ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It is difficult to comprehend the place where the Red Sox have arrived. The dynamic surrounding the team bears no resemblance to what was accomplished -- and how it was accomplished -- last year.
Indeed, 2013 now feels profoundly distant, a tale about an abstract team that went from worst to first. It is a children's story -- a delusion? did it happen? -- that assumes the fictional grandiosity of myth.
The '14 season will not be mythologized, unless by a tragic chorus that keeps shouting unheeded advice -- Sign Abreu! Sign Cruz! Beware the vicissitudes of youth! Achtung, creeping entitlement! The ides! -- while watching a season of great expectations collapse into cellar-dwelling dismay.
This year, it is the wins that seem like the false note.
On their way out of the Tropicana Dome, the Red Sox managed to snap their five-game losing streak with a 3-2 victory of the series finale. Yet the victories now seem hollow, almost an afterthought, at a time when GM Ben Cherington has already stated that his focus between now and the July 31 trade deadline is deals (or non-deals) "with a mind toward building as quickly as possible for April of 2015."
For those who might have taken shelter from the events of the weekend, a dose of Dramamine might be appropriate to surf through the chop.
Despite three straight losses, Red Sox uniform personnel continue to cling to the notion that the team has a chance to convince the front office to buy -- or at least not to sell -- with a push in the right direction over the final six games leading to the trade deadline.
That outlook is likely flawed. With a 9 1/2 game deficit in the AL East at the start of the series, a realistic view of probabilities suggests a near-inevitable embrace of the seller's market. Indeed, whereas Rays lefty David Price had been expected to serve as the primary target of the trade market, the notion that his Friday night opponent, Jon Lester, might soon lay claim to that title is already swirling through the industry prior to Friday's game.
Lester had one hiccup in his strong outing, entrusted a 3-2 lead to his bullpen, then saw Sox relievers torch the contest in a 6-4 loss. The "sell" siren blares. Lester (author of a 2.52 ERA) says after the game that he would not be surprised to be traded, and even allows that he would still be open to re-signing with the Sox if they dealt him.
The Red Sox make their first sale, shipping Jake Peavy to the Giants for a pair of pitching prospects (Triple-A right-hander reliever Heath Hembree and Triple-A left-handed starter Edwin Escobar).
Of course, a deal of Peavy had seemed all but inevitable for weeks, even when the Sox believed they could contend. The team felt it had internal candidates (Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo) who had a chance to at least match the veteran's performance level, while also giving some sense of their readiness to contribute to the rotation in 2015.
So, in its own right, the deal doesn't necessarily signal a change in the team's outlook for 2014. That is true both because the Sox believe they have viable replacements for Peavy and because the team's outlook for 2014 had already been fixed by the string of four straight losses on the road trip.
"I have to say it’s been a disappointing week -- and a little surprising, even," Cherington -- unseen and Oz-like, his voice emanating from the speaker phone in an unventilated storage closet in the Tropicana Dome that is overstuffed by roughly a dozen reporters -- acknowledged. "We ran off a bunch of wins and had a big win Monday night up in Toronto. We kept thinking even as of Tuesday that we were looking toward continuing that run and adding wins, and I really thought we would. It hasn’t happened. As you start marking down the days before Thursday -- and Thursday does mean something; there’s a reason why they call it a deadline -- we have to be mindful of what that means with where we are, what the math says about our chances, and we have to act accordingly."
Though anticipated, the Peavy deal resonates in the Red Sox clubhouse. Even though the right-hander had been acquired at the 2013 trade deadline, and was a latecomer whose contributions on the mound were real but somewhat modest en route to the title, he quickly became a key clubhouse presence whose impact on his teammates was a hand-in-glove fit for a baseball-obsessed group in 2013.
