EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 24, 2013

Red Sox have the guts, but do they have talent to win a pennant?

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — BOSTON — Never say die ... that’s what the Red Sox and Rays are all about.

Boston has 21 come-from-behind wins, 15 wins in its last at-bat and nine walkoff victories. Tampa Bay has 25 come-from-behind wins, 10 wins in its last at-bat and six walkoffs.

“We’re two teams that compete for nine innings and 27 outs,” Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo said. “We have a cast of characters here that knows what it takes to compete every day and to compete for a full season. I think they have the same remedy over there in Tampa.”

The Red Sox and Rays met at Fenway Park last night in the second-game of a four-game series with first place on the line. The Red Sox prevailed 6-2 to increase their AL East lead to 1.5 over red hot Tampa.

First place in the division is so important with the new two-Wild Card team playoff format implemented last year. Teams want to avoid that one-game Wild Card playoff at all costs. With the Rays so talented and so hot (18-3 over their past 21 games), Boston likely will need to continue to play nearly .600 baseball to win the East.

Do they have it in them? Maybe.

The thing you have to like about this year’s Red Sox team is their ability to grind out wins in games they appeared to have had no business winning. Boston has some victories that you would have marked down as loses by the third inning in 2012. A third of this team’s wins have been of the come-from-behind variety, which is incredible.

Lovullo pointed to Sunday’s 8-7, 11-inning walkoff victory over New York as one of those character wins in which the team’s personality showed. The Red Sox were down 3-0 early Sunday — because of sloppy defense — and going against ace CC Sabathia. They also relinquished a 7-3 lead late but managed to win despite using a pair of inexperienced relievers in extra innings.

“We could have shut down in the later innings, but our guys didn’t,” Lovullo said. “I think that’s who we are. That’s what we talk about here.”

But it takes both heart and talent to sustain success over a 162-game season. We know the Red Sox have heart. But do they have enough talent as the Rays to sustain their nearly .600 winning percent and take the division?

As of right now, three things are of concern when examining Boston’s chances to maintain first, or even win one of the two AL Wild Cards.

First of all, there is much uncertainty at the top of the starting rotation. Jon Lester hasn’t pitched well in two months, although he was strong last night, going 6.1 innings and allowing two runs, both earned, on seven hits and no walks while striking out eight.

More disheartening is the Clay Buchholz situation. He’s confident he will pitch again this season after his Monday visit to Dr. James Andrews, but the ace likely won’t return until early September by the way he’s talking. He seems to want to take his recovery slow.

“If I do this too quickly, then I’m going to be done with it the rest of the year,” Buchholz insisted yesterday. “I think that’s a risk for me. ... (Andrews) said you can either get four or five starts in the last half of the season and hopefully, if we’re lucky enough, go to the playoffs and pitch in the playoffs. Or you can do it wrong and not pitch at all.”

With Buchholz likely out until September, Lester must build on last night’s strong performance and the Red Sox must add another experienced starter by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline with White Sox’ Jake Peavy and Astros’ Bud Norris at the top of the list.

The second concern is the Red Sox’ offensive production out of the left side of the infield. Shortstop Stephen Drew is hitting .228 with a .314 on-base percentage. Third baseman Jose Iglesias is hitting just .226 (15 for 66) in July after winning AL Rookie of the Month for June.

The Red Sox can get away with one of their bats slumping, but not both. Both did have huge RBI singles yesterday to extend a one-run eighth-inning lead into a four-run advantage. They need to continue to pick it up.

Third, Shane Victorino can’t miss much more time because of his hamstring injury. He already has sat out 34 games. He’s too important to the top of the lineup as he again showed yesterday with his double and run.

With all that considered, the Red Sox are going to have trouble keeping pace with the Rays down the stretch.

With a win last night, Boston clinched the season set vs. the Rays for the first time since 2007, but many of Boston’s wins this year came before Tampa’s pitching caught fire.

Rays starters have been much better lately. Jeremy Hellickson, who will pitch here tomorrow, had a 6.69 ERA in May but is 7-1 with a 3.35 ERA in his past nine starts.

Also, the Rays are hitting well. They entered last night with the fifth most runs scored in the majors compared to last year when they were 18th.

“Our hitting from past years has been better,” Tampa Bay DH Luke Scott said. “We have a very balanced lineup. We do a lot of things well. We grind out at-bats.”

The Rays seem more talented. But maybe we’re underestimating the Red Sox talent. After all, Boston is 47-3 when leading after seven inning and 14-9 in one-run games.

Well, it’s on to Game 3 of the series with reigning Cy Young David Price vs. talented Red Sox lefty Felix Doubront. Who’s ready for 7:10 p.m. today?