Cleveland could cure road ills

Not bad by them Red Sox, eh? A 5-1 homestand, winners of six of their last seven. And it seems like just last week you were stuck in panic mode like some malfunctioning First Alert detector.

Coming off a sad 2-4 road trip through the Midwest, the Red Sox returned to Fenway last week to receive their finest string of starting performances yet in 2005, as Matt Clement (twice), David Wells, Bronson Arroyo, and Tim Wakefield all tossed gems, with all but Wakefield earning victories for their valiance. Manny Ramirez found his stroke, Kevin Millar is approaching his second-half hot streak, and Bill Mueller proved that only an idiot would want to trade him away before the end of July.

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Now comes the hard part: staying in that groove on the road, where the Red Sox have spent more time this season than William Least Heat-Moon.

Midwest Express must be making a fortune on Red Sox Nation, as that’s where the Sox are yet again this week, ready to take on the Indians, the hottest team in Major League Baseball.

Really. The hottest team in Major League Baseball. The Cleveland Indians.

The next generation of Mike Hargrove’s boys of yesteryear reeled off their ninth straight victory yesterday with a 3-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, and have won 13 of their last 14. With a record of 20-7 since May 21 (the Red Sox are 14-13 in that same time span), the Indians are now 6-0, halfway through a 12-game homestand that continues tonight.

Wait, 12? The last time most of these Red Sox players saw home for 12 straight nights, they were probably catching first-run episodes of “Roots.” Boston hasn’t faced as many as three teams on any one homestand since April 11-19 (Yankees, Devil Rays, Blue Jays) and won’t enjoy their longest stay of the season at the Fens until Aug. 25-Sept. 8, a 13-game stand that will come at a welcome period of the year, when they’ll assuredly be seeking to secure a playoff berth. If they can fix things out of the suitcase, that is.

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They’re 22-10 at Fenway Park. A playoff-bound team.

They’re 16-20 on the road. Roadkill CafĂ©.

Boston bats are hitting an identical .282 on the road and at Fenway, consistent as could be, but the pitching…egad. Boston hurlers are posting an OK 3.94 ERA at Fenway (a number vastly reduced after the last seven days’ sparkling 1.83 team ERA), an ungodly 5.46 on the road. Tonight’s starter, David Wells, has a 5.06 road ERA this season. In three games, Wade Miller, who takes the hill Wednesday, has a 9.02 road ERA. Nine. That’s a number Alan Embree (9.00) and John Halama (9.15) are familiar with as well.

Meanwhile, the Indians’ 3.50 team ERA might be the best in baseball, but their .250 batting average (tied with the Oakland A’s) is better than only the already forgotten Houston Astros. Victor Martinez, hitting just .218, has been a major disappointment and Aaron Boone’s comeback has been pathetic, not that that’s going to keep Red Sox fans up at night. Old friend Scott Sauerbeck is also on hand, one of four reminders (Jeff Suppan, BY Kim, and Jeremy Giambi) that Theo Epstein is indeed human.

While some in spring training thought the Indians were ready to bust out in 2005 (not here), their recent hot streak has either proven that they are ahead of schedule, or that they are simply the 2005 version of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who went through a 12-game winning streak last season during a stretch in which they went 26-7 before settling back into their familiar status of irrelevance.

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The Indians clearly have more talent than that team, and just a half-game behind the Red Sox in the wild card standings, could be around for quite a while. Just don’t plan on it. With wild cards of choice being the Red Sox, Yankees, Twins, Blue Jays, Rangers, Angels, White Sox, Indians and Orioles, well, only Tom Berenger might pick the Indians out of that group.

There’s already some talk that despite the hot streak, the Indians might be ready to unload some of their players before the deadline, starting with closer Bob Wickman, and starter Kevin Millwood, who might make a nice deadline acquisition for some pitching-hungry team (Texas?). Indians GM Mark Shapiro insists though the only moves the club would like to make now involves adding a much-needed bat, something they had until Juan Gonzalez (one at-bat this season) went down with a hamstring injury that will likely keep him out the rest of the season.

Bottom line is, for a team struggling this season on the road, particularly with its pitching, there may be no better team for the Red Sox to face to cure those ills than the Indians, nine-game winning streak or not. Cleveland is a better squad than the Pittsburgh Pirates or that other team from the Buckeye State that the Red Sox just finished plowing through, and the Sox will get Millwood and staff ace Cliff Lee this week in addition to tonight’s 538-pound heavyweight showdown (Wells, 248 pounds, Sabathia, 290 pounds). But two out of three isn’t out of the question, and is in fact, likely.

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Believe it or not, there are but 19 games remaining until the Midsummer Classic. After this weekend’s trip to Philadelphia, the Red Sox return to Fenway next week for their final homestand of the first half, at a place it seems they hardly ever were through the season’s first three months.

That’ll pay dividends down the stretch when the Sox get to play homemaker at the best possible time. That doesn’t make their ineptitude on the road any more excusable, but at least it’s easier to swallow.