Yes, the bullpen is better. The chemistry is great. David Ortiz is hitting like Barry Bonds. And as far as management goes, John Farrell is a slightly better tactician and motivator than Bobby Valentine. Did I say slightly? I meant, the gulf is immeasurable.
But the starting pitching has been excellent. They had that early-season quality start streak, for one thing, but the biggest standout has been the dominance of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Tonight marks the first hiccup in an otherwise stellar season for either of the top two starters, as Lester gave up five earned runs in six innings. The underlying numbers weren't quite as bad -- he allowed six hits and walked two against five strikeouts -- but the mistakes were poorly timed, especially and inside fastball that Edwin Encarnacion hit to Greenland.
Should we be concerned about Lester? Probably not. As I said, most of the issue was timing -- while he wasn't sharp by any means, he still managed six innings and wasn't a total disaster. This wasn't Alfredo Aceves. Some scribes were fretting about his ERA jumping by a run, but let's be real, Lester's ERA is going to be in the 3s. Anything less is just sample size playing tricks on us. Don't sound the alarm just yet.
The Blue Jays won 9-7, but it shouldn't have even been that close. In the 7th, Toronto brought in some defensive replacements to put the game away. With Ellsbury on 1st and one out, Daniel Nava hit what should have been a picture-perfect double play, but shortstop Munenori Kawasaki threw it wide of second base, and Maicer Izturis didn't exactly put up a great effort to stop it. The ball sailed into right field and Ellsbury took 3rd. The Sox had a window open with the heart of the order and delivered. Pedroia walked, and Papi connected for a monster three-run double, complete with him flexing the guns while looking into the dugout, shades of the old double-point to Pedro and Manny.
And while that was quite fun, the Sox couldn't hold it together. Junichi Tazawa surrendered a two-run homer to Encarnacion -- also crushed to deep-center, although not as highlight-worthy as his first bomb. Joel Hanrahan came on for the bottom of the 8th and gave up a run of his own following two hard-hit singles. His last out was a loud fly ball to center field. Suffice it to say, it's good that Andrew Bailey remains closer.
Some assorted negative points: Will Middlebrooks continues to look completely lost at the plate. His OBP now hovers in the .220 mark, which even Carl Crawford managed to achieve. He went 0-for-4 in the 8 hole, striking out twice. Not to be outdone, Mike Napoli struck out four times. Ouch. And Jarrod Saltalamacchia deserves a few grumblings for his defensive work: With the bases loaded he threw a pick-off attempt to 1st that Mike Napoli was not expecting. The ball flew into right field and two Jays scored.
Let's end on a positive note: A tip of the cap to Farrell, who made a difficult substitution choice that paid off big time. Mike Carp had homered early in the game, but with a lefty on the mound in the 6th Farrell elected to pinch-hit Jonny Gomes in his place. Just as I was thinking to myself "John, you're overthinking things here with this whole platoon situation," Gomes deposited the ball over the fence and I was made to look foolish.