Red Sox fans are probably feeling pretty darn optimistic right now, and rightfully so.
The Red Sox have won 13 of their last 16. They’ve grown their division lead to 8 1/2 games, with only 16 games to go.
Their two mid-season rally-killing strikeout artists, Napoli and Saltalamacchia, have stopped striking out, have started making contact, and in Napoli’s case, have started mashing the ball. Middlebrooks’ lost swing has been found again, and is better than ever. Their backup infielders are performing about as good as, and in some ways possibly better than, their very good starters.
They’re assured that Ellsbury will be back in time for the playoffs.
And there is enough of a lead in the playoff race and enough off days in the schedule that the starters should be able to get ample rest before the playoffs arrive, and start the postseason sharp and fresh.
Lester is Lester again. Lackey is Lackey again. They have three other starting pitchers who have been very good for most of the year, and are now getting rest as needed to assure they stay very good into the postseason.
Their closer Koji Uehara is unreal – with his last 28+ innings scoreless, and his last 31 consecutive batters faced retired, a team-record-matching feat. He just seems to keep getting better, but then how can you do any better than GETTING EVERYBODY OUT?
They’re beating the best teams in dramatic ways, starting with a defeat of this year’s certain Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, who was aiming to tie the record for the most wins with only one loss at 20, thowing John Lester in his path and winning with a 2-1 score, giving Scherzer only his second loss of the season. Follow that with a record-breaking 20-4 outburst with seven different Red Sox players hitting home runs. Follow that with a thrilling comeback win against Mariano Rivera with an inning that brought to mind that most pivotal moment in the last 9 decades of Red Sox history, the stolen base heard ’round the world in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS against this very same closer. And two more thrilling wins to follow that left the Red Sox offense looking like an unstoppable force, scoring 54 runs over 4 games.
And now after Tuesday’s game against the Rays, everyone’s favorite remaining question mark has been answered – Clay is still Clay. That’s saying a lot. Clay Buchholz is a guy who was the game’s best starting pitcher through the first 2+ months of the season, with a 1.71 ERA and a 9-0 record in 12 starts, on the best run of his career, a career peppered with some very good runs. Was his spectacular start to the season just that, another “hot streak”, or has Clay matured into the kind of player who can produce at an elite level consistently? Did the 3 months off throw him off whatever sweet spot he was in in terms of feel for his pitches and precise mechanics? We his not-so-elite results in his minor league rehab starts an indication that he hadn’t refound whatever made him so dominant before?
Fans watching Buchholz’ start this Tuesday saw a guy that earned a win against long odds considering the circumstances. With a pitch limit of 75 to 80 pitches, things would have to go very well for him to complete the number of innings (5) required for a starter to earn the win. Also, he was facing last year’s Cy Young Award winner David Price in a game with big playoff consequences, a pitcher who, it turns out, brought his best game. But the Red Sox just happened to string together a few good at bats against him in the fifth, just in time to put Buchholz ahead before exiting the game. And Buchholz, with some help from his catcher Saltalamacchia gunning down two stolen base attempts to shorten his time on the mound and allow him to go deeper into the game, managed to get through 5 innings in 74 pitches and exit with a 2-0 lead which the bullpen made stand.
Shutting out a playoff-quality team, earning a difficult win, hearing the catcher say how all his pitches were working, and actually lowering his already miniscule season ERA, Buchholz exceeded expectations and hopes for this start and gave Red Sox fans something to be thrilled about. A lot of people have probably stopped worrying about what Buchholz will do in his remaining starts. But should they?
We all know that pitchers can look great in one start but poor in the next. A different lineup, a different city, different weather, and suddenly everything that was going right could start going wrong. We don’t know yet that Buchholz can keep giving the Red Sox what he gave them Tuesday or what he gave them in the rest of the season. Things could go downhill …
Also, while everyone seems to be hot at the same time, “being hot” doesn’t always last. Is it the time of year and anticipation of a playoff spot that has them playing at this level now? Or is it just good timing?
What if the injury bug bites over the remaining 2 and a half weeks of the season?
Things rarely stay as good for a team as they have been going for the Red Sox these last few weeks. While there’s plenty of reason to believe the Red Sox can keep producing as they have been, there’s also plenty of ways things can get derailed a bit, if only because of “regression to the mean” – return to a more normal level of “good” after the statistical anomaly that is a hot streak. And if that happens, the optimism of the Red Sox fan could wane a bit.
So enjoy this moment Sox fans. Enjoy it to its utmost! It may be the high point of your optimism for the season.