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They're halfway home

Sox in great shape coming off break

The immutable truth is this: For all the sound and fury of the Theo Tempest and the Johnny's Going Pinstripes psychodrama, life could hardly be better for the Red Sox, at least where it matters most.

The Sox enter the second half of the season tonight against the Oakland A's with a three-game lead over the Yankees in the American League East. They have led or shared first place for 86 of 96 days in 2006, and have had sole possession for the last 22 days.

With a record of 53-33, they are only five games behind the Detroit Tigers (59-29), the most surprising team in baseball, for the best record in the major leagues. The Yankees not only trail the Sox in the East, they're also six games behind the Chicago White Sox in the wild-card standings, leading Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez to declare to reporters at the All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, ``The wild card will not come out of the East. Period."

Twenty-six of the next 38 games the Sox will play will be at Fenway Park, where they have had the majors' best home record since the start of the 2003 season. This would hardly be the time to expect them to stumble.

The prevailing idea in spring training was that the Red Sox were reinventing themselves as a pitching-and-defense team, with an emphasis on run prevention. They have done just that. They lead the majors in fielding percentage, and their staff ERA is 4.54, which is three-10ths of a percentage point lower than the 4.84 ERA they had in 2005. Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett are each on a pace to win 20 games, even as Beckett has allowed a shocking number of home runs, while Jonathan Papelbon is the best homegrown closer the Sox have had since the Monster, Dick Radatz.

The pitching staff has its issues -- David Wells and Matt Clement have given the Sox little this season, Wells nothing at all. The No. 5 spot in the rotation has been a black hole, and the veterans acquired to upgrade the bullpen, Rudy Seanez and Julian Tavarez, have disappointed, while Keith Foulke has become a rumor.

But perhaps the surprising thing about a team that supposedly underwent an extreme makeover is this: Despite the subtraction of Johnny Damon, a season-long slump by Jason Varitek, and injuries that have limited the contributions of Coco Crisp and Wily Mo Peña, the Sox have not sacrificed any offense this season, at least statistically.

Across the board, in fact, the Sox are ahead in every major statistical category, a tribute to the emergence of Kevin Youkilis as an on-base machine in the leadoff spot, major bounce-back seasons for Mike Lowell, Mark Loretta, and Trot Nixon, and a 3-4 combination of David Ortiz and Manny Ramírez that is second to none in the big leagues, now and perhaps at any time you would care to mention.

Ask Bill James: The numbers don't lie. The Sox of '06 are ahead of last year's team in batting average (.283 to .282), runs (486 to 473, despite playing one fewer game), home runs (114 to 100), on-base percentage (.366 to .357), and slugging percentage (.457 to .451). They even have stolen more bases (29 to 24).

``Our record's what it is," manager Terry Francona said last weekend in Chicago when asked to reflect on the first half. ``That's what matters. I do think this is the most comfortable I've been with a team since I've been here.

``This team, when we lose, they show up the next day with the same demeanor. When they win, they don't get carried away. I walk into the hotel bar, and six or seven of them are sitting there, talking about the game. It's a good, comfortable atmosphere.

``It's not as loud as it used to be but at the same token it's not tight. They have fun, they care about each other. I think they try to play the game right. And when we bring in young kids, everybody who comes here knows how to act when they come up.

``I've enjoyed the heck out of this first half, this team."

Chances are, so have you.

Defense never rests
The Sox, who set a big league record by going 17 consecutive games without making an error, have just 30 errors, 10 fewer than the next American League club -- Seattle. The Red Sox have allowed just 20 batters to reach base by error (compared with 61 for all of last year, 78 in 2004).

Every Sox infield starter has had an extended errorless streak this season. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez set a club record with 57 consecutive games without an error. Third baseman Lowell's last error came May 24. He has gone 42 consecutive games without an error, handling 124 chances. First baseman Youkilis, playing a new position, went 41 games, handling 353 chances, before making his first error. Second baseman Loretta had a 44-game errorless streak (184 chances) before making an error June 10, his only error in the first 71 games (313 chances). It's not just the starters. Backup infielder Alex Cora has not made an error since April 27, a span of 32 games and 98 chances. Sunday he appeared in his first game this season at third base, playing the last 8 1/3 innings and turning a remarkable double play.

Home-field advantage
The Sox played more games on the road (49) before the break than any other AL team, which of course means they'll now play more games at home (44) the rest of the way than any other AL club. Why does that matter?

1) Among AL teams, only the White Sox (33-14) and Twins (30-10) have won more games at home this season than the Red Sox (27-10).

2) Since the start of the 2003 season, the Sox have the best home record in baseball (189-91, .675).

3) Against teams outside of their division, the Sox since 2002 have a record of 107-41 (.723) at Fenway Park, including 14-4 this season. They won their last nine games at home, all against National League teams, and their next 14 home games are against teams outside the division.

Young guns
The astonishing dominance of Papelbon as closer, and the breakthrough performances of Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen in setup roles, ranks as the development with the greatest long-term implications for the club.

