It began yesterday, with the Red Sox' third straight loss in Oakland which was highlighted by a David Ortiz home run – the 400th of his career. It was the lone bright spot on a Fourth of July performance that lacked any fireworks from the Boston lineup.
At the midway point of the season, the Sox are probably about where we thought they would be considering the rash of injuries they've dealt with. Outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford have combined to play a total of seven games this season. And closer Andrew Bailey, the team's biggest off-season acquisition, hasn't thrown a pitch for the team yet.
Kevin Youkilis is gone. Dustin Pedroia has missed eight games in the past month with various thumb injuries. Will Middlebrooks missed the Oakland series with some hamstring tightness. And there are four outfielders rehabbing in the minors right now.
Yet the Sox have remained alive, reaching the midway point of the season just a game and a half out of the playoff race. They slumped badly on the road trip, hitting just .200 in seven games against two teams with sub-.500 records.
The schedule's about to get tougher. After the four-game set with the Yankees this weekend, the Sox face the Rays, White Sox, Jays and Rangers before their next off day. The Yankees, Tigers, Twins and Rangers are the four opponents lined up after that. That's 23 of 30 games against teams with winning records.
Ortiz has been the team's first-half MVP, putting together numbers that rival his best seasons in Boston. He's playing like a man possessed, and will be rewarded with a handsome salary for 2013 (and, perhaps, beyond.) He is in the discussion for AL MVP, and would become the first primary DH to win the award.
The team's pitching has improved tremendously since the first month of the season. The Red Sox bullpen has the lowest ERA in baseball since April 23. The rotation has started to round into form, in large part because of the work of Aaron Cook and Franklin Morales. Overall, the team's ERA was 4.12 in the first half, surprisingly close to the first-half ERA of the 2011 Red Sox (3.96).
It would be tough to pick a "Cy Young" winner from the team's rotation, so we'll give it to Scott Atchison. He has become an indispensible part of the bullpen, posting a 1.47 ERA in 43 innings over the first half — the most of any reliever on the team and second most of any AL reliever. He threw two or more innings in a game 11 times, second most in the AL. He was the forgotten man by the end of last season, but has been one of Bobby Valentine's most reliable relief pitchers this year.
We can talk all we want about the first half of the season, hand out imaginary awards and such, but all the 2012 Red Sox have accomplished so far is that they have stayed alive. Now things will get interesting. Ryan Sweeney and Scott Podsednik will be back from the DL shortly. Ellsbury and Crawford will be right behind them. This team should be much deeper offensively when those outfielders arrive. Clay Buchholz should return from his mysterious esophigitis before too long, making the pitching staff that much deeper.
Over the first half of the season, the Red Sox have led all of baseball in storylines. Yet, through it all, they are still alive. They also reminded us over the past week that they are vulnerable. It was a very disappointing road trip, and now the Yankees come to town for four games before the All-Star break.
One thing hasn't changed in half a season. This year could go either way. They have survived half a season. They need to do more than just survive in the months ahead if they want to return to the playoffs.