Red Sox have turned around early woes

The Red Sox are the best team in baseball. It’s just not official yet.

Matter of fact, they arrived at Fenway Park on Tuesday with a chance to assume the best record in the majors by night’s end. All they needed was a victory over San Diego, paired with a Philadelphia loss. Instead, the opposite happened.

But that only delayed the inevitable: The same Boston outfit that started 0-6, and later 2-10, is unquestionably the team to beat as we near the midpoint of the 2011 season.

“We weren’t hitting, we weren’t executing, and now we are,” slugger/philosopher David Ortiz said. “Simple.”

Well, it’s been a little more complicated than that. And this remains an incomplete unit, with Carl Crawford and his .243 batting average now on the disabled list. But there’s something impressive about the ease with which the Red Sox righted themselves and became the team they were supposed to be.

Boston has the best record in the American League – as many expected.

Adrian Gonzalez, with apologies to Jose Bautista, is the first-half AL MVP – as many expected.

Josh Beckett has bounced back from a miserable 2010 season to post Cy Young-caliber numbers – as many expected.

Tim Wakefield has returned from the fringes of the roster to become an effective starter at 44 years old – as not as many expected.

The team’s early stumble was flabbergasting and all, but the quick recovery has been a statistical stunner in its own right. The 2011 Red Sox are one of only four teams since 1901 to start 0-6 and achieve a .600 winning percentage at some point during the season, according to STATS LLC. The others were the ’91 Mariners, ’95 Reds and ’11 Rays.

In fact, Boston entered Tuesday’s game with an otherworldly .700 winning percentage – 42-18 – since Tax Day.

We’ve all seen movies where a character arrives at his or her crisis point and says: One day we’ll look back on this and laugh. Well, if you listen closely enough, a cackle goes up in every hamlet from Maine to Connecticut each time a New Englander sees APRIL on his or her 2011 pocket schedule.

“Once we got out of (Cleveland) and won a game, everything was a lot better,” said Kevin Youkilis, Boston’s All-Star third baseman. “When we were losing, it was bad. But those days are long gone. We don’t think about them. It seemed like they were forever ago.

“People weren’t saying anything funny or encouraging when we were losing. A lot of fans were yelling at us. Bad stuff was being written. But you know it’s going to happen here. You lose, people are going to write stuff and say stuff.

“They’re the same people who are going to come back around and say nice things.”

Youkilis delivered that last line with a smile, because he knows that I was one of Those People. Six games in, yours truly wrote that the Red Sox were lousy. At the time, it was true. Not anymore.

Gonzalez has had a lot to do with that. He gongs the Green Monster with doubles regularly. He leads the AL in batting average and RBIs – and by a wide margin in each category. He is the Best Player on the Best Team. With the new $154 million contract extension, that’s about what he should be, too.

Yet, for all his hitting brilliance, Gonzalez may not be the most irreplaceable hitter in the Boston lineup. That’s Jacoby Ellsbury. More than anyone else, the speedy 27-year-old is the motor of baseball’s most prolific offense.

The Red Sox have a number of proven run producers: Youkilis and Ortiz rank with Gonzalez among the AL’s top 10 in RBIs. But they don’t have anyone quite like Ellsbury – even when Crawford is on the field.

Remember: As great as Gonzalez, Youkilis and Ortiz have been in the 3-4-5 wheelhouse, last year’s group (some combination of Victor Martinez, Youkilis, Ortiz and Adrian Beltre) was nearly as potent. The much bigger change has been in the leadoff spot, where Ellsbury was limited to 18 games in 2010 because of fractured ribs.

The on-field impact of Ellsbury’s absence last year was immense. Then there were criticisms about his perceived lack of toughness, which didn’t help clubhouse harmony. In all, seven players started at least one game at leadoff for Terry Francona last year. It added up to a mediocre .686 OPS in the top spot, which ranked in the bottom half of the AL.

“It hurt us a lot,” Ortiz said. “You (didn’t) have that speed on the bases.”

Now, they do. Red Sox leadoff men have the AL’s best OPS this year, thanks in large part to Ellsbury. He has started 60 of the 73 games there.

It’s not an accident that the Red Sox have four hitters among the majors’ top 11 in plate appearances with men in scoring position. Gonzalez, Youkilis and Ortiz are driving in runs because Ellsbury is giving them the chance.

When New England had plunged into unbridled panic at 2-10, Ellsbury was hitting below .200. He was part of the problem. Since then, he has a .331 batting average – not to mention an .881 OPS. His All-Star candidacy isn’t being propped up by an East Coast bias. He’s legitimately one of the AL’s best outfielders.

“He leads, we follow,” Ortiz said.

The schedule might be one of the few things that could slow down this lineup. Later this week, the Red Sox will begin a stretch of nine consecutive road games in National League ballparks. Unless Gonzalez plays in the outfield – which is possible – Ortiz will be relegated to the bench, without the designated hitter in effect.

Mostly, though, interleague play means that a different set of teams will need to handle the Boston buzz saw.

“They’re a machine,” praised San Diego assistant general manager Jason McLeod, the former Red Sox executive. “And we’re not even seeing Beckett, (Jon) Lester, or (Clay) Buchholz in this series.”

I could mention that the Red Sox can’t know what to expect from John Lackey, or that the bullpen is still short a veteran left-handed reliever, or J.D. Drew offers little pizzazz in right field, but that would be nitpicking. There are no perfect teams. And right now, the once-lousy Red Sox are the closest to it.