It felt particularly apropos when the Red Sox hit the field for batting practice the other day and Kenny Chesney's paranoid "Welcome to the Fishbowl" blared on the in-stadium speakers. Because for a Boston club perpetually under the microscope in what has been a disappointing season, every day seems to be another opportunity for some controversy -- sometimes constructive, sometimes inane -- to arise. It's a byproduct of being in a big market, sure. But it's been heightened by the dazzling way in which the Red Sox squandered a seemingly secure October postseason berth last season, the upheaval that landed Theo Epstein in Chicago and Terry Francona in an ESPN broadcast booth, the injection of the polarizing personality of Bobby Valentine and the lingering effects of a "beer and fried chicken" story that somehow overshadowed any intelligent analysis of the collapse. This season has mostly been a mess, both through the mediocre outcome on the field and the disruptive, seemingly daily distractions that have left several veteran players vowing never to re-sign with the Red Sox.
"It takes a big toll," one told me. "It gets to a point where it becomes too much." There was Valentine's early outspokenness about Kevin Youkilis' passion for the game, and by the time that snowball stopped rolling, Youkilis had been sent to the White Sox. There was Josh Beckett's off-day golf outing, the quickly refuted report of a "toxic" clubhouse environment, the (dreaded?) vote of confidence bestowed upon Valentine, and then, most recently, the exceedingly silly assertion that John Lackey traveling with the team while rehabbing and drinking beer in the clubhouse after a game is somehow illustrative of, well, anything. How much or how little these issues have anything to do with the Red Sox's profoundly subpar showing in the standings is ultimately up to the beholder. My personal preference is to point out the 4.80 starters' ERA and let it speak for itself. But one hand does tend to feed the other. "The results haven't gone our way," said assistant general manager Mike Hazen, "and that's what's leading a lot of the stories and leading people to talk [in a negative] way." Is it too late for this team to turn things around and make this season notable for something other than the off-the-field intrigue? Well, the temptation to write off the Red Sox is countered -- mathematically, if not all that convincingly -- by the recognition of the late-season Wild Card whims that swallowed them whole a season ago. Given everything we witnessed last September, when mid-August playoff probability was rendered moot by late-season dramatic reality, who's to say the Red Sox don't have a run in them, a la the run of the Rays club that took them down in 2011? Then again, given everything we've witnessed through 116 games of the Valentine Era, who's to say mere mediocrity isn't this club's true calling card? Such is the unsteady state of a team whose skipper steadily proclaims, "I think we're a playoff team," even as his job security comes into question because said team is two games under .500 since the All-Star break as well as for the season. "I'm still thinking that this is a division [race], and we want to win it," Valentine said. Well, far be it for me to quell an as-yet-unborn comeback, but the fourth-place Red Sox are 11 1/2 games back in that division race. Even with the Yankees desperately pulling Derek Lowe off the scrap heap in light of the CC Sabathia news, the Wild Card -- specifically, the second one -- is the much more reachable goal for the Red Sox, who are 5 1/2 games back of a Wild Card spot, at the moment, and reaching even that will require them to summon their inner Stretch Armstrong. Had the second Wild Card existed since 1996, it would have taken, on average, about 89 wins to claim it, and these Red Sox are a 32-14 run away from an 89-win total. So if that average holds, a Red Sox team that hasn't been more than five games over .500 all season must suddenly win more than two-thirds of its remaining games. Not exactly what you'd call likely. "We feel this team is talented enough to make that run," Hazen said. "With the second Wild Card, we're afforded that opportunity to still be in this thing." Thing is, the five other clubs currently ahead of the Red Sox in the Wild Card pecking order (Rays, Orioles, A's, Tigers and Angels), have the same idea. So for a team scrambling to find good news, let's offer this: Twenty-four games directly against those would-be Wild Card participants remain on the schedule (beginning with the three-game set against the O's that starts Tuesday night), as do six games against the Yanks. That's where the mathematical ambition arises, even as some other less-hopeful math (like Baseball Prospectus giving them just a 6.7-percent chance of reaching the playoffs) and less-promising news (Will Middlebrooks is done for the year) stares them in the face. There is hope in the fact that Adrian Gonzalez has compiled the league's second-highest OPS (1.048) in the second half, and there have been positive signs from Jon Lester as he's held his last four opponents to a combined .585 OPS. But Beckett, who starts the opener in Baltimore, is still unpredictable, still looks unhealthy (he gave up eight runs in his return from an extended break between starts due to back spasms) and is still largely unpopular. The starters' ERA dating back to July 1 (5.17) is the worst in baseball in that time frame. And a bullpen that was a strength in May and June has begun to succumb to the perils of overwork because of the ineffective rotation. Toss in the continual injury uncertainty (David Ortiz is in a holding pattern because of an Achilles injury), and Boston's situation remains unsightly. The Red Sox's situation is marred all the more by the constant controversy -- some of it warranted, some of it concocted, all of it serving as the theme to a season gone awry. Only positive play by the Red Sox can alter that reality. And with six big division games against the Orioles and Yankees in the next six days, this week could be their last chance to avoid drowning in the fishbowl.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.