Hard to get playoff handle on enigmatic Red Sox

BY foxsports • September 30, 2009

One hundred fifty-seven games into the 2009 season, the Boston Red Sox remain something of an enigma.

Are they the team that sprinted out in front of the division early or the one that will probably finish at least a half-dozen games out of first? Are they the team that beat the New York Yankees in the first eight meetings or the one that dropped nine of the past 10?

Only a week or so ago, scouts and executives were touting the Red Sox as a team with the ability to win their third World Series since 2004. But that was before the Sox were swept by the Yankees, then dropped two straight at home to a Toronto team playing out the string. And, for that matter, before minor injuries to their top two starters, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett.

So, who are the Red Sox, exactly? October will tell us all we need to know. For now, we offer three reasons to fear the Red Sox ... and three more that should scare the Sox themselves.

Reasons to fear them

Dominant starting pitching

Lester and Beckett could be the postseason's best 1-2 punch. Beckett was a World Series MVP in 2003 with Florida and is 7-2 with a 2.90 ERA in the postseason. Lester is 2-2 with a 1.95 ERA as a postseason starter. Together, they've already won 30 games and posted nearly 420 strikeouts this year and their stuff — Lester from the left side, Beckett from the right — can be downright filthy.

Beyond their top two, Clay Buchholz had pitched to a sub-2.00 ERA over the last month until being rocked by Toronto Tuesday night and even Daisuke Matsuzaka (one run in seven innings against the Yankees last weekend) has sparkled, offering the promise of additional depth for the later rounds.

Postseason grit and experience

The Red Sox have been to the playoffs every year but once since 2003, and even their younger players — Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Lester — have been battle-tested.

"That counts for something," said an executive with another American League team. "None of those guys is going to be overwhelmed."

Moreover, the Red Sox have proven to be a remarkably resilient bunch. Since Terry Francona became manager in 2004, the Red Sox are a staggering 9-2 when facing the prospect of going home for good. That experience and fortitude shouldn't be discounted.

Jonathan Papelbon

In the postseason, closers tend to play an even larger role in determining a team's success than in the regular season. Papelbon, with less than five full years of service time, has already established himself as an October monster. In 16 appearances, covering 25 innings, Papelbon has yet to allow an earned run.

What's more, he seems to have peaked at the right time. After a shaky first half in which he struggled with his command while making some adjustments to tighten his delivery, Papelbon has been almost unhittable. Since July 30, he has allowed just 15 hits in 22 innings with 29 strikeouts and four walks while converting all 11 save opportunities.

Reasons they should be in fear