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On baseball

Red Sox have what it takes to contend

Elite players must step up

The Red Sox have been without Jacoby Ellsbury since April 13, when he suffered a right shoulder injury.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The Red Sox have been without Jacoby Ellsbury since April 13, when he suffered a right shoulder injury.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — You hear some Red Sox fans say their team has no heart.

They’ve got the wrong body part.

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In amassing a 43-43 record, what’s been missing are shoulders, elbows, thumbs, and legs.

David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez, Mike Aviles, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Kelly Shoppach, Dustin Pedroia, Cody Ross, Will Middlebrooks, Daniel Nava, Ryan Sweeney, Nick Punto, Jon Lester, Franklin Morales, Felix Doubront, Alfredo Aceves, Aaron Cook, Scott Atchison, Vicente Padilla, Andrew Miller, and Matt Albers have plenty of heart.

Many of the 44 players, including 14 outfielders, who have played have shown heart.

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You can argue that some have underperformed (the first-inning pitching problems are maddening), but the one trait this Red Sox team has is it hustles as much as any Sox team in recent years.

So, yes, we will emphasize that same boring topic — injuries. Who isn’t sick of blaming everything on that? But be as sick as you’d like. Say it’s an excuse if you’d like. But the reality is the Sox have been the most injured team in baseball.

We try to downplay the magnitude of 20 players on the disabled list overall and half the payroll on the DL at one time. While other teams have had injuries, it’s been nothing like what’s happened in Boston.

Forget all of the peripheral stuff, the focus has to be on the field. The fact is the leading actors often have been replaced by fill-ins, some of whom have performed admirably, others of whom haven’t cut it.

The second half must be about the elite players.

The Red Sox have been without Jacoby Ellsbury for three months, slow in returning from a subluxation of his non-throwing shoulder. They have had the player who finished second in the American League MVP voting last season for less than a month.

Their other elite athlete, left fielder Carl Crawford, sustained two injuries while rehabbing from offseason wrist surgery. One was a sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament, which likely will result in Tommy John surgery this offseason unless he blows out his throwing elbow before then. The other is a groin strain that has kept him from returning immediately after the break, although he shouldn’t trail Ellsbury back into the lineup by too much.

Crawford and closer Andrew Bailey have yet to play an inning this season.

General manager Ben Cherington is often reminded of the offseason trade he made with Oakland in which he got Bailey and Ryan Sweeney for Josh Reddick and two minor leaguers. Reddick has hit 20 homers this season, but Cherington hasn’t been able to show off Bailey, a two-time All-Star. That opportunity may come in the next few weeks.

The reason Cherington traded Reddick is because he didn’t want to deal Ryan Kalish, who after shoulder surgery probably won’t be able to show his true value until he’s fully recovered next season.

If the full squad, or close to the full squad, is ever assembled, and that includes Pedroia returning from thumb problems in the next few weeks, then the Red Sox still have comparable, and in some cases superior, talent to Baltimore, Toronto, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Chicago, the teams with which they will be competing for two wild-card spots.

Being only 2½ games back for the second wild card, making the postseason doesn’t seem so daunting. There are teams to leapfrog and the schedule is challenging. The Red Sox are starting the second half at Tampa Bay, coming home to face the White Sox and Blue Jays, before heading to Texas and New York.

By the end of this stretch, the Sox will have a better idea of whether they should be buyers or sellers at the trading deadline. If they remain status quo or improve, then why not go for it? If they lose 10 out of 12, then maybe it’s time to trash it.

At the break last season the Red Sox were 55-35 and in first place. How did that end up? You win nothing for being the best first-half team. The Red Sox’ record after the All-Star break was 35-37, including 7-20 to end the season. A lot of that was tied to injuries, poor performance by big-name players, and a lack of pitching depth in the farm system.

In trying to avoid those pitfalls, here are the top 10 things that must happen in the second half this season:

1. Ellsbury must recognize his importance to the team and be the spark that gets the offense working.

2. Crawford must hope his elbow holds up and he can do the things with his legs, his bat, and his glove that the All-Star Crawford once did.

3. Lester must assume the ace role. He doesn’t appear that far away.

4. If the Sox are going to keep him, Josh Beckett needs to get back to the things that made him so good for so long. Find something to make baseball important to him again.

5. Gonzalez may have just had an 18-game hitting streak, but the Gonzalez the Sox need is the one who comes up with big hits, who hits balls over the Green Monster, and who hits for the power that has characterized the majority of his career.

6. Middlebrooks must find a way to stay in the lineup. His righthanded power is hugely important and he must justify the faith that has been shown in him by Cherington and manager Bobby Valentine by trading Kevin Youkilis to the White Sox.

7. A trade. With so many teams bunched up, it would seem a well-timed deal involving a player or two who can impact the rotation or lineup could also separate the Red Sox from the competition. There seem to be luxury-tax concerns by ownership, but competing for someone like Cole Hamels or Matt Garza (and we’ve been told that Felix Hernandez is probably not available) would give this team a jolt.

8. Bailey could be added to the bullpen just at the right time. The bullpen has been terrific, but bullpens tend to wear down. Bailey could be the fresh arm that’s added to the end of the pen. Daniel Bard could provide an inspiring story if he could overcome his lack of control and also be added to late-inning relief.

9. More youth? It may be difficult, given that Shoppach has performed well as the backup catcher, but it seems a waste not being able to take advantage of Ryan Lavarnway’s bat. While the catching prospect has not hit for the power he did a year ago, he is hitting well. There’s also nothing wrong with trying to find a way to get Jose Iglesias’s glove on the major league roster, even if he’s coming off the bench or spot starting. Defense is important in the late innings and he could provide that.

10. The continued success of Ortiz, Saltalamacchia, and Ross, their three power bats, is vital. Nothing beats a three-run homer, except a grand slam.

All signs point to the Red Sox being a better second-half team on paper, but this all about what happens on the field. All of the other noise is meaningless.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.
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