Papelbon's 26 saves at the break are a major league rookie record. His ERA of 0.59 at the break is the lowest since Bob Gibson's 1.06 in 1968 (Gibson finished at 1.12, a record) and the lowest by any reliever since Bruce Sutter's 1.11 in 1977. Sutter will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in a couple of weeks.

Delcarmen has not been scored upon since June 26, a span in which he has made seven appearances, striking out 10 while not issuing a walk in seven innings, and holding opposing batters to a .160 average. In his last 15 appearances, Delcarmen is 1-0 with a 1.72 ERA.

Hansen, meanwhile, was a perfect 10 for 10 in retiring the first batters he faced until Scott Podsednik blooped a single in the 11th inning Sunday.

``That goes back to the late-'90s Yankees, with [Mariano] Rivera, [John] Wetteland, [Mike] Stanton, [Jeff] Nelson," Schilling said. ``If you don't beat them before the seventh, you don't win. Managers start managing differently, teams start playing differently. They have as much impact when they're not in the game as when they're in it. Those guys have arms; they're pretty special."

The `Schill' factor
Entering this season, a certain correspondent (this one) noted that in the last 25 years, only one pitcher 39 or older has won 20 games in a season -- Jamie Moyer, who won 21 for the Mariners in 2003 at the age of 40. It was also noted that last season, five pitchers 39 or older had thrown 200 innings. Schilling, meanwhile, was coming off a season in which his base runners per nine innings (14.08) and hits per nine innings (11.67) were the highest of his career, and his walks per nine (2.12) were his highest since 1999.

Well, this season Schilling is 10-3 with a 3.60 ERA. He is first in the league in fewest walks per nine innings (1.06) and sixth in base runners per nine (10.0). In 128 innings, Schilling has walked the leadoff batter just once. He's also fourth in the league in innings with 127 1/3, just 3 2/3 behind league leader Johan Santana of the Twins.

Big-game pitcher? Schilling is 4-1 with a 3.11 ERA against teams with winning records. All other Sox starters are 11-14, 6.75.

``Probably unfairly, but I always expect Schilling to pitch at the top of the league, because I know him so well," Francona said. ``I always figure he'll find a way to get it done. Whether mechanically or mentally, I know how he operates, and he's going to find a way."

Double down
Since the 2005 All-Star break, Ortiz has played 160 games (156 starts), nearly the equivalent of a full season. In that span he has 57 home runs and 160 RBIs, numbers that far outpace anyone in the game. Ramírez has 47 home runs in 152 games in that time, fourth most in baseball, and has knocked in 129 runs. Ramírez's on-base average of .428 is fifth highest in baseball in that span, and he ranks second with a .631 slugging percentage to Albert Pujols (.666). Ortiz is on a pace to hit 59 home runs and 164 RBIs, which would establish career highs and break Jimmie Foxx's club record for home runs, 50 in 1938.

What could keep Big Papi from rewriting the record books? Intentional walks. He has drawn 11, second in the AL to Raul Ibanez of Seattle (12), while Ramírez has seven, the total of 18 more than any teammates in the league. (What is somewhat astonishing is that for all his health issues, Barry Bonds leads the majors with 31 free passes.) What could also hurt the dynamic duo is that Sox No. 5 hitters are batting just .244, which ranks 13th in the league, with league lows of five home runs and 37 RBIs. That is primarily the result of a long slump by Varitek, who is batting just .178 (16 for 90) with two homers and six RBIs in the 5-spot, compared with Nixon (.316, 3, and 31). Varitek hits fifth against lefties. Lowell (2 for 25, .080) has made a cameo role in that spot, with little success, which is why there is some speculation the Sox will surprise folks at the deadline and go after a hitter.

Unsung hero
During that chaotic interlude last fall when Theo Epstein resigned as general manager, and Larry Lucchino's apparent choice to replace him, Jim Beattie, was flying to Florida to meet with John W. Henry, the Sox traded for Loretta and pulled off a major deal with the Marlins for Beckett and Lowell. A Red Sox insider at the time said that Craig Shipley, who was acting as part of the ``committee" running the club during that period, along with Epstein aides Jed Hoyer and Ben Cherington and senior adviser Bill Lajoie, deserves much of the credit for both deals. ``Shipley kept the ball going all the time," the insider said of the man who runs the Sox' international operations for Epstein. ``He did a tremendous job."

Staff division
In 61 starts, Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Beckett, and Jon Lester have combined for a 32-15 record with a 4.02 ERA. In the team's other 25 starts, six pitchers -- Kyle Snyder, Clement, David Pauley, Lenny DiNardo, Wells, and Jason Johnson -- have gone 7-12 with a 7.34 ERA. With Wells's knee still a mess, Clement (biceps) and DiNardo (neck) still rehabbing, Pauley back in the minors, and Johnson washing out badly in two starts, it appears Snyder, claimed off waivers from the Royals, will get another shot.

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