CLEVELAND -- As the Red Sox began their final two games of the season, they own the third-best record in the American League over the year's final two months.
Boston's 34-24 (.586) record is second only to two playoff teams -- the Toronto Blue Jays (42-16; .724) and Texas Rangers (39-21, .650). And while much of that turnaround is attributed to the growth of the young outfielders, the removal of Hanley Ramirez from the outfield and the surge provided by David Ortiz, there's little doubt as to the biggest reason behind the improvement.
"I think it was all hinging on the starting pitching,'' ventured interim manager Torey Lovullo. "Starting pitching, and the good defense that's been played behind them. We all know that championships are won with pitching and defense.''
Obviously, there will be no championships for the Red Sox. They won't have a winning record, never mind a spot in the post-season. But the pitching has been the key to the club's resurgence and there are numbers to support Lovullo's contention. Since Aug. 18, when Dave Dombrowski took over as president of baseball operations, the Sox own the best starter's ERA in Major League Baseball with a 3.13 ERA. In that 42 games span, starters limited the opposition to three runs or fewer in 32 of those games.
It's worth noting, too, that the current rotation has just two holdovers from the Opening Day rotation. The starting five in the beginning of the year -- Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley and Joe Kelly -- performed poorly for the first two months, putting the team in a deep hole.
Lovullo attributed the rotation's poor performance early in the season to the fact that "there were a lot of moving parts and some new moving parts. We didn't know a lot about Wade Miley, we didn't know a lot about Rick Porcello and didn't have a great feel for Masterson. We were just getting to know those moving parts. We were unsure. It just takes a little time to get that continuity.''
Adding to the adjustment period: the introduction of two new catchers -- Sandy Leon and Ryan Hanigan, and in early May when Hanigan went down with a broken finger, rookie Blake Swihart. Finally, the team fired pitching coach Juan Nieves and brought in Carl Willis.
Eventually, things improved. Kelly was demoted to the minors, but returned a ripped off eight straight wins before encountering the shoulder inflammation that resulted in him being shut down. Buchholz had a terrific run from mid-May until the end of June, when he, too, saw his season end with a foream/elbow issues. And Porcello made some adjustments, focusing more on his two-seam sinking fastball. As a result, he posted a 3.22 ERA from late August until now, after having pitched to a bloated 5.37 in April May.
"Everybody,'' acknowledged Lovullo, "kind of advanced at their own pace. It happened shortly after Porcello got off the DL, he and Joe Kelly went on a really good run and Wade Miley was extremely consistent. Those guys started challenging one another and it took off from there.''
Beyond the poor work by the starters, there was a domino effect that impacted the bullpen. Too often, the Sox were going to the bullpen in the third, fourth and fifth innings. Not only did that wear down some of the relievers, but it precluded the bullpen arms from assuming prescribed roles.
"Everybody likes a role,'' said Lovullo, "and when you can establish those roles as soon as possible, it seems to benefit them and they get into a good working order. But when there's no continuity with the starting pitching and certain guys are out of the game in the third or fourth inning, you really can't get any bullpen continuity.
"We all know that starting pitching sets the tone and winning teams have great starting pitching. We're getting that and we've been a winning team for a couple of months now.''
That's been aided by rookie Eduardo Rodriguez -- who limited opponents to no more than a run in 11 of his 21 starts -- and, to a lesser extent Henry Owens.