Perhaps this is the week that will be viewed as the turning point of the season for the Red Sox.
That is in no small part a byproduct of the team’s most recent three games, all wins, all memorable in their own ways. On Tuesday, the Sox plated six runs against Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera to earn a huge win (and, almost as importantly, to avoid another crippling defeat) against the Yankees in New York.
Then, back in Fenway Park on Wednesday, Clay Buchholz delivered one of the finest games of his career to beat the AL Central-leading Twins. That dazzling start was backed up by an even better one on Thursday, as Jon Lester delivered the Sox’ first complete game of the season in a dominating 6-2 win to sweep the two-game set from Minnesota. (Recap.)
Yet even those three wins may ultimately prove less important than another event that now looms on the horizon. Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, out since colliding with Adrian Beltre while chasing a foul ball on April 11, had a strong rehab game for Double-A Portland, going 3-for-4 with a double, an infield hit, a stolen base and a run.
On a day when he was sliding and diving all over the field, Ellsbury answered any outstanding questions he had about his ability to play nearly six weeks after suffering a hairline fracture of four ribs.
And so, rather than continue his rehab assignment as scheduled, Ellsbury will accompany the Sox to Philadelphia, with the intention of being activated from the disabled list on Saturday. He suggested that, while he will continue to feel the injury for some time, he has recovered to the point where it should not limit him on the field.
“I’ve pretty much done everything I can in the games,” said Ellsbury. “My legs are sore. I haven’t played -- it has been a little while, so that’s expected. But, as far as the chest, it’s feeling pretty good.
“It was one of those injuries where, once I feel good, it is not going to linger. The issue is not going to linger on. Once I was back on the field, I should be close to 100 percent.”
That is a noteworthy development for the Sox, especially given just how central a role Ellsbury played in the design of the 2010 club.
This offseason, the Sox shaped their offseason roster primarily through free agency in no small part because of how the team valued the young center fielder. The club contemplated pursuing starter Javier Vazquez from the Braves, but it became clear that Atlanta would want a young big-league outfielder in return. In the case of the Sox, according to major league sources, that would have meant Ellsbury, a cost the Sox deemed too high. And so, Vazquez ended up with the Yankees (in exchange for Melky Cabrera and prospects Mike Dunn and Arodys Vizcaino), and the Sox ended up acquiring John Lackey as a free agent.
The Sox considered pursuing Tigers outfielder Curtis Granderson. But again, doing so would have meant parting ways with Ellsbury (as well as other key pitchers such as Clay Buchholz and/or Daniel Bard), and so, the Sox decided to hold onto their inventory of young talent and round out their outfield with Mike Cameron.
The Sox viewed Ellsbury as a player who showed signs at the end of 2009 that he was coming into his own. He was expected to be a dynamic contributor to the lineup, on the bases and in the outfield. Instead, he has been sidelined for all but the first six games of the year.
Once it was determined that the 26-year-old would have to go on the D.L., the Sox have weathered his absence in fairly impressive fashion. Since Ellsbury and Cameron went on the disabled list prior to the game on the night of April 20, the Sox are 17-11 (.607) and have averaged 5.8 runs per game, the most in the majors. That said, the Sox envision a different, more dynamic offense once Ellsbury rejoins it.
“I think the guys that have played have done a really good job,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “[But] it gives us a different element, the kind of game-changing speed that teams have to be aware of. All the headaches that we have when guys like [Rays outfielder Carl] Crawford are on base, now it happens to other teams. It is certainly a different look than when we don't have him in here.”
It would not be a stretch for the team to envision defensive improvement as well. Since Cameron and Ellsbury were placed on the D.L., the Sox’ yield of 5.2 runs per night is the most in the American League, and it would be hard to imagine that outfield defense has been a part of the problem.
So, at a time when they are playing better baseball, having gone 11-6 since May 3, the Sox are now about to get reinforcements. It is not the complete roster that the team envisioned at the start of the year (Josh Beckett, of course, is on the D.L., and Cameron also remains on the shelf), but it is getting closer. A player who was expected to be one of the key contributors should soon make his presence felt.
“I’ve been looking forward to it for a while so I am excited,” said Ellsbury.
Here are some other items of note from a night when the Sox once again moved to a season-high two games over .500:
LESTER MAY BE BETTER THAN EVER
Yes, Jon Lester got off to another slow start. And yes, he is showing once again that he is capable of turning his season around and getting on the kind of sustained roll of which few pitchers in the majors are capable.
Those are familiar themes. Yet in that familiarity, it should not be lost that Lester is perhaps more dominant than he has ever been.
On the heels of his complete game, Lester (4-2) has already lowered his ERA to 3.47, a mark that he did not achieve last year until September.
