EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 27, 2013

It's first place or bust for Red Sox

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — The season still is very young, but it seems the surging Boston Red Sox have as good a chance as anyone to win the AL East.

You could also make a case for any of the five AL East teams finishing in last. That’s the type of parity that exists.

With the new two-per-league Wild Card format implemented last year, the goal for any team is to win its division to bypass a one-game playoff scenario. But the way some AL East players see it, winning the division to get to the playoffs might be necessary.

That’s because the two AL Wild Cards likely could come from the West with Oakland, Texas and Los Angeles all with tremendously talented rosters.

Yes, the Angels are off to another very disappointing start, but any team with that kind of lineup (Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, etc.) can turn things around quickly.

“Anyone can win it,” Baltimore’s Nate McLouth said about the AL East. “What I think is going to be tough is for a Wild Card team to come out of here just because there’s a lot of good teams and we play each other so much.”

Divisional opponents play each other 19 times each and that could cause some AL East teams to knock one another out of Wild Card contention.

Meanwhile, the Athletics, Rangers and Angels all will be able to pick up a large number of wins against their much inferior divisional rivals, the Astros and Mariners.

But just because a team like the Angels has a talented roster, doesn’t mean it will make the playoffs. We saw that last year with Los Angeles and two years ago with Boston.

New York, which many expected would suffer through a tough April because of numerous injuries, has been a big surprise. So have the Red Sox because their starting pitching has been excellent. The big question for the Red Sox going forth is whether they will get more innings out of their fourth and fifth starters.

“Anyone can look good on paper,” Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli said. “But (it’s about) the teams that go out there and execute.”

Nava’s fan club grows

Daniel Nava has had a very strong first few weeks offensively.

The 5-10 Nava has a terrific and well-documented story. He was cut from the Santa Clara University team as a freshman and never got drafted or signed by a major league club out of college, forcing him to play independent league baseball. The Red Sox initially gained his rights from his independent ball team for just $1.

His underdog story has made many players and coaches around the leagues fans of Nava, including Tampa’s Sam Fuld.

“When I read the story about him, I was amazed,” said Fuld, who himself is a noted overachiever out of Durham, N.H. “The coach who (eventually) gave him that opportunity in college was the guy who recruited me and who I had as an assistant coach, Mark O’Brien.”

O’Brien, Nava’s head coach at Santa Clara, had been Fuld’s assistant coach at Stanford.

Dempster’s strikeouts

Ryan Dempster had struck out 12.4 batters per nine innings through his first four starts entering last night. That’s up from his 7.8 career mark.

“It’s like there’s a 20-mph wind behind my fastball, it’s got to be going at least over 100,” Dempster said, jokingly.

Dempster has thrown his fastball an average speed of 88.7 mph this year, which is normal for him, especially this early in the season. His average fastball since 2002 has been 90.9 mph, according to fangraphs.com.

“I’m still trying to make pitches,” Dempster said. “Sometimes, you go through stretches where they swing and miss and sometimes you go through stretches where they don’t swing and miss it at all. We’ve just happened to catch one of those stretches right now.”

Dempster, who has struggled against AL lineups in his career, has been better than expected. He has a 3.38 ERA, 1.125 WHIP and 33 strikeouts in 24.0 innings.

Nava vs. lefties

The switch-hitting Daniel Nava hasn’t hit southpaws well in his career with a .208 career average.

But he is 4 for 10 against lefties this year.

Red Sox hitting coach Greg Colbrunn and assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez have helped Nava adjust his mechanics from the right side of the plate.

“With that you just feel more comfortable and allows me to be more consistent,” Nava said.