Originally posted on Extra Pine Tar  |  Last updated 6/8/12

“State Of The Sox” is a weekly Friday piece detailing where the Red Sox currently stand in Major League Baseball and whether or not they can be successful going forward. We apologize if, at times, it comes across as a bit harsh.

It’s not very often that the Red Sox fly under the radar in New England, but they’ve been squarely in the background throughout this past week.

While the Celtics have captivated the region, the Red Sox have been tossed aside with the understanding that they’ll still be there whenever the Celtics’ magic runs out. For the first two-plus rounds of the NBA playoffs, nobody really believed that the Celtics could make a legitimate championship run. Once they won two consecutive games after being down 0-2 to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, everyone started taking note, and the Sox became the casualty.

As it turns out, it was the perfect time to divert attention away from the Sox, because there hasn’t been a whole lot to pay attention to. It hasn’t been overly bad, but it hasn’t been overly good either. The Red Sox last week has just been…there. They’re 28-27, still in last place in the division, but also still well within striking distance. They’re only three games out of first.

There have been some discouraging signs, some encouraging signs and not a whole lot of light shed on whether or not they’re actually going to contend.

First, the bad stuff.

Daniel Bard can’t pitch in the major leagues, as I addressed here, and has since been sent down to the minors. It was the right move – really, the only move – and who knows how it will play out. I would guess he’ll stay down in Pawtucket for a while, because there is a hell of a lot to work on. It’s not like he was missing a little bit. He was throwing pitches that wouldn’t have reached home plate on a Little League field. It’s a mess. Until it’s 95-percent better, he’s not going to be helping the Red Sox win games.

Jon Lester still hasn’t found it. He hasn’t been like Bard or anything, but he hasn’t been very good. He’s had four straight bad starts, and it’s the most alarming problem this team is currently facing. Sure, certain guys aren’t hitting, and the team is just hovering around .500, but none of those problems matter if Jon Lester can’t find a way to throw strikes and keep the Red Sox in games.

The team has been able to somehow win two of his four bad starts in a row, but that’s not good enough. When the team wins only half the time its best pitcher is on the mound, what are they going to do the rest of the time. For the Red Sox to make the playoffs, for the Red Sox to compete with the Yankees and Rays (and Orioles, apparently) Jon Lester needs to be Jon Lester. Otherwise, there’s very little reason for optimism anywhere.

The Sox also can’t find a way to beat the Orioles at Fenway Park. If it wasn’t for Clay Buchholz’s gem on Thursday night, they would have been swept again, just like they were in April. The team has lost five out of six games at home to a team they need to beat. There are enough good teams in the AL East that are going to beat the Red Sox from time to time. The Orioles don’t need to be added to the list.

Oh, and Adrian Gonzalez still sucks. And I mean he really, really sucks. He’s taking more things off the table than he’s bringing, at this point, because of where he hits in the lineup and the expectations that come with it. There’s not a lot of positive things to say about a No. 3 hitter with a .272 average and four home runs, unless that No. 3 hitter is Ben Zobrist. Right now, Theo’s big 2011 offseason looks like the single worst offseason a general manager has ever had in the history of Major League Baseball. Two guys for about $300 million, one of who had a miserable first year and hasn’t played yet in his second year, and the other who’s a poor man’s Wade Boggs. Pretty quality stuff right there. Every time I see Gonzalez fly out to right field I want to find Theo and throw pig blood on him like he’s Carrie.

Okay, enough venting. I wrote a positive column last week, and I’ve still got some other positives up my sleeve.

The biggest one, obviously, is the way Clay Buchholz has been pitching. He’s been the anti-Lester, as of late. It took a while, clearly, for him to get going, but now that he’s found it he looks as good as he did in 2010. He was unbelievable on Thursday.

