Xander Bogaerts and the Boston Red Sox are off to a surprising start. Bogaerts isn’t the surprise, with three home runs and a .378 batting average, but who expected the Red Sox to be in first place in the American League East? Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Nick Pivetta was tossed into the Red Sox rotation this year, the unknown among a veteran group.

He is no longer a stranger, having tossed 5 2/3 hitless innings Thursday night. Pivetta, obtained in an under-the-radar deal with the Phillies involving Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree, is becoming one of several key and overachieving pieces to this Boston puzzle.

Maybe, these Red Sox really do have something going.

A lock for the playoffs? Please. As if to temper the excitement of another prime Pivetta start, the Red Sox bullpen melted Thursday night in a 7-3, 10-inning loss.

But, as NESN host (and Portland Press Herald columnist) Tom Caron pointed out in a Tweet on Friday: “Woke up this morning thinking how great it is that so many of us were fired up over last night’s loss. No better indication that this team is relevant again.”

A loss that hurts means that winning is expected.

And who expected that after last year’s dismal season?

How did these Red Sox become so relevant?

Boston features a relentless lineup – tops in the American League in OPS and runs – but that would be useless without pitching.

Going into Saturday’s games, Red Sox pitchers ranked fourth in the league in ERA. The top of the rotation is solid with Eduardo Rodriguez and Nathan Eovaldi, and Pivetta has given the staff a boost. Martin Perez is OK as a No. 5 starter if he can lower that 5.71 ERA. Garrett Richards is the $10-million free agent whom the Red Sox took a chance on. So far, it is not paying off, but it’s way too early to go doom-and-gloom on him. The ERA is 6.48, with a couple of stinkers.

Boston has options for the rotation, not the least being a return of Chris Sale later in the summer. Tanner Houck provides quality depth out of Triple-A and could be a permanent fixture by summer.

Then there is the intriguing case of Garrett Whitlock, who has yet to be scored upon in five appearances (11 1/3 innings, five hits, one walk, 14 strikeouts). Whitlock was a starter throughout the minor leagues – before Boston took (stole?) him from the Yankees in the Rule 5 draft. The Red Sox could stretch him out as a starter, or as a long reliever – piggy-backing either Perez or Richards.

Whitlock certainly bolsters a bullpen that is improved. Matt Barnes faced questions about his ability to close, but he is 3 for 3 in save opportunities. Hirokazu Sawamura (1.80) is proving to be quite a find; and Matt Andriese (1.80) was a low-risk free-agent signing who has paid off so far. If Adam Ottavino gets into a consistent groove and Darwinzon Hernandez gets under control, this is a lights-out pen.

But, back to that lineup …

J.D. Martinez (1.179 OPS, seven home runs) is back to his slugging ways and Xander Bogaerts (1.012) is indispensable. Rafael Devers (.883, six home runs) does not turn 25 until October and continues to look like a budding superstar; the only question remaining is when will Boston try to sign him long-term?

Alex Verdugo isn’t trying to replace Mookie Betts, but as one of the players acquired in the Betts’ trade, Verdugo has made a big impact. This season, he is hitting .316 and has played strong defense at all three outfield positions. Andy Clayton-King/Assocaited Press

What can we say about Alex Verdugo? Despite his claims that “I am not replacing Mookie Betts,” the spotlight shines brightly on the man at the center of the deal on the Red Sox side of the Betts trade with the Dodgers.

Verdugo, once a budding Dodgers prospect, has answered Boston’s needs with superb outfield defense and dependable offense. He hit .308 with an .844 OPS last year, and sits at .316/.891 this season.

Making that Betts deal more “tolerable” (one never trades away a star like Betts and calls it “good”) are the two other pieces obtained in the deal. Infielder Jeter Downs and catcher Connor Wong are at Boston’s alternate training site and could have regular roles with the Red Sox in their future.

Betts, by the way, is batting .273/.876 for the Dodgers. His other departed outfield mates from Boston are off to slow starts – Jackie Bradley Jr. (.217/.608) with Milwaukee and Andrew Benintendi (.219/.608) in Kansas City.

Boston signed versatile players like Kiké Hernández (.247/.721), who has been able to move from second base to help solidify the outfield. Hernández is a spark plug, although his .286 on-base percentage makes him a less-than-ideal leadoff batter. How about Verdugo (.365 OBP) in that role?

Remember when the battle for the last roster spot appeared to be between infielders Christian Arroyo and Michael Chavis? Arroyo won – supposedly because he had no minor league options left – but Arroyo (.333/.852) is now emerging as a regular in the lineup.

There is a lot to like about these Red Sox. Yes, it is early, but with Boston’s depth, the success appears sustainable.

THE YANKEES are the ones off to a slow start. Through Friday, New York (8-11) was tied for last in the American League East with Baltimore. New York’s fielding and starting pitching have been erratic, but the bats are mostly to blame so far. The Yankees’ .654 OPS ranks 28th out of 30 teams.

THE PORTLAND Sea Dogs continue to prepare for their May 4 season opener at Hadlock Field, and tickets remain for the two week-long homestands in May.

The Sea Dogs announced last week a few upgrades to Hadlock – including improved lighting and scoreboard additions.

The lighting will provide better visibility on the field, as well as the ability for light shows.

One of the Hadlock scoreboards has always featured an updated score and inning of the Red Sox game that day. A new board will now provide the score and inning, as well as the current batter and pitcher in the games; plus the count, number of outs, and if any runners are on base.

Another board, which has displayed the speed of the pitches, will now also show the exit velocity of batted balls.


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