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Thursday, May 24, 2012
The best last-place team in baseball?

By Gordon Edes
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Just over a full month has passed since manager Bobby Valentine declared that the Red Sox had hit bottom, and GM Ben Cherington stood amid the wreckage of one of the worst losses in team history, one in which the Yankees had rallied from a 9-0 deficit to score 15 unanswered runs in Fenway, and offered what at the time sounded like a vacant assurance.

"Despite what happened today," Cherington said, "there's a lot of quality on this pitching staff, guys that can be successful and will be successful."

Not many people were taking Cherington's words at face value. More telling, it appeared, was Cherington's offering Valentine a public vote of confidence only 14 games into his term as manager. With the bloodstains not yet dry from the previous September's purge -- it was former manager Terry Francona, remember, who had said "I'm still trying to stop the bleeding" and initially balked at coming to Fenway Park's centennial celebration -- the smell of fresh meat was in the air.

Valentine If we play like this the rest of the season, we're going to win a championship.

-- Bobby Valentine, after Sox won Wednesday

"Red Sox Look Broken in Epic Collapse," one national website declared.

A Boston columnist, meanwhile, likened the atmosphere on Yawkey Way to the final days of the Nixon Administration on Pennsylvania Avenue, conjuring visions -- at least for those old enough to remember RMN's demise -- of a besieged Sox owner John W. Henry waving goodbye before boarding a helicopter in center field.

Most Sox players fled the premises that night without offering their take on the situation. One who stuck around, shortstop Mike Aviles, tried valiantly to puncture the gloom.

"I still feel like we're going to win a World Series," Aviles said, "regardless of what's going on right now, because in a couple of months, we'll all be laughing about this."

Well, as the Red Sox return home to face the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night, it's too soon to cue the laugh track, what with the team still in last place in the American League East, and with as many losses (22) as wins (22) 44 games into the season. But it also may be ill-advised to mock what struck some as an impossibly sunshine-and-lollipops comment by Valentine after Wednesday's 6-5 win over the Orioles in Baltimore.

"If we play like this the rest of the season, we're going to win a championship," Valentine told NESN.

The remark was made within the context of Valentine's satisfaction with the way the team had played through a stretch of 20 games in 20 days, the Sox winning 11 and losing 9, hardly a championship pace.

Alfredo Aceves
Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Alfredo Aceves have played key roles in the Red Sox's turnaround.

But if you expand Valentine's perspective to include how the Sox have played since hitting bottom, the math works in his favor. The Sox are 18-12 since then, a .600 pace. Only the Orioles (20-10) and Rays (19-11) had a better record in the AL over that span.

If the Sox play .600 ball the rest of the way, they'll go 71-47, which would give them a total of 93 wins. The Rays qualified for the playoffs as a wild card last season with 91 wins, and Bud Selig has added an extra wild-card team to this year's postseason tournament. Make the tournament, and anyone can win the title (See Cardinals, St. Louis, 2011).

Cherington, meanwhile, proved prescient about a reversal of fortune for the team's pitching staff, especially the bullpen, which has gone from being a hideous liability (a major league-worst 8.44 ERA after the Yankees debacle) to a prime asset (a 1.86 ERA since).

The debate that was raging during that Yankees weekend about the Sox having no choice but to return to Daniel Bard has appeared to have all but subsided, with Alfredo Aceves having run off nine consecutive saves while posting an 0.96 ERA and striking out better than a hitter an inning (19 K's in 18 2/3 IP).

Is Bard relieved that the back-to-the-bullpen talk has quieted? "I think it's a relief to the whole team," he said.

"We had too many good power arms down there for it not to change for the better. Now everybody's found their roles, look at the job [Vicente] Padilla has done, Andrew [Miller] and Rich Hill came up, and they've all been fabulous.

"I'd put them up against any bullpen in the league. And I think it relaxed the starters. We know if we can go six innings, they'll do the rest."

The Sox rotation remains an uncertain proposition, and could ill afford an injury to ace Jon Lester. But even here, there are positive signs. In their past 13 games, Sox starters have a 9-3 record with a 3.14 ERA, and have allowed just five home runs in 80 1/3 innings, the same number as Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz allowed in a single start.

In 10 of those 13 outings, Sox starters pitched at least into the sixth inning, which is not terribly impressive until you recall how the Sox bullpen pitched the equivalent of nearly three full games (26 2/3 innings) in an April series against the Orioles.

"It's a variety of things," Cherington said when asked about the improved performance by the rotation. "It's case by case, but I think we've as a team executed better, have been more aggressive in the strike zone.

"In Josh's case, he had an interrupted spring training because of the thumb issue. Although he was getting his work in, it wasn't really regular work. There was a lot of work on the side, and he was not able get out there in game competition as much as he normally would have.

"Did that contribute to his start? I don't know. It's possible. Then he had the hiccup from the lat [muscle]. He had to come back from that, then had the tough start his first start after that. So there are some things that could have contributed.

"Every time he's gotten into a regular routine and taken the ball every fifth day, he's been really good. We expect that to continue."

Cherington noted how Lester has been a slow starter throughout his career. "As he's gotten into May and early June, he seems to get a feel for his stuff and power a little deeper into the season. Clay's made some adjustments with [pitching coach] Bob McClure a couple starts ago. We're seeing a little better action on his stuff.

"The bullpen turned around first and got on a roll, and the starters have followed."

The revelation may be rookie left-hander Felix Doubront, identified early on in spring training by Valentine as a kid with a high ceiling. "When I wrote up my report on him," one major league evaluator said this week, "I put him down as a No. 4 starter, but he throws his slider down and in to right-handers, turns over his changeup, has excellent presence, and is a lefty who throws 94. If he can command his fastball, he has a chance to be a top-of-the-rotation starter."

The Sox will throw Lester, Beckett and Buchholz against the Rays this weekend. But whatever doubts may remain about the pitching are trumped by how long Valentine's alchemy can continue to produce winning lineups out of such a depleted roster.

Kevin Youkilis returned this week, but with seven outfielders on the disabled list, Valentine has played a Gold Glove first baseman, Adrian Gonzalez, in right field to keep as many productive bats in the lineup as possible.

Everyone is mindful of the risk involved in doing so, of course, which is why Cherington calls it a short-term solution at best. In the meantime, Aviles has knocked in a team-leading 20 runs since the Yankees debacle, two more than David Ortiz, who has blasted eight home runs in that span. Gonzalez has had a mystifying lapse in power (1 home run in 148 plate appearances in a span of 33 games), but the Sox have been picked up by catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who appears to have won outright the No. 1 catcher's job by batting .303 with six home runs and 17 RBIs in the last month.

And while Dustin Pedroia, until recently in a 5-for-27 skid, has remained a rock, no one could have predicted the impact rookie Will Middlebrooks (.889 OPS, 5 HR and 17 RBIs in 20 games) and the resurrected Daniel Nava (.350/.491/.600) would have since being summoned from Pawtucket.

Somehow, the Sox have to keep finding ways to persevere until some of the wounded return, which in the case of outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford is not expected to be July at the earliest, and Cody Ross may not be much earlier, if at all.

There comes a point where even the most resourceful teams cannot overcome such overwhelming attrition as seven outfielders on the DL at once. But so far, at least, the Sox have not reached that point. And until they do, you can sure Valentine will continue to dangle that championship carrot.