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Friday, July 13, 2012

Reasons to stay positive about the Red Sox -- for now

Ellsbury is back -- but is it too late?

If you have been listening to sports talk radio in Boston during the past four days, you know that fans and media pundits have all but thrown in their Morgan Magic towels on the 2012 Red Sox season.

They believe Ben Cherington should trade Josh Beckett or Jon Lester to break up the dysfunctional, disappointing pitching staff, bring in more young kids and start playing for next season. Bobby Valentine should be shown the door at year's end as well, unless he somehow steers this miserable ship into the postseason.

But as much as there is reason for fans to be frustrated, there are still 76 more games to play—and a lot of big changes on the horizon for the team. There are also several very plausible scenarios that could work out in Boston's favor. Call me a 100th-anniversary-toast-cup-full kind of guy, but I'm not ready to give up just yet.

Why should Red Sox fans stay positive? Here are a few reasons:

Boston fans hope Jacoby has plenty to smile about.

After missing almost the entire season with a shoulder injury suffered on April 13, Gold Glove outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury is expected to be in the Boston lineup for tonight's game against the Rays. The 2011 AL MVP runner-up had a 30-30 season last year and was one of the few Red Sox players not to wilt in September.

While it can't be expected that Ellsbury returns to his 2011 form immediately, he should immediately give the team a boost offensively and defensively. And if he takes a while getting into form, Valentine has Daniel Nava—who filled in very admirably in Ellsbury's absence—to step in when needed.

Like Nava, who was not even invited to spring training, Will Middlebrooks has given the Red Sox far more than they ever expected in his first season. His hustle, steady defense and production—10 homers and 37 RBI in just 48 games—prompted management to trade incumbent third baseman Kevin Youkilis and hand his job to the rookie.

Middlebrooks has perfected the Youk glare.

A sore hamstring has kept Middlebrooks on the shelf for the last seven games, but he's back tonight as well. Even if he can't keep up his .298 batting average, he's a big upgrade at third from Nick Punto, a .212 hitter with just eight RBI in 49 games.

On the surface, the 2012 season has been a disaster for Boston's top three starters. The team is just 12-20 in games started by Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz has been on the disabled list since June 24 with a gastrointestinal bleed.

Forget about the wings -- just win.

But things may not be as dismal as they seem. Buchholz was 4-0 with a 2.40 ERA in four June starts before his illness kicked in, and since it was a non-pitching-related injury, there is good reason to believe he'll return to that form. He looked strong in a rehab appearance for Pawtucket, and is slated to start Sunday's game against the Rays.

Beckett and Lester have been major disappointments, no doubt about it. Watching each of them get shelled in the first inning in their starts against the Yankees was maddening to Boston fans. But before sending one or both of them out of town, management should show a little more patience.

Throw out the New York outing, and Beckett had been pitching much better of late—with a 3.80 ERA in eight starts during May and June. And while Lester is just 5-6, his strikeout-walk ratio and WHIP are not too far off his terrific career averages. 

There is still time for both these guys to turn things around.

Dustin Pedroia is small in stature but huge on guts. He played weeks with a thumb injury that resulted in one of the worst slumps of his career, before finally relenting and going on the disabled list.

David Ortiz and Co. can't wait for Petey's return.

He's expected back for the Toronto series starting July 20, and since his cast came off a week earlier than originally anticipated, chances are the injury was less serious than initially feared.

Everybody in baseball knows that Pedroia is not a .266 hitter. He won't be the rest of the season.

Before fans write off Carl Crawford as the worst free agent signing in Red Sox history, they should give the guy another chance to show what he can do.

Carl Crawford has something to prove.

He was a Gold Glove outfielder and a Silver Bat hitter in Florida, and at age 30 should still be in his prime. His first year in Boston was a dud, for sure, but we all know what the Boston pressure can do to players—especially those coming from places like Tampa Bay, where baseball is not religion.

Crawford has a reputation as a hard-working, smart, determined athlete. Surely missing this entire season with a succession of injuries has been difficult for him, and now that he knows how tough things can get in Boston, he won't be surprised the second time around.

Fan expectations are down. That might be just what Crawford—and the rest of the Red Sox—need to turn things around.

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