Much of the talk in Major League Baseball right now swirls around the upcoming All Star game, who will get in, who will be mistreated and stay home and of course which league, the American or National, will win and get home field advantage for their league winner when World Series time rolls around. But the annual All Star game also signals the time each year when baseball fans really turn it up a notch and begin to consider how their home team is likely to finish the year, in the playoffs or in the cellar. This Red Sox review helps to sort out where the Sox are right now and what their post season chances might be.
Pitching . Any mid season Red Sox Review has to start with pitching, because the team has survived on it to date this year. The Sox in 2007 have what has to be one of the best 5 man rotations in recent memory. Everyone expected Curt Schilling of “bloody sock” fame to come out firing this year. After a lackluster 2006 season Schilling seemed to come out of training camp with a determination of mind and a strength of arm that might see him and the Sox to the post season Schilling’s performance so far has shown flashes of greatness as in his near perfect game start in early June. Certainly Schilling maintains a winning record and has racked up plenty of strikeouts during the first half year. But for the Sox to get to the post season, Schilling will need to bring more consistency to the mound . He remains the number one starter and the one pitcher everyone seems still to rely on, but he has to make it happen in the second half. Having witnessed the determination of Curt Schilling in 2004, fans at least can believe this athlete will do everything in his power to help take the Sox where they want to go.
There is delightfully more to Red Sox pitching this season than just an Ace. In fact many would say the Sox have potentially three aces in their starting rotation. Josh Beckett has become the pitcher the Sox thought they had acquired a year ago. Coming off a so-so season in 2006, it seems like a new career for Beckett. Having opened the season with 9 wins before losing, Beckett has more than lived up to the billing he received a year ago. With only a few days out so far for injury, Beckett seems poised now to take a shot at a 20 win season. Behind Beckett in the rotation is the enigmatic Dice-K Matsuzaka. This highly recruited pitcher has hinted at the talent he has to give, but is still admittedly learning the ropes of American baseball. Still, given what he has delivered to date, the more experienced he becomes the bigger threat he will pose to opposing lineups.
The rest of the starting rotation has also been a pleasant surprise . Tim Wakefield, despite a few stumbles in late May-early June, has his knuckle ball working and Julian Tevaras has come seemingly out of nowhere to be a dependable 5th starter who can give the Sox lots of innings.
Perhaps the biggest surprise and the greatest reason for hope for the Red Sox to win their division is the excellent performances they have had coming out of the bull pen. Long relief, short relief, left handed relief, closer, its all there and so far its all working. Many experts say that you can’t win deep into the post season without great pitching. If that’s the case Sox fans have nothing to worry about.
Hitting – A Red Sox Review at mid season must also take a serious look at batting. The first half of the season fans have watched a very streaky lineup. Kevin Yukulis, Mike Lowell and David Ortiz have stayed at about .300 with some consistency but the rest of the team has been on a roller coaster ride. Still some of the downside seems to be on the rise. For example Manny Ramirez who had a down right dreadful spring is beginning to put some at bats together and has, over time brought his average out of the pits and nearer to the .300 mark . Dustin Pedroia who was a standout in terms of how poorly he hit during the early part of the season has begun to make believers out of the Fenway faithful and raised his average above .300.
The questions are, will important, sometimes leadoff hitter Julio Lugo and speedster Coco Crisp catch fire? Will captain and potential power hitter Jason Varitek start putting up numbers in the RBI and home run columns? Can J. D. Drew continue on his current hot streak and be the number two hitter that the Sox hoped he might be? These are questions that will be answered about the hitting of the Red Sox during the second half season. Optimists believe the Sox have the lumber, they just need to work on the consistency. All the offensive pieces are present in the dugout they just have to step out onto the field regularly to take the Sox to the post season and beyond.
Fielding . The Sox, in 2006, had one of the best defensive infields in club history, they led the league in fielding per centage and it seemed as though the Sox were solid in the field for the future. Even the outfield looked bright with Manny Ramirez having a banner year making a league leading number of assists from his spot in left field. Johnny Damon had a questionable arm but could run down almost anything in the outfield and Trot Nixon was ready to dive, fall or crash into the wall if it meant an out.
When the Sox determined to make roster changes that removed Alex Gonzales, Mark Loretta, Damon and Nixon, eyebrows went up all over Red Sox Nation . This Red Sox review at mid season has to conclude that the roster changes that have been made have left the Sox depleted in the field. Mike Lowell has had a tough first half as has Julio Lugo. After a collision with the wall in right field J. D. Drew is only gradually rebuilding his confidence chasing down flies. But there are bright lights as well. Kevin Yukulis is errorless at first base, Coco Crisp continues to amaze in center and Manny is playing a very consistent left field. Fielding may not be the strong suit that it was a year ago, but it is unlikely that fielding alone will keep the Sox out of post season play
Team play Any Red Sox review has to include a brief look at the way in which the team has come together as a group of 25 athletes. From a distance at least, it appears that Manager Terry Francona has worked his magic again in maintaining a positive attitude in the dugout and a winning spirit on the field. There seem to be lots of solid relationships being formed by teammates which may be the glue that can hold them together into the post season. Seasoned veterans like Schilling, Lowell, Varitek and even Tevaras are actively working to encourage rookies and team newcomers to form a team that can strike together as a unit as the long season wears on. Best of all, at this juncture, there do not seem to be any petty rivalries or backbiting to take away from what so far looks like a very positive season.
Competition. Of course no matter how well the Sox pitch, hit, field and work together, their efforts won’t take them to the desired World Series prize unless they do those things better than the teams they face. This season the American League East Division has been incredibly weak. The always contentions Yankees have suffered one of the most depressing springs in recent memory which saw the Bronx Bombers descend for a brief stay in last place. But the Yankees, being the Yankees, cannot be expected to remain silent forever. A recent seven game win streak demonstrated clearly to Yankee and Red Sox fans alike that the season is far from over and the Yanks far from finished. Even Toronto is within striking distance should they put together a win streak of their own.
The Red Sox have thus far recorded the best won-lost percentage in all of Major League Baseball but clearly there are other teams in other divisions that are waiting to have a crack at them. So any Red Sox review has to conclude by recognizing that yes, the Sox have had a superior first half of the season. They have displayed great pitching, improving hitting and decent fielding. And they seem to be blending nicely as a team. But this is Major League Baseball and the teams are made up of professionals who are paid lots and lots of money to win baseball games. A good start is better than a bad start but neither is definitive for the season.
The Sox clearly need to stay alert to the existence of teams who are building good records of their own like this year’s versions of the Cleveland Indians, the LA Angels and in the National League the Padres, the Brewers and the Mets. There is a lot of baseball left to play and some very interesting battles yet to be fought to determine who will get to the post season and eventually win the 2007 World Series. The good news for Red Sox fans is that at the half way mark it is the Boston Red Sox who are leading the pack