One of the more surprising developments of the second half of the major league baseball season has been the blowing open of the AL East race. While I’m enough of a partisan Boston fan to still be on pins and needles as they get set for a three-game series with Tampa Bay starting tomorrow, I also know how I’d view a race that had a margin of 7 ½ games with three weeks left if I were on the outside looking in—as all but over.
SEVERAL HOT BATS
If we confine our statistical review to the last thirty days, there are several bats in the lineup that go beyond hot and into the realm of “scorching.” Let’s start with first baseman Mike Napoli, who has a stat line of .385 on-base percentage/.676 slugging percentage, and has made those who were skeptical of his acquisition (that would be me) look foolish.
Napoli has hit seven home runs in the past month, and in Thursday night’s win over New York, he kept alive a ninth-inning rally with a smooth opposite-field single against no less than Mariano Rivera.
Shane Victorino’s decision to hit strictly from the right side of the plate since a hamstring injury (he’s normally a switch hitter) has been beaten to death by national broadcasters when the Red Sox are on, but when you look at the numbers, you can at least understand why people are talking about it. Victorino’s stat line is .397/.575 and he’s also homered seven times in a month. The rightfielder has produced this kind of OBP consistently in his career, but this kind of power production isn’t normally is his area.
The left-field platoon of Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava has been productive all year, particularly when the left-handed hitting Nava is at the plate. The stat line here is .486/.603. Can we remember him for something other than hitting a grand slam on his first pitch in the major leagues back in 2010? Yes, that’s an amazing feat, but don’t let it obscure the fact he’s a solid baseball player. And when it comes to dramatic moments, he also hit the game-winning home run in Boston’s first home game this year after the Marathon bombing.
Will Middlebrooks was sent down to the minors earlier in the year, and whatever the young third baseman learned should not be forgotten anytime soon. His numbers in the last month are .434/.621 and six home runs.
It’s most certainly worth noting that in talking about this lineup’s hottest bats, we haven’t once mentioned David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia or Jacoby Ellsbury, where you presume such a conversation would start. Ortiz and Pedroia have been solid, albeit unspectacular. Ellsbury was in a bit of slump, and is now hurt with a bad foot. He’s in a walking boot that will be evaluated at the end of the month, the one dark cloud on the Boston horizon right now.
A 1-2 PUNCH
Jon Lester and the newly acquired Jake Peavy have been lights-out in their recent starts. Lester has a 2.09 ERA in six starts, and is re-establishing himself as the Game 1 starter in a potential Division Series. Peavy has posted a 2.67 ERA in five starts, and made those were skeptical about his acquisition (that would be me) look foolish.
On the other hand, Ryan Dempster has a 5.47 ERA in four starts. I say this not because it’s notable—with Clay Bucholz coming back from the disabled list on Tuesday, Dempster is likely going to the bullpen, and in either case, would not be in the postseason rotation. But I was also skeptical of his acquisition, and my ego is demanding I insert at least one piece of skepticism I was right on.
IN NEED OF RELIEF
The one big question mark for Boston remains the bullpen. The good news is that Koji Uehara has stabilized the ninth inning. Actually, in closing all seven chances and not allowing any runs in the last month, he’s been more “spectacular”, then “stabilizing.”
But as noted in a recent review of American League bullpens, the Red Sox are a team with issues in getting to him. It’s about finding one or two of Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, Brandon Workman or Matt Thornton to get hot. Right now that’s Breslow, but this can change on a moment’s notice.
It’s not that Boston has no concerns—if they lose all three games in Tampa, the race in the AL East is tight again. They need to see Bucholz get his rhythm back and Ellsbury get healthy. They need to get the seventh and eighth innings in the bullpen figured out on a game-to-game basis.
Let’s also acknowledge that their financial muscle played a big part in this AL East race—Boston lost Bucholz to the DL, Tampa Bay lost Matt Moore, and both had prospects to deal. But the Red Sox were the team that could afford to take on Peavy’s contract. I sympathize with Tampa fans who feel frustrated.
But let’ s not overlook the fact the Red Sox have a lot of under-the-radar players playing some excellent baseball right now, that have spurred them to something an objective fan would call a decisive lead in the AL East.