Players like Eric Patterson have filled in capably for injured stars, but how long can they keep it up? (Chris O'Meara/Associated Press).
After taking a 5-1 lead over the Tampa Bay Rays, the Red Sox tumbled to a frustrating 6-5 defeat at Tropicana Field last night to fall a half-game behind the Rays in the ironclad American League East. The Red Sox send Felix Doubront to the mound tonight. The Boston bullpen remains shaky and the lineup remains battered, and the All-Star break will come and go before the Red Sox can put many of the major pieces back in place.
How much longer can this team defy logic? How much longer can the Red Sox continue to get two-homer games from players like Eric Patterson, who had three home runs in his career entering this season? How much more space can the Red Sox exhaust on the disabled list before they simply run out of room?
"That was a tough one for everybody," Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz told reporters following last night’s game.
And he was right.
For months, we all have known the realities of this 2010 season. As it turns out, the three best teams in baseball just happen to be in the American League East. Come October, at least one of them will not belong. Defeats like last night could have a profound impact on the outcome of the AL playoff race, particularly when the Rays appear to be awakening from a slumber that had them fighting among themselves as recently as a week ago.
Here’s the especially sad part about last night’s game: as shorthanded as the Red Sox are at the moment, they should have won this game anyway. Daisuke Matsuzaka made a poor decision on a bunt that cost the Red Sox an out. Marco Scutaro over-committed to an infield bouncer and sacrificed a potential double play ball. And then there was the work of the embattled relief corps, which, according to ESPN, put the final touches on a defeat in which the Red Sox blew a lead of three or more runs for the eighth time this season, a number that leads all of baseball. (Maybe they learned this last trick from the Celtics.)
When these Red Sox are healthy, they can endure blunders like the ones made by Matsuzaka, Scutaro, and the bullpen, among others. For much of this season, they have. But the Red Sox of today simply are not good enough to get in their own way, and there may be only so much that general manager Theo Epstein can do with this team approaching the trading deadline.
Over the winter, after all, Epstein and owner John Henry made repeated references to 2010 (and even 2011) being "bridge" years, which many took as an indication that the Red Sox were preparing to go 88-74 while keeping fans in the seats at Fenway Park. Such interpretations were very coarse. What Epstein and Henry meant was that the Red Sox would have to "bridge"’ the gap to their next wave of front-line prospects, many of whom may not be here until the middle of 2011 at the earliest.
That is why the Red Sox have had to rely on people like Darnell McDonald, Daniel Nava, and Scott Atchison. Early in the year, for goodness sake, Epstein had to trade for Jonathan Van Every. Then he had to trade for Patterson. The Red Sox already have used 22 positional players and 20 pitchers this season, though the latter includes outings by both Van Every and Bill Hall.
And yet, as NESN revealed over the weekend, the Red Sox hit the 81-game mark with virtually the same record they have in each of the past five seasons, which reflects well on the players and manager Terry Francona as much as does on the shell games Epstein has been choreographing.
The problem, of course, is that the Red Sox still have a half-season to play with glaring needs in the outfield and bullpen, the latter of which is clearly the more critical. Exactly how much will Epstein be able to do to help this team? Between now and the trading deadline on July 31, the Red Sox have 21 more games to play, including 15 on the road, all against teams with winning home records. Their six home games are against clubs currently in first place – Texas and Detroit – and Epstein doesn’t seem to have (and never did) the depth of coveted prospects to make a major, season-altering acquisition.
Translation: What you see is what you get. Short of a reliever that may (or may not) be able to help this club, the Red Sox may have little choice but to make do.
Last night obviously served as just one defeat, but that is hardly the point. The Sox have lost three of their last five and posted a 6-6 record over their last 12 games. Josh Beckett, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, Victor Martinez, Dustin Pedroia, Jeremy Hermida, Jason Varitek, and Mike Lowell, among others, all are on the disabled list - a collection of players whose salaries approximate or exceed the payrolls of clubs like the Florida Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Up to now, the Red Sox have persevered and succeeded despite that reality.
But sometime soon, aren’t they bound to start beating their heads against the wall?
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