Sports Opinion & Analysis

The Whiplash Red Sox

In MLB on April 28, 2013 at 9:12 am

By Chris Hallenbrook

One of the great things about baseball is the unpredictability of it. You can watch games your whole life and yet never know what you are going to see at the ballpark on any given night, and on any of those nights you may see something you have never seen before. In recent years, no team has embodied that unpredictability quite as vividly as the Boston Red Sox. All of two years ago, in the sunny spring and summer of 2011, all seemed well on Yawkey Way. In the offseason Theo Epstein had signed free agent speedster and all-around Red Sox killer Carl Crawford away from the Rays and traded for slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, making the Red Sox a near-consensus pundit pick to face the Phillies in the World Series. Then, the infamous September of chicken and beer struck, and an inability to win on consecutive days led to an MLB record collapse as the Sox led the Wild Card race by 9 games on September 3rd and still failed to make the playoffs. Then, in the blink of a eye, Terry Franconca was scapegoated was fired quit in one final act of being a good company man, Theo Epstein fled to a more desperate fan base accepted a new challenge with the Cubs, Bobby Valentine was brought in as the new sheriff in town, and having all the talent in the world led to the worst Red Sox season since 1965 and an unprecedented waiver-wire trade that blew up the team and dumped a quarter of a billion dollars in salary on the Dodgers. Just like that, a team that was slated to compete for championships for years to come looked like it was ready to be dead and buried for just as long.

All of which brings us to the 2013 edition. After an offseason of overpaying for aging mediocrity, the Red Sox were picked to finish dead last by ESPN the Magazine, Sports Illustrated and most staffers at The Boston Globe, and had the makings of a squad that couldn’t take candy from a baby. And yet as of the end of the day on April 26, the Red Sox have been in first place every day this season, setting a franchise record for longest stretch in first to start the season and own a 16-7 mark that constitutes the best record in baseball. Once the dizziness goes away from all these mad swings, the question left to ask is: how on Earth have they done it?

1) Pitching. Talk about Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. Last year this pitching staff absolutely killed the Red Sox, with the starting rotation posting a hideous ERA of 5.42. Josh Beckett pitched his way out of town over 127 and a third ulcer-inducing innings, Jon Lester looked washed up at the age of 28 and Clay Buchholz had us all wondering if he would ever live up to his potential. This season? Buchholz seems to have finally put it all together, starting the season 5-0 in five starts with a 1.19 ERA, which is akin to Bob Gibson’s 1968 season for the ages. Jon Lester has returned to ace form, with the Sox winning all his games. In Lester’s case the turnaround is made all the more impressive given that even in his best seasons he has been shaky at best in April with a near 4 ERA to compare to this year’s 2.27. The change since the return of pitcher whisperer John Farrell has been so remarkable that if I didn’t know better I’d think that last year was just an act to get Bobby V fired. But whatever it is that caused the turnaround, with the Sox two home grown studs throwing like aces, Ryan Demptser making a mockery of claims that he couldn’t hack it in the American League, and the bullpen answering the bell on a nightly basis (it is amazing how much better your bullpen is when your starters can actually make it to the 7th inning), last year’s Achilles heel is this year’s juggernaut.

2) Hitting. While pitching has been the driving force behind the resurrection of the Red Sox, the offense has certainly made the pitchers’ lives easier. When David Ortiz went on the DL to start the year, Sox fans were understandably worried about where the firepower was going to come from in the post-Gonzalez era. But as it turns out, such fears were unnecessary as Mike Napoli has been white hot, Jacoby Ellsbury is reminding us of what we can do when healthy and overall the Sox are scoring runs as though they were the ones who stole traded for almost every good player the Miami Marlins had.

3) Grit. I’m not going to try to argue that tenacity and wanting it more will always prevail over talent, but it is undisputable that baseball is so physically demanding that mental toughness is essential to long run success. We have yet to see how this team holds up after a long losing streak or after a rash of injuries, but we do know a couple of things. One is that this team was utterly unfazed by David Ortiz starting the season on the DL and averaged a healthy five runs a game in his absence. The other is that when bombs struck at the heart of Boston, these guys rallied to support the city and the people that has supported them for so long. The day after the attack they had a “617 Boston Strong” jersey in the visiting dugout in Cleveland and looked like they wanted to cry as they stood on the foul line for a moment of silence. They’ve channeled that emotion on the field, winning their first four and eight of eleven since the marathon bombings, all while telling Boston “this is our f-ing city…stay strong” in the words of Big Papi. I’m not saying that this will carry them into October, but if history has taught us anything it is to never underestimate a team that is playing with emotion, with purpose and with pride.

Can it last? I have no idea. In general terms it takes two months to get a feel for the true nature of a baseball team, and as the 2011 Red Sox showed, you can never truly know before crunch time. There is plenty that can derail this team, including injuries (I lose sleep over Papi’s Achilles), age (Victorino, Napoli and Dempester aren’t exactly in their prime) and regression to the mean (Napoli isn’t going to drive in 27 runs a month and Buchholz isn’t going to finish the season with a 1.19 ERA). That said, I think I speak for all Red Sox fans, especially those of us who hail from Boston, when I say that between the wild ups and downs of the past two seasons, and the moral support they’ve lent us and our city these past two weeks, come what may we will simply fasten our seatbelts and enjoy the ride.

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