Monday May 10th, 2010

BOSTON -- Kevin Youkilis is in no rush. When the Red Sox' first baseman looks at the AL East standings he sees his team sitting at 16-16, 6 1/2 games out of first place. But he also sees a path that, with some gradual climbing, can get them back to the playoffs for the fourth straight year.

All Boston needs to do, Youkilis explains, is pick up one game in the standings for every set of 10 it plays. And by the end of the 130 remaining games? "You're in first place with a couple games on top," he says.

The formula may sound easy enough but the chances of it happening are anything but. So far this season the second-place Yankees have played exactly .700 ball, at 21-9, and the first-place Rays are a few points better at 22-9. If New York and Tampa Bay both keep their pace up, the Sox would have to average going 8-2 in every 10-game stretch to pass them. That equates to a 104-26 finish, an .800 winning percentage, and would indeed leave Boston comfortably in first place.

That possibility is, of course, extremely unlikely, but there is some good news for Red Sox fans. First, it's highly unlikely that both the Yankees and Rays can sustain their blistering pace, a rate that projects to 113 wins for the season. Second, thoughts of a Boston comeback seem slightly more realistic after the Red Sox' 9-3 win over the Yankees on Sunday night that staved off a sweep by their rivals. Even after the Yankees blew out the Sox 10-3 on Friday and 14-3 on Saturday, Youkilis insisted that there was nothing to read into those games other than, "It's two games and they're both losses."

But the reality was that the Red Sox had started 1-4 against the Yankees and 0-4 against the Rays, who swept them at Fenway Park last month. After Sunday's game, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia finally made a candid admission about the win.

"It's real important," he said. "We didn't want to bury ourselves."

There had been plenty of doomsday prophecies emanating from Red Sox Nation that the Red Sox were already buried, but if Boston needs a blueprint for revival it need only look to its archrival. Last year's Yankees started 15-16 overall and 0-8 against the Sox, falling as far back as 6 1/2 games out of first on May 12, a nearly identical position to where Boston is now. They rebounded to go 88-42 over their final 130 games after May 12 -- the best record in baseball by 7 1/2 games -- and eventually won the World Series.

If the Red Sox are to engineer a similar turnaround, and in the process make Youkilis look like a prophet, here's five things they will need to do over their final 130 games:

1. Play a role in helping the Rays and Yankees regress

The Red Sox have 26 remaining games against those two clubs and they can't afford to continue playing .200 ball against them if they plan on returning to the postseason. Once again, they can use the Yankees as an example. After that 0-8 start, New York beat Boston nine out of 10 the rest of the way and wound up winning the division.

"You can't concern yourself with another team," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said in explaining his club's success at keeping a single-minded focus. "That's the only way you can get through the long season, is to focus on yourself."

When it comes to the 15 meetings remaining between New York and Tampa Bay -- the first two of which are next week -- the Red Sox should be bipartisan, rooting for as close to a season split as they can get.

2. Get better outings from the starters.

In the first nine games against the Rays and Yankees, Boston received just one quality start from its $245 million starting rotation. Sunday night, however, Jon Lester allowed just two runs in seven innings, has now turned in four very good outings in a row and has lowered his ERA under 4.00, just like rotation mates Clay Buchholz and John Lackey. Josh Beckett, however, has an ERA of 7.46 after trying a career high with nine runs allowed on Friday night. Asked to assess his season after that performance, Beckett replied, "S-----." He's right. The No. 5 spot in the rotation, to date shared by Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka, has only been marginally better with a 6.69 ERA in their starts.

Longer starts means less overdependence on the relief corps which, besides closer Jonathan Papelbon and setup man Daniel Bard, has thus far been underwhelming.

"Anytime you get to the bullpen before you want to, things have to go perfect or you're going to give up runs," manager Terry Francona said.

3. Start preventing runs

Much of the discussion surrounding the Red Sox' offseason move focused on their efforts at run prevention. Yet a little more than a month in to the season, the Red Sox are tied with the Angels for having given up the most runs in the American League (177), thanks to shaky pitching and an underperforming defense. The forthcoming returns of left fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and center fielder Mike Cameron, one of those celebrated offseason additions, will help. Cameron starts his rehab assignment on Monday; Ellsbury's just a little behind that schedule. Bill Hall has been especially shaky when filling in the outfield, and Adrian Beltre, another newcomer and usually one of the game's best third baseman, has made seven errors at the position, more than anyone else in the majors.

Conversely, the pleasant surprise for the Sox has been the potency of their lineup, which has produced 165 runs, third-best in the AL. But such a number gets overlooked when the club has a negative run differential.

4. Keep platooning David Ortiz and Mike Lowell at DH

The most encouraging Red Sox swing of Sunday night was Ortiz pulling a 95-mile-per-hour fastball from A.J. Burnett into the right field corner for an RBI ground-rule double. It's been that kind of heat that Big Papi has had trouble with in the early going this season. His average is still just .182, but with four home runs he's showing some power again. Though Ortiz doesn't have a huge gap in success vs lefties and righties, Lowell has shown that he mashes lefty pitching. Since 2008 he's batted .302 with 13 homers in 255 at bats against southpaws.

5. Continue to find at bats for Jeremy Hermida

The former Marlin has been Boston's most timely hitter. In addition to his two-run homer Sunday night, Hermida is tied for the AL lead with 15 two-out RBIs. In fact all but four of the runs he's driven in have come with two outs, which at the very least ought to make him a very worthwhile pinch hitter. It's an admittedly small sample size, but Hermida is currently batting .143 (6-for-42) with three extra-base hits when there are less than two outs. He's hitting .393 (11-for-28) with five extra-base hits when there are two outs and .462 (6-for-13) with two outs and runners in scoring position.

"He's battled some injuries here and there, but he's a great player and has showed why he was drafted in the first round," Youkilis said. "He's got all the tools to be a great major-league player. Time has shown he's a good hitter."

It shouldn't be hard to keep Hermida in the starting lineup a few days per week at least for the next month or so, as his presence allows Francona to ease Cameron and Ellsbury back into regular playing time by giving them occasional days off. Hermida can start in left while one of the other two plays center. And Hermida is more of a natural right fielder anyway, so he'll be useful when it comes time for J.D. Drew's annual stint on the disabled list.

Considering their injuries, the daunting schedule and how poorly they've pitched and played defense, the Red Sox may have actually overachieved to still be at .500.

"Our start was kind of slow, but we've got a long ways to go, man," shortstop Marco Scutaro said. "Every team, in the best teams in the world, go through those sort of things. The difference is that it was right in the beginning, so it looks worse than if it was later on."

Scutaro is right, of course, The 2001 Mariners, who won a record-tying 116 games, had a 15-12 stretch, only theirs was hidden because it came from early June to early July and when they had already raced out to a commanding 17 game AL West lead.

The first of Youkilis' aforementioned 10-game sets includes three games against the Blue Jays and Tigers and then two each against the Twins and Yankees -- all teams with winning records. Making it back to the postseason may already be a daunting climb for the Red Sox, but it's one that will only become more imposing the longer they take to get started.

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