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Sox are who we thought they were

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  May 27, 2011 11:46 AM

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We may never know the real reason the Red Sox spent the first two weeks of the season slumbering and plodding like they were facing the Twins' B squad in Ft. Myers. Maybe there was more of an emphasis on making sure all of the crucial players who lost chunks of last season to injury were healthy rather than ready, if that makes sense. Maybe it was the alignment of the stars, the moon, and the four-leaf clovers. Probably it was just one of those quirks of baseball.

No matter now, for an explanation is no longer necessary. The 2011 Boston Red Sox are officially fulfilling their grand talent and grander expectations, moving into a virtual tie for first place with the Yankees in the AL East yesterday with a 14-1 win over the Detroit Tigers. It's safe to shout it, Dennis Green. They are who we thought they were.

After a gruesome and disconcerting 0-6 and then 2-10 start, they are now 28-22, a season-high six games over .500. They are 17-7 in May, having outscored opponents 136-99 this month. Since the 12-game low-water mark, they have gone 26-12, a .684 winning percentage. Should they win at that rate through Game 162, they'll finish with 104 wins.

Now, that's just a silly math game, just like the ones we were stuck playing a month ago when the cynics and scolds delighted in telling us that the Sox would have to play something like .890 ball the rest of the way to win 47 games. (My numbers may be slightly off there, but it was something like that.)

Of course one expects them to play at this extraordinary a level the rest of the way; .650 ball is, conservatively, right about the edge of reason. Then again, no one expected two measly wins in the first dozen games, either. The truth is that the middle ground is probably right where most of us thought it would be when we all made our hopeful preseason prognostications. I had them at 96 wins then. I have them at 96 wins now. And it will not be a photo finish in the division. This will be a one-horse race.

It is amazing that they dug out of that hole before Memorial Day -- didn't you think the full recovery would take until June? I guess they do owe what will surely be an unpaid debt of gratitude to their AL East brethren for slogging along themselves and never allowing the Sox to fall more than five games back. It could have been so much worse.

Now, it's just good times, especially when the Sox are at the plate. It's convenient to praise them after back-to-back 14-run outputs, but the incredible quality and depth of this offense must be acknowledged.

Watching Adrian Gonzalez on a daily basis is such a rare baseball treat that it almost feels like a disappointment when he finishes the day with just a pair of singles and an RBI. Carl Crawford, batting .333 with an .864 OPS in May, has found his dynamic Tampa Bay form. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has rewarded his bosses' patience, hitting four homers in 53 plate appearances with an .893 OPS this month. David Ortiz leads the team in homers (10) and perhaps more impressively, has more walks (22) than strikeouts (20). Jacoby Ellsbury has 26 RBIs and a .364 on-base percentage. This lineup may not match up statistically with the 2003-04 squads, but given the era and the lineup depth, it may be just as good.

(Not that he's anything more than a backup singer at this concert, but Drew Sutton does own an interesting minor league track record of consistent production without receiving a real shot. He could be this year's Darnell McDonald if Marco Scutaro doesn't return soon.)

The pitching? So much depends on the big three, and to a man Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz (lately, at least) have delivered. Beckett is off to a historically great start (five straight starts of one run or fewer), much to the pleasant surprise of those of us who thought the vague injuries, probably more serious than we knew, had ended his days of dominance. He is the co-ace, again. And they are better off with a healthy Alfredo Aceves and his 2.98 ERA in seven career starts over that enigma named Daisuke Matsuzaka.

While there are the perpetual issues in the bullpen and Daniel Bard's hiccups are cause for small concern, it is not a bad scene, especially with closer Jonathan Papelbon rediscovering his command. It all adds up to an uncommonly deep roster, 1-through-25 -- actually, make it 1-30 given the help they've already received from Pawtucket this season.

The best team ever? That was just an effective declaration by a tabloid headline writer, one that was twisted into a referendum on the fans' hubris by sports radio hosts and columnists. No one I know said that -- most of my friends believe the best team evah! was the 2004 Sox. Biases can be so charming.

The best team in 2011? Now that I'll believe -- have all along, actually. The bandwagon is chugging toward the summer and straight through to October, that 2-10 start barely visible in the rear-view mirror. To those of you who had doubts, welcome back aboard.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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