- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- Bobby Valentine returned to New York to manage for the first time since he was fired by the Mets after the 2002 season.
He may not have come back as a conquering hero -- not with the Red Sox a game under .500 (49-50), 10½ games behind the Yankees and 4½ games out in the wild-card race -- but he was hardly cursing his fate, either, regardless of how much his team has underachieved.
"I'm a lucky guy," Valentine said when asked if his enthusiasm for the job has waned at all. "When I wake up in the morning, I count my blessings.
"Hell's bells, it's been exciting. Challenging for sure."
As upbeat as Valentine sounded Friday, it was hard to imagine how giddy he would have been if the Sox had come in here as something more than a team that has gone 8-13 in July, has lost 5 out of its past 6 and had beaten the Yankees only once in six previous meetings this season, all of which took place in Fenway Park.
The Sox manager talked about what a "great group of guys" he has, saying "I think we're heading in the right direction.
"We got off to a lousy start there with some confusion in the bullpen, we've been about five games over since that bad start in April, I think we could build on that to 10, 15, 20 games over .500."
For the Sox to finish 20 games over .500 (91-71), they would have to play at a .667 pace (42-21) the rest of the way. What does Valentine see that makes him believe this team is built to win?
He mentioned Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez's getting hot, referenced the return of Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford, noted that David Ortiz should be back soon and mentioned the stabilizing of the bullpen and his continued confidence in the team's starting pitching despite a 4.85 ERA and a record of 36-38.
"I've seen Adrian and Dustin really hitting their stride," Valentine said. "We went 80 games without them really getting their stride. They're feeling good. I see David coming back. I see Ellsbury and Carl in the lineup. I see our bullpen pretty well-stabilized and our starting staff feeling pretty good about themselves.
"Everyone says, 'How can the staff feel good about itself without Josh Beckett] or Jon Lester] winning their last starts and all that? They're healthy and throwing the ball well. I believe when you have quality people and they're healthy and maybe balls aren't hit at people -- whatever the hell it is that combined to have them not get W's and not do as well as we wanted to do in some of the games -- I think they will because they are healthy and they have qualities.
"A lot of the young guys we've had play are more established than they were early. Dan [Nava] is a more established player. Will [Middlebrooks] is a much more established player. Salty [Jarrod Saltalamacchia] has  home runs. Kelly [Shoppach] is working really well. The team has come along pretty well. I don't see things going backward."
He also singled out Mike Aviles as having "erased all doubts."
"He's played great defensively, made all the plays, he's been a iron man, and he's had a lot of big hits."
So there you have it: a team, by Valentine's reckoning, built to win.
And if it doesn't, who gets blamed? Hmmmm.