|The Red Sox are rolling and their hot start isn't a mirage (Fox)|
Here are five signs their fortunes have turned for the better:
1. The starting pitching is great
Boston sports the second best ERA in the American League largely because the rotation is thriving. After abominable seasons last year, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are pitching like it's 2010 again. Lester has rediscovered the form that once made him an annual preseason Cy Young favorite, but Buchholz has been even better. Ryan Dempster has surpassed expectations by piling up 33 strikeouts in 24 innings. Fellow strikeout machine Felix Doubront still hasn't reached his ceiling yet. Even John Lackey looked good before promptly returning to the Disabled List. Whatever John Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves are doing differently, it's working.
2. Players are healthy (knock on wood)
The Red Sox were crippled by injuries last year, but fortunately none of them have lingered into this season. Granted, it's still early, and health is impossible to predict, but so far the returns are encouraging. Mike Napoli has shown no ill effects from the degenerative hip condition that scared Boston into restructuring his contract over the winter. Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury are fully healthy, unlike last year when they were banged up for large chunks of the season. Will Middlebrooks appears recovered from the broken hand that cut his rookie season short last August. David Ortiz has come back strong. Now if they can just get Stephen Drew going...
3. The lineup is more patient
Last year the Sox strayed so far from their disciplined ways that they walked less than every team in baseball except for the Kansas City Royals, who at least had the excuse of being the MLB's youngest team. Ben Cherington rectified that during the offseason by bringing in several hitters known for grinding out at-bats and making opponents work, namely Napoli, Gomes, and J.D. Drew's younger brother. These additions have gotten Boston back on track; among AL teams, only Billy Beane's Oakland A's have drawn more walks.
The scary thing is, the lineup should get even better. Napoli's knocked in a lot of runs, but his OBP is a full 50 points below his career average. Middlebrooks has been miserable aside from his three-homer outburst in Toronto but has nowhere to go but up. Pedroia, Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes have yet to find their power strokes. Yes, Daniel Nava is going to cool off, but it's hardly going to matter once the offense starts firing on all cylinders.
4. The bullpen is just as good as anticipated
Hailed by many as the team's greatest strength coming into the season, Boston's relief corps has lived up to its billing. The bullpen boasts a 3.48 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 10.6 K/9 rate. Andrew Bailey, Junichi Tazawa, Clayton Mortenson, and newcomer Koji Uehara have all been lights out. Joel Hanrahan's April 10th meltdown disguises the fact that he pitched very well in his first four appearances of the year. The 'pen will be even better once he returns from his DL stint, which could be as soon as Sunday.
5. The defense is good
One of the least-discussed reasons for Boston's early success is their outstanding defense, which leads the majors in fielding percentage and fewest errors committed. Napoli is no Adrian Gonzalez at first, but Pedroia plays Gold Glove defense at the keystone position. Drew and Middlebrooks are solid defenders as well, but the D is anchored by its speedy outfielders--Ellsbury in center and Victorino in right. What they lack in arm strength they make up for in range and their ability to cover lots of ground in Fenway's deceptively spacious outfield. If and when Jackie Bradley Jr. returns to the Show, the Red Sox will feature speed at all three outfield positions.