A good ‘weather’ report

Sox now comfortable after storms early on

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / June 29, 2010

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Adrian Beltre doesn’t like it when people touch him on the head. We all have our little quirks and pet peeves, and for the third baseman of the Red Sox, that is his.

Once Victor Martinez figured that out, he took every opportunity to tease Beltre by rubbing his close-cropped hair, particularly after home runs. That earned him the promise of a good beating if it continued.

(We pause here to note that presumably Beltre was kidding about resorting to violence. Although when asked about it, he didn’t smile. He really doesn’t like people touching his head.)

Saturday, as Beltre and Martinez sat in the cramped visitor’s clubhouse of AT&T Park watching a World Cup game on television, Tim Wakefield snuck up behind Beltre and tapped him in the head with one finger before dashing away. Beltre turned and gave Martinez a murderous look before realizing it was Wakefield who played the prank.

All three players laughed.

It was a silly moment, grown men acting like little boys at recess. But it was emblematic of how much the team has changed since the awkward early weeks of the season when newcomers such as Beltre struggled to fit in with veterans such as Wakefield.

That the Red Sox lost nine of their first 13 games only magnified the situation.

“Between the media and our fan base, it was tough to buy time for this group of guys to be good and bad. We saw the bad early, and at all ends of the spectrum,’’ captain Jason Varitek said. “Now we’re starting to find out what kind of team we really have.’’

Manager Terry Francona says every team needs to develop a personality. Others call it chemistry. Whatever label is put on it, the Red Sox are convinced that it has played a role in the team having the fourth-best record in the game despite injuries that would have derailed many clubs.

“Winning helps everything. If we win and guys are miserable, you’d still take that. That’s what we’re here for,’’ Franco na said. “But I think part of it is we’ve gone through some tough times and the way we’re weathering it has helped us play better baseball. We haven’t always played perfect, but we’re trying to and that’s what we ask them, to do the best you can.

“That’s a good way to go about it. You can see in the dugout there’s more energy. Guys are more comfortable in their surroundings and you’re seeing their personalities come out. It’s a better way to play.’’

Later in the day Saturday, when Francona sent starting pitcher John Lackey up as a pinch hitter, Wakefield volunteered to go up and bunt if needed. Jon Lester then came over and said he was actually the better bunter.

As the game was going on, Francona had three of his starters demanding a chance to hit and pulling on their spikes. In his mind, that’s a winning personality at work.

“It’s good,’’ Francona said. “They’re into it. This team is forming its own personality, which is great.’’

The initial uncomfortable feelings were largely unavoidable. In Beltre, Lackey, Mike Cameron, and Marco Scutaro, the Red Sox had four new players in prominent positions. As they learned their way, Wakefield, Varitek, and Mike Lowell were grappling with changing responsibilities. The three veterans, accomplished players on championship teams, had been shifted into secondary roles.

“It seemed like everybody in some way, shape, or form was dealing with a rough spot,’’ Varitek said.

A series of injuries made the recipe almost toxic. The Sox appeared divided, more by circumstance, but divided nonetheless.

“I think a lot of us were trying to take it all in and deal with our own issues,’’ Cameron said. “It’s not that people weren’t friendly, it just took time.’’

Wakefield, the most tenured member of the team, had seen it before.

“I’m a big believer that with so many new guys on the team it takes a while for them to get adjusted to playing for our team and in our market,’’ he said. “Then we had to deal with all the injuries. The majority of us have gone through this before. You learn how to cope with it and not get so down that it keeps you from playing well.

“We adapted. It shows you the tenacity and the core values of the team. It doesn’t matter what you throw at us. You can knock us down but we get back up.’’

Now comes another hurdle, the loss of second baseman Dustin Pedroia for perhaps six weeks with a broken bone in his left foot. Martinez is dealing with a fracture in his left thumb as well. The Sox, in some quarters, will be counted out as they were in April.

“This team hasn’t been healthy yet,’’ Varitek said. “We’ve done well, but you can’t replace a guy like [Pedroia]. Bill Hall will do just fine. It’s just another thing we need to overcome. We’ve been doing it all season. If we continue to get good pitching, we’ll be fine.’’

Francona is not a believer in team meetings and pep talks. He has faith in the character of his players and their ability to set the right tone.

“We’re grinding through it and trying to be a tough team,’’ he said. “Attrition doesn’t help. But we’ve played with so much better personality the last month and a half.’’

Outfielder Darnell McDonald, who has made unexpectedly positive contributions since being called up in mid-April, has watched the change unfold.

“We had some bad times,’’ he said. “But what stuck with me was that every day, these guys expect to win. That rubs off on everybody after a while. It did with me.

“I know people will say these injuries will get to us. But we’re going to expect to win every day no matter who is playing. That’s the way it is with this team. It feels like a family now.’’

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