Surging Red Sox just as advertised
Hot-hitting Boston making slow start a distant memory
CLEVELAND -- When last they left here in early April, the Red Sox looked more fit for a firing squad than first place. They were 0-6, soon to be 2-10, and headed home to Boston for the home opener of a season that many seemed to think might already be over."We had our hands full," manager Terry Francona said. "I was just thinking about getting introduced on that first-base line and wondering if [the fans at Fenway] were going to shoot us." But the fans held their fire, and the Red Sox found theirs. What they've done in the time since has not exactly been remarkable. Rather, it's been about the kind of performance you'd expect from one of the most stacked teams in the game. The Red Sox finished off a series win Wednesday over an Indians team that had come in boasting the best overall and best home records in all of baseball. Were it not for Daniel Bard's sloppy setup work in the series opener Monday, which made a mess of the beauty Clay Buchholz had left behind, it would have been a clean sweep. Tuesday's win was owed to the continued dominance of a revitalized Josh Beckett, who again looked like his Cleveland-killing self from the tone-shifting Game 5 of the 2007 American League Championship Series. And Wednesday's afternoon tilt brought a brutal beating of Mitch Talbot that might have traumatized the young Tribe fans attending on field trips. What Jon Lester -- who bounced back from a trio of shaky starts -- did to the Indians' bats was just as dominant. With that, the Red Sox left town not producing panic, but padding a marvelous May. They are an MLB-best 16-7 this month, and all those preseason predictions that were threatened in early April are once again in the realm of reasonable. On April 7, it was fashionable and even fun to point out that only two teams in history -- the 1974 Pirates and the 1995 Reds -- had started out 0-6 and reached the postseason. But in what has been, to this point, a remarkably claustrophobic American League East, there is the very real possibility that two such teams will advance in the Red Sox and the Rays. Both have fully recovered from a brutal first week. Whereas the Rays have done it with stellar starting pitching almost across the board, Boston's boost has largely come from the bats. Though Beckett, who has a ridiculous 0.60 ERA in May, has been an early Cy Young candidate, and Buchholz and Lester have also helped stabilize the starting effort, the Red Sox entered Wednesday having allowed the fourth-most runs per game (4.35) in the AL. Thanks to elbow pains for John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka, they have more than $25 million of rotation payroll on the DL. And given Lackey's distracting personal issues and Dice-K's general unreliability, that might actually be for the best right now. But when it comes time for the second-half playoff push and October viability, the Red Sox might need a little help in the pitching department. The instability in the back end of the rotation has contributed to the heavy workload of a bullpen that has turned in the fourth-most innings pitched of any relief corps in the AL while compiling the fourth-highest ERA. External help might be in order this summer, but, for now, Bobby Jenks' impending return from the DL will have to do. That the Red Sox have given up as many runs as they have and managed to make this run is a testament to their offense. Even before Wednesday's 14-run outburst against the Indians, those bats had been bountiful. While one offseason addition -- Carl Crawford -- has largely been relegated to the lower half of the lineup, Adrian Gonzalez has come perhaps even better than advertised. He has a .340 average, nine homers, a .951 OPS and a league-leading 16 doubles and 43 RBIs. "I didn't expect there to be an adjustment period to the American League," Gonzalez said. "My routine is [tailored] not to a league, but to a pitcher." Before Gonzalez arrived from San Diego, Francona knew of his work ethic and ability to self-fix any flaws in his swing (Gonzalez was hitting .263 with a .732 OPS in the season's first 20 games before batting .393 with a 1.116 OPS in the 28 games that followed). But seeing is truly believing. "It's nice to see it in person," Francona said. "Obviously, when you make a trade of that magnitude, you've got a pretty good idea of what a guy can do. But when you see a really good hitter in the midst of a good streak, it is fun to watch. He does a lot of things at the plate that make you think he's not just hot. He does too many things to find ways to get hits." And Gonzalez has, of course, enjoyed a stronger supporting cast than he had in his Padres days. Jacoby Ellsbury has recovered from his 2010 rib woes to re-emerge as a durable and trusty table-setter, Kevin Youkilis quickly rebounded from a slow start, David Ortiz avoided the awful April that marred his 2009 and '10 outputs and has looked revitalized in a contract year, and Jed Lowrie took over the starting duties from Marco Scutaro to become one of the more productive shortstops in the game. The most lackluster links have been Dustin Pedroia, J.D. Drew and -- most jarringly, given the terms of his contract -- Crawford. The speedy Crawford's bat began to show signs of life this week, but the Red Sox still need him to use his legs more. Of course, getting on base more consistently would be a fine first step in that process. Defensively, Boston's most glaring weakness entering the year became their most glaring concern early on, as Jarrod Saltalamacchia struggled behind the plate. But Jason Varitek took over as Beckett's personal catcher, to dazzling results, and the rest of the staff's comfort level with Saltalamacchia has improved. All told, the early panic over this team was, as predicted, much ado about nothing. "I just think things have settled down a little bit," Francona said. While some pitching help might be the order of the day come July, there is enough talent and upside in this lineup for Boston to potentially edge the rest of the AL East. That's nothing we didn't know on April 1. We just needed to see some proof after April 7.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.