Monday, September 8, 2008

Ac-Cen-Tchu-Ate The Positive

There is some good news in this town, you know.

While you were off watching the Olympics, or getting ready for your 249 fantasy drafts (nice job holding a lead there by that defense that was totally not a reach in the third round, FMRA, by the way...), or struggling to keep track of which Florida football players gang-raped which high school sophomores, or masturbating onto pictures of Matt Ryan (applicable only to HMLS), or just crying over the lack of continuing integrity in the knee ligaments of Football Jesus Chin Cleft, this little oft-ignored local team that OH BY THE WAY IS THE DEFENDING WORLD SERIES CHAMPION has put itself well on course for a playoff appearance.

Nothing in baseball is guaranteed, of course (just ask your 2007 NL East Champion New York Mets), but the combination of a hot streak (including a solid 12-6 road record since the beginning of August), a favorable schedule, the (hopefully final) resolution of several lingering injury issues, and a fading Rays club have the Red Sox in the driver's seat for grabbing at least a wild card berth, and possibly another AL East title. After the hectic Manny circus around the trading deadline, the team has stabilized and coalesced into a team that is much better prepared for a playoff run than the team we saw in mid-July, thanks in no part to some textbook Theo tinkering. Sometimes, it's the small moves, and not the big ones, that make all the difference.

Why am I a lot more optimistic about this team's chances today?

They have three playoff-caliber starters: You don't need a five-man rotation in the playoffs. You just need three very good starters, and one guy who at least gives you a fighting chance. The Sox rotation has been up and down this year, and Wakey Wakey has brought neither eggs nor bakey since returning from the DL, but now they have those three required starters: Beckett (if his arm isn't tingling), Dice-K Mothra, and....

Paul Byrd.

The hateful scorn of Future Mrs. notwithstanding, Byrd is a guy who just gets it done, even though it's probably going to be can't-watch ugly. It's been kind of a lost memory since Beckett pulled his Alpha Predator Game 5 performance and changed the entire complexion of the series, but Byrd completely shut down the eventual world champions in Game 4. This after he had closed out the not-exactly-light-hitting Yankees in Game 4 of the ALDS. Since coming over from the Indians for a sack of baseballs, a gallon of chowder, and Celebrity Chef Todd English, Byrd has gone 4-1. Oh sure, he gives up 3 or 4 runs a game.... but that's all he gives up. He's a guy who gets lit up a little every time out, but never gets really lit up (see, e.g., Wakefield's start on Saturday for an example of being really lit up). The odds say that if you start Byrd, he will get you into the 4th or 5th at least, while giving up around 2-3, but no more than 6, runs. I'll take that.

The Quiet Professionals: One was obtained a little more spectacularly than the other, but Jason Bay and Mark Kotsay have each played key roles in the stabilization of this club post-Manny. Bay is not a direct Manny substitute, because he lacks Manny's extreme power. But he's a high quality multi-category outfielder who has fit in well (and contributed accordingly) in the 5-6 spots of the batting order. Kotsay, acquired for... um.... well, we're not really sure who he was acquired for; we just know it wasn't Official Minor Leaguer of Mass Hysteria Will Middlebrooks. Anyhow, Kotsay has slotted right into the "lefty depth" role with the team (formerly played by such actors as Troy O'Leary, Trot Nixon, and Reggie Jefferson). Plus, he's provided adequate cover for the injured J.D. Drew. And they each appear, so far, to have the personalities of glasses of milk. And after the late July dog and pony show, maybe that's just fine.

Bumps and Bruises Begone: While the Devil Rays have been dealing with injuries to Evan Longoria (wrist), Carl Crawford (done-for-year-ness), Troy Percival (100 years old), and Rocco Baldelli (troublesome mitochondria), the Sox have been getting guys back left and right: Youkilis, Lowell, Wakefield, Crisp... and even Julio Lugo may be close to returning (to the bench). J.D. Drew is steadily improving as well, and will almost certainly be back by the end of the season. Look for Terry Francona to use the team's depth to get some other starters -- namely Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz -- a few days off down the stretch to keep them fresher for the post-season. We'll probably also see a start or two -- late in the year, and not if the game is vital to playoff qualification, of course -- from some of the minor leaguers, e.g. Bowden, Pauley, or the recently-recalled Devern Hansack.

A Can-Do Attitude: Admittedly, I'm not sitting in the dugout with these guys, but it seems like they've been a bit more confident and assured this past month, coming into each game with a we're-going-to-win-this-one-no-matter-what attitude. Even though they were getting hammered in Saturday night's game, for example, I didn't see any signs of "welp, let's pack this one in" from them. That's a good, good sign for a team heading into the late season stretch run and postseason.

I don't see a wild September ahead for the Sox -- I think they'll coolly and calmly take care of business and make the playoffs, with the only thing in doubt being whether they can catch and pass the Rays for the AL East title. But barring an unforeseen epic collapse, I think the Sox can set themselves up for a nice October run in the next three weeks. And frankly, as recently as a month and a half ago I didn't think we'd be seeing that.

1 comment:

Yablo said...

Jon Lester would like a word with you...