The Boston Red Sox came into town Wednesday two games under .500 and in last place in the American League East. They have been decimated by injuries. Their new manager, Bobby Valentine, is taking a pounding from fans, the media and even some of his players. Ace Josh Beckett has become known more for drinking beer, eating fried chicken and playing golf than pitching. And former Rays star Carl Crawford has become a $142 million bust. You get the feeling this team is one more pothole from blowing out a tire and heading over the cliff. But hold on. This team is still a threat in the East. Here are five reasons not to count out the Red Sox.
They're about to get healthier
The Red Sox are managing to tread water even though they are without several key players, including Carl Crawford, Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury. Crawford might be out a while, but Youkilis (back strain) is close to returning and Ellsbury (shoulder) is on pace to return by mid June. That's adding two MVP-quality players to the lineup.
They're still loaded with stars
Much of the reason to doubt the Red Sox is due to last season's epic collapse in September. But from May through August, Boston looked as good as any team. And it still took that colossal gag job and an unreal chain of events on the last night of the season for the Rays to sneak past the Red Sox into the playoffs. Much of Boston's talent remains. The Sox's No. 2, 3 and 4 hitters in the lineup Wednesday night are as good as any 2-3-4 hitters in baseball with David Ortiz, top right (.353, 8 HR, 27 RBIs), Dustin Pedroia, bottom (.311, 5, 18) and Adrian Gonzalez (.287, 2, 20). When Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis return, the lineup remains deep, scary and certainly good enough to win any division.
Their pitching can be superb
If Josh Beckett, top left, can pitch like he did Tuesday (seven innings, no runs, four hits, nine strikeouts), the top half of the rotation remains solid. For as much flak as Beckett has taken, let's not forget he remains one of baseball's best pitchers when healthy and motivated. Jon Lester, center, who has averaged 16 wins over the past four seasons, is as nasty as any lefty in the majors. Clay Buchholz, who came into Wednesday night's start against the Rays with a 4-1 record, can easily be the 17-game winner he was two seasons ago.
They can play defense
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of any contender is its ability to catch and throw the ball, and the Red Sox do that as well as anyone. They committed only 15 errors in the first 36 games. (The Rays had 32 in their first 37.) Boston's .989 fielding percentage is tied for the second best in the AL. When CF Jacoby Ellsbury returns, he joins 1B Adrian Gonzalez and 2B Dustin Pedroia as current Gold Glove owners.
They have money
The team you are seeing in this series is not necessarily the team you will see later in the summer. If the Red Sox need to plug a hole, they can trade for one. If they need to replace an injured star, they have the checkbook to get another star. If they need help in the bullpen or the middle of the order or the back end of the rotation, they have the means to do so. In other words, the Red Sox are not going to go down quietly. When the Rays and Red Sox meet six times in late September, don't be surprised if the AL East is on the line.
tom jones' two cents