NEW` YORK — The Red Sox arrived at Yankee Stadium this weekend buried in fourth place in the American League East. Even New York manager Joe Girardi acknowledged there wasn’t the usual excitement about having the defending World Series champions across the field.
“They’ve had their struggles just like us,” Girardi said. “They’ve had good streaks and bad streaks, and you never really understand completely why it happens.”
Nobody does. Eight months after they beat the St. Louis Cardinals for an unexpected championship, the Red Sox are scratching for relevance at the midway point of the season.
Injuries, underperformance, and what some around the team fear is a lack of cohesion leave the Sox facing the probability of not making the postseason for what would be the fourth time in the last five years.
“It’s a different team, yet with many of the same players,” manager John Farrell said. “The one thing you can never get your arms around is what does winning the previous year do to a group of guys who are returning? That’s the endless search. I’m sure every team attempts to make it fresh and keep an edge. That’s the ongoing challenge.”
No team has repeated as World Series champions since the Yankees from 1998-2000. In the 12 seasons that followed, six World Series champions failed to make the playoffs and three had losing records.
The Red Sox won 95 games and earned postseason berths in both seasons following their Series victories in 2004 and ’07. But only the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies returned to the World Series.
“It’s hard to be that good for two or three years in a row,” said David Ortiz, the only three-time Series champion on the Red Sox’ roster. “But we should be better than this.”
Red Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski helped the White Sox win the Series in 2005. Chicago won 90 games the following year but missed the playoffs.
“Sometimes you just don’t get — and I hate to say this — but sometimes you just don’t get the breaks and it’s hard to explain,” Pierzynski said. “People don’t understand how hard it is to make the playoffs in baseball. It’s not like basketball or hockey.”
There is ample time for the Red Sox to recover. Starting on Monday against the Chicago Cubs, they will play 13 of their next 16 games at Fenway Park. They could get back in contention before the All-Star break.
“Trust me, we can do it,” said second baseman Dustin Pedroia, ever brash. “I’m not giving up with half the season left. We’re a good week away from being right in the race. It’s a matter of us getting together and doing it. That’s basically it.”
But that’s something the Red Sox have been saying for weeks now, and Pedroia is part of the problem.
The Sox went into the weekend with one of the weakest offenses in the American League. They were 13th in runs, last in slugging percentage, 14th in stolen bases, and below league average in almost every other significant category outside of doubles and walks.
The Sox are among the league leaders in runners left on base, strikeouts, and double plays.
Dig deeper and the differences between last season and this one are stark. The Sox hit .278 with runners in scoring position in 2013 and are nearly 50 points lower now. Their pinch hitters produced 20 RBIs last year and 4 so far this year.
The Sox came from behind to win 36 games last season and are on a pace for eight fewer. They are worse at home, on the road, and in games decided by one or two runs.
It falls on the offense. Ortiz, Pedroia, Daniel Nava, and Jonny Gomes, four critical players a year ago, have underachieved. Shane Victorino, a Gold Glove right fielder and offensive catalyst, has played only 21 games because of injuries.
The Sox also made some personnel moves that backfired. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, one of the backbones a year ago, left as a free agent and was replaced by Pierzynski.
Pierzynski was a .283 career hitter with power. But at age 37 he is having his least productive season.
Few were critical of the Red Sox not meeting the demands of center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who signed with the Yankees for $153 million over seven years. But their plans to replace him have been inadequate.
Rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. has been a sterling defender but has struggled to keep his batting average over .200.
The only outfielder obtained via free agency or trade was Grady Sizemore, a former standout with the Indians who sat out two seasons with injuries. He was released earlier this month.
The Sox also made a mess of their infield. When reliable shortstop Stephen Drew elected to become a free agent, the team gave the job to young star Xander Bogaerts and committed to using Will Middlebrooks at third base.
When Middlebrooks broke a finger in May and went on the disabled list, general manager Ben Cherington suddenly switched course. He signed Drew, who was still available, and shifted Bogaerts to third.
Drew, rusty after a long layoff, has so far failed to hit, and a disappointed Bogaerts fell into a slump within days of losing his job at shortstop.
“In our internal conversations, we knew this was going to be difficult at times,” Farrell said. “You never know what the set of circumstances or challenges will be that you face. This year the injuries to position players are more extensive than a year ago.
“We look back on 2013 and know that a number of things worked well together. We also benefited from good fortune. Whether that was timely hitting, decisions in games that clicked, the come-from-behind wins, the walkoff wins.
“It’s hard to quantify those and you can’t plan for them. But when those take life, a belief grows. There’s almost like a synergy that takes over. That hasn’t happened yet.”
Brian Sabean, the general manager of the San Francisco Giants, understands what the Red Sox are going through. Sabean built World Series winners in 2010 and 2012, then failed to make the playoffs the next year.
The Giants finished 16 games out of first place at 76-86 last season after winning it all the year before.
“There’s an expiration date on every team and you try and keep that window open as long as you can,” said Sabean, a native of Concord, N.H. “But so many things can change. There are injuries; the schedule can work against you. Only so much of it is in your control.”
Sabean said it’s important not to let the giddiness of winning a World Series change the philosophy of what helped you win in the first place.
“You have to have a collaborative mind-set as an organization, keep your budget in line, and keep your options open,” he said. “There may be heightened expectations but you still have to develop your team the same way and have roster flexibility and create depth. It’s not always going to work in a particular year. But if you have a plan, you’ll be in position to take advantage of situations.”
The Red Sox may still be in a good position. The pitching staff is the equal of last season, with starters Jon Lester and John Lackey among the best in the league and the bullpen a strong group. If Victorino can get healthy and the underperforming veterans improve, the Sox have a chance.
“The biggest thing for us is to get [Victorino] back. That would add some continuity to the lineup. He was big for us last year,” Lester said. “We miss him.
Pedroia and Ortiz, two foundation players, also have to produce in the middle of the order.
“You have to get a pitch to hit first,” Pedroia said. “With everything going on, we’re getting pitched to carefully. That’s happened before and the cream rises to the top. But I don’t think either of us is getting a lot of fastballs we can do something with.
“We’ve played half the games. I could go out in July and double what I did in June. It’s about having a consistent approach.”
A larger question is whether the Red Sox have the same will to win they had a year ago. That team had a combination of returning players stinging from a last-place finish in 2012 and a large group of newcomers eager to prove themselves in Boston.
“Different things motivate different people. We went through what we did in 2012 and that creates a certain kind of motivation,” Lester said. “For me, winning a World Series motivates me to win more. You don’t forget that feeling because it’s such a rush, such a high. But each individual is different. Some guys need to get knocked down and not be complacent.”
Said Pedroia: “I don’t think anybody in here is treating this season any different because we won the World Series. I’d say something if I thought that.”
Farrell has been watching since spring training to see whether that same hunger remains. It left him with a greater appreciation of what the team did a year ago.
“The same goal is still there but it hasn’t clicked like it did a year ago,” he said. “The consistency of winning with no prolonged losing streaks, that hasn’t been there and it stands out. Those are questions related to a dynamic that doesn’t exist now or did exist a year ago and, believe me, if there was an elixir it would be used. That’s what makes winning that much more special.”
Lester, who will be a free agent after this season, looks at the roster and sees hope.
“This group understands the situation,” he said. “We need things to go right, better than they have. Health has a lot to do with it. You need a good core of players, which we have. Then you have to get on that roll.
“Baseball is a slow-momentum sport, but there is momentum. So far, we keep hitting snags. But one thing we know is that we know how to win. Last year proved that.”