Red Sox 6, Astros, 1
Astros 11, Red Sox 10
Astros 3, Red Sox 2
So the second-place Boston Red Sox limp out of Houston in the wake of a pair of disappointing losses. On the bright side, the entire team contributed to the weekend’s lackluster results, so the finger-pointing will likely be kept to a minimum. Good thing, too, because one of the starters would probably sprain a digit, given the way the first half of the season has played out.
On Saturday, mediocre starting pitching gave way to a dreadful relief effort, as the Sox wasted 4-0 and 9-6 leads – not to mention 10 runs from the offense. Then, yesterday, the batsmen held a middle finger up to their mound-bound mates, leaving 13 runners on base to waste yet another solid performance by Josh Beckett. Though the arms weren’t completely blameless, as the bullpen’s seemingly incurable Okajima epidemic claimed another victim.
Now that the interleague interlude has blissfully ended, the Sox head to Tampa to face their closest rivals in the AL East, bringing with them a midseason report card for Mr. Francona to sign that’s largely positive, even as it describes at least one area where improvement is a must.
On offense, the Sox rate a solid B+, especially given David Ortiz’ lengthy absence. Their .806 OPS is a mere .001 behind the Rangers’ for the league’s top spot, and 424 runs (5.05/game) a clear second. J.D. Drew has been a revelation, raking at a nearly 1.000 OPS clip, hitting 15 HR (more than all of 2007) and almost, almost, making Papi’s hiatus bearable. Kevin Youkilis turned in another terrific first half, posting a .926 OPS with 13 HR. Mike Lowell is Mike Lowell, another in a reasonably long line of dependable, professional Red Sox third basemen. Jacoby Ellsbury has slumped after a quick start, and could probably use a few days off, but he’s on pace to break the league’s all-time rookie steals record. Dustin Pedroia’s red-hot June lifted him out of an early-season funk. Even Coco Crisp hasn’t been completely useless, his .747 OPS almost exactly the same as Ellsbury’s. And while he’s only 3rd on the team on OPS, Manny’s almost been Manny, except when he’s been beating up traveling secretaries, which is as annoying as it is out of character.
Only Julio Lugo (.708 OPS) and Jason Varitek (.688) take up the negative side of the ledger, struggling being a kind description of their performance to date.
The bench has been decent, too, with Sean Casey meeting expectations, Alex Cora providing needed defensive depth and the occasional single, Brandon Moss overcoming emergency surgery to deliver several key hits, Jed Lowrie looking the part of a big leaguer in his short stint, and Kevin Cash posting career-high offensive marks (which, admittedly, is not saying anything at all). No real complaints in the depth department.
Like the offense, the starting pitching has done its part, overcoming injuries to all but 2 of the projected rotation to post above-average marks, another B+ from the stern graders at MLC for the league’s second-best starting ERA (3.83). Justin Masterson’s been a godsend, even as I continue to hold my breath every time he takes the hill, putting up a 3.43 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 7 starts. Daisuke Matsuzaka started out like a house afire before getting hurt and probably coming back too fast. He’s still 9-1 with a 3.21 ERA (despite a scary 1.39 WHIP). Jon Lester threw a no-hitter for chrissakes. Josh Beckett’s been brutally unlucky, both in terms of run support and bullpen backing, but I’d still rather have him take charge than anyone else in the league in a land war in Asia. Tim Wakefield, like his similarly gray-haired colleague Lowell, is Tim Wakefield, quietly and effectively doing his job to the tune of a 3.88 ERA in 100+ innings. Even Bartolo Colon tossed quality innings before straining his fat swinging and missing during interleague play – if nothing else, the Sox should feel good that his arm is back in big league shape.
Only Clay Buchholz could be classified as disappointing, and the sample size is probably too small to make that claim stick. With a little luck, the Sox will have 7 decent to very good starters down the stretch – a luxury that may enable them to solve their biggest problem…
…that being the bullpen, which despite its seemingly adequate 3.89 ERA (good for 9th in the AL), keeps coming up small when it counts, allowing a staggering…um…well…I can’t find the actual statistic for inherited runners while here at work, but let me tell you that it’s impossibly high. Why, Hideki Okajima alone is responsible for 137% of the league’s inherited runs scored this season. And worse, the pen’s maddening inconsistency has been a constant hobgoblin. At various times thus far, Manny Delcarmen, Craig Hansen, David Aardsma and Javier Lopez have all been dominant in back of the Sox’ starters. And on an equal number of occasions, the same quartet have vomited upon themselves in spectacular and team-crippling fashion. Only Jonathan Papelbon’s quiet, understated elegance lifts the bullpen’s grade to a Whitney-friendly D.
As Uncle Ben famously remarked, with great power comes great responsibility. The corollary for the 2008 Boston Red Sox is, to whom much is given, much is expected. In a vacuum, a 96-win pace is more than acceptable. But it’s hard to play in a vacuum, what with all the noise and the flying particles. In the real world, the harsher calculus is this: second place isn’t good enough for a team as deep and talented as this one.
Man, am I spoiled.