After .500 first half, return to health could buoy Sox

After .500 first half, return to health could buoy Sox

After .500 first half, return to health could buoy Sox
BOSTON -- The record shows that the Red Sox have been perfectly mediocre (43-43) for the first half of the season. The belief -- at least from manager Bobby Valentine and his players -- is that a second-half revival could well be on the horizon.

Club breakdowns
First-half highlights

Ravaged by injuries and plagued by inconsistency from players who have been stalwarts in the past, the Red Sox have looked unrecognizable for much of 2012.

"Nobody is facing the situation we are right now with all the injuries," said slugger David Ortiz, the team's lone All-Star. "It's hard to play, hard to compete like that."

What are the Red Sox capable of if they can finally get healthy?

"Well, a little more stability would be good, and I just look forward to playing games in the second half," said Valentine. "I think the guys are coming together. I think if we have some good health, the second half could be exciting. I'm looking forward to it."

Health has been a point of pure frustration.

Carl Crawford has yet to play a Major League game this season, and his rehab from left wrist surgery has included other setbacks, including a UCL sprain in his left elbow that could require surgery in the winter. Now, a nagging left groin injury will prevent him from returning immediately after the All-Star break.

Jacoby Ellsbury, who was marvelous last season and almost won the American League's Most Valuable Player Award, could be back by the start of the second half after missing three months with a partially dislocated right shoulder.

First-half awards
MVP: David Ortiz -- Big Papi has been the one constant force for a Boston team that battled injuries and under-performance for the entire first half.
Cy Young: Scott Atchison -- Boston's most deserving candidate for this award says as much about his excellence as it does about the way the starting rotation has underperformed.
Rookie: Will Middlebrooks -- The third baseman's strong play led general manager Ben Cherington to trade veteran Kevin Youkilis, and nobody questioned the move. Middlebrooks has been a force at the plate and a terrific defender.
Top reliever: Atchison -- The right-hander has been superb, but he's had plenty of help from Andrew Miller, Matt Albers, Vicente Padilla and closer Alfredo Aceves.

The Red Sox traded for Andrew Bailey so he could be the closer, but the right-hander hasn't thrown a pitch thanks to right thumb surgery that occurred the day before the season.

And now, the indispensable Dustin Pedroia has a cast on his right thumb and won't return until July 19, at the earliest.

So the question is this: Can the Red Sox hang around long enough to still be in contention when they get healthy?

"We'll be fine," Pedroia said. "We'll have guys step up. We're going to have some other guys get back here pretty soon. Guys are going to have to step up and play good baseball. I'll be back in a few weeks. It's not like I'm going to be out all year, so guys will weather the storm and we'll be fine."

Pedroia has been one of several cornerstone players who is having a below-par year. The three-time All-Star is hitting .266 with six homers and 33 RBIs.

"I'll be fine," Pedroia said. "I'll produce in a major way this season to help our team -- I promise you that."

Pedroia will need help.

Adrian Gonzalez, who was largely quiet for most of the first half, looks like he's primed to provide it. The first baseman has finally gotten hot over the past couple of weeks, and the only thing still lacking is his home run stroke.

The one force for the Red Sox all season has been Ortiz. Seemingly entering the twilight of his career at the age of 36, Big Papi has instead been consistently vintage, crushing 22 home runs, including No. 400 of his career.

But nobody will truly know what Boston is offensively until Ellsbury and Crawford bring their bats and legs back to the lineup.

Players to watch in second half
Jacoby Ellsbury -- Last season, Ellsbury was probably the best position player in the AL. Out since April 13 with a partially dislocated right shoulder, Ellsbury is expected to return immediately after the All-Star break.
Adrian Gonzalez -- Where has his power gone? The Red Sox hope it's ready to bust out in the second half for the sweet-swinging first baseman.
Jon Lester -- Nobody could have forecast such a mediocre first half for the power lefty. If the Red Sox are going to do anything in the second half, they need Lester to lead the charge.

"I'm not sure it's going to make a monumental difference, because the guys who have been here have done such a fabulous job," said Valentine. "But that being said, they're terrific players, and if they're back and in our lineup, I'm sure we'll feel good about ourselves."

Of course, dominant starting pitching can fix things in a hurry, and the Red Sox haven't been nearly consistent enough in this area. Josh Beckett (4-7, 4.43 ERA) has not pitched like an ace. Neither has Jon Lester (5-6, 4.49 ERA).

"It's a [bad] first half," Lester said. "I can only speak for myself. Uncharted water for me. I've just got to keep grinding it out. I can't give up. I've just got to keep working. That's all I can control. Just keep showing up every day, working hard, and things are going to turn around."

Clay Buchholz started poorly, then got hot, only to develop a stomach illness. After a 40-pitch rehab stint with Triple-A Pawtucket on Sunday, the right-hander is slated to return to the rotation on Saturday against the Rays.

It's hard to imagine the Red Sox will be a legitimate contender without at least one or two of their big three starters returning to form in the second half.

"It just seems like every time we get going good, something bad happens," said shortstop Mike Aviles. "It's just unfortunate. We have to dig deep and find ways to continue to win and keep moving forward and not take that step back. Nobody knows the reason; it's just baseball."

Starting Friday, when they open a three-game series against the Rays, one of the teams they are trying to leap-frog, the Red Sox hope to start experiencing the more enjoyable side of baseball.

Ian Browne is a reporter for Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.