Last-place Red Sox hoping for better health

Posted July 11, 2012, at 9:34 p.m.
David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox jokes with fans during the fifth inning of the MLB All-Star baseball game against the National League on Tuesday, July 10, 2012, in Kansas City, Mo.
Jeff Roberson | AP
David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox jokes with fans during the fifth inning of the MLB All-Star baseball game against the National League on Tuesday, July 10, 2012, in Kansas City, Mo.

BOSTON — The Boston Red Sox look nothing like the team that won two World Series in four years. Or the one with the best record in the American League last season with only a month left.

Now they’re a mediocre, injury-plagued bunch with fill-ins dotting the lineup and supposed aces struggling to win. No wonder they’re at just .500 at the All-Star break.

On Sunday, they suffered a third loss in a four-game series against the New York Yankees, with Pedro Ciriaco, Mauro Gomez, Daniel Nava and Nick Punto in the lineup. At least David Ortiz, their best hitter this season, is still around.

It’s hardly what he thought he was getting into when he decided to return with a $14.5 million, one-year contract, though.

“We have to get some of our guys back and play better in the second half,” said Ortiz, the only player left from the 2004 club that won the franchise’s first World Series in 86 years. Only eight remain from the 2007 champions.

If the Red Sox had played better last September, they wouldn’t have missed the playoffs for the second straight year. They started that month at 83-52, leading the AL East. Then came the 7-20 collapse in the final month as they lost out on a wild-card berth on the final day of the regular season. Reports followed that some players drank beer and ate fried chicken in the clubhouse during games.

On Dec. 1, though, at his introductory news conference, an “excited” manager Bobby Valentine said, “I look forward to working with this group and establishing a culture of excellence.”

He was a long way to go after the Red Sox lost six of their final seven games before the break. And the list of problems is long:

— Starters Josh Beckett and Jon Lester have combined for nine wins in 32 starts.

— Left-fielder Carl Crawford and closer Andrew Bailey have been sidelined all season.

— Center-fielder Jacoby Ellsbury played just seven games before separating his right shoulder, second baseman Dustin Pedroia is on the disabled list and is batting just. 266, and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, despite a career-best 18-game hitting streak that ended Sunday, is at .283 with just six homers after slugging 27 last year.

Ellsbury, who hit .321 with 32 homers and 105 RBIs last year, could return on Friday when the Red Sox open a three-game series at Tampa Bay. Crawford, out with elbow and wrist injuries, and promising rookie third baseman Will Middlebrooks, sidelined with a hamstring injury, may not be far behind.

That should be a big help to the Red Sox, who are just 2 1-2 games out of a wild-card berth despite their problems.

“A little more stability would be good,” Valentine said. “I think the guys are coming together. I think if we have some good health, the second half could be exciting. I’m looking forward to it.”

The Red Sox ended the first half with a 43-43 record after losing to the New York Yankees 7-3. That’s their worst record at the break in 15 years. Last season, they didn’t lose their 43rd game until Aug. 5, leaving them at 68-43 and one game out of first place.

Now they’re tied with Toronto in last place, 9 1-2 games behind.

“We’ve got to get through it, I guess,” Ortiz said. “I think people understand our situation with the injuries. It can’t get worse. Well, I guess it can.”

Don’t expect the Red Sox to be sellers at the trade deadline, not with a chance to make the playoffs. They’ve already dealt third baseman Kevin Youkilis to make room for Middlebrooks in the lineup, and Youkilis has had an outstanding start with the Chicago White Sox.

The brightest spots so far have been Ortiz and the relievers. He has 22 homers, and is on pace to hit his most since 2006 (54). He’s also batting .312. The bullpen performed poorly early in the season but has been outstanding since, and has a 3.12 ERA.

But Boston’s second-half success depends primarily on the top of the rotation, which has been healthy most of the season.

Beckett is 4-7 with a 4.43 ERA, Lester is 5-6 with a 4.49 and Clay Buchholz is 8-2 (5.53). Daniel Bard began the season as a starter, but is now at Triple-A Pawtucket after struggling with his control. He is 5-6 with a 5.24 ERA.

Can the Red Sox contend if Beckett and Lester don’t improve?

“No,” Valentine said.

The manager’s rapport with his players also had some rocky moments.

After the ninth game of the season, Valentine said on WHDH-TV that he didn’t think Youkilis was “as physically or emotionally into the game.” His teammates came to his defense and Valentine apologized the next day.

Pedroia was one of Youkilis’ more vocal supporters.

“I know he plays as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen in my life. I have his back and his teammates have his back,” he said.

Now Youkilis is gone and Pedroia anticipates a better second half — for himself and the team.

“We’re going to have some other guys get back here pretty soon. Guys are going to have to step up and play good baseball. I’ll be back in a few weeks,” he said.

And health is the key for a team that has placed an AL-high 20 players on the disabled list.

“When we have everybody back and people make mistakes against us, we can come back,” Ortiz said. “We have to be healthy.”

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