Theo Epstein built his team about as well as one could build it. But three months from now, will it have been good enough?
Sunday did little in answering that question, although it did offer the most subtle of reminders.
Here we are, 33 days out from the non-waiver trade deadline, and the Red Sox aren't giving off even a hint of the kind of desperation most major-league clubs have at this time of year. They don't need starters, the bullpen seems set and an argument could be made that each and every spot in the lineup is either covered or could potentially be if something goes astray.
Then there are days like Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Braves (recap) that make you wonder.
The Red Sox were reminded in their final inter-league game that the biggest issue heading into baseball's roster-alterating extravaganza just might be uncertainty. For the past few years they knew what was needed -- shedding Manny Ramirez and replacing him with an All-Star in left in 2008; an eighth-inning reliever and/or right-handed bat in 2007; pitching in 2006 and 2005. This time around such identification isn't so easy.
Nobody -- at least nobody with any sort of sense of the ebbs and flows of a big-league season -- is going to use the fact that the Red Sox have scored two runs over their last two games as the firing mechanism for any sort of panic button. They are 46-29, own the best record in the American League, lead the Yankees by three games, and have the third-best run differential (391 runs scored, 321 allowed).
But, what if...
Catching depth wasn't on the Red Sox' to-do list when it came to team improvements heading into the final hours of the 2006 non-waiver trade deadline. They were carrying a one-game lead over the Yankees, and Jason Varitek was third on the team in RBI (53) to go with 11 homers. A month later, after Varitek suffered a torn meniscus that required surgery and a trip to the D.L. on the night of July 31, the Sox found themselves eight games back while relying on the catching services of Javy Lopez, Corky Miller and Ken Huckaby.
While this team is put together appreciably better than the '06 edition, thanks in large part to unprecedented pitching depth, the moral of the story remains the same: Certainty is perhaps the most difficult acquisition for any team at this time of year, and the Red Sox are no different. Nobody knows if David Ortiz is going to continue to hit, or if Varitek can turn back the history of 37-year-old catchers and keep on his productive pace. That is all understood and accepted.
But what Sunday's loss did was help paint the picture of the one concern that is slowly creeping in front of the team's decision-makers, that of Mike Lowell's health.
Since waking up with an uncomfortable stiffness on the morning of June 18, Lowell is 1-for-14 and has started just four games. Monday morning, with the Red Sox in Baltimore, he finds himself in Boston, scheduled to have a shot of the lubricating gel, Synvisc, in hopes of easing back to the feeling he had prior to the setback of 11 days ago.
The Red Sox are 41-26 with Lowell in the starting lineup and 5-3 without the third baseman beginning the game. As recently as June 13 he was hitting .301, but now the average has dipped to .282, and during that stretch the Sox have found themselves with a team batting average of .249.
Simply put, when looking at the construction of the Red Sox' lineup as a whole, having the production of a middle-of-the-order Mike Lowell is of some significant importance.
Mark Kotsay has played well at first base, but his everyday presence at the position thins the Sox' outfield depth significantly, which, with the health concerns of J.D. Drew and Rocco Baldelli, could come into play. And another trend to consider is that Kevin Youkilis is hitting .250 in 11 games while playing across the diamond at third base, having struck out 14 times in 36 at-bats. Probably just a coincidence, but noteworthy, nonetheless.
With all of that in mind, the Red Sox find themselves edging closer to discovering an actual priority when it comes to fixing what ails them by the end of July -- finding out, some how, some way, if Lowell's hip is going to take a turn for the better. The player believes it will, citing analysis from his doctors suggesting that this is a normal bump in the road in recovering from hip labrum surgery. And if that is the case than the Sox will have perhaps the best trade-deadline acquisition they could have hoped for, peace of mind.
WHO WANTS TO TRADE PENNY NOW?
Brad Penny gave up just two runs in six innings Sunday, coming on solo homers by Chipper Jones and Garret Anderson, respectively.
Since May 3 Penny is 4-3 with a 3.74 ERA.
Penny has gotten at least one out in the sixth inning just twice this season.
And now, the date mentioned when referencing Penny is slowly morphing. At first, P-Day was June 16 -- the moment the Red Sox could trade the starter without his permission. Then it became July 31, the deadline for trades that don't require players to pass through waivers. Now, the milestone date being whispered is October, offering a reminder that Penny has proven himself to be a legitimate member of perhaps baseball's most formidable playoff pitching rotation.
