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The Strike Zone

Baseball returns to Fenway Park and Red Sox return to relevance

David OrtizDavid Ortiz fired up the Fenway crowd twice on Saturday, first with a pregame speech and later with a key hit as the Red Sox won in their first home game after last week's tragedy. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

In the wake of the tragedy and drama that postponed Friday night's game, the return of baseball to Fenway Park this weekend was a welcome sight. Prior to Saturday afternoon's contest against the Royals, the Red Sox paid tribute to the victims and survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings as well as the first responders, then followed that with their sixth straight win. Though swept in a doubleheader on Sunday, they nonetheless ended the weekend atop the AL East, tied for the league's best record at 12-6, and with its best run differential (+31) to boot.

It's too early to say definitively that the Sox are past last year's 69-93 nightmare — it's too early to say anything definitive about most teams save for the awful Astros and Marlins — but the early signs are certainly encouraging. Most notably, the team ranks among the stingiest in the league in run prevention; at 3.00 runs per game, they're second in the league behind only the Rangers. Though four turns in the rotation, both Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have been dominant, a far cry from last year when they combined for an out-of-character 4.70 ERA and 1.1 homers per nine. Thus far, they've pitched to a 1.28 ERA with seven quality starts out of eight while allowing just one homer in 56 innings between them.

The rest of the rotation has been shakier, yielding a 3.80 ERA but just two quality starts out of 10. Ryan Dempster has missed bats but has yet to deliver a start without surrendering a homer. John Lackey departed his first start after 4 1/3 innings due to a biceps strain, after missing all of last year due to Tommy John surgery; he's about to make a rehab start at Double-A Portland, and can hopefully build upon his strong spring showing. Rookie Allen Webster — one of the pitchers acquired in the megatrade with the Dodgers last August and the talk of camp for his sizzling showing — was called up to pitch the nightcap of Sunday's doubleheader and made a solid debut, with five strikeouts and three runs (two earned) in six innings. He's already been returned to Triple-A but has solidified his place on the depth chart.

Speaking of depth, the bullpen has needed it as well. With closer Joel Hanrahan lit up early and then hitting the disabled list due to a hamstring strain, Andrew Bailey has picked up the slack in his absence. Thus far Bailey has an eye-popping 15 strikeouts against just three walks in 9 1/3 innings and has converted his last three save opportunities.

The depth on the offensive side has been even more important, as Boston has had to work around both David Ortiz and Stephen Drew starting the year on the disabled list. The team ranks fourth in the league in scoring at 4.72 runs per game, and while many of the individual performances have been uneven, the work of fourth outfielder Daniel Nava (.326/.441/.609 with a team-high four homers in 59 plate appearances) and shortstop Jose Iglesias (.450/476/.500 in 21 PA) allowed the Sox to take their time with their missing starters. Drew was out for more than a month — including the first seven games of the regular season — due to a concussion but is back in the lineup now. Ortiz, who battled inflammation in his left heel this spring, returned to action on Saturday after delivering a rousing pregame speech that's certain to be remembered thanks to his f-bomb.

Ortiz is obviously one of the keys to Boston's outlook, the centerpiece of the lineup as well as an emotional leader in the clubhouse. When he carried his .316/.404/.609 line to the disabled list just after last year's All-Star break, the Sox still had their heads above water at 46-44. Limited to just one more game due to a right Achilles injury, he could only watch as the team slumped to a 23-49 record the rest of the way and was effectively blown up by the late August trade with the Dodgers. He's 37 years old, and likely to sit a bit more often in the early going, but his rejuvenation as a hitter over the last two years offers hope that he can maintain a high level of production.

Ortiz's return allowed the Red Sox to walk back the controversial decision to keep Jackie Bradley Jr. on the roster to start the year. The 22-year-old centerfielder, who had just 61 games above A-ball under his belt as of Opening Day, was just 3-for-31 with 12 strikeouts in 12 games and was playing out of position in leftfield. Now back at Pawtucket, he can refine his game at a more appropriate pace, and the Sox can avoid the service time issues that they faced by promoting him ahead of schedule.

Eighteen games is just one-ninth of baseball's regular season, no huge sample size to get worked up about in either direction, not only at the individual level but at the team one. For a club with aspirations to contend, a 12-6 stretch in midsummer wouldn't draw much comment beyond "they're playing good ball." But after last season's dismal and disharmonious showing under Bobby Valentine, Boston's strong start has been a welcome tonic, and it's allowed the team to build up a cushion over the struggling Rays (8-10) and Blue Jays (8-11), neither of whom has come close to delivering on preseason expectations (this writer's preseason expectations in particular). In a division that's expected to be competitive top to bottom, that's nothing to sneeze at.
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