People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring. –Rogers Hornsby
The weather in Boston is going to be perfect for the 2:05pm first pitch of the Red Sox 2017 season today. The 50 degree sunshine will light up Fenway Park in anticipation of strong campaign for the hanging socks. The expectations are high and the mood is hopeful as the Red Sox begin their season at home for the first time since 2010 (a 9-7 win over the Yankees). Overall, the home opener has been kind to the Sox, winning 10 of the last 12 and going 69-47 in home openers since 1901. Today, the Red Sox will match up with inter-league foe, the Pittsburgh Pirates.
One can analyze this team and spring performances until blue in the face, but the only thing that matters is what happens between the lines when the games count. Reigning AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello toes the rubber this afternoon as a nod to his 2016 performance and then Wednesday, fans get officially introduced to the biggest addition to this Red Sox club, SP Chris Sale. The lineup will have a different feel from last year without David Ortiz, but they still could be a force in the AL.
Now, for the 2 words we have been waiting all winter to hear…Play Ball!
Raj Mehta/USA TODAY Sports
It’s been nothing short of an unreal stretch for the Boston Red Sox over the past few weeks. They are winners of 8 straight, two consecutive 4-game series sweeps against AL East foes the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles, and owners of the MLB leading 15-5 record in September. They sit 5.5 games ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays in the division and 7 games up on the Orioles just a few weeks after a 3-way tie for the division was very much in the conversation. How have the Red Sox gone from a fringe team to a legitimate contender? Pitching and a will.
Thus far in September, the Red Sox pitching staff is having their best month of the season. The staff has a ratio of 4 Ks per BB, a .209 opponent batting average and a .598 OPS in September, all significantly better than any other month. Most notably, Red Sox relievers have allowed just a .186 opponent batting average this month, which is excellent. The improvement in the pitching staff has allowed the Red Sox offense to feel less pressure to score in huge bunches and just have smart at-bats. They have now scored exactly 5 runs in 5 consecutive games for the first time in history.
Although the pitching has significantly improved, the offense has also still performed at a very high level. The Red Sox batters are hitting .289 in September with 31 HRs and 119 RBIs thanks to an incredible tear from Hanley Ramirez and the continually impressive hitting of David Ortiz and Mookie Betts. It’s more than just the offensive firepower however, there is a certain intangible quality that all great teams have: a will to win.
Until September, the will to win appeared only on occasion and in spurts, but now it feels like this team will have a chance to win every game, every day. Teammates support each other and lift each other after a bad inning or a bad defensive play and celebrate together after a big win. They have each others backs and appear to believe in their ability to make a serious postseason run now, something that was missing just a short month or so ago. A streaking team is often even more dangerous that the consistently great team.
Don’t look now, but the Red Sox seem to be peaking at just the right time.
Heading into the 4-game weekend set with the New York Yankees, the Red Sox were hanging on to a 1 game lead in the AL East. Toronto was just another game further back and the surging Yankees were 4 back in the division and just 2 back in the wild card. Just 4 games later, the Yankees chance of making the postseason has dropped to 1.7% and the Yankees are 8 games back in the division (4 in the wild card) thanks to a hugely important sweep at the hands of the Red Sox.
There are few things I enjoy more than watching the Red Sox put another nail in the Yankees coffin (actually 4 nails). Even though the rivalry has gotten quite stale and boring over the past few years, the hate is still there for at least some portion of fans and a late season series that has a serious impact on the postseason is always fun. Watching the Red Sox comeback on multiple occasions in the series, including an epic 5-run 9th inning surge on Thursday night, made me a bit more confident in this team’s future.
There are 13 games to play in the regular season, including a crucial 4-game set with the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards starting tonight. A 3-game division lead is a nice cushion, but can be erased easily with so many head-to-head matchups. Momentum is on the Red Sox side thanks to their biggest rival…now what can the Red Sox do with it?
Peter Power/The Canadian Press via AP
As a football fan it’s easy to get caught up in the early season rush and in many years past, with the Red Sox virtually eliminated by now, the attention shift was easy. Not this year. This weekend was even more important for the Red Sox than the Patriots (and college football) given the outrageously close playoff race in the AL. Entering the weekend series against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Red Sox were 1 game ahead of the Jays in the standings, 2 games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles and just 4 games ahead of the surging New York Yankees. After Sunday’s crazy, but huge 11-8 victory over the Jays, the Red Sox have built a 2 game lead in the AL East, their largest division lead since May 31st (3 games ahead). With 20 games to go, it’s still a 4-way divisional race.
Sunday’s finale was a must win for both the Jays and the Red Sox. The Jays were 1 game back of the Red Sox and a W would have tied them atop the league. The game played like each team was desperate, once one team scored, the other would come back with a rally of their own. The game was 1-1 after 1, then Jackie Bradley Jr. hit a 3-run bomb in the 2nd inning to give the Red Sox a 4-1 lead. The bottom of the 3rd was Toronto’s chance to respond, getting 5 runs off of Clay Buchholz (how many times have I typed that line?) to take a 6-4 lead. The Red Sox tied it up in the top of the 4th, only to lose the lead again in the bottom of the inning on Edwin Encarnacion‘s 2nd HR of the game.
After grabbing a run back in the 5th inning, Brock Holt inexplicably tried to steal home with 2 outs in a 1 run game and gets caught leaving the game 8-7. File that in the head-scratcher category. Never fear Red Sox fans, David Ortiz is here for the rescue, hitting a 3-run HR to give the Red Sox the lead for good. They tacked on 1 more in the 7th to make it an incredibly important 11-8 wild win. That was a precursor to a day of close, but important wins in New England!