Just more than two weeks ago, Josh Beckett uttered these words after watching Penny shut out the Yankees for six innings: "That's the kind of (expletive) that wins in the playoffs. It's over-powering. It's, 'Here it is, hit it, you can't do anything with it.'
"I don't like [the trade rumors regarding Penny]. I know what we're trying to do, and I know what our front office is trying to do. They're trying to win a World Series. I don't get paid to make those decisions, but I know when I've been successful in the playoffs it's because I throw hard and locate my fastball, the stuff that he does."
At the time the comments still reeked more of a teammate/friend supporting a teammate/friend. Now the words are starting to seem slightly prophetic.
There hasn't been a hint of injury or derailment from Penny's master plan. Sure, he had an issue with his pitching hand in the first inning of Sunday's game. ("It just kind of popped out of the joint for a second," he told reporters. "I just needed a second to let it come back. It's happened before, probably four or five times in my career.") But that's it.
The velocity has continued to go up, as has the confidence -- for both the pitcher and the fans who thought Penny would be wearing a Red Sox uniform come July.
SO WHERE DID THEY END UP
Now that interleague is over, let's look at how the Red Sox fared:
The Sox went 11-7, with their pitchers totaling a 3.68 ERA and a .248 batting average against.
The hitters' batting average totaled .258 to go with 21 homers, and 14 stolen bases in 17 attempts.
The leading hitters for the Red Sox in inter-league were mostly part-timers, with Rocco Baldelli (5-for-12, .417), Julio Lugo (7-for-18, .389), George Kottaras (7-for-19, .368) and Mark Kotsay (7-for-24, .292) all standing out. Nick Green led the regulars with a .283 clip, with Dustin Pedroia coming in with a .274 average.
The hitter who struggled the most in inter-league was Kevin Youkilis, who hit .197 while striking out 21 times in 61 at-bats.
As for the Sox' pitchers against the National Leaguers, Tim Wakefield came away with three wins in four starts, although it was Josh Beckett who truly dominated with a 1.80 ERA to go with a pair of wins.
Other than Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Smoltz, the only Red Sox pitcher who had an ERA over Wakefield's 4.01 was Daniel Bard, who allowed six earned runs in 8 1/3 innings for a 6.48 mark.
THE RED SOX KNEW WHAT THEY WERE DOING BACK IN '03
Mike Gonzalez once collected a paycheck from the Red Sox organization, pitching in two games for Triple-A Pawtucket back in 2003 after being traded from the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Sox on July 22, 2003 with reliever Scott Sauerbeck for Brandon Lyon and Anastacio Martinez.
Nine days later he was back with the Pirates as a result of the teams having to reorganize the deal after there was some questions regarding the health of Lyon's elbow.
Gonzalez has been traded once more since then, while also suffering through Tommy John surgery in '07.
But nearly six years after identifying the then-Double A reliever as a pitcher of value, with one high fastball the Red Sox witnessed the kind of pitcher they believed Gonzalez could be. Besides the reminder, the result was a game-ending swing and miss by Jacoby Ellsbury -- the reliever's 49th strikeout in 36 innings -- and 'The Cobra's' ninth save of the season.
THE BRAVES KNEW WHAT THEY WERE DOING BACK IN '05
That's when Atlanta took Sunday's starting pitcher, Tommy Hanson, in the 22nd round of the draft with the 677th overall pick (as a draft-and-follow). It just so happened it was one selection in front of the Red Sox, who took another pitcher, Orvil Aviles, with the 678th pick. (Aviles chose to attend junior college.)
Most knew about Hanson prior to his Sunday start, but the appearance did teach the Braves something in regards to their highly-touted prospect: He is resilient and tough-minded.
Not only did Hanson become the first National League rookie pitcher ever to beat the Yankees and Red Sox in consecutive starts -- extending his scoreless innings streak to 20 -- but he did so while battling a sickness. This after having been a major leaguer for just 26 days.
"If he was sick, I don't really want to see him when he's not sick," Red Sox manager Terry Francona told reporters after watching Hanson give up just two hits over six innings.