Last-place Red Sox can still salvage their summer

Rest assured, Mike Napoli isn't panicking. Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports

ANAHEIM -- First baseman Mike Napoli was speaking about his own failings, but he may have hit upon just the right mindset for the Boston Red Sox to adopt when they resume play after the All-Star break Friday in Anaheim.

"People think I'm panicking," he said. "I'm not. All I can do is keep working."

When you've already hit bottom, what's the point of panicking? There are no do-overs. The Sox are a last-place team, have played like one and richly deserve the scorn heaped upon them in the season's first 3 1/2 months. But never mind their critics. That's all just white noise. The Sox don't need anyone to tell them who's bad or who's to blame. Clubhouses still come with mirrors. So do front offices.

But with 73 games yet to be played, the Red Sox, despite their sub-.500 record and 6 1/2 game deficit in the AL East, have a choice, one that could still salvage their summer.

Panic. Quit. Give up. Accept their mediocrity.

Or work.

Maybe that's not enough by itself to win a division. But it's a great way to win back your dignity and self-respect, while giving yourself at least a chance to shape a far different outcome than the one expected of you.

It's why we are reminded time and again that what separates baseball from the other sports is its long season. How about the team that entered September 30 games over .500 and missed the playoffs by winning just seven of its last 27 games? That was the Red Sox, just four years ago. Is that any more far-fetched than the idea that with a little reverse engineering, these Red Sox could yet make a run, especially in a division lacking a dominant team?

The Sox gave us a glimpse of the possibilities in the three weeks leading up to the break. They won four series in a row, which included a four-game winning streak, a modest achievement except when you haven't done it all season. They hit, they came from behind a few times, they had starting pitching that was respectable and at times brilliant, and they played with more energy and fewer mistakes.

They faltered last weekend against the Yankees, losing two of three when they could have trimmed their deficit to 4 1/2 games, but that was a setback, not a mortal blow. They won without Dustin Pedroia, who comes off the DL on Friday night. They will have to win without Clay Buchholz, who has broken down again, this time with a bum elbow and a return date far from certain.

They need Napoli to shake his season-long slump. "If I don't hit," he said, “we don't win."

The unspoken subtext is that if Napoli doesn't hit, he may be out of a job. “What has made it so frustrating," he said, “that because of the [apnea] surgery, I feel better than I ever have, which means I've done far more work this season than any other because I could, and I'll keep working. That's all I can do."

So, yes, work in itself is often not enough. Rick Porcello's brutal performance in the first half was not a result of lack of effort. Justin Masterson could not alter the facts of his diminished arm strength by just doing more. Hanley Ramirez could not have made himself a better left fielder by taking more ... uh, never mind.

But for all their flaws, the components are there for a strong second half. If 22-year-old Mookie Betts has not been the team's best player so far, 22-year-old Xander Bogaerts has, and you can mark their growth as surely as kids up against a wall. Alejandro De Aza may be just a shooting star -- that's been the trajectory of his career -- but his arrival made an immediate impact. Veteran catcher Ryan Hanigan is back. Left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez has star quality, and left-hander Brian Johnson will try to mind the gap while Buchholz is out.

David Ortiz and Ramirez are hitting home runs. Pablo Sandoval is a career .301 hitter after the All-Star break. More than an ace, Ben Cherington needs to find some bullpen help, and fast.

And remember this: Of the 30 games the Sox play in September, 24 are against teams in their own division. Stay close, and they have a chance. For a last-place team, that's enough.