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Boston Red Sox: Just a Slump or a Regression Toward the Mean?

A Tale of Two Teams

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | Remain calm. All is well.

Those are words that fans of the Boston Red Sox might be repeating to themselves these days.

As good as April was, May has been anything but, and Sox fans can't help but almost forget that this team was on top of the majors over the first five weeks of the season. The bullpen ERA has ballooned to 4.29, and many of the hot bats have gone cold. David Ortiz's 27-game hitting streak has come to an end, and Clay Buchholz can not find that elusive seventh win, picking up a no decision in his last two starts.

Though it may feel like a stampede of losses lately, Boston is still a dangerous team capable of keeping pace in the gauntlet that is the AL East. Led by Buchholz and Jon Lester--coming off a complete game one-hitter in his last outing--they boast one of the best rotations in the majors. Opponents are still hitting just .229 against Red Sox starters, tops in the AL.

And therein lies the problem, squarely at the feet of the bullpen.

It's easy to point at a glaring weakness and say "get better", but it's an entirely different animal to actually accomplish that.

With Joel Hanrahan shut down for the year and Andrew Bailey still ailing, the Red Sox are going to have to find some help from somewhere. José De La Torre recently made his MLB debut with less than ideal results, but he still offers some upside after posting a 1.56 ERA with 17 strikeouts in just over 17 innings for Triple-A Pawtucket. Beyond him, the Red Sox are stacked with several blue-chip pitching prospects, so the future is bright.

Lately, however, pitching hasn't been the only weakness.

The stellar Boston order in April--sans Ortiz for most of the month--has fallen to mediocrity in May. The once potent lineup had masked the bullpen's deficiencies so well it was easy to forget that several players had been playing over their heads. Mike Napoli led the majors in RBI despite having a career high of 75 and Will Middlebrooks has been inconsistent at best, and in a prolonged slump at worst.

Fortunately, others have picked up the slack. Daniel Nava's journeyman story has been fun to follow, and while it remains to be seen if he can keep it up, he hasn't shown any signs of slowing down. He may have no choice, if Shane Victorino's most recent injury is any kind of serious. Nava stepped up to the plate, figuratively and literally, when Victorino tweaked his back a couple of weeks ago and has been one of the few reliable players overall this year.

Putting hopes of a turnaround partially in the hands of the Navas and the De La Torres of the world might be a disconcerting thought to Red Sox fans, but it's one they may have to come to terms with. The usual suspects haven't been getting it done in May; Ortiz's .179 average is second-worst on the team and Jacoby Ellsbury seemingly can't even get the ball out of the infield.

"I think we've got a number of guys dealing with frustration right now," said manager John Farrell after his team's latest loss, 12-4, to the Toronto Blue Jays. "The key for us is maintaining our level of preparation and our work routine. Those are the two things that we can control. I know with the attitude of this group, we're going to continue to work, but we're getting tested right now. There's no question about it."

Whether the Red Sox were as good as April or as bad as May remains to be seen. With plenty of baseball left to play, the answer probably falls somewhere in between. But if they hope to return to the postseason for the first time since 2009, they'll have to pass that test sooner rather than later. The New York Yankees are only getting healthier.

Andrew Luistro has followed the Red Sox for over 20 years.

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