According to the ESPN calculation, the Red Sox now have an 93.4% chance of making the playoffs, which was hard to imagine a few weeks ago. The Jays have dropped to 74.5%, the Orioles at 56.7% and the Yankees still hanging in at 13.5%. All 4 teams are still within 4 games of the division lead and the Jays and Orioles are currently 2 games ahead of the Detroit Tigers and Yankees for the 2 wild card spots. There is a real chance 3 AL East teams make the postseason in 2016, but with dozens of divisional games remaining, who knows.
When the Toronto Blue Jays lost to the New York Yankees 5-3, the door opened for the Red Sox to move back into a tie for 1st place in the AL East. Considering their opponent, the 56-80 San Diego Padres, it seemed as though the situation was aligned perfectly and an easy W was there for the taking. Unfortunately the league’s most powerful offense went dormant for a 2nd straight day and managed just 1 run on a Chris Young solo HR. The 2-1 loss was just the most recent example of a low-scoring, 1-run loss for this Red Sox team.
In the grand scheme of the season, this game likely won’t mean anything, but with 25 games remaining and just 5 against teams with losing records, it hurts. After taking 2 of 3 from the Oakland Athletics, then need to win this series with the lowly Padres or they may be in trouble. If they win the next 2, then all is right with the world and they finish their last 6 games at 4-2 against bad teams, but if they manage to lose 1 or 2 of the remaining games, it tells me they are not ready to make or compete in the post season.
The offensive inconsistency has continued all season and is certainly concerning. They are leaving an awfully high number of men on base and are not able to come through in clutch situations (6 left on Monday). They had a runner on 3rd base in a 1 run game in the 8th inning with 1 out and they couldn’t drive him in. Those situations are critically important and determine the outcome of close games. When faced with an opportunity like the one on Monday, finding a way to score is what separates a great team from a good team.
In their last 4 games they scored 16, 11, 0, 1 runs. On average, those numbers make it appear the Red Sox are scoring 7 runs a game, which in any context, should at least get them 3 wins in their last 4, if not 4, but numbers can be deceiving and they are just 2-2. When it comes playoff time, it will be much harder to have the high-scoring games, and significantly easier to score 3 or fewer runs given the top pitching faced on a daily basis. Right now, even if this team makes the postseason, don’t expect much advancement.
Brian Blanco/Getty Images
When looking at the remaining schedule for the Red Sox, it’s hard not have both some anxiety and some hope. The final 23 games of the season are against AL East foe, including 6 against the team just in front of them in the standings (Toronto Blue Jays) and 7 against the team right behind them in the standings (Baltimore Orioles) which offer incredible opportunity for both rising and falling int he standings. On paper the most winnable games are the 3 against the Tampa Bay Rays, but so far in 2016, that’s been far from a foregone conclusion. Thus far in 2016, the Red Sox are 8-7 against the AL East bottom-dwellers, who currently sit with a 56-75 overall record.
Of the last 5 games the Red Sox and Rays have played head-to-head, 4 have been decided by just 1 run including last night’s 4-3 Rays victory. These two teams seem to have a knack for keeping games close into the late innings when one big play or hit becomes a turning point. Last night that was Evan Longoria‘s massive game-winning HR against Clay Buchholz in the 8th inning of a tie game. Despite having a terrible overall record, there is something about this year’s Rays team that just believes they can take down the Red Sox, regardless of their overall talent level. The reason? Familiarity.
The way baseball schedules are set-up, divisional rivals generally match-up 19 times throughout the course of an 162 game season. By the time the team is playing their 9th and 10th games against each other, they are intimately aware of strengths and weaknesses and have likely seen a lot of the opponent’s pitching staff. Then factor in players who spend multiple seasons in the division and the familiarity level sky-rockets. When players feel comfortable with a match-up, regardless of their season successes or failures overall, they can be more comfortable in their approach at the plate. It doesn’t always work that way, but it has certainly help the Rays in their time against the Red Sox this season.
The remaining games against the Blue Jays and Orioles are critical for making the postseason, but don’t sleep on the 7 against the surging New York Yankees and the 4 remaining against the Tampa Bay Rays either. Every single game is huge from now until the beginning of October so strap in and come along for the ride.
I’m just going to leave this here…
The Red Sox have struggled as a team over the past few weeks thanks to either the offense disappearing or the pitching staff imploding. They have gone 4-6 in their last 10 games after looking strong and maintaining an AL East lead for a lot of the early season. Given this stretch, one might assume the Red Sox have fallen back in the division and need to play catch-up, but thanks to wide-spread mediocrity, that assumption is wrong.
The rest of the AL East has also been struggling right along side the Red Sox, so they only sit 1 game back of the Baltimore Orioles as of June 22. The surging Toronto Blue Jays have cooled off a little and are 6-4 in their last 10 games, while the Orioles (4-6), Yankees (4-6), and Rays (3-7) all have below .500 records over that same span. As of writing this, all 5 divisional teams have lost at least 2 straight games and the lowly last place Tampa Bay Rays are riding a 6-game losing streak.
All this is to say the AL East is a wide-open division. All 5 teams have major flaws and have been wildly inconsistent. The division will likely come down to who can stabilize most effectively down the stretch; perhaps with the addition of a player or two at the trade deadline.