I don’t want to get ahead of myself – and I know I was negative just three days ago in this space – but something is suddenly very different with the Boston Red Sox. Everyone wants to point to all the new guys contributing, and that’s a huge part of it, but there’s more to it. It’s been a general shift in attitude from everybody, starting with the manager and trickling down all the way to the 25th man.
Maybe I’m just in a good mood because the weather has finally broken through, but it just feels like the Sox are as close as they’ve been in a long time to leaving the stigma of last September and this April in the past. They’re almost ready to move on and start contending, start being the team that they’re supposed to be and stop being a punch line all over the league.
I said that this particular team didn’t have any balls in Tuesday’s column. I was wrong. I think they do have balls, it just took them a little while to find them.
In this most recent four-game set with Detroit, they fought through a poor pitching performance from Jon Lester, hit Justin Verlander harder than any team has in a calendar year and went over .500 for the first time this season. They’ve gone from 12-19 to 26-25, and there’s really no way to minimize how significant a jump that really is
Over their last 20 games, they’ve gone 14-6. In itself, going on a run like that is impressive, but not anything special. Good teams win at that clip all the time. But after starting out the season so poorly, under a microscope of scrutiny so intense that fans were willing to leave the team behind altogether (me included), to pull yourselves up and get the job done when the easiest and most comfortable thing to do would have just been to lie down is no small accomplishment.
It shows some grit, some toughness, and it’s about time I actually acknowledged how far the Red Sox have come over the past month. They’re three games out of first place in the AL East and two games out of a Wild Card spot. As recently as a week ago, I was still ready to crucify them for every little mistake. Now, I’m even willing to give them a little rope.
For instance, Josh Beckett pitched like he’s been wolfing down Popeye’s in between innings on Thursday night, and I’m not even angry about it. The Sox still took three out of four from the Tigers, and one tough start doesn’t change that. In fact, as good as the pitching was for a two weeks ago, it’s come back down to Earth a little bit.
So that said, I ask you, what is the sign of a good baseball team?
To me, it’s one that can win a game in a variety of ways. It’s a team that can win a slugfest it comes to that, and it can tough out a 2-0 or 2-1 victory in a pitcher’s duel. The Sox haven’t been in many pitcher’s duels, but they were winning games because of their starting pitching about weeks ago. The last week, they’ve been winning games that I wouldn’t exactly classify as slugfests, but they aren’t devoid of scoring either.
You’d have to go back to May 12 to find a game that the Red Sox won and scored less than five runs in. So as good as the pitching was through a good portion of May, it’s really been the bats lately. There have been very few 10 or 12 run explosions, but there have been a number of five, six and seven run outputs, which is good enough to win a lot of games even if the starting pitching is mediocre.
Basically, when the Red Sox started to play better baseball in mid-May, it was because of their starting pitching. Now that they’re keeping it up, it’s because of the way they’re hitting the ball, and all of that is encouraging.
It’s also amazing, when you think about it, because of the players that they keep trotting out there every day. Daniel Nava is a fixture in the Red Sox’ lineup, and has hit leadoff lately. With Dustin Pedroia hurt (more on that later), Nick Punto is playing every day. Marlon Byrd still plays basically every day. Kelly Shoppach has played in 22 games. Scott Podseknik – who I didn’t even know was still in baseball heading into this year – is hitting near the top of the order, and hitting effectively.
It shouldn’t be this way. Everything about the way the lineup is constructed suggests that the Sox should be scoring three runs a game and losing. They should be prone to long dry spells, and good pitchers should be able to shut them down. Instead, it’s been the exact opposite. They haven’t gone through any prolonged slumps as a team (certain players have – I’m looking at you Adrian Gonzalez), but the team has maintained its consistency. They’ve scored three or more runs in 13 of their past 14 games.
And, as the icing on the cake, they’re crushing good pitching. There is no reason for Matt Moore, Cliff Lee, Doug Fister and Justin Verlander to all take losses against a Boston lineup that looks about as intimidating as Tampa Bay’s, yet they all have. The Verlander one, obviously, is the most impressive. A guy like Daniel Nava – who I’m admittedly not a fan of – cleared the bases with a double on a 100 mile per hour fastball.
