Boston Sports Forum Commentary
Del N. Jones
Sunday was a loser's day for the Boston Red Sox.
They fell to faulty pitching, allowed unworthy scoring opportunities for the opposing team and failed to come through with the important hits when they were needed the most.
But with all that went wrong at Fenway, there wasn't a loss better received during this 2004 season.
Because of what proceeded it and the positives to follow.
Looking at these Red Sox in full at the All-Star break they are quite fortunate to be in their present position. Considering a year's worth of dramas and misfortunes crammed into the first 86 games, the club members should all walk around with buttons reading "I'm a survivor!" whereever they trek during the three-day hiatus.
Certainly a seven-game gap in the America League East to the New York Yankees is not exactly comfortable, but a 48-38 record and a one-game lead in the AL wildcard is not bad for a Boston group that tried to implode on several occasions in the first three-plus months of the season.
There was the booby-trapped spring training in Fort Myers, FL. claiming starters Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon with flukish ailments that easily should have involved kitchen cooking utensils or unruly motorcycles. Projected fifth starter Byun-Hyun Kim was also an early injury story that reached back to 2003 and still is not totally straightened out.
Of course Garciaparra's right achilles was minor, Nixon's back was basic and Kim's shoulder was not a problem. None were true, and while Nixon was left behind in Florida where he healed at the University of Miami Spine Institute, Garciaparra came north where his daily workouts became top sports news for weeks - more often bigger than the games that he was not yet cleared to play in.
Fifty-seven games later Garciapparra finally took the field and Nixon soon after, but not before another April first place start was leveled by a 27-28 May/June - tapering the collective glee and fool's gold of taking six of the first seven from the Yankees.
Off the field newly acquired starting pitcher Curt Schilling had already grown tired of the local media, choosing instead to chat with fans online about his innermost thoughts and possible serious injuries with an "off the record" tag on his written statements.
Neither Schilling's bruised right ankle nor his strong right arm wavered though, providing All-Star first-half numbers (11- 4, 3.16 ERA with 118 strikeouts) that were expected of him when the Sox traded for his services over the winter. Just imagine what Schilling could have done if he wasn't so crowded in the Fenway clubhouse or able to lounge on the couch and play video games whenever he pleased?
That was Schilling's "on the record" complaint back in June - that coupled with the strange internet controversy - drew unwanted negative attention to a Sox crew that was having difficulty gaining any focus or consistency.
If that wasn't enough, Garciaparra chose to send some messages of his own - preferrably to his critics about his return timetable that was too long for some. Again, to an open microphone and notepad (It's amazing how these guys do this) Garciaparra asked for some slack and respect for his eight years of service in Boston and implied that if he is not appreciated here than someone will value him elsewhere. Those were strong words from the "current" franchise shortstop - who was struggling with both his bat and glove at the time - considering his free agent status at season's end.
Were we finally seeing Garciaparra's true feelings about the front office that openly tried to replace him with Alex Rodriguez during the offseason?
Once this nugget dropped, the defenders defended and the detractors had their fun. Add that to Garciaparra being absent from the lineup in the final game of what ended up a three-game sweep at the Yanks a few weeks later, and the trade chefs were cooking.
Not exactly a "Cowboy Up!" atmosphere.
"Early on, the feeling that we had last year is not that this year," said Kevin Millar, who has endured his own personal struggles in the batter's box in 2004. "But right now you're starting to get that feeling back because with our offense back no lead - when we get down or far behind - is big enough. Now with everybody coming back you're getting that vibe again.
"Now with the addition of Schilling and (Keith) Foulke, this is the same lineup that broke all of those (team batting) records last year. We're the same guys. We just haven't been healthy."
Actually, the Sox are healthier than one might think. When you look at the standings they are in the desired position of playoff contender without playing their best baseball for any extended period of time.
Just days ago Millar's statement would have drawn bizarre looks, even laughter after Boston crawled home with a 1-5 road downer that peaked discussions about the future of a band of high-priced underachieving free agents that may or may not be unloaded by the trading deadline.
It was easily the lowest regular season moment of the past two years with more depths and ugliness seemingly to come.
Then a 5-1 homestand, featuring all of the working assets expected from this club, has restored hope that 2004 can be salvaged.
If only this late performance can become a habit.
"We've played good enough this homestand where we've kind of played ourselves back into feeling like we're a decent club," said manager Terry Francona of the strong end before the break. "But that's just the beginning. We've got to keep going."
Even after a loss to close out the first half, the Sox know they are at the beginning of something better.
Commentaries by Del N. Jones are posted on Boston Sports Forum every Monday. His weekend columns can also be read in the Saturday/Sunday edition of The Patriot Ledger or at patriotledger.com.