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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sox in Six: Pride, Pitching, and Another Curse Broken

Plenty to smile about so far.

A week after ending the longest sellout streak in major professional sports annals, the Red Sox helped fill hearts with pride after one of Boston's darkest days. Then they continued their own shocking revival.

Nobody could have predicted the horrific events that struck the city on Marathon Day, and few could have anticipated the start that has quickly reestablished the Sox -- at least for now -- as a viable force in the American League. Timely hitting, near-historic starting pitching, and a new attitude infused by new manager John Farrell has resulted in the AL's best record (13-6, tied with Texas) out of the gate.

Even more surprising than the speed with which Farrell seems to have turned around the clubhouse mojo is how quick the Red Sox have regained the respect of fans disillusioned by the woeful 2012 season and the calamitous reign of Bobby Valentine. It is still too early to compare this team to the feel-good squads of 1967 and 1975, but as they did in those memorable summers, the Sox are winning with a roster that has few established superstars but plenty of likable characters for whom it's easy to cheer.

Here's a look at the Sox in Six:

Give Papi a Bleeping Break
Papi spoke from the heart.

The events of last Saturday, from the majestic entrance of the Hoyts and other heroes to Neil Diamond's live crooning of "Sweet Caroline," have been well-documented elsewhere. But before moving on to the team itself, a thought on David Ortiz's much-discussed pregame speech in which he told fans, "This is our [expletive] city, and nobody is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong."

While expletives like the one Papi uttered are usually frowned upon in a public gathering, especially with thousands of kids listening in, this is one case where we should give the big guy a pass. My preteen son and I heard his address over the radio, where the word in question appeared to be blocked out, but when Jason asked me what I thought Ortiz had said, I countered with, "I'm not sure, but whatever it was, it's OK."

There are times when tough times warrant tough words. Papi's pride for his adopted homeland and city shone through in his comments, and to me this seemed a time parents could say to their kids, "That's not a nice word to say, but sometimes adults are so angry they can't help themselves."

As Ortiz reporters after the game, he wanted to get things "out of my chest." In doing so, he spoke for millions of people in New England and beyond.

No Chicken Around Here
Co-aces once again.

Larry Lucchino, Sam Kennedy and Co. certainly hoped that Farrell's successful stint as pitching coach for Boston from 2007-10 would help him turn around the club's disappointing starting staff as manager. The early returns have been very encouraging; in fact, they've been unlike almost anything seen before.

In helping the team to its best start (12-4) in more than a decade, Red Sox starters allowed three runs or fewer in the first 16 games of the season through last Saturday. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this feat had been accomplished just twice in American League history -- by the 1978 and 1981 Oakland A's -- and the Sox were one ground ball single off Sunday's Game 1 starter Ryan Dempster from stretching the streak to 17 straight. Entering tonight, Boston is the only team in baseball that has had no starter allow more than 4 runs in a game.

Leading the way through this stretch has been last year's biggest flops -- Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Boston is 8-0 in games started by the top two men in the rotation, and Buchholz leads the American League with an 0.90 ERA entering tonight (Lester is fourth at 1.73). 

K Men
Dempster brings some heat.

It's tough to win if you can't hit the ball, and Boston pitchers have been piling up strikeouts at a fantastic rate. 

Entering tonight, the Red Sox lead MLB with 189 strikeouts and 9.94 punchouts per game. Sox starters and relievers have combined for 12 games with at least 10 strikeouts, and starters Lester, Buchholz, Dempster, and Felix Doubront have registered 106 whiffs in just 96.2 innings. The relievers have not been too shabby either; closer Andrew Bailey, for instance, has 17 strikeouts in 10.1 frames.

Speed Demons
Ellsbury is on the run again.

While the pitchers are blowing away opposing batters, Boston base runners are turning on the speed as well. Boston trails only Oakland in the AL with 18 stolen bases, led by a resurgent Jacob Ellsbury -- tops in the league with 9 steals in 9 attempts. 

Speed has also been key for Boston on defense, where new additions Shane Victorino and Jackie Bradley have tracked down many a deep fly ball in the outfield and the infield of Will Middlebrooks (3B), Dustin Jose Iglesias/Stephen Drew (SS), Pedroia (2B), Mike Napoli (IB), and Jarrod Saltalamacchia/David Ross (C) has been airtight. Boston's 4 errors are the fewest in baseball, and its .994 fielding percentage the best.

Napoli a Net Gain
Napoli drives in four -- with one swing.

Boston's well-rounded offense has been another key to its great start, but Napoli has stood out in the clutch.

Although his .278 average is fifth among Red Sox regulars, his 25 RBI (on just 22 hits) leads the team and the majors. Last night he had 5 RBI including a grand slam, and he's had at least one ribbie in 8 of the last 10 games.

Napoli's career high in RBI is 75 -- and he's already one-third of the way there.

The (Next) Curse has Been Lifted

The truth shall set you free.

Another more ballyhooed curse may have been toppled by the Red Sox nine years ago, but when Fenway Park attendance fell below full capacity in the second home game this season, it marked the end of another streak.

Any fan who has attended games since the September swoon of 2011 or watched on TV has observed many contests in which there were thousands of empty seats at Fenway, yet the Red Sox' home sellout streaks "officially" reached 794 regular season games and 820 overall (including playoffs) before mercifully ending on April 10 against Baltimore. The sellout stretch had started on May 15, 2003, nearly two full seasons BEFORE the Red Sox captured the 2004 World Series.

Management always maintained it had sold enough tickets to qualify home games as sellouts, but media and fans scoffed at the splotches of blue and red throughout Fenway and stories emerged of the team literally giving away tickets online during the last-place 2013 season.   Now that the pressure is off, the Sox can focus on playing well enough that the park is full or nearly full most of the time.

The strategy seems to be working pretty well so far.

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