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June 16. 2013 12:02AM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: AL East is still a beast

THAT THE Red Sox reached Saturday with the best record in the American League could certainly be considered a surprise to some, considering the tempered expectations for the team coming into this season, and the fact most believed this to be a bridge between last year's stay in the basement and the promise of the future after the franchise reset itself. Entering Saturday at 41-28, they were probably better than many had anticipated they would be.

But the unfortunate part, at least for those hoping Boston's strong start prompts a return to the postseason, is that the AL East appears to be every bit as competitively balanced as it was expected to be. And if there is any surprise in the division besides Toronto's faltering, it's that four of the five teams may actually be better than believed to be.

The anticipation was always that the East would be tight, and through Flag Day that has come to fruition, with first and fourth places separated by a mere five games after Friday. The National League West, where the spread is four games, is only the division where the first four teams are tighter.

However, many had expected the closeness of the AL East race would be predominantly the product of parity, and the battle would be waged among the ranks of the mediocre - where a mid-80s win total might be good enough. Yet after almost half a season the East is home to four of the league's seven teams that entered Saturday with more wins than losses. And with the Sox, Orioles and Yankees all on pace to win at least 89 games, and the Rays projecting to win 85, the reality appears to be that the eventual winner of the division won't merely have to be the best of the bunch, it'll also likely have to be one of the best in baseball.Most encouraging for the Red Sox, then, is that they're well on their way. Before dropping their first two games in Baltimore, they needed to go only 49-45 the rest of the way to finish with 90 wins, which would at the very least put them in contention and on the cusp of the elite. They've also handled their business against their chief competition, taking two of three from the Yankees in the Bronx two weeks ago, doing the same against the Rays last week, and sitting at 17-12 against the East even after getting beat by the Orioles in close games Thursday and Friday.

It's critical that the Sox keep that up, since 40 of their remaining 90 games after against intradivision opponents, though that doesn't project to be easy task, in part because each of the teams chasing them can be reasonably expected to improve, based on comparisons of what they've done thus far to what are believed to be the strengths and capabilities of their rosters.

The second-place Orioles, for instance, have used their impressive offense (and the most home runs of any big-league attack) to make up for a pitching staff that started play Saturday with the second-worst earned run average in all of baseball (4.44), though Chris Tillman showed the Sox on Friday that he is becoming a front-of-the-rotation type of arm, and if the starters and bullpen can at least get nearer to their form of a year ago, the O's could be playoff-worthy.

It's a similar story for the Rays. Though they have a reputation of relying heavily on strong pitching, their 4.38 ERA is better than only Baltimore and Houston in the American League. A case could be made that Tampa Bay's bats might not be able to sustain their current level of success, which ranked them as the majors' sixth-most prolific after Friday, though reigning Cy Young winner David Price will return from injury soon, and if the rest of their young staff can simply be more consistent, the talent is there to lower that ERA significantly.

The Yankees, on the other hand, had the division's best ERA, but had conversely scored its fewest runs. And while it might be hard for the potential health of their various injured veterans to make a major difference offensively, with New York there's always the ability and willingness to be aggressive on the trade market - so as long as their aging pitching staff continues to perform, general manager Brian Cashman won't hesitate to make the moves he thinks necessary to get his lineup where it needs to be.

And the wild card in all this could turn out to be the Blue Jays. They've got a long way to crawl their way back into the mix as contenders, but have actually been pretty good for more than a month - going 20-15 between May 5 and June 14 - and still have 40 games against division foes themselves. They play the Yankees and Red Sox nine times each, while facing the Rays and Orioles 11 times apiece, and depending on how Toronto is going when those games arise the Jays could have a significant say in how the division turns out.

Of course, that was always supposed to the case all along. The Jays loaded up over the winter, and were predicted by many to be the team to beat. If anyone, they were the only team given all that much chance of being better than mediocre - but now it's looking like the opposite.

So it should be no surprise if the quest for the division crown proves especially difficult.


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STAT OF THE WEEK: The Red Sox took the AL's second-best road record into Saturday's game, a 20-14 mark buoyed by the second-best offense (5.06 runs per game) and pitching (3.43 ERA) in the AL.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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