Commentary

Too little, too late for Sox?

Injury-plagued Boston squad will need historic run to make up lost ground

Updated: July 30, 2010, 2:55 PM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPN Stats & Information

Even the greatest turnarounds in Red Sox history already happened by this time in the season.

The 1967 Impossible Dream? Red Sox Nation was enjoying full REM sleep by the end of July.

Morgan Magic in 1988? Come August, it was no longer an illusion.

With two days to go in July, the best-case scenario puts the Red Sox 3½ games back of the Rays for the wild card and 5½ behind the Yankees as the calendar turns to August.

Consider this: The largest Aug. 1 deficit overcome by the Red Sox to make the playoffs was two games. That was in 1967 by a team that trailed by seven games just three weeks prior. While they'd later fall as far back as 3½ games out, the major standings climb had already occurred.

Only four times in its history has Boston entered August out of the playoff picture and then advanced to the postseason. The last Sox team to do so was the 2004 World Series squad, which sat a game back of the Rangers in the wild card race. That team benefited from a momentum-swinging trade at the deadline. Saturday marks the sixth anniversary of the deal that sent Nomar Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs and brought Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz into the fold.

Only four times in its history has Boston entered August out of the playoff picture and then advanced to the postseason.

Could a deal at Saturday's non-waiver trade deadline bring a similar jumpstart?

The Red Sox have gone without an effective left-hander in the bullpen since late April when Hideki Okajima's season began to fall apart. Outside of Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard, the bullpen has a 5.40 ERA.

The outfield, already among the least productive in the majors, is hitting a collective .188 since the All-Star break.

While both areas could be addressed by Saturday, a major splash seems unlikely. Rather, Boston is close to adding the true missing piece to its season: health.

After a 65-day absence due to a lower back strain, Josh Beckett appears back in 2009 form. Joining him is Victor Martinez, who missed 22 games after fracturing his left thumb.

Meanwhile, Jacoby Ellsbury could return within a week, at which point he'll finally reach double digits in games played. Dustin Pedroia, out since June with a broken foot, also looks to be progressing.

In other words, while names like Scott Downs and Chris Snyder may be bandied about over the next 48 hours, any additions by trade will be secondary. The chance to bolster their injury replacements has passed. Boston's true deadline haul consists of four All-Star-caliber players finally emerging from the disabled list.

With the two best records in baseball resting in front of them in the American League East, perhaps the Red Sox are too late in returning to health. But the ability to fathom a playoff run is itself an achievement. With the worst seemingly over, a little perspective is in order.

Other teams have seen more trips to the DL or compiled more games missed on the DL. Right now, Oakland has 10 players on the DL, twice as many as the Red Sox.

But when you factor in the significance of the players, no team has been hit harder by the injury bug.

The aforementioned four players were the starting pitcher and top three in the order on Opening Day. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Red Sox' opening day starters have combined to spend 258 days on the DL this season. Oakland (210) is the only other team to top 150.

Those 258 days on the DL are already more than any Red Sox opening-day starting lineup over the previous five years, and there's still more than two months to go. In 2007, Boston's first lineup lost only 48 days to the DL, a total Ellsbury has more than doubled on his own.

Of course, the injuries went much deeper into Boston's roster, taking down the likes of Jeremy Hermida and Jason Varitek, both injury fill-ins themselves.

The result? The Red Sox have already used more defensive lineups (73) than they did in all of 2007 (72) and just 11 fewer than last season. Only the Orioles, Tigers and Indians have used more defensive combos among AL teams this season.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, the Red Sox haven't used the same defensive lineup more than six times. Tied for the second most-used lineup is a group that includes Kevin Cash, Darnell McDonald and Bill Hall. The last time the Red Sox trotted out the same defensive lineup in back-to-back games was May 23 and 24. Not coincidently, that's also the last time Ellsbury took the field.

Offensively, Boston penciled in the same starting nine for the first four games of the season. Then in Games 7 and 8, the Red Sox used the same nine in back-to-back games.

It hasn't happened again since.

So how are the Red Sox still in the mix? The replacement players certainly haven't filled the cleats of the injured. To the contrary, the Red Sox have received little production at injury-riddled positions.

While Victor Martinez was on the DL, his replacements hit just .169 and did not manage an extra-base hit. Pedroia's fill-ins haven't fared much better, hitting just .204 with a .282 on-base percentage.

Left field has been a major lineup hole all season, as the team ranks second-to-last in the AL in both batting average (.231) and on-base percentage (.304). Those penciled in to replace Ellsbury have hit just .227, an average that plummets to .205 when taking out Daniel Nava's stint. Just last year, Jason Bay slugged the Red Sox to the top left-field OPS in the majors.

Yet, in a season of attrition, the Red Sox have somehow kept up the fight until the reinforcements could arrive. Whether it's too late, we'll see.

At 58-44, Boston is on a 92-win pace, two wins ahead of where it was through 102 games in 2004. In the Wild Card era, the magic number has been 94. No AL team has missed the postseason with that many wins. However, with both the Rays and Yankees on 100-win paces, Boston ultimately will need one of those two to tail off.

At 11-12, the Red Sox need to win their next two to avoid their third losing July in the past 15 years. Hitting just .248, it would be Boston's worst July batting average since hitting .245 in 1992, a season they finished 73-89.

Can the Red Sox turn the tides? It will likely take a historic final two months -- one that recalls the imagery of nicknamed seasons of the past.

Soon to be fully healthy for the first time in nearly four months, the real 2010 Red Sox have fewer than 60 games to catch fire. That is, if they manage to stay healthy.

The Red Sox may bring in some fresh bodies before Saturday's deadline. But in the end, the most important names showing up on the transactions page will be the ones coming off the DL.

Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com. ESPN Stats & Information's John Parolin contributed to this story.

Jeremy Lundblad

ESPN Stats and Information

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