all there's been Andrew Miller.
The 6'7" lefty and former first round draft pick has been thrust into the spotlight with all of the injuries to the Red Sox starting rotation.
The only real concern with Andrew Miller is his control. With at least four walks in each of his last three starts, Miller has some in Boston shaking their heads. Nonetheless, with a 4-1 record, he seems to be getting the job done.
With the status of Clay Buchholz in question, Andrew Miller is a valuable member of the Red Sox pitching staff. His ability to take the mound every fifth day and give the Sox some quality starts will be key to their success down the stretch.
With numerous injuries to the starting rotation, the Red Sox Bullpen has been asked to pick up the slack.
Though the Red Sox pitching staff is subject to constant criticism, the bullpen has held their own this season, leading the American league in WHIP.
Long relievers Alfredo Aceves and Matt Albers have been great out of the pen, pitching multiple innings on several occasions. Daniel Bard has been absolutely lights out, and Jonathan Papelbon has converted all but one save opportunity. With all of that said, it is no surprise that the Red Sox are 50-0 this season when leading after 8 innings.
As the Red Sox offense continues to tear the cover off the ball, a healthy and effective bullpen is crucial, as it potentially gives the Sox the ability to protect any late-inning lead.
Statistically speaking, the Red Sox have the best lineup in baseball. There's no arguing with that. However, serious holes emerged when Sox travelled to National League ballparks and had to play without a designated hitter.
Part of this was due to the fact that Carl Crawford was on the disabled list, but when your bottom four is J.D. Drew, Jason Varitek, Marco Scutaro, and a pitcher, you aren't going to score too many runs.
Crawford has the ability to immediately and dynamically improve the Red Sox lineup. Though he had a disappointing first half, Crawford has the potential to hit over .300 and steal bases at will. Not only does he force pitchers to pitch to the middle of the lineup, can get on base consistently from the bottom of the order.
If Carl Crawford can play to his potential, he is a unique weapon that few, if any, teams have.
During night games, the Red Sox only rank 7th in baseball with a team batting average of .261. During day games however, that average jumps to an absurd .306 (keep in mind that the Kansas City Royals rank a distant second at .283).
To put that in perspective, if the Red Sox day game average were a player, he would rank in the top 10 in the American League in both batting average and OPS. To state it more simply, just imagine Jacoby Ellsbury stepping up to the plate for every at bat.
The Red Sox play roughly 25% of their remaining games during the day, and if they are able to keep these numbers up, they should have a pretty clear path to the playoffs.
The Red Sox team ERA has dropped consistently throughout the season. It started at 4.24 in April, progressed to 4.01 in May, and dropped again to 3.58 in June.
So far in July, Red Sox pitchers have a team ERA of 3.74, but with games remaining against offensively challenged teams, there is certainly room for improvement.
If the Red Sox pitchers can continue to lower their team ERA, they will be a difficult team to beat in October. A constantly improving pitching staff coupled with the Sox lethal lineup, spells disaster for any opponent.
Before Bobby Jenks went on the disabled list, Franklin Morales was the only lefty in the Red Sox bullpen. Though Jenks's replacement Randy Williams is also a southpaw, he has struggled in his brief stint.
As of now, unless the Red Sox acquire another lefty reliever before the trade deadline, (which they very well could) Franklin Morales is the only consistent left-handed reliever out of the pen.
If the Boston Red Sox want to make a deep postseason run, they will inevitably have to do so by beating the competitive American League teams. Franklin Morales will be called up frequently to get crucial outs against contenders such as the Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers, and New York Yankees, who all have largely left-handed lineups.
The Red Sox have a dilemma regarding which of their Georgia boys should play right field. Veteran J.D. Drew, a native of Valdosta, Georgia, started the season in right, but he has underperformed tremendously in the last year of his five year $70 million contract.
Drew's struggles have been magnified by the fantastic play of newcomer Josh Reddick. Guyton, Georgia's golden boy, Reddick has the same number of home runs and doubles as J.D Drew in just about one third as many at bats.
With Boston right fielders last in the league in total bases and hits, the Sox have an important decision to make in the coming weeks. Will they stick with the slumping veteran, or bench him for the hot hitting rookie?
Or perhaps they'll trade for a right fielder before the deadline. Rumor has it that they're very interested in Kansas City Royals outfielder and Atlanta, Georgia native Jeff Francoeur.
Regardless of who they choose, an improved right field bat will greatly benefit the Sox down the stretch.
Ah, there's nothing like playing at Fenway Park. Well, for hitters at least. The Red Sox team average on the road is a mediocre .253, but when they're back at home it skyrockets to .302.
