CHICAGO -- There are fewer than 100 games left to be played this season, and the Red Sox remain one game under .500. An underwhelming start to this 100th anniversary season, to be sure.
But while admittedly there have been a few moments of doubt in the interim, the message from these quarters is the same as the one delivered a week after the Great Collapse of 2011:
Come October, the Red Sox will be a playoff team again after failing to qualify in each of the past two seasons.
I have no stake in that outcome, other than pledging to embark on an extremely long hike if the Sox don't make it. No innate inclination by accident of birth to see the hometown team in the best possible light. No heartstrings tying me to anyone in the home clubhouse.
I am prepared to be called a homer, or as dumb as Homer [D'oh!]. I am braced to hear from Yankees fans, Rays fans, White Sox fans, Rangers fans, Angels fans, Tigers fans, Indians fans -- heck, even a few Orioles fans might actually believe their team has a better shot of playing in the postseason.
I realize I'm setting myself up for a fair amount of ridicule from the master practitioners of that form in this town, most of whom work in pairs and have long since declared these Sox to be the underachieving wards of a distracted owner who has his head stuck up his -- wait, this isn't talk radio? -- his attention focused on his soccer team on the other side of the pond.
But I am not only unwavering from my prediction that the Sox are playoff-bound, but am more convinced than ever, with one proviso: It is incumbent upon new general manager Ben Cherington to make at least one bold move like the one Theo Epstein made in 2004 for another underachieving Sox team that as late as the Fourth of July barely had its head above water -- 6 games over .500.
That team took off after Epstein traded Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs. Who imagined eight years ago that Epstein would one day follow Garciaparra as a Boston icon taking up residence in Chicago, Epstein as GM of a last-place Cubs team playing host to the Sox this weekend in Wrigley Field.
Trading Garciaparra was arguably the most audacious act of any Sox GM since Sox owner Harry Frazee sold the Babe. The only thing that would have topped it is if Sox owner Tom Yawkey and Yankees GM Larry MacPhail, both said to be deep in their cups one night, had acted on an agreement to swap Ted Williams for Joe DiMaggio, which did not last beyond the sobering light of the next day.
Trading Kevin Youkilis would not rival the Garciaparra decision, though Youkilis merits only praise for his performance in a Sox uniform, succeeding well beyond the wildest predictions of anyone assigned to evaluate talent in the Sox organization.
But just as with Garciaparra, a brooding presence in the Sox clubhouse in '04 after the Sox made an overt play for Alex Rodriguez the previous winter, moving Youkilis removes a discomfiting element from the current Sox cast. Youkilis himself is mostly blameless; it is just a fact, widely recognized both in and out of the Sox clubhouse that they are a better team with rookie Will Middlebrooks at third base, Adrian Gonzalez at first, and Youkilis as odd man out. Youkilis could not have foreseen Middlebrooks arriving a year ahead of schedule, but the kid has all the earmarks of an impact player. Youkilis, meanwhile, had to answer to in-clubhouse questions about whether he was the "snitch'' in the aftermath of last season's fiasco and got off to a rocky start with new manager Bobby Valentine.
Gonzalez has gamely gone along with playing right field when called upon to do so by Valentine, but he has not been happy at all about being lifted for a defensive replacement in the late innings and has left Valentine missing his bat in situations where he could have produced another win or two.
Until Wednesday night's 10-2 win over the Marlins, the Sox had not scored more than seven runs since May 22, the day Youkilis returned. Before that, they had scored 10 or more runs nine times.
What the Sox are able to get back for Youkilis is secondary to subtracting him, preferably with some modicum of salary relief. Unlike the Garciaparra deal, there is no shock value to a Youkilis trade scenario, but that doesn't lessen the necessity of taking that action.
That is only one bold step Cherington must take. The other is to add a quality starting pitcher at the deadline. That will cost the Sox more than an aging third baseman with health issues; Cherington will have to dip into his system to make that happen, which is why he will proceed with some caution. But the Sox, especially with the Daniel Bard experiment having run aground, simply don't have the depth to survive an injury to one of their front-line starters. Wandy Rodriguez, Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Zack Greinke are only some of the big names you'll hear between now and the trading deadline, and lesser names like Joe Blanton and Bartolo Colon will also be heard. The Sox must add an arm.
