All anyone can ask is that the Red Sox play hard. That they care. That they swing the bats like they want to hit. That they don’t give up.
That’s all we’ve ever wanted this season. As long as the team played hard, and was accountable when they lose, we could be disappointed, but not angry.
It’s June 22, and after winning five games in a row, there are finally some players on the team that are doing just that, probably because they’re so young and inexperienced that it’s the only way they know how to play. It’s working, and with 17 games left before the All-Star break the Red Sox are actually in a position to go into the second half of the season in contention. I still haven’t changed my opinion on what I said last week – I don’t think this team is going anywhere. But I’d like to be wrong.
And over the last week, the Sox have started to prove me wrong with an injection of youth and talent into the lineup that has helped them catch fire. While the pitching still hasn’t been great, Jarrod Saltalamacchia has picked up the pace again, David Ortiz has been wildly productive and that youth – Daniel Nava (who I still think sucks, but he just keeps hitting), Ryan Kalish and Will Middlebrooks – has been the difference between winning and losing.
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On Thursday night, all three of those guys helped the Red Sox in one way or another as they enjoyed a three-run eighth inning and came back from a two-run deficit to sweep the Marlins. Middlebrooks hit a two-run home run, Kalish singled and then went from first-to-third on an infield groundout before Nava brought him home with a groundout of his own.
Prior to winning that game, the Sox hadn’t swept a three-game series since April! The writing is on the wall, no?
These guys want to play. They like to play. And they’re playing hard. Connect the dots.
They need to be in the lineup every single day – especially Middlebrooks – with no exceptions. It’s not like there is anybody out there that reasonably should be stealing playing time away from them anyway. If Nava and Kalish play every day in the outfield, that still leaves room to play one player out of the dynamic Cody Ross-Darnell McDonald duo ever single day. Seems doable to me, and it should seem doable to Bobby Valentine, Ben CHerington, Larry Lucchino, John Henry, Tom Werner, Wally the Green Monster, Jeremy Kapstein, Dennis Drinkwater, Mike O’Malley or whoever the hell is actually calling the shots.
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Let them play.
The more egregious issue, though, is the lack of playing time for Middlebrooks and the ridiculous lengths the team goes through for Kevin Youkilis. Middlebrooks didn’t start in three of the team’s last nine games, or one-third, which is entirely unacceptable. All he’s done this season in 136 at-bats is hit at a .316 clip with eight home runs and 31 RBI. He’s been one of the team’s best hitters, and he’s played about half the games as the regulars. He’s hit more home runs than Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia and Youkilis, driven in more runs than Pedroia and only four less than Gonzalez and his OPS is behind only Ortiz’s and Nava’s.
He’s been awesome when he’s been on the field. Yet, not only do the Red Sox juggle around his playing time like they’re desperate to stunt his development, they refuse to do the same with Youkilis, who looks out-of-sorts at the plate that his at-bats are almost uncomfortable.
Did you know Youk’s OPS is .670? He’s hitting .225, but the Sox have still had him in the lineup for 23 of the 27 games the team has played since he came off the disabled list. That has not only cost Middlebrooks at-bats, but it’s forced Gonzalez to play consistently in right field, which can’t be helping him one bit as he tries to get out of his ridiculous season-long slump.
But, stubborn as ever, the Sox feel like they have to play Youkilis to get his “trade value” up. I’m no GM, but even I can see that the guy is completely washed up. He flat out can’t hit. Even if he catches fire for a week, what team’s GM does Cherington think is dumb enough to all of a sudden say, “You know what? That Youkilis guy hit .410 last week. Let’s make an offer.” Nope. Not happening.
In fact, the Sox are better off leaving Youkilis on the bench at this point to not only help the team, but to help his trade value. The more times he gets up there and foul tips a ball into the catcher’s glove for strike three, looks back at the catcher to make sure he caught it, then snaps his bat, the less likely it is that anybody is going to make a play for him. If he’s on the bench, he’s at least a little mysterious.
Maybe he could be productive as an everyday player in the National League. Maybe he could be a useful pinch-hitter in a pennant race. That’s the only hope – teams think back to the way Youkilis was, don’t have any recent evidence to get a different feel, and think they’re still trading for a productive. Even that’s a long shot.
But when he’s on the field, playing like this and sulking in the dugout afterwards, it’s almost an insult to other teams to expect his trade value to suddenly change. It’s low, and it’s going to stay low.
So sit Youk. Let Gonzalez play first, let Middlebrooks play third, and let the lineup reach its maximum potential. If Gonzalez still can’t hit well, sorry, they’re locked in there for a while. But if they are worried about him hitting, doesn’t it make sense to play him at first base so he can be comfortable? Christ, you invested $160 million in him. Stop jumping through hoops for Youkilis and jeopardizing the production of a guy who is supposed to be your most productive hitter. It doesn’t make sense.
At the end of the day, though, it all comes back to Middlebrooks and the youth movement. The team is playing better when its lineup is patched together with the kids, the Nava’s, Middlebrooks’ and Kalish’s. They care about winning and losing, and they play like the game actually matters to them.
As we’ve seen, that translates into wins. When Crawford and Ellsbury come back – which I’ll believe is actually happening when I see it – then maybe you shake things up.
Until then? Keep the young guys in the games, and see if it keeps translating to wins. Why not? It’s not like anything else has worked, and Nava is hitting at a .340 clip and carrying himself like he’s Joe DiMaggio.
The Sox are out of the basement in the AL East. They’re three games over .500. They’ve won five straight. They’re only two games back in the Wild Card race. They have an easy schedule over the next 13 games, and could amazingly find themselves near the top of the American League with a strong finish to the first half. They’ll get a nice measuring-stick series headed into the all-star break with a four-game set at home against the Yankees. At least let this idea, this injection of caring, continue until then.
If the Kalish-Nava-Middlebrooks attack isn’t working out any more, at that point, then scrap it. But it’s working now, and the team is winning.
That’s a hell of a lot more than we can say for any other so-called recipe for success the Sox have come up with so far this year.