Fortunately for the Red Sox, their pitching has stepped it up away from Fenway. In fact, they have a road ERA that ranks 8th in the majors and is nearly identical to the... wait for it... Philadelphia Phillies.
I get that Fenway is a hitter's ballpark, but if the Red Sox can work to improve their hitting on the road and their pitching at home, they will be an even more difficult team to beat in October.
Injuries plagued the Boston Red Sox throughout the first half of the 2011. Each member of the opening day starting rotation has missed time due to an injury, and key position players such as Carl Crawford and Jed Lowrie have also spent time on the disabled list.
The Red Sox are arguably the best team in baseball, but they won't be able to play to their potential if their key players keep getting injured.
The Sox are in a great position to make a postseason run, but that doesn't mean that they're invincible. Their ability to stay healthy down the stretch is crucial to their late-season success.
I could have gone a lot of different ways with the letter J. There's center field stud Jacoby Ellsbury, Josh Beckett, J.D Drew, Josh Reddick and many more.
But John Lackey stood out to me.
Lackey has struggled mightily this season, allowing five or more earned runs on six separate occasions. Priced at nearly $16 million per year, many believe that has been Theo Epstein's worst decision yet.
But what if John Lackey turned it around?
Now, I'm not talking getting nearly 20 wins with a 3.01 ERA like he did in 2007, but if he were able to maintain a roughly 4.00 ERA for the rest of the season, it would hugely benefit the Red Sox.
They don't need him to be perfect, but just imagine how good the Sox could be if Lackey consistently gave them six or seven innings only allowing three to four runs. Maybe I'm just dreaming, but after allowing only three earned runs in his last 12 1/3 innings, perhaps Lackey is turning the corner.
Kevin Youkilis' batting average has directly related to the Red Sox winning percentage.
He hit only .218 in April, as the Red Sox started off the season slowly and went 11-15 (.423). In May, Youk got it going with a .293 monthly average, as the Sox won 19 of 29 (.655). In June, his average dipped in the slightest to .289 while the the team went 16-9 (.640).
With Kevin Youkilis hitting .333 so far in July, it is no surprise that the Red Sox have won 13 of 16 (.813)
Some may call it a coincidence, but when your clean up hitter is getting the job done, you're going to win games. If Youk keeps hitting the ball well, look for the Sox to continue their winning ways.
The Red Sox have been dominant after the 7th inning. Not only do they lead the American League in every offensive statistical average (their OPS is 100 points better than the second place Rangers), but they also rank first in OOBP (opponent's on base percentage), WHIP and K/BB.
As games become closer and more significant, the Red Sox ability to control late innings, both offensively and on the mound, is going to be crucial. If they can continue to flourish at the ends of games, the Sox will be an even tougher team to beat.
There are several statistical milestones that Red Sox players could reach before the end of the 2011 season. Here are some of the individual achievements that are within reach:
Tim Wakefield is 2 wins away from 200.
Dustin Pedroia is 60 runs away from 500.
Adrian Gonzalez needs 15 more home runs to reach 200.
Kevin Youkilis needs 94 more hits to get to 1000.
Though these milestones may not directly affect wins and losses, they will undoubtedly provide entertaining storylines and fun moments for players and fans down the stretch.
There are only a matter of days left before the trade deadline, and the Red Sox appear to be in the market for some new players.
Most notably, the Sox could look to upgrade right field; however, with Josh Reddick continuing his surge, he may win the starting job.
The Red Sox also have questions on the mound. If Clay Buchholz' injury doesn't improve before the deadline, they may pull the trigger and pick up another starter.
Lastly, while the bullpen has been quite impressive, the Sox could use a veteran lefty specialist. Someone like Florida Marlins reliever Randy Choate seems like the perfect fit for the Sox down the stretch.
Look for the Red Sox to make some moves before the deadline and ready their roster for another late season run.
The first five hitters in the Red Sox regular lineup all rank in the American League's top 11 in On Base Percentage, and if Josh Reddick didn't fall below the minimum plate appearances requirement, he would rank right up there too.
Though the Red Sox don't have anyone with 20 home runs, they have continually proven that they are capable of getting on base and driving in runs.
Whether it's as simple as a walk, or as complicated as a triple, if players can continue to get on base, the Sox will find ways to drive them home.
Just when the Sox slugger looked to be over the hill, he bounced back and had a 2004-esque first half of the 2011 season.
What's arguably most impressive is the dramatic improvement in Big Papi's plate discipline. In 2009 and 2010, Ortiz had BB/K ratios of 0.55 and 0.57 respectively, yet this season he ranks 9th in the American League with 0.96 BB/K.
