BOSTON -- Four takeaways from the first month of the season:
1.Hitting their stride
Jacoby Ellsbury played all of seven games before dislocating his shoulder. Carl Crawford not only didn’t make it to Opening Day, he may not be back before the All-Star break. Kevin Youkilis was hitting .174 just a week ago. The team scored three runs or fewer in 8 of its first 13 games.
And yet, by the end of the month, which team led the majors in runs scored? The same team that led the majors in runs scored in 2011. The Sox did it by scoring nine or more runs eight times in April. David Ortiz had the best April of his career, batting .405 with an OPS of 1.184, driven in part by fury that the Sox gave him just a one-year deal. Mike Aviles gave the Sox five home runs and six doubles out of the leadoff spot vacated by Ellsbury, and he played much better defense than the Iglesias-lovers gave him credit for. Cody Ross (5 homers) and Ryan Sweeney (.373, 11 doubles) gave the Sox far more playing every day than they were expected to contribute while sharing time, and Darnell McDonald heated up in the last week. Even the new guy, Marlon Byrd, got in the act with 10 hits in his first 8 games with the Sox, after going 3 for 43 with the Cubs. And Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez haven’t even gotten hot yet.
A lot of it wasn’t pretty. Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz each had starts in which they gave up five home runs. Buchholz has taken the hill four times, and has allowed five or more runs each time, which is why he’s carrying an 8-plus ERA into May. The good news is that Buchholz looks like he’s gaining confidence in his changeup again -- he threw 13 of them Monday night, got A’s hitters to chase 4 of them out of the zone, and gave up just one hit off the pitch. It’s premature to talk about pulling him out of the rotation, for Aaron Cook or anybody else. He had good life on his fastball, he’s finishing his pitches better each time out, and looks like a great candidate to put it all together in his next start or two.
Bobby Valentine told Jon Lester to pitch “like an ace” before he won his 1-0 duel over Jake Peavy in Chicago Saturday, and that’s what he’s done in three of his first five starts this season. Beckett looked more like the Beckett of old in his last start against the White Sox -- relying more on his fastball, two-seamer, change and curve -- than the cutter-happy pitcher of his first few starts. His velocity has improved with added arm strength, but the mysterious thumb injury of the spring, while appearing to be a nonfactor, still adds a seed of doubt when trying to gauge what to expect.
Daniel Bard’s determination to be a starter could not have been better illustrated last week, when he had dominant stuff against the White Sox after going 10 days between starts, and after making a game-saving relief appearance that only buttressed the argument of those who believe the Sox will be better served with Bard in the pen. That debate is back in idle mode now, with Bobby Valentine declaring that Aaron Cook will pitch out of the pen and with Daisuke Matsuzaka still three weeks away from returning. Felix Doubront, meanwhile, is putting the lie to those who said the Sox system had gone belly up in producing home-grown starters. The Venezuelan lefty has shown great promise early.
3.Patching and filling
Just for the record, Jonathan Papelbon had 8 saves for the Phillies in April. That’s not really relevant to this discussion; Papelbon had priced himself out of returning here. But it does underscore how the Sox will be living with a lot less certainty than when Cinco Ocho was bumping fists with the cop on his way out of the bullpen. If the early returns are any indication, Alfredo Aceves will be this summer’s top thrill ride, at least until Valentine decides that he’s had his fill of will-he or won’t-he finishes.
Valentine had to put together this bullpen on the fly after Andrew Bailey had thumb surgery and Mark Melancon booked an early trip to Pawtucket. The pen actually has performed impressively since the epic Yankee beatdown in which a 9-0 lead disappeared in the face of 15 unanswered runs. In eight games since, the pen has an 0.94 ERA (2 ER in 19 1/3 innings). Aceves has five saves, Franklin Morales is a power lefty with setup makeup, Rich Hill gives Valentine a situational lefty and the recycled veterans, Cook and Vicente Padilla, are capable of providing some quality innings with Matt Albers and Scott Atchison in supporting roles. The Sox like to call Aceves “Ace” but in actuality he’s the real wild card. No one feels secure about this bullpen yet, and they shouldn’t.
4.Being Bobby V.
He endured what he told one interviewer was the worst week of his professional life, one that began with a brush fire over comments he made about Kevin Youkilis and ended with boos dogging his every step during the collapse against the Yankees. And then he did what Bobby Valentine tends to do best -- dust himself off, flash his best smile (even if he is seething underneath) and put his team back on a winning track. Boston has never seen a manager quite like him -- admitting to making mistakes (whether he believes that or not), and declaring that, hey, even a manager can have a slump. He even screwed up his lineup card when he thought the team was facing a lefty when it wasn’t, a mistake that doesn’t cost anything but embarrassment when there’s plenty of time to correct it, as was the case last week in Minnesota.
He does a radio show in New York, asks his closer, “Are you trying to kill me?’’ as a way to bring levity to a tight spot, and says, hey, he would have booed himself, too. When the team was 4-10, who was catching all the heat? That’s right, Bobby V. You think that might have been the way he designed it?