This Red Sox season feels a lot like 1997. Will Middlebrooks was 8.
After 99 games, the '97 Red Sox were just 46-53 under first-year manager Jimy Williams, finishing the season 78-84, 20 games out of first in the American League East, and 18 games out of a playoff spot. After 99 games, the 2012 Red Sox are just 49-50 under first-year manager Bobby Valentine, 10 ½ games out of first in the AL East, and five games out of a playoff spot. Only Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Oakland are ahead of them in the wild card hunt.
For much of the '97 season, the Sox hovered around .500, with one disastrous month sealing their fate, a 9-17 May. Just like 15 years ago, the '12 Sox have spent much of the season flirting with mediocrity, with perhaps one disastrous month ending any playoff hopes.
After last night's 5-3 loss in Texas, the Sox are just 8-13 during the month of July, with the Yankees, Tigers, and the trading deadline looming. The best they can muster is a 13-13 mark for the month, which would be, believe it or not, their worst month since an 11-11 April (the team went 15-14 in June and 15-12 in June). That seems unreasonable. The latest losing streak is at five out of six with Jon Lester going Saturday in New York. Winning five straight would be on par an accomplishment to what Oakland is doing (15-2 this month).
So, the crossroads of the season have come, with no clear-cut direction as to what this team can accomplish, and no clue what moves they can conceivably make to improve the overall chemistry . So, in lieu of that, let's be optimistic. I know, right?
It's interesting to note that Boston's best records after 99 games over the past 15 years came in 2006 (61-38) and 2011 (62-37), seasons that ended in collapses, one due to unprecedented injuries, and another thanks to chicken, beer, and John Lackey. The 2001 Red Sox were 57-42, even after losing Pedro Martinez and Jason Varitek to injuries, only to watch their manager fired and replaced by the overmatched Joe Kerrigan, who lost the clubhouse and the season.
The least amount of wins Boston had over that stretch of games since '97 came in '99 (53), '00 (53), '04 (55), '05 (54), and '10 (55). Three out of the five, of course, were playoff seasons. Two of those years the Red Sox landed in the ALCS and one of those years won the World Series.
So, is there actual, tangible hope the Red Sox can still make a run?
Sorry, that optimism can only last so long.
While it's hard to criticize Josh Beckett for last night, a pretty solid effort all around, it's just one more moment that is easy to point to with the realization that the Red Sox don't have an ace stopper. Beckett simply isn't who we all want him to be, despite two instances of postseason brilliance. Lester should be, but the lefty is so mixed up in...something these days, that confidence in him is not only at an all-time low, it's at zero.
It's a popular statistic to throw out there as this season further plunges into an abyss, but the Red Sox are a mere 12-24 this season when Beckett or Lester take the hill. Do the math. That means they are 37-26 when anybody else starts, whether it be Aaron Cook, Felix Doubront, Franklin Morales, or Clay Buchholz. Heck, the Sox are 2-3 when Daisuke Matsuzaka starts. Only Texas has scored more runs in the AL. Only Oakland has a better bullpen ERA. Pinning the problem with this team doesn't exactly take a Louis Freeh investigation.
Even with all the whining, confusion (Carl Crawford could play third and bat ninth tomorrow for all we know), and contempt this club has built up, they're probably not as bad as we all think. But making the playoffs is a fantasy, both because their aces are shells of what they should be, and the fact that everybody else surrounding them is better. These aren't the days when the Red Sox would battle the second-rate teams of the Central and West for the wild card.
It's been a long time since there's been no hope this late into a season (and the majority of Boston.com users feel the same way). But will the Sox sell at the deadline? Sell what? Well, it was at the trading deadline in '97, remember, that Dan Duquette sold Heathcliff Slocumb for a couple guys named Lowe and Varitek. But with so many teams in the playoff mix this season, we could see few teams dealing. Or we could see a desperate GM somewhere willing to sacrifice.
That won't help the Red Sox in 2012. They may be still in it, for now, today. But who isn't?
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated the last time the Red Sox had a sub-.500 record this late in the season.