Champs unable to go on extended run in tightly packed American League East
BOSTON -- After 30 games, the Boston Red Sox are 14-16. So far, this doesn't look much like 2013, a World Series championship season, when at the same point they were 20-10.
So you can understand a certain amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth in New England. But the fact is that the 2014 Red Sox, for all of their up-and-down performances to date, are not in anything like bad shape.
Nobody else in the American League East has torn up the competition, either, although both the Yankees and the Orioles have managed to reach early May above .500.
The Red Sox, after a truly disheartening day-night doubleheader loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday, bounced back Friday night with a 7-1 victory over the Oakland Athletics. A victory over the A's should not be taken lightly, since they came to Fenway Park with the AL's best record.
And this victory had genuine encouragement written all over it. The Red Sox received a commendable performance from starter Clay Buchholz, who entered the game with a 6.66 ERA, but who had produced a solid performance in his last start against the Blue Jays. Buchholz limited a difficult Oakland lineup to one run on three hits over 6 1/3 innings.
Boston had been struggling with runners in scoring position. In the fifth inning, the Red Sox had runners on second and third with no outs and failed to score.
The all-purpose answer to this dilemma was produced by Dustin Pedroia with a grand slam in the sixth inning. It was Pedroia's first homer of the season and the 100th of his career. Milestones all over the place. Let there be dancing on Yawkey Way.
Then there was a brilliant rally-squelching defensive play in center by Jackie Bradley Jr. in the eighth. This first-rate catch turned into a double play.
The Red Sox know that Bradley is a top-shelf defender. The question with him is how much he will hit at this level. But Bradley's glove work is beyond question.
"I think defensively he's always been a very confident player," manager John Farrell said. "The double play in the eighth inning, that's one heck of a play."
Bradley's philosophy on the difficult catches is exactly what the Red Sox would hope that it would be.
"I think if it's in the air long enough, I'll catch it," he said.
Put this all together -- pitching, timely hitting and a big defensive play when it was needed most -- and you have a best of the Red Sox highlights reel in one game. Their best capabilities were on display, against difficult competition, too. Now the trick will be to play at this level on a more consistent basis.
Boston can be appropriately thankful that none of its AL East competitors has been on anything resembling a tear.
The Red Sox can also be thankful that all five of their projected starting pitchers are healthy. This is an increasingly rare situation in Major League Baseball, as the most common three-word phrase in the game, once "let's play ball," seems now to be "Tommy John surgery."
The Rays were a popular preseason pick to win the AL East. That was before they lost one of their best starters, Matt Moore to elbow replacement surgery. Tampa Bay starter Alex Cobb is out with a strained left oblique, and still another starter, Jeremy Hellickson, is recovering from a surgery that removed loose bodies from his pitching elbow.
This weekend's guests at Fenway, the A's, have lost two valuable starters themselves, Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, to Tommy John surgery.
But Boston has five starting pitchers with six starts each. These pitchers have been well enough to take the ball each time it was their turn to pitch. This in itself deserves a level of celebration; subdued celebration, perhaps, but still some outpouring of joy.
It is still very early in this title defense. Earlier in the week, the Red Sox seemed to be on the upswing. Then, after frustrating failures to capitalize on scoring opportunities in the doubleheader loss to the Rays, Farrell was fielding questions before Friday night's game about the possible need to tinker with his team's approach.
"Two days ago, we were talking about how much improved the offensive approach has been," Farrell said. "And now all of sudden we're talking about are we going to overhaul our approach? No, we're not."
Based on Friday night's performance, the Red Sox shouldn't change a thing. What they could do is produce this kind of performance on a more frequent basis.