Red Sox overcome issues to claim first

Resilient Red Sox claim first

BOSTON -- Given everything that has not yet gone completely right, the Boston Red Sox are in remarkably solid shape after the first quarter of the 2009 season.

The Red Sox climbed into first place in the American League East on Sunday with a 12-5 Interleague victory over the New York Mets. They had set themselves up for this advance with a three-game sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays. After losing the first two games of the Interleague series, Boston bounced back with a healthy offensive display.

The Blue Jays have faded, losing their past six games. Long-term, the Red Sox probably have more to worry about from the Rays and the Yankees. But the opposition is a secondary issue. What do the first 44 games of the season tell us about Boston's chances in 2009? They tell us that if several important aspects of their game go wrong and the team is still playing close to .600 baseball, they're probably going to be just fine.

The Red Sox have had unexpected malfunctions from some crucial personnel and some injuries to key performers. But they have been good enough for the most part to overcome these issues. Problems or not, this club still looks as good as anybody in the AL.

Why? Boston has pitching depth that is extremely enviable. Given the global pitching shortage, it is also highly unusual. The Sox have not yet had the consistent performances they could have expected from, for instance, starters Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. And Daisuke Matsuzaka spent five weeks on the disabled list.

But Lester came up with a solid, winning performance on Thursday night against Toronto. And on Saturday night against the Mets, Beckett produced his fourth consecutive quality start. That's an admittedly minimal standard for acceptable starting pitching, but this latest performance, even though it ended in a no-decision, included no earned runs in eight innings and looked a lot like the hoped-for Josh Beckett.

The Red Sox have been saved in more ways than one by their bullpen. The Boston bullpen leads the AL in ERA. This is a deep, talented and versatile group, and there is no real reason to believe that this collective performance is anything like a fluke. So Jonathan Papelbon finally blew a save? If he stays healthy and converts 11 of every 12 save opportunities for the rest of his professional life, he's Cooperstown material.

On the offensive side of the ledger, the diminished performance of David Ortiz has been a source of debate, concern and general angst among the citizens of Red Sox Nation. There was great relief in the land when Ortiz broke a long power drought with a homer against Toronto on Wednesday night. Big Papi was back. Normal life could continue as planned.

Well, maybe not.

Against the Mets this weekend, Ortiz did not look like a man about to go on a run-producing tear. On Friday night, Ortiz struck out three times and grounded into a double play. True, this performance came against Johan Santana, who can make the best of hitters look overmatched.

But there wasn't any encouragement in Ortiz's performance on Saturday night, either. Against the less imposing Mike Pelfrey, Ortiz struck out twice, grounded out and walked. On Sunday, against still less impressive pitching, Ortiz struck out twice and flied softly to left twice. He did hit a line drive to first, but one piece of solid contact in three days does not form a positive trend. Ortiz stranded eight runners on Sunday and his average dropped to .195.

Fortunately for the Sox, there have been plenty of other members of the lineup stepping up their performances to compensate for the drastically diminished production from their DH. At the top of the order, Jacoby Ellsbury brings the speed element and now has a 19-game hitting streak. Dustin Pedroia is the reigning AL Most Valuable Player and needs no further introduction. Kevin Youkilis was on the DL with an oblique strain for a while, but the rest of the time he has been nearly a .400 hitter. Jason Bay has been an RBI machine. Mike Lowell has been as reliable as usual. Jason Varitek seems to have regained his power stroke.

So, the Red Sox have been able to put together a respectable offense -- 5.45 runs per game -- even with truly minimal production from their No. 3 hitter. The question of how long they can keep Ortiz in that spot if he does not pick up the pace is wide open. J.D. Drew, who filled in nobly when Ortiz was hurt last season, is in form now -- he had four hits on Sunday -- and would once again be a logical candidate for the No. 3 spot.

"From the team perspective, it's certainly better to talk about it after a win, but big picture, we've got to get him going," manager Terry Francona said of Ortiz on Sunday.

The Red Sox have also suffered at a crucial defensive position, losing two shortstops to injuries. Now one of them is back, but he apparently isn't the right one. Jed Lowrie is still out. Julio Lugo has returned, but he has not played well defensively. Nick Green, valued for his intangibles -- "We love the kid," Francona said -- has hit well, but he has also been error-prone.

You saw the shortstop subplot this weekend. The previous week, Green had made a critical error in a loss at Seattle and Lugo subsequently seemed to regain the edge for the starting job. But Lugo's inability to turn a routine double play contributed to a loss to the Mets on Friday night. Francona planned to play Green on Saturday night and Lugo on Sunday. But after Green played a strong defensive game on Saturday night, Francona stayed with him for Sunday's game.

"I thought Nick played a really good game [on Saturday night]," Francona said. "We're trying to play good baseball."

Green responded on Sunday with a clean defensive game, two hits and two RBIs.

Francona will typically go a long way to publicly defend his players. But even while refusing to go into specifics on the team's shortcomings at shortstop he acknowledged the problem in a general way.

"Evaluating our shortstops in May for public consumption, I don't know if that helps our cause," Francona said. "We're trying to win games, regardless of how bad we play on a certain night or how good we play. Again, it's our responsibility, if it's not good enough, to make it good enough and always get better. I know it's not been perfect."

The Red Sox have been far from a push-button operation in the first fourth of the 2009 season. But its depth of talent in all phases of the game, particularly in pitching, has given it the second-best record in the AL. There are some legitimate concerns here, but there is also the sense of how good this team could be if key players perform up to reasonable expectations.

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