It was 2006 and everything appeared OK.
On June 28 the Red Sox were cruising along, 3 1/2 games ahead of the Yankees with a 47-28 record. They had won 11 straight (on their way to 12), a run that would see the Sox beat up National League opponents in 14 of 15 meetings.
The injured were returning (Coco Crisp), and the majority of their lineup was showing no signs of slowing down. The Red Sox had even added to the feel-good experience by pounding former teammate Pedro Martinez in the pitcher's return to Fenway Park to the tune of eight runs in three innings.
Flash forward to August 1 of the same season.
The Yankees had drawn even in the standings, and by the end of the month would be up by eight games. The Sox' starting right fielder (Trot Nixon) and catcher (Jason Varitek) had been sidelined by injuries, leaving the lineup with a wave of Corky Miller, Javy Lopez and Wily Mo Pena. Meanwhile, the likes of Jason Johnson, Kyle Snyder and Julien Tavarez were being asked to weather the storm in a battered and beaten starting rotation.
Lesson: Stuff happens. It's a reality that has again slapped the Red Sox in the face recently.
Leadoff hitter/outfielder, Jacoby Ellsbury: Out, fractured ribs. Expected back mid-July.
No. 2 hitter/second baseman, Dustin Pedroia: Out, broken foot. Expected back sometime in August.
No. 3 hitter/catcher, Victor Martinez: Out, broken finger. Return date not yet known.
No. 8 hitter/outfielder, Mike Cameron: Playing hurt, sports hernia. Rarely playing back-to-back days.
Opening Day starter, Josh Beckett: Out, back/lat. Expected back mid-to-late July.
So, with the Red Sox currently just two games in back of the first-place Yankees (and in the top spot in the case for the Wild Card), the issue is whether or not lessons have been learned and this round of adversity can be turned back.
Here is a look at the key questions (and answers) heading into this group's most uncertain time:
1. Can the Nava/McDonald dynamic can get through another few weeks?
Both Daniel Nava and Darnell McDonald had their moments on the recent road trip, but there were warning signs that we shouldn't be wondering who is going to play where come October. Nava finished the swing hitting .208, while McDonald hit .278.
In a perfect world -- where you had the two players for one position -- a platoon situation with the switch-hitting Nava hitting from the left side (where his average stands at .308) and McDonald swinging from the right might be the way to go. But, for one, McDonald has cooled off significantly against left-handed pitching, now hitting .271 against both lefties and righties after tearing up southpaws for the first few weeks of his callup.
Still, despite the potential bumps in the road, the two have shown enough to suggest that if Cameron can keep acclimating himself to life in the lineup (he did hit .313 on the road trip) and Ellsbury does, indeed, find his health in Arizona by the final weeks of July, the Red Sox can get by.
One piece of the puzzle that the duo might have to improve on is producing when called upon to hit higher in the batting order. WIth Pedroia out, Red Sox manager Terry Francona could lean on either Nava or McDonald to occupy the No. 2 hole, where they are currently 3-for-21 this season.
2. Bill Hall could be a better option at second than you might think
While everybody is holding their collective breath as to whether or not newly-acquired Eric Patterson can actually be a serviceable second baseman, it should be noted that the focus should be firmly put on Hall.
Hall has now played 113 major league games at second base and isn't going to make anybody forget Pedroia. But there is some thought that if given the chance to dig into the one position, improvement and steadiness might be around the corner.
The right-handed hitter is batting a respectable .269 with a .387 on-base percentage in 17 June games, while managing a .346 clip with runners on base. (He is struggling against left-handed pitching, hitting just .185.) Overall, Hall, if playing the majority of games, has shown he isn't an albatross to the Red Sox' lineup and can actually add some value.
Considering the cost of second base replacements out in the trade market (is it really worth it to overpay for a Ty Wigginton?), seeing if Hall can discover some defensive momentum at second might be the way to go.
Sure, Patterson may be a better defender, but perhaps should be viewed as the replacement for Hall -- the guy filling in the outfield gaps -- rather than for Pedroia.
3. Martinez' finger can't be (and shouldn't be) a long-term problem
Even if the catcher's digit puts him on the shelf, it's not something that should have a Pedroia-esque timetable affixed to to it.
The short-term issue is finding a catcher for Tim Wakefield and his knuckleball. Jason Varitek will most likely be called on to fill in when the starter next takes the mound on Friday, a dynamic the Sox have steered clear of in recent years. But it's not as if Varitek hasn't done it before, and it should be noted that under the tutelage of catching instructor Gary Tuck the Sox' backstops have become quick learners when it comes to understanding the art of catching the knuckler.
Prior to Tuck's arrival, catchers' game-plans when catching Wakefield were all over the place. Now it is simple (or fairly simple): Adjust the catching stance so that the chest is facing slightly toward second base, let the glove hang to the side instead of straight up, and allow the ball to come into the mitt instead of going out and getting it.
Varitek understand the instructions, and can most likely execute them.
The bigger issue is the loss in middle of the Red Sox' batting order. When Martinez was acquired they turned a bottom-of-the-order hitter into a No. 3 hitter. The dynamic will be flipped once again. Martinez is hitting .354 in June with a .411 on-base percentage. Varitek is having his worst month of the season, hitting .192 in June compared to his .323 average in the same number of games (10) in April.
Still, we aren't talking Corky or Javy here. Varitek has shown enough health and confidence that suggests he can carry a starting load for an abbreviated stretch.
That leads us to …
4. J.D. Drew and David Ortiz have to step up (especially against lefties)
There is little room for Drew to miss time with his balky hamstring, as all of a sudden he has become a meat-of-the-order bat once again. This month the outfielder has performed well (.288/.403/.577), but has done so in eight less games than he played in May.
The Red Sox could really use one of those off-the-chart months Drew seems to turn in at least once a season. (Remember June 2008 when, with Ortiz out with a wrist injury, he hit .337/.462/.848 with 12 home runs?)
Ortiz hasn't exactly used his off-the-charts May as a springboard into two straight quality months, currently hitting .218 (albeit with five home runs) in June. Without the option of Mike Lowell on the bench, and with the Red Sox needing Ortiz to become his familiar presence, one aspect of the designated hitter's game that has to improve is his work against left-handers.
Ortiz is batting just .203 against lefties, with only one of his homers coming against southpaws. This month left-handers have held the DH to a .167 batting average (5-for-30), which, considering he isn't going to face anybody and everybody, is a trend that has to change. It's especially important considering the loss of protection vs. left-handers the Red Sox will be experiencing without Martinez, whose success against such pitchers this month is the stuff of legend (.520).
5. The starters have to keep chugging along
The Red Sox starting pitchers have, more times than not, done their job in June, averaging nearly seven innings per start (158 innings in 25 appearances). They have also come away with 12 wins and two complete games. Overall for the month their ERA has been 3.36.
It has been a dramatic departure from the woes experienced in the season's first month, when the starters totaled six wins for the entirety of April while totaling an ERA of 4.86.
WIth Beckett on the verge of returning, this group could provide the most potent anecdote for the loss of some of the lineup.