- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Line drives whistled off Jacoby Ellsbury's bat. Dustin Pedroia hit a couple of balls into the seats. Will Middlebrooks effortlessly fielded ground balls at third base. Clay Buchholz took part in pitchers' fielding drills. Meanwhile in Pawtucket, Carl Crawford was telling reporters he plans to be back Monday, whether he's ready or not.
The closest anyone on the Boston Red Sox came to getting hurt Thursday afternoon is when Ben Cherington, sitting on the dugout railing while talking to reporters, momentarily lost his balance, which could have placed the general manager in the company of the 20 players the Sox have placed on the disabled list this season.
But Cherington remained upright. And with Ellsbury returning to the lineup here Friday night, Buchholz pitching Saturday, Pedroia now expected back much earlier than originally anticipated, and Crawford going through what the Sox hope is a final tune-up this weekend in Pawtucket, the Sox will bear a much closer resemblance to the team they expected to field this season.
"We've been saying for a while we feel like we have a good team here," Cherington said Thursday afternoon, when the Sox conducted an optional workout attended by all but four players, the missing including David Ortiz, who was occupied with the All-Star team during the break.
"At some point you've got to show it on the field. The reality is we're at .500 the day after the All-Star break. We have good players that have been playing. We have good players who are on the way back getting healthy, but at some point we've got to stop talking about the cavalry coming back and start winning games. So we've got to do that."
The schedule offers little in the way of breathers through Aug. 1. The Sox play three games here with the Rays, who despite a team batting average of .232 are four games above .500, two games ahead of the Sox. Kevin Youkilis then will lead the Chicago White Sox into Fenway Park for four games beginning next Monday, followed by three with the Toronto Blue Jays, who have the same record as the Sox (43-43) at the break. The Red Sox then go to Texas to face the Rangers, who lead the AL West, followed by a three-game set in New York against the Yankees, who just took three of four from the Sox. The Sox close out the month with three games at home against the Detroit Tigers, who are just 3½ games out in the AL Central.
Ellsbury has been out since April 14 with a partially dislocated shoulder. He blew off reporters both before and after Thursday's workout, continuing a pattern of behavior evident when he pulled the same act in Boston the night before heading off to Florida to begin his rehab assignment. But that will be of little concern to fans anxious to see whether he can pick up where he left off last season, when he was arguably the American League's most dynamic player.
Valentine, asked whether he thought Ellsbury would give the team an extra spark of adrenaline this weekend, downplayed expectations.
"I think that's overstated," he said. "Pitchers have to pitch, guys have to catch the ball, people have to hit. I think just having him for the rest of the season, not just in a game, is what it's all about. I don't think one person, one game, makes all that much difference. Unless he's pitching."
Valentine said he expected to place Ellsbury in his customary leadoff spot. "I don't think there's a whole lot of maneuvering that can be done at this time of the season, but we'll consider all options."
Crawford's rehab assignment had been interrupted briefly when he tweaked a groin running the bases July 5 while playing for Double-A Portland. He returned to action Thursday night in Pawtucket, playing five innings in left field and collecting a couple of hits.
"It's time to get out on the field and see what I can do," Crawford said afterward, according to Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal, telling reporters he planned to play Monday in Fenway Park. "I feel the pressure of everybody wanting me to be out there."
Crawford had wrist surgery in January and is playing with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow that he said several times in the last few days "probably" will require Tommy John surgery at some point, though he is committed to trying to play through the ongoing soreness he feels. Cherington is still hopeful surgery can be avoided.
"Certainly [Crawford's] opinion matters more than anyone's," Cherington said. "[Surgery] has been discussed as a possibility down the road. ... We know plenty of position players have performed at a very high level with a UCL injury. We believe Carl can do it. Ultimately he has to be confident he can do it. From what he's told me, what he's told our staff, he's focused on playing and wants to play. That's what we're focused on."
Middlebrooks, who missed the last six games, five of which were losses, with tightness in his hamstring, is expected back Friday night, although Valentine did not officially commit to that Thursday, saying he preferred to see how Middlebrooks responded to the workout.
The most surprising development involved Pedroia, who had estimated he might be out a "few weeks" after hyperextending his right thumb, the same digit in which he tore an adductor muscle earlier this season. Originally, he was expected to remain in a cast for a minimum of two weeks. But the cast has been shed, and Pedroia took ground balls and a regular round of batting practice.
"He's just a different animal, dude," teammate Mike Aviles said.
Pedroia was placed on the DL on July 4, which makes him eligible to come off the DL next Thursday for the finale of the four-game set against the White Sox. Cherington did not rule that out.
"He feels a lot better," Cherington said. "He's going to ramp up his activity over the weekend and then hopefully if all goes well, he'll be ready to join on or not long after his eligible date."
Buchholz, who missed three starts since going on the DL June 20 with esophagitis, is scheduled to start Saturday night against the Rays. Valentine is opening the second half with a six-man rotation, but said that is just temporary.
In addition to Ortiz, pitchers Josh Beckett, Vicente Padilla and Aaron Cook missed the workout, which Valentine stressed was optional. "There's no reason anybody who is not here should feel like they should be here," the manager said.
1dJoe McDonald, Special to ESPN.com