Remember the British rock group “Fine Young Cannibals?”
It’s not much of a stretch to connect the group’s name to the current state of affairs in the American League East. Rolling out of the All-Star break Friday and until the end of July, schedule makers have ensured that division contenders and pretenders will feast on each other for the next 10 days.
As the pseudo second-half gets underway, here is a snapshot of the A.L. East standings: Boston leads the division by 2.5 games over Tampa Bay, 4.5 games over Baltimore, 6 games over the Yankees and 11.5 over the team many thought would be the team to win the division this year, Toronto. Now take a look at the remaining July schedule for the division contenders which may well play a significant role in who survives for post-season play. We’ll take the liberty of excluding the Blue Jays from the mix. One hot streak that saw the Jays win 11 straight quickly gave way to poor play again and for all intents and purposes, Toronto has just too many division rivals to claw over to make a bid for a playoff spot.
Feast your eyes on the remaining July schedule for each of the A.L. East contenders, and I’m sure you will agree these four teams will literally and figuratively be eating each other alive before the first of August:
Boston vs New York for 3
Tampa Bay vs Toronto for 3
Baltimore vs Texas for 3
Boston vs Tampa for 4
Tampa vs Boston for 4
Baltimore vs K.C. for 3
Boston vs Baltimore for 3
Tampa vs Yankees for 3
Baltimore vs Boston for 3
Yankees vs Boston for 3
Yankees vs Texas for 4
Yankees vs Tampa Bay for 3
Nary one of those four teams has what could be termed as a post-All Star Game piece of cake schedule. And how they respond to that Murder’s Row of 10 games between now and the end of the month certainly provides opportunity to pull away, fade away, or maintain their respective division standing positions.
And each team comes with enough questions marks to make the outcome of this year’s division race anything but a certainty. Here are just a few of the questions surrounding the Beasts of the East:
1. Can Boston continue to survive with the long-term absence of Clay Buchholz? Is the bullpen deep enough with the loss of Andrew Miller, Joel Hanrahhan and the inconstancy of Andrew Bailey? Is Jose Iglesias for real, will the Sox shop for another starter before July 31st, and what to do about third base?
2. Is Tampa Bay’s stable of talented young arms enough to get it to post season play despite its stretches where manufacturing runs has been challenging and defensive lapses have been costly?
3. Are the much improved and offensively impressive Orioles poised to break through this year and make it back to post-season play behind the powerful bat of Chris Davis?
4. Will the return of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez make that much of a difference for an aging and patchwork Yankees lineup?
The Red Sox have seemingly occupied first place in the division, or have held a share of it, since the first week of the season. A look at their overall numbers indicate why. The Red Sox rank in the top five of all Major League teams in a number of offensive categories; among them runs scored, hits, doubles, RBI, total bases and team batting average. This despite missing DH David Ortiz for the first three weeks of the season, a tortuously slow start by Jacoby Ellsbury, luke-warm offense from Stephen Drew at shortstop, injuries and an eventual demotion of third baseman Will Middlebrooks, a damaged thumb to Dustin Pedroia, pit stops by Shane Victorino on the DL, and Mike Napoli well on his way to breaking the single-season strike out record by a Red Sox hitter.
Manager John Farrell has mixed and matched role players with the skill of an orchestra conductor, getting the most out of platooning Mike Carp, Daniel Nava, and Jonny Gomes in left and right with Nava and Carp giving Napoli a break from time to time at first base. Jarrod Saltalamachia has caught the lion’s share of games behind the plate with Ryan Lavarnway getting an occasional start and holding down the back up spot waiting for David Ross to be cleared to return from his second trip to the “Concussion” DL.
All things being equal, the Devil in Boston’s post-season details may well come down to how well the pitching staff, minus any trade deadline splash, can continue to perform well enough to compliment the team’s offensive consistency.
Buchholz continues to struggle with recovery from a shoulder and collar bone injury that has sidelined him since June 8. Not many teams can hold a lead for a month-and-a-half with their staff ace in mothballs. There is no certainty associated with Buchholz’s return at this pint, and at best, he may be back in early August.
Rebounding from Tommy John surgery, slimmed down veteran John Lackey looks like a new man, armed with, well, a new arm. Felix Doubront is beginning to turn in steady quality starts and a strong second half from him is essential to Boston’s continued success. So is the performance of Jon Lester, brilliant in April, shot down in May. If he can rediscover his cutter, it will go a long way in Boston’s success against A.L. East foes. Ryan Dempster has for the most part pitched better than his record indicates, leaving the fifth rotation position to a combination of spot starts by ostracized Alfredo Aceves combined with flirtations of a number of young prospects: among them the intriguing Brandon Workman who turned in a no-hit effort for six and two thirds in his first Major League start prior to the mid-season break.
Is Bailey’s fastball and confidence back? Can Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa hold up under a heavy work load? Will the decrepit Yankees continus to fade? Is it the Year of the Bird in Baltimore? And will the always competitive Rays make a patented second-half run?
Buckle up your seat belts A.L. East fans, and join in a refrain from Emerson, Lake & Palmer:
“Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends. We’re so glad you could attend…”