Road woes plaguing Red Sox
With their season hanging in the balance, the Red Sox embark on a six-game road trip to begin the second half.
While the All-Star break provided some welcome rest for assorted bumps and bruises that had plagued them over the first half of the season, the Red Sox viewed the three-day vacation as something of a mixed blessing.
After appearing lifeless at times in the first half, the Red Sox seemed to finally achieve a sense of urgency as the break approached, taking five of six from two like-minded playoff-contenders -- Texas and Oakland.
Just when the Red Sox were playing their best stretch of baseball in months, the schedule interrupted.
The optimism, however, carries over.
"It's the difference between knowing you're good instead of showing it,'' said GM Theo Epstein. "Now we're showing it. (The players) feel they're a tough team to beat -- and they are. They should feel that way.''
As the season resumes, the trick will be to have some of the momentum earned last week go into the final 2½ months. First, there's the matter of an eight-game deficit in the AL East, a familiar enough position, after the Red Sox lost 8-1 to the Angels on Thursday. The Sox have finished second to the New York Yankees' first in each of the last six seasons and the last four years, the two clubs were already settled into their end-of-year positions by the time the break arrived.
Beyond their never-ending obsession with the Yankees, however, lies the bigger picture: a spot in the postseason. If the Sox again fail to overtake the Yankees in the East, they'll have to outmanuever as many as three others clubs to secure the American League wild-card spot.
Beginning with a six-game road swing to Anaheim and Seattle to kick-start the second half, the Red Sox will need to improve their road play. Owners of the second-best home record in the big leagues, only seven teams have won fewer road games than the Sox. Boston has dropped 13 of its last 18 away from home.
But there are encouraing signs. It wasn't until July 7 -- a full 82 games into the season -- that manager Terry Francona was able to field the team he envisioned in spring training. And now that they're at virtually full strength -- Ellis Burks remains sidelined with a knee injury -- the club's lineup is flexing its might.
Nomar Garciaparra, who seemed to be angry at the world when he first returned from missing the first 2½ months, has locked in at the plate, hitting .487 for July. Bill Mueller, whose absence went undetected for a while, is hitting .407 this month. Manny Ramirez, who couldn't quite get through the first half without a whiff of controversy, is nonetheless scalding at the plate, hitting .421 with 18 RBI already this month.
Finally, there's Johnny Damon, who carries from the first half a 16-game hitting streak, during which he's hit .436. While this is inarguably Damon's best stretch of play since joining the Sox in 2002, it remains to be seen whether he can overcome his inability to put together two strong halves to a season.
The introduction of the full lineup has had a carryover affect, pushing the likes of Kevin Millar down deeper into the batting order. Stuck on 21 RBI for what seemed like forever, Millar responded by knocking in four runs in two games last week.
The starting rotation, too, has straightened out nicely. Curt Schilling hasn't gone more than two outings in a row without earning a win. Pedro Martinez hasn't lost since the middle of May. Tim Wakefield has rebounded nicely from a dip earlier and sports a 2.00 ERA over his last four starts.
Derek Lowe is another matter. Lowe felt compelled to deliver a vigorous -- if somewhat bizarre -- defense of his own mental health last week after tiring of hearing that his troubles -- an ERA of 8.04 -- were the result of poor focus.
Lowe may well be the key to the pitching staff in the second half.
"We need him to be what he can be,'' said Francona of Lowe, "if we're going to do what we want to do.''
With one eye fixated on the playoff race, the Sox's front office will have another trained on the calendar and the trade deadline. Yes, they would like to obtain Randy Johnson. Yes, they would deal Garciaparra for the prospects necessary to get him. No, they don't expect these things to happen.
Having been burned by overpaying for pitching last July -- Jeff Suppan, thought to be the best starter available, didn't even make the Red Sox' ALCS roster -- the Sox will think twice about such a proposition again.
There's every chance they won't do a thing. Now that they're healthy and whole again, they've seen nothing to reduce their aspirations from the start of the season.
"We shouldn't take out an ad to pat ourselves on the back for winning some games,'' Epstein said. "But (last week) certainly gives us reason to believe we can have a tremendous second half. We're capable of winning more games than any team in baseball in the second half.''
The trick comes in doing it for the rest of the season, and not just for a week before the break.
Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.
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