Beware of Boston's unsung heroes

June, 22, 2012
6/22/12
12:45
AM ET

You blew it, American League. You should have buried the Boston Red Sox in the Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street when you had the chance. Or dumped the bodies in Boston Harbor.

The Red Sox have no right being 36-33 and just two games out of the second wild-card spot, not with the long list of everything that's gone wrong.

Your pals in the National League aren't helping out, either. The Red Sox should have lost on Thursday to the Miami Marlins. The Marlins took a 3-0 lead off a shaky Daisuke Matsuzaka in the top of the first and when the Red Sox failed to capitalize on a bases loaded, one-out situation in the bottom of the inning, you had the feeling it wasn't Boston's night. The Marlins led 5-3 in the eighth. But the Red Sox, on the day David Ortiz criticized the media for too much negativity, hung in there, fought back and rallied for one of their biggest wins of the season to complete the series sweep.

Something tells me it was a happy clubhouse after the game. Something tells Big Papi me enjoyed this one.

The heroes of this game were four guys who have quietly kept the Red Sox afloat as they've dealt with injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Andrew Bailey and others and with the slow starts from Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia. Thanks to the four guys below, the Red Sox have fought through tough times, through all that negativity.

Maybe they're not where they want to be or where a lot of people believe a team with a $175 million payroll should be. But they're not in the cemetery. And with 93 games left, that's something the rest of the AL might end up regretting.

Daniel Nava. Nobody wanted Nava. Not out of high school, when he tried out for the team as a freshman at Santa Clara but got cut and instead served as the team's equipment manager. Not after returning to junior college, heading back to Santa Clara and hitting .395 as a senior and still going undrafted. Not after making his way through the independent leagues, getting purchased by the Red Sox for $1, hitting a grand slam in his first major league at-bat in 2010 but eventually being designated for assignment last May.

Any team could have had claimed him on waivers. No team did. He ended up spending all of 2011 in the minor leagues. He was so low on Boston's depth chart the club didn't invite him to major league camp. But then the injuries in the outfield piled and Nava was recalled from Triple-A in May. He's been one of the best hitters in the league since, posting a .340/.455/.519 line. Since his recall, he has third-best on-base percentage in the majors, behind only Joey Votto and Carlos Ruiz. He's been so good that even if Carl Crawford was healthy, Nava would have to remain in the lineup.

After going 4-for-5 on Wednesday, he had two more hits and a walk on Thursday. His flare to center in the bottom of the eighth scored Ryan Kalish with the go-ahead run.

Will Middlebrooks. While Nava was discovered at the bottom of the scrap heap and even tossed aside at one point, Middlebrooks comes from a more conventional background, a fifth-round draft pick who became the team's top prospect after a solid 2011, when he hit 23 home runs, mostly in Double-A. Still, with a poor 114/26 strikeout/walk ratio, a full season in Triple-A appeared necessary. But with a hot start and injuries to Kevin Youkilis, Middlebrooks got the call to play third base. All he's done is hit .316/.352/.551 with eight home runs and 31 RBIs in 38 games. Sure, he's not walking much and maybe that strike zone judgment will be exposed as he goes through the league a second time, but right now he's a savior as a power bat in the middle of the lineup.

On Thursday, he delivered one of the biggest hits of the Red Sox season, smashing a mammoth, 449-foot home run to center to tie the game in the bottom of the eighth. One game, one series sweep doesn't turn around a season, but there are games and hits that -- when you look at the final standings on the final day of the season -- that fans of playoff teams will remember. This could be one of those hits.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Once part of the famous Mark Teixeira trade between the Braves and Rangers, Texas essentially gave up on Salty after two-plus seasons. The Red Sox acquired him in 2010 for three nondescript minor leaguers. He's hitting .264/.311/.556 and leads all major league catchers with 13 home runs.

Salty doubled in front of Middlebrooks' home run and scored two runs. The former top prospect has finally made good.

Scott Atchison. Unlike Nava, Atchison was drafted ... in the 49th round, in 1998 by the Seattle Mariners. He had brief stints with the Mariners and Giants, went to Japan, came back to the States. He's a 36-year-old right-hander who wasn't expected to make the team, but a strong spring training earned him a spot on the Opening Day roster. There's no fancy about his approach: A 90-93 mph four-seam fastball, a slider, an occasional changeup.

He's moved from last man on the staff to a key member of the bullpen. He threw two scoreless innings on Thursday to improve to 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA. He's pitched the second-most relief innings in the majors and has held batters to a .199 average.

Four unsung heroes. Four big reasons why the Red Sox are playing some good ball right now.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Ryan CookThearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesSpeaking of unsung heroes: Oakland's Ryan Cook is now 2-1 with a 0.57 ERA.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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