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Shaping up to show they fit

It’s a tight squeeze in AL East

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / May 7, 2010

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With the Yankees coming to town tonight, with their Big Four (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada) a little banged up, and the Red Sox just off a four-game sweep of the Angels to move above .500 for the first time since Opening Day, are the Red Sox ready to become contenders in the American League East?

They could prove as much by winning the weekend series. If they don’t, well, back to the drawing board, but for now the Angels series certainly woke up their offense, outscoring the visitors, 36-16. And the starting rotation continues to move closer to being one of the best in the league.

Daisuke Matsuzaka was the last component to get untracked, and although he was charged with five runs over 5 1/3 innings in last night’s 11-6 victory — Matsuzaka’s first win of 2010 — pitching coach John Farrell said, “He should still feel good about the outing and what he did after allowing the four runs in the first inning.’’

Matsuzaka pitched in reverse of his first outing May 1 at Baltimore, when he pitched four good innings and then fell apart in the fifth. This time he struggled to get out of the first, then settled down nicely before allowing a one-out double in the sixth that ended his night after 92 pitches.

While the outing didn’t show that he’s back all the way to the form that earned him 33 wins from 2007-08, it showed a good trend. The Sox have four out of five starters at the top of their game and it appears Matsuzaka isn’t far behind.

“We’ve definitely been deeper into the game,’’ said Farrell. “We’ve allowed our bullpen to get more rest and then when we need a bridge to our short men, we’ve been able to bring in Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez, who give us multi-inning capabilities. But the way Josh [Beckett], John [Lackey], Clay [Buchholz], and Jon [Lester] have pitched, it’s allowed us to stabilize our pitching and rest our bullpen.’’

After the awful three-game sweep at the hands of the Orioles, the Sox offense has started to mesh. Victor Martinez is trending upward, Kevin Youkilis remains a steady force, Adrian Beltre is batting far above .300, Marco Scutaro has smoothed out, and Dustin Pedroia is a threat in big situations, not to mention playing some of the best defense of his career. J.D. Drew is getting back to being quietly effective, taking his walks and dropping in hits as he’s raised his average from .158 to .253 over his last 12 games.

Jeremy Hermida has contributed as the fourth outfielder and fill-in starter, and Bill Hall has also been effective in his super utility role.

While this is happening, Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury are beginning to get healthy and will soon go out for rehab assignments. Two more players to add to the mix.

There’s still a ways to go before the Sox can determine where David Ortiz is headed. He’s certainly bought himself more time to straighten out his game as he deals with another up-and-down start, as well as personal issues.

The fact is, confidence is growing in the Sox clubhouse.

“If we keep doing what we’re doing we’ll be all right,’’ Pedroia said. “[The Yankees] have a great team and we need to be on our game. We need to play well. We’ve got an East opponent coming up and we need to take this series from them. We’ve played well our last four games and we want to continue that.’’

Martinez said the Sox didn’t set out to sweep the Angels, but “we just wanted to win the series. We can’t put pressure like that on ourselves and feel we need to sweep every team we play, but if we win series we feel we’re going to get somewhere.’’

The Sox’ schedule is brutal this month. They caught the Angels at the right time, coming off a three-game sweep by the Tigers. After three games with the Yankees, the Blue Jays — who are ahead of the Sox in the standings — come to town. After that the Sox go to Detroit and to Yankee Stadium. After that they’re home against the Twins for two games before heading out to Philadelphia and Tampa. They finally catch a break May 27 when they return home to host the Royals.

So the next 19 games will say a lot about where the Sox are going this season. If they head into Memorial Day in the AL East hunt, they’ll be OK. In the meantime, they will have to hope the Rays level off and the Yankees will continue to struggle with injuries to key personnel.

Terry Francona mentioned before last night’s game that he’s already turned the page on the series in Baltimore. He said the Sox are “moving forward’’ and trying to find their level of play. He said it never ceases to amaze him that no matter how teams dip or surge, they are what they’re supposed to be when all is said and done. And recent history has shown that to be true: The Yankees started 15-17 last season, then ended up with 103 wins and a World Series championship.

With good times now rolling, Martinez was asked if it was hard to believe the Sox got off to an 11-14 start. “It might be hard to believe with the type of team we’ve got,’’ he said.

The Sox have begun to motivate themselves with silly things like making fun of TV polls, rallying against those who diminish Ortiz, and those who believe they won’t finish in the playoff hunt. They are doing whatever it takes to get revved up and put the bad start in the past.

If Michael Buffer were here he’d probably take the microphone at home plate and shout, “Let’s get ready to rumble!’’

And so we ask, are the Sox ready to rumble in the AL East?

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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