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The Boston Globe

Sports

CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER

Let’s give Red Sox benefit of the doubt

Shane Victorino returned to the lineup, and doubled and scored in the third inning against the Yankees. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

JARED WICKERHAM/GETTY IMAGES

Shane Victorino returned to the lineup, and doubled and scored in the third inning against the Yankees.

Most of us have been there. That moment when in the middle of trying to put together your some-assembly-required new television console or nightstand you realize that some pieces are missing.

They were either not in the box or were in the box and have disappeared in a fog of frustration, futility, and perspiration.

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The Red Sox are struggling to put it all together this season and their defense fell apart all over Fenway Park Thursday night in an ignominious 14-5 loss to the New York Yankees that featured five unearned runs, five errors (the most by the Sox since 2001), three wild pitches, a passed ball, and position player Mike Carp mopping up on the mound in the ninth with knuckleballs. The box score does not accurately capture the Red Sox’ desultory defense or the ineptitude of the evening.

“That’s not big league baseball. That’s not Red Sox baseball,” said catcher David Ross.

For their first 23 games, the Red Sox have been the baseball version of the some-assembly-required furniture with missing parts, wobbling to a 10-13 record and resting in last place in the American League East. But they’re closer to the 97-win World Series championship team they were last year than the sub-.500 group they’ve been this season.

The Sox are expected to field their regular lineup for the first time in 2014 on Friday in Toronto. That would be a lineup that includes outfielder Shane Victorino, who returned Thursday night, and third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who will be activated after missing 19 games with a right calf strain.

My general rule for baseball is that you can’t make any meaningful evaluations of a team until you are 40 games into the season, roughly a quarter of the scheduled 162. Thursday night was game No. 23 for the Sox. That’s way too early to lose faith in the Sox just when they’re gaining key pieces.

Still, I believe these guys are playoff contenders, even after a night like Friday, when they boxed the ball around the Fens and young shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who had a bad-hop error in the first, bounced the throw on a routine double-play ball in the seventh.

It hasn’t been pretty for the Sox. They’ve exhibited shoddy defense and inconsistent offense. Their starting pitchers entered Thursday ranked 23d in earned run average. Their initial choice as leadoff hitter, Daniel Nava, is now in Triple A.

If the Sox were having a middling June, no one would be proclaiming this was an expected market correction or that last season was a Fenway fluke. But bad starts lead to bad feelings.

However, the return of Victorino and Middlebrooks represents a reboot for the Sox.

Victorino, who made his season debut (1 for 5) after missing the first 22 games with a right hamstring strain, is a vital part of the chemistry and lineup of the Red Sox. His return is needed with Sox outfielders batting a collective .197.

Victorino is like Red Bull incarnate, a jolt of perpetual energy replete with hustle and big hits. He is also a Gold Glove right fielder on a team with some gloves of granite right now.

“This is a good team,” said Victorino. “It’s just a matter of us going out there and doing it. We got a long season ahead of us. We’re going to have fun doing it.

“I think the part for you guys and for some of us is that we were spoiled with a good April last year. People assume that is what you’re going to do. Sometimes it doesn’t happen that way. I don’t care where we are in the standings. It’s how far are we from being at the top. Getting an opportunity to play teams within our division [Thursday night], going to Toronto, getting Tampa Bay, those are the kind of games you need to win.”

The Sox ended last April 18-8. The disastrous 2012 Red Sox of Bobby Valentine were 11-11 at the end of April and lost 93 games. The infamous 2011 Red Sox were 11-15 at the end of April and still should have made the playoffs.

John Farrell said this team couldn’t make any excuses for its underperformance based on injuries. But the Sox manager was clearly looking forward to seeing what his team can do with a full complement of players.

“I think that’s the one thing we talked about, was just the continuity and some stability with the names that we anticipated breaking camp with,” said Farrell. “Three and a half weeks into the season, we’re finally getting there.”

It was hard not to look across the diamond into the Yankees dugout and not have leadoff envy with former Sox leading man Jacoby Ellsbury (3 for 6 with three RBIs) now filling that role for the Pinstripes.

Farrell indicated before the game he would like to stick with Dustin Pedroia in the leadoff spot and Victorino in the No. 2 hole for a while. Five players have batted in the spot, sporting a combined .183 average and .267 on-base percentage entering Thursday.

“Hopefully, with Pedey and Vic at the top of the order the on-base will be there at a consistent rate. I think that stability is what this team is in need of right now,” said Farrell.

This isn’t the AFC East of the NFL, with one dominant team and a bunch of foils. Any of the teams in the AL East could finish first or last, depending on health, hitting, and starting pitching, which are all intertwined.

The Sox have gotten off to a shaky start, but for the team they thought they would have, the season hasn’t started yet.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.
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