Three weeks ago, Kevin Youkilis was traded away from the Red Sox, the organization he had called home for his entire professional career. On Monday night, he returned to Fenway Park for the first time as a member of the White Sox, going 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles. The Red Sox, however, spurred in part by a return of their own -- outfielder Carl Crawford had a hit and a walk and scored twice in his season debut -- spoiled the homecoming with a 5-1 win. The outcome does not mask the fact that since the trade he and his former team have moved primarily in opposite directions, as he's rediscovered his form as a hitter while his old team has fallen further in the standings.
Youkilis provided one of the White Sox' few highlights on Monday with the kind of play that made him so beloved by fans in Beantown that they gave him a standing ovation before his first at-bat in the opening inning. Basking in the moment, Youkilis doffed his new helmet, then put emotion aside and set about tormenting his former club by singling up the middle. He came around to score the game's first run by smartly taking advantage of the Red Sox infield shift against Adam Dunn; advancing on a groundout to the right side, he rounded second and hustled for third, which had been left uncovered by Will Middlebrooks. Boston first baseman Adrian Gonzalez lobbed the ball over, but the throw squirted behind Middlebrooks and into leftfield, allowing Youkilis to trot home.
He doubled each of his next two trips to the plate as well, once to left in the third and then to center in the sixth, though he was stranded both times. He struck out in his final at-bat in the eighth but it was nevertheless a strong showing, which has not been uncommon for Youkilis since the June 24 trade.
On that day, Boston sent the 33-year-old third baseman and about $5.5 million in cash to Chicago in exchange for reliever Zack Stewart and utilityman Brent Lillibridge. At the time the Red Sox were 38-34, fourth in the AL East at 5 1/2 games behind, and fourth in the Wild Card race but just two games out. Youkilis, who was only beginning to find his groove after missing 22 games due to a lower back strain, was hitting just .233/.315/.377, while rookie Middlebrooks, his designated successor at third base, was hitting .331/.368/.592. Not to be forgotten, the White Sox were also 38-34, were leading the AL Central by a mere half-game.
As suggested in this space, Youkilis has benefitted from the change of scenery, and rediscovered his form. In 75 plate appearances prior to Monday night, he had hit .295/.397/.475, right in line with his career levels (.287/.388/.487). The White Sox, whose third basemen had hit an abysmal .167/.243/.224 to that point in the season, had gone 11-5 since the trade, tied for the AL's top record since then, widening their division lead to 3 1/2 games, with a +62 run differential that ranked as the league's third best behind only the Rangers (+77) and Yankees (+66).
The Red Sox came into Monday night's match having gone 7-10 since the trade despite outscoring their opponents by one run, and falling 9 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the East. While they're just a game and a half back in the Wild Card, that merely ties them for sixth with the Rays. Middlebrooks has not only cooled off (.205/.220/.410 in 41 PA), he also missed the final seven games of the first half due to tightness in his left hamstring. While he was sitting, Dustin Pedroia hit the disabled list due to a sprained right thumb. The combination of those two blows forced the Sox to play light-hitting Nick Punto (.212/.322/.293) and rookies Pedro Ciriaco and Mauro Gomez at second and third for a short stretch; the latter made three errors in last weekend's four-game series with the Yankees.
Though Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine has done an exceptional job juggling his lineup to compensate for myriad injuries, he appears to have furthered the wounds created by Youkilis' situation — namely, that of a pending free agent dealing with physical problems as well as the likelihood of being traded. Back on April 15, when Youkilis was hitting a mere .200/.265/.233, the manager told reporters, "I don’t think he’s as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason." Youkilis, long known for his intensity on the field, defended himself, and Pedroia took exception not only to the manager's words but also his way of doing business: "I don't really understand what Bobby's trying to do. But that's really not the way we go about our stuff here. I'm sure he'll figure that out soon."
Though Valentine apologized to Youkilis, he has continued to fuel the fire. "I think the comment that I made early, he made a big issue out of and I don't think he ever wanted to get over it," he said on Sunday. While several Red Sox players took issue with a characterization of the team's clubhouse as "toxic" back in June, reports of disharmony continue to circulate.
Whether or not the reports are true, the fact remains that even with Youkilis gone, the Sox continue to underachieve — particularly those players on the upper end of the pay scale. From the Cot's Contracts salary data at Baseball Prospectus:
Injuries to Crawford (who had been dealing with wrist and elbow problems), Lackey (who is out all season after undergoing Tommy John surgery), Youkilis, Matsuzaka (back on the DL after rehabbing from surgery), Pedroia (hitting an unexceptional .266/.326/.400 while playing through an earlier thumb injury), Ellsbury (who returned over the weekend after missing three months), Jenks (who was released without pitching a game after undergoing back surgery over the winter) and Bailey (who has yet to pitch due to a forearm strain) are a major component of the 2012 Red Sox story, one beyond the control of the manager. Even so, there's no injury to explain the sluggish performances of Gonzalez or Lester, and the brief DL stints of Beckett (shoulder soreness) and Buchholz (esophageal bleeding) don't adequately explain their woes. The onus to produce is on the players, but when so many of them struggle at once, the decades-old adage that it's easier to fire the manager than to get rid of 25 players comes to mind, hence last week's bold prediction.
Boston's top brass, which helped to create this mess by parting ways with Terry Francona and Theo Epstein after the team's late-season collapse, isn't ready to concede that they made a mistake in hiring Valentine. With both Ellsbury and Crawford back in the lineup, and with Pedroia slated to return on Thursday, they're closer to fielding their A-list team than they've been all season (that's assuming David Ortiz, who limped off the field Monday with an apparent heel injury won't be out for long). Perhaps Youkilis' return to Fenway in another uniform will rate merely as a blip on the radar once the new-look lineup kicks into gear, but even with Monday's win, it's a reminder of a season gone awry.