Well, it’s not quite 1966-67, when the Red Sox picked up 20 games and went from last (ninth at the time) to first. But the 2007 Red Sox are a win away from improving on their 2006 performance by 10 games, and have vaulted from third place to being assured of being in first place for all but eight of the first 12 games of 2007.
That’s not an insignificant accomplishment. In the American League, only the Cleveland Indians improved by a greater margin. Some might even call such a turnaround redemptive ;-).
We all know why the Sox have been so much better this season — better and healthier starters, a stronger bullpen and a healthier lineup. But here are the top five specific factors I see as contributing the most to the Sox’ turnaround.
No. 1: Sox acquire Eric Gagne at the deadline
Haha, I kid.
No. 5 — Daisuke Matsuzaka (mostly) meets the hype
This is a difficult thing to say after the past month, when Matsuzaka has been so horrible when the Sox most needed him. But the past month should not obscure the fact that Matsuzaka solidifed a rotation that last year was in disarray (of course, someone else helped that out, too). When Curt Schilling — ostensibly the Sox’ No. 1 or No. 2 starter entering the season — went down from June 19 to Aug. 5, Matsuzaka threw seven quality starts in nine games, putting up a 2.93 ERA. In 2006, Schilling was the only Sox pitcher to make more than five starts with an ERA better than Matsuzaka has this year — his rookie/transition season. And Matsuzaka did it by starting 32 games and pitching more than 200 innings.
No. 4 — Jonathan Papelbon decides to close — and stays healthy doing it
The novelty has worn off, but one could argue that Papelbon this year has been even more dominant than he was in 2006. Certainly, his value has increased as he’s made it through the entire season. It’s easy to forget he entered spring training as the Sox’ fourth or fifth starter, and 2007 would unlikely have been much better than 2006 had that occurred. This season, Papelbon has struck out an insane 13 batters per nine innings, well above his total of 9.9 last season. He’s also held hitters to a lower average and lowered his WHIP. Last season ended with uncertainty over whether Papelbon would ever pitch again. Now he’s more effective than ever.
No. 3 — Mike Lowell does the Big Papi
Contract-year theatrics? Increasing comfort with Fenway Park? Better pitches to hit? Who knows the reason, but Lowell — who was one of the bright sports of the dismal 2006 season — shone even brighter in 2007, when he was even more needed, thanks to slumps by and injuries to David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. His resurgence can largely be contributed to his apparent growing love for Fenway, where he increased his batting average from .260 in 2006 to .375 this year, his OBP from .327 to .421, and his slugging from .436 to .572. Lowell anchored the fourth and fifth spots, providing the needed protection that allowed Ortiz to finally get hot and the desperately needed production when Ortiz wasn’t.
No. 2 — Hideki Okajima discovers the change-up
Most in the media called Okajima the guy who would help Matsuzaka adjust to life in America. Give him a friend, and if he turns out to be good, so much the better. Some of us (I know I said it a couple times) figured Okajima would do well until midseason or so, when batters adjusted to him and learned his stuff. Well, somewhere on the flight between Japan and America, Okajima picked up a change-up he’d never used before and turned into perhaps the Red Sox’ most valuable offseason acquisition, solidifying a questionable bullpen (J.C. Romero and Joel Pineiro? That almost worked.) and providing the all-important eighth-inning bridge to Papelbon. In the end, it was fatigue from overuse that caight up to him, which bodes well if he’s rested up for the postseason.
No. 1 — Josh Beckett makes the transition
Missing the cut: Tim Wakefield evokes visions of ’95, Dustin Pedroia shatters expectations, Julian Tavarez becomes a happy-go-lucky team player, Manny Delcarmen shakes the rookie jitters.