AL East Report: Red Sox Rally Behind Unlikely Heroes

The Boston Red Sox are gaining steam in the American League East. The bottom dropped out 12 days ago and Josh Beckett was booed off the mound early, amid reports that he’d been golfing after being unable to pitch and then looking equally unable to pitch when he actually did take the mound against Cleveland. But after that game, the Sox won three in a row from the Indians, then took two from Seattle—including a shutout from Beckett. They split two with Tampa and finally won two of three in Philadelphia over the weekend, with the Sunday rubber match featuring Beckett outdueling Cliff Lee. The Sox are still in fifth place in the American League East and they’re still a game under .500. But they’re only one back of the New York Yankees for fourth in the Division Turned Upside Down and they’re doing with some unlikely heroes.

Will Middlebrooks and Danny Nava weren’t expected to be playing key roles—or any roles at all for that matter—in the everyday lineup, but injuries forced the organization’s hand. Middlebrooks, a highly touted prospect at third base came up when Kevin Youkilis went on the disabled list and in the month of May, Middlebrooks slugged .580, keyed by five home runs. His on-base percentages are low, at .306 for the month, making him the anti-Youkilis, but the veteran is expected back this week and as long as Middlebrooks is swinging a hot bat, Youkilis can be worked into the lineup slowly. Then there’s the case of Nava, who seems to have to beg for a shot and to be evaluated on the merits. His 2010 emergency call-up was electric when he swung at the first big-league pitch he saw and hit a grand slam. Nava played well the rest of that injury-riddled season in Fenway, but spent all of his last season in the minors. Again this season, injuries have piled up and Nava got a call. He’s got a .477 on-base percentage and .531 slugging in May. Maybe the front office should stop looking the gift horse in the month and keep him on the roster, even when Jacoby Ellsbury comes back at the end of June.

The other unlikely hero is the bullpen. After a disastrous April, including blowing a 9-0 lead to the Yankees over the course of two innings on national television, the relievers were the most unpopular people in New England since the Salem Witch Trials. But in May? The six relievers that Bobby Valentine most relies on—Alfredo Aceves, Scott Atchison, Clayton Mortensen, Vincent Padilla, Rich Hill and Andrew Miller—have worked 66 innings this month and the ERA is 0.95. Give Bobby V his due on this one. This isn’t as easy as it was last year for Terry Francona, who could just go to Daniel Bard in the eighth and Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth. Valentine doesn’t have that kind of raw talent to call on, but he’s getting pitchers into the right spots as the season goes along. The pen will not be a strength over the long haul, but at least it’s no longer a disaster area and is capable of enjoying hot run like they’ve had in May. I’m not a Valentine backer—as a Red Sox fan I curse him under my breath at least three times a day, more when a game is actually on. But let’s give credit where it’s deserved and the manager deserves a bow here.

One thing Boston has been this year is streaky—they’ve had a couple nice little bursts already in the young season, but have promptly followed it up by giving away the progress rapidly. A big week looms, with a three-game series in Baltimore and then three more at home with Tampa Bay.

Let’s now take a brief run through the rest of the AL East. You know since 1998 it’s been very easy to open any AL East discussion with the Sox & Yanks and then move on to everyone else. We’ll do the same here, but in the world of 2012, keep in mind that this time we’re going inverse order in the standings…

NY Yanks (21-20): Just how much Derek Jeter meant to the Yanks in the first several weeks of the season became apparent these last several games. The shortstop hit a slump, no one else picked up the slack, including Alex Rodriguez and to a lesser extent Mark Teixeira. With the exception of Andy Pettite’s publicized shutout of Cincinnati on Friday, the pitching was problematic, Thus the Yanks fell to fourth.

Toronto (23-19): We should all enjoy a week in the Big Apple the way Toronto did, sweeping a pair from the Yanks and then winning a series with the Mets over the weekend. The Jays got strong pitching outings from Kyle Drabek, Dew Hutchison and Ricky Romero, as the rotation continues to be well-balanced. Kelly Johnson is producing offensively. And the best news was that Jose Bautista awakened, hitting .308 with three home runs. If the big gun is ready to start firing, the Jays are going to be awfully good in the weeks and months ahead.

Tampa Bay (25-17): Tampa is still treading water and waiting for Evan Longoria to get back from the disabled list. The record is 7-9 since their high-water mark on May 4 and the offense ranked 11th in the AL in runs scored this past week. The culprits are Carlos Pena and Luke Scott, who not only were a combined 9-for-50, but every hit from these two power hitters was a single. So much for picking up for Longoria. The good news is that the third baseman, already projected for an early June return is said to be progressing ahead of schedule.

Baltimore (27-15): Yes, it’s early, but the Orioles have met a very stiff schedule challenge lately, including last week’s run where they split two-game sets with the Rays and Yanks and then won a weekend series in Washington. The bats did the job, especially over the weekend. Adam Jones hit .387 with four home runs and 22-year-old Xavier Avery got called up to replaced the injured Nolan Reimold and promptly went 10-for-28. Jones and Avery are the biggest reasons the lineup kept going while Matt Wieters went through a cold week.