Last-place BoSox still in AL East race

BY foxsports • May 14, 2012

Who are the Boston Red Sox?

Are they the team that owns the longest active winning streak in the American League, that Monday throttled Seattle 6-1 behind the dominant Jon Lester, that has scored more runs than every AL club save the mighty Texas Rangers?

Or the one that remains last in the American League East, with a losing record and the same win total as the lowly Mariners?

The answer: I don’t know. You don’t know. They don’t know.

“We’re still trying to figure out our identity,” outfielder Cody Ross acknowledged Monday. “I don’t really know how to say it. We’re trying to play together.

“Early on we were scoring, but the pitching wasn’t pitching. Then the pitchers would pitch and we wouldn’t score. We went on a six-game winning streak. It was meshing. Then it fell apart. Then we meshed again and fell apart. We’ve got to keep that mesh together.

“You’re not going to pitch well and hit well every single game. But for the consistency of the season, we’ve got to do it together. We’re trying to figure that out.”

That sounds about right.

The Red Sox have flaws. They also have hope. On a damp night when the Celtics played the more important game in Boston, the seats at Fenway Park were half-empty (or half-full) when Lester threw the first pitch. The scene at the centenarian yard, like the team itself, was open to interpretation.

Bobby Valentine, who is not the ideal manager for this team, committed a grievous faux pas last month when he publicly questioned Kevin Youkilis’ physical and emotional investment. The Red Sox boast the most expensive disabled list in the majors: Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Lackey, Andrew Bailey and more. Rogue golfer Josh Beckett could undo some of the recent progress if he turns in a clunker on Tuesday afternoon.

Yet, the season is not lost. Even as they cling to the division’s bottom rung, the Red Sox are 5 1/2 games back. They have a 16-19 record — one victory behind last year’s 35-game pace. As you may recall, those Red Sox recovered to seize the league’s best record midway through the season before … um … you know … September.

That’s not to suggest 2012 will be a carbon copy of 2011. Last year’s Red Sox, who most assuredly did not make the playoffs, were the better overall team. They had the MVP-caliber Ellsbury, the Daniel Bard/Jonathan Papelbon combination in the late innings, and the manager (Terry Francona) who suited the market and organization better than Valentine.

But the Valentine Red Sox can count on something the Francona Red Sox could not: The AL East has more parity now than at any other time in the Wild Card Era. No team — not the Orioles, not the Rays, not the Yankees, not the Blue Jays — will run away with the division title.

“Absolutely not,” first baseman Adrian Gonzalez affirmed. “That’s the beauty of being in a division with five great teams. This might not be a division where (the champion has) 95 wins. Everybody’s going to beat up on each other. When you have teams beating up on each other, it’s good for the one trying to come from behind. Hopefully we can make a real good run and see what happens.”

Third baseman Will Middlebrooks and outfielder Daniel Nava, recent call-ups from Pawtucket, have taken star turns in recent days. But let’s be honest: Middlebrooks and Nava will not determine the fate of the 2012 Boston Red Sox. As always, it is about the starting rotation.

Surprisingly, the Red Sox have excelled in that regard since Beckett was booed off the mound last Thursday: four games, four quality starts, four victories. (Amazing how that works.) Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront and Bard beat Cleveland, while Lester tossed a complete game Monday.

David Ortiz, hitting .346 in the No. 3 spot, explained the recent success this way: “You’ve got the end of the lineup hitting. You have our starting pitchers not giving up seven runs per game. And us hitting when we’ve got men in scoring position. That’s what makes the difference.”

It sounds simple. It isn’t. The coming weeks will become more complicated, between a rugged schedule and the respective returns of Youkilis and Matsuzaka. The Red Sox will need to make nuanced roster decisions that have long-term ramifications on players’ egos and careers. To do that without disturbing the relative harmony, Valentine must be better than he has been so far.

Valentine, who went 10 seasons without managing in the big leagues, doesn’t seem at ease in his new job — at least not yet. The word “colorful” appeared alongside Valentine’s name in newspaper stories over the years, but the adjective does not fit now.

He had a hardline reputation in New York but last week passed up the chance to admonish Beckett for taking a golf outing when he was supposedly too injured to pitch. When Valentine met with the media before Monday’s game, he fidgeted with his cellphone for a moment before the first question. Some of his answers were short, others guarded.

Valentine needs to summon his old charm — particularly when it comes to Youkilis, a proud player who has not performed well this season due to a low back strain. Middlebrooks, his replacement, batted fifth in Monday’s game and has a 1.021 OPS, albeit in a small sample.

If the Red Sox continue winning with Middlebrooks, will they send him to the minors when Youkilis is healthy? Or would they be better off trading Youkilis, to eliminate the potential distraction and clear the path for Middlebrooks?

Dice-K’s return is similarly delicate. He could be ready to pitch in the majors before the end of this month. The Red Sox can’t be too sure about what Matsuzaka can offer, given that he hasn’t pitched in the majors since last May 16 and hasn’t pitched effectively for an extended period since July 2010. The simplest solution may be to bump Bard back to the bullpen, but would Valentine want to do that when it seems that Bard is settling into the rotation?

Francona was a skilled communicator in such moments, when the organization’s near- and long-term plans had to be conveyed inside and outside the clubhouse walls. Now Valentine must find his way. The Red Sox will get back to .500 soon enough. Then the real work begins.