Catching rivals tough task for BoSox
Don’t look now, but Team Run Prevention is scoring at a high rate. The Red Sox, for all their fretting over designated hitter David Ortiz, all their scrambling without injured outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron, rank third in the American League in runs per game.
The Sox's starting pitching is returning to form. Their defense finally is settling down. Boston, winner of 11 of its last 16 games entering their weekend series with the Yankees at Fenway Park (MLB on FOX, Saturday, 3:10 p.m. ET) is going to be fine.
Alas, fine might not be good enough.
The Sox’s enemy within is formidable; prominent veterans are struggling to adapt to reduced roles, making for an uncomfortable clubhouse. But while the internal issues are daunting, the external threats from the Rays and Yankees represent an even greater challenge.
To win 95 games — the likely minimum for a postseason berth out of the AL East — the Sox will need to finish 80-53. They already trail the Rays by 6-1/2 games and the Yankees by five, and have yet to play either of those teams on the road. In fact, after this weekend, they will not face the Yankees at home again until Oct. 1-3.
The Sox’s schedule through May 26, meanwhile, is brutal — the Yankees and then the improved Blue Jays to complete the current homestand, followed by a five-game trip to Detroit and Yankee Stadium, a two-game homestand against the Twins and a six-game trip to Philadelphia and Tampa Bay.
Surviving all that will not be easy – and even after the schedule becomes more bearable, the Sox might find it difficult to keep pace with the Rays and Yankees.
A year ago, the Rays experienced the same type of early malaise as the Red Sox, stumbling to a 23-27 start. From May 29 through Aug. 5, the Rays went 37-21, the third-best record in the majors, pulling within three games of the Sox and 5 1/2 of the Yankees. But then they faded, going 24-30 the rest of the way.
The Sox, a much older club, are even more unlikely to sustain such a frantic charge. This year’s Rays do not figure to maintain their 122- win pace. But the Sox’s best hope is that the Yankees become vulnerable to their own age/injury questions, a possibility that seemingly is increasing by the day.
One rival executive already projects that the battle for the wild card will come down to Yankees vs. Red Sox – wheezers vs. geezers. The sudden injuries to three members of the Yankees’ Core Four – left-hander Andy Pettitte, catcher Jorge Posada and closer Mariano Rivera – actually might be the Red Sox’s most heartening development of the season.
The team that advances could very well be the one that stays the healthiest – and makes the best in-season adjustments. One thing we know about the Red Sox — and for that matter, the Yankees. Neither club will look the same on Aug. 1 as it does today.
The Sox’s turnaround should, at least for now, buy more time for Ortiz, who no longer is starting against left-handed pitching. Red Sox DHs rank eighth in the AL with a .710 OPS -- not great, but not as bad as, say, the Mariners, whose .456 OPS out of the DH spot is worse than six NL teams are getting from their pitchers.
A Jeremy Hermida-Mike Lowell platoon might be an upgrade over the current Ortiz-Lowell combination -- Hermida is slugging .472 against right-handers to Ortiz’s .426, though the samples consist of only 53 and 54 at-bats. Lowell, 36, is too physically fragile to handle the position full-time. The Sox might end up juggling DHs all season.
Ortiz hit 27 homers after May 30 last season, but many within the industry doubted that he was fully back, noting his inability to handle good pitching. Some Sox officials also had their doubts, and the team could have hedged its bets by adding left fielder Matt Holliday in free agency instead of right-hander John Lackey. But Lackey proved less expensive and easier to sign, so run prevention became the new Sox mantra.
The offense enjoyed a massive revival in the Sox’s just-completed sweep of the Angels, producing 36 runs in four games. The degree of difficulty, however, will be steeper this weekend against the Yankees’ Phil Hughes, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.
Indeed, the Sox’s enduring concerns about their offense might discourage them from adding a skilled defensive catcher. For the rest of this season anyway, the run production of Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek might be too valuable for the team to lose. But rest assured, the issue will be addressed over the winter.
The Angels stole three bases Thursday night, making opponents 42-for-47 against the Red Sox this season, a 89.3 percent success rate. Martinez, though, is working hard on his throwing, and he and Varitek have shown improvement of late.
Remember, the Sox made the playoffs last season even though opponents were 151 of 167, a 90.4 percent success rate. If they’re below-average – as opposed to well-below average – that will be good enough.
The bottom line: The Sox are good and getting better. The return of Ellsbury and Cameron, perhaps as soon as next week, will make them more athletic. The front four in their vaunted rotation — Lackey, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz — will make them competitive in virtually every game.
“When the starting pitching starts to dominate again, you’re going to see a completely different team,” one rival executive says. “That sets everything up. The bullpen is not great. But it’s a lot better when the starting pitching is doing what it should be doing.”
The enemy no longer is within. The enemy is the competition.
The Rays. And the Yankees.