The ballpark is one thing. The competition is quite another. And at this stage, we can only wonder where the Red Sox would be without the generous assistance of the Baltimore Orioles.
Shut down by the mediocre Chicago White Sox over the weekend, the Red Sox returned to Fenway Park last night and took out their frustrations on the Uh-O's, pounding Baltimore by a 10-0 score in a game that wasn't nearly that close. The Sox hit five homers before making nine outs, improving to 12-2 against the Orioles this year. Nonetheless, the Sox saw their lead dwindle to two games in the American League wild card race thanks to the Texas Rangers' doubleheader sweep of the Cleveland Indians.
Incredible as it seems, we are now 24 games from the end of the regular season and we still don't know if this Red Sox team is truly capable of making a spirited run at another World Series championship.
Or maybe we do and we just don't want to admit it.
If last night's resounding victory surprised or inspired you, it shouldn't have. There is too much else to consider at this point. No team in baseball has more wins over one opponent this season than the Sox do over the Orioles. Last night's win made the Sox a sterling 12-2 against Baltimore this year, a record that includes an unforgettable 11-10 loss on June 30 in which the Sox somehow blew a 10-1 lead. This year, the Sox have not lost a game to the Orioles in which the Boston starter was anyone other than John Smoltz.
The Orioles have not been the Sox' only punching bag. The Sox are 11-4 against Toronto (another doormat) and went 11-7 against the inferior National League. That leaves the Sox at 46-45 against everyone else. All of this suggests the Sox are far closer to being a mediocre team than they are an elite one.
If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it's a duck.
In retrospect, the clearest line of delineation in this Red Sox season is June 11. That was the day the Sox defeated the Yankees to improve to 8-0 against New York this season. Since that time, the balance of power in the American League has completely flipped. The Red Sox have mauled teams with bad pitching and failed miserably against teams with above-average pitching, particularly as it pertains to starters.
Let's get to the math: At the moment, the Sox currently rank seventh in the league in ERA. Since June 11, against the six teams in front of them in ERA, the Sox are 12-21 while batting .243 and averaging 4.7 runs per game. Against the seven teams behind them, the Sox are 30-12 while batting .277 and averaging 5.6 runs per contest. The Sox take from the poor and give to the rich, which is the truest definition of mediocrity.
Should you believe that every team in baseball follows this pattern, think again. The New York Yankees currently rank sixth in the AL in pitching, though their ERA (4.31) is essentially identical to that of the Sox. Including the head-to-head meetings with the Red Sox, the Yankees are 24-9 against the top pitching teams in the league since June 11. In those games, they have batted .298 while averaging 6.1 runs per contest. The obvious point is that the Yankees have demonstrated an ability to beat everyone, which suggests a far more balanced and potent roster than the one currently occupying the home clubhouse at Fenway Park.
Of course, we all know that the playoffs are a different game. The Red Sox won't need as many starters as they do during the regular season, which will help conceal some of their weaknesses. Since the trading deadline, general manager Theo Epstein has improved the bullpen (Billy Wagner) and the lineup (Victor Martinez) as well as the defense (Alex Gonzalez). Still, the Sox went to Chicago over the weekend and were completely shut down by a White Sox team that had all but packed it in, which was reason to be discouraged.
If the Red Sox make it to the playoffs, assuming health, we all know they have the kind of character and pitching firepower to beat just about anyone. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester alone give them as formidable a 1-2 tandem as there is in the game. But we're now 138 games into the 162-game marathon, and we still have no evidence that the Sox of late 2009 can compete with the big boys.
After all, if the Sox do make it to October, they won't be facing the Baltimore Orioles.
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