First-place Sox in for hot summer

BOSTON -- The Red Sox reach the halfway point of their season this week -- Thursday, weather permitting -- and this is what we have in the American League East:

Five teams, all with winning records, five games separating first place from last.

So it's not quite 1967 yet, when three teams went into the season's final day separated by a half game with a fourth team two games out, the Red Sox standing alone at the top at day's end, impossible dream fulfilled.

But there's every reason to believe that the template has been set for the summer of 2013, and while we've grown accustomed to seeing "BOSTON" heading the standings posted each day on the Monster -- the Sox have been in first place the past 28 days and 67 days overall -- the odds are short that the deck will be shuffled a few times between now and Sept. 29, the last day of the regular season.

The Sox have not been at .500 or below all season. No Sox team since the '46 World Series team has gone this late into a season without spending a day at the break-even point or under, and even this recent stretch of seven losses in their past 11 games doesn't put that accomplishment in any jeopardy. With a 45-33 record, the Sox have the most wins in the league.

But with preseason favorite Toronto having reeled off a franchise-record 11 straight wins, which included an impressive sweep of Baltimore a week after the Orioles took three of four from the Sox, and the Sox dropping another three of four this weekend to the Tigers, Boston's hold on the division lead is looking increasingly tenuous.

Especially with the Jays, who may have star shortstop Jose Reyes by then, coming to town for four games this weekend.

The surprise should not be that the Sox could tumble from the top perch, even temporarily, but that they have managed to hold on as long as they have, and may continue to do so. Think about it: Clay Buchholz, their undefeated ace, has made just two starts in a month, while left-hander Jon Lester, who had won his first six decisions, has a 7.27 ERA since May 23.

The team's winningest starting pitcher in that span is in Pawtucket: Alfredo Aceves, who was 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA and deserves an invitation back this weekend when the Sox need another emergency starter because Buchholz will still be out, although Rubby De La Rosa may get the call instead.

The team's most reliable pitcher in that stretch has been John Lackey, who has posted a 2.79 ERA in his past six starts, even if that hasn't translated into the win-loss column, and both Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster have had their moments.

The rotation, by and large, has held steady, posting a 3.92 ERA in the past month, compared with 3.73 before Buchholz began missing starts and Lester hit his rough patch.

There are signs of fraying elsewhere, however, that help explain why wins have been hard to come by of late. The Sox are encountering their first slide since mid-May, when they lost nine out of 11, a slump they cracked by reeling off a five-game winning streak as part of a run in which they won 10 of 13 games.

There is the closer crisis, of course, with the Sox having already lost Joel Hanrahan for the season and now with Andrew Bailey's fastball lacking what manager John Farrell has been cryptically calling a "second gear" since he went on the disabled list with biceps tendinitis last month. The timing is too suspect to rule out that Bailey, with a history of arm trouble, may be experiencing more, despite denials to the contrary.

Farrell sent out Bailey with a one-run lead in the seventh inning Sunday, not exactly the low-leverage situations preferred for a reliever needing to regain his confidence. It did not have a happy outcome for Bailey, who gave up hits to two of the three batters he faced before being yanked.

Koji Uehara has yet to be summoned since being ordained by Farrell to close, so it remains to be seen if he will be able to handle a more burdensome workload, one that takes him out of the eighth-inning role in which he excelled.

And some players who had been carrying the team offensively have stumbled of late. Daniel Nava, who has a sore thumb, has just three hits in his past 30 at-bats. Mike Napoli had gone six games without an RBI, his longest stretch this season, until knocking in a run Sunday. Napoli has just two extra-base hits, a double and a home run, this month. Dustin Pedroia was 5-for-35 (.143) before busting out with three hits Sunday. Jarrod Saltalamacchia had four hits while catching all 14 innings of a 10-8 win over Tampa Bay on June 10; since then he caught a 13-inning game and both ends of a double-header, the extra workload in part the result of David Ross going back on the DL indefinitely with concussion symptoms. It's caught up with Saltalamacchia, who is just 5-for-34 since that day. Only the phenomenal performance of here-to-stay Jose Iglesias has saved the left side of the infield, where Will Middlebrooks (three for his past 19) and Stephen Drew (seven for his past 33) have reversed the formula Farrell created to find Iglesias occasional playing time. Now Iglesias is the everyday guy, with the other two looking to stay afloat.

And Shane Victorino hurt his back again Sunday, two days after a big four-hit night and after missing nearly 30 games already this season. With Mike Carp still nursing a sore hamstring, if Victorino is shut down for any length of time, Jackie Bradley Jr. may be back on speed dial.

What does it all mean? That the Sox, like the other four teams in the division, have their obvious strengths, but they are flawed, as well. They're not going to run away with the division, and neither is anybody else. Get used to the company, Sox fans. Looks like everyone plans to stick around.