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For starters, Sox in a familiar place

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  May 16, 2011 04:36 PM

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The false start (2-10) has finally been erased, and the Red Sox are right back where they started before they had Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and a save the date for a 100-win season. Facing Baltimore tonight to begin a seven-game homestand, they are Fenway Park's .500 club at 20-20.

As Yankee great Yogi Berra would say, "It's deja vu all over again." The Sox' 20-20 mark is exactly the same record the bridge year bunch had after 40 games last season. It was accomplished in the same fashion, beating the New York Yankees in the Bronx. It was on May 18 of last season that the Sox rallied from a 5-0 fifth-inning deficit to defeat the Pinstripes, 7-6, and finish the first 40 at .500.

They then won 29 of their next 41 games to wake up on July 4th independent of their bad start at 49-32, just a half game out of first place at baseball's halfway point. That was a flawed team that didn't have Josh Beckett pitching like an ace or pitching at all, lacked Jacoby Ellsbury's presence in the lineup or in the eastern part of the United States and was eventually undone in large part by a disastrous three-game series in San Francisco, where Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz and Victor Martinez got injured in three successive days in late June.

That team lost five of seven before the All-Star break and eventually fizzled to a third-place finish, but it had zero to do with their .500 start.

That's why the agita over the Sox' 0-6 and 2-10 starts was always overblown. Baseball is a marathon and how you do in Hopkinton doesn't dictate your place of finish on Boylston Street. Was the Sox' bad beginning disappointing and disheartening after they spent money like one of the Real Housewives of Orange County and offered us an offseason full of order-restoring promises? Absolutely, but it was never condemning, despite the talk-radio furor (both callers and hosts) otherwise.

A bad start was never going to cast the die for where this team ended up, just like it ultimately didn't for last year's Red Sox. Hype gave way to hysteria. Now, we can do without both.

Despite their failure to launch, the Red Sox are only a game behind the second-place Yankees and three games arrears of the first-place Rays (23-17), a team that like the Sox lost its first six games of the season, further proof that a baseball season isn't like a car engine -- starting up quickly and without trouble isn't the most important trait.

The Sox are actually in better position to make up ground this year than last; last year after the first 40, they were 8.5 games back. There is no question that they are a more talented team, and better equipped to overcome their start.

The Sox have actually been playing pretty good baseball for about a month. Since April 16th the Red Sox have the second-best winning percentage in baseball, going 18-10 (.643). Only the Rays, playing at .667 clip (18-9), have done better.

The offense has come alive and the rotation is rounding into form with a Big Three of Jon Lester, Beckett and Clay Buchholz, who has gotten back on track this month by going 3-0 with a 1.93 ERA.

During the last month, Terry Francona's team has seen more pitches than any other team in baseball, ranks first in extra-base hits with 90, third in OPS at .768 and fourth in runs scored with 127. The pitching staff has posted a 3.26 ERA, the sixth-best in baseball during that span.

Check the American League leaders and you'll see that Gonzalez, who had his four-game homer steak snapped last night, leads the league in RBI with 34. He is no longer hitting like Jody Reed. The power surge is in effect -- eight homers this month. Or to put it in the terms Gonzalez will always be measured by, he now has as many homers (9) on the season as Mark Teixeira.

"Fourth starter" Beckett hasn't allowed a run this month, is working on an 18 1/3-inning scoreless streak and is first in the AL in ERA at 1.75.

It's early but Jacoby Ellsbury has a higher OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) than either Adrian Beltre or Alex Rodriguez. Since being re-inserted into the leadoff spot on April 22, Ellsbury has batted .367 with a .404 on-base percentage, 12 extra-base hits and nine stolen bases.

I haven't even mentioned that David Ortiz, whom many thought was beyond the point of no return, is batting 295 with 7 home runs so far.

While Carl Crawford's average is still just above the Mendoza Line, the idea that he was going to hit .135 all season was beyond ridiculous. Yes, $142-million for a No. 8 hitter is profligate, but if it's working who cares. That's the advantage of printing money on Yawkey Way.

There are still questions for this team if it is going to leave .500 in its rearview mirror and live up to expectations. The bullpen has to find some reliable late-inning options outside of Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon. The Sox rank 24th in all of baseball in bullpen ERA (4.55).

John Lackey can't keep treating home plate like a turnstile, and 40 games with one home run and 12 RBI from the catching position isn't going to cut it, not if Jarrod Saltalamacchia doesn't stop getting beaten five-hole and glove side by the baseball and/or lower his catcher's ERA from a John Wasdin-esque 5.49.

The Red Sox have done everything possible to distance themselves from last year's disappointing team, but it would be good if for the next 40 games these Sox followed the path of that maligned squad and then broke away.

The Sox might be right back where they started, but the important thing is to not end up finishing in the same place.

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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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