Red Sox still searching for offense

Grady Sizemore has given way to Brock Holt, but Boston's lineup continues to lack firepower. Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY Sports

The Opening Day center fielder has been designated for assignment and replaced by a 26-year-old who has played five positions since being called up to the majors -- including four (first base, left field, center field, right field) he's never played before on the professional level.

David Ortiz, the heart of the team and Boston's Paul Bunyan last October, is batting just .246 (though he hit a game-tying homer in the 10th inning of Tuesday's walk-off victory over the Twins). Dustin Pedroia, the soul of the team, suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb in the first game last year but still battled through to post a .301 average, a Gold Glove season and a World Series trophy. He had his thumb surgically repaired during the offseason but is scuffling more than when he was injured.

The team's anemic hitting at Fenway Park has left Boston mired in fourth place in the American League East, 6½ games behind the Toronto Blue Jays (though by winning five of seven on this homestand they've crept above .500 at Fenway at 20-19).

According to ESPN Stats & Information, through Wednesday's game with the Twins the Sox were hitting .257 with a slugging percentage of .385 at Fenway. They were also batting .239 with runners in scoring position and averaging just 3.9 runs a game. In the previous 5 seasons, no Red Sox team has averaged less than 5.2 runs a game, and that includes Bobby Valentine's crew from 2012.

The grim returns on the Red Sox, a team that has already endured a confounding 10-game losing streak, reaffirms what we already know: It's extremely difficult to repeat as World Series champion. The usual clichés to explain this include the team that wins it all returns with a neon bulls-eye on its collective back and, human nature being what it is, athletes simply aren't as hungry or as focused after they've reached the victory stand.

The Red Sox were the optimal confluence of personalities in 2013. Each of them, from the manager to the slugger to the new veterans coming aboard to the returning veteran pitchers with baggage to shed, had something to prove, and each was able to silence critics in concert.

The collective urgency simply hasn't felt the same this season.

"I don't want to subscribe to the fact that we've lost an edge because we've won," manager John Farrell said. "That's not part of this."

The more mitigating factor, Farrell believes, is injuries. The Sox had it right when they determined after spring training that Jackie Bradley Jr. needed more seasoning in the minors. Grady Sizemore won the job outright and was on his way to enjoying a storybook love affair with the Fenway Faithful, but his resurgence was temporary, and the team's decision to bank on him open to discussion. In the meantime, Shane Victorino's hamstring betrayed him again, and his absence has left the outfield in a state of flux.

Last season, the Red Sox outfield collectively batted .285 with an OPS of .783. This season, Sox outfielders are hitting .225 with an OPS of .630. That average isn't acceptable for a shortstop, never mind the positions where many of your top hitters are expected to roam.

There's another simple reason that explains why 2014 is not humming along as smoothly as 2013: the subtraction, straight up the middle, of the starting center fielder (Jacoby Ellsbury), catcher (Jarrod Saltalamacchia) and, temporarily, at least, the starting shortstop (Stephen Drew).

"That's Highway 1 right there," observed outfielder Jonny Gomes. "We're a whole new team."

It's a team that still has plenty of time to right itself. The Sox swept the Twins on Wednesday in walk-off fashion and departed for the West Coast with some momentum and optimism that any number of bodies (Victorino, Clay Buchholz, Will Middlebrooks) could be assisting them soon, and Mike Napoli has returned from the DL.

With the extra wild card in play, Boston is well within its rights to consider itself very much alive. It is, after all, only mid-June. The manager also believes the team's approach to those early fruitless outings has shifted. There has been little spark from a team that produced fireworks on a nightly basis a season ago, but, the manager figures, if his ballplayers stop pressing, they'll find a groove.

"When we're struggling, the competitor in these guys might force someone to say, 'OK, I want to be the guy in this instance,'" Farrell noted. "Last year there was such continuity in the lineup that if [a hit] wasn't there, it could pass on to the next guy. Because we have some inconsistency in our lineup, at times, I think maybe there's some more self-induced pressure to be The One in the moment."

Catcher A.J. Pierzynski confirms the manager's suspicions. When a team loses 10 straight, he said, players tend to take on more than they should.

"It happens on both ends," Pierzynski said. "Behind the plate, you want to throw a shutout every time, and the minute you give up that first run you're saying, 'Oh, no ...' But when it's going good, you say, 'That's just one run. Let's go get four.'

"On the offensive side, you've got guys on first and second with two outs and you're looking at it saying, 'I've got a get a hit here because we're having so much trouble scoring.'

"You can't play this game that way. It doesn't work. You can't hit a seven-run home run. This isn't football where your coach gives you a rah-rah speech about playing harder and then you go out and tackle someone. This isn't an emotional game. It can't be. It's too hard to play it that way."

Pedroia acknowledges the personal responsibility he assumes with regards to the team's (and his own) underwhelming performance. "I feel it every time we lose a game," he admitted.

The decline in Pedroia's numbers (he's hitting just .263 with a .708 OPS), coupled with early-season wrist and hand injuries, have prompted questions whether his surgery was actually as successful as advertised. Pedroia insists he's finally back on track and making good contact with the ball. He expects to see those sharp line drives that have tended to be hit right at someone to eventually translate into production.

