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Don't worry Sox fans, the sky isn't falling -- it just sounds that way

The Red Sox are a good team. They won 95 games last year and helped themselves with several free-agent signings this past winter. Theo Epstein, their general manager, surely knows this. But you wouldn't be able to tell from what he said to the Boston Herald this weekend after watching his team get swept by the sad, young Orioles.

"We're still playing bad baseball," Epstein said. "Unintelligent, undisciplined, uninspired baseball. It's got to change. It either changes itself or we have to do something to change it."

Prodding the players and letting on to the loyal fans that you share their frustration is no bad plan when your $163 million team has just lost 14 of its first 25 games, and Epstein's grousing certainly did no harm. The Sox scored 25 runs in their next three games -- all wins over their sometimes-nemesis, the Angels -- good tidings ahead of the weekend's big series, in which the dreaded Yankees come to Fenway Park. Epstein shouldn't get carried away, though. Injuries, dodgy baserunning and David Ortiz's missing bat aside, there's not much wrong with his club.

The lineup has been outright strong. Going into Thursday night's game the Red Sox ranked fifth in the American League in scoring, and with the exception of designated hitter they ranked in the upper half of the league in OPS at every position. With the not negligible exceptions of Ortiz and Victor Martinez, every player on whom the team is counting for offense has delivered. So have some on whom they aren't, such as Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek. The offense has not been an issue.

Pitching and defense, however, have been. The Sox are allowing more runs than any team in the league other than the Angels, especially galling since, despite a touted winter emphasis on bringing in strong defenders such as Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron, just four AL teams are doing a worse job of turning batted balls into outs. Still, as frustrating as occasional mound implosions have been, and as irritated as anyone may get watching the comical misadventures that are Red Sox catchers trying to throw out base runners, there's not too much worrisome here.

You don't need to apply sophisticated analytical techniques to figure this; just run down the staff ERAs. Clay Buchholz (2.97) has so far pitched like an ace, Jon Lester (3.93) has pitched like a credible No. 2, John Lackey (4.50) has been basically average and Tim Wakefield (6.59) has pitched like a No. 6 starter. Maybe you'd have expected Lester to have Buchholz's ERA and vice versa, but there's nothing obviously wrong. The one problem in the rotation has been Josh Beckett (6.31), but he has generally pitched well, his ERA bloated due to two lousy April starts in which he gave up 15 runs in 10 innings.

Meanwhile, the bullpen has been largely fine, with the key short men pitching well. A team whose main mound issues are that No. 5 man Daisuke Matsuzaka is coming back from a neck injury and that the back-end relievers have been shaky is one that will find 25 or so other clubs eager to exchange problems.

All of this leaves aside one other significant issue: the schedule. Twelve of the Sox's first 27 games this year -- 17 of their first 32, if you run the schedule out through this weekend -- have matched them up against the Yankees, Twins and Angels, teams that made last year's playoffs, and the Rays, who have the game's best record this year. (Admittedly, the same can be said of the Yankees, but the Rays had just seven games against New York and Boston in their opening stretch, which does a bit to explain why they've started so well.)

None of this, note, involves a contorted effort to claim that the Sox have played particularly well. They haven't. Being outscored through your first 28 games is beneath a team of their talents, as is dropping a full set to the Orioles, of all teams. But the Yankees come into Fenway with injury concerns of their own, and a Boston sweep this weekend would reaffirm the AL East as a three-team race. Even a respectable two-out-of-three would leave the Sox a couple of good days away from surmounting the Yankees in the standings. This is not grounds for panic, especially since some issues will solve themselves. Ortiz, for example, may be struggling to get his OPS above .600, but he was doing much the same this time last year, and hit for a .894 OPS from May 5 on. Talent finds its level.

Why, then, is Epstein intimating that beatings will commence and continue until morale improves? Why are the papers and the faithful acting as if a flirtation with .500 is something comparable to the 1988 Orioles' infamous 0-21 start to the season? Part of it, surely, is anxiety over just how firmly the Rays have established that this will be a three-team race for two playoff spots, and part of it is surely honest exasperation at Boston's shabby play. One other explanation, though, is worth bearing in mind.

Throughout their modern history, the Red Sox have been built not just around stars, but around inner-circle Hall of Famers, or players who for a few years did convincing impressions of being so. From Williams to Yaz to Rice to Clemens to Pedro to Manny, the identity of the team has been founded on its essentially uninterrupted lineage of legends. With no disrespect to Lester or Dustin Pedroia or Kevin Youkilis, this team has no one near that class, something that no one has been able to say about a Sox team since the Great Depression.

These Red Sox are good, and hardly in any kind of untenable position. But for literally as long as anyone can remember, they've been able to rely on some alpha predator to, no matter his teammates' failings, establish that while he was pitching or at the plate that the Sox were the best team in baseball. They're a different team now, one reliant on lots of players carrying some weight rather than a few carrying lots. It works in theory and, as last year shows, it even works in practice. It will almost certainly work this year, and if it doesn't prove enough for the playoffs, that will probably have more to do with how good Boston's rivals are than anything else. But if/when the Sox struggle and the Fenway faithful don't quite know how to take it, who can blame them? No one save a few very old timers have ever seen a Red Sox nine like this before.

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