|Wednesday, May 14
Updated: May 18, 6:19 PM ET
Red Sox flourishing despite their weaknesses
By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com
Cursed -- there's that word again -- with a sense of fatalism, Red Sox fans are accustomed to expect the worst. History has taught them well.
But as the first Red Sox-Yankees series of the year nears (Armageddon I comes to Fenway Park this coming Monday), they're mostly in a thankful mood. Nearly one-quarter of the way into the 2003 season, the Sox and Yanks are tied atop the AL East.
That qualifies as a victory already.
Those are the Yankees and these are the Red Sox. Hey -- it could always be worse.
Because the Red Sox have had some problems of their own. They've been relatively injury-free, but the performance in some areas has been so woeful, it's a wonder they're playing .628 baseball (27-16).
The Red Sox's starting pitching has been underwhelming. Pedro Martinez has just three wins (the bullpen blew three late-innings leads for him). Derek Lowe, a 21-game winner a year ago, has the third-highest ERA (6.53) in the AL among pitchers who qualify; John Burkett hasn't won since the first week of the season. Tim Wakefield is the staff's leading winner (four victories), but sports a bloated 4.60 ERA.
Only Martinez has posted quality starts in more than half of his outings, and now he's battling a slight groin pull. Collectively, Red Sox starters have a 4.92 ERA.
Of course, that's better than the bullpen, where leads disappear as if trapped in some sort of Bermuda Triangle. Already, Sox relievers have blown five save opportunities in 14 tries and the vaunted closer-by-committee experiment has been shelved.
For now, the Sox are closing games with 23-year-old Brandon Lyon, claimed on waivers last fall from Toronto. To their surprise, Lyon has pitched admirably, converting each one of his five save chances.
As for the offense, many of the Red Sox's big bats have been slow to thaw. Manny Ramirez has just five homers and recently went 52 at-bats without one. Eight players in the AL have reached double-figures in home runs, but none play for the Red Sox -- Nomar Garciaparra leads the team in homers with just six.
Sox hitters have barely out-homered their opponents (44-39).
Still, the Yankees haven't won more games in the American League. With poor pitching -- their team ERA (4.95) ranks them 11th in the league -- and their best hitters yet to stir, how have the Red Sox positioned themselves alongside the Yankees?
Simple. A lot of runs. Not via the long ball necessarily, but by stringing together hits, collecting clutch two-out singles and doubles.
Through 38 games, the Red Sox had been shutout just once. Moreover, only five times had they scored three runs or fewer. With 226 runs scored, they were second behind only the Yankees (230) in that category.
And unlike a year ago, when the Red Sox were horribly inconsistent with their offense -- capable of scoring double figures on a night, then one or two runs the next -- this edition of the Red Sox has proved to be more reliable.
"We've been pretty level,'' agreed Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein of his team's run-scoring capability. "Last year, we were up and down a lot. This year, so far, it seems most nights we're scoring five, six or seven runs.''
That isn't just Epstein's imagination. In 30 of their first 38 games, the Red Sox had scored five or more runs. In one particular stretch, they scored either five, six or seven runs in 15 of their 17 games. When they score five or more runs, the Red Sox are 23-7.
"I'm still not convinced their pitching will hold up,'' said a major league scout recently, "but that lineup is as deep and dangerous as any in the American League. There are no easy outs there.''
In many ways, the 2003 Red Sox are the mirror image of last year's team. While those Red Sox could boast of having the AL batting champ (Ramirez), three of the top four finishers in ERA (Martinez, Lowe and Wakefield), a 40-save closer (Ugueth Urbina) and seven members of the AL All-Star team, they finished out of the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
This year, individual performances are off, but team achievement is up. The 2003 Red Sox are a historical anomaly, with the sum being greater than the parts.
These Sox are also a little less one-dimensional. Incredibly, given their historically stationary approach, they rank third in the AL in stolen bases (27), even if almost 60 percent of their steals were the work of two players (Johnny Damon and utility man Damian Jackson with eight apiece).
Need more evidence that these aren't the same old Red Sox? They're in the upper half of AL teams in sacrifice bunts (10). Call it their own brand of (Grady) Little ball.
There's some fine print to the Sox's quick start. In games against teams which posted winning records last year and this year, the Sox are just 2-4, and they've benefited from a schedule that's kept them away from AL powerhouses like Oakland and Seattle, while fattening up on doormats like Tampa Bay and Toronto.
By contrast, the Yankees have already hosted and visited both the A's and Mariners and emerged unscathed, having gone 6-6 in 12 games against the two teams.
But after losing out on the bidding war for Jose Contreras (a mixed blessing?) and watching the Yankees hike their payroll higher into the stratosphere, expectations were modest in Boston this spring.
It's early, reasoned Red Sox fans keep telling themselves. But the Yankees are coming to town with the same record as their club.
For now, that's good enough.
Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.