Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Red Sox 50-Game Checkup - Stay on Target...Stay on Target

It's dangerous to do this update right on the heels of yesterday's extreme high. It's sort of like going to the grocery store to do your weekly shopping when you're really hungry. You wind up with a whole bunch of stuff that made your mouth water when you passed it in the aisle, but a 30-pack of Ramen Noodles really doesn't have a lot of utility when the next morning rolls around. With that caveat, I press on, because I'm a gamer, and it's my job.

The Sox were actually one game worse over the second 25 games (15-10) than the first 25 (16-9), but it feels a whole lot better. Much of that, I'm sure, is directly due to their position in the standings. After 50 games, the Sox sit 2.5 games up on the Yankees, while they were 4 behind after 25. 30 of the previous 48 teams that led their division on Memorial Day wound up winning the division, so history gives the Sox a 63% chance of taking the AL East, for what it's worth. Doesn't mean much, but first place by 2.5 is better than last place by 11.5, eh, Whit?

Good Things

1. The offense was number one on this list after 25 games, and there's no reason to change that after 50. With an average of 6.2, the Sox lead the majors in runs per game. The Sox lineup is smart, patient (Nomar and Shea notwithstanding, and we can forgive Nomar), and flat-out talented. It's also balanced, as evidenced by the fact that the guys who are carrying the team now - Nomar, Bill Mueller, and David Ortiz - are completely different than the guys who carried the team through the first 25 - Shea Hillenbrand, Kevin Millar, and Jason Varitek. The fact that Manny Ramirez, arguably the most fearsome right-handed bat in baseball, shows up on neither of those lists has me salivating. I'm all aquiver at the notion of Manny putting together a .375/.475/.700 (average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) month with 15 homers and 45 RBI in June or July. The show the Sox put on in dissecting Roger Clemens on Memorial Day was breathtaking to behold, and should be required viewing for the entire organization.

2. The pitching has improved - not drastically, but it has improved. The bullpen ERA, which stood at 5.95 after 25 games, is down to 5.05. Better, though not great. The massive meltdowns have certainly slowed, with the exception of Ramiro Mendoza (see below). John Burkett has posted two consecutive solid starts. Casey Fossum, though he got touched up by both New York and Cleveland, continues to show promise and guts. Brandon Lyon seems to have the makeup to be a late-inning stopper. Mike Timlin causes heart failure, but generally gets the job done, and Robert Person's addition to the 'pen gives the Sox another quality arm, though he hasn't harnessed it yet. Bottom line, though, the Sox haven't come close to pitching up to their potential - their 4.76 ERA is 21st in the league - and they're still in first place by 2.5 games.

3. There may be light at the end of the tunnel for Derek Lowe. Since he was torched by the Twins on May 11 (when he was unlucky more than anything else), the goofy sinkerballer has gone 16 1/3 innings and only given up 4 earned runs and 11 hits for a 2.20 ERA. He tossed a complete-game 4-hitter against Cleveland in his last start. Granted, his home/road splits are ridiculous - he's unhittable at home and unmissable on the road - but my hope is that he gained some confidence in his last two outings, and it'll translate against the Yankees tomorrow.

4. The Yankees suck. It's a popular chant at Fenway - which is highly annoying and doesn't cast Red Sox Nation in the greatest light - but over the last 25 games it's been true. New York is 9-16 over the last 25, and 9-18 since they blew the doors off of the rest of the league to start 18-3. Fun fact: the Tigers are 10-15 over the same 25-game span. Even more fun, the Yankees are 3-10 in games in which Derek Jeter's played since his return from injury. They are struggling with lots of injuries, bad luck, bad starts from superstars (see Giambi, Jason), and an increasingly irritated Big Stein. I fully expect them to right their ship, but it does not pain me to see them scuffle.

Bad Things

1. Ramiro Mendoza has been horrrrrible. Through 21 appearances, he's 1-1 with a 7.53 ERA, allowing 54 baserunners in 28 2/3 innings. He appears to have no stuff - his signature sliders are flat and hanging - and even worse, no confidence. Mendoza was a critical offseason acquisition, and an important component of the Sox' bullpen strategy, and today I don't want to see him doing anything but mopping up.

2. Pedro went on the Disabled List with a strain in his back. He will miss at least two starts, though he may be back next weekend. Pedro is a confounding mixture of warrior studboy and slight wisp. He's not very big, and he puts a lot of strain on his body every outing. The Sox say that this injury is unrelated to any previous trouble, and that it should not impact him in the long term. If that's true - no worries, but if it's not, the Sox odds just got much longer. Bruce Chen pitched well against the Yankees last week, but I don't have high expectations for the journeyman lefthander. Pedro being Pedro for the rest of the season flat out guarantees the Sox 15 wins. Chen being Chen, um, doesn't.

The Sox are 2.5 games better than the Yankees and 9 better than the Mets through 50 games. Lot of season left, but the sun is shining today.

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