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May 08. 2014 11:50PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Looking ahead to some big things

Kept in the game by quality starting pitching, they rallied from a late deficit to tie things, then took the lead with a big hit in the eighth inning before handing the ball to their esteemed closer, who sealed the win with a reassuringly dominant frame. With that save the club secured its second straight victory, and, more notably, got itself back to .500 for the season, at 17-17.

It was 48 more contests before that team incurred its next 17 defeats. By the end of the regular season, its record was a robust 103-59. And by early November, it was being paraded through the Canyon of Heroes as World Series champions.

This column isn’t about that team — the 2009 New York Yankees. It’s about the 2014 Boston Red Sox. But we reference the former with respect to the latter because the above description of the season’s 34th game is equally applicable to either squad.

And recognizing as much makes clear that in terms of determining the direction of their season, it doesn’t matter what the Red Sox have done so far. It’s only about what they do from here on out.

Yes, the season’s first six weeks have been (at times maddeningly) mediocre for the Sox, who’ve yet to win three games in a row, but who have lost three straight only twice — and never dropped more than four in a row. They’re in the middle of the pack offensively, on the porous side defensively, and if it wasn’t for the American League’s third-best earned run average (3.61), things could have certainly gone worse.

But they didn’t. And so although manager John Farrell downplayed the idea that his team cleared some sort of mental hurdle in getting back to even with Wednesday night’s 4-3 triumph over the Reds. “It’s a number. I didn’t think it would take until May 7 to do it. We’re back to par,” said Farrell. The reality is that by getting to this point, the Sox have survived the difficulties and distractions of the early season.

As the reigning champs, they’ll still wear the bull’s eye, but behind them are the ring ceremonies, the White House visits, and so much of the extra stuff that comes in the wake of what they pulled off last October. It’s hard to turn the page when the last chapter is being re-read so often, and it can be tough to settle into the routine of the season when so many nights seem abnormal.

But now it’s back to simply playing baseball for a team full of guys that consider themselves gritty and love the grind that comes with the game’s everyday challenges. They’ve found a way to stay afloat through a rough opening month, and with the help of their division rivals they don’t even have any significant ground to make up.

Entering Thursday, they were just 1 1/2 games out of first place in the AL East, which is half the deficit they faced in the division last May 14 despite that team’s sizzling start — and which further suggests that the Sox season hasn’t yet begun to take shape.

Ultimately, that shape will depend on a multitude of factors. It remains to be seen if the offense continues coming to life as the club gets healthier. If David Ortiz warms with the weather. If Will Middlebrooks starts showing his power. If Jackie Bradley Jr. begins hitting more. If the defense fine tunes its fundamentals. If Clay Buchholz can be the pitcher he was in his previous outing. If Edward Mujica can figure things out. If the rest of the pitching staff can keep doing what it’s done.

But there are encouraging signs. The Sox have won four of five as they begin a six-game trip to Texas and Minnesota. They won five of eight on their just-finished homestand after struggling at Fenway Park earlier in the year. They’ve got a winning record on the road (7-6). And they’ve played more games against teams currently at .500 or better — 29 of 34 — than any club in baseball.

As of this morning, the Red Sox are themselves among that group for the first time in a month. So although 17-17 may not be reason for a celebration, it at least deserves acknowledgement. The Sox have earned themselves a fresh start, and now comes their chance to make something of it.

After all, all but one champ since the canceled Series of 1994 has endured a stretch of 17-17 or worse at some point on its way to a title. Even the mighty Yanks of 2009.


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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