So where do the Red Sox stand?
This team, the one that left Fenway Park so secure a week ago, is still carrying a healthy dose of optimism as it heads home from its 2-4 road trip, the Sox' final trip across the country of the season.
The Sox have hitters (albeit some who aren't hitting), and they have pitchers (with the ones running out of the bullpen living a somewhat better existence than their starting counterparts). And while a 3-2 loss to Seattle at Safeco Park Sunday ruined the team's chances for a .500 road swing, three of the four losses came by one run.
All that is fine and good, but the reality is that the Red Sox had better figure out how those final pieces of the puzzle fit in a hurry, because it looks as though their competitors have seen the light.
The Blue Jays, who are heading to town for a three-game set starting Tuesday night at Fenway, are still winning. They're standing at 26-14, having won three straight while carrying a three-game lead over the second-place Sox in the American League East.
The once unsympathetic plight of the Yankees has turned in a hurry, with the New Yorkers carrying a five-game win streak into their series with the Orioles and residing just 1 1/2 games behind the Red Sox.
And the once-and-mighty Rays are starting to flex their 2008 muscles once more, winning their last three, and four out of five, to crawl within 3 1/2 of the Red Sox.
What it comes down to is this week, albeit one still smack dab in the middle of just the second month of the season, is an important one for the Red Sox. Not only are they looking to make hay against the team standing firmly in front of them in the standings, but this will also be the unveiling of a few potential solutions for some of the Sox' biggest peccadilloes.
Tuesday we'll see if the three days off has done a world of good for David Ortiz. The slugger, who was going to pinch-hit for Rocco Baldelli in extra innings if it got that far on Sunday, certainly feels the time away from active duty did a world of good.
“Sometimes it gets like that,” Ortiz told the Boston Herald after the game. “Sometimes, you try to overdo things and the next thing you know, you’re not getting back to what you think you need to do. Sometimes (some time) off can clean up your mind and put you back on track. I’ve done it before."
And by Wednesday the Red Sox should have their regular lineup for the first time since Kevin Youkilis left with a bruised oblique muscle on May 4. Since the absence of their first baseman, the Sox have totaled the majors' 15th-most runs and 16th-best batting average while going 6-6. For the season the Red Sox have the fourth-most runs and eighth-best average.
Then there is the reinforcement for a starting staff that has the second-worst ERA in the majors. Daisuke Matsuzaka figures to return to the rotation as early as Friday, against the New York Mets, after giving up two runs and nine hits over 11 2/3 innings during his three rehab starts with Triple A Pawtucket.
It's still early, but this past road swing was chock full of reminders regarding the Red Sox' need to fix their issues, because by the looks of it everybody else is well on their way to curing what ailed them.
Here are four more things we were enlightened with coming out of the Sox' latest loss ...
SOX DEFENSELESS AT SHORTSTOP
Let's deal with Nick Green's ninth-inning throw.
It wasn't hard to figure out what happened: Green knew he was going to have to get a little more on the throw because Ronny Cedeno's two-out grounder was slightly in the hole between short and third. Green has a strong arm and he knew if there was ever a time to break it out it was at that moment.
Bottom line: Green isn't a shortstop. He can play shortstop, but he isn't a shortstop. In 2006 he played 10 games at shortstop. That was his experience at the position in the majors. The 30-year-old has now already played 22 this season.
So why might have this inexperience at the position led to what transpired in Seattle? Well, Green has said that one of the biggest adjustments he has had to make is the proper approach on what has become his longest throw.
When he has played his normal position, second base, executing a two-seam grip or a four-seam grip didn't factor in too much because of the shorter throw. But at shortstop Green has had to learn to use a four-seam grip because if he doesn't the ball would die just before arriving at his first baseman.
On Cedeno's grounder Green clearly prioritized getting a four-seam grip on his throw, along with setting himself for what was a throw from the healthiest of distances. But while it has been well-documented how strong an arm he has, it was perhaps the forgetting about what the ball would do after it left his hand from such a distance that might have played a factor in the outcome.
“I had a good grip on it,” Green told the Boston Herald after the game. “It just happens. Do I want it to happen? No. Obviously it happened at the wrong time, so what are you going to do? I’ve been trying to slow things down. I slowed it down too much. I took my time, but I got a little lazy and didn’t come back over the top of the ball. It (stinks) to happen, but it did."
During the stretch that the Red Sox were on the road over the last week, the Sox' shortstops made four errors, two more than any other team's players at that position in the same span.
