BOSTON -- Who are the 2012 Red Sox?
That question continues to be a stumper, but answers could finally be coming after the All-Star break, when Boston manager Bobby Valentine finds out what his team looks like with Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford making things happen with their bats and legs.
But before Boston approaches full strength, one critical test is on the schedule -- a grueling, four-game encounter at Fenway Park against those age-old rivals, the Yankees.
There is no easing into the All-Star break this season for the Red Sox. Not with the Bronx Bombers coming into Fenway Park with a 7 1/2-game lead over Boston in the American League East.
It doesn't take a mathematician to figure out the intriguing possibilities of this series. A four-game sweep by the Sox means they're right back in the thick of things, just 3 1/2 games back. Get swept, and Boston would slip to 11 1/2 games back and basically be thinking about one of the two Wild Card berths.
Even three out of four would be nice, as a 5 1/2-game deficit wouldn't seem so bad. Lose three out of four, and Boston drops 9 1/2 back. And then there's the possibility of a split, which would put everything right back where it was at the start of the weekend.
Considering the stakes of the weekend and the nature of the rivalry, the crowd should be electric for the four games that will take place over a three-day span.
"I think we're excited," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "They're in first place and playing good ball. If we're going to do what we want to do, we're going to have to play well against them and beat them and sneak up in the standings."
It's not like the Red Sox can use injuries as a crutch for their 42-40 start. The Yankees -- without the great Mariano Rivera for the rest of the year, and currently lacking CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte -- have had more than their share as well.
But there is an intrigue about how the Sox can play if Ellsbury can be anything like he was last year, and Crawford can return to his Tampa Bay form, rather than the guy who pressed and faltered in his first year in Boston.
Ellsbury suffered a subluxation in his right shoulder and last played for the Sox on April 13. Crawford, who underwent left wrist surgery in the offseason and then suffered a sprained UCL in his left elbow, last played for the Red Sox last season, the night of the epic collapse on Sept. 28, 2011.
While the Red Sox and Yankees face off this weekend, Crawford and Ellsbury hope to complete their Minor League rehab assignments and then get the all-clear to rejoin the active roster after the All-Star break.
"We've missed Ells and Carl," Pedroia said. "They're two big parts of our lineup. They're impact players, and guys that change the game by just having their name in the lineup. Once they get back, we're hoping to take off and show people what type of team we can really be."
Pedroia is a big part of this also. Hindered by right thumb soreness for the last two months, his season has been below par. A Thursday checkup with the doctors may give Pedroia the comfort to know he's going to be OK.
It also stands to reason that one of these days, Adrian Gonzalez -- who has only six home runs -- will start hitting for power again.
The Red Sox had actually been on a nice little run before this just-completed West Coast road trip, when the entire offense seemed to go silent at once. During the team's 2-5 record against Seattle and Oakland, the Red Sox totaled just 14 total runs.
"It's amazing," said Valentine. "I don't know the reason."
Believe it or not, Boston and New York have played just two games this season -- April 20-21 -- with the Yankees taking both. There are 16 rivalry showdowns left before the season comes to an end.
The hope is that the comfort of Fenway and the intensity of the Yankees' series will fix all that ails the Boston offense. For most of the year, the Red Sox have been one of the better hitting teams in the league.
"We've played well at home as of late, so hopefully we can use that to our advantage," said Red Sox outfielder Cody Ross. "Those Yankees-Red Sox games are always fun, so hopefully we can use our fans to our advantage and get back on the right track."
The one man who has delivered all season for the Red Sox is David Ortiz. He is coming off home run No. 400, and he has a history of coming up big against the Yankees.
"I mean, everybody is trying to make things happen," Ortiz said. "Of course you put pressure on yourself when things aren't going the way they are right now. But our pitching is doing great and they're holding the offense down and they're doing what they're supposed to do. Hopefully [the Yankees coming to town] will get us going."