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On baseball

In short, they're the team to beat

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 19, 2009
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Last night’s 2-1 loss only reinforces that it takes an out-of-the-ordinary occurrence, such as a rain-shortened game, for a team like the Florida Marlins to beat the Red Sox.

All around baseball, people comment on Boston’s depth and talent, and that if the season were to end right now, the Sox would be the team to beat. They’re the pick because no team has their pitching depth and no team has a problem trying to create a spot on the 25-man roster when needed. Thus, they comprise the least-flawed team in baseball.

If last night’s game had gone nine and with the Sox’ bullpen what it is, the chances of them turning around their one-run deficit were pretty good.

Which is why it’s a shame David Ortiz didn’t run full steam on the popup Emilio Bonafacio botched in the fifth. If Ortiz hadn’t instead shown his frustration, he could have been on second base with nobody out, and the chances would have increased that he would have come around to score and the game would have been tied, and later suspended, rather than counted as a loss.

In fact, there was frustration that this game was even started in the horrible conditions.

“[Red Sox management] got the gate,’’ said Mike Lowell. “Whenever we make it up, it’s gonna be a sellout. Before the game I was hearing about makeup dates, so obviously they saw the forecast wasn’t good and something was coming through. I don’t want to discredit Ricky Nolasco, who pitched very well. And I personally didn’t feel rushed, but it just wasn’t the greatest night to play a game.’’

Jon Lester had one bad inning, when he allowed solo homers to Dan Uggla and Ronny Paulino in the second, but while not possessing vintage stuff, Lester was settling in. He spotted the Marlins two one-out hits in the third, but managed to wiggle out of it. He wasn’t dealing as in his previous three starts, when he struck out 34 batters in 22 innings, but he was on his way to a solid outing, and one that could have produced a win.

The Red Sox are 40-26 and own the second-best record in baseball. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t the best team. The Dodgers have a better record, but play in the National League West. Although their pitching staff is performing far better than expected and with Manny Ramírez returning July 3, their depth doesn’t match Boston’s.

The Tigers are a team with multiple flaws, including a sagging offense. They lead the American League Central, but it is a weak division. The Rangers lead the AL West over the Angels, but do you believe they’ll be there when summer begins in Arlington, Texas, and the players are fried?

The Phillies are barely holding on in the NL East - and doing so only because the Mets have a bundle of problems - after being swept by the Blue Jays in Philadelphia, where they are a hideous 13-19. The Phillies also have lost starter Brett Myers, closer Brad Lidge, and now are playing without Raul Ibanez, one of the top free agent signings in baseball and arguably an MVP candidate. The National League Central has numerous problems. The favored Cubs are below .500. The Brewers are on top, but they have pitching issues. The Cardinals are hanging in, but they have hitting issues.

The Yankees are very good, but their bullpen and starter Chien-Ming Wang could be their downfall. The Blue Jays keep hanging around, but they have so many pitching injuries now, with Roy Halladay and closer B.J. Ryan on the disabled list, that it appears the good times won’t last. The Rays are coming on, but they have to catapult the Yankees and the Red Sox. Hard to do.

“The Red Sox are the best team I’ve seen all year,’’ said a veteran American League scout. “Nobody can compare to their depth all around. People talk about the Red Sox having to deal players to make room on their roster. If I were them, I’d hang on to everyone. There’s no need to deal anyone. With a team like that, providing they stay healthy and providing Ortiz continues to hit, they’re going to eventually pull away from the rest of the pack and be very tough in October because they have all the elements. The 1-2 punch of Josh Beckett and Jon Lester is pretty tough.’’

Are the Sox always good? Of course not. But they play at a high level more than most teams. They have a bullpen where you could argue that Justin Masterson, Takashi Saito, Ramon Ramirez, Manny Delcarmen, Daniel Bard, and Hideki Okajima could close for some teams. With all of their angst concerning the shortstop situation, Nick Green has emerged as a nice story. He is hitting .291 with three homers and 23 RBIs as a part-time player.

The Red Sox have also been fortunate with free agent signings - such as Saito, Brad Penny, and the re-signing of Jason Varitek, who has resurrected his career enough to be one of their indispensable players. They’ve been fortunate with Lowell, who has recovered enough to have 10 homers and 41 RBIs. Lowell is slower in the field, but given the extent of his hip surgery, that will likely be the last thing that comes along.

It is on rainy nights like this when an inferior team wins because the Red Sox, who pitch better than anyone late in the game, have that taken away. Which is why Terry Francona was hoping that play would resume, knowing Nolasco would not be be back and the Florida bullpen would be in.

On rainy nights you think back to Texas manager Ron Washington’s recent comments when he said, “If you want to get to where you want to go, you have to go through Boston. You have to go through New York, too. But you have to go through Boston.’’

It makes you realize the Red Sox right now are the envy of baseball and there are nights when they can only be beaten by the weather.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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