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Memorable first half has Sox in first place

Memorable first half has Sox in first place

BOSTON -- They have created memories already, both from an individual and a team standpoint.

Who could forget Jacoby Ellsbury's electrifying steal of home on Sunday Night Baseball against the Yankees? Remember when Tim Wakefield nearly no-hit the Oakland Athletics on the same day a loss would have given the Sox a 2-7 record out of the gate? Or how about one sweep after another against the Yankees, leading to an unbeaten streak of eight against their rivals that can't end until at least August?

2009 Midterm Report
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The 2009 Red Sox have established themselves as a championship contender, which was, of course, expected. After qualifying for the postseason in five of Theo Epstein's first six seasons as general manager, the standards are high on Yawkey Way.

But as Sox fans have come to realize in recent years, championship teams are molded in the second half. And that's what manager Terry Francona's team will try to accomplish over these next 2 1/2 months.

"The second half is when it matters for real," said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. "The most important thing for this ballclub since I've been here is to look forward to winning a lot of games in the second half so we can go to the playoffs."

The Sox came into the All-Star break with a three-game cushion over the Yankees atop the American League East, and now Boston will try to create some separation. Then again, would anyone be stunned if the Red Sox and Yankees weren't able to settle things until the AL Championship Series?

Backed by a balanced offensive attack and arguably the best pitching depth in the game, the Red Sox are eager to get the second half started.

Club MVP: Jason Bay has not only provided production for the Red Sox, but he has done it in the clutch. Who could forget Bay's equalizing two-run rocket against Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth on April 24 against the Yankees? Bay has had several other big hits and is a steady player in all facets.

Call him "Ace": Right-hander Josh Beckett rebounded from a tough April to return to the type of dominant form he displayed in 2007. The key for Beckett was simply getting healthy, something he seldom was last year. The right-hander is a fierce competitor who thrives in big games. Tim Wakefield has been nearly as important as Beckett, as the veteran knuckleballer brings 11 wins into the break.

Greatest strength: The bullpen, despite a recent lull, has been the anchor of the team all year. Perennial All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon has a brigade of quality setup men, including Hideki Okajima, Ramon Ramirez, Manny Delcarmen, Justin Masterson and flamethrowing rookie Daniel Bard.

Biggest problem: The Red Sox have been inconsistent at times with the bats. Once Ortiz became Big Papi again, Kevin Youkilis and Bay went into slumps. Once Boston gets its big bats going at the same time, it will take some of the pressure off the pitching staff.

Biggest surprise: The emergence of Nick Green. He came to Spring Training as an afterthought after spending all of 2008 in the Minor Leagues. But when Jed Lowrie and Julio Lugo were both injured early, Green gave the Red Sox stability at shortstop at a time they desperately needed it. His walk-off homer against the Braves on Father's Day was yet another indelible memory of the first half.

Team needs: Some insurance at the corners in case Mike Lowell has more problems with his right hip in the second half. Also, a bat with some pop off the bench.

He said it: "We have more than 50 wins, we're in first place, albeit by the slimmest of margins. I don't even think that we've gotten hot yet. We've been winning series, but I feel like we haven't played our best yet, so it's a really good spot for us to be in." -- Bay

Mark your calendar: From Aug. 4-8, the Red Sox play six games that could be significant in the AL East race. It starts with two games against the Rays, followed by a four-game set at Yankee Stadium.

Fearless second-half prediction: Beckett will have a dominant second half, even better than the one he had two years ago, and will ultimately capture his first Cy Young Award trophy.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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