Fit Club: I am Red Sox Nation's Unwavering Optimism

"Only after disaster can we be resurrected."

‘Disaster’ is a more-than-sufficient descriptive analysis of the patchwork lineup -- albeit one necessitated via injury-induced depletion -- seemingly featured by the Red Sox on a nightly basis this season. And yet, despite being robbed of a victory late Tuesday night in Oakland due to faulty late-inning officiating, Boston finds themselves just 3.5 games back of the Wild Card lead in the increasingly-treacherous American League.

Whether that speaks on behalf of Boston’s ability to have trod water to this point or conjures a relative sense of optimism regarding the proceedings will be heavily dependent on the health of the team from this point on -- which, as this article’s title indicates, should doubtlessly disqualify the latter.

Or should it?

While a barrage of A-list reinforcements tentatively scheduled for reactivation from the disabled list aids topical optimism, this year is beginning to appear eerily mnemonic of the Red Sox’s 2006 season; the last in which Boston failed to participate in the postseason.

That being said, exactly what type of results can be expected following the eventual returns of Josh Beckett, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jed Lowrie, Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez, Clay Buchholz, Jason Varitek, Mike Lowell and Jeremy Hermida -- all of whom have, or are expected to, miss significant time while on the disabled list?

More importantly, will those contributions be enough to elude missing the playoffs, much like in 2006, for the first time in four years?

In most instances, it’s a safe assumption that after having played nearly one-hundred games during the course of the regular season one can accurately evaluate any given team’s postseason potential.

Given Boston’s position in the playoff picture at the moment (53-41; 6 and 3.5 games back in the A.L. East and Wild Card, respectively), it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to find even a few Bostonians who are of the opinion that their hometown Red Sox are destined to experience October baseball from the comfort of their own homes, just like the rest of us -- especially considering the competitiveness currently on display in the American League.

However, as the old adage regarding the result of one’s assumptions suggests, there can certainly be exceptions to the rule.

Just take a look back at the 2007 Colorado Rockies, who stood 5.5 games back with a record of 45-45 following a one-run loss on the road in ten innings against the Brewers in mid-July. Colorado would go on to win 45 of their remaining 73 games -- including a one-game playoff tie-breaker against the Padres -- propelling them into the postseason, and ultimately, the World Series.

Tuesday night, the Red Sox, in a similar fashion to the fate suffered by Colorado that July night in Milwaukee, dropped game two of a crucial road series by a margin of one run in ten innings after winning the first matchup and leading throughout a good portion of the second.

The similarities don’t end there.

At this point, almost exactly three years ago in that 2007 dream season, the Rockies also found themselves in a bout with the ‘injury bug.’

Closer Brian Fuentes, amidst some uncharacteristic underperforming, was sent to the disabled list with a strained lat muscle following blown saves in four consecutive appearances -- ballooning his ERA from 1.89 to 3.79 in a matter of just 2.3 innings pitched. Despite amassing 81 saves and earning three All-Star Game appearances in as many years from 2005-2007 for the Rockies, Fuentes would never save a game from that point on in 2007, surrendering his closer role to then up and coming 24 year-old Manny Corpas.

In Corpas’ first full season in the big leagues, he went 2-0 with 19 saves in 20 chances following Fuentes’ injury, including perhaps the most important save of his career in the final game of the regular season which sent his team to the postseason. In that postseason, Corpas went 1-0 with a 0.87 ERA (10.3 IP, 1 ER) while recording five saves and appearing in every single one of Colorado’s first seven playoff games [all wins] during their memorable run to the World Series.

Attention: Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard.

Also that year, in spite of season ending trips to the disabled list for starting pitchers Rodrigo Lopez, Jason Hirsh and Aaron Cook in early August, Rockies’ management was content enough with the product on the field to avoid any mid-season marquee acquisitions. Instead, they entered the final two months of the season without a large portion of their starting rotation and 3.5 games out of the playoffs.

The Red Sox, according to near-unanimous reports, also appear content with the core of their roster -- once solidified -- and will assuredly avoid any notable trade-deadline splashes. That, like the Rockies, comes despite an oft-injured and constantly irregular starting rotation, among other areas of the depth chart.

The thinking is seemingly not that Boston is cursed health-wise this season -- requiring pursuit of an available impact player at the cost of whatever internal resources it may solicit -- but instead that the team will eventually crystallize in time for a run at, and hopefully through, the postseason.

Unfortunately, this is a similar mind state to that conceived by the front office during the dismal downfall of the 2006 season.

Whether it’s in the best interest of the team to make a move for some help before the end of the July 31st non-waiver trade-deadline isn’t the point; it’s the overall correspondence between the 2006 and 2010 seasons that creates cause for concern.

Identically to this season, the Red Sox entered opening day with postseason aspirations in 2006 for what would have been the fourth consecutive year.

For comparative purposes, after ninety-four games this season the Red Sox stand at 54-41, six games behind the division leading Yankees; in 2006 Boston was 58-36 and holding strong in first place with a 2.5 game lead.

That year, atypically, the team was held in higher regard for their defensive prowess rather than their offense. Sound familiar? In what was certainly the most impressive overall team defensive performance sustained for an entire season in organizational history -- even making a strong case for the best in the history of baseball, period -- Boston set the record for highest team fielding percentage in MLB history [.98910].

However, the team was marred by injuries to key components such as Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon and Tim Wakefield, eventually finishing the stretch run with a 28-40 record, missing the playoffs and spoiling historic seasons from David Ortiz (franchise record 54 home runs) and, then rookie reliever, Jonathan Papelbon (35 saves, 0.92 ERA, 0.78 WHIP).