With the team facing that potential sweep to the Orioles, and in danger of falling back below .500, Buchholz was masterful. A complete game four-hitter is great no matter how look at it, but he did it with precision. 125 pitches, only one walk, 11 ground ball outs and 12 fly ball outs. He’s struggled with control at times this year, but he barely missed a spot all night on Thursday.

That makes three good starts in a row after about 11 horrific ones to open the year. I’m not quite ready to declare him all the way back, but he’s gone seven, eight and nine innings, respectively, in those three starts, and he’s allowed only a total of four earned runs. That’s ace stuff right there, and it’s something the Red Sox desperately need for someone.

Another positive has been the steady play of Will Middlbrooks. He went through a little bit of a lull after tearing the cover off the ball when he first came up, but he’s found it again. He’s got the highest average of any regular position player (.312), and he just had an eight-game hitting streak snapped on Thursday. His power has been strong, to quite strong, with six home runs in 28 games, and he’s made Kevin Youkilis so expendable that it’s entirely possible the team takes 50 cents on the dollar just to get rid of him and ensure that Middlebrooks stays in the lineup.

Finally, the last thing that really stands out is how well the bullpen has pitched. They got hit a little bit on Tuesday, when Alfredo Aceves took the loss, but it’s asking way too much for them to go out and hold teams scoreless every single night. Yet, they’ve bascially been doing that, save for Tuesday. And it’s not just like they have to pitch one or two innings – they’ve had to pitch full games. On Sunday, the day that Bard got beaten like a red-headed stepchild, the bullpen pitched 7.1 scoreless innings. Not bad. Scott Atchison looks good – although I’m not sure how, candidly – as does Aceves, Rich Hill, Andrew Miller and Matt Albers. For a bunch of no-names, they’ve held it together pretty damn well. Some credit is definitely in order, for the pen itself and for Bobby Valentine. Yes, Bobby has done something well.

Now, the questions.

What does the team actually get for Youkilis? They can’t get a reliever, because they’re not going to shake up a bullpen that has been so good. They’re not going to get a Major League starter, because there isn’t any room in the rotation. With Buchholz, Lester and Josh Beckett secure, and Felix Doubront pitching great, there is only one spot. Bard is down in Pawtucket, but Daisuke Matsuzaka is coming up to take his place. You have six guys right now - even if one of them is Bard – and not a lot of wiggle room. Offensively, you could probably use some outfield help, but it would only be temporary because of the impending returns of Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury.

So, I guess, that means that the Sox will be looking to deal Youkilis for prospects. There just isn’t anything they could get in return for him that would be able to help at the Major League level right now.

Speaking of Dice-K, his return is so important right now.He’s pitching on Saturday, which is both weird (because he only had Tommy John like six months ago) and kind of exciting. Nobody dislikes Dice-K more than I do, and watching him pitch is like watching somebody tie up your family and torture them, but if he can help the team than I’m all for it. And I’m expecting him to, because he can’t be much worse than Bard. I’m sure I’ll be eating those words next week after Dice-K goes two innings, throws 110 pitches and walks nine guys, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed until then.

Crawford’s return is on the horizon too, but I don’t think it’s coming all that soon. He started a throwing regimen, which is good because, you know, you need to throw a baseball to play the game of baseball. It’s a start I suppose, even if it’s not really all that encouraging. If he can come back right after the All-Star break, it could be like making a major move at the deadline. Or, it could be like somebody taking a dump in a pool. We’ll just have to see.

As far as Jacoby Ellsbury goes, who knows. Anything from here on out is gravy.

Starting on Friday, the Sox will head into a tough stretch. They’re facing the Nationals, and have to deal with Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez on consecutive days. They’ve hit good pitching well this year, and it’ll be interesting to see if it continues against the two pitchers who have been the two best pitchers in the entire National League so far this season.

And then on Saturday, the Celtics will play. With a win, the Sox will take a backseat for a little while longer. With a loss, the spotlight will turn straight back to Fenway. Hopefully the attention will be warranted, whenever it comes.

Most strikeouts by a hitter in a single season
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