Nonetheless, it was Boston's first nine-inning complete game of the season and first since Josh Beckett threw a shutout last June. In fact, Beckett's shutout was Boston's only nine-inning complete game in 2011.
So it was a good sign that Lester went the distance (he did pitch eight innings in a 3-1 loss to Toronto back in his second start). For a guy who has had difficulty keeping his pitch counts down, he threw 119 pitches. He didn't walk anybody, although he threw first-pitch strikes to just 15 of 34 hitters. He struck out six, which at least was an improvement over his past two starts when he put away just five batters in 11 innings. I don't think we suddenly say the Jon Lester of 2008 through August 2011 is back, but it's a small step forward.
Of course, the Red Sox need a big step forward. Remember the Lester mentioned as a leading Cy Young candidate heading into last season? They need that guy back, if he ever existed in the first place. Lester's career high in innings came back in 2008, his first full season in the majors, when he pitched 210.1 innings. Last season, that total dipped to 191.2. Staff aces need to go deep into games. Imagine what an extra 30 or 40 innings would do in saving innings for the bullpen.
The Red Sox, of course, began the day in last place in the American League East. The Angels and Phillies also began the day in last place in their divisions. All three teams are under .500 and looking for small positives. Lester throws well against the Mariners? Hey, that's a positive. Joe Blanton beats the Astros? That's a positive. Small steps.
It has me wondering: Which of these teams -- all World Series contenders back in March -- is the best bet to take the big steps and reach the postseason? Let's backtrack a bit first.
Here were the odds to win the World Series for the three teams at the start of the season, from a certain gambling website:
Red Sox: 10-1
And the current odds:
Red Sox: 14-1
I'm actually surprised those odds haven't fallen a bit more, but it's a reminder that we're not even at the quarter pole yet.
Here were the preseason odds to make the playoffs that ran on ESPN Insider, via Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system:
Red Sox: 61.1 percent
Angels: 68.1 percent
Phillies: 62.2 percent
ESPN's panel of baseball personnel was even more optimistic about the Angels and Phillies. Here were the playoff percentages from the 50-person voting panel back on Opening Day:
Red Sox: 32 percent
Angels: 92 percent
Phillies: 86 percent
Not only were the Angels an overwhelming pick to the make the playoffs, 18 of the 50 voters picked them to win the World Series. Interesting that while Dan's numbers-based projected rated the three teams' playoff odds pretty similarly, the Red Sox were viewed in much less regard by the human prognosticators.
And now, as each team sits under .500? The current playoff odds via Coolstandings.com that run on ESPN.com:
Red Sox: 29.8 percent
Angels: 17.8 percent
Phillies: 31.5 percent
Clay Davenport also calculates projected playoffs odds. His system still likes the Red Sox in particular (percentages entering Monday's games):
Red Sox: 65.9 percent
Angels: 20.8 percent
Phillies: 51.6 percent
Clay projects Boston winning 88 games. Maybe his system views Lester as a Cy Young contender.
Now, this is where I pick which of these three teams will make the playoffs. Of course, all three could make it; not a big surprise if that happens. But if I had to pick one team, it's the Phillies. "Baseball Today" podcast host/KaraBlog author/SweetSpot contributor Eric Karabell says I can't do this; he says I've been bagging on the Phillies too much. He says I have to pick the Angels. I think Karabell is misremembering a few things. After all, I did have the Phillies to win the division and was one of just four of those ESPN folks to have the Angels missing the playoffs.
Look, the Red Sox can pound the old leather. My favorite stat: They have 100 doubles, 24 more than the Royals and at least 40 more than half the teams in baseball. The Angels have the advantage of playing the Mariners and A's 36 times this year, still have that great-on-paper rotation, and you know Albert Pujols will go on a tear at some point (although maybe we don't know that).
But I still see too many question marks on those teams. I need to see Lester and Beckett pitch several good games in a row. I need Vernon Wells and Erick Aybar and a few others hitting for the Angels. So here are five quick reasons I'm voting for the Phillies.
1. National League parity.
The Phillies, Brewers and Diamondbacks each won at least 94 games last season, but there's a high degree of possibility that no team will win that many in 2012. Heck, no team may win 90. This suggests the two wild cards may only have to win 85 or 86 games or so. Considering the mediocrity we've seen in the NL Central and NL West divisions outside the Cardinals and Dodgers, it seems like a good bet that two wild cards will come out of the NL East.
2. The Phillies' offense is bad ... but so is much pretty much every other team's offense in the NL.
The Phillies rank ninth in the NL in runs scored. They ranked seventh a year ago. Yes, Carlos Ruiz and Juan Pierre are leading the attack right now. The point isn't so much that this is suddenly going to turn into an offensive juggernaut once Ryan Howard and Chase Utley return and once Jimmy Rollins, Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino start hitting better, but merely to suggest that the Phillies' offense isn't a huge albatross when you compare it across the league.
3. They have Jonathan Papelbon.
OK, Charlie Manuel hasn't exactly done a good job of using him in high-leverage situations, but in a season where closers are falling prey to injuries and blown saves everywhere you look, Papelbon will still prove a small advantage over 162 games.
I still wouldn't trade them for another trio in baseball.
5. Blanton and Vance Worley.
Blanton lowered his ERA to 2.96 with seven strong innings against Houston on Monday. He has a 35/7 strikeout/walk ratio and has allowed just two home runs in 48.2 innings. Worley is once again proving skeptics wrong, with a 3.07 ERA and 45/15 strikeout/walk ratio in 44 innings. The rotation is five-deep and that depth will slowly show up over 162 games.
What do you think? If you haven't, vote in the poll at the top of the page.
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