As Major League Baseball heads into its second month two patterns are starting to emerge.
1. In the AL East, games have to be won on the field, not on paper. Pre-season, the Toronto Blue Jays looked unbeatable – on paper. As of Sunday night, the Blue Jays are in last place in the AL East, 6.5 games behind the Red Sox with a .346 winning percentage. They have lost four in a row. Cy Young Award Winner R.A. Dickey is 2-4 with a chubby 4.50 ERA. Boston’s upcoming tilt in Toronto will be pivotal for both teams; Boston to prove they can continue to roll through round two of opponents they simply have to beat, Toronto to prove they can start turning around a season that so far has been a disaster.
2. Pitching, pitching, pitching above all else wins games. Good pitching beat good hitting nearly every time. After all, these are the guys that know where the ball is going. If a talented pitchers are hitting their spots and mixing up their pitches batters are left guessing what they’re going to get and are forced to react in a split second. Those that have pitching succeed. Those that don’t fail. Period. End of story. Which brings us to the Red Sox. Are these guys for real? The short answer is yes. Let’s take a closer look.
Currently, Boston has it in spades. Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester are a combined 9-0 with a 1.73 ERA. They’re running number 1 and 3 respectively in the American League pitching rankings. Ryan Dempster , who deserves better than his 1-3 record, has struck out a team high 49 and his been his usual durable, inning-eating self. For all of his struggles, Felix Doubront is 3-0 and has been getting better. If they can round out the five spot they’ll be in great shape barring injury. John Lackey returned from his strained biceps injury Sunday and pitched six solid innings, allowing five hits and a run against an admittedly awful Houston Astros team. The bullpen has been solid and Andrew Bailey seems to have justifiably usurped the closer spot from Joel Hanrahan (five of six save opportunities and a 1.46 ERA).
With a team batting average of .272, Boston ranks behind only the Tigers and Rockies in all of baseball. Their slugging and on base plus slugging percentage put them ahead of the second place Rockies. With the exception of Mike Napoli‘s MLB second best 27 RBI, the Sox don’t have another player in the top 20. That speaks volumes about how the production is getting spread around. And what production it’s been. Boston has outscored their opponents by 40 runs so far in the month of April, first in baseball. That adds up to a lot of lopsided games that takes the pressure off their bullpen. The Red Sox also boast six hitters in RBI double figures, David Ortiz with 11 in just over a week.
Boston ranks sixth in Major League Baseball with the same fielding percentage as the Baltimore Orioles, the only other AL East team in the top 10. Some of the plays have been spectacular. Two cases in point; Jonny Gomes‘ flat out vertical stab Friday night and an over the shoulder grab, snagged as the ball was screaming over his head Saturday in left field coupled with Daniel Nava‘s game ending diving grab on Sunday, typify just how hard the boys are getting after it.
It seems that every time a player gets a chance to do something good in the Boston lineup, that’s exactly what happens. Nava has made the most of Jackie Bradley Junior’s early season struggles and Shane Victorino‘s balky back. Nava is batting .310 with a team second best 16 RBI, many of those coming in key situations. In addition he’s played solid defense. Mike Carp has had just 22 at bats this season yet is batting .450 with 5 RBI. These are the kinds of contributions that can make a team magical.
Now for both the science and the black art of team chemistry. This is perhaps the least understood and potentially most important aspect of overall team performance. In Red Sox lore, it’s what made both 1967 and 2004 possible. It’s one part desire, one part talent and one part “we’re in this together and no one is going to tell us we’re not good enough.” Tragically, in Boston’s case, the galvanizing event of the Boston Marathon bombs exploding just hours after a Patriots Day win, has bound the team together in a special way.
The night the Red Sox arrived in Cleveland to play their play their first game after the bombings, 22 of the 25 team members went to dinner together. That doesn’t happen in the majors. Once they returned to Fenway and Big Papi spoke the expletive heard ’round the world, it was game on and, it appears, that’s they way they’re going to play it from here on. Papi’s speech and the team’s response was an emotional, electrifying call to action that may indeed turn out to be the team’s galvanizing moment. The motto of this story is don’t mess with an angry team. The Sox have continued their hot streak following their Fenway return, setting the pace with the best record in the majors.
For now the best the other teams in the division can do is try to hang tough until the Sox hit a lull, something that hasn’t happened yet this year.