The Red Sox were 10 games in front in the American League East with a 53-34 record at the All-Star break a year ago. They were 53-33, three games up in 2006, 49-38 and two games up in 2005, and 48-38 and seven games behind, in second place, in 2004.
The Sox are 57-40 after yesterday's 2-1 victory over the Orioles, and are a half-game ahead of the Rays in the East. The preference would be to have the '07 record and positioning at the break, of course, but Tampa Bay didn't make that possible for most of the first half, though it has lost seven straight games. Could the Rays' nosedive be a sign of a bigger fade that could turn baseball's Cinderella story into an unhappy ending?
"I think Tampa knows that we're not going to just go away," Sox first baseman Sean Casey said following Boston's win at Fenway Park. "We know Tampa Bay and the Yankees are going to be in it all the way. We just have to take care of our own things and make sure we're playing well. We've been on the road a lot in the first half [50 games] and now Tampa Bay has to do it [37 road games left]."
Every season has its issues and problems. The Tampa Bay situation aside, the most important questions to be asked are how strong are the Red Sox and how strong is the competition?
Is Boston as good as last season? Probably not. Does it have to be as good as last season to fashion a second half that will get it to the postseason? Probably not. Do the Sox have to be as good as last season to win the World Series? Again, probably not.
It then comes down to how the Sox match up with the major competition in the AL. If they eventually have to face Tampa Bay in the ALCS, for instance, that could be a problem. Home-field advantage will be key, since Boston has won all six games vs. the Rays at Fenway and Tampa Bay has won the six games so far in St. Petersburg.
Are the Angels a threat? If you reason their team hasn't changed much from last season, no. Los Angeles, which did beat Boston two out of three at Fenway April 22-24, has virtually the same lineup plus Torii Hunter, but the Angels still have trouble scoring runs. As good as their pitchers are and can be, they can't seem to make a statement against the Sox' offense. Which is why the upcoming three-game series in Anaheim could be a nice measure of how these teams stack up.
Minnesota, an overachieving bunch, seemed mismatched against Boston at Fenway last week, getting swept, though the Twins took three out of four at the Metrodome May 9-12. It's tough to get a feel for Chicago, although it does have the pitching (second in ERA in the AL) to make things tough, and the Yankees are the Yankees.
Suffice to say, the AL field is not a scary bunch. All contending teams have flaws, but the good news for the AL is that the National League has even fewer formidable squads. So the team that emerges in the second half in the AL has a great chance of winning it all.
While it's not in their nature to become complacent, the Red Sox definitely have to make sure it doesn't happen during a season in which they could claim back-to-back world championships.
Yet they do have a few issues:
The Sox would prefer a lefty, but the price tag for Brian Fuentes and Damaso Marte likely will be fairly high. The last thing Boston wants to do is deal Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen. Or David Murphy, Kason Gabbard, and Engel Beltre for Eric Gagné. Yet the Sox don't necessarily want to sit and watch Tampa and the Yankees add depth to their bullpens.
There are signs Hideki Okajima is returning to his normal effectiveness. After the break the Sox need consistency from Manny Delcarmen (who was on yesterday in 1 1/3 scoreless innings) and especially Craig Hansen, while hoping Mike Timlin and/or Masterson can be a ground ball pitcher who gets double plays.
There isn't a general manager in baseball who doesn't want to solve depth issues from within. Very few can pull it off.
One major league special scout said yesterday, "Tampa Bay gets the accolades for the best farm system in baseball, but if you had to choose one farm system right now that is best able to help its parent team it would be Boston. They've been able to dip down for the Lowries and Buchholzes and they still have Bartolo Colon and other guys down there who can step in and fill a role if they have to."
So you see, there are second-half concerns, but they aren't grave. The Sox' competition isn't that good. It's all there for a second consecutive title.
"We're kind of in a fight with ourselves to see how good we can play," Francona said. "We do that, we'll take where we end up."
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.