Sox champing at the bit to get started

Sox champing at the bit to get started

BOSTON -- They started the season with a target on their backs, and they arrived at the All-Star break a little worn from their experiences.

Still, despite all the injuries to key players and the ongoing road woes, the Red Sox will spend their mini-vacation leading the Tampa Bay Rays by a half-game in the American League East.

It has been anything but easy. In their quest to become baseball's first repeat champions since the Yankees' three-peat performance of 1998-2000, the Red Sox are getting another reminder of how tough it is to duplicate such a grueling feat.


For whatever reason, the team that is coming off the World Series championship never seems to have it easy the next season.

The combination of teams coming at the Red Sox with playoff intensity every night and injuries seemingly cropping up everywhere have made it a grind for manager Terry Francona's club.

But if the Red Sox have established one trait throughout the first half, it has been their ability to thrive despite adversity. If the Red Sox maintain their pace, they will qualify for the postseason for the fifth time in the past six seasons.

"We're in a good position," said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek. "I don't believe this team has hit a really good stride yet. We've had to mix and put a lot of pieces together. We do miss the big man in our lineup."

The big man, of course, is affable left-handed slugger David Ortiz, who suffered a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist on May 31. Ortiz hopes to return to the lineup shortly after the All-Star break.

Battle-tested Curt Schilling never did join the 2008 Red Sox, as he couldn't make it back from right shoulder and biceps woes. Daisuke Matsuzaka served a stint on the disabled list, as did third baseman Mike Lowell.

There is a feeling within the clubhouse that the Red Sox are due for a second-half breakout.

"We haven't been playing that great of ball, and we're still in a great situation," said Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis. "People are going to say this and that about our team, but we've had some injuries, we've had some definite ups and downs and little spells here and there, but we're playing pretty good ball. It's a tough division we're in, but we just have to keep battling, and in the second half, we play a lot of the division."

Does a team feel more pressure when it's the defending champs?

"A little bit, probably," Francona said. "I think that's fair to say. You go into a place and again, it was last year, but every place we go, it seems like everyone says it's a playoff atmosphere. I think that's how we feel every day. The good part of that is there's a reason. The other tough thing is that you have to be ready to answer it every day, and I mean on the field. We need to bounce back. It's unrealistic that you're going to go through a year not having ups and downs. The downs aren't very much fun. How you handle that, that's the really important thing."

RED SOX TOP PERFORMANCES
4/29, BOS 1, TOR 0 -- Pedroia saves Boston
Dustin Pedroia snags an apparent go-ahead single up the middle to end the ninth.
Highlights: Watch
5/14, BOS 3, BAL 6 -- Manny's high-five
Manny Ramirez snares a line drive in left, high-fives a fan and then doubles up a runner.
Highlights: Watch
5/19, BOS 7, KC 0 -- Lester's no-no
Jon Lester hurls the 18th no-hitter in Red Sox history.
Highlights: Watch
5/31, BOS 6, BAL 3 -- Manny belts No. 500
Manny Ramirez hits career homer No. 500 off reliever Chad Bradford in Baltimore.
Highlights: Watch
6/5, BOS 7, TB 1 -- Fenway fracas
Tempers flare between the Rays and the Red Sox as Coco Crisp reacts to being hit by a pitch.
Highlights: Watch

One thing the Red Sox know they have to improve in the second half is their performance on the road. Though it remained a Fenway Park force, Boston went 21-29 on the road in the first half.

But this isn't a team that will spend the All-Star break dwelling on that. Instead, it will go to Anaheim and Seattle for six games and try to reverse that trend.

"I don't think anyone is discouraged," Youkilis said. "I think everyone is excited. Coming in every day, everyone tries to do their job and get better and move on and try to get better from the day before. We never have the mind-set of pressing or trying to win three games in a row. We're just trying to win the game at hand. A lot of the guys in here have played the game for a while, and some of the younger guys have had the opportunity to learn from veteran guys and how they go about their business. We'll be fine."

One thing that bodes well for the Red Sox the rest of the way is their starting pitching depth. Ace Josh Beckett had a modest first half, which means he could be due for a monster finish.

Left-hander Jon Lester has grown by leaps and bounds and has proven to be the most consistent starter on the staff. Despite his control issues, Matsuzaka has been among the league leaders in wins, ERA and opponents' batting average all year. Tim Wakefield is Tim Wakefield. All the knuckleballer does is give Boston a chance to win just about every game he pitches. The fifth spot has been shared ably by Justin Masterson, Bartolo Colon and Clay Buchholz.

It would seem that Boston's main need in the second half is improved health.

"It's been different," said Lowell. "It seems like we've kind of had to piece it together a little bit more, especially more than last year. I think that's what's great though. You hope you're healthy every year, but we're still competing and still have a chance to do some real good things this year. There's still a lot of games left. Hopefully, we can get our guys back and can be more into that routine that we're used to."

The pressure of the pennant race certainly won't faze the Sox, who have played in as many big games as anyone the past few years.

"I think we have some things to look forward to in the second half," said Varitek.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.