Not so long ago, you'd be hard pressed to come up with a less competitive-sounding series than the Boston Red Sox and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Red Sox are one of baseball's premier franchises, a hegemonic power that competes mostly with the New York Yankees and leaves the rest of the American League in the dust, or so the story goes. The Pirates, by contrast, are perennial basement dwellers, relegated to a seemingly endless stream of losing seasons and quite probably sports' most hapless organization over the past decade and a half.
And yet, it's the Pirates who have taken the first two games of a three-game series, beating Boston 6-4 Saturday night. The victory guarantees the Pirates a series victory over the mighty Red Sox, and moves them to 39-37 for the season, good for a tie for third place in the NL Central, and just 2.5 games out of first.
For the Red Sox, the loss drops them out of first place in the AL East, with the hated Yankees taking a half-game lead in the standings. This despite Boston having won eight of nine head-to-head games against New York this season, and sweeping the Yankees in a three-game series at Yankee Stadium just two weeks ago. While the past certainly doesn't predict the future, you could forgive Boston fans for having flashbacks to 2009 when, despite winning the first eight games against New York, the Red Sox were unable to open a lead on the Yankees in the division. Those Red Sox, however, held a four-game lead in the AL East after June 25, two weeks after their eighth win in eight games against the Bronx Bombers. They would head into the All-Star break with a 2.5 game advantage over New York, but by the next series against the Yankees, Boston was behind 3.5 games to the pinstriped empire. After a brutal four-game sweep in Yankee Stadium, the division race was all but over.
Would that these Red Sox could be so lucky. Though they won't have to face the Yankees again until Aug. 5 (almost two years to the day after the start of that fateful four-game series in 2009), and despite winning 14 of 16 games before their current four-game losing streak, the 2011 BoSox have been unable to open any sort of a lead in the East. Despite their success against the Yankees and a 10-7 mark against the rest of the division, the biggest lead Boston has managed in the division at any point this season was a mere 2.5 games. At this point they're a fantastic 18-9 against AL East foes, yet sit in second place in the division thanks to a 26-23 record against non-division foes. In contrast, New York boasts a 29-19 record against everyone other than its divisional opponents, to go along with a 13-12 record against its division, though that mark is a whopping 12-4 if you exclude Boston.
So what's wrong with the Red Sox? Mostly their pitching hasn't been very good. Their staff's ERA of 3.98 ranks ninth out of 14 teams in the American League, and their xFIP of 4.08 is 12th-best in the junior circuit. Their starters' xFIP actually ranks second to last in the league at 4.27. Though Josh Beckett is having a standout season, John Lackey has been awful, Daisuke Matsuzaka is injured, Clay Buchholz has found that you can't maintain a sub-3.00 ERA while striking out less than seven batters per nine innings, and Jon Lester isn't quite as good as he's been in the last few years.
On the offensive side of things, Boston is mainly suffering thanks to a couple of obvious weak links. Carl Crawford, fresh off of signing his $140 million contract in the offseason, was hitting just .243/.275/.384 overall before landing on the DL (although he had finally started swinging the bat well before getting hurt). He hasn't been worth nearly as much on defense as he was over his career with Tampa Bay; he's been worth a meager 0.1 fielding WAR this season. J.D. Drew is hitting just .232/.333/.330, and looks like he's reached the end of his rope as a major league hitter, though his plate discipline and strong fielding have kept him somewhat useful.
That's not to say everything looks bleak for the Red Sox. Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis are hitting like MVPs, though the latter is proving to be a bit of a liability at third base. Jacoby Ellsbury seems to have finally put it all together as well, pairing a .306/.369/.458 line at the plate with above-average defense in center field to become one of the AL's most valuable outfielders. They've gotten roughly league-average production out of the catching and shortstop positions, a rather pleasant surprise for them. Though he hasn't hit for much power, Dustin Pedroia is sporting a robust .391 on-base percentage.
Still, the Red Sox have to be worried about how they've once again failed to capitalize on a great start against their most bitter rival. The Yankees have to be feeling quite fortunate to be in the position they're in given their poor performance against any division rival, let alone the Red Sox, and if history is any indication, they may not let such an imbalance in the rivalry persist much longer.
The Red Sox certainly has a lot going for them. They have an incredibly talented roster, they were overwhelming favorites to win the American League in preseason polls, and they've demonstrated an ability to win a lot of games against their divisional foes in baseball's toughest division. But they've also got plenty of flaws, manifested most clearly by the fact that they aren't even leading that division at the moment. By all rights, a team that's won twice as many games as it's lost against divisional opponents and eight of nine against its fiercest foe should have a healthy lead in the standings, but instead the Red Sox and Yankees are again locked in a tight duel.
I don't think for a second that the specter of 2009 isn't lingering in the minds of the Red Sox players who were there for that season. The only difference is that this year's Yankees are playing even better than those eventual world champions were at this point in the season.
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