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Team has made it halfway

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 3, 2012
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OAKLAND, Calif. — Twenty-one stints on the disabled list and the 879 player-games missed caused a half-season of extremely challenging events for the new management team of Bobby Valentine and Ben Cherington.

With the Red Sox scheduled to play their 81st game Tuesday, the first half wasn’t always smooth, it was sometimes chaotic and controversial, but the bottom line is, the Red Sox are in contention.

You could make the case that the Red Sox had no business being in position for the second wild card, but they managed to thrust themselves in the playoff picture while watching the Rays, Orioles, and Blue Jays go through their own problems.

“We’ve done well enough to gain respect around the league,” Valentine said. “Teams know we’re going to come to play every day. There’s great effort. We have had a group of players who really get it, who did the right things on the field and approach it with such a great attitude every day.

“We’ve had a lot of bodies come through here, but it seems every player who has put on the uniform, they’ve approached it with great professionalism and I appreciate that.’’

Cherington and his staff have been most successful with bargains — Cody Ross (12 homers), Vicente Padilla (prevented 18 of 19 inherited runners from scoring), outfielder Scott Podsednik (hitting .387, but he’s on the disabled list) , and Andrew Miller (prevented 18 of 20 inherited runners from scoring).

Cherington stuck to his guns that Mike Aviles could be the everyday shortstop and resisted the temptation to bring on defensive wizard Jose Iglesias and catching prospect Ryan Lavarnway.

He took a chance that rookie third baseman Will Middlebrooks could handle the job and made the bold move of dealing Kevin Youkilis to the White Sox. He acquired Aaron Cook for depth and he’s needed him. He committed to Felix Doubront, who has eight wins. He allowed Daniel Bard to be a starter but pulled the plug when it wasn’t working.

The first half has yet to give us a good read on the big offseason deal he made to acquire closer Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney from Oakland. Sweeney has proven to be a fine defensive outfielder and was hot earlier in the season. But he has had two stints on the disabled list while Bailey, who underwent thumb surgery, has yet to pitch an inning for the Red Sox.

Cherington’s other major deal — Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland to the Astros for Mark Melancon — was disappointing at first. Melancon’s poor start necessitated a demotion to Pawtucket. He since has returned to fill a spot in the bullpen. The oft-injured Lowrie has hit 14 homers in Houston.

Cherington and Valentine have had to close the gap from the new school-old school philosophy at their respective cores. And little by little they have come to a meeting of the minds. Cherington has worked with Valentine in allowing his own style to develop, while Valentine doesn’t miss an opportunity to praise his general manager for the work he’s done in “getting the right players here when we need them.”

Valentine’s in-game managing has been very good and his evaluation of talent has been impeccable.

After losing Bailey 72 hours prior to the season, Valentine recognized Alfredo Aceves as his closer. He recognized Padilla as a setup man and scoffed at the prevailing notion that he couldn’t pitch back-to-back games.

Valentine has built a pretty impressive bullpen (best in baseball since April 23), turning former mopup men Matt Albers, Scott Atchison, and Miller into viable, important relievers.

His best move was turning lefthanded reliever Franklin Morales into a starter.

Cherington and Valentine have survived a rough start.

Valentine got himself into immediate trouble when he publicly criticized Youkilis, something that hadn’t been done in Boston for years. Valentine was not backed by Cherington and when Dustin Pedroia said “that’s not the way we do things around here” there were no consequences for such criticism of the manager.

There was player back-biting early on as Valentine began to assert himself. Change was met with resistance and players sometimes ran to the front office to complain.

Josh Beckett tested the manager’s mettle when he decided to play golf on his off-day while he was on the disabled list. While Valentine let Beckett have it behind closed doors, he publicly had to bite his lip and defend the pitcher.

Then, David Ortiz got a hold of the team in a clubhouse meeting in which he lit into his teammates and Beckett in particular, informing them they got one manager fired and didn’t want to responsible for another to be fired.

Ortiz challenged everyone to do their respective jobs and take care of their own business and to stop the back-biting and the immature behavior, which had not served them well last September.

The team responded.

Valentine started to win over the players, one by one. For the most part, he got them united, knowing he would never get all of them. He just hoped the bad apples eventually would be weeded out and slowly but that has happened.

Valentine got Adrian Gonzalez to play right field and Ortiz to play first base. Under Valentine, the Red Sox have been a hustling team, running out grounders and sometimes proving that by running hard you can turn a routine ground ball out into an infield hit.

The advent of Daniel Nava, as a patient hitter and good defensive outfielder, has been inspiring as he replaced the injured Carl Crawford.

Valentine has shown great faith and confidence in Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has emerged as an All-Star-caliber catcher.

“I’ve played for managers who believed in me and those who haven’t,” Saltalamacchia said. “Bobby has been very supportive and that makes such a difference.”

The Sox offense has led the league in extra-base hits (293) with a major-league high 192 doubles. Entering Monday night’s game, they had 21 more extra-base hits and 34 more doubles than the closest teams.

Ortiz continued to be Boston’s best offensive player, while the Sox feel Gonzalez can be the big thumper in the second half.

As the first half ended, the roster challenges continued.

Middlebrooks is nursing a hamstring injury leaving the Sox with Brent Lillibridge and Nick Punto at third base. Cherington and assistant GM Mike Hazen will have to deal with massive roster moves and come up with creative ways to protect the depth when Jacoby Ellsbury, Crawford, Podsednik, Clay Buchholz, Rich Hill, and possibly Bard return.

Cherington already has released Marlon Byrd and designated Darnell McDonald for assignment.

“We’ve got a lot left to do,” Hazen said. “It’s going to be challenging, but they are good decisions to have to make.”

And the next 81 games?

“I think we’re going to be a team that’s going to be a factor in the race all the way,” Valentine said. “We feel we belong in the thick of it. We feel we belong.”

“The best part is we’ve done this without our full team together,” Saltalamacchia said. “We’ve had Carl [Crawford] and [Ellsbury] out. We have pitching injuries. And yet, we’ve been playing so well. I think the second half is going to be fun.”

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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