May 26, 2013

On Baseball: Sox have plenty of heart, but can they be consistent?

By Kevin Thomas
Staff Writer

BOSTON - They jumped onto each other in joy, many of the Red Sox running onto the playing field before the winning run came across.

Jacoby Ellsbury
click image to enlarge

Jacoby Ellsbury follows through on his game-winning two-run double during the ninth inning of Boston’s 6-5 win over the Indians on Sunday.

The Associated Press

There was no doubt Stephen Drew would score that game-winner, completing a four-run ninth inning for a 6-5 victory over the Cleveland Indians.

Do you doubt these Red Sox can compete? We are nearing the end of May and Boston (31-20) sits in a tie for first place with New York (30-19) in the American League East.

But while Boston fans get all giddy over another comeback win, this team is far from a sure thing.

Yes, the 31-20 start is the best since the 2008 team began the same way. And that Red Sox team came within one game of reaching the World Series.

But the 2006 Red Sox also began 31-20, and they missed the playoffs.

So, what do we have here? A lot of good pieces performing well, but still showing holes. Boston went 18-8 in April, but is 13-12 since. This team has overcome nagging injuries (nothing like the Yankees' crowded disabled list of stars), and is apparently crossing its fingers over starter Clay Buchholz.

Manager John Farrell announced that Buchholz has soreness in the AC joint of his right collarbone area (not his shoulder, Farrell emphasized).

Buchholz was scratched from pitching Monday as a precaution. Buchholz, who said he could pitch if Boston was in a September pennant race, hopes to only miss a few days. Boston desperately needs Buchholz and Jon Lester, their 1-2 starters, just like they need Dustin Pedroia (batting .333) and David Ortiz (.341 with 34 RBI).

Here are five other players Boston can use to be consistent.

Ellsbury. He ended Sunday as the star, but started the game by dropping a fly ball, eventually letting two unearned runs score in the first. He also grounded into a double play early, stifling a rally.

Ellsbury began the year hitting .290 (38-131) over the first 30 games, and is batting .183 since.

"You got to stay confident, stay with your approach and good things will happen," Ellsbury said.

Drew. He entered the game hitless in his previous 17 at-bats and promptly went 3 for 4, scoring Boston's first two runs and then singling in the ninth to prolong the rally and scoring the game-winner. Good in the clutch, but also only batting .222.

Mike Napoli. We went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts, although he had a ground-out RBI in the ninth. Napoli is streaky, batting .257. He leads the team in RBI (37) and strikeouts (70). He is threatening Mark Bellhorn's record of 177 strikeouts in 2004 -- and Bellhorn worked out OK for the Sox that year.

Felix Doubront. Technically, Doubront can be credited with a "quality start" Sunday, allowing only two earned runs (four total) over six innings. But despite his eight strikeouts, Doubront often does not put runners away. The four runs he gave up all came against batters he got ahead 0-2 on.

"He continues to make progress," Farrell said. "Another step in the right direction, yet you can pinpoint things he can be better at, for sure."

Doubront simply said, "a couple mistakes. (Otherwise) I think everything went well."

After some rocky starts, Doubront has allowed two or fewer earned runs in each of his last three starts.

Will Middlebrooks. He sat out Sunday, on the disabled list with back spasms. Middlebrooks provides pop in the lineup (eight home runs, tied for the team lead with Ortiz). He should return soon, hopefully with better overall at-bats, to improve that .201 batting average.

If Ellsbury, Drew, Napoli, Doubront and Middlebrooks produce consistently (along with the usual suspects -- Lester, Buchhoz, Pedroia and Ortiz), this is a bonafide playoff contender.

Throw in the improving John Lackey (3-4, 2.72 ERA) and the plethora of role players and this Red Sox team can count on more victories, including some like Saturday (four eighth-inning runs for a 7-4 win) and Sunday..

"I think this is the character of the team," outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "I don't know how to explain it without a cliche.

"It's hard to play well throughout the course of a whole season. The telltale at the end is being able to come out of the valley."

The month of May had some rough spots, but Boston is back in first place, for now.

Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at:

Twitter: ClearTheBases

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