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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Red Sox have pieces to stay dangerous down stretch

Red Sox have pieces to stay dangerous down stretch

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These Red Sox grow on you. It did not happen overnight. It is just that in watching them day after day, week after week, there is something admirable about the way they prepare and go about their business.

Maybe it is how they have become Dustin Pedroia's team, how they reflect his competitiveness and confidence. Even before anyone knew how good the Red Sox were, it was clear that in terms of attitude and environment, things were dramatically different from 2012.

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No general manager did a better job than Boston's Ben Cherington in overhauling his team. To sort through the ashes of a 93-loss team, to spend modestly and to still construct a team that is on its way from worst to first is a remarkable accomplishment.

Cherington's hiring of John Farrell as manager was the first in a series of shrewd moves. In Farrell, Cherington had a tough, respected, no-nonsense guy who would keep the noise in the hallway and the focus on the field.

His players already knew him from his days as Red Sox pitching coach, and they respected him and trusted him in a way they probably would not have respected and trusted any other man in baseball.

And then Cherington went for a certain type of player. Veteran players. Consummate professionals. Guys who would look past their own statistics and focus on something larger.

Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino. Mike Napoli and David Ross. Ryan Dempster and Stephen Drew. At the Trade Deadline, Cherington acquired Jake Peavy, who is cut from the same cloth. They fit on the field and in the clubhouse. They also made the Red Sox an easy team to root for.

Anyone who spent 20 minutes with the Red Sox during Spring Training knew the issues of the last two years were out the window. All that remained to be seen was how good they were.

To improve, the Red Sox needed John Lackey and Jon Lester back pitching at a high level. They needed young left-hander Felix Doubront to take a step forward. And they needed a surprise or two.

For instance, new setup man Koji Uehara sliding into the closer's role when two others went down and becoming as reliable as any ninth-inning guy in the game, making good on 18 of 21 save chances.

Lackey and Lester are pitching well, especially since the All-Star break. Lackey has an 8-12 record despite a 3.22 ERA and 162 1/3 innings. Lester has five victories and a 2.41 ERA since the All-Star break.

And there is that offense, built around Jacoby Ellsbury's array of weapons and David Ortiz's 26 home runs and Pedroia's 166 hits. The Red Sox lead the Major League in runs.

All of this is part of a remarkable franchise rebirth. At 85-57, the best record in the American League, these Red Sox have already won 16 more games than they won all of last season. Only once in Red Sox history has there been a greater season-to-season improvement.

That would be the 20-game upgrade in the miracle summer of 1967. These Red Sox will eventually blow right past that milestone on their way to their first postseason appearance in four years.

It is easy to make a case for the Dodgers with Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Ricky Nolasco lined up at the front of their rotation. Likewise, the Tigers will have Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez. And the Braves will probably go with Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran.

So at a time when the talent level among baseball's top 15 or 20 teams may be closer than ever before, the team that gets hot at the right time will be the team that wins a championship in 2013.

That is why these Red Sox appear so formidable. It is how they are going to have a potentially dominant rotation set up for the postseason. It is how they wear opposing pitching down by not swinging at pitches out of the strike zone and going to home plate with a precise plan.

To sum up: Great starting pitching at the front of games and one of baseball's hottest closers, Uehara, at the back. Since Aug. 19, the Red Sox have the best ERA in the Majors.

Any club can run into a hot pitching staff or a hot hitter or two, so nothing is guaranteed. But as the regular season winds down, there is not a team this side of Los Angeles that appears more formidable than the Red Sox.

They were at their best Thursday night in letting a five-run lead slip away at Yankee Stadium, then coming back to tie the game off Mariano Rivera in the ninth. And they kept clawing and fighting, finally winning in the 10th, 9-8.

With the Rays losing again, the Red Sox lead the American League East by 6 1/2 games with 20 to play. They are close enough to imagine what October baseball will be like at Fenway Park. They have done their fans proud.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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