Over the hill

So, that whole Japan business …

It’s somewhat humorous now to glance back to March and realize a sense of naiveté on our parts. Remember when the Red Sox’ season-opening trip to Japan was supposed to be the kickoff to early-season failure? With jet-lag, Mothra, and an itinerary that took them to three countries before Billy Buck’s return to Boston, the Red Sox would have been lucky to finish April with a .500 record. Prepare ye selves for the disappointment, we were warned, and temper it with a renewed invigoration for the months to come.

What we didn’t see coming, however, was that the Red Sox would have the most wins in baseball roughly a quarter of the way through the season.


The Red Sox have played 40 games on the 2008 schedule that Major League Baseball handed to them way back when, and after all the griping, boycotting, and flu epidemics that aimed at stopping them dead in their early season tracks, Boston finds itself in first place in the AL East with 24 victories.
After 40 games last season, which ended with the World Series trophy you might remember, the Red Sox were 28-12, just four games better than this year’s hot start. However, on May 12, exactly one year ago today, Boston boasted a first-place record with 24 wins, same as today.
So when the Red Sox open 2009 in Burma, let’s not rush to criticism so hastily, OK?
If that was indeed supposed to be a difficult April with the Yankees, Angels, Tigers, and Indians all on the schedule, then the Red Sox proved with ease that they will yet again be the team to beat, barring any unforeseen injuries to pivotal personnel.
What other team has the talent level to have Bartolo Colon simply waiting in the wings? Colon sits in limbo, an almost unnecessary cog at this juncture based on how Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Jon Lester have performed. Tim Wakefield caused some doubts with last night’s stinker, but are you going to pull him from the rotation, particularly after his masterful game in Detroit last week?
That’s why it could be a big start for Clay Buchholz tonight in Minnesota, as the Red Sox make evaluations for the future weeks and months. If Colon (one run on four hits with no walks and two strikeouts in a three-inning rehab start Friday night for Pawtucket) does eventually make the rotation, odds are it will be to replace Buchholz, who could make a move to the pen if the team makes the difficult yet probably overdue decision to jettison Mike Timlin (A not-so-perfect 10.00 ERA with a WHIP of 2.11). Curt Schilling could be on the horizon by August, making it highly unlikely these five stay in the rotation for the long run. That means the microscope is going to be solely focused on youngsters like Lester and Buchholz for the foreseeable future.
Matsuzaka would actually be the AL Cy Young man at the one-quarter mark if it weren’t for Cliff “Pedro” Lee, who seems to be taking this whole career rebound business seriously; he’s 6-0 with a 0.81 ERA for Cleveland. In fact, Red Sox starters have been so good overall (17-7, 3.65 ERA, and an AL-best .230 BAA) that they have collectively put a cloaking device on the one problem this team has: the bullpen.
Julian Tavarez (Denver-bound?) and Co. have been so unpredictable that their infection has now spread to a pair of Boston’s more reliable arms in Manny Delcarmen (seven runs in his last 3 2/3 innings) and Jonathan Papelbon, who blew two saves last week and actually had callers lined up on sports radio bemoaning the fact that he wasn’t a starter. No, really. It’s like we’ve imported baseball fans from Orlando over the past few years.
Only Hideki Okajima and David Aardsma have been what you might call dependable in getting to Papelbon, which likely means another few months of Theo Epstein re-tooling the ‘pen. Some folks go to the Cape summer after summer. Theo does this. Hey, “Mental break” Eric Gagne could be had.
Luckily, just as in ’07, the offense is solid enough (.291 team average, far and away the best in baseball), with enough replacement parts waiting on the system ladder (Lugo, Jed Lowrie is looking in your direction) that Epstein can afford the time to look at bullpen parts without being overly concerned about any gaping hole at the plate. Remember those David Ortiz-is-either-done-or-is-Mo-Vaughn-redux arguments? He’s batting .381 since May 1. Still, he’s no Kevin Youkilis, who leads the team in home runs, runs batted in, average, and OBP. Youkilis seemingly hits the ball out of the park every night, which has him on pace for a 32-home run season.
That’s not likely to happen, but it’s what we do at milestones like the quarter-mark of the season. Boston is on pace for 96 wins. Matsuzaka is on pace for a 120-walk 160-strikeout season. Jacoby Ellsbury: 56 stolen bases. Lugo: 44 errors. Very rarely does “on pace” translate into actuality (except, we’re still looking in your direction, Julio), but still, projections are fun to deal with, predicting the finished canvas of a season that is still in its infancy.
They also make us look foolish some days down the road. Like picking the Pirates to win the NL wild card, or Justin Verlander to win the Cy Young. Well, isn’t it obvious now, six weeks later that the Cardinals will win the wild card and that Lee will win the Cy Young?
Then again, we haven’t even gotten to our annual “Interleague baseball is what’s contributing to the ails of society” arguments. Plenty of time for Pittsburgh to make a run. Mark it.
Still, 40 games. When did that happen?

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