Commentary

Five reasons to cut Sox some slack

Updated: April 15, 2012, 12:53 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Having spent the entire month of September assuring folks that the Boston Red Sox could not possibly miss the playoffs, buttressing that case with numbers showing it was practically a statistical impossibility, there is some trepidation in now pleading that the team's 1-5 start this season should not be cause for alarm.

But let's plow ahead, anyway, offering five reasons the Sons of Bobby Valentine will reward the relentless optimism of their manager, who said the other day, "As long as they're wearing this uniform I believe in my guys."

1. History. Let's set aside the Sox for a second and talk about that other team that started 0-6 last season, the one that did make the playoffs. That would be the Tampa Bay Rays, who arrive here Friday for a four-game set that will take them through Patriots' Day. Like the Sox, the Rays stumbled badly out of the chute, righted themselves and capitalized on the Sox's collapse to charge into the playoffs on the season's final day.

See? The Rays' recovery shows that a happy ending is still possible after the worst start. And, of course, the Sox staged a spectacular reversal after opening 2-10, for four months making the case they were the best team in baseball.

"There's a lot more baseball to go," Kevin Youkilis said Wednesday. "We got hot last year for 4½ months, and we're hoping to do it 5½ months this time. We've got to play good baseball. The season is not over the first six games."

2. Starting pitching. Granted, the Sox have made only one turn through the rotation, but look beyond the results: There was a lot to be encouraged by. Jon Lester doesn't have to fret about his name not being included in discussions of the game's elite pitchers. Anyone who watched Lester's first two starts is hereby challenged to conclude otherwise, as he went toe-to-toe with Justin Verlander and Ricky Romero and pitched well enough to win both times. Lester is the undisputed ace of this staff, in the absolute prime of his career, and on the cusp of having a truly memorable season.

Meanwhile, Clay Buchholz pitched far better than his results (7 runs in 4 innings) suggest and, more importantly, says he has ceased to worry about his back. If Jacoby Ellsbury catches Jhonny Peralta's drive into the gap -- the ball popped out of Ellsbury's glove after a long run -- Buchholz's first start would have prompted a very different conversation. "It was something to build on," Valentine said. "Not something to be proud of." That's about right.

[+] EnlargeClay Buchholz
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonClay Buchholz pitched much better in his 2012 debut than his numbers suggest.

The rookie left-hander, Felix Doubront, made an auspicious 2012 debut, and while there will be growing pains, Valentine has been singing the kid's praises all spring. "He wasn't afraid," Valentine said. "He has a very good repertoire of pitches. He's able to throw them most any time in any count, he's able to pitch with men on base. I liked everything about him."

Is there anyone else who doesn't see that as an upgrade over John Lackey?

And Daniel Bard's 18 swings and misses Tuesday in his first start herald the beginning of a worthy experiment that deserves more time for the Red Sox to make a judgment on whether he can make the transition to starting pitcher. Bard understands that circumstances may ultimately require his return to the bullpen -- the team has starting options (Aaron Cook, perhaps Vicente Padilla, eventually Daisuke Matsuzaka) while its choices in shoring up the bullpen are limited, but the Sox need to find out if their long-term vision for Bard is a viable one.

That leaves Josh Beckett, and there's no putting a positive spin on his horrific five-homer shelling on Saturday. "The thumb thing seems to be a moot point," Valentine said this week. Well, I suppose that's a positive, although it would be better if that could be used as an explanation for what transpired in Detroit. Still, you have to believe the back of the baseball card, which shows that Beckett was the team's best pitcher for five months last season.

Beckett had a side session in Toronto with pitching coach Bob McClure, where they presumably figured out why he left so many cutters over the middle of the plate.

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"Bob worked with him," Valentine said. "I think they got a lot of things ironed out and they felt really good about where he should be. … I'm looking forward to him pitching again."

3. Fearless forecast. This team will hit more than 54 home runs this season. Through the first six games, they hit two. Adrian Gonzalez had one, Dustin Pedroia the other. That puts them on a pace to hit 54 for the season, or as many as David Ortiz hit by himself in 2006.

The Angels are the only other American League team with as few as two home runs, and they have Albert Pujols, which makes them another team you can reasonably expect to pick up the pace, and soon.

The Sox actually hit more home runs on the road (112) than at home (91) last season, but after taking aim at the faux Monster in Fort Myers this spring, we're guessing a few guys will be happy to become acquainted with the real deal (isn't that right, Cody Ross?).

[+] EnlargeBobby Valentine
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonBobby Valentine was dealt a tough hand with Andrew Bailey's injury just before the start of the season.

4. Jacoby Ellsbury, enter and sign in please. Ellsbury has three hits in his first 23 at-bats this season, a .130 clip. Well, a half-dozen games into last season, Ellsbury was just 4-for-24 (.167), a much more alarming development given that he was coming off a 2010 season in which he barely played because of fractured ribs. Terry Francona was sufficiently concerned to drop Ellsbury out of the leadoff spot.

Circumstances are a tad different this season. Ellsbury is coming off a season in which he was MVP runner-up. You think he struggled in Toronto (1-for-10)? You should have seen the guy who finished third in the MVP voting, Jose Bautista. He went 0-for-11. Bautista will hit. So will Ellsbury, which will have a ripple effect on the entire lineup.

5. The manager. The Cubs are 1-5, too, which for Cubs fans probably has called into question whether Theo Epstein really does walk on water, like the Photoshopped front-page newspaper shot of Theo transporting himself across Lake Michigan in his loafers. Nobody has made the same claims about Bobby Valentine, who if it was up to a certain critic (hint: he wore No. 38 when he was with the Sox) would be tossed into Boston Harbor without a life preserver.

But cut the manager some slack -- he had to invent the back end of his bullpen on the fly when Andrew Bailey needed surgery, and probably never imagined that he'd be calling on the likes of Justin Thomas in his first week on the job.

Confidence, Valentine mentioned the other day, comes from being prepared, and the Sox came out of spring training prepared for just about everything else (no Carl Crawford on Opening Day) except a bullpen crisis. His track record suggests he'll figure it out. Maybe the Big Schill will be right in the end, and Sox players will weary of Valentine. But there is not a shred of evidence to support that he is a divisive presence now. The Sox have made two ninth-inning comebacks, took a two-run lead in the 11th inning and had the tying runs on base in the ninth in their most recent game. Don't know about you, but that sounds to me like a team playing hard 'til the last out. What more can you ask for?

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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