Red Sox propelled by pitching in first half

Sale, Kimbrel electric as solid offense awaits big tear

Red Sox propelled by pitching in first half

Though nothing seemed easy for the Red Sox in the first half, they rode dominant performances by ace Chris Sale and closer Craig Kimbrel to first place in the American League East. At the break, the Red Sox are 50-39 and hold a 3 1/2-game lead over the Yankees and Rays.

"Yeah, we're in first, but I feel like we still haven't fully blossomed," said All-Star right fielder Mookie Betts. "I think we still have a long way to go. When the time gets ready, I think we'll be right where we need to be."

Considering how many injuries plagued them -- including the two-month loss of David Price to start the season -- the Red Sox have legitimate reason to believe their best baseball has yet to come.

"I still don't think we've played our best baseball yet," Price said. "And I think everyone in this clubhouse understands that. We'll get it going in the second half."

What went right
Sale has been everything the Red Sox could have hoped for and more after they acquired him in a blockbuster trade with the White Sox in December. Kimbrel has not only bounced back after an inconsistent first season in Boston, but he is pitching perhaps the most dominant baseball of his career. Core young players like Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi look ready to take the franchise to a good place in this post-David Ortiz era.

Sale's 12 K's in 12 seconds

What went wrong
The offense as a unit wasn't consistent enough. More is needed out of Hanley Ramirez, who has 34 RBIs in 272 at-bats. Pablo Sandoval looked like he could be one of the comeback stories of the season in Spring Training, but he struggled once the regular season started. He also battled injuries and illness, and he has played only 32 games. The Red Sox had strong hopes for setup men Tyler Thornburg and Carson Smith, but the former is out for the season and the latter still hasn't thrown a pitch in the Majors in his attempted comeback from Tommy John surgery.

What we learned
The Red Sox have the pitching to make a deep postseason run. Price has recovered nicely from his left elbow strain, giving Boston a legitimate No. 2 starter behind Sale. Drew Pomeranz has regained the form that made him an All-Star for San Diego last year. Rick Porcello had a rough first two and a half months, but he regained his form before the break. The bullpen, backed by the electric Kimbrel, has been one of the best in the game.

First half top everyday player
Betts was a force in all phases of the game, continuing his rise as a star player at age 24. Though he didn't have his best half offensively, the right fielder still had 16 homers and an .841 OPS. He made standout plays on defense several times a week. Something that bodes well for the Red Sox in the second half is that Betts still hasn't gotten on the type of tear he had multiple times last season.

Betts' 11th career leadoff homer

First half top pitcher
It's a tie between Sale and Kimbrel. There's simply no way you can say one was more valuable than the other. They were both stellar nearly every time they took the ball. Sale went 11-4 with a 2.75 ERA and his 178 strikeouts at the All-Star break are the most by any MLB pitcher since Curt Schilling in 2002. Then there was Kimbrel, who made striking out the side look like a routine occurrence. The righty held opponents to a .110 average, walked just five and struck out 68 in 37 2/3 innings.

First half top rookie
Projected as an AL Rookie of the Year Award candidate by many coming in, Benintendi's chances of making those predictions come true are now remote -- but by no fault of his own, as outfielder Aaron Judge has had a near-superhuman first half for the Yankees. Other than a big slump in May, Benintendi has been a constant for Boston, providing key hits and playing much-improved defense in left field. He looks like he will be a good player for a long time, and he's only 23 years old. With 51 RBIs, Benintendi trails Betts by just two for the team lead. He has 12 homers.

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.