Top to bottom, Sox roll in tough East

NASHVILLE -- Greetings from Nashville, which admittedly is not the most direct way to get from Boston to Tampa but comes in play when your 6:45 a.m. flight through Atlanta is cancelled. ETA in Tampa is 2:20 p.m., so what better way to spend a 2½-hour layover than to offer a few thoughts on the team with the best record in the American League, your Boston Red Sox.

On May 23, a.k.a. the Return of Tito, the Sox absorbed a 12-3 beating at the hands of Francona’s Cleveland Indians. Since then, they have gone 11-5, taking three straight from the Indians, splitting four with the Phillies home and home, then taking 2 of 3 from the Yankees, Rangers, and most recently, the Angels. At 39-25, they are 14 games above .500 for the first time this season, and Monday night open a three-game set against the Rays, a team they have beaten 5 out of 6 times this season, holding them to a total of 13 runs, or just over two runs a game.

As well as the Sox have played, they have yet to put distance between themselves and the rest of the division, as the Rays and Orioles have gone 10-6 over the same stretch while the Yankees, after losing 6 of 7, have rebounded to win 6 of 7 to stay within 1½ games of the Sox in the AL East. The Jays (7-8) continue to lag at the rear, but the other four teams in the division are bunched within four games of each other, a trend that shows no signs of abating.

The road ahead does not get any easier for the Sox. After this trip to the Trop and Baltimore this weekend to play four against the Orioles, they return home to play the Rays again in a brief three-game homestand before heading to Detroit to play the powerful Tigers, who just took three straight from Tito’s Tribe, who have now lost seven in a row to fall 5½ games behind Detroit. The Sox finish the month with two games at home against the Rockies, who are just a game and a half off the pace in the NL West, then a four-game set against the Jays, who remain a dangerous team, especially when Jose Reyes returns. Reyes is about 10 games away from starting a rehab assignment, and it’s possible he could be back when Toronto visits Fenway Park.

There’s no overstating how well the Sox have been playing during this recent stretch. They’ve posted a collective slash line of .317/.387/.541/.927 in the last 16 games, averaging 6.6 runs a game. No Sox player with at least 25 at-bats over that stretch is hitting below .263 (the average for both David Ortiz and Mike Napoli), while six players are batting .300 or better and two, Jose Iglesias and Jacoby Ellsbury, are batting better than .400.

Six players have driven in 11 or more runs, led by Ortiz’s 14, and 5 players have scored 10 runs or more. Ortiz leads with 5 home runs, with Mike Carp (4) right behind him. Carp’s .789 slugging percentage is highest on the team, while Iglesias’s .500 on-base percentage leads the way, with no Sox player under .340 (Jarrod Saltalamacchia). Jacoby Ellsbury doesn’t have a home run in that time, but he has 6 doubles, 2 triples and 11 stolen bases. At that rate, he’ll end up with over 90 stolen bases this season.

On the pitching side, even with Clay Buchholz missing a start, the Sox staff has posted a 3.26 ERA and have limited opponents to an average of 3.4 runs a game. Buchholz has posted a 1.54 ERA in his two starts, including his rain-shortened start of five scoreless innings against the Yankees, but while lefty Jon Lester has stumbled of late (5.12 ERA in his last three starts), the rest of the rotation has proven to be more than dependable.

Even when Lester has been hit around, he has given the Sox at least six innings in each of his three starts. Except for Franklin Morales, who pitched five innings in his first start of the season in an emergency appearance, and the Buchholz rain game, every other Sox starter has gone at least six innings in the other 14 games, which is how you save your bullpen and keep your team in games.

John Lackey has a 1.89 ERA in his three starts, Felix Doubront posted a 3.00 ERA in his three, and Ryan Dempster was at 3.68.

On the relief side, Andrew Bailey was unscored upon in five appearances, Junichi Tazawa has a 1.29 ERA, Andrew Miller is at 1.69, and Craig Breslow (3.38) while giving John Farrell another multiple-inning option.

Shane Victorino is back from injury, Will Middlebrooks should be joining the club soon, and assuming Buchholz’s neck does not develop into a significant issue, the club is as healthy as it has been all season.

That’s no hedge against hitting a slide, of course, but with the Sox getting significant contributions from top to bottom on the roster, the summer looms as a very promising one. Imagine that.