Riding the Red Sox Roller Coaster

it's funny how these things change.  It seems like only a week ago (OK, two weeks) that the Sox had just finished up one of the only promising series' of what seemed like a lost season.  Despite having just taken two out of three games from the streaking Blue Jays, and looking like they might finally emerge from the depths of .500 baseball, times were dire.  The Red Sox, who in the offseason had looked like solid playoff competitors had been playing, well, bad baseball for over a month, and already talk was about how they had no chance to beat the seemingly indomitable Rays or the powerful Yankees.

Any seeming positives were cancelled out by what the Red Sox were about to have to do- enter what looked like the toughest stretch of the year with a record just above .500.  They had to play 5 straight series against serious playoff competitors with great records, and only 2 of these games were coming at home.  Red Sox fans the world over were pulling out their white flags of surrender and talking about what pieces we could get for our expiring contracts (if you didn't see at least three proposals involving dumping Mike Lowell and Adrian Beltre for Adrian Gonzalez then you clearly havent been reading the internet).

Now here we sit, 14 days later, in a very different situation, after having watched a ballclub composed of (mainly) the same players playing some of the finest baseball this author has personally witnessed in a while.  The Red Sox have now won their last 5 games (against none other than the class-of-the-NL Phillies and the class-of-MLB Rays) and 7 out of their last 8.  This is the hottest team in baseball.  So which of these teams are we going to see through the rest of the year?  Should we pull back out our latest trade proposal for getting Albert Pujols and Cliff Lee without giving up any top prospects, or should we be cheering for a 141-21 record at the end of the year?

Obviously, the short answer is somewhere in between.  The baseball we've seeing lately has just been absurd combinations of Offense, great Defense (which we can actually expect), and absolutely world-beating pitching.  

I think with the players we have assembled, we should be seeing this level of defense- obviously not every game, but in general.  Adrian Beltre has looked like the wizard we all looked forward to, Dustin Pedroia has made some ridiculous plays, and Marco Scutaro has played some solid defense at shortstop (which, as a Red Sox fan, sounds weird...).  Due to unfortunate injuries, our outfield defense has been less than stellar, and is likely to reamin so with Jacoby Ellsbury still hurt and Mike Cameron's lingering injury.

The offense should be solid through the year.  Really, this is the one aspect that, minus a few games, has been acceptable through the year so far.  We shouldn't expect Youk, David Ortiz, and Beltre to keep performing at levels eclipsing their career norms, but we sure can enjoy it while it lasts.  The fact is, at the beginning of the year, the Red Sox enjoyed a solid 1-9, and a month and a half into it, despite some injuries, they can put a lineup on the field almost every day with no dead weight (I'm looking at you, Bill Hall.).  Pedroia, Martinez, Beltre, and maybe even Cameron, despite missed time, should be able to put up very solid offensive seasons, and Youkilis and Ortiz are each smacking balls out as well as any combo in baseball at the moment.

The pitching has not been what we've expected.  It wasn't at the beginning of the year and it isn't now.  At the beginning, it was awful.  It seemed like nobody could consistently find the zone- walks were up, strikeouts were down, and earned runs were way up all across the board.  Now this last week, we've seen an incredibly resurgence of pitching.  No, we can't expect our starters to go 8 innings most days and have an ERA of under 1, but the performance we've been seeing are a heck of a lot closer to what we expected coming into the year than what we saw at the beginning.  Jon Lester has normalized and been his Cy Young-deserving self, among the leaders in strikeouts, and managing to get more groundballs with this defense behind him, which should help him a lot; Buchholz, while probably getting lucky, has also shown an improved maturity and ability to deal with pressure than ever before; Daisuke Matsuzaka just pitched his best start on the Red Sox, and hopefully can continue to build off of that; Wakefield is being the ever reliable Wake and is in one of his good streaks right now; Lackey only has to pitch every 5 days, and Beckett isn't pitching at all (hopefully he'll find his form on the DL...).  

The bullpen stinks.  No way around it.  Bard has been the one great performance.  At some point, things will need to change in the pen, until then, we'll just have to hope that we can keep getting good enough starts that the pen won't be blowing all of our games.  At the end of the day, the bullpen is always important, but if we can have 5 starters on this team performing like they should, the Red Sox bullpen is less important than the bullpen is to the other 29 teams in baseball.  Until last week, that hadn't been the case, but things are looking up.

So here we sit, approaching the end of May, finally having topped the Blue Jays for 3rd place in the AL East.  we're only 2 games behind the Yankees and only 5.5 behind the once-invincible Rays.  Next up are KC, Oakland, Baltimore, and Cleveland.  There's a lot of work left to do, and a lot of good baseball that needs to be played, but from where I'm sitting, this looks like it still has all the makings of one of the more exciting seasons of Red Sox baseball I've seen.  How about you?

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