A Series of Laser Shows Reinforces Red Sox Optimism

BOSTON - MAY 06: Marco Scutaro #16 and Dustin Pedroia #15 of the Boston Red Sox are congratulated by teammate Mike Lowell #25 after they both scored in the fifth inning against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on May 6, 2010 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The historically uncharacteristic sweep at the hands of the cellar-dwelling Baltimore Orioles last weekend is now merely a set of stale yellow traffic lights reflected in the proverbial rear-view mirror of Red Sox fans everywhere following a statement-making series of sorts this week at Fenway Park. Never has the phrase objects in mirror may be closer than they appear been more applicable -- although in this instance it serves more as a source of optimism rather than a warning, and justifiably so.

Heading into the four-game home stand against the same club that swept them out of last year’s postseason in the American League Divisional Series -- the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim -- Boston was sitting in fourth place with a modest 11-14 record. Two major areas of concern addressed by Theo Epstein and crew this off-season [pitching and defense] had failed to flourish for the most part in the early goings of April -- ultimately culminating in a winless series in Baltimore.

However, following the Red Sox’s 17-8 victory over the Angels in game one of the series, Dustin Pedroia had a special message for Red Sox Nation: "Everybody can be [expletive] happy when you’re [expletive] 30-1, but what is everybody going to do when we’re 12-14? Are you going to show up to work the next day and write an [expletive] story? Hell no. You’re going to write the best story of your life. We’re going to try and play the best [expletive] game of our life tomorrow. That’s what you’ve got to do when you’re 12-14. Don’t put your head down and mope. Grind it out. You believe. That’s what we’re built on."

Dustin Pedroia; more than just a nightly laser show and passionate second amendment advocate -- he’s also the refreshing voice of reason.

Starting pitching of all things was thought to be the last of Boston’s concerns in 2010. After all, the Red Sox came into the season holding a receipt worth over eighty million dollars after purchasing the best available starting pitcher via free agency to fill out a rotation already consisting of more than one certified front-line starter -- and that was even before Josh Beckett’s contract extension.

And yet, of those who comprise what was regarded as one of the strongest starting rotations in all of baseball heading into the year, it was oft-criticized Clay Buchholz and the recently acquired John Lackey who managed to anchor the staff; all while the normally dependable Josh Beckett and Jon Lester struggled with inconsistency -- each to their own degree.

Lester, who heading into the season had garnered a substantial amount of ‘staff ace’ talk yet again following a strong finish to 2009, struggled mightily out of the gates sparking the all too familiar ‘sluggish starter’ accusations. In Lester’s first four starts this season, he compiled a 0-2 record to go along with an ERA of 6.23. Although he did manage to get through six innings once during those first four starts, he gave up seven earned runs (including two home runs) in doing so.

Josh Beckett, the topic of much speculation regarding just exactly how his ego’s reaction to the new surplus of top-tier starters featured alongside him in the rotation would translate on the field, wasn’t anywhere near midseason form initially. Of his five April starts, two lasted less than five innings and just one saw Beckett surrender less than three earned runs. However, as the beneficiary of remarkable run support, the Red Sox won all but one game in which Beckett started, combining for thirty-eight runs in the four wins. Despite that offensive onslaught, the average margin of victory was just over two runs per game in that span -- a good indicator of the effects felt by Beckett‘s early turbulence.

Transitioning the topic of conversation to the bullpen doesn’t get any prettier, unfortunately. Aside from Manny Delcarmen -- who appears to be back to the dominant reliever he was just a few years ago -- there aren’t too many veritable pats on the back to go around. Daniel Bard has looked solid; with six holds already and an impressive k/9 ratio of nearly twelve. However, his tendency to allow the long ball early on may be cause for concern. And then there’s Jonathan Papelbon, who (despite an alarming nine walks and a WHIP of 1.20 in his fifteen innings pitched) has managed to convert all eight of his save attempts. As for the other relievers -- Scott Atchison, Ramon Ramirez, Scott Schoeneweis and Hideki Okajima -- not one left the series in Baltimore with an ERA under 6.00, and they had combined to surrender fifty-one hits along with eight home runs in just over forty innings of work.

The defense, a major selling point from management in regards to their off-season decision making, had been similarly disappointing. The poster boy, so to speak, of Boston’s newfound defensively-oriented strategy -- two-time Gold Glove recipient, Adrian Beltre -- accounted for six of the Red Sox’s first twenty errors. Fellow newcomer, and the other half of the infield‘s left side, Marco Scutaro, was responsible for three himself.

With two of baseball’s three basic elements of a winning formula [pitching & defense] effectively eluding the Red Sox early on -- the same two that were thought to be the team’s crutches heading into opening day, nonetheless -- it could almost have been considered a blessing that Boston was even near the .500 mark. Instead, the 11-14 listed alongside the fourth place Red Sox on the AL East standings section of Fenway Park’s manual scoreboard induced a state of panic among fans and media alike.

