Has anyone else noticed how machine-like the Red Sox have become?
To this team, obstacles don’t register and negative storylines carry minimal weight. Losses — when they come — seemingly dissipate into thin air while victories are greeted with little fanfare (like, for instance, any of the eight wins in eight tries they’ve piled up against the Yankees).
The fans still swarm into Fenway and belt out “Sweet Caroline” before the eighth inning, but now more than ever, being associated with the Red Sox is to be part of a world-class enterprise: an impeccably constructed, well-oiled and systematically run baseball machine.
It began last year after the club parted ways with Manny Ramirez, marking a new era within the new era of Red Sox baseball. Minus the enigmatic and endearing slugger for the first time since the franchise shed it’s long-standing title of choke torchbearers, a severely depleted Sox contingent motored all the way to the seventh game of the American League Championship Series.
The theme of constantly battling the odds — yet feeling next to no effects of them in the big picture — has continued in 2009.
Consider the following:
After losing six of its first eight games, Boston was 3 1/2 games behind Toronto before barely blinking. That four of those losses came against its two playoff foes from a year ago (Tampa Bay and Anaheim), alarm bells were probably sounding somewhere, but nobody cared to hear them.
Josh Beckett was atrocious in April, logging a 7.22 ERA in five starts. When a Boston ace gets tuned up in April, it’s typically time to lay into the panic button. Panic?? Puh-lease.
As poor as Beckett performed early on, he was outdone by Jon Lester. Their lynchpin in the rotation last year, Lester got abused in six of his first 10 starts. No worries kid, you’ll get em next time.
How about Theo and the Trio’s $100 million man? Let’s just say Dice-K’s first stint on the DL was far more productive than all but one of his eight starts. He’s back on the shelf again, and aside from feeling bad for the guy, is anyone really losing much sleep over his absence?
Then there’s David Ortiz. The man whose toothy grin and big stick made life after Manny seem manageable. Still hindered by an injured wrist and knee, Big Papi cranked 10 homers and knocked in 46 runs while slugging .529 in the two months PM (post-Manny) last year.
He assured all he was healthier, hungrier and fitter than ever this spring before coming out of the gates looking like he’d never seen a 92 mph fastball. After two months, one homer, a .186 average and five different spots in the batting order, “Ortiz” and “release” began floating around in the same sentence. While Papi has since (thankfully) rediscovered his stroke, the fact remains the Sox skipped not a beat during an extended period of time when their most feared hitter had morphed into the easiest out in baseball.
Throw in Kevin Youkilis landing on the DL after carrying the team (.393-6-20) over the first month and change, Dustin Pedroia running on hot and cold, J.D. Drew’s disappearance from the middle of April through the middle of May, Mike Lowell’s continued recovery from offseason hip surgery, both shortstops getting sidelined … and there’s no way this team could possibly be perched atop the American League today … right?
Well, as the kids are saying: Beleedat.
Indeed, the Red Sox have a four-game lead on the Yankees in the AL East and a three-game advantage over the Tigers for best record in the league. They’ve stormed back from three and a half down in the division on May 18. They’ve won five straight series and haven’t lost more than two games in a row since the second week of the season.
They have arms sprouting like dandelions: John Smoltz is here; Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden remain in the pipeline; Daniel Bard mowed down 16 batters in his first 15 appearances as a big leaguer.
Their lineup is gelling; their starting pitching is top-notch; their bullpen is unmatched. No matter whom Terry Francona sticks in his lineup — from Jason Bay to Jonathan Van Every — they’ve all produced.
Put it all together and the Red Sox again appear to be on a track leading to and through October.
ESPN has already dubbed Albert Pujols “The Machine” and Cincinnati will always lay claim to “The Big Red Machine”, but is there any denying the Olde Towne Team has transformed into the Olde Towne Machine?