Commentary

So far so good for 2011 Red Sox

At halfway mark, they're in first place and living up to the offseason hype

Updated: July 11, 2011, 2:29 PM ET
By Joe McDonald | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox had just completed a four-game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles with an 8-6 victory Sunday afternoon at Fenway Park and the home clubhouse was virtually empty.

In fact, second baseman Dustin Pedroia said it perfectly: "I'm checked out."

The All-Star break has arrived and the Red Sox find themselves with the best record (55-35) in the American League. Given all the offseason acquisitions and the buildup to the 2011 season, that may not seem surprising; yet, it's remarkable given that they started with a 2-10 record.

General manager Theo Epstein said that if anyone had told him back on April 15, when the club's record was 2-10, that the Red Sox would be in first place in the AL East by the All-Star break and that they would be one of the top offensive teams in the game, he would have gladly accepted that prediction even though he knew that would be a challenge.

It turned out this team is for real and has lived up to expectations so far.

Epstein Looking back on it we can laugh about it, but it was pretty bad. It was a rough start. I'm proud of the way the players, the coaching staff and everyone bounced back.

-- Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, on Boston's 2-10 start

"I'm proud of the guys and the way we bounced back from a tough start," Epstein said. "It shows a lot. [The players] demonstrated a resilient approach and the ability to bounce back from some early adversity and also the ability to withstand some injuries. The depth, not just of the team but of the entire organization, really showed itself in the first half. It's been a real organization-wide effort to get where we are with the best record in the league."

Of course, there's still plenty of baseball remaining and Epstein knows anything can happen.

"It's where you finish and not where you are at the halfway point," he said. "But given the way things started, and the well-deserved scrutiny we faced at the start, it's impressive that we climbed out of it as quickly as we did."

Epstein can now joke that during that low point in April, Red Sox management was questioning its decision-making process. But Epstein & Co. knew it was a long season and hoped things would turn around.

After that 2-10 start, the Sox posted a 53-25 record to get to where they are now.

"You understand that it's a long season and we were sure we would bounce back eventually," Epstein said. "It was a matter of not wanting to dig ourselves too deep of a hole. When we broke spring training I didn't think I would be giving a speech in the first 10 days of the season. Looking back on it we can laugh about it, but it was pretty bad. It was a rough start. I'm proud of the way the players, the coaching staff and everyone bounced back."

Boston currently leads the majors in nine offensive categories, including average (.278), runs (474), hits (859), doubles (195), RBIs (457), walks (345), on-base percentage (.354), slugging percentage (.456) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.810).

"We're on top of just about every category, but you never say, 'We're going to lead the league in everything,'" Epstein said. "But I thought we would be one of the top offensive clubs in baseball. I thought we had a well-rounded team. It's always nice to look up and see where you are relative to your peers. In a year when offense is down, we're doing some pretty impressive things offensively. It's a nice testament to the depth of the lineup."

With the July 31 trade deadline quickly approaching, Epstein said he will be keeping a close eye on things.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Ellsbury
AP Photo/Winslow Townson"We're all excited about the fact that he's an All-Star. This kid is an All-Star," manager Terry Francona said of Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.

"If there is a way to improve the team, we want to get that done," he said. "But you always have to balance the short- and long-term interest. You also have to make sure you don't do something that turns out to be detrimental to the mix. We'll pursue a lot of opportunities and maybe something happens, maybe something doesn't. I think we're in good shape."

Manager Terry Francona agreed that, despite the team's 2-10 start and continued injuries, he is extremely pleased with several aspects of the team's first half. He pointed to the outstanding play of center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, the relief work of Matt Albers and the continued good health of Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez, all of whom had offseason surgeries.

Ellsbury, a first-time All-Star this season, has been spectacular. After the Red Sox signed Carl Crawford last December, the talk throughout the offseason was the possible batting order for the club. Francona made it no secret that he wanted Ellsbury batting leadoff, saying that if he's healthy and successful then the Red Sox are a much better team.

That came to fruition in the first half. Ellsbury is currently hitting .316 with 11 homers, 49 RBIs and 28 stolen bases.

"I'll tell you what, he's a good player and he's feeling pretty good about himself right now," Francona said. "We're all excited about the fact that he's an All-Star. This kid is an All-Star."

Francona plans on shutting it down for the next couple of days before the team resumes with an off-day workout Thursday in Tampa in preparation for Friday's game against the Rays.

"The first half of the season doesn't wind down, it comes to a crashing halt," Francona said. "That's the way you go about it.

"The guys who are going to Phoenix should be excited," he added. "The guys get to go home and do whatever they want. We want them to get away for a few days. We talk about it all the time that the first game back [after the break] the legs are a little slow and that happens sometimes, you're a little lethargic sometimes. If that's the worst thing that happens, then we're OK. They need to get away because it's a long second half."

The main priority for the Sox once the schedule resumes is to get healthy, and fast. Pitchers Jon Lester (lat strain) and Clay Buchholz (lower-back strain) remain on the disabled list, along with left fielder Carl Crawford (hamstring strain) and infielder Jed Lowrie (shoulder strain). Barring any setbacks, Crawford is set to return to the lineup on July 18 at Baltimore, but there's no timetable for the others.

"It's a good time for us to have a break," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. "It gives some guys a chance to get their health back to where it needs to be. It's not over and we've got the entire second half to go. We're only a game up and we want to win this division, so we're going to go out there and play the best we can."

When Epstein assembled this season's club during the winter, it entered the season with extremely high hopes and standards. The Red Sox were, and remain, the odds-on favorite to win the World Series, but there's still plenty to accomplish before that can happen.

"We haven't clicked on all cylinders, either, which is kind of exciting," Francona said.

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.

Joe McDonald

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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