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2005 Mid-Season Review

If defending a World Series championship were easy, we’d already be planning the October parade route through Boston, but winning a title for the first time since Woodrow Wilson was president means that there are 29 other teams looking to knock you off your perch. It’s been another interesting first half for the club and, for the first time in a decade, the Red Sox sit in sole possession of first place in the American League East at the All-Star break and would like to stay there for the rest of the 2005 season. With this being the traditional half-way mark of the baseball season, it’s time to take stock in how this team has done to this point and hand out some type-written hardware.

Team MVP: Matt Clement
First runner-up: Johnny Damon

The loss of Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe in the Red Sox rotation looked even worse on paper when free agent and former Boston prospect Carl Pavano decided to take an offer to play with the Yankees. Clement was the only other viable option available on the free agent market but seemed like a risky option. However, with Curt Schilling out of action for most of the first half, the eight-year veteran has filled in nicely as the club’s substitute ace, earning ten wins in 18 starts and posting a 3.85 ERA, which leads the team in both categories; in contrast, Pavano is 4-6 with a 4.77 ERA in 17 starts and currently sits on the disabled list. Even though he was added at the last moment, the first-time All-Star selection for Clement was well-deserved; through the first half of the season, he has by far been one of the better pitchers in the American League.

Team Goat: Keith Foulke
First runner-up: Mark Bellhorn

Foulke solidified the closer role last season and throughout the playoffs; however, for as good as he was last season, he has been almost as bad this season. Although he is on track to match his save total from last season, his other numbers are cause for alarm; his walk total already equals last seasons total and he has given up seven more earned runs this season (27) than he did all last season (20). His WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) average is 1.56, better than 50% higher than last season’s average, and the opposition is hitting .289 against him compared to just .208 last season. Fans no longer feel confident when he enters a game; four blown saves and recent arthroscopic surgery have deepened those concerns.

Biggest Surprise: Jason Varitek
First runner-up: Mike Timlin

People in Boston already knew that they had an All-Star catcher behind the plate before this season; being part of last season’s championship team made it evident to the rest of baseball. Varitek will make the first of what will hopefully be a few starts for the American League before he calls it a career and he is more than deserving of that recognition after the first half he enjoyed, especially at the plate. Though he has struggled somewhat in the past couple of weeks, his .301 average is nearly 30 point better than his career average; in fact, Varitek was batting .328 and better as recently as a month ago and his numbers will likely climb again. He has also hit 17 doubles and 13 home runs, which has him on pace to match or exceed career highs. Maybe the Sox should have given him that “C” sooner to wear on his chest.

Biggest Disappointment: Ramon Vazquez
First runner-up: Alan Embree

Boston envisioned that Vazquez would serve as this year’s version of Pokey Reese but that never materialized. Although the opportunities came few and far between, with only 27 appearances and just two starts since the start of June, Vazquez was just awful at the plate, batting just .197 before getting optioned to the minors nearly a week ago and then getting traded to Cleveland. As expected, he showed promise with the glove but, without the bat, he made it difficult for the Red Sox to keep a spot reserved for him on the bench.

Second Half Outlook
Keep your eyes forward

Boston enters the break at 49-38, two games ahead of Baltimore and 2-1/2 games better than New York. At the same time last season, they were 48-38 and seven games behind the Yankees for first place in the East. Last season, it seemed like a hopeless cause; this season, it feels more like guarded optimism. Exhilaration has gone hand-in-hand with the usual scattered struggles or setbacks and it is still unclear whether this year’s crusade will match the success of last season’s campaign.

One advantage for the Red Sox in the second half this season is that, after spending what seemed like an eternity on the road in the first half, playing 49 of the first 87 games this season away from home, Boston will get to play 43 of its remaining 75 games at friendly Fenway Park, where they enjoy the best winning percentage in baseball at home since 2003. Right after the All-Star break, they get to start at home with seven games against New York and Tampa Bay, and then follow a week-long road trip with four series out of the next five at home; that means home-field advantage in 19 out of the first 29 contests to begin the second half. Without being overlooked, Boston also gets help from the schedule makers in the second half with 12 games against Tampa Bay, six against Kansas City, and six against Detroit.

Boston also gets what will be like a mid-season acquisition when Schilling rejoins the team after the break. The team may start the second half with the 38-year-old ace, whose ankle should now be fully healed, coming in from the bullpen but, by the end of the month, he will likely be moved to the starting rotation. Should he come back and pitch like he did in 2004 for the Red Sox, it will definitely pick up a few extra wins for the patchwork rotation which did admirably in the first half.

For the Red Sox, winning the East for the first time since 1995 may be the only ticket to the post-season dance this year; the wild card race at this point is packed pretty tight, with five teams within two games of the leader in that battle and nearly equal competition from the Central division. That should equal an interesting September, as the Sox will play home-and-home series against the Orioles and the Yankees, which includes a showdown at Fenway against New York over the final weekend of the season. The Red Sox seem to match up well with the Yankees, winning five-of-nine thus far with two series already played in New York, but they need to play better in the second half against Baltimore and Toronto, who sport a combined 14-8 record against Boston. Do so and Boston will reach the playoffs for a third straight season, something they have never accomplished as an organization.

Putting On The Hurt

Nomar Garciaparra smiled to reporters this spring and told everyone not to worry because his ankle was just a little sore and that, after all, spring training games are meaningless. You don’t win championships in Florida, unless you happen to be the Marlins. But, just days before the 2004 season was to begin, the Red Sox placed the All-Star shortstop on the 15-day disabled list due to a sore Achilles with a likely return date around the end of April. You can’t help but flash back a few seasons when he missed most of 2001 due to a nagging wrist injury that required surgery on Opening Day.

Trot Nixon is another of the walking wounded for the Red Sox; out since early in spring training with a sore back, he is not expected to return until the start of May at the earliest. Ditto for Ramiro Mendoza, who was placed on the DL with shoulder tendonitis four games into the young season, and Byung-Hyun Kim, who started the season on the DL and spends these days rehabbing in Sarasota. Johnny Damon has also sat out for a couple of games, perhaps in part because his long hair has robbed him of any peripheral vision and caused him to run into his fellow outfielders during the first few games. Fortunately, his injury will not require injured reserve status and he should be back for action when the rains end.

Perhaps the slew of injuries that have plagued the Red Sox early in this year’s race can account in part for the stagnant production at the plate. Yes, the Sox are 4-3 after a week of baseball, but perhaps more thanks to a strong bullpen that have helped keep games close. Except for the absence of Todd Walker, this team has the same makeup as last season’s team that scored 961 runs; the difference is that the Sox were relatively injury-free for most of that year. So, instead of fielding the dream team that was molded in the off-season, Boston has had to go to the bench early and rely on role players like Gabe Kapler, Mark Bellhorn, and Cesar Crespo to fill in the blanks.

Fortunately, the schedule makers are usually very kind to the Red Sox in April. Yes, they face the Yankees seven times, but the rest of the competition consists mainly of the weak sisters from the East: Baltimore, Toronto, and Tampa Bay. Yes, they have improved and are not to be taken lightly but, even with one eye closed, the Sox can manage .500 in April without much effort and stay close to New York.

Boston, to keep its sights on October, must count on the return of its starters as expected by the end of this month. Until then, manager Terry Francona must continue to juggle the lineup as he has and hope for the best; so far, the oddball combinations have worked to help stay the course. Most important is that the rest of the team, minus the injured regulars, must remain healthy; any further setbacks may dig a hole out of which is too deep for Boston to climb.