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Red Sox Somehow Still In Contention, But Why?

Beckett and Lester Continue to Underperform (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Half way through the 2012 Major League Baseball season, the Boston Red Sox sit comfortably in fourth place in the American League East.

Their 42-39 record has them positioned 6.5 games behind the Yankees for first place, and 1.5 games behind the Orioles for the second and final wild card spot.

It would be easy to say that the Red Sox, with their massive payroll, are underachieving thus far this season. But when examining their first 81 games, it becomes clear that this team could easily be below .500 and out of contention all together.

Here’s why:

The lineup

It’s easy to point to the injuries of Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, and Andrew Bailey as the cause of the Sox’ mediocre play. It’s even easier to point to the poor play of their perennial stars. Dustin Pedroia is having the worst season of his career, hitting .266 with an on base percentage (OBP) of .326. Adrian Gonzalez only has six home runs, while batting .275 with an OBP of .324.

Together, Pedroia and Gonzalez, a former MVP and possibly a future one, the team’s number two and three batters, are hitting .270 with 12 home runs, 76 RBIs, and getting on base at a rate of .325.

The Starting Rotation

It’s time we admitted something: the Red Sox do not have an ace, a number one pitcher, a stopper. There is no Schilling, no Martinez, no Clemens.  Instead, there’s John Lester and Josh Beckett. Lester, who at the prime age of 27, has never reached the potential he was expected to. In fact, he has regressed. Over the past three years, his earned run average (ERA) has gotten worse.

Beckett may not have the velocity on his fastball that he used to, but he still has the talent to be better than he’s been. He has, however, been consistent.  Consistently stubborn, consistently out of shape, and consistently inconsistent. He has never put two great years together as a member of the Red Sox, and since last season was largely a success, this one is due to finish up poorly.

So with an anemic starting lineup, and with mediocre starting pitching, the Red Sox are still in contention for a playoff birth, and perhaps even a division title (something that they’ve only won once under the present ownership). How have they managed to keep themselves in contention? Why haven’t they fallen apart?

Here’s why:

David Ortiz

Ortiz’s refusal to fade into the sunset is nothing short of a miracle. Three seasons ago, Ortiz failed to hit a home run until June, and Red Sox nation had all but written him off. Now, the team’s only all-star has carried the underachieving lineup. On pace for 42 home runs, 106 RBIs, and a .300 average, Ortiz will likely get MVP consideration if the Red Sox push their way into the playoffs.

Bobby Valentine

Yes, he makes you scratch your head. Yes, he contradicts himself from one press conference to the next. Yes, he was likely hired only to bring publicity to the organization. But Valentine’s masterful use of a makeshift bullpen has all but saved this season. How does Clay Buchholz have eight wins? The bullpen. Five members of that bullpen have ERAs under 2.75 (with at least 15 appearances). The bullpen, without their closer and setup man, has been carved out of nothing and turned into one of the best in the American League.

The Replacements

Will Middlebrooks, Cody Ross, Daniel Nava, Mike Aviles. When Kevin Youkilis was injured early in the season, Middlebrooks played him out of town. When Ellsbury, Crawford, and Ryan Kalish (the three outfielders projected to start at the end of last season) were unable to play, Cody Ross has been more than serviceable; he’s been one of the team’s best hitters. When Daniel Nava was called up to replace one of the team’s replacements (Ryan Sweeney), he responded by cementing himself as one of Red Sox Nation’s favorite players. When it was determined (by someone) that Jose Iglesias would not start the season in Boston, Mike Aviles became one of the most productive leadoff hitters in the league.

The Sox have received 34 home runs and 145 RBIs have come from that group. With the starters in their rightful places, it would still be difficult to match that production.

Final Thoughts

The Red Sox’ source of success has come from such unlikely places that the team is almost becoming likeable again. The Red Sox’ source of success might just propel them into a playoff birth, and maybe even their first playoff win in three years.

But, let’s try to get past Baltimore first.

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