Red Sox expect tight AL East race

BOSTON -- ESPN's mother ship in Bristol, Connecticut, employs a smart baseball man named Dan Szymborski, a sabermetrician who devised his own projection system 11 years ago called ZIPs. Szymborski has bona fides, having appeared in "Moneyball," among other places, and writes an Insider column for ESPN.

In his latest column, published a day ago, Szymborski shared the ZIP projections for the American League East race and updated them with a tweet earlier this afternoon. The chart at right shows what they looked like.

Szymborski offered a caveat, one he wrote in capital letters so you wouldn't miss it: REMEMBER, TIGHTER THAN WHAT WILL LIKELY HAPPEN.

Still, he's forecasting -- or warning us -- that we will not see very much separation among these five teams over the next five months, and that the .500 mark the Red Sox finally reached Wednesday night with a 4-3 win over the Reds is not a benchmark liable to be left in the dust the way it was last year, when the Sox went 97-65.

"Now, that doesn't mean that 84 wins will win the AL East; it just means that, according to the projections, no single team in the division is more likely to finish with more than 84 games than not," he writes. "In other words, the AL East isn't likely to come down to who has the most talented team, but simply luck and which of the very evenly matched teams play above their expectations."

This does not come as a news bulletin in the Red Sox clubhouse.

"Everyone's bunched up in our division," said first baseman Mike Napoli. "We know that. We're just trying to play good baseball.

"It's going to be a tough division. I mean, the way we beat each other up, everyone's good. I expect it to be close, but do I believe in our team? Yeah. Do I believe we can win the division? Yeah. I don't see anyone going away from everyone. Good division. The players, pitchers, hitters, the way we all play the game. Should be fun."

The Sox had failed in their previous eight previous attempts to reach the break-even point, which attracted more attention outside of the clubhouse than within.

"There was no one in here talking, 'Let's get to .500, let's get to .500,'" Napoli said. "There was none of that talk."

And there was nothing easy about Wednesday night's win, which is nothing new. The Sox have played 13 one-run games, the most in the American League, and were 3-8 until winning the past two nights.

The Sox on Wednesday had to overcome deficits of 2-0 and 3-2. Relievers Chris Capuano and Burke Badenhop inherited a bases-loaded, no-out situation from starter Jake Peavy in the seventh and limited the damage to one run. In the eighth, Will Middlebrooks laid off several pitches just off the zone and fouled off another tough pitch before shooting a single up the middle to break a 3-all tie, after A.J. Pierzynski's ground-rule double had evened the score.

And the managerial machinations broke in Boston's favor. Farrell sent Gomes to hit for Grady Sizemore, hoping to get Reds lefty Manny Parra out of the game since two more lefties, Pierzynski and Jackie Bradley Jr., were due to follow. Reds manager Bryan Price bit, lifting Parra for the right-handed J.J. Hoover, who walked Gomes, which wasn't the plan. Pierzynski then doubled and Bradley drew an intentional walk before Middlebrooks' single.

Napoli had an acrobatic night at first base, starting a double play in the second inning with a backhand stop on the line and throwing an off-balance strike to second. Later, he spared Dustin Pedroia from an error, and saved a run, with a leaping grab of a high throw. Pedroia, who struck out four times for only the second time in his career, also made a tough relay on a double play started by Middlebrooks, his momentum carrying him almost into short left field.

"I think the feeling has been kind of like, 'Man, we've really been beating ourselves,'" Badenhop said. "Which is a good thing. If we're just going out there and the other team is just better than us, that's not fun to play, but that hasn't been the case in a single series this season. I think timing is everything, whether it's starting pitching, relief pitching or hitting, and as we go further -- we've got Shane [Victorino] back for a little bit, and things like that -- hopefully we can kind of hit the ground running.

"And tonight, we go from losing to winning to Koji [Uehara] on the mound in the ninth -- I'll take that anytime."

The Sox did not take advantage of a long stretch of games at home. They have played 15 of 18 at home since April 18 and went 10-8 overall in that span. They split four in the Fens with the Orioles, lost two of three to the Yankees and then the Rays before winning two of three from the Athletics and two straight from the Reds. In between, there was a three-game visit to Toronto in which they took two of three from the Jays.

The schedule now shifts. The Sox split the next 22 games equally between home and road, beginning with a six-game trip to Texas and Minnesota that opens Friday in Arlington, then face a stretch in June in which 19 of 25 games will be on the road, a six-game homestand sandwiched between a nine-game, three-city trip and a 10-game, three-city West Coast swing. That will be a testing time for a team that has yet to win three in a row, though they have now won four of their past five.

Peavy mentioned that a number of players have been feeling under the weather of late and welcome two more off days Thursday and Monday to go with the one they enjoyed last Monday.

"It's been a group effort at the end of the day," Peavy said of the team's performance to date, "and I don't think anybody's playing their best baseball on any side of the ball, so it's encouraging that we've still been able to put together some wins.

"We feel like we can play a lot better as a team."

How much better than anybody else? Not even the ZIPs can say for sure.