After all that, from the early-season ineptitude to the inconsistencies to the injuries, the Red Sox are right where Josh Beckett hinted they may be: on pace to flirt with 100 victories. By virtue of a 10-1 finish to the first half of the 2011 season, the Red Sox are a season-high 20 games over .500 and on pace for precisely 99 wins, a total that would match their highest number in the last 65 years.
Happy? You should be, particularly with developments that suggest the Red Sox could be better than some even predicted.
As such, here are the five things you should be most impressed and satisfied with following a first-half during which the Red Sox posted the best record in the American League:
5. Jonathan Papelbon. Entering the year, remember, there were questions about the closing situation. The Red Sox themselves were so concerned about it that they went out and acquired Bobby Jenks. That came after an offseason during which the Sox flirted with Mariano Rivera and Rafael Soriano, among others.
Last year, among the 31 qualifying major league relievers, Papelbon finished 24th in save percentage. He was tied for second in the majors in blown saves and finished with as many losses as any reliever but Tyler Clippard or Aaron Heilman.
This year? Papelbon has just one blown save, that coming in a game the Sox eventually won. As a result, including yesterday, the Sox are now a perfect 21-0 when Papelbon enters in a save situation. They are 54-0 when tied or leading after eight innings. Papelbon has zero losses and ranks among the major league leaders in save percentage, and his strikeout total (51) is way up while his walk total (seven) is way down. Virtually all of the shaky outings have come in non-save situations.
4. Overall resiliency. Hard to give the Sox too much credit for this when they have a luxury-tax payroll in the neighborhood of $180 million, but money doesnít guarantee mental toughness. What it does guarantee is a relative level of talent, and we all know that the Red Sox have a truckload of that.
Still, letís look at those times when the Sox have had to respond to relatively indisputable failure. After starting the season 2-10, they went 8-1 over a nine-game stretch during which they outscored their opponents 46-16; their only loss during that time came in a 5-0 shutout during which opposing starter Brett Anderson was brilliant.
Since that time, the Sox have only been swept in two series Ė at Toronto on May 10-11, and against the White Sox from May 30 through June 1. On the first occasion, they responded by going 13-2 over a 15-game stretch during which they outscored their opponents 98-48; both defeats were bullpen failures. After the White Sox series, the Sox went 14-2 over a 16-game stretch during which they outscored their opponents 128-58; of the two defeats, one was a 4-0 loss at Tampa in which James Shields completely shut them down.
Though the Sox were not swept in the final three weeks of the half, they slipped up badly during interleague play, at one point losing 6 of 7 to the Padres, Pirates and Phillies. That triggered the half-ending stretch during which they went 10-1 and outscored opponents 72-40.
See a pattern here?
3. Jacoby Ellsbury. Yes, Adrian Gonzalez has been brilliant, turning in the kind of MVP-caliber performance from the middle of the lineup that the Red Sox have lacked since Manny Ramirez departed. David Ortiz, too, has been quite consistent, and Josh Beckett faced major questions as well. But all three of those players have been high achievers in the major leagues at various points in their careers, so elite performance is not shocking.
In the case of Ellsbury, there was some uncertainty here. He missed virtually all of last season. He has never proven that he could handle the leadoff position for an entire season. And the ratio of speed-to-power was always titled a little too much in the direction of the former.
This year, however, Ellsbury has been the best leadoff man in the American League and worthy of an All-Star selection. Entering the break, he leads all qualifying American League leadoff batters in both on-base percentage (.388) and OPS (.884). When he scores at least one run, the Red Sox are 37-11. When has failed to reach base via hit or walk, the Red Sox are 6-11.
Sounds like weíve just identified an offensive catalyst.
2. The overall depth. For a team with an exorbitant payroll, this, too, may seem like a stretch. But when you consider some of the problems the Red Sox have encountered this season, how they have managed to post the best record in the American League is as much as reflection on their organizational depth and smaller offseason maneuvers as it is on some of the bigger winter transactions.
For example: John Lackey has been generally ineffective and Clay Buchholz has been injured for a good chunk of the first three months, while Daisuke Matsuzaka has been lost for the season. Yet thanks to Tim Wakefield, Alfredo Aceves and Andrew Miller Ė they are a combined 12-4 with a 4.05 ERA Ė the Red Sox havenít slipped much, if at all. Matt Albers and Rich Hill helped soften some of the issues in the bullpen.
As for the lineup, an injury to Carl Crawford further damaged an outfield that was already underachieving thanks to the sinkhole that has been right field (J.D. Drew, Mike Cameron). Enter Josh Reddick, who has batted .393 with a 1.101 OPS in 23 games. Reddick has knocked in or scored 27 runs in 23 games, a positively enormous development given the approximate $42 million in billable hours compiled by Crawford, Cameron and Drew.
1. The catchers. Question: Other than the Detroit Tigers, which American League team has received better production from its catchers than the Red Sox have? Answer: There isnít one. As improbable as it once seemed, the Red Sox now rank second in the AL in OPS from the catching position. They rank first in runs scored and fifth in RBI while tying for third in home runs.
In fact, of the 17 American League catchers with at least 150 plate appearances thus far, Jason Varitek (third) and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (fourth) are the only teammates who rank in the top five. Who predicted that?
OK, so the Sox donít exactly gun down runners like a young Pudge Rodriguez. But the defense has generally improved to the point of adequacy and the Sox have made fewer errors at the position than any team in baseball.
Put it all together and you have perhaps the biggest surprise on a team that has had surprisingly several, all during a half that both met expectations and hardly went according to plan.
Tony's Top 5
Best offseason moves in recent Red Sox history