OAKLAND, Calif. — The Red Sox had timely hitting for sure in 2013, but it has been a missing element for much of this season, except for the homers by David Ortiz and Mike Napoli in Wednesday’s matinee win at Fenway Park.
But the major components of last season’s championship team were airtight defense, mistake-free play, and elite pitching by both the starters and the bullpen.
A year later, the pitching seems to be a strength again, in both the rotation and the bullpen, and with Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront returning soon, those “good decisions” about stockpiling arms are about to prove sound.
As the Red Sox embark on what should be a very tough and telling road trip against the Athletics (arguably the best team in baseball), a surprising Mariners team, and the good old Yankees, their defense, ranked ninth in baseball, has improved quite a bit since the early part of the season. With Stephen Drew back at shortstop, Dustin Pedroia at second, and Mike Napoli at first, it is resembling the defense that Red Sox pitchers had so much confidence with last season.
According to bisdata.com, Xander Bogaerts gave up seven runs at shortstop in his early tenure there and three runs at third base. The Sox, of course, are hoping he plays as seamlessly as his counterparts in the infield.
Jackie Bradley Jr. remains a plus defender in center field, but the Sox are still lagging defensively in left and right. Brock Holt may improve those defensive metrics, as will Shane Victorino when he returns either this weekend in Oakland or next week in Seattle.
So if this is the foundation of the team — a team coming off three straight wins — then it’s not a bad one with which to move forward.
At this stage, the Red Sox can’t be looking at the standings too closely. The main focus is to get to .500, then make a move from there. There is time to leapfrog six teams to get to a wild-card spot.
Jon Lester and John Lackey are pitching well, and the Sox have been receiving quality starts from youngsters Brandon Workman and Rubby De La Rosa. They need a bit more consistency out of Jake Peavy, Thursday night’s starter in Oakland.
In June, Red Sox starters have a 7-6 record, a 3.04 ERA, and a 1.14 WHIP.
Closer Koji Uehara, though he allowed a 10th-inning home run against the Twins Wednesday, has been stellar. Junichi Tazawa has done a nice job in the setup role, and Andrew Miller and Craig Breslow seem to be coming around from the left side. Burke Badenhop has had an All-Star season as a middle reliever.
And when you see Edward Mujica save a game with good stuff, the kind he exhibited for five months in St. Louis last season, that is encouraging.
The Boston bullpen is ranked fifth overall in ERA at 2.80, second in the American League behind Seattle (2.70).
The hard part remains repairing the offense.
General manager Ben Cherington has had a hand in building three championship teams in 11 years, and he was the primary architect of the 2013 team. So he’s one of the best in baseball. While last season’s Red Sox were built primarily in the offseason (sure, he landed Peavy at the deadline), his responsibility now is to fix the offense in-season.
He fixed the infield defense while taking a rash of nonsense from the know-it-alls, and now his goal is to fix the offense.
He is very methodical, but once he decides on something, he strikes quickly.
He has tried to give the offense, particularly the outfielders, a chance to jell, a chance to come out of their doldrums. He showed extreme patience with Grady Sizemore, knowing full well that the next team that gets him might get the best of him. If the other outfielders had carried their weight, Sizemore would have had more time to find himself and get his legs into a better place where he would have been able to generate power.
Nobody knew Holt would come in and bring this kind of energy to the leadoff spot and show so much versatility that he can be used in center field. Whether this is for real or just one of those ride-it-out streaks until he comes back to earth is anyone’s guess.
But Holt’s emergence has bought Cherington some time. He’s still out looking for that guy who could make an impact, but also watching to see — when Victorino comes back and if Daniel Nava can hit a little better — whether the Red Sox can be a facsimile of what they were last season.
What probably threw the organization for a loop is that Bradley didn’t come close to replacing Jacoby Ellsbury’s explosive offensive skills.
They certainly knew Bradley wouldn’t replace Ellsbury 100 percent, but they probably thought they’d get 70 percent of Ellsbury and make up the rest at other positions. Clearly, they don’t have a base runner in Ellsbury’s class.
Cherington certainly isn’t afraid to make a deal, as we witnessed last year when he gave up Jose Iglesias for Peavy. That was hard to do, given Iglesias’s skills, but he had some redundancy at shortstop with Drew and with Deven Marrero advancing in the minors.
So the idea is to get someone you need but make sure you don’t deplete your minor league depth.
San Francisco Giants GM Brian Sabean is the best at in-season acquisition. He has done it with Cody Ross and Marco Scutaro, to name two. So it doesn’t have to be a superstar.
Cherington is also surveying the Will Middlebrooks situation. Righthanded power is tough to acquire. Just look at minor league rosters around baseball to see how many guys are hitting for power, period; the Red Sox have very few of them.
And there’s always Mookie Betts.
Again, Cherington is taking a conservative approach with a young prospect.
While others called for Betts to leap from Double A to the majors, Cherington is allowing him to adapt to the next level of pitching at Triple A and gain experience in center field.
It is alarming that what was an excellent offensive team a year ago is now 23d in runs (278), 25th in home runs (52), and 22d at hitting with runners in scoring position (.236).
That has made them a rather boring team. Yet the standings show they’re only four games out of the second wild card.
They must pass six teams to get there.
There is a long way to go and plenty of time for the offensive resurrection to take place.
Follow Nick Cafardo on Twitter at @nickcafardo.