With 55 games on the books, roughly one-third of the 2013 Major League Baseball season is history. To say that there have been a few surprises in the American League East might be the baseball understatement of the year thus far. While most preseason prognosticators pegged the vastly improved and very expensive roster of the Toronto Blue Jays to run away with the division, with Baltimore and Tampa Bay close behind, it is the division’s oldest and fiercest rivals who are perched atop the division lead, separated by a mere 2 games.
This weekend and the entire month of June could go along way in deciding if old foes Boston and New York are 2013 contenders, or early season pretenders. May ends and June begins with a crucial weekend series kickoff Friday night and a premier pitching match up between top of the rotation mainstays Jon Lester and C.C. Sabathia toeing the rubber to begin a three-game set at the Evil Empire. A Felix Doubront (3-2) versus Phil Hughes (2-3) Saturday sandwich game is completed by Sunday’s marquee pitching duel between Boston’s undefeated and recuperating Clay Buchholz at 7-0, going head-to-head with the Yank’s Hiroki Kuroda at 6-3.
Many thought Boston had too many question marks and suspect starting pitching to be leading the division at this point while likewise, quite a few baseball followers had written the Yanks off due to an aging roster and a key injury to the heart and soul of the Yankees, Derek Jeter. Toss in the element of uncertainty about Mariano Rivera’s return from injury, and this year’s campaign seemed certain to have fresh faces among the division’s leaders.
So much for fresh meat. The old dogs of the A.L. East are at each others throats again. Perhaps the biggest surprise so far is the Bosox. Take a second to revisit some of the question marks about this team on Opening Day.
1. Outside of Lester and Buchholz, how would the remainder of the starting rotation work out—with Ryan Dempster‘s switch to the A.L. from the N.L., John Lackey’s return from Tommy John surgery, and who would the fifth guy be? Lester and Buchholz have been just fine thank you very much, if not dominating. Dempster has had trouble with pitch counts and getting to the 6th inning, but on whole has pitched better than the 2-6 mark he currently owns would indicate; Lackey’s last four starts have been quality outings and he could easily be better than 3-5 with a little more timely run support; and the mix-and-match combination of Felix Doubront/Alfredo Aceves and now the return of Franklin Morales from the DL gives the Red Sox starting rotation heading into June some positive vibes.
2. How strong and deep would the bullpen be? Joel Hanrahan’s season is shot due to injury, but the return of closer Andrew Bailey, along with consistent work of Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, Andrew Miller, Koji Uehara and Clayton Mortensen gives manager John Farrell plenty of options after the sixth inning. The durability of the bullpen will be tested in June, but the relievers own a big part of Boston’s early season success.
3. How would the Red Sox match up against the vastly improved trio of Toronto/Baltimore/Tampa Bay? Two other key factor’s to the Red Sox holding on to first in the A.L. East: lots of series wins, lots of mini win-streaks and no prolonged losing streak to this point. An across the board look at Boston’s won/loss mark is a testament to the club’s winning consistency so far. They stand 33-22 overall heading into Friday night and own a 17-12 home record, are six games above .500 on the road at 16-10, are holding up well against A.L. East foes thus far with a division record of 13-8, and have a won/loss advantage against the A.L. Central at 12-8 as well as a 6-4 won/loss mark against the A.L.West. That success will be tested in June as the Red Sox face A.L. East rivals 16 times this month, and take on division contenders Texas, Detroit and the Angels as well as Colorado in their remaining June games.
4. How would Napoli fit in at first, and what about the return from injuries from Ellsbury, Middlebrooks and Big papi? Offensively, the Red Sox have manuevered around some position-player injuries for the first third of the season and have managed to get consistent, if not spectacular output to go hand-in-hand with steady work on the mound.
Ten days ago, if you asked me what was ailing leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury, I could have given you a laundry list: pulling off the ball, not finishing off his swing; lead foot in a bucket, weakly rolling into double plays to the right side of the infield; an anemic sub-.250 batting average and seemingly his last multi-hit game came during the Nixon Administration. But for the last 10 days, soulful Alicia Keyes should re-cut her latest hit and title it: “This Man is On Fire.”
Ellsbury has flipped an offensive switch and is now playing like he is indeed in a free-agent contract year, which he is. In the past 8 days he has jacked up his average more than 20 points, is crushing the ball with authority to all fields, and using his speed to torment opposing batteries, as evidenced by his team record-breaking five stolen bases Thursday night in the close of a two-game set at Philadelphia. So he goes into the Red Sox record books and is one behind the Major League record for stolen bases in a single game; a record held by, ironically, Carl Crawford, who stole six bases back in May of 2009 while with Tampa Bay and his accomplishment came against, you guessed it, the Red Sox.
Despite playing with a near season-long thumb injury, spark plug Dustin Pedroia continues to pound the ball, albiet without much long-ball power. Mike Napoli is among league leaders in extra base hits and rbi and has settled in nicely at 1st base, giving ageless David Ortiz the protection he needs in the clean up spot. And Big Papi is once again delivering the goods as one of the most feared DH’s in the game. He even managed to get some innings in at first base Thursday night without (A) any egregious errors, and (B) injuring his tender Achilles heels. And I’m sure all of Red Sox Nation was holding its collective breath, hoping no pitchers were injured while swinging bats in National League parks.
Where the Red Sox have encountered injury difficulties, a “Next Man Up” mentality seems to fit this team well. Shane Victorino’s back problems have been countered by the solid platoon play of Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes–who is barely hitting his weight, but everytime you look up he is on base with a walk or HBP, and has had a handful of killer clutch hits. Mike Carp has also had his moments and gives Farrell another outfield option as well as occasional rest for Napoli at first.
Will Middlebrooks has battled rib injuries and is currently on the DL. Getting him back and offensively healthy could be a key for the Red Sox over the next month. After a slow start hindered by a spring training concussion, Stephen Drew is steady if unspectacular at short and shows signs of stroking the ball with some power over the past two weeks.
Defensive whiz Jose Iglesias is finding life interesting at third, and if he continues to perform reasonably well at the plate, Farrell and the front office could face a difficult choice: send him back down, or make him the back-up infielder at the expense of Pedro Ciriaco’s roster spot. Depth in the outfield is available but a phone call away with the speed and offensive output shown by Jackie Bradley Jr., who began the season on the 25-man roster and had been perfoming well at Triple-A before his recent call up. In all likelihood, he’ll be sent back down shortly to make room for Victorino, expected to complete a minor league rehab assignment in time to be activated by Wednesday for the Texas Rangers series.
Boston has not exactly been winning with smoke and mirrors. If anything, the Red Sox have been unspectacularly, spectacular. Like the Little Engine that Could, Boston just keeps plugging away. They’ll need to keep that mojo working to emerge from June where they begin June: on top in the A.L. East.
- Jacoby Ellsbury Breaks Boston Red Sox Single-Game Stolen Base Record (bleacherreport.com)
- Ells Ails Indians in Stunning Comeback (baseballtrashtalkin.org)