Deflategate controversy has taken heat off struggling Red Sox – until now, at least

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USA Today Sports/Jennifer Nicholson

COMMENTARY

Deflategate and the accompanying caterwauling is a relentless scourge to those lonely stragglers among us who’d rather talk rationally about sports than irrationally about sporting goods.

This commissioner-commissioned scandal about simple gamesmanship and slightly under-inflated footballs that has become so insanely blown out of proportion that sometimes it feels like lousy satire. Hell, yes, it plays well in 31 other markets across the country, but by my accounting, it has benefited exactly two entities in our region.

1.) Sports-talk radio hosts who thirst for the “arrogant” Patriots to get their comeuppance, just or not. The glee seeps through the radio, the agenda only occasionally disguised. Thank goodness for podcasts. And silence. Especially silence.

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2.) The Red Sox, still mediocre in the middle of May, a near quarter of the season already gone. They ought to send the Patriots a thank-you note, perhaps an Edible Arrangement or some Shari’s Berries, for providing a distraction that partially obscured the Red Sox’ blah performance so far.

That’s about to change. Though Deflategate will hover zeppelin-like above the Boston sports scene until that magical far-off day when all matters are settled and Roger Goodell finally goes to law school, it won’t continue to dominate the daily headlines until the next bombshell.

The manufactured controversy should soon be on something resembling a hiatus, and you know what that means: Boston sports fans are going to turn a more critical eye toward the Red Sox, who, save for now-former pitching coach Juan Nieves, have skated through their mediocre start without much personal accountability.

They are back from a strange 10-game road trip in which they somehow beat both Felix Hernandez and Sonny Gray, yet got shutout by two lesser pitchers to bookend the journey and averaged just 2.4 runs per game. They also endured a tactical gaffe by manager John Farrell — choosing to pitch to Mariners slugger Nelson Cruz with first base open late in a loss to Seattle — that would probably be known as Brainfartgate had it happened at Fenway rather than on west coast time.

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Now that so much that has gone wrong with the Red Sox has become apparent, there’s no better time to start getting things right. The bullpen does seem to be sorting itself out — Alexi Ogando has been an unsung pickup, and Koji Uehara has his mojo back — and that makes life easier on the flawed starting rotation, which has turned in a string of decent starts even if Rick Porcello is the only one worthy of something resembling trust.

Whether they can get things right — amazingly, they’re just 3.5 games out of first place in the unusually drab American League East — is a matter of whether the offense can approach expectations, let alone meet them. They face the Rangers, Angels and Twins over the next 13 games. The Angels lead the league in ERA, but the Rangers and Twins are below the league average.

This would be a swell time for the bats to wake up. Of course, this is not the first time we’ve said that this season. Name a player in the lineup, any player, and a concern or disappointment can be found in his performance.

David Ortiz is hitting .244 over the last month and .244 over the last year — is this what he is now, a .244 hitter with power? Mookie Betts has a .287 on-base percentage, which doesn’t cut if for a No. 9 hitter, let alone a leadoff hitter. Dustin Pedroia has a .422 OPS with runners in scoring position. Mike Napoli has a .282 slugging percentage. Hanley Ramirez has a .480 OPS since hurting his shoulder. Xander Bogaerts is hitting .236 over the last calendar year, a span of 138 games.

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You know who is leading the Red Sox with an .821 OPS?

Brock Wyatt Holt. He’s a nice player.

When he’s your best offensive player, you’re in trouble, unless your team happens to be the Altoona Curve.

The $200 million question: How can this be repaired? The reality is that for all of the aggravation and frustration that this lineup has produced this season — right, at least they’ve produced something — patience makes the most sense for a couple of more weeks.

I know, good luck with that, but it’s true. The Red Sox have a lineup full of talented hitters who are either long-accomplished or — hopefully — on the verge of quality major league careers.

Perhaps the timetable for change should be accelerated closer to the endpoint of the first one-third of the season than, say, the midway point. But I do believe the most necessary change is to acquire a top-notch starter. If the lineup doesn’t start to hit… well, you can’t replace them all.

These guys have to hit. There are few other alternatives, and the structure of the roster all but assures that mass changes won’t happen.

However, there are two changes that should be made sooner rather than later.

Rusney Castillo, who is hitting .333 over his last 10 games at Pawtucket, needs to come up immediately. He’s a dynamic talent who, at 27, is in the prime of his career. The rust has been shaken off. It’s time for him to display his Ron Gant-like talent in the major leagues.

The other change? Well, consider this: Pablo Sandoval is 2 for 41 from the right side this season. He’s not a switch-hitter, he’s a left-handed hitter who for some reason insists on hitting right-handed from time to time.

This is nothing new. He hit .199 against lefties last year and has a .684 OPS as a right-handed hitter in his career. Ernie Riles had a .684 career OPS. For those who do not recall Ernie Riles, trust me, that is not a comparison you want.

This needs to stop. Sandoval is wasting outs for the sake of looking more versatile than he actually is. John Farrell needs to tell him that he’s a left-handed hitter from now on, or someone else will get a turn at third base against most lefties.

If Farrell can do that, it would be such a bold stroke of managerial leadership that it might just make us forget about that whole Nelson Cruz fiasco.

It’s tempting to wish for wholesale changes. But the proper approach at the moment is sticking with the status quo, save for the Sandoval/Castillo tweaks.

I suppose checking to make sure the Red Sox’ bats are all properly inflated probably couldn’t hurt, either. It would explain a lot.

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