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Thursday, September 19, 2013
Red Sox show why they're the best team

By David Schoenfield

That's clinching a playoff spot in style. John Lackey completed Boston's metamorphosis from worst to first -- OK, the Red Sox haven't officially clinched first place just yet -- with a two-hit, 3-1 victory over the Orioles on Thursday. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and finished it off with a 1-2-3 ninth inning.

Lackey's own transformation was officially stamped as well. Two years ago, he was the most hated man in Boston -- at least next to the fried chicken chef -- when he posted a 6.41 ERA in 28 starts. On this night, the Fenway faithful chanted "Lac-key! Lac-key!" as he retired Adam Jones on a fly ball for the final out, the city's love affair with baseball as strong as ever after last year's disastrous season.

In watching Lackey power his way through the Orioles' lineup, there was little doubt about the statement he and the Red Sox are making these days: They're the best team in baseball, a team whose only weakness right now is waiting to see if center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury will return from a fracture in his foot for the postseason.

As Lackey also showed, this is a starting rotation that goes four deep, especially with Clay Buchholz looking good in two starts since returning from three months on the disabled list. The Red Sox can line up their postseason rotation with Jon Lester, Buchholz, Jake Peavy and Lackey, a group deep enough that you'd feel confident no matter who had to start the first game of the American League Championship Series or the first game of the World Series.

Buchholz is 11-0 with a 1.51 ERA, but Lester has matured into the leader of the staff, with a 2.38 ERA since the All-Star break, pitching his best baseball since he finished fourth in the 2010 Cy Young voting. Peavy has a 3.68 ERA in nine starts since coming over from the White Sox, cutting his home run rate since leaving the hitter-friendly confines of U.S. Cellular Field.

But it's Lackey as the No. 4 starter who makes this group as good a foursome as any playoff team's. Maybe the Red Sox lack the dynamite 1-2 the Dodgers have in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, but considering Lester's second half and Buchholz's overall numbers, that pair isn't far behind. Against the Orioles, Lackey threw 82 of 113 pitches for strikes, pounding the strike zone and hitting corners like he's done all season, once again showcasing why he has a career-best walk rate. Ninety of those 113 pitches were fastballs -- primarily going outside corner to lefties and outside corner to righties. Even though he's up in the zone a lot, he gets late movement on the pitch, making him one of the few starters who can rely on his fastball as a strikeout pitch and not just to set up his off-speed stuff -- he's recorded 83 strikeouts on his fastball, 11th most in the majors.

When you look at the other rotations in the American League, you see holes. Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez have been great for the Tigers, but Justin Verlander hasn't been JUSTIN VERLANDER this year and Doug Fister has a 4.73 ERA against teams over .500. The A's group is solid, although helped by their home park, and I'm not taking A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily (or Sonny Gray) over Peavy and Lackey. The Rays aren't even a lock to get in and Matt Moore got pounded on Thursday and has battled control issues all season. Baltimore? Cleveland? Please. In the National League, the Cardinals are counting on two rookies, the Braves lack an ace and have beaten up on some terrible offenses in the NL East and the Pirates are relying on A.J. Burnett -- 5.32 ERA over his past eight starts -- and Charlie Morton.

Even if you don't think Boston's rotation is the best, it's the offense that sets the Red Sox apart. No team can match their lineup depth; they've scored 36 more runs than the Tigers (in a division with better pitching), and Miguel Cabrera, the driver of the Detroit attack, has battled injuries in September, hitting just .227 with two extra-base hits. He's just not the same MVP force he has been most of the season, and if he's not a force the Tigers obviously have a less threatening lineup.

In the NL, the Cardinals are deep but have one empty hole in shortstop Pete Kozma and cleanup hitter Allen Craig is still out with a sprained foot. The Dodgers don't quite have the same depth, although if Hanley Ramirez (who went 4-for-4 on Thursday) and Matt Kemp prove to be healthy, they can get on a roll as we saw for much of the summer. The Braves are still without Jason Heyward and Justin Upton has three RBIs in his past 24 games.

In September, the Red Sox lead the majors in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and home runs. Their pitching staff has allowed the lowest batting average in September and the second-lowest OPS (to the Nationals). Their closer has allowed one run in his past 32.1 innings.

The best team in baseball right now? It's the Red Sox.

Which probably means absolutely nothing once the playoffs start.