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After early doubts, the race is on

By Nick Cafardo
June 6, 2010

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BALTIMORE — Remember those awful days in April and May when you thought the Red Sox season was just about over? Can’t count the number of e-mails and text messages that came through indicating angst over Theo Epstein’s moves, Terry Francona’s managing, the end of Big Papi, the slumping Victor Martinez, and base runners stealing at will.

Remember those days when you thought Adrian Beltre and Marco Scutaro were busts?

Remember feeling there was no way anyone could catch Tampa Bay, hands down the best team in the division?

Yours truly expressed some of those feelings, as well.

You know what, this is a race, just as we thought it would be when spring training broke.

After last night’s 8-2 win over the Orioles, just think about where this team has come from to pull within 3 1/2 games of the Rays, tied with the Blue Jays for third place with a 33-24 record. Now, the Rays aren’t world-beaters; in fact, they have lost two straight to Texas. The Yankees were on a roll, but Toronto has silenced them. The Sox, meanwhile, have taken advantage of playing the worst team in baseball and won the first two games here.

The Sox were 8 1/2 out on May 23, when they actually had begun to pick up their game to go three games over .500. At that time, the Rays were playing lights out at 30-11. But the Sox kept steadily rising, while the Rays kept steadily declining. The Sox went through a key stretch in which they played Detroit, New York, Minnesota, Philadelphia, and Tampa Bay, and came out of it 9-4. That proved to the Sox that they belonged in the conversation as a wild-card team, and maybe more.

Consider, too, that the Sox have been successful even with two starting outfielders and one of their best pitchers on the shelf. Jacoby Ellsbury has barely played because of fractured ribs, while Mike Cameron hasn’t been able to stay in the lineup for any length of time because of an abdominal strain. Josh Beckett’s season has been lost so far, a poor start coupled with a stint on the disabled list.

And after all that, here we are, with the Sox in the thick of a four-team race in the American League East.

Manager Terry Francona doesn’t like to look at the standings so early in the season. He joked that the Orioles, as the home team, do not provide him with a stat sheet. When told things were tightening up, he said, “I kind of know that, but I just don’t. I think it’s better to spend our energy on us. I always feel that way. If it gets down to the last week of the season, I’ll look. You know what I’m saying? If we play like we need to play, we’ll be all right.’’

Considering where the Sox have come from, Francona has to feel a sense of accomplishment. After all, a lot of people had felt the two-time World Series-winning manager had lost his touch.

“I just think we’re playing better baseball. That’s what I’m happy about,’’ he said. “Our energy’s been . . . we’re playing with some personality. Saying that, if we’d have done that for the last two or three weeks and the teams ahead of us won every game, we can’t control that. So that’s why I guess I feel that way. If you play like you’re supposed to, I think those things, they have a way of taking care of themselves.’’

What’s clear is the young players are taking over this team. In fact, Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, and Daniel Bard may soon be the Big Three.

Buchholz is 8-3 with a 2.39 ERA. Lester is 7-2 with a 2.73 ERA. Bard has appeared in 28 games and is 1-1 with a 1.80 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 30 innings. He played a key role in last night’s win, getting Lester out of a bases-loaded jam with one out in the seventh to preserve a 1-0 lead.

“I think it kind of drains the hope out of them,’’ said Bard of denying the Orioles with two big outs.

While Bard is not going to get many saves as long as Jonathan Papelbon is around, he’s racking up the holds. With any young, talented setup man (remember Mariano Rivera?) it reaches the point where someone this good — who throws a 99-mile-per hour fastball and 91-m.p.h. changeup — will have to be given the opportunity to take the next step. For now, Bard will have to hold off for the good of the team because Papelbon remains one of the game’s best closers.

So, as Buchholz, Lester, and Bard develop into stars, the Sox must also get the usual out of their veterans. John Lackey pitches this afternoon and he, along with Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka, must give the Sox quality starts until Beckett comes back.

Offensively, Darnell McDonald, Bill Hall, Jeremy Hermida, and now Josh Reddick, who contributed a key triple in the eighth inning last night, have done a good job keeping the outfield from becoming an issue while Cameron and Ellsbury have been out.

It’s easy to be hopeful after two days of beating up on the worst team in baseball, but the Sox have been beating up on a lot of teams lately. As Jason Varitek pointed out, “This is the team that we are and can be. If our starting pitching keeps going like this, we’re going to be a successful team.’’

Remember, too, that catching problem at the beginning of the year? Not so much now. Varitek and Martinez are the best offensive catching tandem in baseball, leading the majors in runs (42), hits (71), home runs (14), RBIs (39), and extra-base hits (32). Again, not bad from how Martinez performed the first six weeks of the season.

Nothing says that things can’t revert to how they were earlier this season. Nothing says that Tampa Bay won’t be the best team. But for now, it’s all bunched up — four games separating four teams in the loss column. It’s a race. Believe it.

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