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For Sox, it's a week to exploit the weak

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  April 26, 2010 11:43 AM

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So this is what it has come to, a mere 19 games into the season: a six-game road trip to Toronto and Baltimore that will begin to give us some clearer assessment of the 2010 Red Sox.

Truth be told, the Red Sox cannot impress us this week.

But they can continue to drive us away.

Now the possessors of an 8-11 record, the Red Sox spit the bit yesterday at Fenway Park in a 7-6 loss to the wretched Baltimore Orioles. The Sox took a 4-1 lead into the seventh before lame duck starter Tim Wakefield (more on that shortly) turned a 4-2 lead over to reliever Hideki Okajima, who promptly served up a two-run homer to the geriatric Miguel Tejada that played a big role in making a win go poof.

Please, no talk today of how the Red Sox won the series. Losses like this leave a mark. The Sox went 16-2 against the uh-O’s last year and did so despite blowing a 10-1 lead in the seventh inning of one defeat. If what we believe of the Sox proves to be true – that they will beat bad competition and struggle against the good teams – then the Sox simply cannot afford to slip up against doormats like the O’s and, for that matter, Blue Jays.

Looking for worrisome statistics from the last week and beyond? In six games against the Orioles and Texas Rangers, the Sox scored 32 runs … and allowed 32. (For the sabermetricians: that’s a run differential of zero.) All four Boston victories were by a single run and both Boston defeats came in games in which they were leading or tied entering the seventh inning.

The Sox had to grind, folks. And while there are indeed injuries on the Boston roster – the Sox had to trade for Jonathan Van Every, for goodness sake – scraping out wins against teams like the Rangers and O’s should not be necessary for a club with a payroll approaching $175 million.

Now to another area of concern: the bullpen. So far this season, the Sox are a mediocre 6-5 when leading or tied after six innings. Last year, they went 86-14 in such situations. Sox relievers have lost as many games (five) as any AL team but the Orioles (six), which is hardly a good sign for a team that expected to rely on run prevention and play tighter, lower-scoring games.

Given the potential need for relief help as this season progresses, here is something to consider: is Clay Buchholz someone who could help the club there? Presumably, the Sox have no intention of using Tim Wakefield in anything other than long or middle relief, which suggests he won’t be in any games after the sixth inning. (He may not be in at all on days Jason Varitek is behind the plate.) As such, one cannot help but wonder if the Sox might have been better served to keep Wakefield in the rotation (at least for the time being) and fortify their bullpen with Buchholz, who has, at the very least, better strikeout power.

After all, Buchholz comes with questions about durability and focus, anyway. The seventh inning might be perfect for him. Further, the Sox could preserve any bargaining chips they may need in trade talks for a reliever and include them in talks for a hitter, which remains an obvious need. Given the gap the Sox have in their developmental system at the moment, they need to play their cards wisely. (It’s all just a thought.)

Independent of that particular issue – regardless of who is on the mound – the Red Sox simply cannot afford to slip up against inferior competition at the moment given the nature in which they opened the season. The Tampa Bay Rays already are 14-5. The Yankees (12-6) and Angels (8-4) come into Fenway for series next week. If the Sox were to go out and, say, lose four of six this week, they would possess a 10-15 record and diminishing confidence entering a homestand against the participants in last year’s American League Championship Series.

Obviously, there is still a lot of baseball to be played this season. That is hardly the point. At the moment, the greater issue is that the Red Sox cannot continue to let the gap widen between them and the two other contenders in their division – the Rays and Yankees – for fear of creating far too big a hole for themselves. Last season, the Sox went a combined 27-9 against the Orioles and Jays, the latter of whom had Roy Halladay at the front end of their rotation. Toronto now is much younger and thinner. The Jays have dropped 8 of 13 since their 5-1 start, and they were spanked by the Rays on both Saturday and Sunday.

Now, the Jays face the Red Sox.

At the very least, it’s a chance for the Sox to show they’re more like the Rays than the Jays.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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