Amid more drama, can Red Sox finally turn the corner?
BOSTON -- Even the milestones don't come easy for the Red Sox. Tuesday night's 7-5 victory over the Marlins was the franchise's 1,000th win, counting regular season and playoffs, since the current ownership group took over prior to the 2002 season.
It was Boston's fifth triumph in seven games, pushing the Red Sox over .500 for only the eighth day this year, this one coming on the eve of the Summer Solstice, a reminder of how much of the season remains.
"We're starting to play better," outfielder Cody Ross said. "All it takes is a good winning streak to get going. This is a good start."
For years the Red Sox rarely have made progress without circumscribed consternation, and this year is no different, the latest distraction in the headlines arriving via an ESPN.com columnist's recent characterization of the clubhouse as "toxic."
That predictably incited a series of steadfast denials, including ones from Ross ("comical"), starter Josh Beckett ("completely fabricated") and manager Bobby Valentine ("Why would I comment on someone that I don't think knows anything?").
Whether the description is accurate or not, the Red Sox have some very real concerns. Those include an underperforming starting rotation (4.84 ERA, third-worst in the AL), a preponderance of injuries (necessitating, for example, the use of a major-league-high 13 different outfielders) and a lineup that, while highly productive, ought to be even stronger (ranking second in the league in runs but 11th in walks). As a result, the Sox are in last place in the AL East, seven games behind the first-place Yankees and four games out of the last wild card spot as they chase their first postseason berth since 2009.
"It's just a matter of all of us being in sync at the same time," shortstop Mike Aviles said.
Boston, a club that for a decade has championed on-base percentage and plate discipline as well as almost anyone, currently has the franchise's worst walk rate since 1931. As a team, the Sox are walking once every 13.24 plate appearances, and Tuesday was their sixth zero-walk game this season, which is already more than the team had in 2011 (three), 2010 (four) and 2009 (three) and matches the number in 2008 (six).
That's but one symptom of the prevailing problem: The Red Sox, quite simply, need their stars to play like stars.
Entering play on Tuesday, the Red Sox were one of only two major league teams, along with the Mariners, lacking a player with a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 2.0 or higher, according to FanGraphs.com. If Boston were a small-market team, having a 34-33 record and +29 run differential with such balanced production would be laudable, but this club has 10 players making between $7.5 million and $21.9 million this season.
Of Boston's five best hitters last season, only David Ortiz is playing up to his usual high standard. In fact, each of the other four -- Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis -- has an adjusted OPS below league average, with the production of Ellsbury and Youkilis further depressed by their disabled-list time. Add in Carl Crawford, who despite a disappointing 2011 is an All-Star caliber player, and the Sox are playing awfully shorthanded.
Gonzalez's downturn is the most perplexing. The first baseman is seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance than in any year since he became an everyday player and is swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone than at any point in his career. He didn't start Sunday for the first time all season and is currently mired in a 3-for-28 slump, though his sacrifice fly Tuesday night was well-hit. His only pregame comment was, "I feel great. I feel relaxed."
Compounding the Red Sox' offensive woes: Pedroia, who is 9-for-53 (.170) with no home runs since returning from a thumb injury, left Tuesday's game after having possibly reinjured it.
That these Red Sox are above .500, given these circumstances, is almost impressive, especially when considering the troubles in the rotation. Jon Lester has an un-ace-like 4.53 ERA; Clay Buchholz's 5.53 is even worse; Beckett is on the DL; and Daniel Bard is in the minors. That's four-fifths of the Opening Day rotation.
At least the offensive cavalry appears to be on the horizon. Some four hours before the game's first pitch, Ellsbury took some batting practice swings and ran a few sprints to first base. Crawford was on the premises, as well, and though his workout wasn't done so publicly, Valentine acknowledged before the game that both would likely be beginning rehab assignments within the week or so.
"They deal with today," Valentine said of how his players handle all the injuries.
But it's hard to ignore tomorrow. Not only is there the prospect of adding bonafide stars, but there is also the pall of the uncertain future prospects of Youkilis to account for. Youkilis -- a three-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner who has spent his entire nine-year career in Boston -- is having his worst season by far (.645 OPS, nearly 240 points lower than his career rate entering the year) and has been outplayed by rookie third baseman Will Middlebrooks (.832 OPS).
According to various reports, the Red Sox are fielding trade inquiries for Youkilis -- a recent story from FoxSports.com said talks have "intensified." Perhaps such a trade, depending on the net return, could spark a surge the way a similar trade of an injury-hampered veteran infielder, Nomar Garciaparra, did in 2004.
That season ended in Boston's first World Series title in 86 years. But that, of course, is only the absolute best-case scenario. It could also be that the Sox rue the day they traded Youkilis, if he returns to form.
For now, however, summer is just beginning.