That's right, I said, put that panic button back up in the attic where it belongs. It's not time yet, Red Sox fans, to start the age-old practice of giving up on your boys of summer because the team from New York - albeit the hottest in baseball - is breathing down their necks.
Why the optimism?
First of all, I call it realism. And secondly, eyesight.
The Red Sox, remarkably, are playing very good baseball of late. If not for two losses, both willingly accepted by new setup man Eric Gagne, the Red Sox would be a comfortable five games ahead.
Here are 10 reasons why Red Sox Nation should not be in hysterics as the club enters the final six weeks of 2007:
1. Manny is Manny.
After months of 13, 18 and 12 RBIs, Manny Ramirez rapped in 25 runs in July, including 23 after the all-star break. With David Ortiz still not the guy many New Englanders expected, Ramirez is back to the Hall of Famer pace he has carried for more than a decade. It is remarkable the Sox did so well while he labored in apathy, it seemed. He has the ability to carry this team, especially on offense, while the rest of the team is struggling to produce runs. If it continues, as it should, then the Sox are pretty much a playoff team, regardless if the Yankees ever lose again.
2. Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew are alive.
I'm not ready - as I guess you aren't, too - to bank on these two being key players down the stretch, but it is a breath of fresh air when these two add to the offense rather than take away (which has been the case for much of April, May, June and July). Drew is the key here, because the middle of the lineup is more important now than ever. With Mike Lowell tiring a bit, Drew's heated bat (11 for 17) in the No. 5 hole behind Manny is pivotal. Lugo's speed, which includes his bunting, is a spark, like him or not. He is batting ninth, which is where he belongs. Any contribution is a bonus.
3. Curt Schilling is almost back.
Again, let's not jump the gun here, but Schilling is close to being a good-to-very good pitcher again. Six innings won't be enough, but it's a start since his trip to the disabled list. The fourth and fifth starters, Tim Wakefield and Jon Lester, can get away with six innings, but not Schilling. His strikeouts (none yesterday) will have to pick up, but he is becoming more of a pitcher than the power guy the Nation is used to. Add in the fact that he has a lot to prove as free agency lingers for him.
4. Beckett is officially an ace.
This is not an exclusive, but Josh Beckett is becoming the pitcher the Red Sox hoped he would when they traded the best player in their farm system, Hanley Ramirez, for him. His performance on Saturday was needed to prove a point. Great teams must have this kind of pitcher, the kind that stops losing streaks. He leads the majors in wins with 15 but, better yet, he's back in a groove after a mini-slump. The Red Sox can count on him the rest of the way.
5. Eric Gagne will get better.
What proof do I have that Gagne, the Sox newest right-handed setup man, will get better? None really. I just swear this guy will be a strength and not the weakness he has been. I will say, it appears the Sox didn't "need" Gagne, but it makes sense to always have a "closer" guy around if Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima are used as often we expect they will. Basically, Gagne is too good to be this bad for much longer. In fact, I would not be surprised if he didn't give up a run the rest of August.
6. Yankees are very good, but ...
I can't explain it, but the Yankees remind me of so many Sox teams of the past. They look good. They score a lot of runs. But something always seems to happen and they fold, which is why panic buttons in this region were invented. I realize the Yankees are hot, probably the hottest in baseball, but I'm guessing this old group of starters and mediocre middle relief will cost them during crunch time later this month. It's just a gut feeling.
7. Indians, Tigers aren't perfect.
It's funny how both teams, particularly the Tigers, scared all of baseball for a stretch there in June and July. But both teams appear to be feeling the pressure. What this means is the Red Sox and the Yankees could both be headed for postseason play ... again. With the AL Central being so tough, 90 wins would take the division. It would be shocking if Sox aren't ahead of that.
8. Sox bullpen is still very good.
Gagne's mini-slide aside, Papebon, Okajima, Mike Timlin (14 of 15 outings without allowing a run) and Manny Delcarmen have been a strength of the Red Sox since Day 1. Unless Papelbon and Okajima falter, the Sox will win nearly every game they lead going into the eighth inning.
9. Pedroia is for real.
I've said this before, but Dustin Pedroia is ready for prime time. Despite his 0 for 5 yesterday, he is hitting .419 in August. He is playing a very good second base. He has helped the Sox figure out their leadoff position woes and has shown some moxie in key moments at the plate over the last month. Every team needs a secondary player to count on (remember Marty Barrett in the mid-1980s?) and Pedroia, only a rookie, is it on this team.
10. Sox won the World Series in '04.
Did you forget this one? The Red Sox haven't.
What strikes me about this team is that they are not panicking. They have beaten the Yankees when it counted. They have players, some homegrown, that don't think of themselves as second-rate compared to the Yankees.
Is there concern around here? Absolutely. But there should be. It is August and the race is heating up. This should be fun. It is better that the Red Sox will have to play well to play in October.
So put the panic button away. This is no time for folding. This is the best time of year for baseball. Every game matters. The Red Sox are by no means perfect, but when compared to everyone else, they still are as good as anybody ... maybe even the best.
Bill Burt is executive sports editor of Eagle-Tribune Publishing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.