Commentary

Red Sox need to get well soon

After treading water amid rash of injuries, Boston must shape up against Yankees

Updated: July 7, 2012, 12:37 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- The most amazing aspect of this week's discovery of the Higgs boson, or the "God particle" that may revolutionize physics, is that Bobby Valentine didn't find it first.

Since most physicists still are too busy partying, allow me to pass on this partial definition of the Higgie: "The particle is thought to create a sort of force field that permeates the universe …''

Now doesn't that sound like just the thing to revive a Red Sox offense that lacked mass, relativity and gravity -- not to mention a pulse -- on a seven-game West Coast swing in which Boston scored more than two runs just once?

[+] EnlargeMike Aviles
Joe Nicholson/US PresswireAfter hitting .114 with runners in scoring position on a 2-5 road trip, the Red Sox and Mike Aviles need to improve this weekend against the Yankees.

The dearly departed Kevin Youkilis had more hits (six) in his past three games with the Chicago White Sox than 11 of his former teammates had on the entire 2-5 trip against two alleged soft touches, the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics. And Youk's six RBIs in those three games doubled the team-leading three RBIs Jarrod Saltalamacchia had on the Sox trip.

We're not making the case here for general manager Ben Cherington to nullify last week's deal -- seldom has a player needed the proverbial change of scenery more than Youkilis, whose bile for Valentine was at eyeball level -- though it might be nice for Brent Lillibridge to collect his first hit since coming over from Chicago. And for rookie third baseman Will Middlebrooks (.188 on the trip) to show this is just a temporary glitch in what has been a smashing rookie season.

The way the Red Sox are swinging, it seems like it may be just a matter of time before Valentine, who is already acting like the de facto pitching coach, starts overseeing batting practice too for a team that went 5-for-44 (.114) with runners in scoring position on the trip. Hardly an encouraging prologue to this weekend's four-game set in Fenway Park against the first-place New York Yankees, which will end the pre-All-Star break portion of the schedule.

The only noise the Red Sox's offense made in the past week came from David Ortiz, who on Wednesday -- George Steinbrenner's birthday -- hit his 400th career home run, preceded by what may have been his 4,000th career rant about the Sox failing to give him a multiyear deal, a recurring theme over the past three seasons.

"It was humiliating,'' Ortiz told Jorge Ortiz of USA Today. "There's no reason a guy like me should go through that. … And yet they don't hesitate to sign other guys. It was embarrassing."

Set aside for a moment your aggravation about a guy making $14.575 million bellyaching. The fact is, Ortiz is right. He has watched the Red Sox lavish huge long-term contracts on one underperforming player after another while holding him to a more demanding standard -- produce or else.

Ortiz's comments, remember, came just after the Sox announced they'd reached a termination agreement with reliever Bobby Jenks, a physical and psychological wreck who signed a two-year, $12 million deal for which the team got a grand total of 15 2/3 innings. That's roughly the amount Ortiz wanted for a second year on his deal. Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Lackey, Carl Crawford ... seriously, do you really question why Ortiz demands to know where's his?

Ortiz's timing could have been better -- he will be skewered for griping about his contract when the team is foundering, and mocked for saying he's tired of drama when he's the one creating it. And it's not as if the Red Sox need any distractions entering this weekend against the Yankees, who gave Ortiz and the rest of the Sox a real lesson in humiliation the last time they were here, rallying from a 9-0 deficit to a 15-9 victory.

That April 21 loss produced Valentine's contribution to memorable quotes inspired by Sox-Yankees:

"I think we've hit bottom," he said. "If this isn't the bottom, then we'll find some new ends to the earth or something."

As a candidate for Bartlett's, that still ranks behind such classics as Pedro Martinez's "I just have to tip my hat to the Yankees and call them my daddy," Larry Lucchino's "Evil Empire" jab, Jimy Williams referring to Steinbrenner as "Georgie Porgie," Steinbrenner comparing John W. Henry to the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz" or tabbing Lucchino "baseball's foremost chameleon," or Trot Nixon's epic spring training zinger toward Alex Rodriguez ("Well, I'm not a deadbeat dad, you clown ... What's wrong with me taking my kid to school and then going to work out?").

Still, it accurately reflected the state of the Sox at the time -- the bullpen was a full-blown disaster, the rotation wasn't much better and bodies were already beginning to drop left and right.

Ten weeks later, where do the teams stand? The Yankees are on pace for a 98-win season; only Texas (50) has more wins than the Yankees (49), and the Rangers have played one more game. They're 17 games over .500, 5½ games ahead in the AL East and are 21-9 in their last 30. Injuries? They haven't had them in the Biblical proportions the Red Sox have, but they've had significant absences -- Mariano Rivera, Brett Gardner, Michael Pineda, Pedro Feliciano, David Aardsma, Joba Chamberlain -- and haven't broken stride.

The Yankees' latest two injuries -- CC Sabathia (groin strain) and Andy Pettitte (fractured ankle) -- may keep them from winning the division in a runaway, as they are asking the in-eclipse Freddy Garcia and untested rookie Adam Warren to fill the breech. But Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes all have pitched well, and Sabathia is expected to miss just a couple of starts.

The Sox, meanwhile, were a season-best five games over .500 on July 1 but are back to just two games over the break-even mark. They are just 15-15 in their past 30 games and are just a half-game out of last place, 7½ games behind the Bombers. They are just two games out of the last wild-card spot, one of eight teams within 3½ games in the wild-card race.

The bullpen that gave up 14 runs in two innings to the Yanks has reinvented itself -- eight Red Sox relievers have ERAs of 2.79 or lower since then -- although closer Alfredo Aceves' two losses on the trip, and 0-6 record overall, are fretful reminders of Boston's late-inning vulnerability.

The Red Sox are bookending this series with ostensibly their two best pitchers -- Josh Beckett Friday night, Jon Lester Sunday night -- and throwing two lefties, rookie Felix Doubront and reclamation project Franklin Morales, in Saturday's day-night doubleheader. Lost in the 15-9 collapse was Doubront's terrific outing against the Yankees -- he held them to four hits and one run (a Mark Teixeira homer) and struck out seven in six innings.

Morales will have the chance to instill some fear in the Yankees that he could be a difference-maker in the second half. The 26-year-old left-hander has a 1.86 ERA in four starts, has held opposing hitters to a .194 batting average, has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 26-to-3 and has yet to allow a home run in 19 1/3 innings as a starter. This will be his biggest stage yet.

The Sox have reinforcements coming -- Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford and Ryan Sweeney all are rehabbing in Double-A -- but not soon enough to help this weekend, unless Cherington bows to temptation. They all are expected, however, after the All-Star break.

Barring a Yankees sweep, this weekend will decide nothing, but this series begins a stretch of 30 games in which the Red Sox will play 17 against teams that would be headed to the playoffs if the season ended today: Yankees (7), White Sox (4), Rangers (6). They also have six games in that stretch (three each) against the Rays and Tigers, both of whom are expected to be factors in the race down the stretch.

The Red Sox are just 21-24 against teams with winning records; that has to change if they expect to play in October. You don't have to be as smart as the folks who discovered the Higgs boson to understand that.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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