Boston Red Sox: Hot May Cancels Early-Season Mayday

The Boston bats came alive in May

After an ugly April that finished with them sitting dead last in the A.L. East, the Boston Red Sox were certainly in distress.  But what a difference a month can make.  Any calls for help were put on hold thanks to a scorching May, 29 games that reversed the team’s fortunes and helped them climb back into the playoff picture.

Until a three-game losing streak sullied their success, the Sox had risen from worst to first, briefly taking control of the division.  But consecutive defeats against the Tigers and White Sox mean that Boston will enter June one game out of first.  Still, that’s a welcome position given how the team was faring a few weeks ago.  Take a look at a statistical comparison of April and May:

April
MLB Ranks: 15th in team OPS/ 25th in scoring
11-15 (.423) with a -6 run differential
22 home runs and 73 total extra-base hits
107 runs scored and a slash line of .243/ .331/ .380

May
MLB Ranks: 1st in team OPS/ 3rd in scoring
19-10 (.655) with a +31 run differential
48 home runs and 127 total extra-base hits
186 runs scored and a slash line of .285/ .342/ .470

What should jump out is the uptick in slugging percentage.  As the weather warmed, so did the bats.  Boston’s power numbers spiked in May and the home run total jumped from 22 to 48.  In April, the club hit 48 doubles.  In May, 73.

The surge helped Boston amass a .655 winning percentage in May which matched the Arizona Diamondbacks for the best record in baseball during that stretch.

What makes that especially impressive is that the team’s pitching improved only slightly.  In fact, the Sox actually allowed more baserunners in May despite compiling a better ERA.

April
4.24 ERA in 227 innings
1.29 WHIP
178 K/ 2.02 K:BB ratio

May
4.01 ERA in 262.2 innings
1.35 WHIP
214 K/ 2.10 K:BB ratio

The rotation was fairly consistent over time.  Its April ERA and WHIP totals of 3.94/ 1.28 actually rose to 4.14/ 1.36 in May.  That’s not so bad considering the injuries to Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey.  No one expected Tim Wakefield and Alfredo Aceves to have to step in and assume starting roles, but both have, for the most part, done exceptionally well.

Meanwhile, the bullpen experienced a major turnaround, going from a 5.13 ERA in April to a 3.76 in May.  That improved relief made a significant difference as the team was able to retain more leads.

Player of the Month

It’s tough to recognize only one player.  Several big bats got on track in May, including Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, and Kevin Youkilis.  Jacoby Ellsbury kept up his good production atop the order, and the team was able to upgrade its numbers even as Dustin Pedroia stayed mired in a slump.

Gonzalez was twice my Player of the Week, elevating his OPS from .836 in April to .989 in May for an overall .919.  Most importantly, his home run total jumped from 1 to 10 thanks to 9 May dingers.

Ortiz quietly put together a spectacular month, finishing the stretch with a whopping 1.081 OPS.  That was up significantly from April’s .768 and raised his overall total to .943.  Big Papi is turning back the clock in 2011, having smashed 12 homers to date.  Of those 10 were hit in May.

Crawford's strong performance in May will help erase memories of an awful April (Townson/ AP)

But my Player of the Month has to be Carl Crawford.  In April, he looked completely lost while limping to a .431 OPS.  Over his first 97 at bats, Crawford hit a dismal .155 with only five extra-base hits.  Luckily for all concerned, May could hardly have been more different.

Crawford’s hit .300 last month.  He drilled 11 extra-base hits.  His OPS skyrocketed to .807.  He scored 19 runs compared to only 6 in April, and had several key walk-off hits.

We knew it would only be a matter of time until the All-Star started to hit like one.  His solid effort got his overall numbers looking decent again, and if Crawford is able to continue at his current pace, his season totals will look just fine.

Series of the Month

May 13th- 15th, at Yankee Stadium: Boston 3, New York 0

The sweep in the Bronx was critical for several reasons.  First, it marked the end of Boston’s losing record as the club left New York with a .500 record at 20-20.  Second, it obviously closed the gap between the two rivals and helped Boston get back into the divisional race.  But perhaps most importantly, it was a necessary gut-check for a team that was truly out of sorts.

