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Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Health is key to AL East race

April 13. 2013 8:21PM
Boston Red Sox catcher David Ross (3) is congratulated by his teammates in the dugout after hitting a home run during the fifth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park. (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

Some 15 feet from second base on a Friday night steal attempt, Jose Reyes thought he had nothing to worry about. The Blue Jays' shortstop got a great jump off Royals' reliever Luke Hochevar, so great that he glanced toward home plate expecting to glide into second base - but suddenly he realized catcher Salvador Perez had sprung quickly and spit a perfect throw that would make it a close play.

Seeing this, Reyes decided to slide, though because he was so close to the bag he approached it awkwardly. His left leg buckled a bit. He began writhing in pain. And as he was being carted off the field, unlikely to return for anywhere from one to three months with an ankle injury, a truth of the 2013 American League East became clear.

It's going to be a war of attrition.

In years past, it's been a war of the haves against the have-nots. A war of the upstarts against the established. A war of the Steinbrenner empire against everybody else.

But this year a division that seems to be defined by parity, in which any team could just as easily win its title as be the dweller of its cellar, the deciding factor may well be as simple as which of the five clubs remains healthiest and avoids the sorts of injuries that either expose a major flaw or undermine a significant strength.

''Jose is great. He's a big part of this team. I can't emphasize that enough,'' Blue Jay general manager Alex Anthopoulos told reporters in Kansas City on Friday night. ''Every team goes through these things. I don't believe we're a team built on one player, no matter how great a player it is. Just continue to move forward.''

The problem for Toronto, and with every AL East team, is that none of them are that much better than the others. So the blow of every injury hits that much harder, especially when it comes to a star. Or, in this case, the cornerstone shortstop who hits leadoff and was the marquee piece of an offseason trade with the Marlins.

That deal marked the start of a makeover that hyped up expectations in Toronto coming into this season as high as they've been in a while, but with third baseman Brett Lawrie still out indefinitely with a rib injury, the Jays' starting infield now features the likes of Maicer Izturis, Emilio Bonifacio and Mark DeRosa, along with Edwin Encarnacion. That's not quite how Anthopoulos drew it up.

And the season's not even two weeks old.

The Yankees can relate. They're missing Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Michael Pineda; that's forced them to rely on castoffs like Kevin Youkilis, Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner, as well as a bunch of unproven players.

So far it's been okay, as they entered the weekend tied for first with the Red Sox in large part because of their pitching - though it remains to be seen if that staff can stay healthy all summer. CC Sabathia had offseason elbow surgery. Andy Pettitte is 41. Hiroki Kuroda is 38. Mariano Rivera is 43.

And, meanwhile, the Red Sox are - with increasing desperation - awaiting the return of 37-year-old David Ortiz, whose pop would be a welcome addition to the middle of the order for a team that through Friday had slugged six of its 11 home runs in a single game.

They're also missing John Lackey from the starting rotation for at least another start, and somewhat under the radar is the fact that both Franklin Morales and Craig Breslow are still hurt. Those would be two more lefties in John Farrell's bullpen, which would allow the manager to more effectively use the currently solo southpaw, Andrew Miller.

The Orioles are missing second baseman Brian Roberts, and the Rays are without designated hitter Luke Scott, meaning both those teams at least have their cores intact at this point. Both those teams are also talented enough to win the division. But both teams are also lacking in depth, which means both are just an injury or two away from falling back.

The Rays played much of last year without Evan Longoria, and his absence might've cost them a third-straight playoff appearance. If he or David Price go down for even a month it could be a killer, just as the Orioles would likely struggle to sustain the loss of Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, the white-hot Chris Davis, or a couple key members of their bullpen.

All of those O's were factors in Baltimore's series win at Boston this past week, during which the Orioles looked like a complete and dangerous team. But this year, in particular, how a team projects in April isn't important.

What'll matter in the AL East is how healthy they are - and they've been - come September.

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With Friday's rainout, the Red Sox pushed Felix Doubront's next start to Tuesday. Remember, they'd already pushed him back one day in order to start Alfredo Aceves last Thursday night, so it'll be 10 days between appearances for Doubront.

Farrell maintains that the lefty "will be important" for the Sox, and says he was impressed by Doubront's work in a season debut that featured five innings of three-run ball, with six strikeouts and zero walks. Why, then, wait so long for his next start?

It likely has to do with looking toward the latter part of the season. Last year Doubront threw 161 innings, and having never thrown more than 129 in any other pro season, he really faded. His workload was roughly twice what it was in 2011, and accordingly his earned run average spiked to 8.16 in August, before the team shut him down for a few weeks to spare his arm.

More than likely the Sox are simply taking advantage of an opportunity with the schedule now to avoid a similar situation later.

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Stat of the week: Entering Saturday, the Sox had lost all three games in which they'd failed to score three runs. That left them 9-80 in such games since the start of 2011.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is

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