Red Sox still can't complete turnaround

Boston Red Sox fall short in tough loss to Chicago Cubs

The wind swirled, the temperature dropped, the American flag whipped about in the tempest. An uncommonly thick fog obscured the skyscrapers and settled over Fenway Park.

But on Saturday night, after great angst and anticipation, the prophecy failed to come true.

The Boston Red Sox didn’t move into first place.

Oh, you were expecting something else?

Actually, in New England, they were. The belief here was that life would return to normal — or, at least what the locals deem normal to be. With a win Saturday over the lowly Chicago Cubs, the Red Sox would have ascended to the top of the American League East for the first time since Opening Day . . . of last year.

They had a two-run lead. They were two innings away.

Then the bullpen and defense came unraveled in an eight-run eighth inning. The Red Sox lost, 9-3, before a sellout crowd and primetime audience on FOX.

Boston rebounded with a 5-1 win in Sunday’s series finale but will open a (surprisingly) big series in Cleveland as the division’s third-place team, a half-game behind Tampa Bay and New York.

What does it mean? Well, first of all, Boston has nearly made it all the way back from a stupefying 0-6 and 2-10 start.

That is no small feat. Even with Saturday's bullpen collapse, the Red Sox possess the American League’s best record in May. And there’s a very real chance we would be talking about Boston’s nine-game winning streak, if Red Sox manager Terry Francona hadn’t decided before Saturday’s game that setup man Daniel Bard needed an extra night off.

Still, this weekend’s 93-year reunion with the Cubs revealed plenty about the Red Sox. Most notably, they are not built to win the sort of tight, low-scoring games they will encounter during the postseason. (And yes, implicit in that statement is my belief that they will get there.)

The Red Sox are an excellent team, with an identity much closer to their 14-6 May than the awful 11-15 April.

But they are far from a finished product. It’s a good thing that they have one of the best general managers in baseball, because Theo Epstein will need to make a couple of midseason trades in order to transform this team into a champion.

Since I’m in a charitable mood, let’s start with what I like about this team.

Obviously, the Red Sox really hit. For May, they are the major-league leaders in OPS and runs. Over the full season, they have above-average production in every lineup spot except second (oddly, Dustin Pedroia) and eighth (hello, Carl Crawford).

Barring injuries, this is — and will continue to be — one of the best offenses in baseball. In fact, it’s quite possible that it will get better as the season goes along, even if Epstein doesn’t deal for a hitter. Pedroia won’t finish at .238. Crawford, likewise, will improve upon his .213. At least, I think he will.

Of all the factoids and oddities surrounding Crawford’s confounding start, this might be the most startling: He has batted higher than seventh only once in the last month, on May 5. And that didn’t go so well. The Red Sox lost that afternoon to the Angels, 11-0.

On Saturday, the Cubs intentionally walked Jed Lowrie, homerless for a month, to face Crawford, the $142 million left fielder. Equally jarring was that the strategy worked, as Crawford grounded out to end Saturday’s seventh.

Mostly, though, I’m enamored with Boston’s lineup because of Adrian Gonzalez. He is doing what all the pundits said he would, becoming (along with Jose Bautista and Miguel Cabrera) one of the must-see at-bats in the American League.

Gonzalez is the major-league leader in RBI, even though the guy hitting in front of him (Pedroia) hasn’t been himself over the season’s first six weeks. For so many other run producers who switched teams — Adam Dunn, Jayson Werth, Dan Uggla — there have been explanations and rationalizations. For Gonzalez, there have been only loud noises off his bat.

"It's a matter of getting at-bats under me and finding that swing," he said. "There came a point when I started feeling my swing. At that point, it’s not about the ballpark. Once I’m able to stay behind balls and through balls, that’s what I’m looking for."

Thanks to Gonzalez, Epstein can feel content with his offense, even if Crawford’s first season remains a flop. But the pitching staff is thin, more 2003 (pre-Schilling, pre-Foulke) than 2004.

Starters John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka are on the disabled list with bum elbows, and no one knows what the Red Sox can expect from either. Until further notice, Alfredo Aceves and Tim Wakefield account for two-fifths of the rotation. That was not part of the master plan. More than anything, the Red Sox are quite fortunate that Josh Beckett has resumed pitching like the ace he was (and maybe is).

The Red Sox are winning with offense right now. That is fine for May, less optimal in October. In 2007, during their most recent world championship season, the Red Sox had the best team ERA in the American League. As of Saturday morning, they ranked 11th.

The bullpen’s performance has been an issue, with Bobby Jenks' absence and turnover among the left-handers spotlighting the need for at least one more veteran hand. But the bullpen's workload has been perhaps the greater concern. The fact that Francona felt compelled to give Bard consecutive days off speaks to how heavily the manager has relied on the 25-year-old already this season. Bard, in only his second full season, is tied for the AL lead in appearances by right-handers.

Paradoxically, one issue with the relievers has been the starters. The Red Sox rank among the bottom half of AL teams in innings pitched by their rotation. If that trend continues — and it probably will, as long as Aceves and Wakefield remain in the rotation — even more will be asked of a below-average bullpen.

A heavy bullpen workload won’t necessarily prevent the Red Sox from reaching the World Series. The Texas Rangers, after all, logged the most relief innings in the AL last year. Obviously, that wasn’t a deal-breaker. But it did compel them to lengthen their rotation by trading for Cliff Lee, the ultimate prize on the midsummer market.

Makes you wonder if Epstein will make a similarly dramatic move for a starting pitcher before July 31 . . . and if Lee, not Crawford, was the free agent this team needed all along.

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