Julio Lugo is nursing a groin, and seemed to be lacking confidence defensively when he was on the field. Jed Lowrie is still potentially a month or more from rejoining the Sox. So it would appear as though in the world of roster-altering priorities, finding a reliable defensive shortstop might now be at the top of the Sox' list.
NO YOUKILIS, NO PAPI, BIG PROBLEM
The Red Sox lineup's success is predicated on production from top to bottom. They didn't get it on this West Coast trip.
During the last six games the Red Sox had the second-worst slugging percentage in the American League (.376), the second-fewest runs per game (3.83), the third-worst batting average (.235) and on-base percentage (.322), and grounded into the most double plays (8).
But here comes the big one: Over the last six games, the Red Sox were dead last in the majors in batting average with runners in scoring position (.154).
Green went 2 for 2 on the road trip in those situations, but other than the utilityman no Red Sox hitter notched more than one hit with runners in scoring position. None of the group consisting of J.D. Drew (1 for 4), Mike Lowell (1 for 5), Lugo (1 for 5), Jacoby Ellsbury (1 for 8), Dustin Pedroia (1 for 8), Rocco Baldelli (0 for 2), Jason Bay (0 for 4), David Ortiz (0 for 7), and Jason Varitek (0 for 4) stepped up, and because of it they collected two wins in six chances.
As for the Sox' final game in the Seattle series, the top four members of the Red Sox order -- Ellsbury (5), Pedroia (2), Bay (5), and Lowell (4) -- combined to strand 16 runners in the series finale.
“Obviously those guys are good hitters,” Pedroia told the Boston Herald, referring to Ortiz and Youkilis. “You take them out of the lineup, we’re going to have a tough time. Still, we had our opportunities to score in certain situations and just didn’t. We need to do a better job of finding a way. If we’re not hitting home runs, we need to manufacture runs.”
And just in case you were wondering (which I'm sure you weren't), former Red Sox Brandon Moss led all major leaguers with a .579 batting average while his former team was on their final West Coast road trip. It doesn't really matter, but it's nice to keep up with old friends.
J.D. MIGHT BE READY TO MAKE ANOTHER RUN
Remember last June, when Drew rattled off 12 home runs immediately after Ortiz left the lineup due to his wrist injury? Could we be seeing another reminder why the right fielder can be as scintillating as frustrating?
Drew led all Red Sox hitters with a .350 batting average, a .458 on-base percentage and a .700 slugging percentage, while hitting a pair of home runs, including a solo shot in the fourth that knotted Sunday's game at 2-2.
A few reasons Drew might not step up over the next week: He is hitting .217 at Fenway Park this year, is 0 for 3 against Tuesday's starter, Brian Tallet, and has to face back to back lefties in the upcoming series' first two games.
But then there is the reason Drew just might pull it off again -- it's almost June.
THE BEST IS GETTING BETTER
The Red Sox have the best bullpen in the majors, leaving Seattle with a 3.01 ERA. They've also thrown the third most pitches of any group of relievers in the American League.
So, with that in mind, a little evolution never hurt any bullpen, even one as good as this one.
This would appear to have been Masterson's final start for a while, with Matsuzaka slated to re-enter the starting rotation. That leads Masterson back to where he began, the bullpen.
Masterson was one of the brighter spots during the Sox' visit to the West Coast, pitching twice and allowing just four runs in 12 1/3 innings. His latest start saw him allow a healthy amount of hits (9), but still just two runs over 6 1/3 innings while not walking a batter for the first time since he became a starter on April 20.
He finishes his latest starting stint having allowed a 4.58 ERA over six games, compared to his 4.50 mark in four appearances out of the pen. Masterson is still battling some issues when facing lefties, allowing a .302 batting average, but did get a chance to work on solutions (such as a change-up) as a starter that he can now carry over to his old haunts in the bullpen.
With the addition of Masterson and rookie Daniel Bard, along with the continued stellar performances of everybody else in the Sox' bullpen, this group of relievers have now transcended its promise on paper. It is legitimately one of the strongest collections the Sox have had in years.
You want lefties out? Hideki Okajima is limiting left-handed hitters to a .133 batting average, while they're hitting .132 off Ramon Ramiez and Manny Delcarmen is holding lefty hitters to a .195 clip.
Runners on? Takashi Saito has seemingly found his groove a bit, limiting opponents to a .207 batting average with men on base, and just two hits in 18 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
(Sunday did mark the first time Ramirez has allowed an inherited runner to score, having stranded his previous 11.)
Now comes Masterson. Life is good for the the Red Sox relievers.