BOSTON – When the Boston Red Sox began their season April 4 at Fenway Park, Jacoby Ellsbury led off, followed by Dustin Pedroia and then Victor Martinez. Josh Beckett started on the mound.

On Tuesday, Ellsbury was in Arizona, tending to his fractured ribs. Pedroia stretched out on the clubhouse couch, his broken left foot in a boot. Martinez explained how he couldn’t catch a ball or hit one because of his broken thumb. And Beckett awaits his first rehab start, which could be in Portland, as he recovers from a sore back.

No problem.

Look how General Manager Theo Epstein protected this team before the season. He traded for outfielder Jeremy Hermida, while having depth at catcher in Triple-A with Dusty Brown and Mark Wagner, and in the infield with Jed Lowrie. And there was plenty of starting pitching.

Oops.

Hermida is also tending to broken ribs. Both Brown (sprained thumb) and Wagner (broken hand) are on the disabled list in Pawtucket. Lowrie is just getting over mononucleosis, and starter Clay Buchholz has a strained hamstring.

And we haven’t even touched on hampering injuries that have affected outfielder Mike Cameron and pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Is this where we begin the MASH unit jokes?

One man who cannot afford to laugh is Epstein. But he’s hardly crying.

Following Boston’s win over Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, Epstein’s Red Sox are 47-31, one game behind the New York Yankees in the AL East.

“We’re right in the middle of it,” Epstein said Tuesday, sitting in the Red Sox dugout before the game.

“This (number of injuries) would have been really hard to take if we were still scuffling, and 81/2 or nine games back. Hit with this kind of injury bug probably would have meant the season and a really long three months.”

Epstein seemed ready for the next question.

Four years ago, on Aug. 4, 2006, the Red Sox were only one game behind the Yankees, as Boston battled injuries to Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon and a variety of pitchers, including Matt Clement.

Boston went on a five-game losing streak and two weeks later, was swept in a devastating five-game series by the Yankees in Fenway. The Red Sox went 21-33 in their final 54 games and finished out of the playoffs.

“There are some similarities but it really feels different,” Epstein said. “What happened right around the beginning of August four years ago, it was so sudden, and there was so much depth to the injuries, we didn’t have a chance to recover.

“It was almost like in two weeks there we lost our season.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen this time. We’ve already proven to a certain extent that we can withstand some injuries.”

True, this version of the Red Sox is deeper with talent and pitching. And unlikely subs like outfielders Daniel Nava (.291) and Darnell McDonald (.269) are contributing.

Epstein hasn’t ruled out a big trade but didn’t seem in search of one.

“If we do anything major, it has to make sense in the short term and when we get our guys back,” he said. “More likely we’ll continue to see how this group of players performs.”

If you think about it, the Red Sox could be getting the equivalent of several major trades in the coming weeks. Martinez should be back in two weeks, Beckett and (maybe) Ellsbury within a month, and Pedroia in six weeks.

“When we get fully healthy later in the year, we should be a force to be reckoned with,” Epstein said.

Now for some details:

While Martinez said he cannot put his hand in a glove nor grip a bat, he expects to be back when his 15-day DL stint is up. Meanwhile, Gustavo Molina (the No. 3 catcher in Pawtucket), will play some games (including Tim Wakefield’s starts).

Beckett is scheduled to face live hitting Thursday when the Red Sox are off. If all goes well, he could make his first rehab start July 6. With Pawtucket in Lehigh Valley, Pa., Beckett might be headed to Portland, where he pitched as a Florida Marlins prospect in 2001.

With two days off this week, Buchholz appears to be getting enough time to heal before his next start — at least that’s the hope.

Lowrie will begin rehab games Saturday in Lowell. Rehab assignments can last 20 days and Lowrie likely will use all 20. Epstein said it would be nice to get him back with Pedroia out.

While Pedroia’s timetable seems set at six weeks, Ellsbury is an unknown. After one unsuccessful return from his injury, the Red Sox will make sure this time.

Hermida hopes to begin swinging a bat soon.

Meanwhile, the healthy regulars and capable backups are keeping Boston a contender.

If the Red Sox ever return to full strength, a run deep into October will be the expectation.

 

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at: [email protected]