On June 28, 2012, the Boston Red Sox were 40-36. They were bound to make a run for the playoffs, right? Who would have expected a 69-93, last-place finish in the American League East -- the team's worst since losing 100 games in 1965?
Surely (as many major pundits predicted), the Sox would suffer the same fate in 2013. With the emergence of the Orioles, the revamped Blue Jays and their dream team roster, and the newest mainstay atop the AL East -- the Rays -- where would the Sox fit in? Let's not forget that team in New York. Even with their odds, age, and injuries to defy, the Yankees have missed the playoffs once in 20 years.
It seemed unthinkable that the Red Sox would hold a 4 1/2-game lead in the AL East and boast the most wins in baseball on July 5, 2013. How is it that the Red Sox are so much better than expected?
As a team in 2012, the Sox ranked 24th with a .262 opponents' batting average and 27th with a 4.70 team ERA. The 2013 Sox are ranked 11th in opponents' batting average at .248 and boast a 3.82 team ERA, 10th best in the Majors.
On offense, no team has scored more runs than Boston's 445, which has been the driving force behind the team's success. In 2012, the Red Sox finished with a split line of .260/.315/.415. The line for 2013 thus far is .278/.351/.448.
While the Red Sox's offense appeared equipped to carry the load for the full slate in '12, that obviously wasn't the case. So what gives?
The secret to Boston's success this year is in its stars being healthy. Jacoby Ellsbury is in line for a full season. While he was not at his best to begin 2013, Daniel Nava was there as a spark in the outfield while Ellsbury finally got going. Nava is a big part of Boston's success, coming as one of this year's surprises. He is batting .284 with 10 homers and 49 RBIs through 77 games. Along with Ellsbury being healthy is David Ortiz. Big Papi is putting up his typical huge offensive numbers. Dustin Pedroia has been his usual self, but there have been some other sparks.
The Red Sox made two big offseason acquisitions. Shane Victorino has panned out in Boston's favor (when he has been healthy) and Mike Napoli -- despite issues with strikeouts -- has provided offense in chunks while the team was scratching out games in April and May.
The loss of Kevin Youkilis to make room for Will Middlebrooks hasn't panned out as expected, with Middlebrooks now in the Minors, but Jose Iglesias has stepped up in a big way with a .411 average and .990 OPS in 42 games. Mike Carp is batting .316 with eight homers, while Jarrod Saltalamacchia has clubbed eight long balls of his own. Needless to say, this is more like the Sox offense to which we have grown accustomed.
The largest difference in the team is the pitching. Injured ace Clay Buchholz is 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA and 1.02 WHIP. In 2012, he was 11-8 with a 4.56 ERA. Jon Lester, despite some recent struggles, is 8-4. John Lackey has stepped up after missing almost two full seasons, going 6-5 with a 2.18 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 14 starts. Ryan Dempster rounds out the rotation, and while his 5-8 record and 4.15 ERA may not show it, he has pitched well this season and kept Boston in a majority of the games he has started.
The biggest hole on the Sox has been the bullpen. Joel Hanrahan started the season as closer, but his season is finished due to injury. Andrew Bailey took on the role, but struggles caused him to lose the role. Koji Uehara has since stepped into the role, converting four of his five save opportunities.
The Red Sox are definitely for real, and barring an unforeseen breakdown or influx of injuries, they appear destined for the postseason. There is still an entire half of baseball to play. Whether or not the key components of this team can stay together will determine how deep Boston goes in October.
Raymond Milek is an MLB Rewards Guest Columnist. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.