The early days of April were terrible times for Red Sox fans. Entering the season with higher expectations than any other fanbase, we were treated to one of the worst starts in franchise history. Assailed with almost daily updates on how rare it was for a team to start this poorly and then make the playoffs, much less win it all, any member of the fan base could be forgiven for turning pessimistic.
But could even those who remained faithful have seen this coming? The calendar hasn't even turned to June yet, and suddenly, here the Red Sox are, alone at the top of the ultra-competitive AL East.
How did we get to this point? Let's review.
April 1 - April 15: The 2-10 start (Uh...2-10)
On April 8, the Red Sox defeated the Yankees. Normally any victory over their division rivals would be cause for celebration, but this one held extra significance, because, a week after the season began, the Sox finally had their first win. The game itself was odd enough, with the Sox losing the lead after a five-run second inning put them up early, only to eventually put the game away thanks to a rally started by an Adrian Gonzalez bunt.
You read that right.
The celebration was like that you'd expect from a man in a desert who had just stumbled upon a pool of muddy water. It wasn't pretty (is a John Lackey game ever?), he was still probably screwed, but at least for the night he wouldn't be thirsty. When the Sox followed it up by going 1-3 in their next four games, though, the shine was completely gone. Maybe the Sox weren't going to be losing every game any more, but that sure as hell didn't make them good.
Key Game: April 8 vs. New York Yankees -- 'Nuff said
Key Player: Dustin Pedroia -- Pedey was just about the only offensive player who actually started the year off particularly well, and were it not for his 6-for-9 performance in the Red Sox' two wins, they may not even have had those.
April 16 - April 24: The Week(+) Of Starting Pitching (8-1)
With the Red Sox falling just short on April 15 against the Toronto Blue Jays, their record sat at a dismal 2-10. Amazingly, Daisuke Matsuzaka had even managed to jump-start the Rays, with the Sox being swept in a rain-shortened two-game series by the only team that had started colder than they had. The Red Sox were the worst team in baseball. That was about to change.
It seems fitting that it all started with the biggest turn-around story on the team this year: Josh Beckett. Coming off a tremendous outing against the Yankees, Sox fans greeted Beckett's start against the Blue Jays with guarded optimism. Sure, the team as a whole sucked, but it'd be nice if the guy who had seemed like an albatross contract not a month ago could show some sustained results.
Their faith was rewarded. Beckett threw seven innings of one-run ball, striking out nine batters in the process. The Red Sox would win that game against the Blue Jays, and then again when Lester threw six strong of his own. With Daisuke Matsuzaka keeping the train rolling, the Sox picked up their first winning streak of the season: a three-gamer that saw them hold the Blue Jays to one run each time, scoring 17 of their own over the last two. Mixed up in all this was the emergence of Jed Lowrie as the starting shortstop and the team's short-term hero, picking up eight hits, two homers, and seven RBI during the winning streak.
The Sox' streak would be snapped by Brett Anderson's dominant performance in Oakland, but given how he tends to destroy the Red Sox, that was neither wholly surprising or disappointing. And, with John Lackey holding his own in the game, at least the starting pitching still seemed to be on to something. That notion was reinforced by Clay Buchholz allowing one earned run in the next game as the team got back to winning.
If you're looking for a real transformative moment for this team, though, you have to look to Los Angeles, and the four-game sweep of the Angels. The Halos would score only two earned runs off Red Sox starters in the series, while the Red Sox offense would again find some legs. It was during this series that Jacoby Ellsbury learned the value of slap-hitting--a lesson that has led to a .375 wOBA on the season, good for fourth on the team--and Carl Crawford finally ran into his first home run of the year. The Sox headed back to the Atlantic winners of eight of their last nine games and just one game under .500.
Key Game: May 20 at Oakland Athletics -- After a crushing defeat against Brett Anderson, the Sox could have easily curled up and gone back in their hole. Instead, they came out and knocked around Gio Gonzalez to start a five-game win streak.
Key Player: Josh Beckett -- There were starters who had better numbers than Beckett in the period, but Beckett was the one who held down the Blue Jays and Angels in games where the Sox couldn't afford to give up many runs.
April 25-May 6: Treading Water (4-7)
As much as the Orioles have been the perennial cellar dwellers of the AL East, over the last couple of years they've had a real knack for frustrating the Red Sox. Last year, as April turned to May, the Sox had just fought back to .500 after a poor start against the Rays and AL West had put them behind early. Going into Camden Yards at 11-11, Boston fans were hoping for an easy series against the Rays to really give them some traction in the division. Instead, they were greeted with a spirit-crushing sweep.
