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For Red Sox, first half a matter of rights and wrongs

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  July 12, 2010 11:34 AM

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Eighty-eight games in, five games out of first place, three back in the wild-card race. The Red Sox were bad at the beginning, battered at the end, better in the middle.

Nonetheless, the Red Sox are on pace for 94 wins, very much in line with the 95 they set as a goal each and every season. Unfortunately, at this rate, 94 will leave them short of a seventh postseason appearance in the last eight years.

Once again using the All-Star as an opportunity to draw a very deep breath, here is a look at what went right and went wrong for the Red Sox during the first half of the 2010 season:

WHAT WENT RIGHT
1. The offense, specifically in the persons of David Ortiz and Adrian Beltre.

Entering this season, many of us thought the Red Sox would be in the market for a left-handed bat at this time of year. Instead, they lead the majors in runs scored and OPS – the latter against both left-handers and right-handers – while getting great productivity from two relatively unexpected sources.

In the case of Ortiz, he has experienced nothing short of a resurrection. Last year, Ortiz ranked 45th among the qualifying 75 AL players in OPS. He is sixth this year. His impact on the Boston lineup has been enormous. The Red Sox appeared to have a relative shortage of left-handed power entering this season, but they have generally outperformed the Yankees against right-handed pitching. Ortiz is the biggest reason.

As for Beltre, he entered this season as a career .270 hitter. He’s currently sixth in the league in batting (.330) and 10th in OPS (.907), leading all AL third basemen in both categories. With Evan Longoria and Alex Rodriguez in that group, that is no small achievement. Furthermore, Beltre plays absurdly hard – ask Jacoby Ellsbury or Jeremy Hermida – and has excelled in the clutch. He has hit .432 with two outs and runners in scoring position, .367 overall in any situation with runners in scoring position. Huge.

2. The bench. Even the Red Sox effectively told us they were concerned about their depth this season when they termed this season a "bridge year." As such, the Red Sox went out and built a major league club with a CBT payroll approaching $175 million, the highest in club history. (That is the number via the formula used to calculate the collective bargain tax – the CBT or "luxury" tax). The idea was to make them organizationally top-heavy in talent.

Nonetheless, when the injuries came, the Red Sox had to turn to people like Daniel Nava, Darnell McDonald, Felix Doubront and Scott Atchison, not to mention Jonathan Van Every, Kevin Cash and Gustavo Molina. They won nonetheless. Asking many of these players to continue producing is a bit much – this showed in the final days of the first half – but the Red Sox already have received more bang for the buck than they possibly could have imagined.

Given the issues the Red Sox encountered, they could not have handled them any better, which reflects well on the players, general manager Theo Epstein, the baseball operations and scouting staff, and manager Terry Francona.

3. The development of Clay Buchholz. Once again, give the Red Sox credit here for remaining focused on the big picture. They had lots of opportunities to trade Buchholz. They resisted. Entering the All-Star break, Buchholz ranks second in the league in ERA to only Tampa Bay’s David Price. Given some of the other issues the Red Sox have encountered on their pitching staff, Buchholz has been an absolute savior.

Historically speaking, Buchholz’s turnaround is nothing short of extraordinary. In his official rookie season of 2008, Buchholz’s 6.75 ERA ranked among the worst of all-time for a first-year player. He was positively dreadful. At last year’s trading deadline, opposing officials and scouts deemed Buchholz no better than a No. 3 starter, a contention the Red Sox have long disputed.

While it’s still early, Buchholz is starting to look like the front-line starter the Sox have been hyping. The development of his two-seam fastball has allowed him to become one of the more efficient pitchers on the team, making him both a winner and innings eater. Great story.

WHAT WENT WRONG
1. The injuries.
There are injuries and there are injuries, and what the Red Sox have faced this year borders on the preposterous. The barrage of mishaps that hit the Red Sox near the end of the first half evoked comparisons to 2001 and 2006, when the Red Sox were hit so hard by injuries that they effectively crumbled and fell out of contention. This epidemic has been every bit as bad – if not worse.

Whether Ellsbury, Hermida, Josh Beckett, Victor Martinez, Dustin Pedroia, Jason Varitek, Mike Lowell, and others can still help this team remains to be seen, though there is every reason to believe that the majority of those players will be back. Still, the Red Sox began to teeter at the end of the half and they will be on the road for a majority of the balance of July, which will put additional strain and demand on the bench.

At some point already passed, the Red Sox began asking too much of Nava, McDonald and Co. The Red Sox have slipped some in the standings as a result. They may not get some of their bigger guns back for another few weeks, making the balance of this month critical.

2. The bullpen. If you believe that bullpen ERA is a deceiving statistic – and maybe it is – then the Red Sox' relief ERA of 4.71 (13th among the 14 AL clubs) is not overly alarming. However, if you’re interested in winning games, then you should take note of the fact that the Red Sox have 13 bullpen losses, a number that places the Red Sox a mediocre seventh in the AL behind Seattle, Oakland, Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City and Toronto.

Take a good look at those six teams. All of them have losing records and they are a combined 82 games under .500 at the All-Star break.

Get the picture?

Combined this season, the Rays (five) and Yankees (10) have nearly the same number of relief losses as the Red Sox. In a sense, this means that the determining factor between the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox thus far has been the team’s ability to pitch late in games. The Yankees are worried some about their bullpen, too, but the bottom line is that the Red Sox have been suffering in the later innings of too many games, which should make the bullpen priority 1-A for Epstein approaching the All-Star break.

3. The John Lackey signing. No one is suggesting that Lackey is a bust, because it’s way too early for that, but the Red Sox certainly didn’t pay him $16.5 million a year to rank 44th among the 56 qualifying AL pitchers in ERA. Already, Lackey basically has walked as many batters (46) as he did all of last season (47) and opponents are batting .298 against him. Daisuke Matsuzaka has outpitched Lackey by a sizable margin.

Under the circumstances, there was the opportunity here for Lackey to make a huge impression and step up in the absence of Beckett, in particular. Instead, the Red Sox have gone a perfectly mediocre 9-9 in Lackey’s 18 starts, making him perhaps the most deceiving nine-game winner in baseball. The Red Sox are focusing on the positive and emphasizing Lackey’s competitiveness, but we all know it’s a results oriented business.

From the time the Red Sox signed Lackey, the decision seemed curious. For starters, the Red Sox had plenty of pitching. Beyond that, they gave a five-year contract to a pitcher who turns 32 in October. There is every chance here that Lackey will turn things around in the second half. If he does not, we’ll certainly have plenty to talk about over the winter.

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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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