Or, phrasing it differently, a mediocre 4A player got what could be considered the biggest hit of the season thus far off the best pitcher in baseball on that pitcher’s best pitch. Verlander hadn’t given up three runs on one hit since 2009. But leave it to cast off Daniel Nava to break that streak. It’s crazy.
That’s where it comes back to balls. I don’t know if it’s the new guys like Nava and Podsednik that simply have no connection to the bad times, so they’re not weighed down by what has happened in the past, but there has been a definite change ever since the injury-depleted Sox inserted replacement players into the every day lineup. No disrespect to Cody Ross, Jacoby Ellsbury, Darnell McDonald or Ryan Sweeney and Kevin Youkilis (both of who are back now), but the team has been better with them out of the lineup.
Will Middlebrooks has played so well that the Sox have no choice but to keep him up with the big club. They’ve even worked him out at shortstop, in an effort to keep his bat in the lineup if they have to do some shuffling around with Pedroia potentially out for an extended period of time.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia has become the player – at least for now – that everyone thought he could be when he was a huge prospect half a decade ago. My God, he’s got 10 home runs! No catcher in the league is hotter right now, and Salty seems as comfortable in his role as any player on the team.
Frankly, he’s been about as good as any player on the team. David Ortiz has been the team’s best hitter, but other then that, it’s been Salty. Combine the hitting with the fact that he’s taken the reigns of the pitching staff (he now catches Beckett, whereas Beckett used to hate having him behind the plate) and he’s been invaluable to the success of the team. You can tell the team knows it, too. When he hit that walk-off home run on Saturday night, he was mobbed at the plate like a hero. Most teams mob their players after walk-offs, but you can tell the difference between the ones who actually care about what just happened and the ones who are just out there jumping around because they’re supposed to be. The Red Sox players all looked like they cared.
Even Bobby Valentine has changed. He’s out of the dugout more regularly arguing calls, he stood up to Rays’ manager Joe Maddon over the weekend and it feels like the players are starting to come around and respect him, as opposed to viewing him as a place holder for whoever replaces him next season.
I know I’m beating this into the ground, but I’m just sort of blown away with the way this is getting done. The Red Sox are supposed to be good, but they’re supposed to be good because Jon Lester leads the league in ERA and Adrian Gonzalez is contending for the Triple Crown. They’re not supposed to be good because they’re light-hitting catcher is playing like an all-star and two guys who weren’t on the 40-man roster to open the year are starting every day in the outfield.
But here we are. On June 1, about two months from the All-Star Break and the Red Sox are close to where we thought they would be. They’re in contention, they’re playing well, and they’re getting contributions from everybody (except Adrian Gonzalez). Is this column perhaps a little too glowing, and will they stumble over the next week because of it? Perhaps, but they’ve earned at least one positive column from me after a string of condescending, sarcastic posts about how much of a letdown they are.
There are concerns, of course, as there always are, but only two of them are glaring right at the moment: The first is Gonzalez, because I’m not sure the replacement guys can keep up this pace for the rest of the way, and the team needs Gonzalez to produce at some point. The second is Pedroia, who could be out for a while. A team can only suffer so many injuries and play through, and losing a former MVP who is the engine that makes the team go isn’t exactly like replacing the loss of Youkilis, or the loss of Ryan Sweeney. If he’s gone say, until mid-July, it’s going to be tough. Not impossible, but tough.
That’s it though. That’s as negative as I’m willing to get. For once, I’m excited about the Red Sox. They’re oddly likable, and while Terry Francona enjoys the fruits of being free from the team, I’m enjoying the fruits of watching them turn the corner.
Let’s just hope that I didn’t jinx it. Otherwise, it’s back to bitching and moaning, and it’s so much more fun being a homer.
Ed. Note: This article was written before last night's win. We're posting it because it's still great.