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Too early to count out defending Series champs

Red Sox in rough shape now, but have time, experience on their side

BALTIMORE -- It would be easy to write the Red Sox off, especially after they scored one run in three games at Camden Yards, concluding with a desultory 6-0, rain-delayed loss Wednesday night.

The defending World Series champions are languishing in fourth place of the American League East, seven under .500, nine games out of first. They've dropped 16 of their last 25 games.

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The thing about baseball, though, is that teams are rarely as good as they look when they're winning or as bad as they appear when they're losing. As difficult as it might have been in the immediate aftermath of another listless defeat, let's take a look at the glimmers of hope. Your tour guide will be outfielder Shane Victorino.

"Do we have what it takes to come back? Absolutely," he said.

Let him count the reasons why.

• Injuries. Right now, of course, that's a negative. Clay Buchholz, who was 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA in 16 starts last season, and 11-game winner Felix Doubront are on the disabled list. So is Victorino, for the second time, with a hamstring injury.

"Health has been a big part. And I'll be the first to say that I'm a culprit. By not being out there, I'm a part of that," he said. "Nobody wants to be hurt, but that adds an ingredient of what's going on."

The flip side of that is that getting key players back from the DL is, as they say, the equivalent of making a good trade.

• Defections. Jacoby Ellsbury and Jarrod Saltalamacchia became free agents and went elsewhere. Stephen Drew became a free agent and went into limbo until re-signing after struggling third baseman Will Middlebrooks was injured. And while there's no way to put a smiley face on that, there are silver linings.

"We all understand that it's a business. We can't sit here and say we don't have Jarrod, we don't have Jacoby, we didn't have Stephen until just now. That's finding excuses. You can't find excuses," Victorino said.

"I try not to harp on the negative. The positive thing is that we have a guy like Xander Bogaerts [who moved to third base after Middlebrooks was hurt]. Second, a guy like [left fielder] Brock Holt who never really got as chance to show what he could do. Now, all of a sudden, you have a guy who wasn't really counted on, but when guys come back healthy, we have another guy who can play every day."

It's also a reminder that the Red Sox have resources. Bringing back Drew cost $10 million and general manager Ben Cherington made it clear he still has payroll flexibility.

"We're fortunate that we get a lot of support from ownership and our fans. So if there's any deal that makes sense that makes us better, we'll pursue it," the general manager said.

• Parity. Cherington noted that there are just a couple of teams in the American League that have gotten off to fast starts.

"Then there's a huge scrum," he said. "And we're not that far away from that scrum. So we'll try to improve any way we can."

Victorino pointed out that, with two Wild Cards available, the Red Sox started play Wednesday night five games out of a playoff spot.

"The natural thing to do as a human being is to say, 'Damn, we're nine games back.' Everybody is saying it.' But we're not nine games back from what it takes to have a chance to win the World Series. And that's getting into the playoffs," he said.

"I'm not selling us short, saying we can't win the division. But you just want to have an opportunity to get in."

• Experience. The Blue Jays are in first place. Toronto also hasn't been to the postseason since 1993. Taking nothing away from their talent, Victorino wonders how they'll react if they hit a rough patch. In fact, the Blue Jays have lost five of their last five.

"This team has guys who have been there and done that before. Some of the teams that are ahead of us don't necessarily have that understanding of what it's like to stay up there," he said.

"That's the part for me where I think we sit in a good position. We have guys who have shown they're going to battle and have the experience to be, say, nine games back like we are and chip, chip, chip, chip. Knowing that we've still got almost 100 games to go. A lot of things can happen."

In some ways, it's harder to defend a title than it is to win it all in the first place. Victorino, who went through the process after the Phillies won it all in 2008, understands that as well as anybody. He also remembers the aura that the Red Sox projected to a young player on a team still trying to become the juggernaut that eventually won five straight division titles.

"Playing against the Boston Red Sox, you actually play different. I don't know what it is," he said. "Now being on this side, I understand that when teams come in to play us they bring a different game. Two, is being the defending champs. So that's being a double-whammy. You're the Boston Red Sox and you're the defending champs. I think that's another part of understanding that's what this is."

The Red Sox completed a 2-7 road trip Wednesday night. After going back to Fenway Park to play the Indians and Twins, they hit the road for nine more. That's a challenge. They're batting .237 as a team with runners in scoring position. That's almost got to get better, doesn't it?

It's certainly not a given that the Red Sox can turn themselves around. But it's far too early to count them out. Look at the bright side. Boston scored a single run in the last three games ... and won one of them.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for

Boston Red Sox