Boston Red Sox

By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub

Life is good for the Boston Red Sox.

At 39-17, they’re off to the second-best start in franchise history. They lead the majors in batting average, extra-base hits, runs scored and, a season after a team-wide power outage, they’re second in home runs. On the mound, they boast the second-best team ERA in the American League and rank second on the circuit (and in baseball) in strikeouts. They just swept the Blue Jays, and fans even got to take in an all-too-rare Fenway day game, where J.D Martinez cleared the Green Monster with his 18th homer of the season.

Martinez and Mookie Betts have been the most electrifying offensive combination since Betts sidled up alongside David Ortiz in 2016 – except Boston’s leadoff hitter has been even better this year than his silver medal MVP-caliber effort two years ago. The 5-foot-9 right fielder is leading the league in OPS and has smacked an astounding 17 home runs. And while Martinez is no Big Papi, he’s been a consistent .300 hitter throughout his career, with his power numbers continuing at the eye-popping pace he established in the Arizona heat last summer. He’s on pace for 52 dingers and 135 RBI, numbers not seen since Ortiz set the team record for round-trippers back in 2006.

On the rare nights that the offense hasn’t been there, Boston’s starters have largely kept them in the game. They’ve tossed quality starts in 27 of 56 contests so far. A rested Chris Sale and rejuvenated Rick Porcello are responsible for 16 of those outings. Eduardo Rodriguez seems to be finding his form after an early DL stint and hey, at least David Price isn’t hurt.

Sale has again been amazing, ranking second in the AL in K’s and eighth in earned run average. Turns out that the team’s dedication to the lefty’s preservation wasn’t just lip service, as he’s thrown nine fewer innings and, perhaps more importantly, 101 fewer pitches through 12 starts this year. But the ace still needs to prove it in the second half, and the rest of the staff needs to get in line if they want to win a round in October.

Chris Sale Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Which brings us to the Houston Astros. The same Astros squad that sent the Sox packing in four games in the American League Division Series last autumn. The same Astros lineup that pelted Boston starters for 16 earned runs in just 11.1 innings, putting the Sox in a hole in each of the four contests with a combined eight first-inning tallies. In the two games at Minute Maid Park, they hammered six home runs and outscored the Sox, 16-4.

And that’s where this year’s Sox are headed for four games. First pitch at 8:10 p.m. on Thursday.

Houston is, again, tops in the competitive AL West. And as defending World Series champions, they sit on the hill that the Red Sox want to be on. There’s no World Series hangover here, folks: Houston is third in the majors in runs scored, and their team ERA and strikeout numbers are atop the universe. Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton are first, second and fourth in the league, respectively, in ERA, with all three ranking in the top-10 in strikeouts. Cole leads baseball in the category.

The Sox will have the pleasure of seeing all three this series, plus 24-year old dynamo Lance McCullers in the series opener against Drew Pomeranz.

The Boston offense has fittingly turned into a pumpkin the past two Octobers. Combined with their postseason pitching woes, there is little this squad can do in the regular season to erase those memories. But perhaps this series will give an indication of how these Red Sox can perform against top competition.

May 20, 2018, Boston, MA, USA: Boston Red Sox right fielder J.D. Martinez rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run against the Baltimore Orioles during the fifth inning at Fenway Park. (Photo Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

May 20, 2018, Boston, MA, USA: Boston Red Sox right fielder J.D. Martinez rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run against the Baltimore Orioles during the fifth inning at Fenway Park. (Photo Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

During Boston’s 17-2 start to the season, the opposition tossed just one quality start (José Ureña of the Marlins). And though the Sox took five of six from the Yankees and Angels early on, they’ve mostly fattened up on sub-.500 teams, racing out to a 20-5 record against those squads. It’s one thing to hammer on divisional punching bags like the Rays’ Jake Faria or the Blue Jays’ Marco Estrada, Tampa Bay in one of their “bullpen games,” or old friend Doug Fister. It’s quite another when you’re staring down a former Cy Young winner at the top of his game (Verlander) and this season’s early favorite (Cole).

Everything is better when you’re winning. It even helps gloss over the weird release of Hanley Ramirez, for which the financial ramifications are quite clear but the impact on the lineup is not. But even at 39-17, the Sox could use a history lesson.

The other Boston team to race out to this same record through 56 games? The 2002 edition. Two elite hitters in Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez. An ace in Pedro Martinez with a sinkerballer sidekick in Derek Lowe. Sound familiar?

Those ’02 Sox went 53-52 after June 1 and missed the playoffs.

It’s a reminder that anything is possible across the full 162. The Yankees aren’t going anywhere. The rotation isn’t quite where it needs to be. And while much has been made of the performance of Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts in bursts, can they provide consistent offensive support? With Ramirez gone, who provides the depth?

The Astros have already answered most of these questions, and they have a phenomenal pitching staff to cover up any ugly offensive holes. They’re the defending champs, and they’ve got the swagger that suggests they’re not a one-hit wonder.

This upcoming series gives us a glimpse of whether the 2018 Red Sox are ready for prime time, or just slapping lipstick on last year’s postseason pig.

Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.

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