Despite early bumps, Boston making its move
Pedroia, Ortiz lead charge back toward top of balanced American League East
The Boston Red Sox are a mere six games out of first place in the American League East, and how about we chew on that one for a bit? All things considered, it's a pretty remarkable place to be.
In other words, they're lurking on the edge. If you haven't noticed them yet, here's betting the Blue Jays, Orioles, etc., have.
Want to bet against Dustin Pedroia? That's what I thought you'd say. Do the Red Sox still have some work to do? You bet. A lot. As manager John Farrell said, "Every series is critical for us."
Still, after all the changes and all the injuries, after all the slumps and starts and stops, the defending World Series champions are very much alive. If a six-game deficit sounds like a lot, it was 10 just three weeks ago.
There's just too much to like about this baseball team. First, that core of players we admired so much last October is mostly intact. David Ortiz and Pedroia are still here, still productive. So are Jon Lester and John Lackey and Mike Napoli and others.
In a division race that's as blurry as it's been, there's no reason to think that Boston won't be in the middle of things in September.
Yes, everything has been difficult this season. Unlike like last year's magical ride, these Red Sox have to confront another problem seemingly every day or two.
Shane Victorino has spent 57 games on the disabled list and isn't returning any time soon. Will Middlebrooks, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront and Napoli have all missed chunks of time.
Plenty of players have been unable to match last season's numbers. And the rookies who've been called upon -- especially Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts -- have had the usual ups and downs.
As a result, Farrell has tried almost everything. He has started eight players in right field, six at first base and five at both third and in left. Farrell has had five leadoff hitters and five No. 3 hitters.
Pedroia has hit first, second and third at various times. Daniel Nava has hit in seven of nine spots. After leading the big leagues in runs last season, Boston is 26th this year.
The thing is, the Red Sox knew they had a season in which everything clicked in 2013. They spent 164 days in first place and were never more than a half-game out after June 1.
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington knew this season almost certainly would not be like last. He also believed the overall depth of his farm system might carry the club, and that may end up being the case.
Rookie Brock Holt has been a godsend, hitting .321 and starting games at third base and all three outfield spots. Bradley and Bogaerts have both shown flashes of being special players, even amid their ups and downs.
And there's outfielder Mookie Betts. He's 21 years old, one of the crown jewels of Boston's farm system. Betts is a high-energy player, a line-drive hitter who can steal bases, ignite rallies and energize a club.
Betts made his big league debut on Sunday night and contributed a walk and a hit in an 8-5 victory over the Yankees. The Red Sox have cautioned fans that Betts will not be the savior, but on a club searching for a spark and a good, long run of consistency, he could help.
So could the schedule. After playing 19 of 26 on the road, the Red Sox begin a 10-game homestand on Monday against the Cubs, and they'll play 13 of their next 16 at Fenway. If they fall farther behind the first-place Blue Jays during these 16 games, it might be time to reconsider our expectations for the defending champions.
But Pedroia is hitting .359 in his last 10 games, and Ortiz still has the gift to deliver what his team needs when it most needs it. With Napoli having hit .319 this month and the four rookies providing a spark and a surplus of quality starting pitching on hand, the Red Sox seem capable of sprinting back into contention.
In a lot of ways, this has been Farrell's finest hour in Boston, the season in which he has shown the world how good he is. After a year in which everything seemed easy -- it wasn't, but that's another story -- Farrell has been a rock of consistency in a difficult season.
Farrell is incredibly consistent and upbeat. In terms of building relationships in his clubhouse, managing a bullpen and running a game, there are few managers better.
When the Red Sox shifted directions late in the 2012 season by trading away Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford, they said they would be a different kind of organization.
They would rely on player development, they would be patient with their young guys and they would do everything with the big picture in mind -- that is, winning now but doing what has to be done to win in the future as well.
No GM has done better than Cherington the last two years, and in a first half that has tested that patience, the Red Sox have passed with flying colors. And after 82 games, despite everything, they've positioned themselves to make a nice run. It would be a mistake to overlook them.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.