Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The Boston Red Sox are chasing history right now, and not in a good way. With a payroll of just over $146 million, the Sox could become the most expensive last place team in major league history.
That's the bad news. The good news (at least for Boston fans) is that the Red Sox are winners of nine of their last 11 and despite being tied for last in the AL East, they're only five and a half games out of first place.
The surprising thing about Boston's revival is that it hasn't been fueled by star power. When I saw Monday night's starting lineup of Mike Aviles, Will Middlebrooks, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Daniel Nava, Marlon Byrd and Che-Hsuan Lin take the field, I had to check the TV Guide just to make sure I wasn't watching the Pawtucket Red Sox instead.
Maybe it's the warm weather that has the Sox bats going or maybe the team has been extra-motivated since their closed-door meeting two weeks ago. Whatever the difference is, things are finally starting to click for the Red Sox.
Boston's recent surge has given fantasy owners plenty to smile about. We knew heading into 2012 that the Red Sox could hit and that belief has certainly been validated by the team's play early in the season. The Sox are second in the big leagues in team slugging percentage (.463), runs (229) and RBI (220), third in average (.275) and OPS (.796) and sixth in home runs (53).
Veteran DH David Ortiz has been Boston's most consistent offensive contributor, holding the team lead in batting average (.333), home runs (10) and RBI. Overall, he's on pace for 39 round-trippers and 116 RBI, his highest totals in those categories since 2006 when he blasted a team-record 54 homers and drove in a spectacular 137 runs.
Adrian Gonzalez (3 HRs in 42 games) and Dustin Pedroia (5 HRs in 42 games) haven't been quite the power threats that they were a season ago but luckily for the Sox, Aviles and Saltalamacchia have emerged as equally talented home run hitters.
It's only May but Aviles is only two blasts away from tying his career-high for home runs in a season. Through 41 games, Aviles is at .279 with 8 HRs and 28 RBI, giving the Sox arguably the most production they've seen out of the shortstop position since Nomar Garciaparra left town in 2004. Aviles has vaulted all the way up to No. 27 in Yahoo's current fantasy rankings, making him the second-highest rated shortstop in all of baseball behind only Rafael Furcal (.350, 21 RBI, 8 SBs in 41 games) of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Saltalamacchia already owns one major league record: he has the longest last name in big league history (14 letters). If Saltalamacchia keeps bashing home runs at his current pace, he'll have a chance to break another record as well: the record for most homers in a season by a Red Sox catcher. The 27-year-old Saltalamacchia is on pace to club 27 homers in 2012, which would narrowly eclipse Carlton Fisk's record of 26, established during the 1973 season.
Saltalamacchia launched a towering 466-foot home run against the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday, the third-longest homer hit in the majors this season. His current .278 batting average is well above his previous career high of .266 set in 2007 as a member of the Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers.
On a typical afternoon at Fenway Park you'll find hundreds of fans in Pedroia No. 15 shirts and just as many adorning Gonzalez's No. 28. It won't be long before those same fans start wearing Nava's No. 66 and Middlebrooks's 64.
Nava has exploded onto the scene with a .343 average and 10 RBI since his call-up earlier in the month. Middlebrooks has been just as impressive, annihilating American League pitching for five homers and 16 RBI in just 18 games.
Middlebrooks was so outstanding in Kevin Youkilis' absence that manager Bobby Valentine is experimenting with playing Gonzalez in right field and shifting Youkilis back to first base just so the rookie third baseman can continue to get at-bats.
After a dismal April in which opponents were batting .278 against the Sox, Boston's pitching has responded by posting the 12th-lowest ERA in the majors this month (3.69).
The jury is still out on whether or not Clay Buchholz (4-2, 7.84 ERA) will ever return to All-Star form and Daniel Bard's transition from reliever to starter hasn't gone as smooth as fantasy owners had hoped (1-3, 5.79 ERA in his last four starts). But aside from these minor inconsistencies, the Sox staff has been on it's game this month. Josh Beckett has been a totally different pitcher in his last two starts (2-0, 0.61 ERA) and Opening Day starter Jon Lester has settled down too (3.12 ERA in May compared to 4.65 in April).
The bullpen has rebounded in a similarly positive fashion. A month ago, Boston fans wanted Alfredo Aceves gone like San Diego wanted Ron Burgundy gone from the Channel 4 news team. But since then, Aceves has developed into one of the more consistent closers in the league, converting each of his last eight save opportunities while compiling a 1.04 ERA over his last 14 outings. Even Vicente Padilla has been reliable in his role as the team's new setup man: he hasn't allowed an inherited runner to score all season and his nine holds are good for fifth in the American League.
Despite the flood of injuries, underachievement and the growing pains involved with transitioning to Valentine's new coaching style, through 42 games the Red Sox (21-21) are only one game worse than they were at this point last season.
And even if Boston does crumble again in September, that doesn't mean your fantasy team will, too. Remember, Youkilis is making his return on Tuesday and Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury are on the comeback trail as well. Things are looking up in Beantown and that has to be a sigh of relief for fantasy owners.