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Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Give some credit to underdog Red Sox

By David Schoenfield



I know this runs contrary to how we're supposed to view the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, but aren't the Red Sox the underdog in this fight?

I mean, go back to March, check the preseason predictions and look at what everyone thought before the season began. Sure, they're preseason predictions and it's good sport to mock those picks months later, but they do serve as a sort of guideline to the season, shaping and molding how we view things once the games unfold.

So back in March ... well, nobody really expected all that much from the Red Sox, and they expected quite a lot from the Rays. In our preseason predictions file on ESPN.com, 21 of 45 voters picked the Rays to win the AL East and 12 more picked them to win a wild-card spot. The Blue Jays were co-division favorites with 21 first-place votes, two picked the Orioles to win the division and one picked the Yankees.

Nobody picked the Red Sox to win the East; O-for-45. Only four believed in the Red Sox to even win a wild card. I was one of those (just for the record!).

Will Middlebrooks
The Red Sox welcomed back Will Middlebrooks, hoping he'll shut the revolving door at third base.
The Red Sox now own the best record in the AL. They pulled out a big win on Tuesday night in Toronto, winning 4-2 in 11 innings as Shane Victorino grounded a two-out, two-run single to center field. Combined with the suddenly slumping Rays' 5-4 loss at home to the Mariners -- Tampa Bay's sixth defeat in a row -- those pesky, long-shot Red Sox now lead the East by four games. Isn't it time we start giving them credit for their Rocky-like rise to the top of the division and admit they might have what it takes to overcome Apollo Creed?

OK, I get it: It's difficult to give props to the Red Sox, considering they don't exactly have the same cash-flow challenges the Rays face. Their 2013 payroll of about $155 million dwarfs the $62 million or so of the Rays. But while the Rays constantly receive praise -- rightly so -- for their front-office smarts, it's also fair to praise Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington and his staff for reshaping the club after last season's 93-loss flop.

What's most surprising about Boston's run is it hasn't been a season in which everything just went right. Clay Buchholz was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA but hasn't pitched since June 8. Jon Lester hasn't really been any better than last season. Ryan Dempster pitched an excellent game on Tuesday, allowing four hits and run in seven innings, but with a 4.50 ERA, the free-agent signing has been more workmanlike, solid No. 3 starter. With injuries to Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, they're working on their third closer of the season in Koji Uehara. Manager John Farrell has run through 25 different pitchers (compare that to the 17 Tampa Bay has used). Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia have been good, although not as good as 2011, when they finished second and ninth, respectively, in the MVP voting.

What the Red Sox have is depth. They have 11 players who have batted at least 175 times with an adjusted OPS better than league average (including the traded Jose Iglesias). The only regular who has struggled is Will Middlebrooks, recently recalled from Triple-A to be given another chance at third base. But unheralded guys such as Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava and Mike Carp have provided excellent support behind the front-line guys. One reason I liked the Red Sox back in March was the bullpen depth with the likes of Uehara and Junichi Tazawa, and that depth has allowed Farrell to withstand the losses of Hanrahan and Bailey. The Red Sox showed last year that they were top heavy in committing too much of their payroll to Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett. Freed of those contracts, they spread the money around. Maybe it's not something Tampa Bay could have done, but based on those preseason predictions, it wasn't an offseason plan that many believed in.

If the Red Sox have a star, it's their venerable 37-year-old designated hitter David Ortiz, who went 2-for-3 with two walks on Tuesday, raising his season line to .329/.410/.584. In the Year of Miggy (and Chris Davis and Mike Trout), Big Papi hasn't received much attention, but he's fourth in the majors in OPS. He's not an MVP candidate with the years Miguel Cabrera, Davis and Trout are having, but he's the glue to the lineup that is second to Detroit in runs per game.

As for the Rays, they're closer to being out of the playoffs than they are to being in first place. And that's what's going to make the stretch run in the AL so exciting: We have division races in the East and West to settle, with the losers in those races simultaneously fighting for their postseason lives. Everybody wants to avoid the wild-card game, and the Red Sox and Tigers are currently dueling for best record as well; while home-field advantage isn't a huge thing, it's not a small thing, especially when you factor in how much better Boston and Detroit have both played at home.

It's going to be a mad scramble. And not many expected the Red Sox to be involved.