"It takes time [after surgery]," Pedroia said. "They told me it would. In the beginning of the year when it was cold -- it felt like it was extra cold this spring -- it didn't hurt, it just felt ... weird. It felt like a big rubber band, like asparagus, instead of normal. But I'm good now."

Pedroia conceded he's one of those players Farrell was referring to who was occasionally trying to do too much at the plate.

"There's a fine line," he said. "Obviously when I get in the box, I want to get a hit and start the offense but sometimes taking a step back and relaxing and letting the game come to you is a better option.

"Defensively, you can go for it, because you are moving around you can dive an extra foot for the ball. But when you are hitting, they get paid a lot of money to get you out, and sometimes [being overly aggressive] is the wrong thing.

"I'm just getting to the point where I'm telling myself that. Relax when you get in the box and be yourself, you can't try to do too much. I can't hit a grand slam with nobody on base."

Gomes believes the Sox lineup is a work in progress, one that hasn't gelled yet because there are so many young hitters like Holt, Xander Bogaerts and Bradley playing significant roles.

"When we won last year, we won with a team style, like nine pieces of chain," Gomes said. "It was like that every single day. I won't say this year the chain is weaker. The talent is there, but we've got to click together in one long chain, 1 through 9.

"There are different pieces of the chain this year, different styles of the chain. One of the biggest things last year was how we worked the starting pitcher. We wore 'em out. Wore 'em out.

"That was our approach. And we all bought in. If you saw 12 pitches and struck out, you had 24 high-fives waiting for you in the dugout.

"You can't ask really a young guy to have an approach. They've only been out there for, like, 1,500 at bats. I can't tell Bogey to take on a 2-0 count. I can't tell him at 3-1 with runners on first and third, 'Take a pitch.' He has to get on base a few times before I can tell him about an approach. It's the same with Jackie, Brock Holt. Last year, our 'young guy' was Iggy [Jose Iglesias], and he was a contact hitter."

The pitching staff has performed well enough for the Red Sox to be contenders, with Brandon Workman submitting his case to remain in the rotation after his suspension. As veterans Felix Doubront and Buchholz inch closer to returning, there's a sense that pitching depth is within this team's grasp.

Buchholz is the undisputed wild card who elicits more questions than answers. Can he be the pitcher who was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA before shoulder woes sidelined him after 12 starts in 2013, or is the 7.02 ERA he posted in the early portion of 2014 (last among major league pitchers with at least 50 innings) a more accurate barometer? The Red Sox would gladly grab hold of numbers that landed in the middle ground between the two.

Buchholz was put on the DL with a hyperextended knee on May 28, but his real troubles stem back to neck and shoulder issues that shelved him last season.

"I had never had any kind of issue with my arm," Buchholz said. "That alone was different for me. To have one person telling me I'm not going to hurt myself anymore, then going out and throwing and feeling like my arm is going to fly off if I try to rear back, that was difficult.

"But I got through it, and I came to spring training healthy. I just had a couple of mechanical tweaks that took a little bit longer than it should have for me to correct, but that's the way it goes. I feel like I'm ready now.

"I feel I'm as good as anybody out there when I'm confident and throwing my pitches for strikes. That's how I felt the first 12 games of last year."

The "tweaks" Buchholz referenced were necessary adjustments to his arm slot in the wake of his injury woes. His mental tenacity was an issue, as was his waxing and waning confidence in his pitches.

"I've become a different kind of pitcher than I was," Buchholz said. "I pitch to contact now. And whenever you're confident, it's easy to pitch to contact, 'cause you have confidence in pitches, confidence in your ability to manipulate the baseball and make it do what you want it do.

"When it's going bad, it's hard to make yourself want someone to hit a ball because it seems like every ball is hit in the gap or not at anybody. You can't do more than what you are capable of doing. So my job is to go out and get outs one by one, pitch by pitch, rather than worrying about what the next guy is going to do if this guy gets a hit.

"It's a mental game inside the actual game of baseball."

The Red Sox may be defending champions, but they are not unlike their fellow baseball counterparts in relying on a bunch of "ifs" going forward. If Buchholz can return to form, the rotation solidifies. If Victorino can stay healthy, the outfield will enjoy an infusion of stability. If Ortiz and Pedroia revert to previous form, the lineup will gain some potency.

"We're only 70 some odd games in," Farrell said. "We're not conceding anything."

Pierzynski won a World Series with Chicago in 2005. The next season, they won 91 games and missed the playoffs.

"That's a lot of wins," he said. "Everyone was working just as hard as the previous year, just like here. It's just difficult to do. That's why you haven't seen anyone [repeat] in so long."

Gomes can't imagine why anyone is counting this Boston Red Sox team out already. He thinks the kids are extremely talented. He appreciates the manager has remained on an even keel. And he's sure it's not too late to turn it around.

"In 2012 we [Oakland] won American League West, and we were in first place for four innings," Gomes said. "We were 14 ½ back in the middle of August. Think about that. We made seven games up with nine left."

Gomes' math is a little off -- they were 13 back at the end of June and made up a five-game deficit in the last nine days of the regular season, but you get his point: Anything is possible. Certainly last year's baseball season proved it. The 2013 Red Sox season was a magical, inexplicable redemptive tale.

The problem is the sequel to any compelling story is rarely as good.