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April 28, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL East

An Unfamiliar Place for the Fenway Faithful

by Ben Kabak

For fans outside of New England—especially those directly to the west—the phrase, “the last-place Boston Red Sox” has a certain gleeful ring to it. This is, after all, the $163 million team that bought Carl Crawford and landed Adrian Gonzalez for a bevy of prospects over the winter to console itself after a disappointing third-place finish. Despite those acquisitions, nearly a month into the season, the top dogs find themselves on the bottom and struggling to rise.

No team entered the 2011 season with expectations as high as the Red Sox, and no team has been a bigger disappointment. After garnering crazy comparisons with the 1927 Yankees during the long, cold days of winter, ESPN’s new Sunday Night Baseball team launched into an Opening Day discussion on how the Sox would score 1000 runs this year. That probably is not to be, as the Sox started the season 0-6 and then found themselves at 2-10 before reeling off a West Coast winning streak. After dropping two to the Orioles this week, the Sox find themselves with a 10-13 record, in the American League East cellar, and on pace for fewer than 700 runs.

Lately, the Sox have showed signs of turning things around, and glimpses of the team everyone expected them have started to shine through the early-season woes. From April 16-24, the Sox played nine games against the Blue Jays, A’s, and Angels and went 8-1, largely on the strength of their pitching staff's performance. In 82 innings, the hurlers threw to a 1.65 ERA and gave up just 14 extra base-hits to a combined 322 batters. Over that nine-game span, Josh Beckett's outing against the Angels on the 22nd was the only one in which a Red Sox starter gave up more than one earned run. Beckett had the audacity to allow two runs in eight innings, while everyone else went at least six innings and gave up at most a run.

As the pitching shined, the offense picked up, too. As a team over that nine-game span, the club went 80-for-308, good for a .260 batting average, and drew 41 walks. The Sox plated over five runs per game, but they did so with just a .416 slugging percentage. Given their pitching, the offensive performance was good enough, but without it, they fell just short, as their two losses to the Orioles showed,

Over their first 23 games, the Sox clearly haven't been a team hitting on all cylinders. With a collective .237/.329/.372 line contrary to pre-season expectations, with Carl Crawford posting a .200 on-base percentage, and with just one home run from Adrian Gonzalez, this could be a team waiting to erupt. On the other hand, it could be a team vulnerable to left-handed pitching with no offensive production from its catching spot, a weak offensive bench, and streaky pitchers.

By no means are the Red Sox out of it. They have too much potential to play poorly for an entire season, and they could easily run off another 8-1 stretch against weak teams. That they have an AL-leading 97 walks bodes well for their run-scoring prowess. Yet, for today, at least, they remain the last-place Red Sox.

In addition to their own struggles, some surprising developments from the teams ahead of them have helped to keep the Sox at the periphery of the AL East race. The first-place Yankees, at 13-8, are only four games up on Boston, but that lead could easily have been greater. On Tuesday night, White Sox fourth outfielder Brent Lillibridge, an unlikely hero, robbed the Bombers of two potentially game-winning hits in the bottom of the ninth on defensive plays as fine as any we will see this summer, but the Yankees' problems stem from unexpected sources.

Prior to Lillibridge’s play, Rafael Soriano failed, yet again, to protect a ninth-inning lead. He came in against the heart of a punchless White Sox lineup and gave up a two-run home run to Paul Konerko. With Bronx cheers raining down upon him, Soriano shrugged and threw his arms up. Can he handle New York? The city’s papers want to know.

Soriano’s no-good, very bad month has served as a disappointing introduction to New York. He has thrown 10.1 innings with some heinous results. He has allowed 12 hits and eight walks while striking out just seven. His hits per nine innings are up to 10.5 from 5.2 last year, and although the 2011 Yanks’ defense is worse than the 2010 Rays’, that can't account for the entirety of the difference. Soriano's strikeout totals are exhibiting a downward trend as well. After peaking at 12.1 per nine IP in 2009, he struck out 8.2 per nine innings last year and is sitting on 6.1 this year—a full 3.4 strikeouts below his career average. After giving up 12 earned runs last year and walking just 14 batters, he’s now at nine and eight, respectively, on the season. All of this can be yours for the bargain price of $12 million a year.

Even though Soriano has cost the Yanks a pair of games, last week's most glaring bullpen busts belonged to Mariano Rivera. In what has become an annual April ritual, Rivera struggled to close the door in mulitple games, first against the Blue Jays and then against the Orioles. Over two appearances, Rivera allowed eight base runners and three earned runs. He blew back-to-back saves for the first time in years and couldn’t quite hit his spots. What’s Wrong With Mariano Week ended last night, though, as he set down the White Sox in the bottom of the ninth.

Meanwhile, the Rays are breathing down the Yankees’ necks. With their victory over the Twins last night, the Rays moved to 12-11, over .500 for the first time this season, and they’re now 12-5 since starting the season with six consecutive losses. The club still finds itself toward the bottom in most offensive categories in the AL, since they don’t draw walks or hit home runs but do strike often.

Tampa Bay's season rises and falls with their arms; the Rays’ staff put up an ERA of 3.18 over that 17-game span. Yet, during that stretch, they’ve outpitched their FIP by nearly 1.15 runs, and the club’s 5.9 per nine strikeout rate will continue to put pressure on the defenders to prevent runs. Lately, they've proven equal to the task

Stuck in the middle are the Blue Jays and Orioles. Toronto was at 8-9 a week ago; now they’re 11-13. The Orioles were 7-9 and are now 10-12. With Jose Bautista at eight home runs and counting providing the bulk of the Blue Jays’ offense, Brandon Morrow’s return to the rotation with a 10-strikeout, 5.1-inning performance provided Toronto with a reason for optimism on the mound.

The Orioles, though, are still waiting for signs of life from Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Nick Markakis, and Brian Roberts. During their 15-3 drubbing at the hands of the Yankees’ juggernaut on Saturday night, the wait seemed endless. As they beat the Red Sox in back-to-back games this week, they could at least take comfort in knowing that they’re not laboring under the weight of New England’s expectations.

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Span and Sain and Pray... (04/28)
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Premium Article Divide and Conquer, AL... (04/20)
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Premium Article Divide and Conquer, AL... (05/04)
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Premium Article Spitballing: Undefeate... (04/28)

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