Red Sox entering defining stretch

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It’s been a wishy-washy May. But now, it’s as if the baseball gods are telling us something by finally blessing us with some summer-like weather this holiday weekend, because the next couple of weeks are going to feel like a pennant race warm-up for the Red Sox.

They start a 10-game road trip tomorrow night in Toronto. After that it’s over to Detroit (uh, anyone outside of Tom Selleck have them for best record in baseball on Memorial Day?) and then the Bronx until June 8. The Sox will begin the trip with the Yankees four games back at best, nipping at their heels at worst, within a game or so.

It’s a big stretch, at least, for June. Something tells me we’ll know a lot more about this team on June 8 than we do now. That’s what I hope at least, because what I hope to gain as a Red Sox fan in these next 10 days is whether I can feel a lot better or whether I can feel a lot worse about them.

I’ve been kind of wishy-washy so far about the Red Sox’ chances to win the East this year. A lot of Red Sox fans I’ve run into have been, too. I can’t speak for them, but I know the hangover I had from 2004 made me kind of wishy-washy all last year, too, and it was boring.

I’d obviously rather be leading the bandwagon, but I’d also would rather revert to the whiny, pre-2004 doom-and-gloomer days than be wishy-washy. So, if you’ve been like me over the last 18 months, I propose a deadline for all of this wishy-washiness – June 8. It’s the AL East or bust. What’s more wishy-washy than the Wild Card?

As a Red Sox fan, doom and gloom is built into our DNA. But after 2004, I resolved to at least always think of the positive first, so here goes: They’re on top of the division and playing .600 ball, and they’ve done this without their center fielder and without a legitimate fifth starter. Coco Crisp comes back tomorrow. David Wells, who knows? By June 8, though, we’ll know whether to be eagerly awaiting his return or breathlessly awaiting a replacement.

Where would this team be without Jonathan Papelbon. and Kevin Youkilis? Youkilis and David Ortiz kept the offense off life support while Manny Ramirez, Mark Loretta and Jason Varitek languished in early-season slumps. He’s on pace to get close to 200 hits and hit nearly 20 homers and knock in 90 runs. The fact that there’s even a debate (and a surprisingly divided one, too) about whether Crisp should get the leadoff spot back next week bodes well for the offense. Plus he’s turning into the Greek God of Grounders at first base. Whether he can keep up the pace and bring some much-needed depth to the lower third of the batting order, we’ll know by June 8.

Papelbon took the closer’s job on Day 2 of the season and hasn’t blown a save since. Think about that for a minute, and think about the at best uneven work of Keith Foulke and Mike Timlin last year. Yes, Papelbon’s due for a few hiccups, but he’s an elite closer who will thrive in the Fenway pressure cooker. By June 8, hopefully everyone will have realized this, especially management, and an announcement that he’s staying in the bullpen for the rest of the season will be on the horizon.

The lineup is as shallow as it’s been since Darren Lewis roamed center field. The starting rotation is thin. By June 8, we’ll have made up my mind on Alex Gonzalez – vacuum cleaner who sucks up base hits in the middle of the infield or black hole who sucks up offensive momentum from the bottom of the order. And by then, I’ll have made up my mind on Clement – redeemable fourth or fifth starter or a very expensive version of Mark Portugal with a case of the yips.

The bullpen, outside of the closer and one set-up guy, is suspect. And it is largely because of his handling of the bullpen that the manager has been awfully frustrating to watch, at least a lot more frustrating than one managing a .600 ballclub has any right to be.

Witness his long leash for Clement while he was getting shelled for eight runs by the Yankees on Wednesday night. In a twist on Earl Weaver’s formula of pitching, defense and three-run homers, he handled Clement like he’s playing his pitching for the three-run homer.

He’s done that a number of times this season. I guess it comes down to balancing his pitcher’s confidence level with his own level of confidence in his long and middle relief. By June 8, I’d like to see the balance shifted towards the bullpen when anyone but Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett and Tim Wakefield on a hot streak are on the mound.

If, by June 8, the Red Sox are still letting the Yankees and Jays hang around, I’ll act swiftly. I’ll call for Alex Cora to get more playing time at short while Theo Epstein searches for an every day replacement who can at least hit his weight. I’ll go over Jon Lester’s Pawtucket stats with a fine tooth comb and determine whether they should call him up or intensify their courtship with Roger Clemens. I’ll have Terry Francona

If by June 8, the Red Sox have made the Blue Jays look like this year’s version of the 2005 Orioles and made the Yankees their age, I’ll be laughing at the doomsayers who will warn me that there’s still plenty of time for them to blow it. I’ll be comparing Gonzalez to Mark Belanger. I’ll be advising Theo to save Lester and the other young arms for the dog days of August and to let Clemens stay in Houston. I’ll stock up on Coco Krispies and I’ll send Papelbon a telegram congratulating him on winning the Rookie of the Year.

I’ll either be burning rubber on the hot summer asphalt that leads to their first AL East crown since 1995 or I’ll be pulling over into the breakdown lane. I really don’t want to do wishy-washy anymore.

Randy Whitehouse is a staff writer. He may be reached by e-mail at rwhitehouse@sunjournal.com.

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