Red Sox aim to keep hold of first place post-break
Red Sox aim to keep hold of first place post-break
By Ian Browne
BOSTON -- First place. You can use that two-word moniker over and over to describe the Red Sox and they won't get sick of it. After losing 93 games last year, nobody quite knew what to make of Boston entering this season.
But that best-guess scenario that hardly any prognosticators even dared to imagine has come to fruition -- at least during the first half of the season.
So here will be the updated theme for the Red Sox when they return from the All-Star break: Can it last?
If you look at manager John Farrell's team on paper, the success might seem a little surprising.
But this is developing into one of those classic cases of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
General manager Ben Cherington spent last winter not just bringing in talent, but bringing in the type of character players who would thrive in Boston.
Thus far, things have happened just the way he drew it up, with the Red Sox holding the best record in the American League at 58-39 and leading the Rays by 2 1/2 games in the AL East.
"This team reminds me of some of the winning teams that I've played on," said Shane Victorino, member of the World Series-winning Phillies of 2008 and NL pennant winners of '09.
How exactly do the '13 Sox remind Victorino of the best teams he's played on?
"The resiliency," Victorino said. "The playing until there are 27 outs no matter how many runs you're down. Stick all the way until 27 outs are made or if you go into extras, keep battling.
"But it's not enough, just to do what we've done so far. We have to keep going. It's a tough division. There's teams barreling down on us and we have the target on our back because we're in first place. But you know what, we're up for the challenge. We play every inning, every out like it's the last, and we focus on that. That's what's important."
After spending almost the entire first half in first, the Red Sox now aim to finish strong.
MVP: David Ortiz The slugger has made his right Achilles injury a distant memory by putting together yet another monster season.
Cy Young: Clay Buchholz Sidelined since June 9 with a neck strain, Buchholz hopes to return in the next couple of weeks and regain the groove that made him one of the best pitchers in the league in the first half.
Rookie: Jose Iglesias Though he had too many at-bats last season to technically qualify as a rookie this year, Iglesias is getting a chance to play every day in the Majors for the first time and he's flourished, becoming a two-way force for the Red Sox.
Top reliever: Koji Uehara The right-hander has been an invaluable force for Boston, be it as a setup man, or, more recently, as a closer.
They'll need David Ortiz to keep swinging a hot bat. Dustin Pedroia is having one of his best all-around seasons. Clay Buchholz might have been the best pitcher in the AL before developing a neck strain. The Red Sox hope it isn't too long before he pitches again.
What can you say about John Lackey? The right-hander returned from Tommy John surgery with a reshaped body and the best arsenal of pitches he's had in years.
Jose Iglesias has easily been the biggest surprise of the first half, going from a complete non-factor offensively to one of his team's best hitters. All the while, he has played top-of-the-line defense at short and third.
And what can you say about Daniel Nava? All he has done is get one big hit after another, making it harder to believe than ever that the Red Sox once secured his services from the independent league Chico Outlaws for the sum of a dollar.
Jacoby Ellsbury, playing in his free-agent year, has rebounded from a slow start and is having a solid season at the plate, on the bases and in center.
The bullpen will be without Andrew Miller for the rest of the season, but Koji Uehara and others have stepped up.
After producing just two walk-off wins all of last season, the Sox already have eight this year.
Players to watch in second half
Jon Lester The Red Sox need Lester to start dominating again, like he did earlier in the season.
Mike Napoli A major power threat during the opening few weeks of the season, Napoli's bat went ice cold from a power standpoint for a long time. He hopes to regain his groove in the second half.
Will Middlebrooks At some point, the Sox hope Middlebrooks will return from the Minors and recapture the form that made him the team's most pleasant surprise last year.
"Well, I can tell you, in the dugout there's a lot of positive energy," said Farrell. "As long as we're close late, we feel like we've got a push late in the game seemingly every night and some way we'll find a way to put something together. There's a lot of positive things taking place, and it seems like every night, it's someone different."
When there have been injuries to regulars, players like Mike Carp have come up big. Of late, Brandon Snyder and Brock Holt have come up from the Minors to hold down third base while Will Middlebrooks tries to regather himself at Triple-A and Stephen Drew recovers from a hamstring injury.
"We have a good group of guys this season. We all get along real well. Everyone is pulling for each other," said Ortiz. "We have guys watching the game. Next thing you know, they come in and they're ready to go. This team could do some special things."
Once the break ends, the Red Sox have what could wind up being their most critical test of the season.
The Yankees come in for a three-game series at Fenway. Then the Rays are in town for four games. After that, the Sox go to Baltimore for a three-game series.
"We have our own challenges, but this has been a very good offensive team from the start of the year," said Farrell. "It's a collective effort. It's not the result of three or four guys in the lineup. It's a deep lineup one to nine. We've shown the ability to work counts deep, to drive up pitch counts, to get into some bullpens and to run the bases aggressively."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.