Trying to explain why John Lackey is no longer a goat or how Jose Iglesias is carrying around numbers that start with .400 is like trying to explain why this year’s Red Sox are on top of the American League.
Some of this must be wrong, right? Iglesias’ lucky bounces are going to catch up to him, right? Lackey is going to stop being the guy who carries a club that has succumbed under pressure before, right? Some part of this team — this team not stocked with superstars, and often not with the kind of fantasy numbers that tend to produce the top run differential in the American League (the Red Sox were at plus 80 heading into Tuesday night’s game) — has to break at some point.
Those questions may be answered, and they may be answered the way everyone is thinking, sometime soon. But until then, enjoy this ride: Iglesias is batting .415. That’s 56 hits in 135 at-bats — .415, any way it’s figured.
Batting above .400 is batting above .400, whether it’s the way Teddy Ballgame hit .400 or the way Iglesias pokes Derek Jeter ground ball hits all over the field. While Iglesias will never be in the same conversation as Ted Williams or Derek Jeter (the previous sentence almost got rejected by autocorrect), his .415 still matters right now. The rules of baseball and physics demand that hits lead to runs, and no one can argue that Iglesias’ hits aren’t part of the climbing number of runs that have staked the Red Sox to their 51-34 record. As improbable as it is, it’s happening.
Next up: Lackey. The right-hander, who has checked all the boxes a player checks when he’s disgraced in the eyes of his fan base, came back calm and confident this year, treating the beginning of the new season like it was just the beginning of the new season. He talked about winning games, and he did it. Tuesday night’s win was his sixth victory of the season, and he would have several more victories if he’d been helped in earlier starts with more run support.
But what sticks out most about Lackey’s year is that his numbers are pacing him toward perhaps his best season yet. He has a 2.81 ERA right now, with a 1.17 WHIP, 79 strikeouts and just 18 walks. He’s projecting to have what could be his best year in the majors at 34 years old — and this is a pitcher who has logged 14 wins three times, and 19 wins once.
The numbers don’t make sense, but they’re there, and they’re staying there game after game. And, as strange as it is that Iglesias and Lackey are playing at the level they are, the same could be said about the Sox, who have taken a collection of improbable performances to get to their improbable perch. Boston owes its success to many quality players, but it’s the unusual contributions that have boosted the team another step higher.
If a team is held up by players like Lackey and Iglesias, it’s in trouble. But if guys like Lackey and Iglesias are coming out regularly with eight-inning starts or two-hit nights (Iglesias has had 18 games with at least two hits, and he’s played only 39 games this year), and they’re not even the team’s best players, it’s a different story.
Clay Buchholz is the ace of Boston’s staff. He’s the deciding factor in whether the Red Sox go far this year. Lackey needs to be a key supporter behind him — but the fact that he’s put up ace-like numbers is a bonus.
The Red Sox have plenty of great hitters. They’ll be the ones that pound out the big blows that make the difference. But the fact that Iglesias can chip in and not let the lineup have a weak spot is what can take the batting order from being deep to being great.
If the likes of Lackey and Iglesias are what’s keeping the Red Sox’ head above water this year, that would be a reason to fret. Numbers that don’t add up should cause worries, if those numbers are all the team is riding on. But Iglesias and Lackey are putting up flashy numbers on a team that has plenty of other ways to win, and that makes the Red Sox something else — a truly balanced, capable team.
Fans can shake their heads when Iglesias keeps popping hits into improbable spots, and they can wonder what happened to the Lackey that everyone loved to look down on. But the best part of what these two players provide is just the head-shaking wonder of it all. On a team already full of the pieces it needs to win, everything the Red Sox get from these two players is a bonus right now — no matter how improbable the bonus seems.
And, as Tuesday night and many another evening has shown, bonuses make winning games a whole lot easier.