Monday April 11th, 2011

BOSTON -- The city the Red Sox call home is notoriously bad for driving. Populated with aggressive Massachusetts motorists navigating a series of meandering one-way streets -- the original patriots seemingly paved the paths taken by aimless 17th century cattle -- Boston can be a challenge to drive for an out-of-towner, but before the Red Sox' home opener on Friday new first baseman Adrian Gonzalez sounded like a native.

The team had arrived at Fenway the previous night, so the club's prized trade acquisition said it was easy to reverse his directions from park to hotel the next morning -- "except I took Beacon instead of Commonwealth because I couldn't take a left," Gonzalez noted, name-checking some major crosstown thoroughfares.

But while Gonzalez and his Fenway-made inside-out lefty swing have looked perfectly comfortable in the season's first fortnight -- he's hitting .286 with a .375 on-base percentage and three extra-base hits in 35 at bats -- his fellow celebrated new arrival, leftfielder Carl Crawford, hasn't seemed quite as settled in. Crawford hit just .174 on the season-opening six-game road trip and spent part of Friday morning trying to locate a box cutter for a new package and was overheard telling a clubhouse attendant he needed a minor alteration to his home white uniform pants.

Crawford, whose average dropped to .132 entering play Monday, will likely fit in just fine at Fenway Park but the adjustment has been rockier than any expected. That goes for the team as well. The Red Sox started 0-6 and even after a series win over the Yankees this weekend now wear the title of "The Best 2-7 Team Ever Assembled," not that any of the players are panicking.

"We're four games out with 153 to go," second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who has had three straight three-hit games, said Sunday. "It's a long ways away. I'm not very smart but it looks doable, what do you think?''

Indeed, if the Red Sox keep winning two out of every three games, as they did against the Yankees, they'll be up to .500 in barely more than two week's time.

Stung by the slow start, the Red Sox seem to be trying to minimize the attention they call to themselves -- for better or worse -- after seeming to welcome it this spring. Regarding the projections of Gonzalez's performance at Fenway, for instance, he told the assembled media, "Let me play and you can write after whatever happens."

Starting pitcher Josh Beckett had calmly said during spring training that the 2011 Red Sox have the best chance of winning 100 games of any of the 11 teams he's played on. Though many observers agreed, it nonetheless seemed a bit boastful, particularly given the club's oft-quoted company line that 95 wins is the standard benchmark for a playoff spot in the AL East.

Yet on Sunday night Beckett broke down his start against the Yankees with such steely resolve that, had you been watching his neutral face and listened only to the volume and inflection of his words without understanding their meaning, you'd have never guessed that he had just thrown -- statistically speaking -- one of the best starts of his career.

"I feel good about my outing,'' he said modestly. "I gave us eight innings and saved the bullpen a little bit."

He did a lot more than that. Beckett, who lasted eight innings of the Red Sox' 4-0 victory, struck out 10 while allowing only two hits, one walk and one hit batter. According to game score, a statistic invented by Bill James to summarize a pitcher's performance with a singular number, the outing was tied for the second-best performance of Beckett's 248 career regular-season starts.

The unexpected source of lively personality has come from general manager Theo Epstein, who marched into his team's clubhouse before their home opener on Friday and gave the Sox a pep talk that none of them saw coming.

"I've been here nine years and I never thought he had those words all lined up for us," designated hitter David Oritz said.

Infielder Jed Lowrie said Epstein's talk was simultaneously calm but motivational and that he "just wanted to get a strong point across." Part of Epstein's message was to remind the club how good they are and how they'll come out of their funk sooner rather than later.

"This game's got a way of evening itself out," Lowrie said.

At first glance, the offense would seem to be most in need of a restoration of balance. Many predicted this year's Red Sox would score 900 or even 1,000 runs. Instead, with just 33 runs through nine games, Boston is on pace for 597, which would be 221 fewer than last year's Red Sox and would barely eclipse the Pirates' 2010 output, which ranked next-to-last in the majors. The Red Sox have only hit as many home runs as the Rangers' Nelson Cruz (five) and have a batting line of .231/.322/.324.

But their approach is sound. Red Sox hitters are working deep counts -- they entered the evening seeing 4.02 pitches per plate appearance, third-most in the majors -- even if their on-base percentage was just a paltry .297. It was a matter of time before that corrected itself and it did so Sunday night when the Sox had 20 men reach base.

