Five Red Sox storylines from the first half

Five Red Sox storylines from the first half
July 18, 2013, 10:15 am
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When the season began, few could have forecast the kind of first half the Red Sox just experienced.
     
Coming off a last-place finish and having fired two managers in the previous two years, the Red Sox appeared to have hit rock bottom.
     
But the team broke quickly from the game, overcame a two-week dip and went into the All-Star break in first place, with the most number of wins in the game.
     
Of course, there were some surprises along the way, things we just couldn't see coming.
     
Here are the Top Five Stories to a surprising first half of 2013:

     
1) Manager John Farrell
     
Farrell had been pursued by Red Sox management for nearly a year and a half before he ever managed his first game for them. The Sox had wanted him to replace Terry Francona after 2011, but ran into roadblocks attempting to pry him from the Toronto Blue Jays.
     
When they finally landed him last November, some wondered what the fuss was about. After all, Farrell had yet to have a winning record in two seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays and there were complaints about his aggressive style and his ability to make his players accountable in Toronto.
     
But from the first few days of spring training, Farrell established the right tone with the Red Sox, putting the focus back on baseball. It helped that Ben Cherington and the baseball operations staff had sought characters players who could handle the demands and pressures of playing in Boston.
     
Still, Farrell gets credit for establishing himself from the beginning. The players who were here when he left welcomed him back and those who hadn't played for him before soon came to embrace him.
     
Farrell stressed a relentless playing style, which manifest itself on Opening Day when Jonny Gomes managed to score from second on an infield out. He also made a point to make out the lineup based on merit, so that when Will Middlebrooks and Andrew Bailey faltered in their roles, there were consequences.

     
2) The health and production of David Ortiz
     
Ortiz missed all of spring training and the first 15 games of the regular season, leading some to conclude that he was effectively finished as a player and that the Sox had made a costly error in giving him a two-year $26 million deal in the off-season.
     
Wrong on both counts.
     
When he finally got back on the field, Ortiz made almost an immediate impact, hitting the ball with authority and transforming the Red Sox lineup. No other one player can impact the batting order like Ortiz, who, despite the delayed start, leads the Red Sox in homers, RBI and total bases.
     
How important has Ortiz's power been? He has a team-high 19 homers and the only other hitter with double figures in that category -- Mike Napoli, with 11 -- has hit just two homers since the beginning of June.
     
In addition to the production, Ortiz has been remarkably durable. After missing the first two weeks of the season, he's missed just five games since, quite a departure from the plan that had Ortiz getting a day off "once every three or four games."
     
Months later, the two-year deal given to Ortiz doesn't look like an expensive PR stunt, as some charged; it looks more like an absolute bargain.


3) The Bullpen
     
The Red Sox envisioned Joel Hanrahan as their closer and Andrew Bailey as his primary set-up man.
     
That scenario lasted about two weeks. Hanrahan first injured a hamstring, and then, ineffective upon his return from that DL stint, was found to have a forearm injury and a torn ligament in his right elbow, necessitating season-ending surgery.
     
For a while, Bailey shone in the closer's spot. But then he went through a stretch in which he blew three saves in four chances and he, too, lost the job.
     
As the second half begins, the Sox are now on their third full-time closer -- fourth if you count the brief Junichi Tazawa experiment that lasted days -- with Koji Uehara.
     
Uehara has two blown saves, but has otherwise been strong, with eight saves converted. Since taking over the job, all six of Uehara's saves have been clean, without a baserunner allowed.
     
But the loss of both Hanrahan and, more recently, Andrew Miller, lost for the season with a freakish foot injury, has left the bullpen reworked and overtaxed at times.
     
Tazawa hasn't been nearly as effective as he was a year ago, and it may be that a strong first-half workload has taken its toll on his stuff.
     
As the second half begins -- with recent reinforcement Matt Thornton added - the bullpen is undoubtedly the team's biggest question mark for the final two and a half months.

     
     
4) The emergence of Jose Iglesias
     
Iglesias made the team out of spring training, but that was only because starting shortstop Stephen Drew was sidelined with an early March concussion. After playing for a week, Iglesias was optioned back to Pawtucket, where he struggled to hit better than .200 and had to be benched for disciplinary reasons after he sulked and didn't run out ground balls.
     
When he was called up to play some third base and fill in occasionally at short in May, no one could have forseen the first half he would have.
     
At first, he split time with slumping third baseman Will Middlebrooks. Eventually, he won the position -- one he hadn't played at all until weeks earlier -- and forced Middlebrooks to the bench, then the minors.
     
For much of the first half, Iglesias hit over .400, with a variety of infield hits, bloopers and the occasional extra-base hit. Along the way, he played a virtually flawless third and, more recently, short, with Drew (hamstring) back on the DL.
     
More confident and finally getting an opportunity, Iglesias -- even after "dropping" to .367 -- has transformed himself. At the end of spring training, he looked to have missed his window of opportunity, about to be passed on the shortstop depth chart by Xander Bogaerts. Now, just months later, he's an important piece of the club's foundation going forward.


5) The return -- and subsequent disappearance -- of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.
     
As the Sox sprinted out to their impressive start, it wasn't hard to pinpoint the reason for their turnaround: through mid-May, Lester and Buchholz were a combined 12-0.
     
The two starters were viewed as the key to the team's ability to rebound from its nightmarish 2012, and when they demonstrated that they had each returned to their pre-2012 form, even the most jaded Red Sox fan suddenly felt better about the team's chances this year.
     
But since then, it's been tougher going. Lester has won just twice since May 15, and while Buchholz is a perfect 3-0 since then, he hasn't so much as pitched an inning since June 8, more than five weeks ago, and is, by most estimates, at least two weeks away from returning to the mound.
     
Lester, meanwhile, has stalled, with an ERA of 6.27 since May 15. There have been flashes of improvement, but of late, Lester has too closely resembled the Lester of 2012: rattled by balls-and-strikes calls from the umpires; unable to put hitters away with two strikes or two outs; and too dependent on his cut fastball,
which isn't the pitch it once was for him.
     
Fortunately for the Red Sox, the consistency of John Lackey and Felix Doubront has kept the rotation afloat while Lester struggles and Buchholz rehabs.
     
But if the Sox are going to hold onto first place and go anywhere in October, they'll need to see the Lester and Buchholz they saw in the first six weeks of the season.