The Orioles didn't sweep the Sox this time, but they did win their three game series 2-1 and stop the run of dominant starting pitching by scoring four off of both Beckett and Buchholz. The Sox would bounce back with a three-game winning streak against the Mariners and Angels thanks largely in part to the early-May heroics of Carl Crawford, but would match that with a three-game slide immediately thereafter, leaving them in the AL East cellar once more.
Key Game: April 28 at Baltimore -- But for this 6-2 win, the Red Sox would have had a five-game losing streak on their hands after the losses against Seattle. With an 0-6 start already in the books, hitting another major slide like that could easily demoralize a team finally on the mend.
Key Player: David Ortiz -- Adrian Gonzalez was impressive, and Jon Lester arguably carried the Sox to two of their four wins in the period, but Ortiz was consistently a different maker in each of the team's victories.
May 7 - May 15: The Push To .500 (6-2)
It took some heroism for the Sox to right the ship, starting with an unassuming outing from Alfredo Aceves that actually came on the last loss of the Sox' losing streak back on May 6. The Sox had just endured two of their most terrible losses of the year. The first was the marathon against Los Angeles on May 4 which saw Josh Beckett knocked out early due to a rain delay. The Sox would fall after 13 innings, exhausting their bullpen along the way. The very next day it was John Lackey giving away the game early and forcing Scott Atchison and Rich Hill to finish the last five innings for him.
So when Tim Wakefield proved equally incapable of going five innings, out came Alfredo Aceves to take the entire burden onto his shoulders, leaving the most important parts of the pen with two days of rest to recover from their 13-inning ordeal.
The second bit of heroism comes from Clay Buchholz, who made certain those rested few would be sufficient in their next game on May 7. Clay only went five innings, and he didn't give up any runs in the process, but it took him quite a while to get the job done thanks to the two-hour rain delay he had to sit through. Pitching on both sides of the delay, Buchholz set up the transition to Hill, Albers, Bard, and finally Papelbon as the Sox broke their losing streak.
Then, after a solid second win over the Twins, it was Carl Crawford providing some more walk-off magic, doubling off the Green Monster to bring Jose Iglesias around for the winning run in the eleventh.
Boston would stall out a bit against the Blue Jays thanks largely in part to John Lackey and a struggling Jon Lester, but then came the big series in New York. With the front of the rotation lined up perfectly, the Red Sox went into New Yankee Stadium and blew the doors off the place, outscoring the Yankees 18-9, reaching .500 and pulling within one game of their vanquished foes in the same breath. It was as close to a clean slate as the Sox could have hoped for.
Key Game: May 15 at New York Yankees -- The Red Sox had already failed on a few other attempts to reach .500, and with Jon Lester surrendering four runs to the Yankees in the first inning, it seemed they were about to do the same in New York. But Kevin Youkilis brought them all-the-way back in a hurry with his three-run shot in the third, and the Sox held on thanks to more long balls from David Ortiz and Jarrod Saltalamacchia to finally get over that hump.
Key Player: Adrian Gonzalez -- While Clay Buchholz was surviving rain delays and Carl Crawford was hitting walkoffs, nobody comes close to Gonzo over these eight games. 13-for-35 is one thing, but six homers is quite another. Adrian boosted his OPS by more than 100 points over this eight game period, showing Sox fans just exactly what they'd gotten for their money (not to mention prospects).
May 16 - Today: Firing On All Cylinders, First Place (9-2)
And here we are, on our most recent tear that's brought the Sox all the way back to the top. You remember this well enough, I imagine. The Sox lost the two least reliable members of their rotation, and found themselves the recipients of four impressive starts in return courtesy of Tim Wakefield and Alfredo Aceves.
They took a series from the team with the best record in the American League, scoring 14 off of them to finish the job, and then went ahead and scored 14 again against Max Scherzer, who to that point had been sitting pretty with an ERA under three. Rick Porcello was the team's next victim, and when the Yankees fell to the Mariners on Friday, the Sox found themselves alone on top.
Key Game: May 26 at Detroit Tigers -- It's one thing to beat up on a guy fresh off the disabled list. It's another entirely to score seven runs in three innings off a starter who could have considered himself among the American League's best.
Key Player: Carl Crawford -- He had a terrible GIDP against the Indians that cost the Red Sox the game, but otherwise, the most maligned member of the lineup has finally hit his stride. Be it the 8-for-9 performance in the two blowout wins over the Tigers, or his two-run shot that just about proved the difference on Friday, Carl Crawford is back to being Carl Crawford. And with the Sox already on a role, that's gotta be a pretty scary thought for the rest of the league going forward.