Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A Note of Caution

There are two reasons why I like 10-4. First, it reminds me of CB radios and Smokey and The Bandit, the first somewhat bawdy movie that I ever got to see in the theatre with my friends, instead of going to some cheesy kid flick with my parents. That's always a fond memory.

The second, is that 10-4 is the Red Sox record so far this year, a mark that is tops in the American League and only a half-game behind the Mets for the best record in all of baseball. What's more, they've done it despite having a hole in the rotation (that may or may not be filled by the devilishly handsome yet uninspiring Lenny DiNardo), having their leadoff man and center fielder on the DL since the season's first week, missing their right fielder for several games, having their captain and catcher working his way through a strained keister muscle, having the grand total of one truly reliable relief pitcher in the bullpen, having one of the new relievers miss the first 10 days of the years as a result of being utterly insane, and having their $20 million cleanup hitter go into his fourteenth game without an extra-base hit.

They've done it, quite simply, on pitching and pitching alone. The once-vaunted Red Sox offense has struggled, scoring just 67 runs in their first 14 games, a pace that would see them score about 135 fewer runs than last season's league-leading total. With no Coco Crisp at the top of the order, and with Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek ailing, plus Manny's prolonged slump, the team simply couldn't score, no matter how well Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, Mike Lowell and Mark Loretta started the season.

No, this team is now built on its rotation, and they've been simply spectacular. After Matt Clement's performance last night, the rotation has now thrown nine quality starts at the opposition in those fourteen games, a 64% rate that would have led the league last year by a wide margin. Their 3.96 team ERA is leading the league easily. With a 1-2 tandem of Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett, few teams in the majors can match up with them, particularly with Jonathan Papelbon turning into a dominant closer right before our eyes.

Still, I'd like to inject a note of caution here. The Sox are six games over .500 despite outscoring the opposition by just eight total runs. That kind of ratio typically translates into a winning percentage well over 100-points lower than their current mark of .714. They are 5-0 in one-run ballgames, and that is likely not going to continue, particularly if their pitchers continue to be just ninth in the league in strikeouts per nine innings, a key indicator of future success. They've been great at keeping the ball in the yard (just 13 homers allowed, 2nd in the league), and they don't walk many (just 33 walks allowed, 3rd in the league), so maybe they can be the exception to the rule about letting the other team put the ball in play too much. Still, it scares me, particularly since they have scored the fewest runs in their division by a wide margin. Frankly, that's not going to get it done over the long haul.

We need Manny being Manny, and we need Coco Crisp back and Trot playing regularly. We need someone besides Papelbon in the bullpen to step it up and be a reliable option (sorry, Mike Timlin, you haven't impressed me much this year). We need to fill that fifth spot in the rotation with someone who isn't grossly out of shape (David Wells), inexperienced and underwhelming (DiNardo), or a rookie (Jon Lester, who hasn't done well in Triple A so far this year).

The Sox need to start performing on the field as well as their record looks in the standings. Keep in mind folks, despite their current losing record and last place status, the Yankees still have the best run differential in the division (85 scored, 62 allowed). The day will soon come when their lights will be flashing in the Sox's rear view mirror.

And as Sheriff Buford T. Justice always said, "You can bet your ass on that, boy."

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