That the Red Sox would improve this season was not in question when spring training started. How could they not? The 2012 Sox were the worst team fielded by the franchise in nearly 50 years.
But after only a few days in Florida, John Lackey sensed this team would be more than just competitive.
“There was a good mix of guys. People were going about things the right way and playing hard right from the start,” Lackey said. “It felt right.”
Lackey won a World Series with the Angels in 2002 and was a key member of four other playoff teams. His judgment was based on years of experience.
But even Jose Iglesias, a 23-year-old with only 35 games of prior major league experience, felt that way.
“I was trying to make the team in spring training, doing everything I could. The older guys, they were doing the same thing,” he said. “The attitude was very good. Everything had changed. I knew this could be a very good team.”
The Sox are that. At 58-39, they have the best record in the American League. The Sox have been in first place (or tied for first) for 87 days since the season started on April 1. That includes every day since May 27.
Only the Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves have been over .500 all season. For the Red Sox, it is a season that has exceeded all expectations to date.
“For me, it was big to get off to a good start,” said Shane Victorino, one of the veteran free agents signed to remake the roster. “Every team feels good in spring training. But that first few weeks proved it.”
The Sox were 4-2 on a road trip to New York and Toronto to start the season. Through April 20, they were 12-4. The only major downturn came from May 3-14, when the Sox dropped nine of 11 games and fell into third place, three games out of first.
A five-game win streak made that a memory and the Sox have been relatively consistent since. They were 17-11 in June and are 8-5 so far in July.
For manager John Farrell, it’s the depth of the roster that has made a difference. The Red Sox have had 42 players on the active roster this season and all but a few have contributed in some significant way over the first 97 games.
“When you consider those additional 17 above and beyond the 25 that we began the season with, there’s a number of situations where guys have contributed,” he said. “Whether it’s been more regularly, or a one-time outing, we’ve been able to tap into a very good group of players who have served us well. If I were to list things out, I’m sure I would overlook something.”
Even players already on the roster responded. When Clay Buchholz went on the disabled list in early June and Jon Lester had a string of poor starts, Lackey, Ryan Dempster, and Felix Doubront carried the rotation.
“When you have a lot of guys with proven track records, they’re not intimidated by a challenge. They’ve done it before and they know what needs to be done,” said Lackey, whose 7-6 record and 2.78 earned run average after missing 2012 recovering from elbow surgery is one of the stories of the season.
The team also has produced runs at a steady clip. The Sox lead the majors in runs (498), on-base percentage (.350), OPS (.793), doubles (215), walks (357), and extra-base hits (338).
They’re tied for third in stolen bases (73) and second in triples (25).
“It’s a tough lineup to pitch to because they don’t give up any at-bats,” Tigers All-Star Max Scherzer said. “If you’re not careful, you’ll be at 50 pitches after two innings. They work on getting you out of the game.”
All-Stars David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia have been the focal point of the offense from the middle of the order. But players throughout the lineup have played a role.
Jacoby Ellsbury has hit .371 with a .943 OPS since May 21. He has 36 steals in 39 attempts.
Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia has had a solid offensive season, hitting .266 with 32 extra-base hits and 37 RBIs. Daniel Nava, who had no guarantee of making the team out of spring training, has started games at six positions and is hitting .288 with 52 RBIs.
Mike Carp, obtained in a low-profile trade with Seattle, has added 22 extra-base hits and 27 RBIs in 52 games as a bench player.
Iglesias, inept offensively in previous seasons, has hit a shocking .367 over 52 games.
The offense might improve. Strikeout-prone first baseman Mike Napoli, who has 58 RBIs, has traditionally been a better hitter in the final months of the season. Victorino, who has hit .290, has missed 33 games because of back and leg injuries.
The Sox have used six different starters at third and gotten little production from that position.
“I’m proud of the offense,” said Ortiz, who is third in the majors with a 1.008 OPS. “There has been some injuries but we’ve scored runs almost every night. That takes care of a lot of things.”
The bullpen has been an issue. The Sox are 11th in the AL in bullpen ERA (4.10), 13th in opposing batting average (.250), and third in home runs allowed (35).
The Sox traded for Joel Hanrahan to be the closer but he lasted only nine games before being lost for the season with an elbow injury. Andrew Bailey took the job back, then lost it to Koji Uehara. Farrell also has used a variety of setup men.
Getting Buchholz healthy is paramount, as is Lester continuing what has been gradually returning to form in the last two weeks.
The biggest challenge is not to be satisfied with improvement. The Sox were in first place in the division in five of the last seven seasons. Only in 2007 did they finish in first.
“I think a lot of guys came over here to win a ring,” Lackey said. “That’s the motivation. Not to have the best record in the league at the break. We still have a lot of work to do.”