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Race is on for Red Sox

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  May 16, 2012 09:25 AM

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Bill Greene/Globe Staff

The last time the Red Sox won five games in a row, the streak ultimately reached six. And then, just as the Sox reached .500 and suggested they were prepared to turn a corner, they dropped 9 of 11 and plummeted right back into the depths of dysfunction and futility.

So here we are again.

You buying yet?

Still the possessors of a losing record, the Red Sox defeated the impotent Seattle Mariners by a 5-0 score at Fenway Park on Tuesday behind a honed, refined Josh Beckett. During their winning streak, the Sox have outscored their opponents 34-8. In the last four games, the count is 27-3. Boston pitchers have now made one full trip through the rotation with nothing less than a quality start, which makes this the team's most impressive stretch of the season.

It's a good thing, too.

Because in some ways, the clock is already ticking rather loudly.

Preposterous? Perhaps, and eternal optimists are likely to point out that the Red Sox have precisely 126 games remaining on their schedule. Nonetheless, with the annual trading deadline set for July 31, the reality is that the Red Sox need to determine whether they are contenders or pretenders in the next 6-8 weeks. That means the Sox need to play well now, particularly after stumbling through what was just a marshmallow-soft portion of their schedule.

Before we get into the particulars, consider this: over the last five years in baseball, 29 of the 40 playoff teams (72.5 percent) were in possession of a playoff spot on Aug. 1. Of the 11 that failed, two (the Red Sox and Atlanta Braves) suffered September collapses never before seen in the history of the game. Another - the 2010 Chicago White Sox - held only a half-game lead over the Minnesota Twins, who ultimately overtook the White Sox for the AL Central Division title.

The point? The large majority of the time, the races are decided by Aug. 1. The addition of a fifth playoff team in each league this year obviously changes the equation, but you get the idea. For years, back to and beyond the theories put forth by Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane during the height of the "Moneyball" era, major league executives have essentially operated with a very specific calendar in mind.

The first two months of the season are for evaluation. The second two months are for adjustments and improvements. The final two months are closing time.

If the baseball season were a golf tournament, June and July qualify as "moving day."

In the case of the Red Sox, the first two months thus far have been a rather sizable disappointment. They have a losing record. The pitching has been terrible. Before awakening against the Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners in recent days, the Sox went 2-9 against the Chicago White Sox, Oakland A's, Baltimore Orioles and Indians. Overall, they went a decent 13-9 during a 22-game stretch against the dregs of the American League, but it took a five-game winning streak to get there.

Beginning tonight, however, the schedule begins to intensify again. The Sox' next six series will be played, in order, at Tampa, at Philadelphia, at Baltimore, against Tampa, against Detroit, at Toronto. Then comes interleague play, during which the Sox generally will face a succession of National League East teams who have better pitching than Boston does.

If the Sox can win during these next stretches, the potential effect on their season could be considerable. Approaching the deadline, the Sox could be in better position to choose between Will Middlebrooks and Kevin Youkilis at third base. (Middlebrooks is a no-brainer if the club is out of contention; Youkilis could be trade bait either way.) And remember: the Red Sox allegedly traded Marco Scutaro before the season so as to free up payroll for a pitching acquisition, which could help fortify their staff (in the rotation or bullpen) during the middle of the year.

Now the really good news: if the Red Sox can play themselves back into things over the next six weeks or so, they stand to be a far better team after the All-Star break than they currently are. Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford and Andrew Bailey are just a handful of the Sox players currently on the disabled list. Relying on any of them seems a risky proposition at this point - that is true of any aging player or one with any history of repeated injury - but all have been productive performers at various points of their careers.

That said, the return of those players won't mean much if the Sox slog through another 2-9 stretch following this latest cluster of wins.

In the long term, after all, what the Red Sox face in August and September of this season is daunting. If and when the Sox start to lose in the final two months, they will obviously be asked about last year's epic implosion. (That won't help things.) Beyond that, a stunning 32 of the Red Sox' final 50 games will be played on the road, which will almost certainly have the Sox grumbling again about the schedule and those Sunday night games, especially if things aren't going well.

Can this team be in playoff contention by then? Of course. But if the Sox are going to get there they must start now, at that time of year when the good teams in baseball start to separate themselves from the bad teams.

Before it's too late.

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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