Despite his recent suspension, Ortiz continues to produce in the middle of the Sox lineup, as nearly every hitting statistic is up from last year. In fact, Ortiz' numbers haven't looked this good since 2007-and we all know what happened that year.
I know it, you know it, the Red Sox know it and their opponents know it. The Red Sox can flat out hit.
While hitting alone can certainly get the job done, improved pitching never hurts.
A quality start is defined as a game in which a starter pitches at least six innings and allows three or fewer runs. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester have 13 and 12 quality starts respectively, but no one else on the Red Sox has more than 6.
Whether they go out and acquire another arm, or the other starters simply improve their numbers, the Sox would be an absolutely deadly team if they could get more quality starts out of the back end of their rotation.
While nothing is guaranteed, the Red Sox seem to be in pretty good shape to make the playoffs.
Yeah, they'd love to get pitchers like Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz back immediately, but these guys are much more valuable later in the season.
The Sox have been playing great baseball recently. They're 22-10 since Buchholz was injured and 13-3 so far in July. The fact is that while these guys improve the roster, they are not essential just yet.
The Red Sox should give their injured players ample time to rest and recover because we all know that a lingering injury in September or October is far worse than a few missed games in July.
The Red Sox will have to prove themselves in September, as 14 of their 27 games come against the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers.
Those three ball clubs, along with the Red Sox of course, round out the top four teams in the American League to date.
The Sox look to be in a pretty comfortable position to make the playoffs, but with 11 games against the Yankees and Rays, anything is possible.
Not only will it give them confidence going into the postseason, but effective play in September will ultimately give the Red Sox an easier road to the World Series.
Though he started the season in the bullpen, the veteran knuckleballer has once again made his way into the Red Sox starting rotation.
In 12 starts Wakefield is 5-3 with a moderate 4.81 ERA. He hasn't been great, but at times he's been enough to get the job done. With questions surrounding the health of the starting rotation, it is likely that Wakefield will continue to take the mound every fifth day.
In recent years, Wakefield's numbers have declined after the All-Star break, and at almost 45 years old, he might not have too much left in the tank. Nonetheless, his ability to fill a spot in the rotation is key. A few quality starts for Tim Wakefield down the stretch would give the Sox a great boost.
As Dave Roberts clearly demonstrated in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, utility players can be game changers.
They may not be the best hitters, but guys like Jed Lowrie, Darnell McDonald and Yamaico Navarro are valuable assets to a winning team.
Whether it's filling in for an injured player, or stealing a base late in a game, utility players help teams win close games.
With six players currently on the roster who are 35 or older, the Red Sox have one of the more veteran ball clubs in all of baseball.
Guys like Tim Wakefield, Marco Scutaro, Jason Varitek and David Ortiz are not only called upon to produce, but it is also their job to help newer guys like Josh Reddick and Yamaico Navarro get a feel for the game.
As the Red Sox prepare to make another deep run in the playoffs, veteran leadership from guys who have been there before will certainly be a valuable asset.
Not every win is pretty.
Take for instance Boston's 9-8 win in 14 innings on June 4th against the Oakland Athletics. Jonathan Papelbon allowed 4 runs in the 9th to let the A's crawl back into the game, but luckily the Sox were able to walk-off with a win.
Or how about last Monday against the Baltimore Orioles, when the Red Sox allowed four unearned runs before the bats came alive in the 8th.
These may not be textbook wins, but they count in the standings. The Sox' knack for winning in a variety of ways will certainly help throughout the rest of the season.
This may be a bit of a reach, but X is ten in Roman numerals.
The Red Sox 2011 seasons has been marked by streaks, as the Sox have won at least four in a row on six different occasions. In fact, since April 28th, the Sox have only had one game winning streaks snapped twice. To state that simply, when the Red Sox win, it is very likely that they're going to win again the next day.
During the first half of the season, the Red Sox longest winning streak was nine games. If they can string together a ten (X) game winning streak, it will all but ensure that they are playing well enough to win the AL East.
Could it be anything else?
The Red Sox are an impressive 8-1 against the New York Yankees this season, but they still have another nine games left to play.
Both teams sit comfortably above the Rays in the AL East standings, so these remaining nine games will likely decide the division title.
It would surely be nice to win another eight, but going 6-3 or even 5-4 against the Yanks down the stretch could certainly help the Sox retain they're division lead.
When the Red Sox are in the zone and playing well, they're as close to unbeatable as you get.
However, as referenced by their slow start, the Sox need to perform consistently.
Going down the stretch, the Sox have to be in the zone. Whether it's during the regular season or postseason, every pitch counts, and it is imperative that the Red Sox come ready to play.