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20-20 vision: Don't count out Red Sox

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  May 19, 2010 12:49 PM

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300soxwin.jpgThe hope is that last night's never-say-die, nail-biting win in New York becomes a microcosm of the Red Sox season, a horrible start that creates a daunting deficit that is chipped away at and ultimately overcome with resolve, conviction and better pitching.

Last night's comeback in the Bronx was the 40th game of the season for a Sox. The first 40 games for a baseball team are like the first 100 days of a presidency -- they're meaningful and an indication on whether promise has been put into practice, but they don't define the entire term.

The Sox sit today at 20-20, 8.5 games back of the first place Tampa Bay Rays. Many have already declared them a lost cause, as I'm sure they did last night when the Sox trailed 5-0 after five innings one night after closer Jonathan Papelbon got pummeled by the Pinstripes in a loss that felt like it turned back the clock to pre-2004.

Understand this: Bad baseball teams don't do what the Sox did last night. They don't bounce back from losses like Monday night's with wins like last night's. Instead, they simply pack it in and take their ball and go home. Bad teams lack both the talent and the temperament to do what the Sox did to the Yankees.

These first 40 games have tested the fealty of even the most ardent members of the Fenway Faithful. Reading the standings each morning has become as painful as checking your 401K. Both just seem to lose ground.

Despite what you might think of run prevention and Josh Beckett's contract extension, the Sox are not a poorly constructed team, what they are after 40 games is an underperforming and injury-afflicted one, Beckett's bad back the latest woe.

Does that sound familiar? It should because it's the same tag you could slap on the Celtics and Bruins, both of whom were also left for dead, only to be resurrected.

But if we learned anything from dismissing the Celtics and Bruins at multiple points during their uninspiring and injury-prone regular seasons, it's that you count out teams built to contend at your own peril.

If injuries are an excuse for the Celtics' 27-27 play for four months, then the Sox should get some sympathy for 40 games. Two-thirds of their starting outfield, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron, has played more games in the minor leagues (seven) than they have spent together available on the major league roster (six). Both are missed defensively, which was obvious in Monday night's game when Jeremy Hermida and Darnell McDonald botched plays in the outfield, and in the lineup.

Despite lacking Ellsbury in the leadoff spot and Cameron, who has slugged 20-plus home runs each of the last four years, the Sox are fourth in baseball in runs scored with 210 and are averaging 5.25 runs per game, not that far from the 5.38 of last season and more than the 5.22 of 2008. They lead the league in pitches seen per plate appearance, which allows them to take advantage of the soft underbelly of major league baseball -- the bullpen.

Perhaps the poster child for this team is David Ortiz. Big Papi will never be what he was, but he is the Mark Twain of the Sox -- reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Ortiz had two more hits last night and drove in the game-tying run on a near-homer that ended up as a single when he made like a piece of Monument Park at home plate. He's been red-hot this month with a .367 average and six homers in 13 games.

Everyone predicted the Sox would be an inept offensive team that would rely on pitching and defense. Instead, run prevention has become run permission. In 17 games this month, the Sox pitching staff has posted a 5.40 ERA, the second-worst in baseball. Conversely, Sox batters are tied with the Yankees for the most runs scored in baseball this month with 107.

Boston's overall run differential this season is a minus-8. The last time they finished win a negative run differential was 2006 (minus-5), the last time this team didn't make the playoffs.

For this team, any turnaround starts with its starting pitching, which has been abhorrent. It doesn't matter whether you're a devotee of sabermetrics, defensive metrics, or the metric system, no one could have predicted the Sox pitching would be this bad through 40 games. It is what the Bill James crowd would refer to as a statistical anomaly that is ripe for some form of correction. How much might determine how far this team goes.

Only the Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates have gotten a lower percentage of quality starts this season than the Sox, who have gotten 18 in 40 games. It wasn't part of the master plan for the starters to have a 5.18 ERA, 28th among all starting staffs, and have opposing teams batting .270 off them.

Regardless of who the catcher is, the Sox starters are better than that.

The biggest problems for the Sox are external, not internal. They can't control what the Yankees and AL-East leading Rays do. If the Maddon Men continue on their 116-win pace and the Yankees on their 103-win pace, then the Sox have simply ceded too much ground too soon.

However, they're not an 81-81 team, and if it's the usual 95 wins to get a playoff spot then still I believe because this team is capable of playing .614 baseball over its final 122 games.

We might know a lot more about the State of the Sox a week from now, when they will have wrapped up eight games against the division-leading Twins, Phillies and Rays. Six of those games are on the road.

The road isn't going to get any easier for the Sox, but 40 games isn't enough to say the bridge is out in Boston.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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