MINNEAPOLIS — A quarter of the season is gone. The Red Sox are 20-20 and they are about as smooth as sandpaper.
They live in .500. They are what their record says they are. There are no lies. No deception. No better or worse than their record indicates.
Their only salvation is that when they look up, down, and to the side, they see Baltimore, New York, and Toronto, and even feel good about themselves compared with Tampa Bay.
They see hope, but it’s fleeting.
After 40 games last season, the Sox were a respectable 23-17 and two games out.
They are actually closer to first place now than they were then, but it doesn’t feel the same, and you know what I mean.
Don’t know if they have to go through a bunch of losing-scenario checkpoints before the winning takes over. The latest is: trailing, bouncing back to tie, then losing late. It happened twice in the Minnesota series, with Andrew Miller “having two losses with my name on it,” including Thursday afternoon’s 4-3 setback in 10 innings.
They have lost in a variety of ways over the first 40. They went through a lack of production with runners in scoring position, which has been a recurring problem but not as noticeable of late. They had bad defensive games. They had badly pitched games. They had games blown by the bullpen.
Manager John Farrell had to declare that the Red Sox were essentially out of the running business after their stolen-base success rate dipped to 50 percent.
In this space, we have focused on the lack of production by the young guys, but Will Middlebrooks had a breakthrough when he extended Thursday’s game with a two-run single in the ninth inning to make it 3-3 after going 0 for 3 with a pair of strikeouts.
Yet with two on and two out, Jackie Bradley Jr. struck out to strand the go-ahead runs. He has slumped to .205.
The Bradley situation is puzzling in that he lost his job to Grady Sizemore in spring training, only to return when Shane Victorino started the season on the disabled list. It was then decided that Sizemore couldn’t play center field and had to be moved to the corners, so Bradley was given the job.
Now Bradley, who has been an excellent defender, is really struggling at the plate and Sizemore has begun to pick it up again. Yet there’s been no movement to give Sizemore his job back.
Miller is also an enigma. We spoke about him as a possible future closer because he’s lefthanded and throws mid-to-high 90s. Yet as dominating as he can be, he allowed the weak-hitting Aaron Hicks (.170) to fist a single on a 3-and-2 pitch to left field, scoring the winning run. Miller had coughed it up two nights earlier, too.
“The characteristic of this team is consistent with a year ago, and that is it loves to compete and loves to prepare,” said Farrell. “We’ve shown it repeatedly and yet we’re also gaining valuable experience on the field and at the plate with a couple of positions on the field so we need to continue to pitch well, particularly our starters, to keep games in check.
“We felt like coming out of spring training, record-wise we’d be better than what we are, but we’re clearly in the mix of this.”
In the mix. That’s the best that can be said.
It’s been an exercise in “let’s see how much progress the young guys can make as we make our way through the season.”
Middlebrooks’s one good at-bat definitely stood out.
Every time he gets a big hit, there’s the hope that he’s about to turn the corner and become a major league adult who can be a significant contributor.
“We’ll see,” said Farrell, when asked if that could be the hit that gets Middlebrooks (.203) into a good place. “We certainly need him to get going. The bottom third of the order has to contribute more than it’s been.”
Xander Bogaerts has also begun to make strides. He batted second Thursday and made good contact with not much to show for it except one hit in five at-bats. He is hitting .257, but that’s a number that appears deceiving because he has made contact on a consistent basis and hit the ball at people.
His fielding has also smoothed out in terms of making the routine play, though the sensational one is still not part of his baseball DNA.
Then there’s Clay Buchholz, who has been a microcosm of this 20-20 season. He’s been up and down — and was mostly up Thursday.
He continues to give up a lot of hits (10) but was able to limit the damage to three runs over six innings and at least ended with a quality start after being beaten up for 10 hits and 6 runs in 4⅓ innings against Texas last week.
Farrell has continually said that the starting pitchers must set the tone for the team. He repeated that Thursday. It’s tough for the starter to put the team in a 3-0 hole right off the bat, but to the Red Sox’ credit, they overcame that.
Thank Bogaerts for elevating Phil Hughes’s pitch count with a 14-pitch at-bat in the fifth; that probably had a direct effect on Hughes not coming out for the seventh.
In his evaluation, Farrell has certainly chosen the “glass half-full” over “glass half-empty” route, “partly sunny” over “partly cloudy.” Nobody can ever say he didn’t give every one of the young players the chance to prove themselves.
Farrell believes the confidence he has shown in them will eventually pay off. And as long as the Red Sox can stay “in the mix,” he’ll likely be able to keep smiling a little instead of frowning a lot.
It has to be hard not seeing all of those special things from last season — the two-outs hits, the great defensive plays in the infield, the dominating stuff Buchholz had.
But at least there’s David Ortiz going bonkers against the Twins; Dustin Pedroia being so consistent and still providing good defense; Jon Lester still being a solid ace; and John Lackey setting an aggressive tone for everyone on the staff.
They know, and we know, you can’t have three more quarters like the first quarter.
The checklist of ways to lose must soon be checked off for good.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.