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State of the Sox

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  May 16, 2011 01:08 PM

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Well, if it had to take the Red Sox 40 games and five attempts to get to .500, at least they found a rather satisfying way to do it.

The weather may have been lousy here, but it couldn't have been a lovelier weekend in the Bronx. The visitors took three straight to even their record at 20-20, and the victories came with a minimum of tension . . . at least outside of the Yankees clubhouse.

The Red Sox outscored the Yankees overall, 18-9, and in the two close games -- Friday's 5-4 win and last night's 7-5 victory -- Jonathan Papelbon earned uneventful saves in what has been a subtly superb start to his season. The closer appears to have found his old command, with 21 strikeouts against just one unintentional walk in 16.2 innings. Hard to believe now that Bobby Jenks was perceived as a reasonable alternative not so long ago.

gonzofinn515.jpgAs is the case in baseball more than any other sport, victories were the direct product of excellent individual efforts. Adrian Gonzalez made hitting the baseball a long way look effortless, and the best part is, this is who he is. Big Papi reminded those of us who forgot that he's still formidable, especially when confronted by pinstripes. The rejuvenated Josh Beckett aced out CC Sabathia, Kevin Youkilis mashed two crucial home runs, and no one slotted to bat ninth in Terry Francona's lineup begged off at the last minute. That's what you call a productive weekend.

A .500 record is not a milestone, of course, but a minor statistical stopover on the way to the fulfillment of bigger goals. Hopefully it means we've heard the last of the snide chortles of "I thought this was supposed to be the greatest team ever ha ha" -- often disingenuously coming from same people who used their forum to anoint them as such before the season's first pitch was delivered.

I suppose the cynics could technically say the 2011 Red Sox are half-bad according to the formal tallying of W's and L's. But that approach is for those of us who don't know better than to draw a season's worth of conclusions in April. Here at roughly the quarter pole, it's safe to feel comfortable and confident about where this horse is headed.

The Sox' cause has not been hurt by the general malaise/mediocrity that has plagued the rest of the AL East so far. Maybe the division just isn't that potent anymore, or maybe there's more parity than usual. But after the sweep, the Sox are in third place, three games back of the Rays, who had their own ugly start (0-6) to overcome, not to mention their designated hitter's abrupt adios.

Having gained three games in three days, the Red Sox trail the Yankees by just one in the division. If you watched this weekend, you have to believe the teams' spots in the standings will be flipped in a matter of days. While the likes of the sensational Robinson Cano and warm-weather slugger Mark Teixeira will find their swings, their thin (figuratively, anyway) starting pitching will be their downfall without a King Felix-sized blockbuster. And to the delight of Red Sox fans and the New York tabloids alike, the old Bronx Zoo drama is back in 108-point type. Perhaps Derek Jeter should worry less about his buddy Jorge's dented pride and more about his own recent 5-for-29 slide (five singles) that rendered those "The Captain Is Back!" columns from a week ago premature.

But those are their problems. The Red Sox still have their own -- John Lackey makes me long for the quiet consistency of Mark Portugal -- but most of their troubles have disappeared as that homely 2-10 start has given way to 18 wins in 28 games. If they play at that rate over the season's final 122 games, they'll finish, by my rudimentary calculations, with 98.428571 wins. I'm pretty sure that even without rounding up, that would be enough to take the division.

Asking them to play .643 ball the rest of the way might be greedy . . . but finishing in that 96-98 win range is absolutely doable, even with the 12-game tribute to the '62 Mets to start the season. In winning the division in 2009, the Yankees had a .636 winning percentage over the full season. In 2004, the Red Sox were 43-37 on July 4. They went 55-27, a winning percentage of .672, the rest of the way en route to 98 victories.

No one in this little neighborhood said the 2011 Sox were the greatest team ever. But the belief that they are capable of memorable accomplishments has never wavered. This weekend in New York, they finally pulled even. If you thought that was a good time, imagine how it will be when they pull ahead.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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