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NEW YORK -- As places known for their restorative powers, the Bronx normally doesn't make the cut with preferred destinations like Kauai, Canyon Ranch, Big Sur and Phuket.
But life for the Boston Red Sox has clearly taken on a much healthier glow since their most recent visit here, when they arrived in mid-May three games under .500, four games behind the New York Yankees and dogged by worries that you can't start 2-10 in the American League East and expect to be sipping margaritas at sunset.
|In his past five starts, Jon Lester has a 6.52 ERA and has not gone more than six innings once.|
The Sox swept the Yankees that weekend in May to reach .500 for the first time in 2011, part of a 16-6 run that has them seven games over .500 and just a game behind the Bombers as they return for three more games this week, the last opportunity these teams will have to test each other until the Yanks visit Fenway on Aug. 5.
The Sox have taken their share of hits since then -- they've lost Daisuke Matsuzaka and most likely Rich Hill to Tommy John elbow surgery, and the injuries have even extended to the coaching staff as Rob Leary, the staff assistant and regular batting practice pitcher, had to return home to repeat the hip replacement surgery he had last winter and will be out for some time.
Still, the trends have almost uniformly swung in the right direction since the Sox were last here.
The Yankees barely noticed Carl Crawford a month ago; he'll be hard to overlook this week, having batted .298/.337/.536 with 10 extra-base hits since setting foot in Yankee Stadium for the first time in a Boston uniform. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, perhaps the source of the team's deepest concerns in the early going, is hitting .300 since the Yankees last laid eyes on him, and slugging a lusty .680, with five home runs and three other extra-base hits. And Saltalamacchia's 39-year-old co-pilot, Jason Varitek, is hitting .344 in that stretch.
Jacoby Ellsbury has been the league's most productive leadoff man, and Adrian Gonzalez the hottest hitter this side of the Canadian border, non-Bautista division.
Check that: Gonzalez's "twilight-of-his-career" teammate, David Ortiz, has been on an even greater tear (.376/.424/.753), reinventing himself as someone who now feasts on left-handed pitching after supposedly succumbing permanently to the southpaw set.
Outside of J.D. Drew (.191 since May 13), the Sox lineup has become exactly what it was forecast to be this spring, without any discernible holes. One scout shook his head last week. "On how many other teams would Carl Crawford be batting sixth?" he said. "I'll tell you: none."
The Yankees, meanwhile, have ongoing concerns with Derek Jeter (.309 slugging percentage starting with the last Boston series), Jorge Posada (.220 and about to lose his job as full-time DH), Nick Swisher (.210 over that span) and Russell Martin (.206).
Their pitching has carried them, especially CC Sabathia and Bartolo Colon. But with Colon, it would seem to be a matter of time before his elbow starts leaking the fat cells he injected into it and he deflates back to over-the-hill status.
But how well the Sox fare this week here may well depend on Tuesday's starting pitcher, Jon Lester, the player whose season took a left turn just when everyone else's went right. Lester avoided the miserable Aprils of the past two seasons, only to careen off-track in the last month. Over his past five starts, Lester has a 6.52 ERA and has not gone more than six innings in any of them.
In his most recent start, on May 30, Lester threw 127 pitches against the Chicago White Sox and ultimately was charged with seven runs on eight hits and four walks, while striking out four, his fewest whiffs since Opening Day. After that start, Sox manager Terry Francona said he thought Lester has gotten into a pattern of relying too much on his cut fastball.
Any merit to that criticism?
"Yes and no," Lester said the next day. "I think [Francona] is saying that partly because last night I did throw a lot of them and obviously that's fresh in everyone's minds. I don't think it's a big deal. I think we were fine with it in other starts. [Against the White Sox,] I really didn't have a feel for anything other than the cutter, so we had to go with it, and we were getting outs with it for the most part.
"I'm not too worried about it. If I have another start where I have to throw that many, then we obviously have to make an adjustment."
Despite his struggles, Lester was one of a half-dozen pitchers in the AL with a league-high seven wins entering play Monday night, though his ERA has taken a beating (3.94 overall). How does he view his season to date?
"Some good, some bad," he said. "I've struggled this past month with consistency, but I don't feel like I'm far away. I threw the ball well in April, so it's in there. I have to work a little bit more on being consistent and throwing the ball downhill, and I think everything else will take care of itself."
Lester, who welcomed the extra rest since his most recent start, will have a chance to set the tone Tuesday night. Clay Buchholz was lined up to follow him Wednesday, but back issues pushed him back to Friday, his start going to Tim Wakefield, who will be making his first start in the new Yankee Stadium but has held the Bombers scoreless in their new palace over 5 1/3 innings of relief. Josh Beckett has not allowed the Yankees an earned run in two starts this season, but he'll be matched against Sabathia.
A strong start by Lester on Tuesday could put the Sox in the passing lane in the East.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.