"To tell you the truth, any time you subtract, it's tough," said Jonny Gomes. "But there are certain people that bring different things to the table. This guy just bled winning over here. The fans and the baseball cards and the Jumbotron go on the stats, but what he brought to Jon Lester, what he brought to the team, what he brought to our scouting meetings, that's what I'm biased to. If you can offer more than what your job description or title is … you're more valuable. This guy, he brought so much to the table. Everybody goes right to the stats, but ask any of these pitchers: There were outs and strikeouts and double plays that were gotten by Jake Peavy when he wasn't even on the mound. … He brought over an element of breaking down a hitter and breaking down tape that I hadn't seen before."
Such words attest to an idealized season of 2013 in which a baseball culture seemingly permitted players to maximize their abilities, to execute flawlessly and to exploit every possible advantage and win. Such words do not characterize the developments of '14, in which numerous players are struggling and/or underperforming.
Somewhere in '14 -- maybe in the earliest days of spring training, maybe in the early days of the season, maybe somewhere as the summer wore on and the wins wore down the vestiges of confidence and optimism . . . somewhere -- the clubhouse alchemy of a season ago stopped producing gold. Yet the departure of Peavy had a finality about the dissolution of a special atmosphere that prevailed on the way to a championship, and the joy that followed it.
"This guy has a pretty rare piece of memorabilia -- a freaking Duck Boat," said Gomes. "I'm sure there's quite a few people in here that had the money to buy one, but he took it one step further. It showed how much it did mean to him, how much of a winner he is, how much he's going to walk out of his house at Southern Falls, see that Duck Boat and have it remind him of this team and winning the World Series."
As if to amplify the about-face from a whole-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts culture, voice is given to individual rather than collective concerns.
In '13, Mike Carp in many ways served as a symbol of what made the Red Sox good. He excelled in a part-time role and took evident joy in it, invariably smiling during the interactions with his teammates before and after games and looking like a baseball nomad who had at long last, entirely unexpectedly, found a home.
This year, that home seems lost. Carp admits despondency about the week-long spans between playing opportunities, senses little inclination by the team to get him into the lineup or even off the bench, makes known that he has requested a trade.
On the field, a 3-0 loss drops the Sox to 10 games under .500 -- though at this point, the distance from a respectable record seems to matter little.
In-game conversation is diverted to Scranton, where PawSox shortstop Jonathan Herrera was pulled off the field in the bottom of the fourth inning, setting in motion a Twitter frenzy of speculation, amplified by the removal of Dodgers prospect Corey Seager from his game and the absence of fellow Dodgers prospect Joc Pederson from his lineup. Another Dodgers-Red Sox blockbuster?
The entire matter ultimately proves little more than a strange coincidence -- Herrera has a minor injury; Seager was felled by a stomach bug; Pederson received a day off -- but a reminder is offered about the challenges of navigating through conflicting information and speculation in the days leading up to July 31.
Postgame conversation revolves around two disputed calls on the field and the Sox' handling of them:
1) David Ortiz lined a ball that was caught by a fan in right field. Ortiz insists the call of a ground-rule -- a boundary call that is upheld by an umpire's review -- robbed him of his 25th homer of the year.
2) Christian Vazquez appeared to have picked off Yunel Escobar at second base with a blistering throw behind the runner. The runner is ruled safe. John Farrell discusses the matter with the second-base umpire, but word from the dugout is that the call should not be challenged. Players who subsequently review the video are in a state of disbelief -- particularly given that Escobar ended up scoring on a single.
"A challenge would have been nice there," said John Lackey.
“How in the hell didn’t we challenge that one?" wondered Ortiz. "That was [an] out."
The team's offensive futility is no longer a stunning development. But the game features a disconcerting sign for the club with implications beyond the immediate outcome.
Xander Bogaerts, after taking a called third strike from reliever Grant Balfour, sheds his bat, helmet and batting gloves in the batter's box as he prepares to return to the field. But there were just two outs in a first-and-third situation. Sox personnel express concern that the gaffe points to the weight being worn by Bogaerts as his staggering slump closes on seven weeks.
The now-familiar soundtrack of silence characterizes the Red Sox clubhouse in the early morning. The boisterous camaraderie of a year ago has yielded to whispers, conversations that do not invite expanded participation of additional teammates.
