PHILADELPHIA — They are the last-place Boston Red Sox.
It has become part of their name. They are no longer just the Red Sox. Just as the Wallendas are the Flying Wallendas, and the Bosstones are the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, the Sox are the last-place Red Sox.
Cellar dwellers. Basement boys. Bringing up the rear.
When I was a kid, we had a dumb joke about the Washington Senators. Washington was first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.
And now the Red Sox are the bottom-feeders of the AL East. Sorry, but it’s hard to get my head around that one.
We are not talking about a tiny sample. After Sunday’s game, the Sox will have played more than one-quarter of their season. And they have been in last place every day of the season. It’s simply hard to believe.
A year ago, they were touted as a 100-win team. “Best Team Ever’’ was the infamous Herald headline. They stumbled out of the gate, then lived up to the billing, playing 40 games over .500 for four months.
We know what happened after that. But we considered it a fluke. Now we wonder. After 40 games last year, the Sox were 20-20, tied for third place, three games out of first, and it felt like they were going to get much better. They did.
This year, it does not feel that way. In the wake of Saturday night’s 7-5 win over the Phillies, the Sox are 19-21. But getting over .500 feels like climbing Kilimanjaro. It hasn’t happened this year.
This is the team with a $173 million payroll, third-highest in baseball. Why so many Triple A players? Why is Bobby Valentine playing with a short bench just about every day? When are they going to go on a legitimate winning streak that does not involve the dreadful Twins or Mariners?
This is the latest the Sox have been in last place since 1997, when Jimy Williams’s team sat in the basement in September en route to a 78-84 record and fourth place. That is the only Sox team to finish below .500 since the Butch Hobson era (1992-94, three seasons below .500).
When does this bunch cease to be the last-place Red Sox of 2012?
“We’re going to be the first-place Red Sox,’’ Valentine predicted as he stood in his office a couple of hours before Saturday night’s game against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. “It might take a long time and I don’t have a date on it, but it’s going to happen.
“These other teams are going to let it happen. People are going to beat each other and then it’s who gets hot last. And Lord knows we haven’t had a winning streak.’’
Last weekend in Boston, when Valentine was asked a question that included the phrase “in the six weeks you’ve been on the job . . .,’’ the manager stopped the query and said, “Has it only been six weeks?’’
Amen. So much stuff has happened - most of it bad - it feels like the Sox have been struggling for six years.
“It’s been difficult,’’ said Valentine. “You know what they say - ‘I’ve never seen a season like this one’ - and every year they say that. That’s what this is.
“We’re playing good, we’ve just got to somehow keep it together. We keep losing guys for two days. It’s hard for consistency and continuity.
“But these are tough guys. The everyday players seem like they get it. But like I said, it’s been difficult. A 20-day stretch, playing with a short roster every day, and all the weird stuff. We had a 4-1 game [vs. Cleveland May 12]. It was really cool. Aceves came in and got the outs. Nobody got hurt.
“But everything else . . .’’
True. It seems like the Red Sox never have a normal day. There’s always an injury, some goofy distraction, or a historic event of dubious distinction, like blowing a 9-0 lead to the Yankees April 21, or using Darnell McDonald in relief during a 17-inning loss to the Orioles May 6.
In so many ways, the 2012 Sox season feels like a continuation of the 7-20 September. I asked Dustin Pedroia if he was surprised that it has been this bad for this long.
“We have 120 games to go,’’ he said. “I don’t think you can sit back and say, ‘Poor us.’ We can’t think like that. We can’t read the papers and dwell on the negative. We’ve got some guys banged up. We have to have guys step up and play in their place and play well.’’
What about the notion that fans don’t like this team?
“Hopefully the fans like our team, but that’s not my job,’’ said the second baseman. “My job is to help us try to win games. Would you like us more if we were winning more? If we win, you guys are going to like us.
“It’s hard to watch sometimes, but we ain’t quitting, man.’’
The last-place Red Sox play again Sunday afternoon against the Phillies.