BOSTON -- As the Red Sox began their reentry to the season by taking batting practice under a made-for-baseball sky early Thursday evening at Fenway Park, the players who took turns stepping into the cage did so wearing their team-issued pullovers. With a couple of exceptions.
While everyone was wearing red, Jonny Gomes and Mike Napoli both were wearing blue T-shirts that carried a message on the front. “Keep Calm and Chive On,” it said across the front, that slogan a popular play on an old World War II poster — and a good way to describe the collective attitude of the Sox’ players and coaches as they embark upon the unofficial second half.
It’s bleak for Boston in a lot of ways. They’ve scored fewer runs than any American League team. They’re last in the AL East, at 43-52, and 9½ games back. They’re only 8 games out of the second wild-card berth, though there are seven teams between them and that spot.
Yet with two weeks to go before baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline, the Sox seem to be taking an optimistic view of the standings — particularly within their division — and drawing hope from the fact that while they haven’t played particularly well, nobody in the East has made itself look uncatchable.
“We’ve got a lot of baseball left to play,” said Clay Buchholz, who starts tonight. “Especially in this division it doesn’t really matter what your record is at the end of the year, just as long as you’re at the top of the board. That could be 85 wins — or 95 wins.”
It has taken at least 95 wins to capture the East every year since 2000, when the Yankees won 87. But this year appears to be different. The Orioles, who have a four-game lead, would need to go 43-25 just to hit that mark.
Given Baltimore’s pitching issues, it may be just as likely that they go something like 34-34 the rest of the way, which would put the O’s at 86 wins. Even if that happens, Boston would need to go 43-24 to catch Baltimore, and would also need Toronto, New York and Tampa Bay to not make a similar run.
The odds of that aren’t high. But it’s not impossible, either, so to that the Sox are clutching.“It’s bad to watch what position we’re in right now,” said Xander Bogaerts, the third baseman, “but if we take it day by day and come in and try to win the series instead of win every game, that mentality will definitely help us moving forward. And I hope we turn things around.”
The schedule works in the Sox favor, too, if the focus has become the division. After a three-game set with the Royals they hit the road next week for the start of a 13-game stretch against division opponents, starting with trips to Toronto and Tampa Bay, then coming home for visits from the Blue Jays and Yankees.
In all, 38 of Boston’s 67 remaining contests are against the East, so any potential comeback would start by taking care of business there.
“Given where we are right now, yes,” those games are more important,” manager John Farrell said. “That’s not to add pressure, that’s to say there’s some additional significance to the games when you play the teams ahead of you. After Kansas City we’ve got four consecutive series with teams that are ahead of us.”
Buchholz said he was talking with Gomes about the Oakland team the outfielder played for in 2012, which was 13 games behind at the end of June, but came back and won the West in a play-in game. That team closed the gap by going 43-24 over its final 67 games, and caught up to the two-time defending AL champs.
The Sox talk like they believe that’s possible for them, too. Just keep calm and chive on.“I wouldn’t find any reason to concede unless we were 25 out right now, which is not the case,” Buchholz said. “At some points it felt like it, but we’ve got a good group of guys, man. Things have to happen right; you have to make your breaks sometimes, and it was tough to make our breaks in the first half. Just a matter of guys coming back, taking a deep breath, and taking the mindset that if we don’t win today we’ve got to come back and win tomorrow.”
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Shane Victorino continued his rehab assignment Thursday night in Pawtucket, playing right field and batting second in a lineup that was missing Will Middlebrooks, whose work toward returning to the majors hit a snag when he hurt his left wrist while sliding last weekend.
It’s the second time in less than a month that the third baseman has hit a snag in his assignment, the other costing him eight days at the end of June. Middlebrooks was working out at Fenway on Thursday, and Farrell expects him to be back in the PawSox lineup tonight, though even that would mean he misses a full week this time, and mean resetting the clock on a rehab assignment that can’t last more than 20 days.
“It wasn’t like I thought I hurt something” in the wrist, said Middlebrooks, who put his final three swings of Thursday’s batting practice session over the Green Monster. “The next day it was pretty sore and we were cautious about it.”
Farrell also revealed that the plan is to play Middlebrooks only at third base during his time in Pawtucket, after previously floating the idea that he could get some exposure to left field while on the farm. One could read into that change of plans as an indication the club is contemplating the future of shortstop Stephen Drew.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.