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Pitching does the talking for Red Sox

Pitching does the talking for Red Sox

CLEVELAND -- This is, in one crucial way, a better Boston Red Sox team than the one that won everything in 2004.

It has better pitching.

No, the offense is not quite as robust as it was in 2004, but it probably doesn't have to be. The Red Sox have been proving their pitching point over the course of 102 games in 2007. The sample size is definitely large enough.

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Yes, Boston's lead in the American League East is much smaller than it used to be. But it is still 7 1/2 games. This fluctuation is the kind of thing that can happen when you have been in first place since April 18.

Winning a division is not a simple, linear process. It is not a straight line on a flow chart. And despite some of the fondest wishes of the dues-paying residents of Red Sox Nation, the Yankees probably weren't supposed to be eliminated before Labor Day, anyway.

As far as pleasant numbers go, what impresses you almost as much as 100 straight days in first place is Boston's relative standing in the collective pitching statistics. The Red Sox lead the AL in team ERA, at 3.71. Across both leagues, only the San Diego Padres are better.

And the Boston bullpen leads the entire Major Leagues with a 2.71 ERA. These numbers, of course, are made more impressive by the fact that they were accomplished against predominantly AL competition. Every American League team has one more hitter than its National League counterpart, and that's just the minimum allowed by the rules. In fact, the contrast is often greater than that, as anybody who has watched a recent All-Star Game knows.

As it turns out, with the entire civilized world seeking pitching, the Red Sox may have had the best 2006-07 offseason of anybody in the game. And they had most of that in just one Asian nation.

There will come a time when all 30 North American clubs will have their own Japanese pitchers, and teams will be belittled if they only have one. But for now the Red Sox are on the cutting edge. There is some irony in the fact that of their two Japanese acquisitions, the more legendary pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka, has seemed the more mortal. It is the lefty setup man, Hideki Okajima, with his 0.89 ERA, who appears to be closer to unhittable.

But both have been immensely valuable to the Red Sox. And let us not speak of cost. Consider the struggles of some of the big-ticket American free-agent pitchers, such as, most expensively, Barry Zito, or even Jeff Suppan. The record posting fee paid for Matsuzaka's rights appears now to be a fundamentally sound investment.

So the Red Sox dominated the Pacific Rim and won the postseason pitching derby. But over 162 games, the issue with pitching is not only quality but quantity. When you have both, you win.

So when somebody of the stature of Curt Schilling goes on the disabled list, what happens? The Red Sox bring up Kason Gabbard, and he goes 3-0 with a 1.93 ERA in his first four July starts. When he finally faltered on Thursday night, in the fifth inning, his letdown was not at all costly. The Boston bats had pounded Cleveland starter Cliff Lee mercilessly, and those same bats did not let up against the Indians' bullpen.

Boston's 14-9 victory on Thursday night was not at all representative of the series, but it gave the Red Sox three out of four against the Indians, who are currently the leaders in the AL Wild Card race. Apart from this game, the remainder of the series, with outstanding pitching as the focus, perfectly illustrated the strength of the Sox. Even in the fourth game's festival of run production, order was restored when Okajima pitched his usual eighth inning -- spotless and scoreless.

The opener featured Jon Lester's successful and heartwarming return to the Boston rotation. The second game had Matsuzaka edging C.C. Sabathia in a classic pitchers' duel. In the third game, the Indians' lone victory of the series, Fausto Carmona was just a bit more brilliant than Josh Beckett. And all of this was achieved against a very imposing Cleveland offense.

The complete contemporary rarity, the back-to-back 1-0 games, illustrated clearly that baseball, in its post-steroid era, is once again a game in which dominant pitching can be not only an occasional factor but a continuing theme.

And that is why the 2007 Red Sox have the best record in baseball nearly four months into the campaign. They have superior pitching, and there is no particular indication that this is an aberration, a fluke, or something that is going to evaporate between now and October.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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