Similarly, more baserunners usually means more runs, yet after leaving 16 runners on base Sunday the Red Sox are scoring an average of one run for every 3.3 men who reach base this season. For comparison's sake, the homer-happy Yankees are scoring a run for every 2.1 runners who reach base, and the 2010 major league average was a run for every 2.8 baserunners.

In fact, last year 29 teams ranged from the Blue Jays' 2.5 to the Orioles' 3.1, with the Mariners a distant last at 3.4; Boston's 3.3 this year is nearly as poor. Boston's low number means it's not driving the ball for extra-base hits and not running for extra bases (steals or otherwise) in part because its speedsters -- Crawford (.175 OBP) and Jacoby Ellsbury (.229) -- are barely reaching base.

It is the pitching staff -- one that is welcoming a new catcher (Jarrod Saltalamacchia) and a new pitching coach (Curt Young) -- that is more of a reason for concern. Before Beckett's brilliant outing on Sunday, which perhaps not coincidentally came with longtime Boston backstop Jason Varitek behind the plate, the Red Sox ranked last in the majors in pitches thrown per inning (18.2), home runs allowed (2.6 per nine innings) and ERA (7.09). They couldn't blame the fielding, either, as their FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, a measure of ERA that has been neutralized for defense) was 7.04, which was nearly two runs worse than any other team's.

Worst of all for the Sox? They were allowing a batting average on balls in play of .269, which was well below the league average of .293, meaning Boston's pitchers might actually have benefited from good luck and that the damage inflicted could feasibly have been worse. That's ugly news for someone like John Lackey, who has allowed at least one baserunner in eight of his nine innings of work and multiple runners in seven of them. Opponents are 17-for-48 off Lackey (a .395 average), contributing to his 15.58 ERA and 2.42 WHIP.

As colleague Tom Verducci noted on Friday, Beckett, Lackey and the staff's fifth member, Daisuke Matsuzaka, are all in their early 30s and have warning signs attached to their performance. Beckett has the best stuff -- a four-seam fastball that consistently hit 94 on Sunday, not to mention a curve he threw for strikes and a two-seam fastball that worked well against lefties -- and, circumstantially, ought to be ready for a big year if for no other reason than because it's 2011.

Beckett has been consistently inconsistent: He has alternated every other year between an All-Star caliber pitcher (in odd-numbered years, including when he was an actual All-Star in 2007 and '09) and a middling pitcher (in even-numbered years). Using ERA+ as a guide -- a score of 100 is exactly league average -- Beckett has toggled between 95 and 115 in 2002, '04, '06 and '08 before dipping to 75 in his injury-plagued '10 season. In odd-numbered years his worst ERA+ (118 in '05) was better than in any even-numbered year and ranged as high as 145 in '07.

In fact, beginning with 2002, the first season in which he made at least 20 starts, his averages are as follows:

• Even-numbered years: 10-9, 4.54 ERA, 2.8 K/BB

• Odd-numbered years: 15-7, 3.42 ERA, 3.4 K/BB

It's an unusual trend except that he gave commanding playoff performances to help the Marlins and Red Sox win the World Series in 2003 and '07, meaning the extra workload could have dampened his '04 and his '08 ('06 and '10 cannot be explained by long playoff runs the previous autumn).

Boston needs better starting pitching and likely won't be looking for outside help, given the money invested in the five guys they have. After the 26-year-old Clay Buchholz received an extension on Sunday -- it's worth $30.5 million over four years, beginning in 2012, with club options for 2016 and '17 potentially worth another $26.5 million -- the Red Sox now have the first four of their rotation locked up through 2014. Matsuzaka, meanwhile, is under contract for $10 million in 2012, meaning the club might not have the payroll flexibility, particularly with a luxury tax hit possibly looming, to seek a meaningful addition.

So while it's likely the hitters will soon hit -- including Crawford, who hit the ball hard a few times on Sunday despite his 0-for-5 -- the starters are the less certain bunch.

"There are no guarantees in this game," Epstein said, while announcing Buchholz's new deal, "but you want to bet on the right people."

Their rotation is basically set for four years, so the Sox need the right people to already be on the roster and that they can navigate treacherous AL East lineups as well as the streets of Boston.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.