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Despite lots of bumps, Sox driving comfortably at 65

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  June 14, 2010 09:09 AM

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Daniel Nava (right) hit a grand slam in his first major-league at-bat, on the first pitch he saw. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
Even in the wake of defeat, there is reason to celebrate these Boston Red Sox. Opponents come and opponents go, and the Sox continue to plod along with contributions from a cast of misfits, unprovens, and unknowns.

Despite yesterday’s 5-3 loss to Cole Hamels and the Philadelphia Phillies, the Red Sox won yet another series over the weekend to effectively keep pace with the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees in the ironclad American League East. The Sox now have played nine straight series without a loss. Manager Terry Francona’s cast of contributors thus far has included Darnell McDonell and Daniel Nava, to name just two, and the Sox have played long stretches without contributions from Josh Beckett, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Lowell and Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose combined salaries total more than $32 million.

Today, with a break in the schedule allowing us all an opportunity to reflect after 65 games, we see the glass as half-full.

Know this, folks: whether the NBA season ends on Tuesday or Thursday, the Red Sox will be worth watching when they take center stage for the summer later this week. For a while there, we had our doubts. Since Jonathan Papelbon’s potentially devastating blown save in New York on May 17, the Red Sox have posted an 18-8 record that ties them with the Los Angeles Angels for the best record in the league. In all of baseball, only the Atlanta Braves (19-7) have been better. The Sox aren’t a playoff team just yet, but they possess the fourth-best record in the AL and are in the thick of the postseason hunt.

With the possible exceptions of Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Beltre, it’s difficult to find a multimillionaire on the Sox who has been consistently good since the start of Opening Day. Think about it. J.D. Drew, David Ortiz and Victor Martinez got off to horrendous starts. Dustin Pedroia began the weekend with an average of .251. Jon Lester got off to another wretched start and John Lackey has hardly earned his take thus far. Set-up man Hideki Okajima has been a mess.

And yet, the Sox are right there, thanks largely to the contributions of people like Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard and Jeremy Hermida, the last of whom trailed only Ortiz in RBI per at-bat before becoming the latest victim of the Adrian Beltre Demolition Tour. Would-be trade bait Buchholz has been the indisputable staff ace. And now the anonymous Nava, like McDonald before him, has burst onto the scene with aplomb, delivering a grand slam on Saturday on the first pitch of his first career at-bat.

"It energized us," Sox manager Terry Francona told reporters of Nava’s clout.

Francona was talking about Saturday’s game, of course, but he might just as well have been talking about the entire season. And he might just as well have been talking about Buchholz, Bard, McDonald, Hermida and Nava en masse given the issues the Sox have confronted and the realties facing them entering this season.

Over the winter, remember, the Red Sox repeatedly referred to the concept of a "bridge year," a term that was accepted as if it were a four-letter word. Many took this to mean that the Sox were writing off the year when, in fact, what general manager Theo Epstein and owner John Henry were saying was that the Sox had a developmental gap in their minor league system. They still do. The Sox went out last winter and built a team with the largest payroll in their history, something necessitated by the apparent shortage of help at the minor-league levels as much as anything else. Jed Lowrie’s bout with mononucleosis and an early, season-ending injury to Junichi Tazawa did little to help the cause.

Michael Bowden, where have you gone?

While Epstein was signing Lackey to a five-year, $82.5 million contract over the winter, the acquisitions of McDonald and Atchison (who started in a pinch on Saturday in Matsuzaka’s place) went unrecognized. For that matter, so too did the January 2008 pickup of Nava, who began his career in the independent leagues and is starting to look like a cross between Morgan Burkhart and Kevin Millar. In 273 career games at the independent and minor-league levels, Nava has batted .342 with a .979 OPS. (Cowboy up?)

Of course, we all know the challenges of playing in the AL East. It is conceivable for the Red Sox to finish with the third-best record in baseball this season - and for them to miss the playoffs just the same. And yet, according to maniacal statistician Chuck Waseleski over the weekend, the Sox used 54 lineups in their first 65 games this year while remaining reasonably close to the 65-game paces set by the ALCS teams of 2003 (37-28), 2004 (38-27), 2007 (41-24) and 2008 (39-26), a commendable achievement that prompts two additional questions:

First, can the Sox keep it up?

And second, have they even put their best team on the field yet?

Tony's Top 5

Favorite blog entries

The final chapter on Teixeira and How Red Sox pitchers work the strike zone Jan. 7, 2009 and July 17, 2009. Some actual reporting – an obsession with Mark Teixeira and the art of pitching.
For 2011 Red Sox, there was plenty of blame to go around Oct. 1, 2011. The disgraceful collapse of the Red Sox stoked the fire in all of us.
Behind Garnett and James, Celtics and Heat are digging in June 4, 2012. Improbably, the Celtics pushed the Heat to the limit.
Thrill is back for Patriots Jan. 30, 2012. Another Super Bowl has even Bill Belichick musing.
You’ve got to believe June 15, 2011. On the morning of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, we all had reason to believe.
Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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