Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What a Difference a Year Makes

The Red Sox celebrate a 4-run ninth against the Phillies.
Last season was not a banner year for the Red Sox. They were 69-93, .426, 34-47 at home, and 2-10 in extra innings. This year, however, they are off to a terrific start. Apart from a lousy stretch from May 3 through 14 in which they were a dismal 2-9, the Red Sox have been one of the strongest teams in baseball. They opened with a 20-8 record and have been lights out in the past ten days. They now have six walk-off wins.

On Sunday they trailed Cleveland by three runs in the ninth. They hadn't hit a lick the whole game but they managed to load the bases and Jacob Ellsbury faced Tribe closer Chris Perez who had blown only one save opportunity to-date. But three pitches into the at bat Perez had to leave the game with an injury and Ellsbury rapped the first pitch from Joe Smith over the centerfielder's head for a three run single to give Boston an unlikely come from behind victory.

Last night they faced Phillie starter Tyler Cloyd, who brought a 2.70 ERA to the mound. Mike Napoli and Justin Pedroia promptly homered in the first inning and in the third David Ortiz, Napoli, and Stephen Drew hit doubles. Cloyd left the mound with his ERA twice as high as it had been an hour earlier (5.74).

Jon Lester, 9-14 in 2012, and Clay Buchholz, 11-8 last season, have been the big story in Beantown of course. Lester is 6-1 and has whiffed 60 batters and walked just 19 in 72.2 innings. Opponents are batting .225. Buchholz has been better. He's 7-0 and has given up just 49 hits in exactly the same number of innings. Opposing batters are hitting a measly .194. 

Buchholz was hurt in his sleep.
Buchholz, whom Blue Jay announcer Jack Morris accused of doctoring the baseball in a dominant performance three weeks ago, may have been dreaming of a 30-win season when he slept awkwardly on his right side last Wednesday night, irritating his acromioclavicular joint. A hundred years ago Boston had a pitcher named Ruth who spend a lot of nights in joints and beds he shouldn't have been in - but he never got hurt. Now players get hurt while asleep in their own bed! Buchholz missed his start in Philadelphia last night but he and the team are saying it is only a precaution.

In 21 innings Junichi Tazawa (4-2, 2.53) has struck out 27 batters and walked only three. Alfredo Aceves beat the Phillies last night for his second win against one loss. He gave up one earned run in seven innings to lower his ERA to 6.57.  He was 2-10 last season.

Offensively David Ortiz, whom MLB.com does not list as a DH, though that is what he has played 95% of the time in the past few years - including every game this year, has recovered nicely from a minor injury and is now hitting .346 with a .622 Slugging Percentage and an OPS of 1.030. Dustin Pedroia is batting .333 and has the league's third best On Base percentage. Mike Napoli is now sixth in the AL with 39 ribbies.

The Red Sox need more catches like this one by Jacoby Ellsbury.
But the news is not all good. Only four teams in the American League have committed more errors. Teams who struggle in the field do not usually win championships. Ryan Dempster, who was 2-2 after beating the Blue Jays May 2nd is 0-3 since then. He has given up fifteen earned runs in the combined twelve innings he's lasted in his past three starts. Jacob Ellsbury has five hits in his last three games but at .257 he is a long way from his 2010 performance.

Their closers, Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, have combined for ten out of thirteen save opportunities. But Hanrahan, who had a less than stellar ERA (9.82) after being beaten up by the Orioles on May 10, has since undergone Tommy John surgery. Ahead of them with a much better (1.83) ERA out of the pen has been Koji Uehara.

Big Papi is the game's best DH.
Statistically the Red Sox are pretty strong. They are fourth in team batting average, second in OBP, third in OPS, ninth in Slugging but fifth in home runs. Their staff is sixth in team ERA and a mediocre ninth in WHIP. Only four teams have allowed fewer home runs. (The Tigers are way out in front in that category.)

With New York, Baltimore and Tampa Bay staying strong and Toronto showing some signs of life the American League East is regaining its reputation as one of the toughest divisions to win. It should be an interesting summer.

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