After recording 12 outs via groundball (and four by flyball) in his complete game, Lester has a 3.19 groundout-to-flyout ratio, the sixth best mark in the majors and third best in the American League. Increasingly, opponents are finding it difficult to make solid contact against him, as he learns to employ pitches (four- and two-seam fastball, changeup, cutter) that force opponents to pound the ball into the dirt.
“That’s part of him developing and becoming more complete. His sinker and cutter create a lot of groundballs. He’s added his changeup to that,” said catcher Jason Varitek. “It’s a testament to him, to his stuff and his development. It’s pretty special to watch.”
“He’s really good,” mused teammate John Lackey. “His velocity that he brings from the left side is pretty rare. With the cutter combination, the feel he has for that, it’s pretty special.”
Opponents are hitting .211 (the ninth-best mark in the AL) with a .296 OBP (16th) and .333 slugging mark (13th) against Lester. Each of those marks would represent career bests. Perhaps more impressively, those marks would continue a trend in which Lester has improved in each of those categories in each of his five major-league seasons.
In other words, now that his annual slow start is behind him, Lester is amidst his annual exploration of how good he can be in 2010. The manner in which he dominated one of the better lineups in the game on Thursday offered an impressive hint of what might be to come.
ALSO BETTER THAN EVER…THE CLEANUP HITTER
Quietly, Kevin Youkilis is enjoying one of the best stretches of his career.
The 31-year-old blasted a two-out, three-run homer in the bottom of the third that landed behind the camera well in the center field bleachers, and later yanked an RBI double down the left field line. Yet on a night when he went 2-for-4 with 4 RBI, his on-base percentage for the month actually went down.
Such has been the zone in which the Red Sox cleanup hitter has been operating. Thus far in the month of May, he leads the majors in batting average (.411) and OBP (.585 -- a mark that is 100 points better than any other player in the game), slugging (.786) and OPS (1.371). All four of those marks would represent the best one-month totals of his career if he can sustain them.
He is having a month with a Ted Williams-esque approach. He is refusing to expand the strike zone, taking his walks where appropriate (he has 22 in 18 May games), yet he remains ready to unload should a ball be delivered in his wheelhouse.
“You’ve got to go up there and have the mindset of attacking the ball and going up and trying to hit. You don’t go up there trying to walk. You’re going up there trying to hit,” said Youkilis. “I feel good. Just trying to get good pitches to hit. I was very fortunate today to get a good pitch to hit with runners in scoring position, and I capitalized on it.”
SOX PITCHERS ARE GETTING READY TO TEE OFF
It is time for the annual exercise in awkwardness. With the arrival of interleague play in the coming series in Philadelphia, Red Sox pitchers will have their opportunity to take some hacks in a National League ballpark.
That fact has already yielded a casualty, as the lower back strain that has Josh Beckett on the disabled list can be traced initially to spasms that he encountered while hitting indoors. The condition lingered and was aggravated when he slipped on the mound in New York on Tuesday.
Despite Beckett’s wounded status, however, his fellow pitching brethren seem undeterred. John Lackey -- who was primarily a first baseman in high school and college -- seemed particularly enthused heading into Friday’s start in Philly.
“Everybody’s got power where we’re going,” said Lackey, referring to the fact that Citizens Bank Park is one of the greatest hitter’s parks in the game.
Lackey could take aim at his first career homer; he is 1-for-30 (.033/.033/.067) as a big league hitter. Saturday’s Sox starter, Daisuke Matsuzaka, will be looking for his first career hit in the regular season (though he did deliver a two-run single in the 2007 World Series), while Tim Wakefield (a lifetime .126/.151/.175/.326 hitter) has already declared a hope of trying to advance runners via bunt. Wakefield hit a double in Atlanta last year, while his last sacrifice bunt came in 2005.
A KEY PITCHING PROSPECT KEEPS CLIMBING THE LADDER
After going 8-6 with a 3.35 ERA in Portland last year, Felix Doubront had an outstanding spring training in which he tossed seven shutout innings. He then showed progress in his return to Double-A, going 4-0 with a 2.51 ERA to start this season. He had been particularly impressive of late, with four straight outings of at least 5-2/3 innings, a period in which he had a 1.48 ERA while striking out 22 in 24.1 innings.
“We were starting to see the consistency and work that he was putting in start to start: the consistency of the stuff, the delivery. We felt like it was time to challenge him,” said Sox farm director Mike Hazen. “With the consistency of his stuff deep into games, he’s really pitching, which is very impressive. We wanted to challenge him at the next level.”
Hazen suggested that Doubront has shown improved command of all three of his pitches (fastball, curve, changeup). Still, he suggested that there remained room for improvement, since Doubront has walked 3.6 batters per nine innings — an improvement from his mark of 3.9 walks per nine innings last year, but still an area that the Sox would like to see the young pitching prospect address.
“When he learns to really attack the zone with the three pitches he has, because they are pretty good pitches, there’s an even higher ceiling here,” said Hazen. “Now he’s going to have to do it at the next level.”