Marcus Hayes: Boston evolving, on the rise

Posted: May 18, 2012

BOSTON - Boston should be burning.

The Patriots cannot win the Big One, the Bruins got dumped in the first round and the Celtics are a series from being dismantled.

None of which matters, because the Red Sox stink.

Or stunk.

This weekend, the Sox visit Philadelphia, lately Boston's mirror city, scratching to reach .500, desperate to keep sight of the rest of the American League East, crippled by injury.

Sure looks like Tito and the Genius knew what they were doing.

Terry Francona turned talking head and gave the steering wheel to Bobby Valentine. Theo Epstein disapperrated to rid the Cubs of their curse. With two World Series rings and the lifelong adulation of baseball's most devoted region, with the stench of stale beer and rotting chicken in their nostrils, they scurried over the side of the ship after last season's embarrassing end. It seemed to end an era.

It might have just turned a page.

The Sox were 1-8 in May before they hit bottom with a debacle crafted May 10 by eccentric Josh Beckett. A poster child for the Sox' functional dysfunction - he allegedly was part of the beer-and-chicken fiasco last season - Beckett had skipped his previous start to back soreness but was busted playing golf while he was supposed to be healing.

Low point.

Then they won five straight. Beckett even rebounded with seven shutout innings against the Mariners on Tuesday. So, a 2-1 loss Wednesday in Tampa was easier to swallow.

A core of long-suffering veterans, both in-house and imported, kept the USS Valentine afloat.

"In this clubhouse, we've had things come up. It's all magnified here. It's like Philadelphia, but the media attention is greater than anywhere in the game," said utility infielder Nick Punto, who broke in with the Phillies (2001-03). "There is an unbelievable backbone here. The 25 guys here have amazing character. We just haven't performed up to our physical capabilities yet."

Well, that's partly true.

The Red Sox entered their game Thursday night in Tampa as the league's No. 2 offensive club.

David Ortiz, slimmed and focused on earning a multiyear deal, could make another MVP run. Adrian Gonzalez is coming off perhaps the best all-around season of his career, though, in typical Red Sox fashion, he has chosen to blame his slow start on shoddy umpiring. Ryan Sweeney has been a revelation in rightfield, Dustin Pedroia remains outstanding and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia finally seems on track.

Top prospect Will Middlebrooks has proved a capable replacement for injured third baseman Kevin Youkilis, whose back is mending nicely enough to maybe make him trade bait if Middlebrooks stays hot.

Because of the veteran presences, little pressure is put on Middlebrooks or Daniel Nava, one of the current replacements for Carl Crawford, whose elbow could keep him out for another 2 months.

"Daniel and Brooksie have just taken hold of the game," Valentine said. "They give us extra [offensive] innings. We're not just sending guys up there. We're sending guys who are a threat."

"Anyone here could be the answer," said Middlebrooks, who is unaffected by the maelstrom of weirdness that always defines the Red Sox. "I just try to keep it as simple as I can."

"With so many unbelievable players around this clubhouse, those guys can come in and just be a piece," Punto said.

Among those players are Cody Ross, a champion with the Giants, and former Phillies rookie standout Marlon Byrd, acquired via trade with the Cubs to replace injured centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. Byrd entered Thursday night hitting .284.

"This is a team," said Byrd, "that can run off 10 wins in a row at any time."

Because the hitters are hitting.

The pitching, on the other hand, had been abysmal.

The Sox led only the disastrous Twins in team earned run average. The third-worst staff, in Kansas City, was a half-run better than Boston.

This issue can be traced, in part, to injury and to emigration.

Stud closer Jonathan Papelbon, a free agent after last season, became the richest reliever in history when he took his talents to South Philly.

The Sox hoped to replace Papelbon with Andrew Bailey, but Bailey was lost indefinitely to thumb surgery coming out of spring training and upset the bullpen plans. That added him to hangover elbow injuries to starters Daisuke Matsuzaka, who should return this season, and free-agent bust and chronic headache John Lackey, who will not (Tommy John surgery).

None of that explains or excuses shoddy starts from Beckett, Jon Lester or Clay Buchholz - all of whom are pitching more effectively.

Still, sometimes, they cannot even deliver the ball without incident. In Buchholz' start Wednesday, the Sox committed three balks in their loss to Tampa.

The bullpen seems to have settled, surprisingly thanks to the efforts of emergency closer Alfredo Aceves and, of all people, former Phillies enigma Vicente Padilla.

"We know that Carl Crawford and Dice-K and Jacoby Ells are great players. We can't worry about them," Punto said.

They're not worrying about anything, really. That is the essence of the Sox.

If Roy Halladay had pulled a Beckett and had gone golfing after he'd missed a start, he would fine himself.

Charlie Manuel now works in a town suffering from hockey disappointment, from football dissatisfaction and basketball uncertainty, and he manages a ballclub in a similar situation. Without sluggers Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, among other injury issues, the Phillies have scrambled to attain mediocrity in their league's best division. They remain more professional, more accountable.

Valentine inherited something different from Francona, who largely let the inmates run his asylum. Even when it meant serving poultry and pilsner during games.

Valentine realizes that the only way to realize value from a Beckett or, say, a Padilla, is to let them be themselves. They have always been unwilling to conform, and they are much too old to change.

Shoot, next time, Bobby V might even join Beckett on the links.

As his caddy.


Contact Marcus Hayes at hayesm@phillynews.com

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