It’s difficult to consider a team with a $143-million payroll and seemingly limitless resources as an underdog. However, Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz insists his team is always the underdog in the American League East. And how can you argue with the genial Big Papi anyway?

“Everybody in America picked the Yankees to win the division this year,” Ortiz said. “We’re the team that wasn’t supposed to win. We know we have a good team, though. I know a lot of people are still picking the Yankees to win. We’ll play the games and see what happens.”

It’s certainly hard to portray the Red Sox as underdogs now that they have the best record in the major leagues (64-42) and hold a seven-game lead over the Yankees in the AL East. However, there are a few reasons why the Red Sox and their fans are worried. There is always that inferiority complex when it comes to the Yankees, as New York has won the last nine division titles–though the Red Sox last won a World Series in 2004, while the Yankees haven’t won it all since 2000. Furthermore, the Yankees have cut into what once seemed like an insurmountable division lead. The Red Sox’ lead was in double digits by May 20 and got as high 12 games on July 5.

Manager Terry Francona smiled and recalled something he was told in his first year as manager in Boston in 2004. “If you’re not in a panic then it’s time to move from East Coast to the Midwest,” Francona said. Francona understands if there is a bit of anxiety about the Yankees making a charge, but he isn’t surprised. “You knew there was no way that they were going to play poorly all year, that wasn’t going to happen,” Francona said. “There is too much talent on that team and Joe Torre is too good of a manager for that to happen. That’s why I’ve never gotten too excited, regardless of how big our lead got.

“I made a remark one day early in the season that I hoped they dug such a big hole that they couldn’t climb out. I knew, in reality, that wouldn’t happen. They’re the Yankees. And the Yankees are always going to be good and they are always going to be there in the end.”

Not that Francona is ready to trade places with the Yankees. He would still prefer to be chased rather than play the chaser. The Red Sox’ fast start not only put them at the top of the division but has kept them there since an ensuing lull. The Red Sox have gone a lackluster 28-27 since a 36-15 start. “Starting the season fast is no different than wanting to start off a ballgame on the right foot,” Francona said. “You always want to score in first couple of innings and get the early lead. It puts pressure on the other team and increases your chances of winning. It’s the same way in the division race. You want to get out of the gate well.”

However, the Red Sox’ problem is how they finish. They have led the AL East at this point of the season each of past two years but finished behind the Yankees each time. They even dropped to third place last year, behind Toronto. The Red Sox, though, believe they have a strong finishing kick in them this time. “We had good teams the last two years, but we have a better team this year,” Ortiz said. “We’re not going to fade. Really, I don’t even think we’ve played our best baseball yet. Even when we got off to the good start, it wasn’t like we were playing great. I know we have a really good streak in us before this season is over.”

What gives the Red Sox confidence that they can break the Yankees’ stranglehold on the AL East is a strong starting rotation that should get even better once Curt Schilling returns from the Disabled List. Schilling’s been out since June 19 with a shoulder injury.

Josh Beckett (3.8 SNLVAR) has blossomed into an ace in his seventh major-league season and Daisuke Matsuzaka (4.1) has looked even better and certainly worthy of the $103-million investment made in bringing him from Japan. Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield (2.8) remains reliable, and left-hander Jon Lester, fresh off beating lymphoma at the tender age of 23, has provided inspiration since being recalled from Pawtucket last week.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox have relied heavily on a pair of relievers who weren’t expected to be factors in the bullpen when spring training began, then added to that mix by making a trade just before Tuesday’s non-waiver deadline. Left-hander Hideki Okajima has a 4.161 WXRL, right-hander Jonathan Papelbon is at 3.442. Okajima was signed as a free agent in the offseason from Japan without much fanfare, and many thought he was added primarily to give Matsuzaka a countryman to help ease the transition to America. Instead, Okajima was selected to last month’s All-Star Game. Papelbon had 35 saves as a rookie last year but was bothered by shoulder problems late in the season. The Red Sox decided over the winter to move Papelbon back into a starting role in order to protect his long-term health. However, a poor spring by free agent pickup Joel Pineiro–who was designated for assignment last week, then traded to St. Louis after posting a -0.352 WXRL–made the Red Sox rethink their stance on Paplebon and reinsert him at closer. If Papelbon needs a break, the Red Sox now have Eric Gagne to close after acquiring him from Texas in a trade. His WXRL is a fine 2.697.

The Red Sox lead the AL in run prevention, giving up just 3.95 a game. “Pitching has really been our strength,” Francona said. “We feel like our starting pitchers give us a really good chance to win every time out and that we’re in good hands if we can get the ball to the back end of our bullpen. I know when people think of Red Sox, they think of hitting with Manny Ramirez and Big Papi and all the hitters we have in our lineup. It’s been the pitching that has made the difference, though, because our offense has never really hit on all cylinders all season. I don’t think you’ve seen the best of our offense yet.”

Though he has hit only 18 home runs this season after belting a club-record 54 last season, Ortiz’s VORP is still outstanding at 44.7, and he leads an offense that is fourth in the league with 5.2 runs scored a game. Ramirez also isn’t having a monster year, but he’s still contributing, posting a VORP of 35.1. The Red Sox are also getting plenty of help from first baseman Kevin Youkilis (27.6) and third baseman Mike Lowell (26.5), while second baseman Dustin Pedroia (21.8) is having a fine rookie season.

However, General Manager Theo Epstein has taken some heat for the sub-par performance of his two primary free agent signings in the offseason, right fielder J.D. Drew (1.8) and shortstop Julio Lugo (-2.0). Both are playing right around replacement level, not auspicious considering both were signed to long-term deals; the Red Sox signed Drew for five years and $70 million and Lugo for four years and $35 million. Lugo has played better since the All-Star break, but Drew continues his career-long trend of being unable to shake the label of underachiever.

“I still firmly believe we did the right thing by signing Drew and Lugo,” Francona said. “They are quality major-league players. I know in April and May, everyone was down on Theo for those moves but you don’t judge free-agent signings after two months. Everyone has their ups and downs over the course of a six-month season. Those guys struggled early but when the season is over everyone is going to be glad they are our on side. They are both going to have strong finishes.”

Just like Ortiz expects the Red Sox’s season to end well, even if he is convinced he is in the minority.

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