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Wait Till Last Year? Sizing Up The Sox At Mid-Season

Boston Red Sox's Mike Napoli, center, smiles as he is congratulated by teammates after hitting the game-winning, walk-off home run against the Minnesota Twins in the 10th inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston, Wednesday, June 18, 2014. The Red Sox won 2-1 in 10 innings. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Boston Red Sox's Mike Napoli, center, smiles as he is congratulated by teammates after hitting the game-winning, walk-off home run against the Minnesota Twins in the 10th inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston, Wednesday, June 18, 2014. The Red Sox won 2-1 in 10 innings. (Charles Krupa/AP)
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As the Red Sox approach the midway point of the 2014 season and start their first West Coast trip, they are pretty much where we all thought they’d be – last year, that is.

Isn’t this year’s team doing exactly what we thought last year’s team was going to do? Instead, we got an utterly unexpected World Series championship in 2013 and a 2014 sequel that, like most sequels, isn’t nearly as good as the original.

The Red Sox ownership got a little full of itself after last year’s surprise title. Principal owner John Henry talked about how the team’s new model of not paying big money for free agents was the wave of the future. Team president and professional pot-stirrer Larry Lucchino noted that the Red Sox have, happily and voluntarily, taken a different approach than the free-spending Yankees.

“We’re different animals,’’ Lucchino said in February. “I’m proud of the difference. I always cringe when people lump us together.”

As the Red Sox head to Oakland, which has the best record in baseball, they have one of the worst records in the American League. They have inexplicably and implausibly stopped hitting.

The recipe for success last year was signing veteran free agents to short deals and hoping that the acrid stench from the Bobby Valentine reign would fade away. It worked beyond the team’s wildest expectations. Shane Victorino matched his career-best batting average. Mike Napoli had a career high in RBI. Stephen Drew matched his career high for RBI in just 124 games.

Koji Uehara emerged as one of the best, if not the best, closers in the game. John Lackey returned from Tommy John surgery and was lights out in the post-season. The batters wore out opposing pitchers and led the major leagues in on-base percentage.

That’s what happens when teams of “scrappy underdogs” (Lucchino’s description) win. The ordinary do the extraordinary, the stars come through, and voila!

But those kinds of things tend to have a shelf life to them, and we’re seeing a market correction in 2014. The Red Sox lost some key contributors, notably Jacoby Ellsbury. Victorino and Napoli have been injured. Clay Buchholz, an All-Star last year with a 12-1 record and 1.72 ERA, has fallen off a cliff. He has two wins, a 7.02 ERA, and no one knows when he will pitch again.

As the Red Sox head to Oakland, which has the best record in baseball, they have one of the worst records in the American League. They have inexplicably and implausibly stopped hitting. They had one hit – one – in the first nine innings against Minnesota on Wednesday! Remarkably, they swept the series with the Twins by scoring five runs in three games, including a walkoff victory in Wednesday’s game. (The petulant David Ortiz still thinks he deserved a hit in the seventh inning. What is his problem? This is the second time he has whined about a scoring decision this season. Get over it.) They won one game in Baltimore despite scoring one run in 27 innings.

Through 69 games, they led the majors in leaving men on base and were second in grounding into double plays. They hit .277 last year. This year? It’s .244, twelfth out of 15 teams in the American League. The Red Sox not hitting? Not possible!

At what point do you say, ‘it’s not going to happen this year?’ As bad as the Red Sox have looked and been, you can’t say it yet. And the reason is pretty obvious: their pitching. The arms, not the bats, are carrying this team. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

Pitching is sort of like putting in golf or defense in football. If you have it, you always have a chance. The Red Sox have it – thank goodness for at least that, or it would be a long summer. Because they do, you simply cannot rule them out, especially now that there are two wild cards for the playoffs.

At what point do you say, ‘it’s not going to happen this year?’ As bad as the Red Sox have looked and been, you can’t say it yet. And the reason is pretty obvious: their pitching.

The Red Sox pitching staff has the third best earned run average in the American League through 72 games. Of the top seven teams in that category, the Red Sox are the only ones with a sub-.500 record. That is why they are still treading water instead of going full-blown Tampa Bay or Houston.

Lackey is pitching like he merits a spot on the All-Star team, posting the tenth best ERA in the American League. He pitched nine shutout innings on Wednesday. Jon Lester is right behind him. The bullpen has been ultra-solid; the run Uehara gave up Wednesday was his first since May 1. His ERA is a nasty 0.83.

This trip will tell us a lot more about the Red Sox. There are four games in Oakland against the best-pitching team in the American League. They may have to face the redoubtable Felix Hernandez in Seattle next week. They somehow avoid the Angels, who are playing well, but finish up with three games in New York.

Wait Till Last Year? That rings true halfway through the 2014 season. The “model” that Henry embraces may be working on the books, if not on the field. The “scrappy underdogs” have the fifth highest payroll in baseball and are being kept afloat by a pitcher making nearly $16 million (Lackey) and another making $13 million (Lester), a DH making $15.5 million (Ortiz) and a second-baseman making $12.85 million (Dustin Pedroia.) Napoli is on the books for $16 million. (All salary figures from ESPN.)

A sub.-500 team at the midway point of the 2014 season? It’s a distinct possibility. It’s what we expected of the Red Sox – last year. Is it too much to expect something more, something better, this year?


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Peter May Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Peter May was a sports writer at the Boston Globe for nearly two decades. He now teaches journalism at Brandeis University and is an occasional contributor to the New York Times.

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