After today, it will be 81 down, 81 to go.

No, not Michael Jackson network specials. The Boston Red Sox have reached the halfway point of the season.

The Sox are in first place in the best division in baseball. They have the best record in the American League and are on pace to win close to 100 games. They haven’t lost more than two games in a row since mid-May. They’re over .500 at home and on the road. They won’t play another game west of Texas during the regular season, but they still have eight games left with the Kansas City Royals. 

David Ortiz’s power production has gone up. Julio Lugo’s playing time has gone down. Jason Varitek has beaten back rigor mortis. Jacoby Ellsbury isn’t trying to be Johnny Damon anymore. J.D. Drew hasn’t sneezed his way onto the DL.

The starting rotation has been been going deeper into games since Daisuke Matsuzaka went down. Josh Beckett is back to being Josh Beckett and Jon Lester is apparently out of his early funk. The bullpen, minus a painful hiccup last Wednesday, has been superb.

There are so many positives to take out of the first half of the season that it’s almost shocking to look at the standings and see the New York Yankees so close on their heels. Considering the way the Sox have been playing and the way they’ve dominated the Yanks this season, one would think they would be threatening to open a double digit lead by the All-Star break. Yet New York and even the Tampa Bay Rays still have a chance to overtake the frontrunners by then.

The chances of the Red Sox pulling away seem pretty small, but one also has to believe the chances of them fading are pretty slim, too, barring a major rash of injuries, of course. 

Their pitching depth alone virtually assures that there will be no long losing streaks. We can put Beckett and Lester up against any 1-2 punch in baseball and Tim Wakefield has been at his best when the Red Sox have needed him most. Nobody wants to trade Brad Penny all of a sudden. The jury is still out on John Smoltz, but if he proves to be a wash out, Boston can turn to Clay Buchholz to at least hold the spot down until Daisuke Matsuzaka comes back. Sure, most Red Sox fans would rather have Jerry Remy back, but there are about 30 other teams that would love to welcome an 18-game winner back into their rotation, even if he has pitched like Danny Darwin this year.

The bullpen is almost as deep. With the exception of Hideki Okajima, the only lefty in the group, the Sox have someone who can fill any role if one of the relievers goes down. That includes the closer. Jonathan Papelbon hasn’t been as sharp as in year’s past. His walk rate is the highest it’s ever been. He doesn’t appear to have anything physically wrong with him, but if health does become an issue, Takashi Saito or possibly even Daniel Bard could step in.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the offense. Yeah, it’s third in the league in runs. But it always seems like it’s one more injury away from reminding us of the days when Tom Brunansky hit cleanup.

We’re getting a sample of the potential danger with the absence of Mike Lowell. Remarkably, he began the season resembling the Mike Lowell who drove in 120 runs two years ago. But the problem hip, and some over-use by Terry Francona, turned him into a right-handed hitting Scott Cooper before he went to the disabled list. 

With Lowell out of the lineup, or even in it in the guise of a punchless, lead-footed third baseman, the lineup’s depth comes into question. Add in the fact that Varitek’s production took a serious dive in June (from an OPS of .849 in April and May to .750 last month) and it’s safe to say that the lower half of the order may need more of a boost than Mark Kotsay.

Here’s hoping Theo Epstein isn’t counting on Jed Lowrie to provide that boost. Depth, for sure. Having Lowrie around to at least split time with the surprising Nick Green at shortstop and spell Lowell at third when he returns will be a nice addition. But Lowrie isn’t coming back from a pulled hammy. He had major wrist surgery. Ask Ortiz and Nomar Garciaparra how easy it is to get your swing back with a surgically-repaired wrist. Sox fans should be happy if Lowrie can be the same sure-handed fielder he was last year. Expecting him to hit like he did when he first came up would be unfair.

So the Sox need a bat for the second half, preferably someone capable of playing one or both corner infield and maybe even some outfield. Not an overpaid middle of the order guy that might be dangled before the trade deadline, a la the overrated Matt Holliday. Victor Martinez’s name has come up often, and that’s intriguing, but Cleveland is going to ask for the keys to the minor league vault for that.

There could be plenty of cheaper options out there later this month, such as Garrett Atkins from Colorado, Chad Tracy of Arizona or Aubrey Huff of Baltimore (who, and here’s an added bonus, does a mean Joba Chamberlain impersonation). Any one will provide the depth this team, even if completely healthy, is lacking.

If the Red Sox add a little more pop off the bench, you can mark them down for the World Series, in ink. And start scouting the Los Angeles Dodgers, because Manny and his minions will be waiting for them.


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