Beckett's shutout keyed a huge sweep at Yankee Stadium (McIsaac/ Getty)

Boston accomplished the three-game sweep in a variety of ways.  Friday’s opener was a hard-fought 5-4 victory that involved a stellar start from Clay Buchholz.  While Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard, perhaps the two most reliable arms in the pen, each surrendered a run, the team was able to hang on and avoid the late-game breakdown.  Had the Sox blown their lead and dropped that contest, it would have been a major blow to their psyche.

Saturday’s matchup was a lopsided 6-0 smackdown spear-headed by an electric Josh Beckett.  The former ace struck out nine Yankees over six shutout innings as the lineup pummeled C.C. Sabathia for six earned.  It was just the kind of victory that the team needed after so many stumbles and close shaves.

Sunday’s finale was tight again, as both Jon Lester and Freddy Garcia were knocked around.  But in the end, Boston did enough to earn the win that evened their record, putting the early-season failures firmly in the rearview mirror.

The sweep marked the beginning of a ridiculous hot streak that saw Boston win 13 of 15 games.

Injury report

Matsuzaka’s elbow problems were a major story.  After the extent of the injuries were revealed and it was determined that he would miss two months or more while recovering, it became clear that Boston needed to find a long-term solution to his absence.  And given his struggles, switching things up was probably a good idea anyway.

Lackey will have to work to get his numbers back into the respectable range (Amendola/ AP)

The same was true for John Lackey.  Sidelined with his own elbow issue, Lackey was out of commission for most of the month as Wakefield and Aceves filled in.  The results were good, and one has to wonder what will happen if Lackey returns to action but not to form.   Can the Red Sox continue to be successful with their makeshift rotation if necessary?  Lackey is expected back as early as Sunday, when he will begin attempting to whittle down his 8.01 ERA.

Marco Scutaro is also working his way back to health after an oblique injury cost him significant time.  But given that he’s been relegated to a back-up role, or at best a platoon with Jed Lowrie, there’s no real sense of urgency.

Bobby Jenks has been activated from the D.L. and will try to improve upon his 9.35 ERA.  Dan Wheeler has been back in action for almost two weeks.  He has yet to surrender a run in 4.2 innings of work, and looks to be back to his former effective self.

Surprise of the month

Maybe this whole catching situation isn’t such a problem after all.  Just when the worries over the backstop position had reached a fever pitch, both Jason Varitek and Jarrod Saltalamacchia decided to start hitting.  Salty’s April OPS of .548 was downright brutal, but in May he stepped up his production and compiled a much-improved total of .756.  He cranked four homers (zero in April), scored nine runs (three in April), and cut his strikeout rate from 31% to 20%.

Varitek was even better, finishing the month with an absurd .933 OPS compared to April’s .339.  Varitek looked rejuvenated while hitting .333 and posting a .400 on-base percentage.  His seven RBI in only 45 at bats were unexpected, but much appreciated.

If the duo continues to hit like this, then perhaps the Sox won’t be pressured into dealing for another option behind the plate.

Random stat of the month

While May has been mostly positive, Boston closed out the month by losing two to the White Sox.  Chicago has now won 12 of its last 14 at Fenway.

Quote of the month

“”We put up a crooked number early and then we kept at them.  That’s a nice formula for winning. When you keep them off the scoreboard, that makes for a good day.”

- Terry Francona following Boston’s 14-1 win over Detroit on May 26th.

I don’t want to pick on Tito, because it has to be difficult to come up with witty things to say every day.  But this ranks up there with the all-time master-of-the-obvious statements.

Minor league update

There wasn’t much minor league action in May.  Daniel Nava was designated for assignment and the team signed Kevin Millwood to a minor league contract.  Some highlights.

Upcoming schedule

Having turned around their season in May, the Red Sox will now face the challenge of maintaining that success into June.  The end of the month will feature 12 straight interleague games against Milwaukee, San Diego, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia.  Given what Boston has been doing of late, those first three series should be easily winnable, and several sweeps could be in order.  Beating the Phillies will be a bit more challenging.

But before interleague play returns in all its glory, the Sox face a critical stretch of games against division opponents.  Beginning on June 7th, the team will play nine consecutive road games at New York, Toronto, and Tampa Bay.  These three A.L. East teams are Boston’s principal competition, and this sequence could go a long way toward determining the final standings.

The series against the Yankees and Rays will be particularly important because all three teams are vying for first place.  Series wins during this road trip will be crucial.