Bobby V. and Big Papi -- two men to watch.
The Red Sox may yet have a push for the second Wild Card in them, but even if they continue to struggle along playing .500 ball and miss the postseason, there are still plenty of reasons for fans to keep watching through September.
Some members of the roster will be playing to prove they should still be with Boston next year, while others will be attempting to rebound from injuries and end the season on a good note.
Here are eight reasons the Red Sox will remain interesting down the stretch drive, regardless of where they are in the standings.
Ciriaco has quickly become a fan favorite.
Critics keep saying the little guy can't keep it up, but Ciriaco is still batting .338 after 27 games with Boston since his early July call-up from Pawtucket. He hit very well in two earlier stints with the Pirates, and now boasts a .336 career mark in 116 major league at-bats.
Ciriaco has also shown a steady glove at three infield positions, an ability to hit in the clutch, and top-notch speed on the base paths. At 26, he is not the “career minor leaguer” some have made him out to be, and his unabashed enthusiasm has made him a fan favorite.
Look for Ciriaco to continue improving as a hitter and base stealer.
Gonzalez is hitting over .420 the past two weeks.
He may never be the 45-homer guy Theo Epstein envisioned when he signed him to that monster eight-year deal, but Gonzalez is currently on the type of tear that few hitters can muster. He's now on pace to finish with more than 100 RBI and 200 hits for the second straight year, and he's saved Boston's steady stream of young infielders all year with his great glove work.
Sure, it would be nice to see more emotion, and with just 11 homers his “A-Gone” nickname should probably be changed, but Gonzalez is not the problem with this team
Middlebrooks came through in a pinch Tuesday.
If it wasn't for the other-worldly numbers being put up by Mike Trout in Los Angeles, Boston's freshman third baseman would be getting plenty of attention as a Rookie of the Year candidate. His three-run pinch homer on Tuesday night was just the latest in a season full of big hits, and he has handled the pressure of replacing an iconic fan favorite (Kevin Youkilis) very well.
At age 23, "Will the Thrill" should be a fixture in Boston for the next decade.
Andrew Bailey is ready for his close-up.
The injury to Bailey in spring training was one of the biggest blows of the season, as it forced manager Bobby Valentine to reshuffle his pitching staff and turn projected starter/long man Alfredo Aceves into a closer. Aceves has had his moments, but he's clearly better cut out for his former role.
All eyes will be on Bailey when he makes his expected return to Boston later this month. If he can reclaim the form he showed as Oakland's bullpen ace in 2009-11, it will be a big plus for the Sox heading into next season.
Ortiz is itching to get back out there.
When Big Papi limped off the field on July 16, you could almost hear the death knells of the 2012 Red Sox season start playing. His Achilles strain has hurt the team deeply, as it removed Boston's biggest bat from the lineup at precisely the same time table-setters Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford were returning from their own injuries.
Ortiz was on his way to a .300, 35-homer, 110-RBI season when he went down, and after he returns (likely by next week) will be out to prove he still has something left, and is worthy of the two-year contract he craves.
Ace on the ascent: Clay Buchholz.
While top-of-the-rotation starters Jon Lester and Josh Beckett have continued to struggle, No. 3 man Buchholz has rebounded from his own slow start to emerge as one of the best pitchers in the American League over the past two months.
He has allowed more than two runs in just two of his past 10 starts, and with a bit more luck and support could easily be among the league leaders in wins. It's unclear what the future holds for Lester and Beckett with Boston, but the only place Buchholz is likely going is to the No. 1 slot in next year's rotation.
No double this time for Petey -- but he does have 22.
Sure, they may all be struck in vain, but the Red Sox have a good shot to break their own major league record for most doubles by a team in one season. Boston's 2004 and 1997 clubs hit 373 apiece, which ties them with the 1930 Cardinals for the current standard.
With four more two-baggers Tuesday, this year's Red Sox already have 247 doubles through 111 games, which easily leads all of baseball. If they continue at their pace of 2.25 a contest, they will fall just short of the mark, but Ortiz's return should help raise that average. Come the last weeks of September, cheering for Wall balls could be all the rage at Fenway.
Bobby V. in a familiar pose this season.
Boston owner John Henry released a statement on Monday stating that Valentine's role as manager was safe, and the fact he felt compelled to do so says a lot about the dark clouds of turmoil surrounding the Red Sox. Valentine's sarcastic comments and often off-the-wall behavior of late suggest a man who is visibly displeased with the pressure and magnifying glass he is under, and while he has taken to defending his team's effort and attitude, the players have not sent much love back his way.
Former manager Terry Francona was content staying out of the spotlight, but Valentine can't seem to avoid it. And if the team is struggling its way to the finish line with 85 to 90 losses, Bobby V may feel he's “one and done”, and choose to go down swinging with outbursts we can't yet imagine.
Saul Wisnia lives less than seven miles from Fenway Park and works 300 yards from Yawkey Way. His latest book, Fenway Park: The Centennial, is available at http://amzn.to/qWjQRS, and his Fenway Reflections can be found at http://saulwisnia.blogspot.com. He can be reached email@example.com and @saulwizz.