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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Drama aside, Red Sox should be contenders

Justice: Drama aside, Red Sox should contend

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Drama aside, Red Sox should be contenders

MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

In those first tough days, there must have been times when Bobby Valentine wanted to ...

What?

A. Scream.

B. Quit.

C. Twist and shout.

There's no madness like the madness that surrounds the Red Sox in tough times. Every bad thing is connected to every other bad thing.

The thing that's really strange is that fans buy into the narrative. In some weird way, Andrew Bailey, Jacoby Ellsbury, John Lackey and Carl Crawford being injured has to be connected to Babe Ruth and Bucky Dent and all the other weirdness that has haunted this franchise.

Never mind that the Red Sox have been one of baseball's best-run franchises the past decade. They've made the playoffs six times and won the World Series twice. The Cardinals are the only other team with two championships the past 10 years, so the Red Sox were doing a couple of things right.

But when things go south, they go south in a spectacular way. The Red Sox don't just have a September meltdown. They have one that leads to people losing their jobs and players having their character questioned.

For the record, some of those starting pitchers were playing video games and drinking cold ones during games when the Red Sox appeared to be baseball's best team.

Last season's 5-16 finish was still fresh in a lot of people's minds when the Red Sox opened this season by losing five of six at home. If you're keeping score at home, that's a 6-21 slide.

Valentine called out of one of his most popular players, Kevin Youkilis. His clubhouse rebelled. Valentine seemed taken aback by the reaction. His strength as a manager is his smarts and confidence, but for a few days in April, that confidence seemed shaken in a way it had seldom seemed shaken before.

Valentine was getting booed at Fenway Park, and with his bullpen in disarray, with holes up and down the lineup, it was easy to believe the Red Sox were on their way to missing the playoffs for a third straight year despite the game's third-highest payroll.

Things got worse. The Rangers blew them out, 18-3. A 9-1 lead slipped away at Yankee Stadium. The Red Sox were 4-10 at one point. And then Josh Beckett got in hot water for playing golf after missing a start with an injury.

Beckett got hit hard at home, and when asked about the golf, he said it was no one's business what he did on his day off.

Let's push the pause button for a word about Beckett. One of the things that makes players great is their inner strength and self-confidence. They don't like being challenged.

Beckett reacted defiantly to the criticism. It's that attitude that allowed him to pitch a clinching World Series game at Yankee Stadium at 23. In this case, he should have chosen his words more carefully.

Beckett could have said something about checking with the medical staff and being cleared. Or he could have said that he's like dozens of other starting pitchers who use golf as both a hobby and stress reliever.

Or the franchise could have gotten in front of the story and made sure that Beckett playing golf was no big deal.

But I digress.

Those of us who kept looking at these Red Sox and thinking they'd eventually make something out of this season were soon rewarded.

Beckett has allowed one run in 14 2/3 innings since. Jon Lester is 3-1 with a 2.45 ERA in his past five starts. Left-hander Felix Doubront, 24, is 4-1. Daniel Bard and Clay Buchholz have mixed some very solid starts with some tough ones.

Finally, though, a first-rate rotation is beginning to come into focus. The unknown factor is that Bard and Doubront have started just 18 Major League games, so there's no way of knowing how their seasons will play out.

Meanwhile, once Valentine shifted Alfredo Aceves into the closer role, his bullpen stabilized as well. Red Sox relievers have allowed three earned runs in their past 21 2/3 innings. In winning two of three from the Phillies this weekend, the Boston bullpen gave up two runs in 7 1/3 innings.

Offensively, there are no worries. Only the Rangers have scored more runs in the American League. With Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz in the middle of the lineup, the Red Sox are not panicked to get Youkilis back from the disabled list.

All that said, the Red Sox are still in last place in the AL East despite winning eight of 10 and getting within a game of .500 at 20-21. The Orioles and Blue Jays appear to have staying power. The Rays remain baseball's most resilient team, playing through whatever injuries and free-agent defections they suffer.

As for the Red Sox, we'll know a lot more about them the next couple of weeks when they play 10 against the Orioles, Rays and Tigers. If Beckett and Lester keep throwing up quality starts, the Red Sox are good enough to make the AL East baseball's most interesting division.

But stay tuned. The Red Sox have already had a season's worth of intrigue, and the possibility of more curses and misfortune is always lurking.

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.

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