There's not enmity in the communiques -- the exchanges between players remain friendly enough. There's just not a lot to say.
A sheepish Bogaerts gets the day off, as the Sox continue their attempts to try to help him navigate through this seven-week thing that he has not been able to master.
On the opposite wall from Carp, discontent percolates in another corner of the clubhouse. When the Sox moved Felix Doubront from the rotation to the bullpen in June, the left-hander said that he was prepared to contribute in relief, and that he wasn't at the point of desiring a trade for a chance to start elsewhere.
A month later, miserable in his banishment to the bullpen and the reality that the Red Sox essentially appear to be considering the entire Pawtucket rotation ahead of him for a starting role, Doubront tells MassLive.com that his only conceivable future with the team beyond the trade deadline is as a starter. He says that it is "hard to be happy" as a member of the Red Sox.
Farrell expresses "respect" for Carp and Doubront's preferences, even as he suggests diplomatically that players need to be mindful that playing time is earned rather than a birthright.
"Sometimes performance guides where you are slated or where you’re slotted. And sometimes, that’s where some objectivity has to come into play," said Farrell. "Like I said, I fully respect guys wanting an expanded role. Along with that comes the circumstances that they find themselves in. Who else is around them? Who else is competing for the same spots? You can’t turn away from that."
The rumor mill whirs audibly -- before, during, after the game. Curiosity looms about who will follow Peavy out of town.
Reports emerge that the Red Sox are open to dealing left-hander Andrew Miller. Industry sources suggest they'd be surprised if Miller remains with the Sox beyond the deadline given the level of interest in him and hence the potential return. He pitches a scoreless seventh, returns to the mound for the eighth … and gets pulled.
A trade? Nope. The Red Sox had been waiting for right-handed pinch-hitter Brandon Guyer to be introduced into the game, in place of left-hander Matt Joyce, before calling in Junichi Tazawa from the bullpen. Still, this speculation is what happens at a time of year where each in-game maneuver is scrutinized for hidden meanings about the possibility of deal-making.
Meanwhile, a report on the possibility of a deal between the Red Sox and Dodgers involving Lester and Matt Kemp as the principals ratchets up the frenzy. An industry source suggests there's nothing to the report, yet once released, it is far easier for a rumor's flames to be fanned than doused.
Oh, the game: The Red Sox received an adequate start from Allen Webster, who somehow squeezes through 5 1/3 innings and allows two runs despite having virtually no control of his fastball and throwing more balls than strikes. The bullpen races through 11 outs. David Ortiz demolishes a Chris Archer changeup for a three-run homer that proves the only offense the Red Sox would receive in their final 18 innings in Tampa Bay, though in this instance, the blast proves sufficient to propel the Sox to a 3-2 victory.
There is some satisfaction to be taken in the win. After all, major leaguers, no matter the state of the standings, are hard-wired to loathe defeats. So Ortiz expresses some contentment with a victory and his role in delivering it, as well as the five homers he launched on his road trip.
But bigger picture? Ortiz struggles to make sense of what the Sox are doing, wonders whether the possibility of a deal involving Jon Lester suggests a forthcoming rebuild that he had not anticipated.
As for the home run: Majestic blast. Game-winning. Ortiz describes it as the type of shot that one cannot help but enjoy. Rays pitcher Archer disagrees, and, taking stock of a stylized bat fling, wonders why Ortiz feels entitled to "showboat."
Ortiz does not appreciate the judgment.
"Whatever, dude," said Ortiz. "There's always going to be guys out there making comments. He's not the right guy to say that, I don't think. He's got two days in the league. You can't be just [expletive] and complaining about [expletive] like that."
There is nothing else. No more questions. Nothing left to say. Just more silence.
The clubhouse clears of reporters. The players make their exit to the bus, preparing to fly back to Boston and leave behind the road trip that marked the beginning of the very, very long path to April 2015.