So, which of the above instances will the end of 2010 most resemble? Could it be the perseverance and prosperity of the Rockies’ majestic 2007 run? Or will it mirror that of the ‘06 Red Sox season, which was overshadowed by ultimate implosion?

At this point, it remains anyone’s guess. However, as previously stated, health will end up being the focal factor in retrospect -- whether fans gaze back gleefully or while grimacing.

Now, contradictory to what you may have heard, all men are not created equal, and thus, not all of the eventual Red Sox returnees will have the same impact or are of equal importance in the grand scheme of things.

Obviously players like Dustin Pedroia and Clay Buchholz are considered instrumental to the team‘s success, that goes without saying, but Buchholz isn’t far removed from being game ready and Pedroia works harder than most individuals on the active roster right now despite an incapacitated left leg -- we know what we stand to gain from their returns.

Instead, we focus on a select three in particular, outside of Pedroia and Buchholz, that may represent greater return than the rest: Jacoby Ellsbury, Jed Lowrie and Josh Beckett.

Forget Ellsbury’s spat with team physicians, his decision to conduct his more-extensive-than-originally-planned rehab separate from the rest of the team and even his now supposedly questionable toughness. What’s really of issue is what his return means to a lineup that, even when graced with his presence, lacks a real element of speed.

Marco Scutaro has done a truly commendable job filling in at the top of the order for Ellsbury (.282), the slot in which he thrived in last season with Toronto. However, there’s no denying the difference in an opponent’s strategy and state of mind with Ellsbury standing on first as opposed to Scutaro. Not to mention the defensive lift Ellsbury creates by giving Mike Cameron some sorely needed time off without having to settle on the likes of Bill Hall or Daniel Nava to man the outfield.

If Ellsbury can come back and be as effective as he was in 2009, his return will be invaluable to Boston in every facet of the game. One may argue that his potential impact could almost be considered a second coming of what he provided for the team back in late-2007.

Next, after Ellsbury, may be the most unexpected of the three; that may also be a main reason for singling him out.

Jed Lowrie has missed not only the entire 2010 season so far, but nearly all of last year as well, following a left wrist injury in 2008, subsequent surgery in 2009 and finally a diagnosis of mononucleosis this year midway through Spring Training.

While it may be that the Red Sox are set at shortstop -- Lowrie’s traditional position -- with the off-season addition of Scutaro, his recovery represents more than simply that of your typical reserve shortstop. In ten games between Class A Lowell and Triple-A Pawtucket, Lowrie went 11-30 (.367) with five extra base hits, nine runs batted in and six walks. "The first time I went out and played and felt healthy -- it was a good feeling," Lowrie said. "It was almost a foreign feeling to feel healthy."

If that foreign feeling becomes more fluent for Lowrie, his ability to switch-hit and play multiple infield positions could be an enormous lift for Boston’s bench depth and late-game situational options. Again, any time that appearances normally relegated to Bill Hall get dispersed elsewhere will be a welcome sight come playoff time -- especially when they’re going to someone as versatile as Lowrie has the potential to be.

The final selection is perhaps the most obvious of the three but remains the most important, nevertheless.

Ace pitcher Josh Beckett’s services have been absent for what seems like the entirety of 2010 to this point. Josh has made just eight starts this season and none since May 18th; he is set to return this Friday for a start on the road against the Mariners. Beckett is the single most important piece of the puzzle currently missing.

Although minor league rehab starts are never quite fully revealing of a player’s progression to the untrained eye, it doesn’t take 20/20 vision to see that Beckett’s two outings weren’t exactly visually appeasing. In two starts with Triple-A Pawtucket, Beckett allowed four runs on seven hits, while striking out seven in his nine combined innings.

Again, ignoring the fact that Beckett, like all rehabbing pitchers, was ultimately working on general pitch location and not so much the specifics, his numbers don’t necessarily reflect as stellar -- which is precisely what Boston needs them to be.

The Red Sox are at a point where even just a week or two of poor play can put them in a position of great imposition. What traditionally makes for the best defense against extended losing streaks is a reliable starting pitcher to act as stopper. There’s no question that Beckett can be that guy for Boston; his track-record does nothing but reaffirm it.

The questions is: Will he be? Does he have enough time to again get acclimated to the pressures and demands of a playoff push? The smart money is on ‘yes,’ with a great deal of the reasoning belonging to one man’s efforts in particular.

This season, Tim Wakefield has done what he’s always done during the course of his career in Boston -- that being whatever they ask him to do -- but at this point in his career he may be best suited for the occasional spot start and long relief duty. Substituting his production with what Beckett is capable of offering would only make the starting rotation that much more imposing and the overall depth of the pitching staff increasingly formidable. There’s no belittling the direct impact Wakefield had on Josh’s recovery; his ability to temporarily fill the spot vacated by Beckett’s disabled list stint afforded the team ample time to carefully guide him back to full health -- something that should pay off tenfold down the road.

All things considered, it appears that the worst days are behind the Red Sox. As health increases and the disabled list becomes less crowded, the likelihood of this year’s installment of Red Sox baseball ending in a similar fashion to that of 2006 -- after just 162 total games -- significantly decreases.

Thanks to unsung heroes such as Darnell McDonald, Daniel Nava -- and earlier in the season, Jeremy Hermida -- the Red Sox’s returning regulars will come back with an obtainable opportunity to reach out and secure a spot in the postseason.

And I think we can all agree that 2007 was accompanied by a more enjoyable conclusion than the season that preceded it.

 

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