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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Red Sox transforming into AL's best team

Red Sox transforming into AL's best team

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Red Sox transforming into AL's best team

MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

The Red Sox are being transformed right in front of our eyes. They were already a really good baseball team. They scored runs in bunches. They had solid pitching. They had leadership and heart and a lot of the stuff that's difficult to measure. All that said, it was tough to see them as a championship team.

The Tigers seemed to be better. At various times, the Rays looked like they might sprint right by the Red Sox in the American League East. There was a case to be made for the A's, Rangers and Orioles all being better than the Red Sox.

No more.

There isn't a better AL team than the Red Sox at the moment. After rallying from two runs down in the seventh to beat the Orioles, 4-3, on Wednesday, the Red Sox are 24 games above .500 at 79-55. Plenty can happen in these final five weeks, but maybe for the first time this season, the Red Sox seem capable of going from last place one season to the World Series the next. Yeah, they're that good.

They're not a perfect team, because they've suffered too many injuries at the back of their bullpen. Koji Uehara has been tremendous in sliding into the ninth-inning role, but the setup staff has been thinned out thanks to a string of injuries.

But its the emergence of a dominant rotation that could carry the Red Sox deep into October.

Starting pitching was the biggest question at the beginning of Spring Training. John Lackey and Jon Lester were coming off tough seasons. Felix Doubront had spent only one full season in the Majors. Ryan Dempster was signed to deepen the rotation, but the Red Sox probably were going to go only as far as Lackey and Lester carried them.

They've got a combined 2.90 ERA this month. Lackey has been as good as ever, start to finish, and Lester has allowed four earned runs in his last four starts. Even with Clay Buchholz -- the ace of the staff at the beginning of the season -- sidelined indefinitely, the Red Sox's rotation has compiled a 3.81 ERA, second-best in the league behind only Detroit.

That's a tribute to many things. First, the work ethic of the players. Second, bringing John Farrell, the former pitching coach, back as manager has been a brilliant hire. And the Red Sox are scoring enough runs to cover up even tough nights on the mound.

General manager Ben Cherington, who did such a nice job retooling the roster last winter, added another important piece just before the Trade Deadline by getting veteran Jake Peavy from the White Sox.

Peavy has a 3.31 ERA in five starts with his new team, and Farrell said the numbers tell only part of the story. He said Peavy's veteran presence plays well in the clubhouse, and that as the Red Sox have run off a string of solid starts, the pitchers have begun to feed off and compete with one another.

When Lester walked off the mound after the eighth inning in a start in San Francisco last week, he screamed at Farrell, "I'm finishing this game!"

He missed doing that by two outs, but Lester's fire says plenty about what the Red Sox have become. Two years ago, the Boston rotation was terrible during a September collapse. Last year, the Red Sox's 5.19 rotation ERA was the fourth-worst in all of baseball.

In one season, the reemergence of Lackey and Lester and the continued improvement of Doubront -- and now Peavy -- have given Boston a playoff-caliber group.

The Tigers and A's have the potential to match up with any rotation in baseball, but at the moment, there's not a better group of starters than the Red Sox. There's also some hope that Buchholz could return for the final weeks of the regular season in some role.

After losing 93 games last season and cutting payroll, it's tough to believe Cherington envisioned things falling into place this quickly. But he did one smart thing after another, first in hiring Farrell and then bringing in players like Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, etc.

When all is said and done, this club was and remains Dustin Pedroia's. He's not just the club's best player. He's the guy whose energy and drive reflect what the Red Sox hope to be every single night.

If these last two baseball seasons have taught us anything, it's that nothing is guaranteed. But the Red Sox appear in a dead sprint for the postseason and some October baseball at Fenway Park.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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