It was inevitable, but the speed with which it happened was breathtaking. In a five-day span–all wins for the Red Sox, all losses for the Orioles–the two teams atop the AL East swapped sides of a 2 ½-game gap. The Sox, having won 12 of their last 13 games with a blistering offensive attack, now hold not just a small lead on the Orioles, but a seven-game lead on their nominal primary competition, the Yankees.

This is a big turnaround for a team that seemed to drift through the season’s first two months and was just barely over .500 two weeks ago. There was no one trigger for the hot streak; the team has been playing great baseball on both sides, outscoring their opponents 96-36 over their last 13 games. In June, the Sox are scoring more than six runs a game, helped along by big months from Manny Ramirez, Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller, all of whom were below their norms in April and May. The Sox bench has been on fire, with John Olerud, Jay Payton and Doug Mirabelli all posting OPSs of 1000 or better.

The pitching hasn’t been quite as imprssive. Matt Clement has been the class of last winter’s mid-level pitching free agents, and followed up a poor start against the Cardinals with three straight terrific outings, allowing just four runs over his next 22 innings, striking out 22 while walking just two men. Clement is posting the lowest walk rate and best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career, while allowing just six home runs in 102 2/3 innings. It’s not quite Pedro Martinez, but it is within five million bucks–the difference in their average annual salaries–of Fenway’s dearly departed.

In June, Tim Wakefield and David Wells have improved over their previous work, covering for the slip by Wade Miller. Bronson Arroyo has been himself, which is to say he makes three great starts and then gets lit up in the fourth. Given that they’ve done without their #1 starter, the Red Sox can’t complain about the work their starters have done this year.

Speaking of that #1…it will be interesting to see which starting pitcher loses his job when Curt Schilling returns, most likely just after the All-Star break. Arroyo and Wakefield have been the team’s second- and third-best starters on the season; they’re also the only ones who have recent bullpen experience. (Both pitchers figured prominently as relievers in the 2003 and 2004 postseasons.) Because their starters have been fairly effective, the bullpen doesn’t really need a right-handed long man, which is the role Wakefield is best equipped to fill. The Sox could use another effective right-hander, however, and there will be a temptation to put Arroyo into that role.

The bullpen is the area the Sox will be focused on improving. Alan Embree and Matt Mantei have been ineffective in specialist and low-leverage roles, and while Mike Timlin has shouldered the load to date, it would be worth the Sox’ while to get him some help. Keith Foulke, the target of so many complaints in the season’s first two months, has returned to effectiveness in June and can be expected to pitch at his established level the rest of the way.

With Millar having snapped back to life and Olerud playing well in limited time, the only other position the Sox might be looking to upgrade is second base. Edgar Renteria has played poorly, but his four-year deal locks him into the shortstop job for the foreseeable future. Mark Bellhorn, however, has no such security, in part because his high strikeout rate makes him look much less productive than he actually is. He’s a league-average hitter at second base, even batting .229. Nevertheless, the Sox may be looking for ways to upgrade the spot, in addition to looking for relief help.

That’s about it, though. Just as they had last year, the Sox already have a deep and talented roster, one that includes a bench that’s about as strong as any in MLB. The surprise isn’t that they blew past the Orioles to move into first place; the surprise is that they had to. We know–after 2004, we absolutely know–that anything can happen during a long season. However, the Sox looked to have the best team in the AL East two months ago, and nothing in the first half has changed that outlook. They should be well on their way to a division title.

As far as the Orioles are concerned, their recent rut–five straight losses, just 11-13 in June–is attributable to the injuries that have sapped their offense and the return to form of their starting pitchers. With Erik Bedard on the DL, the Orioles have no one better than a league-average starter in their rotation, and guys like Bruce Chen and Rodrigo Lopez have been falling back to their career norms for most of the month.

Even a below-average rotation might be enough if the Orioles continue to score runs the way they did early in the season. That’s not happening; with six regulars or semi-regulars posting OBPs under .300 in June, the Orioles have slipped to 4.7 runs per game after averaging 5.2 per game in the season’s first two months. It doesn’t sound like much, but with a marginal rotation, it’s enough to drive the team under .500.

The Birds aren’t done, but it’s fair to say that the oven is hot. They’ll play nine of their 13 games before the All-Star break against the Yankees and Red Sox, starting tonight at Camden Yards against the Bronx Bombers. They can’t lock anything up over the next two weeks, but they can fall right out of the race if they don’t find either the offense or the starting pitching. The next two weeks are going to go a long way toward establishing whether the AL East is going to be a race or not.

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