So that's on Cherington. But beyond that, here are a half dozen reasons why this team will be in the mix in October, despite their continued occupancy of last place:
1. The starting pitching has bounced back. In their past 31 games, Sox starters have pitched six innings or more 20 times and have allowed three earned runs or fewer 21 times. The redoubtable Beckett has a 2.68 ERA in that span; Clay Buchholz, who has returned to form, is at 2.61; and the revelatory Felix Doubront is at 3.51 after taking a no-hitter into the sixth Wednesday.
Jon Lester is still erratic (4.89 in that span), but he has traditionally been a slow starter. Daisuke Matsuzaka has returned from Tommy John surgery and has begun his audition for No. 5 starter while Bard tries to find himself in Pawtucket, and the Sox might even entertain thoughts of Franklin Morales returning to his roots as a starter. But what was a liability has become the strength it looked capable of being entering the season.
2. The bullpen has stabilized. The Sox and Valentine achieved that first, with Alfredo Aceves seizing hold of the closer role and the other relievers falling into place in roles better defined once Valentine figured out what he had. And the bullpen could even become stronger with Mark Melancon back from Pawtucket and Bard possibly ticketed for a return, too.
3. They will get healthy. The Red Sox have stayed afloat despite the absence of the most dynamic all-around player in the American League last season, Jacoby Ellsbury, and a slew of other injuries that has left Valentine improvising lineups all season. Guys like Daniel Nava, Scott Podsednik and, to a lesser degree, Marlon Byrd kept this from being a total free fall, especially when Cody Ross also went down.
Ellsbury should be back in July, making him a bigger addition than any other team will have by the trading deadline. Ross will be back then, too, if not sooner, and Carl Crawford is expected as well, though to hear he is being taught a different way to throw makes one wonder how intact his elbow will remain.
A healthy Ellsbury should have a ripple effect on the entire lineup. The Sox rank 10th in the league in runs scored out of the leadoff spot, where Mike Aviles gave the Sox unexpected pop but low on-base presence, which is why Valentine has taken to employing Nava and Podsednik there as well.
4. The current offensive funk will not continue. Until their 10-run breakout game in Miami Wednesday, the Sox had averaged just 4 runs a game in 20 games since May 22, the day Youkilis came off the DL. That was a drop of 1.5 runs a game from the 5.5 they'd averaged up till that date. David Ortiz (5) and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (4) supplied some home runs, but none of the regulars were hitting for average. Gonzalez has been receiving the most flak, but his .237 average in that span was actually higher than Ortiz (.229), Saltalamacchia (.220), Aviles (.213) and second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who was batting .167 with just one extra-base hit while trying to play with a torn thumb muscle.
Does anyone really believe that Gonzalez, whose .723 OPS (on-base plus slugging) coming into Wednesday's game was 254 percentage points lower than the .957 he posted in his first season with the Red Sox, has suddenly forgotten how to hit, or that the five home runs he has so far is indicative of a loss of power? Or is Gonzalez more likely to kick in a la Dan Uggla in 2011 (eight home runs on June 12, 36 by the end of the season) or Mark Teixeira in 2010 (nine home runs on June 12, 33 by the end)?
He insists he is healthy; there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. Hits in his last three at-bats Wednesday broke an 0-for-16 skid, and if anyone should trust a proven hitter's track record, it should be the Sox: On June 14, 2009, Ortiz was hitting .204 with four home runs. In his last 93 games, he hit 24 home runs and batted .261.
5. Youth will be served. Middlebrooks is not the only Sox prospect who could make an impact between now and October. Shortstop Jose Iglesias has been shut down since May 25th with back issues, but if he can return to health, he could have the same electrifying effect on the Sox defense that Orlando Cabrera had when he replaced Nomar in '04. Aviles has held his own, but he could become a valuable player at multiple positions if Iglesias can make the jump. Then there is catcher Ryan Lavarnway, who already has proved he has thunder in his bat and has made significant strides behind the plate. He, too, could become a factor down the stretch.
6. The clubhouse is coming around. Valentine has so far weathered replacing a popular and successful predecessor in Terry Francona. This would have been a challenge under the best of circumstances but was even more daunting given the wave of injuries and the baggage he arrived with. It would be overstating things to say Valentine has fully won the trust and confidence of the clubhouse -- there have been missteps -- but there is ample evidence of a culture that has shed the stain of dysfunction that set in after last season.
Nick Punto, who was on a World Series winner in St. Louis and playoff teams in Minnesota, calls this one of the tightest groups he has ever been a part of. Ortiz has stepped up when needed, calling a meeting in May much like the one he called during the 2007 ALCS, when the Sox were down 3 games to 1 to the Indians.
The will and the means to win are here. There are 99 games left to prove it. It says here that it will happen.