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Are Sox hitting their stride?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  May 24, 2010 11:55 AM

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In his grandest of grand visions, this is how Theo Epstein envisioned the 2010 Boston Red Sox: efficient, methodical and downright systematic.

So as the Red Sox travel into the juice box known as Tropicana Field tonight for a three-game series opener against the world-beating Tampa Bay Rays, let the record show that the Red Sox are coming off their best week of the season. Against the Yankees, Twins and Phillies - all World Series hopefuls – the Sox went 5-2 and won five of their final six games, the most impressive streak coming after closer Jonathan Papelbon imploded in the ninth inning of last Monday’s loss at Yankee Stadium.

Could the worst be behind them?

"Somebody asked me the other day if I think it’s contagious. If it is, I hope we get an epidemic,’’ Red Sox manager Terry Francona told reporters yesterday when asked about the recent performance of his pitching staff.

"It’s a good way to play the game. I think it relaxes everybody. You don’t have to score a bunch of runs early. You’re not playing catch-up. It allows your offense to kind of take a deep breath, and then, again, if you work the pitcher, you get rewarded for it."

Beginning tonight, the Sox’ recent surge truly will be put to the test, and not solely because they are facing a Tampa Bay team that currently possesses the best record in baseball (32-12). Dating back to September 2007, the Sox are a dreadful 4-15 at Tropicana Field, where all of the Rays’ strengths and advantages are magnified. Tampa Bay is younger, faster, hungrier and stronger than these Sox, and it is now up to the Red Sox to prove that the team’s first meeting of the season – a four-game series at Fenway Park swept by the Rays – was as lopsided as it was because the Sox merely ran into the wrong team at the wrong time.

Whatever happens in the next few days, the Red Sox enter Tampa Bay with their confidence at a season high. In their last six games, the Sox have outscored opponents 30-18. Even including relative clunkers by Josh Beckett and John Lackey, Sox starters have a 2.38 ERA over the last seven games, a stretch during which they have averaged better than seven innings per start. What we have seen of late is generally the kind of baseball that Epstein anticipated when the Sox started selling the concept of run prevention over the winter.

Does this all mean the Sox are now problem-free and candidates for another world title? Not quite yet. But even when the Sox were at their worst, we all knew they were better than a .500 club. What we did not know – and we still don’t – is whether they can beat baseball’s truly elite when it matters, though the last week certainly gives us greater hope than we have had at any point this season.

As much as the Sox would like to continue building momentum against Tampa Bay this week, this series is not important for the reasons one may think. Maybe the Sox can catch the Rays this season; maybe they cannot. The latter currently seems far more likely. Tampa Bay will win 118 games this season if the Rays continue along their current pace, and even the 2004 Sox of September and October would have had great difficulty in equaling that output. Simply put, there isn’t a thing the Sox can do if the Rays run away from the pack – and there never was.

But what the Red Sox can do – and need to do – is keep pace with the rest of the pack, specifically the Yankees, Twins and Tigers. (The first two of those teams begin a three-game series tomorrow.) If the Rays are beyond everyone’s sights for good, the American League wildcard team almost certainly will come from Boston, New York, Detroit or Minnesota, and the Red Sox are now very much in the conversation despite a wretched start.

That’s what last week did for these Red Sox. It brought them to within 2-1/2 games of the Yankees, who currently lead the wild card race (for those interested in measuring such things at this stage). Whether the Sox win 88, 92 or 96 games this season isn’t nearly as important as where the Sox finish relative to those other clubs, and last week’s surge means the Sox pretty much have played themselves back into the conversation.

Again, no one is suggesting you should get giddy yet. But as last week showed in the wake of the Papelbon meltdown, the Red Sox still have grit – and they still have players who know how to win, from Dustin Pedroia to Kevin Youkilis to J.D. Drew and Papelbon himself.

If and when Beckett and Lackey get with the program – and history still suggests they will – there is every probability the Sox will go on an extended run at some point. And that may be some time soon. Following this current three-game set with the Rays, the Sox will begin a 13-game stretch against the Royals, A’s, Orioles and Indians, clubs that are a combined 35 games under .500. Confidence is climbing and the Sox are steadily regaining shape – Jacoby Ellsbury is back and Mike Cameron is next – and things now appear to be breaking in Boston’s favor.

So long, of course, as the Sox can stay out of their own way.

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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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