No, it’s not breaking news to suggest this has not been a satisfying sequel so far. The Red Sox are a game beyond the midpoint of the season. They have 38 wins. Last year’s eventual champions hit that number on June 8, when Clay Buchholz beat the Angels in the second game of a doubleheader sweep to improve to 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA.
Never mind that following that start we wouldn’t see Buchholz again until September. He played significant role in the 2013 Red Sox’ June boon, a stretch of superb play that would carry though an October of ultimate baseball fulfillment.
This season, Buchholz — whose 6.75 ERA is .34 worse than the 6.41 ERA posted by John Lackey in 2011 in the worst season a Red Sox starting pitcher has ever submitted — is a chief culprit in the Red Sox’ struggles, which have often made the term “title defense” feel like a punch line.
Buchholz might be the wide-eyed embodiment of how the good times have gone bad. But he’s not the only culprit. There’s not enough bandwidth to list all that has gone wrong for the Red Sox this season, but we can at least submit an abridged version:
The outfield turned into a collection of Bob Zupcics … Will Middlebrooks did his struggle/injury two-step while making Mark Reynolds comps look optimistic … Stephen Drew has proven that he’d have been better off watching Tom Emanski videos on an endless loop than working out at Camp Boras in between trips to LensCrafters …
Xander Bogaerts has a .404 OPS over the last month … Jackie Bradley Jr. has been brilliant with the globe and often hopeless with the bat … A.J. Pierzynski brings unwelcome Dave Valle flashbacks …
Homer-prone Jake Peavy has become Mark Portugal ’99 … Dustin Pedroia’s power has been absent … Shane Victorino has allegedly played 21 games, but I can’t recall one …
And on and on down the roster it goes.
And yet they’re only six games out of first place in the American League East.
It makes little sense. Stranger still: They’ve made up four games in the standings since June 9, or over the past three weeks, despite winning just 10 of 19 games over that stretch. By my crooked math, that means they’ll have the lead in the division down to two on July 20!
OK, so it doesn’t quite work that way. And the progress north in the standings has been as much due to the Blue Jays’ slump — and the Yankees’ assistance with bringing them back to the pack — than improved play on their own part.
But there are signs — not conclusions or guarantees or promises, but signs — that the Red Sox could sneak into the hunt for a playoffs spot despite all that has gone wrong so far. Taking two out of three in New York may or may not be a turning point, but it served to more than salvage what was shaping up to be a brutal road trip. The Sox began the trip by losing five of six before taking three of the last four.
Now they come back to Fenway for a 10-game homestand against the Cubs, Orioles, and White Sox. If there’s ever a time for them to make a run, to put together a winning streak and show the rest of the division that they never should have left them for dead, it’s now. They’ve been resuscitated. Now it’s time to hunt down those who thought they’d seen the last of them.
In terms of roster construction, they are in a strange place at the moment. The kids are arriving via that hypothetical bridge from Pawtucket to Fenway. Betts has done nothing but rake for a year and a half, and his speed and versatility will help even if his skills aren’t yet fully polished.
Bogaerts, his fellow 21-year-old, is struggling after an All-Star-level stretch, but the talent is otherworldly and he will come around. (If you think his problems are due to a position change, I’ll remind you that ballplayers hit with a bat, not a glove, and then I will suggest you Google the concept of causation and correlation.)
Jackie Bradley Jr. still isn’t hitting — he has a sub-.590 OPS over the last week, two weeks, and month — but that glove will and should buy him a lot of chances, especially now that he has not one but two converted second basemen playing alongside him on a regular basis. I’ll admit it: I want this kid to make it.
But this roster isn’t going to undergo a full roster transfusion with prospects like the ’87 Red Sox of Ellis Burks, Sam Horn, Jody Reed, and Todd Benzinger. The arrival of youth doesn’t mean a fire-sale has to take place. The concepts aren’t mutually exclusive. I’d be cool with the Red Sox moving on from certain veterans — Jonny Gomes, perhaps Pierzynski if Christian Vazquez is ready. But there’s still a very capable core here, and that includes players in the final year of their deals. I’m not ready to see Koji Uehara closing for the Angels or Tigers in October, you know?
This homestand, which carries us into the All-Star break, should provide some clues about the direction this team should take over the remaining 2 1/2 months.
One thing we do know right now: Despite how this season has played out so far, it’s going to be interesting around here in September.
What’s still to be determined is whether that will because the Red Sox are contending, or because they’re playing the kids.
Actually, maybe that won’t be mutually exclusive, either.