Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: BoSox making their pitch(es)
A FEW minutes after they'd completed their 13-2 throttling of the Orioles Tuesday night, a few of the Red Sox were changing out of their uniforms as they noticed what was happening on one of the TV sets hung from the clubhouse ceiling.
They watched as Tampa Bay's Desmond Jennings dropped a fly ball in center field. They watched as Los Angeles' Erick Aybar sent a two-run double into right-center. They watched with audible excitement as the Rays blew a ninth-inning lead to the Angels and lost, 6-5.
But the beauty of where the Red Sox are with exactly a month to go in the regular season is that they really needn't watch what anyone else is doing.
Tuesday's events having given the locals a 2 1/2-game lead in the American League East as they took the field Wednesday night against Baltimore, it matters little what anyone else does if Boston merely handles its own business. The division has become the Sox' to lose.
In fact, at this point there is no reason — short of significant injury — that they shouldn't win it, a point underscored Wednesday night when they rallied for a 4-3 win over the O's after another strong start by John Lackey.
There are still those who haven't bought in on these Sox, likely because fans are still stung by the skepticism born of September 2011's historic collapse, or because they're comparing this team to the juggernauts they remember of yesteryear instead of acknowledging the present-day mediocrity of the American League.
But how much more convincing do they need? With only 28 games to go, these Sox have spent 132 of this season's 151 days with at least a share of first place. They're the only major-league team not to lose more than three consecutive games this season. They began Wednesday having scored more runs than any team in baseball, and with the second-best starting rotation in the American League according to earned run average. More subjectively speaking, they're focused, they're steady, they're professional.
And all that has conspired to put them in a position where, even after losing eight of 13 recently, there's a good chance they'll exit August with a bigger advantage in the East than they had entering the month.
It's easier to take the games one at a time when you're confident that your team's starting pitching is going to give you a chance to win each time you take the field.
And the last couple of weeks in particular should have the Red Sox feeling that way moving forward.
While the Rays have sent Jeremy Hellickson to get rest at Triple-A and remain without the injured Matt Moore, while the Orioles struggle to find consistency, and while the Yankees wonder which CC Sabathia will show up every fifth day, Sox starters have posted a 2.75 ERA over the 13 games leading into Wednesday.
They'd held their opponents to two earned runs or less in 11 of those contests, including each of the seven that came after Ryan Dempster riled up Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees. During that more recent stretch, the Boston starters have yielded just eight earned runs in 53 innings — a 1.36 ERA — and have individually lasted at least six innings in all but one outing.
Partially as a result, through Tuesday the Sox had the second-best starters' ERA in the AL this season. Their own 3.81 trailed only Detroit's 3.45, and in the meantime the offense had done its job in supporting Jonny Gomes' oft-stated stance that good starting pitching creates offense. Over the same seven-game stretch the starters had dominated, they outscored their opponents by a margin of 46-11.
They've done it so well they'd won a major league-best 26 series before taking on an Oriole team that has given them trouble over the past couple of years. And they're set up well to, as Lester said, keep it going.
They have the advantage of playing 18 of their final 30 at home, where they've been excellent this year. After Labor Day they have Mondays off, which should afford them plenty of opportunity to rest and recoup. Clay Buchholz may rejoin the rotation of which he was the ace for the first two months.
The bullpen is throwing well enough that, in conjunction with the strength of the starters, they entered Wednesday looking to become the first Sox team since 1978 to allow two runs or less in six straight games. The top of the order is heating up, particularly Victorino and Dustin Pedroia. Mike Napoli is warming in the middle of the order. And guys like Will Middlebrooks, Stephen Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia have made for a potent bottom of the lineup for the past few weeks.
That type of depth is key to staying consistent, and avoiding the long club-wide slumps that could ruin this. So while the Sox might not have anyone finish in the top 10 of MVP voting, or get a single Cy Young nomination, it'll be a big letdown at this point if the players don't earn another honor: AL East champion.
And quite possibly more than that.
"Every single game is important — every single inning is important — and we put ourselves in a situation where we don't have to scoreboard watch," Gomes said. "That's where we're at right now. We've just got to keep making that push."
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.