By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Senior Staff Writer
Entering play tonight against the Twins in Minnesota, the Red Sox have posted an impressive 49 wins – tied for the lead in Major League Baseball with the defending World Series Champion Houston Astros – and despite their impressive start, they remain in a virtual tie with the ancient adversaries, the New York Yankees.
Before the start of the season, many prognosticators around baseball thought that by adding for Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton – courtesy of a late parting gift from Yanks legend Derek Jeter, who now serves as CEO for the bottom feeding club in south Florida – could be a second coming of the 1927 “Murderer’s Row” offense. And as for the Sox, they were looked at as a team that had been passed by their perennial rival.
Both teams’ records thus far this season have proven that this is not the case. Earlier this week I spoke with Sox legend Rico Petrocelli – who can tell you a story or two about the best rivalry in baseball that was in full boil in the early to mid-1970’s.
I asked the former power-hitting shortstop turned third baseman if he was surprised by the Red Sox red-hot start and his answer was somewhat unexpected. “No, not really,” said Petrocelli. “No one knew even in Spring Training just how good they were going to be, but you knew they had a good ballclub.
“Getting [J.D.] Martinez, you knew their pitching was going to be good. The hope was that [Rick] Porcello would come back to his Cy Young level on the mound from a couple of years ago. I think the biggest surprise is [Eduardo] Rodriguez how he has pitched and stayed healthy. I also like [Steven] Wright, I really think he can help the club.”
When I asked him if he thought either of the two clubs tied atop the AL East this summer or if it would come down to the final three-game series at Fenway Park to close out September, the former 40-home run hitter replied, “No, no. I think it will [come down to the end of the season].
“Everyone knew with Stanton and [Aaron] Judge – there was a lot of hype about them – you knew they were going to be a good ballclub, and the division race would be close. I just think the Red Sox have a better pitching staff – especially starting pitchers – and if they stay healthy, I think it will go down to the last three days.”
And his enthusiasm for the staff stretches to the back of the bullpen as well. Despite some Sox fans questioning whether or not the team currently has the pitchers in place to be the bridge to closer Craig Kimbrel, Petrocelli is bullish on the bullets that first-year manager Alex Cora has to fire in the 7th and 8th.
“ [Joe] Kelly is the guy. I mean he is having a great year. He’s done the job [in the 8th inning] to get to Kimbrel. So, you have your 8th and 9th innings covered,” remarked the former two-time All-Star. Adding, “I hear people complain about [Heath] Hembree and [Matt] Barnes, but even though they are big guys, they can get worn down over a long season. Remember, it’s not just the number of innings that they pitch, it the number of times they warm up and never get into the game that can add up.”
Even so, Petrocelli thinks the ‘pen could use a lefty specialist to add at or before the trade deadline on July 31st. When asked if he thought that Drew Pomeranz could be that guy when he comes back from injury with the knuckleballer Wright pitching so well as a starter, Rico wryly answered, “this would be a great time to find out.”
As to his assessment of the Red Sox rookie manager’s performance so far, the former PawSox bench boss was quick with his praise. “I think he has done a heck of a job. By looking at the way he gives guys rest and also he has done a great job with the bullpen. Now, if a guy doesn’t perform, it’s not his fault.
“I love the way he moves guys around. He gets [Brock] Holt in there, and he is now a .300 hitter. I think people have to realize that [Eduardo] Nunez – with his leg issues – is not an everyday player. But if they get [Dustin] Pedroia back healthy, they have a heck of a bench.”
Finally, when faced with the biggest question on every Red Sox fans minds – whether or not this is a team that can win it all come October – Rico took the role of the seasoned baseball man that he is.
“Do I think they can win it all? Yes. But it is going to come down to their pitching. I think they learned their lesson last year when it came to maybe overworking a guy like Chris Sale. And that’s another thing that I like about what Cora is doing this year, protecting his pitching.”
Only time will tell if the Sox can win their fourth championship in this millennium. But, when I legend talks, I’ll listen every time.
Follow Rico on Twitter @PetrocelliRico. He can be heard on Saturdays from 8 am to 10 am on Sirus MLB Baseball Network with Ed Randall on “Remember When.”