The move — veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski out and prospect Christian Vazquez in — was seen by many as the Boston Red Sox waving the white flag even before the All-Star break.
After all, why else would a team bring up a kid with no experience and play the next game with five rookies in the lineup?
Hang on, said manager John Farrell.
“I think it’s important to note that we haven’t turned into completely a development situation,” Farrell said that day, July 9. “This is still — while they’re young players — our goal and intent is to win, and that’s how the game will be managed.”
Then came reports that Pierzynski became a cancer in the clubhouse, and that teammates wanted him gone. He also managed just one RBI in his last 53 at-bats, leading to the quick move.
More important, though, is that the Red Sox earned four wins in their final five games leading up to the break. That injected some optimism, be it false or otherwise.
So, do the defending World Series champs have any kind of a shot at this thing? They sit tied for last place in the American League East, 9 1/2 games behind the first-place Baltimore Orioles.
“We recognize the struggles of the first half, but to go into the break with some momentum is something that we are hopeful we’ll continue to build on,” Farrell said after Clay Buchholz struck out 12 and pitched a shutout and rookie Brock Holt delivered five hits in the final game before the break. “We haven’t conceded anything.”
Nor should they.
Buchholz, also set up start when play resumes, is pitching like Buchholz again. Jon Lester is an All-Star. John Lackey is pitching like one. And the division certainly appears to be wide open — even for a team that limped to a 43-52 record in the unofficial first half.
“We know there’s a little bit of a hole to climb out of,” Farrell said, “but this is a confident group that’s playing well right now.”
And a group that likely will get back rehabbing right fielder Shane Victorino, whose presence changes the look of the lineup, right after the break.
FIRST-HALF MVP: INF/OF Brock Holt started the season in Triple-A, and he even went back there after an early recall and major success. He finished the first half by going 10-for-16 in front of family and friends in Houston — capped by a five-hit game. A natural second baseman, Holt started games at first and third base, shortstop and all three outfield positions — though none at second base. He is the second Red Sox player ever to start at all those spots in the same season. All he did was bat .327 overall, hit safely in 15 of the last 18 games at a .350 clip and play 49 consecutive games at the leadoff hitter.
FIRST-HALF-GRADE: F — When the defending champions are in a virtual tie for last place at the All-Star break, with a 43-52 record that includes a 10-game losing streak, what other grade can there be? Yes, the Red Sox closed the first half with four wins in their last five games, but those games were against two losing teams. Is there a chance in the second half? Sure there is. But this team is going to have to get some kind of hot to get there. Last year, following the disastrous Bobby Valentine season, manager John Farrell displayed a magic touch that produced a surprise championship. In the first 95 games this year, cracks were clear in his managerial moves, but he still is doing more right than wrong. GM Ben Cherington and his superiors, who hit everything right in the previous offseason, did nothing to help Farrell in 2014.
PIVOTAL POST-BREAK PLAYER: 2B Dustin Pedroia is still a productive player. He is still the sparkplug that gets this team going, and that’s what Mariano Rivera was talking about in his book when he said he would take Pedroia over former teammate Robinson Cano (clearly the better hitter and at least his equal in the field). Pedroia is invaluable in terms of his attitude and style of play. However, he has become a singles and doubles hitter, leaving a lack of production near the top of the lineup. DH David Ortiz and 1B Mike Napoli will get their home runs. Pedroia needs to chip in.
BUY OR SELL: When they sent Pierzynski packing, and with RHP Jake Peavy reportedly on his way out via trade, it appeared the Red Sox were ready to be sellers. There was talk they would deal off RHP Koji Uehara, LHP Andrew Miller, LF Jonny Gomes and/or C David Ross. And there is still enough time between now and July 31 to see if there a reason to keep all the veterans. With two weeks before the deadline, and with August still there to make deals — remember the 2012 trade with the Dodgers that saved the Red Sox’s immediate future? — the Red Sox have time to determine if they remain in contention. Unlike 2012, though, there really is no big chip to sell off, unless they are out of it and contract talks with Lester are still stuck in the mud.
INJURY STATUS: With RF Shane Victorino apparently ready to return right after the All-Star break, the Red Sox are healthy — at least in terms of vital cogs. Victorino landed on the disabled list in late May due to a right hamstring strain, and his rehab was slowed because of a slipped lower-back disk. 3B Will Middlebrooks (finger) is on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Pawtucket, but he might be optioned to the minors rather than be activated to the major league roster.
TOP PROSPECT: LHP Henry Owens is 12-3 with a 2.21 ERA through 17 starts for Double-A Portland, and he earned the start for the U.S. team in the Futures Game in Minneapolis. However, it is hard to picture him getting a real shot in Boston before the end of the season, though his stint at Double-A wasn’t supposed to last long. SS Deven Marrero is a comer, but the parent club appears stacked at that position.