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Meanwhile, back with the Red Sox ...

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  June 27, 2013 07:48 AM

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Weird season, eh?

Fun season. Fascinating season. But yes, a weird season so far for the Boston Red Sox, who halfway through the schedule finally seize their traditional summertime place as the center of the New England sports fan's consciousness now that those admirable Bruins have conducted their exit interviews.

A quick primer/status update, should you require one:

The Sox are in first place in the cramped and compelling AL East, holding a 3.5-game lead in the division despite all five teams being separated by just 6.5 games. They have the best record in the American League at 47-33, and trail only the St. Louis Cardinals and -- believe it -- Pittsburgh Pirates, both 48-30, for the best record in the majors.

Their pitching has been fine -- their 3.87 team ERA is slightly above the Major League average of 3.92. But their offense has been exceptional. The Sox are tops in baseball in runs scored (410) and runs per game (5.12).

They're first in team OPS (.793), second to the Baltimore Davises in slugging (.445), second to the Detroit Cabreras in on-base percentage, and -- didn't see this one coming -- have 21 triples, trailing only the Milwaukee Seguras (30).

That the Red Sox are vastly improved over last year is not a surprise. A competent manager, healthy (for the most part) stars, and a middle class of established, trustworthy newcomers has gone a long way toward their return to competence and beyond. Yet a lot of what has happened is -- well, if not weird, then certainly improbable and unpredictable.

David Ortiz is as good as he has ever been. Daniel Nava has played like a borderline All-Star. Beloved Fan-Favorite John Lackey has a sub-3.00 ERA. Clay Buchholz is undefeated and injured. (OK, the last part? Definitely foreseeable). Will Middlebrooks is batting fifth ... for the PawSox.

Oh, and the role of the young, productive third baseman is being played by ... Jose Iglesias? Yep, Jose Iglesias, with his extraordinary .419/.469/.556 slash line, .475 BABIP, and crazy knack for rapping out two hits just about every day.

Don't know about you, but I've abandoned questioning it for the sake of my own mental health if nothing else. It's been a blast to watch, and a reminder that embracing the inexplicable remains one of baseball's greatest charms.

If you've been away, focusing on the Bruins' run to the Stanley Cup Final or Doc Rivers's smooth escape or Aaron Hernandez's fall from grace, this is a pretty good time to re-board the bandwagon.

The Red Sox begin a four-game set Thursday with the Toronto Blue Jays, the last-place team in the AL East, but a heck of a lot closer than they were just a few weeks ago. Toronto, the consensus preseason favorite in the division after revamping its roster over the winter, has won 12 of its last 14 games, climbing back into the AL East race after being a dozen games back of the Sox less than three weeks ago.

Maybe this is the precise moment when it turned around for the Jays ...

... or at least when they became a team.

The Jays certainly have been an intriguing team all along. They don't have a starter with an ERA below 4.60 among their top-five in innings, yet they've received a boost from Esmil Rogers and an even unlikelier one from Yankees discard Chien-Ming Wang, who enters Thursday's start with a streak of 16.2 scoreless innings.

The bullpen has been exceptional, posting a 0.80 ERA over the past 14 games, led by Brett Cecil, who has allowed just 19 hits in 39.2 innings this season. Jose Reyes is back from a severe ankle injury to front the offense, and Adam Lind has been rejuvenated (.928 OPS).

encarnacionedwinfinn626.JPGAnd as usual, they can mash. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are doing their junior varsity Manny/Papi thing, combining for 38 homers and 107 RBIs so far. Encarnacion, who has 22 of those homers, has rejuvenated his career in Toronto the same way Bautista did before him.

Almost three years ago to the day, Encarnacion was outrighted to the minors after being designated for assignment a couple of days earlier. How does it go? Sometimes the best transactions are the ones you don't make?

The Red Sox and Jays have already had a few sparks that suggest a genuinely contentious rivalry could be brewing this season. There was the Buchholz ball-doctoring accusation by Jays broadcasters Jack Morris and Dirk Hayhurst, and the less-than-friendly greeting Farrell received upon returning to Toronto, where he managed the previous two seasons. It's not Fisk vs. Munson stuff, but it's a start.

And it could last. The Red Sox' success should be sustainable -- they have far and away the best run-differential in the AL East at plus-78. But the Jays are surging, at last looking like the team they were supposed to be.

It's a fascinating four-game set in a division in which every win and loss matters. A good time, then, to catch up with the Sox, who thrived under the radar and now have our full and deserved attention.

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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