MLB Analysis: Boston Red Sox Finally Figuring It Out?

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I’m not entirely ready to start booking hotel rooms for October just yet, but eight wins in a 10 game stretch – albeit heavily against the Indians and Mariners – has me walking slowly away from the ledge that I was dangerously close to jumping off of last week. I’ve got to say, it’s much more fun watching the Boston Red Sox play actual baseball.

My column 10 days ago in this space was written from the perspective of a fan who was on he verge of turning his back on a team that seemed like it had turned its back on the fans. There was not a shred of a reason for optimism

Between the terrible pitching, the shuffling lineup, the injuries, the inconsistencies at the plate, the manager, Liverpool and the plummeting ticket sales, last week was about as low as it gets in these parts in regard to baseball. I felt like the Red Sox organization had intentionally killed my dog or something.

But like I wrote early last week – “Beckett Has A Golden Opportunity” – all it takes is a little bit of winning to restore order, and the Sox have suddenly found a way to get that done. It may not be perfect, and it may still feel like the light at the end of the tunnel is a ways off, but this most recent 10-game stretch is the first time since mid-August 2011 that the team has played up to its potential.

The Red Sox lately have done what winning teams do. They jump on teams early, they go deep into games with their starting pitching and they finish the job when the games get close in the late innings.

It only took nine months for the Sox to figure out what it takes to win ballgames again.

Of course, that leads to the question of whether or not the recent level of play is simply reason enough to just forgive everything that preceded it.  Are we expected to just jump right back into the saddle and start rooting as hard as ever for a team that was – quite frankly – kind of disrespectful for a long, long time?

No. But there’s no reason to keep it at the forefront of our minds, either. As long as the team keeps playing with an effort that warrants support, there is no reason to pull out the September 2011-April 2012 card. That said, the leash is shorter. A sudden five-game losing streak in which Adrian Gonzalez blames God and Josh Beckett is seen playing bumper cars the day after being scratched from a start for back problems shouldn’t be tolerated.

Essentially, as long as things continue upward – or at least don’t begin to trend downward – we’re out of the woods in terms of being disgusted. But it won’t take much to move everybody back towards the ledge.

The best way I can think of to describe the dynamic between the team and the fans going forward is that of somebody who’s partner has cheated on them, and instead of breaking up, they’re trying to work it out. As long as the cheating member (the Red Sox) goes out of his way to do everything the right way, the other person (the fans) can still see what they loved about them in the first place, and together they can make it work.

Yet, if there is one slip-up, it could set everything off. If there are mysterious phone calls to the house that result in hang-ups when the non-cheating partner answers the phone (i.e. if the Sox playing .480 ball for the next month), we’ll all start throwing our plates into the wall at dinner and demanding to know the truth.

So there’s that.

In the meantime, before we have any reason to start breaking plates, let’s stay positive. We haven’t exactly been able to do that very much, as evidenced by the fact that this is my first Red Sox column this year that doesn’t feature a completely negative tone.

Over the past 10 games, the Red Sox have won primarily because of starting pitching. It’s been the single biggest difference from games 1-31 to games 32-41. The offense, even with its patch-work lineup, has actually produced enough runs to help the team win all season long. The team has scored the second-most runs in the American League, and has the third-highest batting average.

They’ve  scored a good, but not superb 5.6 runs per game while winning these out of 10. That’s a fine number, but what it really means is that that they’ve been holding teams to less than six runs each and every night. The Red Sox allowed opponents to score six or more runs 14 times during their first 31 games. In their last 10, it’s only happened once, a 6-4 loss to Philadelphia on May 18.

The numbers aren’t really there yet, as a team, to back up just how well everyone has been pitching, as the Sox still have a 4.60 ERA. That’s the second-worst in the American League. But hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know? Baby steps. The team is like a stroke patient learning to walk again. It’s going to take time before it all looks perfect.

It’s been pretty good, though. In all eight of their most recent wins, their starters have picked up the victories. That might seem like par for the course for most teams, but not the 2012 Boston Red Sox. In those first 31 games, starters won just nine total times. So eight wins for the starting rotation in a 10-game stretch is a colossal turnaround.

It’s been all five of the starters, too. From Friday, May 11 to Tuesday May 15, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, Felix “The Cat” Doubront and Daniel Bard all won games. Lester threw a shutout, Beckett threw seven shutout innings, Buchholz was fine, The Cat continued to be the team’s most consistent starter (it’s true) and Bard walked 800 men, but still pitched effectively.

The only starting pitching performance lately that hasn’t been at least serviceable was Bard’s five-inning, five-run effort in that 6-4 loss to the Phillies on May 18. Other then that, it’s been smooth sailing.

The biggest turnaround has been Beckett, who has given up one run in 14.2 innings over the two starts he’s made since getting booed off the mound and becoming public enemy No. 1 to Red Sox fans. He’s genuinely stepped up, striking out 14 batters in those two starts, while pitching extremely efficiently (196 total pitches). He’s easy to dislike, but not if he’s pitching like that.

And the upswing in solid pitching has trickled down to the bullpen as well, most notably with Alfredo Aceves. After struggling early i the season, Aceves finally seems comfortable in the closer’s role. He’s pitched six times over the last 10 games, and hasn’t allowed a single run while picking up four saves.

Offensively, the Sox have been scoring early. Six times in the eight wins, they’ve scored in the first inning. All eight times, they’ve been ahead by the third. It’s exactly the type of blueprint you draw up: Score early, the starting pitcher holds it up and the closer comes in and shuts the door. Everyone goes home happy.

Guys like Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Mike Aviles have gotten dangerously hot at the plate, and an outfield that has included Daniel Nava every single game since May 11 has somehow done the job. For Christ’s sake, Bobby Valentine even got thrown out of a game the other night! Adrian Gonzalez hit a home run! Scott Atchison is still on the team!

Needless to say, I’ve been getting significantly more sleep as of late. It’s been a truly solid stretch of baseball. Now the challenge is keeping it up, and there’s suddenly a chance to make a real statement. Beginning today, the Sox head to Camden Yards to begin a three-game set with the division-leading Orioles (my fingers started to bleed when I typed that sentence, but it’s true). After that, it’s three games with the second-place Rays.

The O’s are 27-15, and lead the Red Sox by 6.5 games. While the Orioles deserve credit for playing well, there’s no way it keeps up, and the Sox are in position to start to restore the natural order of the AL East right now. In these next three games, the Red Sox will face the Orioles’ worst three starters, while missing both Jason Hammell and Wei-Yin Chen – the top two guys in the O’s rotation.

Right now, even with how bad things were in the early going, the Red Sox are just 2.5 games out of a Wild Card spot. They’re one game behind the Yankees. A sweep in Baltimore would have them above .500 and within striking distance of first place, even if first place doesn’t exactly mean a whole lot at this juncture (again, the Orioles are currently in first…).

It’s hard to picture the Sox being right in the thick of things after a three game losing streak to Kansas City and Cleveland had them sitting at 12-19, but it’s still May, and all it took was 10 days to get everything moving in the right direction again. There are still problems, and there are still questions (Youkilis/Middlebrooks? Dice-K), but I’d rather just enjoy the way the team is playing right now.

It hasn’t gone this well very often in 2012.

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