What are the factors that have, historically, determined how long into a season the Sox have stayed competitive or how deep of a playoff run they have the potential to enjoy?
A partial list would include: starting rotation, bullpen strength, everyday offense, defense, bench role players, management, chemistry, and the Yankees. Let’s take a brief look at each of these:
1. Starting Rotation
Sure, he has gone through some rough patches. His walk counts are high, he allows baserunners in bunches, and it seems that he all too often runs into trouble in the early innings. But it’s nights like tonight that show just what sort of pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka is. His stuff is fantastic, he has great control, his poise is fantastic and his stamina is superlative. As he settles into the United States more and more, masters the strike zone, learns how to work umps like Schilling does and works on ironing out the kinks in his mechanics which magnify a subpar night into an ugly stat line he will grow into a lights-out pitcher. Let’s hope this happens by October. Lester looked great in his return, and despite the small sample size he looks like he will be useful for at the very least rotation depth purposes down the stretch. Schilling is due to return, Beckett has a 3.51 ERA and leads the AL in wins, and Kason Gabbard has been resplendent in his fill-in role. Truly, the rotation looks better equipped to withstand a deep playoff run than any other team in the American League.
2. Bullpen Strength
Simply put, the best in the American league. The past two nights have been excellent examples of the effectiveness and range of our relievers. Tonight, Okajima worked an impressive eighth inning as he retired sluggers Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner and the white-hot youngster Ryan Garko in order. Papelbon came in for the ninth and burned through a perfect inning, including striking out Trot Nixon and Ben Francisco to end the game and earn his 23rd save in 24 chances. The previous night, Mike Timlin pitched extremely effective long relief, Javier Lopez came in as a situational lefty and struck out Hafner, and Manny Delcarmen recorded the final four outs for his first save of the year. Delcarmen looks like a different pitcher than he did last year, with numbers that so far are completely beyond reproach. Tavarez moves to the bullpen, where the numbers suggest he will succeed: almost every one of his failed outings started strong and began to break down around the fourth or fifth inning. Just a look at the team’s individual ERAs shows what a tough bunch it is: Okajima 0.91, Delcarmen 1.56, Papelbon 1.72, Snyder 3.03, Donnelly 3.05, Lopez 3.29, Timlin 3.31. Yow.
3. Everyday Offense
In theory, one of the strongest lineups top to bottom in the American League. We have yet to truly see what it looks like firing on all cylinders, though. We’ve seen what the brutal Tigers lineup looks like one through nine, and the Yankees have certainly uncorked the pop guns over the past few games. As for us? Crisp obviously has been on an absolute tear of late, and Lugo’s hot July is beginning to counteract his frigid…well, April through June. Pedroia has remained hot, Lowell has continued to perform well in clutch situations (including the game’s lone RBI on a two-out single tonight), and Manny is seeing the ball well and beginning to break out of his slight funk. Youk has cooled down, Ortiz’s shoulder will remain a question mark. J.D. Drew is a disaster. All in all, our team batting average is fifth in the AL behind Detroit, New York, LA, and Seattle. In terms of runs, we are fourth behind Detroit, New York and Cleveland. As it is now, this offense would require a fantastic pitching staff in order to stave off New York and Detroit. Good thing we have one. And the other piece of good news is that even with the complaints, our lineup still easily leads baseball in team OBP.
4. Defense
Defense wins championships, or rather, prevents the loss of them. The Red Sox have a significant advantage in this department, as their .986 fielding percentage is easily first among the AL playoff contenders (and behind only Baltimore and Minnesota). The corners are anchored by Mike Lowell, whose fourteen errors belie his steadiness, and Kevin Youkilis, who has not made an error in over a year of everyday play. Coco Crisp is a wizard in center, and Pedroia and Lugo are developing into a solid double play combination. Jason Varitek is a solid backstop who makes up for his failure to distinguish himself against stolen base attempts by being unquestionably the greatest asset to a pitching staff of any catcher in the league. That’s why he’s the captain.
5. Bench Role Players
This is an area that is lacking for the Red Sox, mostly because of the offensive morass represented by Wily Mo Pena and Eric Hinske. Doug Mirabelli is barely serviceable as a backup character, and Alex Cora has cooled considerably since his inspired start. Jacoby Ellsbury sparkled during his cup of tea, hopefully he will spend more time with the big club as a pinch runner and late-inning defensive replacement.
6. Management
Terry Francona led us to the promised land, and as such is regarded as a messiah. Is he a baseball genius? No. The occasional pitching replacement strikes me as odd, but for the most part he runs a baseball game well. His primary skill relates to the next paragraph: he is a player’s manager in the sense that he is able to diffuse through shrewd politicking any tensions or conflicts that bear the potential to bubble into bad situations. His cool head is commendable, though it was fun to witness the rare sight of seeing him jaw with the umpire three nights ago. I like what Dave Madagan has done with straightening out Coco Crisp’s approach, and I do not doubt that Dustin Pedroia’s smooth transitioned into the major leagues can be partly attributed to Madagan’s tutelage. As for John Farrell, give the man a raise.
7. Chemistry
This team doesn’t have a Cowboy Up, a Band of Idiots, or even a Dirty Water theme to it. And I don’t really mind that. David Ortiz is truly the modern day Willie Stargell, in that he mashes home runs and in doing so gathers the entire roster under his wing. He brings smiles out of players who wouldn’t otherwise be as emotive. He was the beating heart of the World Series team, especially in terms of integrating the trade-deadline newcomers into the general social fabric of the team. That is true for this year as well, especially with Wily Mo and Lugo, but this seems like a more settled club, one whose general countenance resembles that of Jason Varitek rather than Ortiz. The team seems to take pride in execution and place a general priority on fundamentals, in doing so coming together in an equally full but much less apparent way than any of the gimmicks of past years provided.
8. The Yankees
This could get interesting. I was genuinely scared over the last couple days. Shelley Duncan is taking batting practice in his first week in the bigs. Players emit full-body laughs in the dugout. Oh yeah, they scored thirty-eight runs over a two day span, the first time that had happened since 1936. They’re 11-3 since the All Star break, and not just with offense: they have allowed more than four runs only four times in that fourteen-game span. Bobby Abreu and Johnny Damon are hitting the ball. Derek Jeter is fourth in the AL in batting average. A-Rod, obviously, is not slowing down. True, they’re facing the weakest teams in the league, but they have scored a ridiculous fifty-three runs over the last five games. Once they finish off their four-game series with the Royals, they travel to Baltimore, then come home for the White Sox and the Royals again. The lead is down to 7.5 games. We’ll see what happens.