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July 19, 2013

Except for 'pen, Sox at top of the class

Eight walkoff wins, a bunch of hairy faces, a dominant John Lackey and a gritty second baseman who has committed just one error — this team has been fun to watch.

At the All-Star Break, the Boston Red Sox have the best record in the American League (58-39) and a 2.5 game lead in the AL East standings. All this comes after winning just 69 wins and finishing in last place in 2012.

It was an incredible first half. The Red Sox have exceeded all expectations. Now, it is time to reflect on the first half and look ahead to the final two and a half months.

THE STARTING PITCHING

:Grade: B+

The reason the Red Sox haven’t made the playoffs since 2009 is poor starting pitching. This year, Boston starters have the second best ERA (3.82) in the American League and the best AL record as a result.

More unexpected than Boston’s first-half surge is John Lackey’s first-half dominance. Since Clay Buchholz (neck) went on the disabled list, Lackey has been the staff’s ace with a sparkling 2.78 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 93 strikeouts and .236 batting average against in 100.1 innings.

Lackey and Felix Doubront have been Boston’s two best pitchers since Buchholz was injured and Jon Lester began struggling around mid-May. Doubront has a 3.91 ERA for the season, but a 2.54 ERA in his past eight starts. He is finally reaching his potential.

But with the Tampa Bay Rays surging — winners of 14 of their past 16 — Boston will have difficulty keeping the AL East lead if Buchholz (9-0, 1.71 ERA in 12 starts) doesn’t return by the end of July or early August.

Ryan Dempster (4.24 ERA) is here to be an inning’s eater. He’s on pace for 184.1 innings. He must go deeper into games more consistently in the second half.

Don’t expected Boston to be in on the Matt Garza and Cliff Lee sweepstakes. The Red Sox won’t trade any top prospect because they still are building toward the future. Beyond Garza and Lee, the starting pitching market is thin.

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