A lot of looking back this morning at the 1996 season, which I remember quite well thanks to my (not altogether normal) practice from 1995-97 of clipping and pasting every article written about the Red Sox in the papers available around New Haven (which at the time meant every paper from Boston, New York and Connecticut and today probably means the New Haven Register and nothing else).
I'll leave it to ESPN Boston to recall the dark days of that April, when the Red Sox started 0-5, 2-12 and 6-19 (though that quote from Kevin Kennedy contrasted with recent comments from Terry Francona reveals why one is now a poor color commentator/baseball analyst while the other is widely recognized as one of baseball's best managers).
But the fate of that club is instructive when we look at statements like "only two teams have ever started 0-5 and made the playoffs."
The 1996 Red Sox were not a good team. Hopes were high, as the '95 Sox had won the AL East before being swept by the Indians in the ALDS, but the '96 Sox had such luminaries as Lee Tinsley, Darren Bragg, Wil Cordero, Jeff Frye, Milt Cuyler and Troy O'Leary sucking up huge quantities of plate appearances. The big acquisitions of the offseason were Jose Canseco, who only appeared in 96 games, and Kevin Mitchell, who showed up for 27. Without Mo Vaughn's prodigious bat and Mike Stanley's underrated performance at catcher, the lineup would have been well below average.
The starting rotation was Roger Clemens and three guys — Tom Gordon, Tim Wakefield and Aaron Sele —who were below average, followed by a rotation of fifth starters with names like Vaughn Eshelman (whom I still remember fondly because he beat the Yankees in his major-league debut the previous year) and Jeff Suppan. Jamie Moyer made 10 decent starts for the Sox, but they traded him to Seattle for the aforementioned Bragg. Oops. Mike Maddux, arguably the club's best starter after Clemens, was wasted in the bullpen until May, got injured and returned for seven spot starts at the end of the year. Poor talent was compounded by poor management on and off the field.
So being compared to the 1996 Red Sox is generally not a good place to be. But I have yet to read anyone noting what happened to that '96 club. After losing a franchise-worst 19 of the team's first 25 games, the Sox turned it around.
Well, it was a slow turnaround. They were a slightly below .500 ballclub through July 6, when they were 35-49. But they won the next day, the day before the All-Star break, and they won their next five games after that. They played around with .500 baseball for another few weeks, then won eight of nine through Aug. 11. The Sox were 57-61, 13 games behind the division-leading Yankees and eight behind the wild card-leading White Sox. But something funny happened: The Red Sox kept winning, and everyone in front of them kept losing. By Aug. 28, the Sox were above .500, 69-65. They had erased more than half of their deficit to the Yankees and were just two games behind the new wild card leaders, Baltimore.
That was as close as they would get, however. A four-game losing streak through Sept. 10 pretty much killed any chance of a miracle season. The Sox finished 85-77, three games behind Baltimore for a playoff spot.
The 1996 Sox were not a good team; their abominable start was probably more reflective of their true talent than their best-in-baseball 50-28 record after July 6. If that ballclub can overcome a start much worse than we're likely (hopefully?) to see in 2011, I think we can safely say that this season's much better ballclub can do the same for their own 0-5 beginning.
But we don't have to speculate. Because just last season we saw a very good Red Sox club struggle through a poor April.
The 2010 Red Sox started 1-3 but had worked back to 4-4 before losing five straight. If the Red Sox go 4-4 starting today, they will be right where the 2010 Red Sox were. If they go 7-5 after that, they will match 2010's less then inspiring 11-14 record. It took last year's Red Sox until May 19 — 41 games — to go over .500 for good, by which point they were still in fourth place 8.5 games behind the Rays, 4.5 behind the Yankees and 3.5 behind Toronto. That's 17.5 total games they had to make up in the standings.
Which of course they did. Quickly. On June 20, the Sox completed a six-game winning streak, were 43-28 and stood tied with the Rays just one game behind the Yankees. Five days later, Dustin Pedroia fractured his foot on a foul ball and Clay Buchholz hurt his knee on the basepaths. Two days after that, Victor Martinez's thumb was fractured by a foul ball. And five days after that, Jason Varitek broke his foot with a foul ball, too. And exactly one month after that, Kevin Youkilis' season ended with an extremely rare torn thumb ligament. From June 21 through the end of the season, the injury-plagued Red Sox had a 46-45 record — still better than their full-health performance through the middle of May.
This is why looking simply on who did or did not make the playoffs after beginning the season with x record is not terribly instructive. Neither the 1996 nor the 2010 Red Sox were as good as the 2011 Sox project to be, yet each overcame an extended slow-to-terrible start to get back into the race.
Would any of us complain if this year's Sox are within two games of the playoffs in mid August, as the 1996 club was, or within one game of the division in June, as last year's was? If those inferior ballclubs could do it, this club can — and probably will — too.