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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Banged-up Boston managing to keep playoff hopes afloat

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NEW YORK -- We'll never know what the Red Sox would have been without all the injuries.

But here's one guess: They wouldn't have been as much fun as they are now.

Boston finally gets its speed back in the lineup with the return of Jacoby Ellsbury, who was injured for most of the season. (AP)  
Boston finally gets its speed back in the lineup with the return of Jacoby Ellsbury, who was injured for most of the season. (AP)  
That seems a little strange to say, given that a long weekend that ended as a four-game split at Yankee Stadium still left the BoSox six games behind the first-place Yankees -- and still out of a playoff spot, too. But what happened here helped prove why the Red Sox are enjoying this ride, and what happened to the second-place Rays in Toronto helped prove why the ride might take the Sox further than anyone could have imagined a few weeks (or a few months) back.

As Daniel Bard said after getting four crucial outs in Monday's 2-1 Boston win, "We've kept ourselves where we need to be. We've given ourselves a chance."

They had hoped to be fully healthy by this week, with almost 50 games left to make a difference. They know now that won't happen, that they won't be fully healthy this year (first baseman Kevin Youkilis is done for the season), and won't be nearly healthy for another week or so (when second baseman Dustin Pedroia comes back).

What they also know now is that the Rays team they're chasing is no longer fully healthy, with one starting pitcher (Jeff Niemann) already on the disabled list and another (Wade Davis) likely to follow. They know that they have six head-to-head meetings left with Tampa Bay, and they know that a wild-card ticket to October can be every bit as valuable as the one that comes with a division title (see 2004).

They know they have a five-man rotation that gives them a chance to win every night -- Jon Lester pitched like an ace with 6 1/3 scoreless innings Monday -- and a back of the bullpen that may be looking more solid down the stretch (Bard fanned Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher on six 98-99 mph fastballs to leave the bases loaded, and closer Jonathan Papelbon got four outs without allowing a hit).

They know that with Jacoby Ellsbury back in the lineup, they finally have the chance to win a game with speed, something that just hasn't been there for most of this season. Ellsbury's four steals didn't lead to any runs Monday, but he had the Yankees under constant pressure.

"What it shows is that when he gets on base, we're a different team," manager Terry Francona said.

They're already a different team from the Red Sox we've come to expect, and you can see it in Francona's face and hear it in his voice. He likes this team a lot, and he's not afraid to say it.

"I love them," he said. "Not because of what has happened [with the injuries], but they're trying to win every day. That's what you ask guys to do, to try to win."

Even with all the injuries, they're on pace for 92 wins. They also know that in the American League East, 92 wins likely won't be enough.

The Red Sox can't afford any more big slips, and that made Monday's game feel more important than it actually was. It had a real Yankee-Red Sox feel, helped out by the close score and the huge crowd.

More on Red Sox at Yankees

"It was pretty stellar," Papelbon said.

It was, as Francona said, "one of the funnest days we've had, a good day of baseball."

It was, if anyone needed it, a reminder that there really isn't that much that separates these teams, even with the six-game gap in the standings.

For some reason, this isn't a Red Sox team that has caught New England's attention just yet. Through the All-Star break, according to the Sports Business Journal, ratings on the team-owned NESN network were down 36 percent from last year.

After six years of enjoying the highest local television ratings in the game, the Red Sox were behind the Cardinals, Twins, Phillies and Reds. Part of the reason, no doubt, was the long playoff runs by the NBA's Celtics and NHL's Bruins.

But there's also a sense that this team hasn't yet been embraced the way previous Red Sox teams have (although the team's sellout streak at Fenway Park continues). If it's true, it's too bad, because the story this team is writing is a compelling one.

They've had 16 players on the disabled list, including nine All-Stars. They've needed contributions from Darnell McDonald and Daniel Nava, among others.

"Our room for error is a little less, with some guys hurt," Francona said. "That doesn't mean we can't win. We embrace the challenge."

And the challenge is still there for them.

Had this weekend gone different, with the Yankees winning three of four or even sweeping the series, and with the Rays remaining healthy and winning against the Blue Jays, the AL East race would have felt almost done, with the Sox out of it and the Yankees and Rays basically playing for playoff seeding.

Had that happened, the rest of the Red Sox season would have included one story after another about the major decisions this team faces this winter (Papelbon, David Ortiz, Victor Martinez, among others).

Instead, it feels more and more like we'll have something resembling the three-team race so many anticipated.

The Red Sox still aren't the favorite in that race, but they might be the most interesting team of the three. They might even -- and this sounds a little funny -- be the most fun team of the three.

"We're having fun," Francona said with a smile, as he walked out of the Yankee Stadium clubhouse. "We're having fun."

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