Although it’s more compelling drama, the Yankees’ miserable April would not be possible without some heady play by the Boston Red Sox, who will enter May tomorrow guaranteed to have their largest-ever division lead after the first month of the season — at least 3.5 games.
At 16-8, the Sox have baseball’s best record and are in first place by a wider margin than any other team. Hey, it’s April, but which team would you rather be right now?
There’s plenty to be happy about in Sox Nation. There’s also some concerns being masked by the gaudy record and overshadowed by the Bronx soap opera. Five things to like and three things to not like about the first month:
- Starting pitching, of course. This team leads the majors in wins by starters. The Sox’ top four starters — Schilling, Beckett, Matsuzaka and Wakefield — have all pitched well enough to be aces on another team. Even against the Yankees, though their numbers weren’t pretty (6.08 ERA), the starters locked down baseball’s most ferocious lineup for significant stretches and, more importantly, saved the bullpen from working too much against the big bats.
- Jonathan Papelbon, Brendan Donnelly, Hideki Okajima. 28 innings, 9 hits, 1 run, 10 walks, 36 strikeouts.And 9.1 scoreless innings against the Yankees.
- .284/.357/.591 (.948 OPS): The cumulative line of the Sox’ bench — Wily Mo Pena, Alex Cora, Eric Hinske and Doug Mirabelli.
- David Ortiz (on pace for 47 HR and 149 RBI) and Mike Lowell (27, 135). And, sorry SF, even Julio Lugo (88 walks, 56 steals).
- Terry Francona, who thus far has made good in-game decisions (unlike another manager or two we could name). He hasn’t pulled pitchers like Matsuzaka too early, but hasn’t left them in three batters too long (which was his trouble last year), either. The success of the starters and bullpen, of course, help make any move — even those, such as putting Okajima in three games in a row against the Yankees, that weren’t so smart — look good.
- Most of the lineup. Coco Crisp seems to be waking up, and for the third time this season, Manny Ramirez could be putting it together. But they (and Dustin Pedroia) had horrendous Aprils. Jason Varitek was inconsistent, as was Kevin Youkilis after a hot start. Even J.D. Drew, who wowed us over the first two weeks, is in an abominable slump that has chopped 100 points off his average. More than half the lineup have OBPs below .350 and averages below .270.
- Wily Mo Pena. .172 average. 15 Ks in 29 ABs. Just five hits, two for home runs.
- Julian Tavarez. Too inconsistent as a reliever last year and too inconsistent as a starter this year. He’s about to be replaced by Jon Lester, and is not particularly better than even the weakest members of the Sox pen (J.C. Romero and Mike Timlin).
The fact that the Red Sox can have a 16-8 record with Manny Ramirez and four other hitters underperforming their career averages is very encouraging. The offense clearly hasn’t clicked yet. However, the concern should be that the Sox’ pitching will return to earth before that happens. The chances are very good that Wakefield returns to a 4.00-4.50 ERA, that Beckett does not maintain a sub-3.00 ERA, and that Schilling tires as the season goes along. Likewise, Lowell has a history of underperforming in the second half, and we don’t yet know which are the real Lugo and Drew. Varitek and Crisp remain question marks.
The real possibility exists that the offense could be maddeningly inconsistent all year long while the pitching returns to somewhere between average and fantastic. Even so, this team will win a lot of games because the rotation and bullpen have shown — at least so far — that they can hold good offenses down, at least enough to let the hitters score however many runs it needs to.
And if there’s anything we learned from the last two weekends, good pitching almost always beats good hitting.