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May 04. 2013 10:07PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Red Sox could still get better

AS THE Red Sox have steamrolled their way to the top of the American League at the start of a season most expected would at best be spent in sports purgatory, among the mediocre, a question has emerged: Will it last?

Things have gone so historically well to this point - the 2013 edition was by the calendar the earliest Sox team ever to record 20 wins, and the first AL club in a decade to reach that mark by May 3 - it's a question built around wondering what could go wrong, really. Wondering when reality will set in. Wondering how the team could yet wind up precisely where they were predicted to be.

It's a question with a negative connotation, for sure - but not necessarily one that can't be met with a positive answer.

Because there are actually reasons to think these Sox could still get even better.

Of course, it'd be silly to expect that record-wise they'll be better than they'd been through Friday, considering they were winning 69 percent of their games and on pace for 112 wins. Reasonably thinking, that's not a sustainable pace for any team, let alone one still in the process of proving itself after a last-place finish led into an offseason makeover.

However, there are a variety of indicators to suggest there is sustainability in the ways the Sox have been winning, and when those factors are considered along with some of the obstacles the team has already been forced to overcome, and the general landscape of their league and their division, it's hardly a reach to foresee this club strengthening its claim as legitimate contenders moving forward.

Here's are five reasons why:

.?Injuries. Their record has been mighty enough to hide the ailments, but through Friday the Sox had their everyday shortstop, right fielder and designated hitter for a combined 49 of a possible 87 games. In addition, their original closer has already been to the disabled list, then basically as soon as he came back they had to shut down his replacement due to arm soreness, and they were forced to endure three Alfredo Aceves starts when they lost a member of their rotation for a few weeks. Just imagine what Boston's record might be (or could be) if it had been (or becomes) fully healthy.

.The nature of their victories. It's not as though the Sox are pulling rabbits out of hats to earn an addition to the win column. Sure there's been some drama - thanks largely to Daniel Nava - but for the most part Boston's wins have been by the book that posits solid starting pitching, good bullpen work and timely hitting as an effective prescription.

There's been no gimmick to it, really, and it's not as though they're relying on a single recipe or circumstance, considering that entering Saturday it hardly mattered if they were at home (11-5) or on the road (9-4), facing a righty (13-6) or a lefty (7-3), if they homer (11 wins) or if they don't (nine wins). They're not reliant on a single strength, and that's a good thing.

.Underperformance. The Sox offense was supposed to be a question this season, but even after being shut out on Friday their 148 runs were third-most in the majors. They're 15-2 when scoring at least five times. Yet look at the batting average of Stephen Drew (.186), the on-base percentage of Will Middlebrooks (.233), as well as the combined home runs from Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury (1), and even as productive as Mike Napoli has been to this point, it's hard to envision the Sox offense won't be even better.

.The schedule. The knock on the Sox' hot start has been the schedule. Well, after playing five series against AL East teams, plus three others against teams leading their division at the time of the matchup, it might get even easier. The Sox leave Texas tonight and it's not until May 31, in the 56th game of their season, that they'll face another team that entered Saturday with a winning record.

.Strikeout pitchers. As good as the Red Sox' pitching staff has been - it entered the weekend fourth in the AL with a 3.54 earned run average - it hasn't necessarily been because of great luck, as the .294 average the Sox have yielded on balls in play leaves them in the middle of the pack. However, under first-year pitching coach Juan Nieves the Sox were averaging 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings, which is second only to the Tigers, and which should enable them to control their results if it continues. For what it's worth, Nieves spent the previous five seasons as part of the coaching staff in Chicago, and all five years the White Sox finished better than average in strikeouts per nine.
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In part because of their pitchers' propensity for strikeouts, Red Sox games have to this point generally featured less action than the typical AL contests. Boston's staff has also issued the third-most bases on balls, while its offense began the weekend ranked second in both whiffs and walks, so in total 35 percent of plate appearances in Sox games this season have ended without the ball being put into play. League-wide, the average is only 29.6 percent.

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Stat of the week: Through Friday, the Red Sox had combined for one home run from the first three spots in their batting order. That was five less than the second-fewest in the AL (Houston has six).

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Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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