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Red Sox continue to (pleasantly) surprise

Sports

Red Sox continue to (pleasantly) surprise

More than halfway through the Major League Baseball season, the Boston Red Sox hold the American League’s best record, due in large part to baseball’s highest-scoring offense.

Despite the league’s second-highest walk rate and much carnage in the closer’s role, the pitching has been surprisingly effective as well. Consistently winning three of every five games over the season’s first three months has required balanced production from throughout the roster.

On the mound, Clay Buchholz has performed beyond expectations, compiling a 9-0 record with a 1.71 earned run average, primarily by keeping the ball in the ballpark. Just two of the 63 fly balls hit off Buchholz have gone for home runs. Watch for Clay to continue to pitch successfully when he returns from the disabled list, but with a few more gopherballs knocking that ERA over 2.

While Jon Lester and Ryan Dempster have both walked too many batters and watched too many balls leave the park, John Lackey has emerged as a solid number two starter, with Felix Doubront showing occasional flashes of great stuff as well. Lackey’s 1.88 walks per game make him the only Sox starter under three. Meanwhile, Doubront’s mediocre 4.22 ERA belies his ability to strike hitters out (82 K in his first 85 innings) and keep the ball in the park (seven homers so far).

In the bullpen, Joel Hanrahan never found the plate as a Red Sox, giving up more than a run per inning before his season-ending injury. Andrew Bailey assumed the closer role and promptly started yielding a home run per inning. While the Red Sox have blown 13 of their 30 save opportunities, the middle relief corps has pitched well enough to put a lot of games out of reach. New closer Koji Uehara has struck out over 13 batters per game in compiling a 2.06 ERA. Junichi Tazawa has achieved similar results (2.92 ERA) mostly with control, walking less than one batter per nine innings. Since settling the control issues that plagued him in April, Andrew Miller has solidified his spot as the team’s left-handed relief ace, striking out more than 14 batters per nine and keeping righties and lefties off the bases. If Craig Breslow finds a strikeout pitch and Alex Wilson continues to develop, Boston’s bullpen will be fine without the “proven closer” fans are clamoring for.

Offensively, the Sox are getting production from the usual suspects and beyond. David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia are each reaching base in over 40 percent of their plate appearances. Factor in Big Papi’s 16 home runs and Pedroia’s stellar defense and we’re looking at the team’s two most-worthy All-Stars. Jacoby Ellsbury could get on base more and has been stuck at one home run since early April, but he’s hitting almost .300 and has stolen 33 bases in 36 tries.

While Stephen Drew has been streaky at shortstop and Will Middlebrooks is a disaster at third base, Jose Iglesias has spelled them both with aplomb. He won’t bat .415 all year, but if he can add a league-average bat to the transcendent defense that built his reputation, he should be a fixture in this lineup for years to come.

Mike Carp has been an offensive beast in a limited role and Shane Victorino has added value with stellar defense, some speed, and an average bat. Mike Napoli, Daniel Nava, and Johnny Gomes have had mixed results at the plate, but each has come through in multiple big moments, adding to the mystique of this team that lost 93 games in 2012, but can’t seem to lose in 2013 despite a roster that didn’t seem much improved on the surface.

Some of Boston’s success is unsustainable. David Ortiz won’t hit .320/.406/.607 over a full season at age 37. Iglesias and Carp will come back to Earth with their bats, and catchers might start throwing Ellsbury out if he keeps running this aggressively. On the other hand, Uehara will have more success in the ninth inning than his predecessors and the bullpen should continue to hand him leads. If Buchholz pitches anywhere near as well in the second half as he did in the first, and if Lackey and Doubront can keep turning in decent performances, this team can hold off the field in a strong division.

Raise your hand if you saw that coming in March.