That would change rather quickly.

Coming off the deflating sweep in Baltimore -- and with a series against the red-hot Yankees just around the corner -- Boston managed to grind out a rare four-game sweep of the Angels, bringing the team above .500 for the first time since their their opening night win at Fenway against New York.

Boston answered a lot of questions in the last four games -- and answered them strongly enough to open most fans’ eyes as to how much potential there is behind the fourth place Red Sox.

In the series opener on Monday, Clay Buchholz, despite not having his best stuff, pitched well enough for his third win of the season. The offense -- one of the biggest reasons the Red Sox weren’t supposed to win high scoring affairs such as this according to most experts -- powered past Angels pitching, amassing 17 runs on 20 hits in eight innings of work (including an impressive seven-run sixth inning). This type of offensive prowess would be a reoccurring theme in this particular series.

In game two, Jon Lester went a long way in silencing any rumblings regarding his initial slow start to the season. In his third consecutive quality start, Lester went eight strong innings giving up just one earned run on five hits, while striking out five and walking a pair. In out-dueling Angels starter Ervin Santana (who earned a no-decision) in the 5-1 victory, Lester earned his second win of 2010 and lowered his ERA to 3.93.

The third game of the series was significant for a few reasons. For one, John Lackey again showed his ability to take over a game and induce crucial groundballs when needed, hurling seven innings and giving up one run on just two hits in the 3-1 win. More importantly, struggling slugger David Ortiz -- who has always had success against that night’s opposing pitcher Joel Pineiro -- reinforced Dustin Pedroia’s sentiments regarding his ability to get back on track by going 2-3 with a walk and an encouraging opposite field home run in the fourth inning.

Then came Thursday night and the always interesting, but never predictable, Daisuke Matsuzaka start. The night started off disastrous as Matsuzaka walked three Angels hitters on the way to giving up four first inning runs. However, Daisuke would settle in nicely after the shaky first, giving up just one run and walking zero in his final 4 1/3 innings of work -- an extremely encouraging sign for Red Sox fans. The offense again found a way to maneuver its way around shaky pitching, banging out double-digit hits for the fourth straight game en route to a 11-6 win and the series sweep.

Overall, the Red Sox outscored the Angels 36-16 and collected 53 hits during the four game set; averaging over thirteen hits and nine runs per game. More importantly however, their performance helped paint a more visually appealing portrait of not only the progress made to this point, but also the prospects for the remainder of the season.

Without question, the rotation is starting to produce paralleling its preseason expectations. Not only are Beckett, Lester and Lackey starting to earn their title of "The Big Three," but Clay Buchholz is producing as well as any other number four starter in baseball. Not only that, but Matsuzaka showed a level of determination and resiliency Thursday night that can only be considered encouraging going forward. Any positive production from the back end of the rotation is a plus for any team, but if Boston’s number four and five starters [Buchholz and Matsuzaka] perform as well as they can (or in Buchholz’s case, as well as he has up to this point), the Red Sox will be in good shape.

Injuries to Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury played a significant role in the early struggles of the Red Sox. With the offense already considered the team’s most prominent weakness entering the season, even with those two in the lineup, the platoon of Jeremy Hermida, Bill Hall and Darnell McDonald initially offered little by way of confidence. Yet, the offense has been a more than pleasant surprise to this point -- and it, along with the defense, only figures to grow stronger as soon as both Ellsbury and Cameron return from the disabled list. In fact, the eventual return of the starting outfield’s other 67% does more than upgrade just those two facets of the club. With their substitutes playing so well, Jeremy Hermida and Darnell McDonald in particular, the move back to part-time roles significantly strengthens the bench’s depth -- ultimately leading to more late game options for manager Terry Francona, something that had handcuffed him early on.

Similarly, the early injuries, and subsequent availability of playing time, has been a blessing in disguise of sorts for Boston. With the need to upgrade the bullpen and lineup later on in the season still lingering to some extent, players like Mike Lowell, Jeremy Hermida and Darnell McDonald have had an opportunity to showcase themselves to potentially interested trade deadline suitors -- each playing exceptionally well so far this season.

All things considered -- most notably key injuries, a tough early season schedule and an abundance of games decided by two runs or less -- the Red Sox should be praised on their 15-14 record rather than chastised for it. After all, the biggest concern heading into the season [the offense] has cruised for the most part despite the aforementioned road blocks -- and improvements by way of pitching and defense are inevitable.

Often overshadowed by the always entertaining references to bombs, guns and laser shows, the words of Dustin Pedroia are seemingly more substantive than they may initially appear. It simply took a four game sweep in dominant fashion to translate what Pedroia has been saying all along: It’s early. Just kick back, relax and enjoy the [laser] show.

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