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July 16. 2013 8:47PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Next 10 contests may tell the story

NOW that the All-Star game has passed, it’s officially on to the season’s unofficial second half for Major League Baseball — and it’s on to what figures to be among the season’s most important stretches for the Red Sox.

Starting Friday at Fenway Park with the first of three games against the Yankees, then four against the Rays before heading to Baltimore for a three-game set against the Orioles, Boston’s next 10 tilts are against its three closest challengers in the American League East.

It presents a significant challenge, and by the time it’s over there’ll be just a couple days to go before the non-waiver trade deadline, so its results could dictate Ben Cherington’s decision making, depending how the general manager from Meriden is feeling about his roster as the big day approaches. It could determine if he believes he’s got a true contender, or a capable club, or a team lacking something when it comes time to choose whether to pull the trigger.

But here’s a prediction:

Based on what follows after these next 10 games, and the way the division will beat up on each other down the stretch as five decent teams go head-to-head, if the Sox have merely maintained their current 2 1/2-game lead by the time they leave Baltimore on July 28, they will win the AL East.

And here are more predictions on what to expect over the so-called second half:

•The Orioles will be the Red Sox’ biggest obstacle. Not only are the Birds within striking distance — they’re 4 1/2 games back — and not only is their lineup loaded, but they’ve beaten the Sox in 23 of the 32 games they’ve played since September 2011. It’s not a good matchup for Boston, yet Baltimore will be its foe in 12 of the final 58 contests.

•Playing 16 of 19 on the road won’t prove problematic. Between Aug. 5-25, the Sox’ only time in Boston is a brief three-game visit by the Yankees, though it’s not a particularly tough road the Sox will travel. The first trip goes through Houston, Kansas City and Toronto, then the second segment visits San Francisco and Los Angeles. At 47-47, the Dodgers are presently the best team of that bunch.

•The Sox will feast on their non-division foes. Of what’s left, Boston has 38 games against the AL East, and 27 against teams from elsewhere — yet only six of those tilts are against teams that reached the break with more wins than losses.

Mike Napoli will break the franchise’s single-season strikeout record. Biggest lock of them all, considering his 123 leaves him only 54 shy of the infamous total Mark Bellhorn established in 2004.

Andrew Bailey will again become the team’s most important reliever. He may not supplant Koji Uehara as the closer, but Bailey’s recent results suggest he’s returning to form, and in that case John Farrell may opt to deploy him in the game’s biggest situation — regardless of inning. Uehara is much better when starting with a clean inning, and Bailey is his bullpen’s best bet for a strikeout now that Andrew Miller’s done for the season, so this arrangement has promise.

•Farrell will experiment with bullpen roles in August. Bailey, Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow and Matt Thornton are all safe, but as September and October approach, the Sox will seek to find stability in the final two or three guys in the bullpen. They might add to the mix via trade, but this will present an opportunity for several minor leaguers to prove themselves worthy, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a new face — Rubby De La Rosa, perhaps? — emerge as a late-game factor.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia will wear down. Last year he’d played 68 games by the break, and hit .200 henceforth. This year the catcher has already played 74 contests, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of confidence in Ryan Lavarnway as his backup. With David Ross perhaps done for the season, Farrell faces a challenge in keeping Saltalamacchia fresh.

•By the time he has as many at-bats as Dustin Pedroia does presently, Jose Iglesias will be hitting lower than Pedroia’s current .316. To best that mark, Iglesias would need to hit .270 in his next 196 ABs; even if he doesn’t do that, though, his defense should still keep him in the lineup.

Alfredo Aceves has thrown his final pitch for the Sox. He’s no longer on the 40-man roster — and his reputation has been so sullied among the other 29 teams that he cleared waivers without being claimed. He’ll be at Pawtucket the rest of the way, if he isn’t released.

Xander Bogaerts will be considered for a call-up as soon, or sooner, than Will Middlebrooks. Bogaerts is about 10 days from being at the same number of Triple-A plate appearances as Middlebrooks had when he was brought to the bigs last year, and his performance suggests he’s on the cusp of being a major-league contributor. If Stephen Drew and Iglesias are struggling, don’t be surprised to see Bogaerts — a shortstop — playing third base in Pawtucket. Or perhaps in Boston.

Jacoby Ellsbury will earn MVP votes. After hitting .372 with a .431 on-base percentage and .945 on-base plus slugging in his last 43 games, Ellsbury is into the AL’s top 15 in average, OBP, hits and runs scored. Add in his league-best 36 steals, and his offensive wins above replacement is 2.7 — which ranks directly above all-stars Manny Machado and Edwin Encaranacion. And he’s only getting better.

•The Sox will trade for a starting pitcher. Clay Buchholz still doesn’t have a planned rehab start looming, so he’ll be out until after the deadline. That increases the urgency for Cherington to fill a spot in his rotation, and a side bonus could be that once Buchholz does return, having another starter might allow the Sox a chance to step back with Jon Lester in order to help him work through whatever issues are responsible for his 4.58 earned run average.

•Boston will threaten to become the franchise’s first team in 40 years to allow fewer than 655 runs over a full season. Currently they’re on pace for 680 — despite their ace missing most of two months and their bullpen perpetually in flux. Trim 0.2 runs per game from their average, and they’ll do what no Sox team has done since 1973.

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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