- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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Here are eight things worth fretting about as the Red Sox close out the first month of the season Friday night in Baltimore.
1. The Rays' start
Be afraid. Be very afraid. The Rays (17-5) are baseball's most voracious predators so far this season; since splitting their six-game opening homestand, the Rays are 15-2 in their last 17 games, having outscored their opponents by a 131-42 margin.
The last team to get off to such a hot start was the 2005 White Sox, and they ran the table, sweeping the Astros in four straight to win the World Series.
The 2003 Yankees opened 18-3, and though the Red Sox were within three games by the end of the season, the other teams in the division all had losing records. That's not the case anymore. Now it takes three to tango, and Tampa Bay and New York could make the Sox wallflowers if this continues.
One of the Rays' biggest problems last season was not playing well on the road; they were 32-49 last season. Well, thanks in good measure to the Rays' four-game sweep in Fenway Park, Tampa Bay was 9-1 in April on the road. The only team in the last 25 years to be better was Seattle, which opened the 2002 season 10-1 on the road.
Here's the thing that underscores that this start is no fluke: The Rays' starting pitchers have a 2.84 ERA, best in the American League, third-best in baseball and more than two full points lower than the Red Sox (4.98). No one expects the gap to remain that wide, but clearly the Rays' young arms are living up to their vast potential in the early going.
2. The DH dilemma
Check out Jerry Crasnick's story on ESPN.com, and you'll see the DH position has been a black hole for a number of clubs this season. But the problem has been most acute with the Red Sox, who are last in the league in DH hitting with a .163 average. Only Seattle, where Ken Griffey Jr. is off to a terrible start, has a lower slugging percentage (Sox .291, Mariners .198) and fewer RBIs (Sox 7, Mariners 6) out of the DH position.
David Ortiz has had just 58 plate appearances this season, and has struck out in just under a third of them, 18, while accumulating just six extra-base hits and four RBIs. Ortiz has had just 13 plate appearances in the last 10 days, in part because the Sox ran into a slew of lefties, but that's hardly the kind of workload that will allow him to fight his way out of his slump.
And last season, May was his worst month, one in which he batted just .143. Terry Francona is rotating Ortiz with Victor Martinez and Mike Lowell, as Jason Varitek has gotten off to a good start at the plate, but carrying two DHs (Ortiz and Lowell) is not a luxury most teams can afford.
Something has give. The thinking here is that the Sox give Ortiz a chance to turn it around in May, but that's where the rope ends.
3. Pythagoras is having a fit
This is one of Bill James' pet formulas, his baseball Pythagorean theory highlighting run differential as a means to project a team's won-loss record. No need to get in the actual math here; it suffices to know that the Sox come into this weekend in Baltimore having scored 15 fewer runs than they've allowed.
That hasn't happened in a month since 2006, when the Sox were an 86-win team and finished out of the money. And as far as Pythagoras is concerned, the Sox are actually one game better (11-11) than the formula projected (10-12).
4. Playing from behind
Last season the Sox were 62-30 in games in which they scored first. This season, they have scored first in just eight of their 22 games. Having leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury on the shelf with hairline fractures in four ribs obviously is a factor; he's getting closer to returning, but you have to wonder how much of a crimp this will put in his ability to run the bases with abandon.
The Sox have hardly been the comeback kings this season. They're 1-6 in games in which they've trailed after seven inning, 0-8 after eight.
5. Et tu, Beckett?
After a strong spring training and a new contract in hand, everything seemed to line up for Josh Beckett to come out blazing.
Instead, he has been brutal. There's only one AL starting pitcher with a worse ERA than Beckett's 7.22, and that's Curt Schilling's favorite new punching bag, the Yankees' Javier Vazquez (9.00). Beckett is averaging a very unBeckettlike four-plus walks per nine innings, and his WHIP (walks plus hits per nine innings pitched) is a staggering 1.74, a number exceeded in the early going only by three pitchers: Rich Harden of the Rangers, Jake Peavy of the White Sox and Vazquez.
Those are all pitchers with good track records, so you have to expect these things will even out. And perhaps it is a small consolation that Beckett was uncannily just as bad last April (7.22 ERA) before going 12-2 with a 2.17 ERA over his next 18 starts.
There's no smoking gun statistically to explain Beckett's bad start; other than walks being up and strikeouts down. He's throwing more changeups, but in his breakout 2003 season with the Marlins he threw 20 percent changeups. His velocity is just a slight tick below what it was last season, but when he is leaving pitches in the zone he's paying a high price: Opposing hitters are batting .352 when they put the ball in play, the highest average of his career. That number will come down.
In his last start, in which he lasted just three innings against the Blue Jays, he averaged 92 miles an hour, 2 miles less than normal, did not command well (61 percent of fastballs for strikes, 52 percent of off-speed stuff) and the Jays batted .600 (6 for 10) against his fastball.
The Sox could have slotted Daisuke Matsuzaka on Monday and given Beckett an extra day's rest, which he has proven to thrive on, but decided to hold back Matsuzaka until Saturday because they didn't want to throw off Jon Lester (one hit in seven scoreless) on Wednesday, and John Lackey (who goes Friday night).
6. Running wild
Those are the other guys, of course. Martinez is 1-for-27 throwing runners out. Jason Varitek is 0-for-11. Get another catcher? Then Martinez becomes the third DH on the bench. Has Engelberg ("Bad News Bears") grown up yet?
7. What's this about great defense?
We won't even bother with the numbers. We'll let the testimony of general manager Theo Epstein stand, Epstein saying that the club isn't even making the routine plays very well.
The outfield is missing two-thirds of its starters in Ellsbury and Mike Cameron, so there's no point in making an evaluation there, but shortstop Marco Scutaro has been a clear disappointment early. Too soon to say he'll morph into Edgar Renteria, circa 2005, but it bears watching.
8. Overcooked bullpen
Only Jim Leyland of the Tigers has gotten more innings out of his bullpen (78) than Terry Francona (73), and it's showing, especially with Hideki Okajima -- 2 IP, 8 H, 5 ER over his last three outings.
Alan Embree has been summoned, Scott Atchison shuttled to Pawtucket and Tim Wakefield takes a spot in the bullpen this weekend. With Matsuzaka being activated Saturday, another move is in the offing (Scott Schoeneweis?), but the starters have to go deeper.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.