Superiority starting to add up in this division
By Nick Cafardo, Globe Staff May 11, 2007
TORONTO -- Unless the Red Sox come home for a weekend nap, their next series, against Baltimore, should also be in their favor.
You have to wonder if it will be an entire season in their favor.
Too early to call the American League East race over? Too early to say this team could run away with it? After they won five of six against the Twins and Blue Jays, how far-fetched is it to say the Red Sox are well on their way to winning this in a landslide?
There is no competition. The Red Sox crushed Roy Halladay last night, 8-0, and he is one of the best pitchers in baseball.
The Blue Jays are hapless and hopeless, now 10 1/2 games out. And the Yankees were destroyed by the Rangers yesterday, 14-2. The Bombers are seven back, as are the Orioles.
The Red Sox are at the pinnacle of their game, and are at home against the Orioles, who have to take on the league's most dominant pitching staff. The odds are stacked in Boston's favor.
Boston's starting pitching is head and shoulders above every other team's in the division and better than any other rotation in the league right now. With Daisuke Matsuzaka getting straightened out Wednesday night (7 innings, 5 hits, 1 run) and Tim Wakefield pitching seven shutout innings last night, you know things are going the Red Sox' way.
"It's been fun to be a part of it, and fun to watch," pitching coach John Farrell said. "It beats taking a lot of walks to the mound. I'd rather be heard and not seen."
Some said the Red Sox don't need Roger Clemens, and they might be right. Maybe this team can win as constituted, partly because the division has so many flaws.
The Blue Jays have lost closer B.J. Ryan for the season and although they are a good hitting team, they need pitching. They were outscored, 26-5, in the three-game set against the Sox.
Clemens is returning to the Yankees in early June, likely against the Red Sox, but there's a killer instinct missing on that team. With a golden chance to sweep the Rangers with Chien-Ming Wang on the hill, they were blown out. Wang, who took a perfect game into the eighth inning against Seattle Saturday, allowed 11 hits and seven runs in 6 1/3 innings yesterday.
The Yankees' bullpen has yet to recover from its early-season problems, and closer Mariano Rivera has almost as many blown saves (two) as saves (three).
Injuries could knock the Sox' dreams from here to Mudville, but with five solid starters, Jon Lester in the wings, and Clay Buchholz not far off in Double A, it's a pretty good sign.
"Best team by far I've ever been on," said utilityman Eric Hinske. "Our pitching is fabulous. Every night out our starters keep us in games. It's a pleasure to be a part of it. I couldn't be happier. We're really on a roll right now and we've got to keep it up heading home."
What is the secret for a team that allowed 10 runs in 53 innings on a six-game road trip? A team that's allowed four or fewer runs in its last 15 road games and two or fewer in 12 of its 20 road games?
When you pitch and play that well on the road, and your forté is playing at Fenway Park, you are in the driver's seat.
"There's an inner competition that has developed among the starters here that's been fun to witness," Farrell said. "It's nothing that is spoken or that's even said in jest. It's just this feeling that the starter who's pitching the next game wants to be as good as the starter who pitched the last game. There's a responsibility each guy has every time he goes out there, that he wants to perform at a high level, do his part. It's very healthy."
Farrell believes the solidification of the bullpen, behind Jonathan Papelbon (10 saves) and Hideki Okajima, has fortified a unit that has been lights out. Farrell realizes Okajima has exceeded expectations and he credits bullpen coach Gary Tuck for having the relievers prepared. He credits Jason Varitek and Doug Mirabelli for knowing and sticking to the game plan. There seems to be a purpose for every pitch.
"We knew we had the potential to have one of the better starting rotations when we opened the season, but you have to go out there and execute and we have done that," Farrell said. "Our guys have been so confident when they take the mound, starting with Josh [Beckett] and Curt [Schilling], and you see Dice-K making all of his adjustments to get back to where he needed to be his last time out. Our guys work very hard for this."
Manager Terry Francona has been as relaxed as he has been in a long time.
"We really like our lineup, but it starts and ends with pitching," he said.
Francona also believes the team is playing well defensively. One thing he took from this road trip, which featured domed stadiums with artificial surfaces, is that the Red Sox no longer seem out of place.
"We have a little speed and we've been exposed defensively in the past. That didn't happen in Minnesota or Toronto and that helps," he said.
With the rotation, Francona said, "That gives you a chance to win every night. It takes the heat off the bullpen."
There is also the expectation that J.D. Drew (.257, 2 HRs) will hit and Julio Lugo (.227) will become more consistent on offense. The Dustin Pedroia-Alex Cora platoon at second is working well with both contributing at the plate. Mike Lowell (.303, 7 HRs) is off to an excellent start. David Ortiz (.310, 8 HRs) is hot. Manny Ramírez (2 for 4 last night, bumping his average to .250) is starting to get his swing back. Varitek (.272) has also found his stroke. Mirabelli made a game-changing play last night when, after Frank Thomas struck out with the bases loaded, he picked Troy Glaus off first base to end the first inning. That changed the complexion of Wakefield's outing.
This might be a team that can run away with it.