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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Sox in Six: Balance, Daniel-San!

The Red Sox have found balance.

Remember that scene in The Karate Kid when Mr. Miyagi has Daniel stand up in a row boat doing karate moves, then shakes the boat so he falls in? "Must learn balance, Daniel-san!" the  sensei yells, and while Daniel hates the chill and calls him crazy, the master's intent becomes clear a few scenes later.

Baseball is a game where titles are won by teams achieving a proper balance -- with pitching, hitting, fielding, and baserunning all playing a part. A team can always use a big star or two in the lineup or rotation, but role players who can jump in and produce when asked are also key ingredients.

As they stand today atop the American League East, the Red Sox are achieving this balance with the best record in baseball. What are the key reasons? That's the focus of today's Sox in Six: 

Passing the Buck to Buchholz

Buchholz has had near no-hit stuff this season.

Coming off yet another win last night at Toronto, Clay Buchholz is emerging as a staff ace capable of winning 20 games and maybe even a Cy Young Award.

His April was, quite simply, one of the best in Red Sox history. It was only the fourth time a Sox pitcher had five victories during the season's first month, putting Clay in the company of Josh Beckett (in 2007), Pedro Martinez (1999) and Babe Ruth (1917).

Including last night's seven shutout innings versus the Blue Jays, Buchholz ranks first in the majors in victories (6-0), second in ERA (1.01), and tied for fourth with 47 strikeouts in a MLB-high 44.2 innings. Not since Roger Clemens 2001 has a Boston pitcher had an ERA this low after six starts. 

Clemens, Martinez, and Ruth -- that's pretty good company. 

Strong Supporting Cast

Carp in contemplation.

As dominant as Buchholz has been, the true strength of the Boston rotation has been the lack of a weak link among the top foursome. Lester (4-1), Ryan Dempster (3.32 ERA), and Felix Doubront (3-0) have all been effective, going deep into games and piling up the strikeouts (the Sox had 255 in April, a team record). 

Even the fifth spot recently vacated by the oft-injured John Lackey has not been a total washout, with Lackey and Triple A Pawtucket ace Alan Webster turning in some solid efforts. Fellow fifth man Alfredo Aceves has been the only real disappointment, proving so ineffective and immature that he was sent to Pawtucket to (hopefully) regain his form. 

All told, Boston starters have an ERA hovering around 3.20 and a 16-4 record -- the best mark of any MLB starting staff. Giving the managerial reigns to a successful, well-liked pitching coach in John Farrell seems to be paying off for Red Sox ownership.      

The Lineup: Touching Them All 

Another run for the Red Sox.

While Boston pitchers keep opponents off the board, Red Sox hitters are racking up runs without the benefit of their traditionally large home run totals. 

Boston ranks just seventh in the AL (tied with Texas) with 31 homers, but is still scoring with abundance thanks to doubles (second in the AL with 61), triples (first with 9), and walks (third, with 101). Six regulars in the lineup are hitting .280 or better, and even .200 hitters Stephen Drew and Will Middlebrooks have had clutch hits to help win games.

The backups, when called upon, have been dependable. Outfielder/first baseman Mike Carp is hitting .480 (12-for-25), Pedro Ciriaco has provided his usual grit and versatility, and David Ross has shown pop in spelling Jarrod Saltalamacchia at catcher.

One would expect Carp to be leading the team with his lofty average, but that's not the case here because...

Papi is Channeling The Kid

Papi lets one rip. 

Each time the experts (and many fans) think David Ortiz's days as a huge factor in the Red Sox lineup are over, the big guy comes back to surprise us again.

A major heel injury sidelined Ortiz almost all of last year's second half, the bulk of spring training, and for the first 16 games of this season as well. Most figured it would take Papi several weeks to get back his bat speed, and his .222 average in a brief rehab stint at Pawtucket surprised no one.

What he's done since coming back to the big league lineup, however, has been nothing short of astounding. Not since Ted Williams has a Red Sox player returned from a prolonged absence with such ferocity. Ortiz is batting .487 in 10 games with 3 homers, 7 doubles, 15 RBI and a ridiculous OPS of 1.409. He also has a 22-game hitting streak dating to last year, the longest of his career.

Most hitters emerge from major injuries rusty at the plate. Papi is hotter than ever, a feat that Williams, the Hall of Famer acknowledged by many to be baseball's greatest all-time hitter, performed often during his career.

In 1941, for instance, a bad ankle hobbled The Splendid Splinter for a month during the end of spring training and the early season, but he batted .462 in his first eight games back en route to a .406 season -- the last .400 campaign in big league history.

After a Triple Crown season in 1942 (.356, 37, 137), Ted missed all of 1943-45 while a Navy pilot during World War II. He didn't skip a beat, however, coming back in 1946 to hit .342 with 38 homers.

Williams served his country yet again as a Marine fighter pilot during the Korean War, and missed most of the 1952 and '53 seasons. Unlike most big leaguers he rarely touched a baseball during his absence, yet returned late in 1953 and hit an incredible .407 with 13 home runs and 34 RBI in just 37 games.

So while Ortiz may be doing something astounding, it is not unprecedented in Red Sox history. Just ask the really old-timers at Fenway Park.

No Whining, Just Winning

 John Farrell -- still smiling after a month. 

Bobby Valentine received a nice bouquet of positive headlines when he was brought in to succeed Terry Francona as manager in 2012, but the good vibrations didn't last long.  

By the end of April, Valentine had already alienated one of the team's most popular players, Kevin Youkilis, by suggesting that the veteran known for playing hard and hurt was not putting forth his best effort. Given a chance to alter his comments, Bobby V stayed firm -- a stance that set the stage for a season of griping and sniping among the manager, players, and press.

This year's club epitomizes team harmony. The firing of Valentine and appointment of Farrell to replace him, had some pundits scratching their heads. His record in two years leading the Blue Jays was uninspiring, but Red Sox players (some of who knew him as the club's pitching coach from 2007-10) have quickly embraced his approach.

There has been literally no controversy in the clubhouse or elsewhere, a direct contrast to last year. Even those situations where problems could have emerged -- Jose Iglesias' demotion upon Drew's return from injury, despite a .450 batting average and sterling defense; Joel Hanrahan not getting back his closer's role upon his return from the DL -- have passed without incident.

Everybody is doing and saying the right thing, and those positive vibes are surely helping guys stay loose and productive. It also makes them more fun to watch than the dugout brooders of last year, because on this club there are....

No Stars, Just Success

Nava is in the thick of things. 

Yes, Ortiz is an elite player with more than 400 homers; sure Dustin Pedroia has a Rookie of the Year, MVP, and two Gold Glove trophies to his credit. Jon Lester has won a World Series clincher and appeared on several All-Star teams.

But while nobody is denying the importance these established veterans bring to the table, this is a Boston team seemingly devoid of superstar "types" -- the prima donnas that can bring down a ballclub. Papi is keeping things lose and relishing in the terrific start of new first baseman Mike Napoli -- currently leading all of baseball with 31 RBI and 14 doubles.

The breakthrough start by Daniel Nava, whose story is one filled with roadblocks to success, has been widely celebrated by his teammates, as has the re-emergence of Jacoby Ellsbury as a 50-steal threat. Everyone loves seeing Buchholz dominate, but relievers like Alex Wilson and Koji Uehara helped the club to a team record-tying 18 April wins. 

The club's improvement over this point last year is stunning. Boston was 11-14 and in last place in the AL East after 25 games in 2012, and didn't win its 18th game until May 18. There is still plenty of time for this club to falter as well, but right now the Red Sox look poised and primed to hang around.

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