Bad start to the season. Wham. Injuries to two All-Star outfielders. Thunk. A reliable rotation that blows some starts, then a lineup that can't hit when the starts come through. Jab, smack.
At this point in the season, the Red Sox have effectively scouted all parts of Major League Baseball. They've seen some good National League teams and been kicked around by every division in the American League. And they have a first-row seat on the new powers of the American League East.
But the time for stalking the rest of the division is over. It's time for the Red Sox to come off the ropes and start landing some punches. With a well-played summer, the Red Sox could numerically get themselves back in contention for the division title. Better yet, they could emotionally get themselves into the place they need to be to put 2011 behind them forever and make a serious run at the postseason.
Now is the perfect time to start.
Beginning with this weekend's series in Chicago, the Red Sox have one of their better stretches of the schedule waiting for them before the All-Star break. After Chicago, the Red Sox return home for another National League foray against the Marlins and Braves, both strong but beatable teams. Then it's the recently fading division rival Blue Jays, a swing out West to face the weak Mariners and Athletics, and a homestand against the Yankees. In all, it's 21 games, and with seven or so contests separating the Sox and the top of the division (the aforementioned Yankees), this may be best chance the Red Sox have all season to get above .500 for good and make a serious challenge at the division title.
The Red Sox had a similar chance in late April, coming off of their woeful start and headed to the Midwest for two series. They cleaned out Minnesota and the White Sox, going 6-0 to get back to .500. But then they let off the gas, lost a few at home to the A's, and have been in baseball purgatory since.
This time, it needs to be different.
The Red Sox are running out of time to grab a foothold at the top of the division. The Orioles, although they may not sustain their newfound success all season, can still be counted on to win consistently. That means they'll be hard to catch in the standings, and also in head-to-head matchups. The Rays and Yankees, meanwhile, have both shaken off their early-season woes weeks earlier than the Red Sox. They're ahead by a few games going into the summer, and while they may hit slumps again, they won't fade unless the Red Sox take games away from them in their remaining series.
That's why it's so important for the Red Sox to rediscover their fire and pick up some wins now. There's no question the Red Sox have the talent, and they've found a way to get over early chemistry issues and get the lineup, starting pitching and bullpen all going at once. But overall, the team is not moving at a very good clip. The Sox seem sluggish, at best, and even strong performances are being squandered as players start to press to make things happen.
The Red Sox and manager Bobby Valentine have said at different points this season that the ball is being hit well, it's just not finding holes in the defense. They've also talked about bad strike zones or calls from umpires they didn't like. This is not a group of players that seems able to overcome the circumstances, and it's worse still if they talk like adversity is too much for them.
Boston is playing like a team that's behind right now — which they are. But, going up against a set of teams they can certainly beat — including two from their own division — the Red Sox have to approach this stretch before the All-Star break like every game is theirs to win.
Yes, baseball is a game of repeatable performances, where you go out every day and take your swings and do your best. But it's also a game of resolve, where champions go out with tenacity and refuse to be beaten by a 20-something-win club like the Chicago Cubs.
The Marlins are good, but they also have a mermaid statue that goes off when they hit home runs. The Red Sox should be able to channel their inner champion and steamroll a team of farce and fish tanks.
The 60-game funk the Red Sox are in brings back memories of other recent woeful days, of course, when the Red Sox also didn't seem to have the same fighter's spirit.
Before there was 2012, when the Red Sox have found many ways to tease .500 before falling back again, there was 2011. Remember that? 0-6. Losses to Baltimore. Wailing and gnashing of teeth that, despite marquee pickups, the Sox had no hope. But then, of course, there was what former general manager Theo Epstein called the best four and a half months of baseball.
Those best four and a half months ended with one more very bad month, the stink of which still hangs with the Red Sox. They started this season bad, but expectations were that they'd rise above .500 soon enough and go on a hot streak in the middle part of the season. The only problem now is that it's June 16, not May 16 (when last year's Red Sox cleared the .500 hurdle for good), and the theory that this team is too good to stay down for long isn't holding up.
Whatever the Red Sox' ills may be — something endemically bad with the team, guys not playing at the level they can, poor chemistry or just injuries ravaging a solid roster — it's now gone on too long to expect the shine to return to the Red Sox on its own. To get back into contention, and to recapture the expectation of winning that this Boston club has killed out of its fan base with its lackluster performances all spring, the Red Sox will have to put together some serious production.
They've tried production the old-fashioned way, going to the ballpark with a workman's ethic and taking their hacks. But, so far, that everyday approach has just silenced men who were formerly MVP, Cy Young and batting title contenders. They are reflections of their former selves, .250 versions of could-be .400 hitters.
The Red Sox can't enjoy being at the bottom of the division, and they certainly want to win. So, where does it start? The Cubs beat them, the latest bad team to hang one on the BoSox. The division is running away.
But a sucker's schedule — a dozen or so creampuffs and a couple of division treats — await before the midpoint of the season, where things will really be dire if the Sox can't get it together.
Somebody needs to ring the Red Sox' bell and find a way to get them back into the fight.