Starts and stops for Sox

Performance uneven but results are OK

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / June 2, 2009
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The Red Sox, two months into the season, are a hard team to figure. They won 11 games in a row but three times have lost four out of six. Their starting rotation, an expected point of might, staggered toward the bottom of the league and then made a U-turn back to respectability. Their designated hitter skipped right past the shell-of-himself part and turned into a ghost.

Their most durable infielder has been a 33-year-old who endured major hip surgery in the offseason. The most effective stroke by their manager might have been taking a hitter fresh off a 22-game hitting streak and moving him down seven spots in the lineup. Aside from a lights-out bullpen, little has gone precisely to plan.

The uneven pattern of the season's first third - one unexpected difficulty replaced by the next - made for a mostly pleasant ultimate result. The Red Sox stand seven games over .500 and are one game behind the first-place Yankees in perhaps baseball's most rugged division.

Last week was a nice microcosm for the first two months. The Red Sox staggered to a 2-5 start on their road trip, which continues tonight in Detroit. Then they got 12 strikeouts from Jon Lester and four home runs from a revamped lineup Sunday and beat Toronto, 8-2.

After that win, Lester said, "I feel a little bit better with the way things are going. But I don't really think our team has hit its stride yet. I think our team has played some good baseball. We've played some OK baseball to be where we're at in the division."

The success of the season so far depends on perspective. The Red Sox' starters bottomed out May 15 with a collective 5.85 ERA, the worst mark in the major leagues. The next day, Josh Beckett allowed two earned runs in seven innings. Since then, the rotation has a 3.66 ERA.

While the starters improved, the offense hit its roughest stretch of the season. The Red Sox scored three or fewer runs for five straight games before their four-homer breakout Sunday. David Ortiz's vicious slump remains the team's most pressing issue. Still, as punchless as the offense has seemed at times, it has scored more runs per game - 5.2 - than all but four American League teams.

"Yes and no," said third baseman Mike Lowell, the lone everyday infielder to miss zero games because of injury, when asked if he was pleased with the team's state. "I certainly think we can play better. I don't think we're upset with where we're at, considering we really haven't played to the best of our abilities yet."

One certainty can be drawn: The most difficult portion of the schedule is behind them. They've concluded their West Coast trips, and they will travel west of the Mississippi River only three times, for a total of 10 games, against the Texas Rangers (two visits)and Kansas City Royals.

The relative ease of their remaining schedule, though, is offset by the difficulty of their division. The AL East has become the majors' toughest division, though not for the expected reason. Three juggernauts were supposed to rule the division, but instead it's been competitive from top to bottom. Just 6 1/2 games separated the Yankees and last-place Baltimore Orioles as of yesterday. The Orioles, at 23-28, have the best winning percentage (.451) of any last-place team.

The Tampa Bay Rays, three games under .500 and in fourth place, have disappointed following their division crown last season. But they could be primed for a quick improvement - their plus-34 run differential ranks fourth in the majors and first in the AL East.

The Blue Jays assumed the Rays' place as immediate contenders, and they lurk just behind the Red Sox despite a recent nine-game losing streak. The skid prompted some to dismiss Toronto, but they took two of three from the Sox, they own the AL's second-best home record behind the Red Sox, and they have Roy Halladay on their side.

For their part, the Red Sox haven't been obsessed with the standings. "It doesn't matter until September," Lester said.

And by then, the complexion of the Red Sox will almost certainly be different.

Mark Kotsay will likely make his season debut tonight in Detroit. Jed Lowrie could come off the disabled list within two weeks, and John Smoltz is on the way. The presence of all three - along with the potential of Clay Buchholz's call-up - will create flexibility for the front office, if it so chooses, to make deals.

If the first third of the year is an indication, predicting where the Red Sox go next is a fool's errand. In the meantime, they will search for the consistency that has so far eluded them.

"Obviously, we'd like to win more," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "We've had some tough games, but it's a long season. We like the team that we have. We just got to play better. That's it."

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