Whenever Jonny Gomes would glance at the standings, he got an idea just how much of a tug of war the American League East is.
The fact that four of the five teams are above .500 was overshadowed by what the division did against the rest of the league.
In the first half, the AL East went a combined 70-54 against the Central, 53-39 against the West, and 35-19 in interleague play.
“I’ve actually looked at our standings and you saw the whole AL East win,” Gomes said. “It seems like the only time a team loses is when we play each other. It’s a big division. It truly is.”
Which is why the Red Sox’ first 10 games out of the All-Star break will be a grueling and critical test. They start with a three-game set this weekend with the Yankees, then play four with the second-place Rays, and then hit the road for three games against the Orioles.
The Sox enter Friday with a major league-leading 58 wins, but 38 of their final 65 games are against division foes.
“Whether it’s New York, whether it’s Tampa, Baltimore, whoever it might be, these are going to be strongly contested games,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “We have the utmost respect for what the Yankees are going to bring in this series and we know that that’s going to be a challenge in and of itself.
“I think the most important thing for us is we get off the road, we get back into this ballpark and feed off the energy of the people here in Fenway. We’re looking forward to the start of this homestand.”
The Sox know how crucial the final months of the season can be. They’ve gone into the break with the division lead in five of the last seven seasons, but have won the division just once over that span.
“It’s going to be a scrap,” Gomes said. “It’s a tough division. You see last place here could be third or second in other divisions. So that speaks for itself. At the same time, the Sox aren’t going to sneak up on anybody on the road.”
In the first half, the Sox found every way possible to win games. They won 27 games on the road, eight games via walkoff, 13 games by one run, five games in extra innings, and 19 in come-from-behind fashion.
“We can win it [with] small ball, guys at the top of the lineup getting on, stealing bases, or we can hit some homers, too,” said Mike Napoli. “You’re going to have to be able to win games different ways and I think our team can do that.”
At several points, the Sox won with a patchwork lineup and pitching staff. From Stephen Drew and David Ortiz, to Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, to Will Middlebrooks and Shane Victorino, 16 Sox have spent time on the disabled list, missing a combined 478 games.
Six players have started at third base. Eleven players have hit seventh in the lineup. Still, the Sox have scored more runs than any team in baseball.
“With all the injuries, there’s been guys penciled in the two-hole, penciled in the five- and six-hole, at the bottom of the lineup, shortstop’s back and forth,” Gomes said. “I think the identity is just that we’re deep and there’s many ways for this team to win. We’ve walked off at home, we’ve won by a bunch. We’ve won close games. So I think we’ve got a couple identities, which is good.”
It’s no secret in the clubhouse that staying healthy will be crucial if the Sox want to sustain their success.
There are question marks all over. Drew, who went on the disabled list July 5 (retroactive to June 29) with a right hamstring strain, made his first rehab start Thursday night with Double A Portland and could return as soon as Saturday. His return would presumably slide Jose Iglesias back to third base from shortstop.
Iglesias has produced at such a high rate (.367 average, .417 on-base percentage) that it’s natural to wonder if he can keep it up. Only the Rays and Rangers have gotten a higher on-base percentage out of their No. 9 spot than the Red Sox’ .326 clip.
Even though Hanrahan imploded early and was lost to Tommy John surgery and Bailey failed to hold on to the closer’s job, the Sox rank first in the league in relief appearances. The bullpen has survived because of its depth, with veteran Koji Uehara shoring up the back end.
The most troubling question mark is the status of Clay Buchholz, who has been on the disabled list since June 18 (retroactive to June 9) with a neck strain and hasn’t been able to pitch with any intensity without feeling pain.
The rotation has ridden out the highs and lows, from John Lackey’s resurgent season to Jon Lester’s recent struggles. Having a steadying force like Ryan Dempster has helped the Sox avoid any major skids.
But with a 9-0 record, a 1.71 ERA, and 81 strikeouts in 12 starts, Buchholz made the Red Sox unbeatable whenever he took the mound.
“Getting him back, him being healthy and pitching the way he can is a big gain for us,” Napoli said.
The Sox were able to navigate injuries and issues in the first half in large part because of depth and some deft decision-making by Farrell.
But with a daunting schedule ahead in a tightly packed division, returning to full strength will play a large part in sustaining success and returning to the postseason.
“Where we’re at right now, we’re not going to sneak up on anyone,” Gomes said. “So we just have to simplify — win each game, win each inning, stay healthy and keep going north.”