Red Sox Start Gauntlet Feeling Squeaky Clean

After a tremendous run of play against bad teams, the Red Sox entered a gauntlet stretch of their schedule. They have resurrected their season from 9-games under .500 to now 11 games over .500 in a short span of time thanks to a 20-4 record since June 1, but that’s only relevant if they can beat good and great teams in the next month. During this stretch that began on June 24th, the Sox play AL East opponents (except the 5th place Orioles) 20 times in 26 games, including a 17-straight game stretch wrapping around the break, all 3 AL East teams with at least 40 wins and 8+ games over .500 as of today. This is without a doubt a season defining place in their schedule and thus far, they’re putting on a show. They started off against the red hot 36-29 (at the time) Cleveland Guardians on the road and pulled out the brooms, sweeping the 3-game set. There isn’t a better way to start a tough patch in the schedule than to take care of business against a quality opponent on the road, but now comes the even bigger test.

Starting Monday, the Red Sox travel north of the border to take on the 40-32 Toronto Blue Jays. That alone would be a tough task for any team, but when you factor in those players who can’t travel to Canada thanks to their vaccination status, it becomes an even taller task. Tanner Houck has emerged as the Red Sox closer and has proven to be reliable in that role (6 for 6 in save opportunities), but will be unable to travel with the team and leaves a hole in the late-game bullpen for the Sox. Jarren Duran has finally had another chance at the highest level and has made it difficult for the Red Sox to take him out of the lineup as he’s hitting .327 and has accumulated 4 stolen bases in 13 games this year. His speed on the base-paths is a potential game-changer for the Sox, but for arguably one of the most important series of the season thus far, he’ll be watching on TV with Houck. On the minor-league side, Ryan Fitzgerald would seem like a good replacement for the Canada trip, but he is also unvaccinated and can’t travel. In a series that could very well be the difference in playoff seeding come October, the Red Sox are in a tight spot with roster management.

Moving on from Toronto, life only gets harder. The Sox will host the depleted but still tough Tampa Bay Rays for 3, then host the hottest team in baseball, the New York Yankees. The Yankees are having a historic start to the 2022 season despite getting no-hit by the Houston Astros this week. They are 53-20 as of Monday morning, on pace for 117/118 wins and are getting strong performances across their roster. If you’re looking for a silver lining as a Red Sox fan, the Yankees are just 4-4 in their last 8 games with 2 losses against the Astros, 1 against Tampa and 1 against Toronto. They have looked like they may be settling back to just being a great and elite team, rather than a historic one, although I’m not putting my money on a huge regression (maybe just a small one). As if we couldn’t get enough of the rivalry, the Red Sox then head to Yankee Stadium for a 3-game set after a 4-game set in Tampa against the Rays. Where the Red Sox sit at the All-Star break and how legitimate of a playoff contender they are, will in large part be shaped by Tampa and New York over the first 2 weeks of July.

After the All-Star break, things don’t really calm down until August and even then, just barely. The Sox play Toronto for 3 following the break, then the Guardians for 4 at Fenway, followed by a 3-game set with the 1st place Milwaukee Brewers. Following a 3-game road set with the Houston Astros, the Red Sox have a small respite, playing 4 in Kansas City against the lowly Royals before a date with the 42-32 Atlanta Braves and then another 3-game set with the Yankees (with one game against the Orioles sandwiched between series). I don’t need to spell out the entire schedule for you, although I got pretty close, but just know it’s going to be a brutal next 4+ weeks for the Red Sox. If they can perform at a high level and beat elite opponents, the trade deadline becomes even more intriguing. What moves would the Sox be willing to make if they genuinely feel they can contend for a title? On the flip side, struggling against divisional opponents may make the trade deadline a much more low-key affair.

While sweeps are fantastic, to me this next stretch is about series wins and splits. Expecting this team to sweep opponents the caliber of the Yankees is a bit unrealistic, but taking 2 out of 3 or splitting a 4-game set is not unreasonable and would be very telling. The Sox are not likely to catch the Yankees at this point, but the focus should be on the 1st Wild Card spot and the path there is series wins, especially against their closest opponents in the standings (Toronto and Tampa Bay). If the Sox continue to win series and the Yankees were to significantly stumble, anything is possible if you hang tight. With the Red Sox potentially having some pitching reinforcements arriving back from injury in the next few weeks (Chris Sale and Garrett Whitlock), things could continue to roll on into August and beyond. After spilling tons of metaphorical ink about the Red Sox woes the first 2 months of the season, things look quite different now for the home town team. Will we still feel optimistic in a few weeks?

Celtics Continue Trend of Bad After Good

Since the conclusion of the first round of the playoffs, the Boston Celtics have won 2 series and are 2 games into the NBA Finals. The trend of losing after a W continued on Sunday night with a blowout loss to the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco. During the 16-game span following the Brooklyn Nets sweep, the Boston Celtics have won back-to-back games just twice. Following a loss, the Celtics are 6-0 and have generally come out strong and with energy, but following a W the last 3 rounds (within a series), they are just 2-5 including 3 losses at home. The uneven play is completely baffling and Sunday was a prime example of the team forgetting their identity. They fall back into old habits with limited ball movement and as a group they struggle to get anything going for stretches at a time. From the latter part of the 2nd quarter on, the Celtics looked like the under-.500 group from November, not the well-oiled machine that has them in the NBA Finals.

Prior to the series, if you had told me the Celtics would be 1-1 and take a game in San Francisco, I would have been delighted by that result. While it’s not surprising the Celtics continued their L after a W trend, the way they got completely outplayed and embarrassed in game 2 is just bizarre and frankly, on brand. The lockdown defense and offensive ball movement that has helped this team get to the NBA Finals shows up for periods of time, but then for some reason, things fall apart. In a number of the games, it’s been the struggles of Jayson Tatum on the offensive end that has led to turnovers and forced drives/shots, but last night, it was a full team failure on both ends. From the start, there were too many lost possessions, either because of bad turnovers (7 in the first quarter) or drives into traffic that led to low-percentage shots. The Cs stayed in the game in the 1st quarter thanks to 6 3s (3 each for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown), but too many times the poor offensive possession led to poor defense, as the Celtics gave up too many good looks to the Warriors. The Warriors missed a bunch of layups and close shots in the 1st quarter and honestly should have been up by a lot more than 1 after 1.

To the Warriors credit, they came out significantly more aggressive in game 2 and the Celtics, like previous rounds, couldn’t adjust and punch back. They let Draymond Green dictate the intensity and pressure without an answer, despite being a team that likes to play aggressively. Most could have predicted Golden State was going to press more and push back on the Celtics after their embarrassment of game 1, but the Cs seemed surprised by it and couldn’t figure it out, despite playing in 2 previous series where defensive intensity was at the center of play. The Celtics seemed more interested in getting a foul call than playing sound basketball at times. The body-language turned in the 3rd quarter and it seemed like the Cs just forgot how to play Celtic basketball. I have been a big fan of Daniel Theis in his tenure with the team, but his play this postseason has been tough to watch at times and for the 6th straight game, he posted a negative point differential. He one nice block but allowed numerous offensive rebounds for the Warriors and was caught lost under the basket a handful of times rather than finding a body to box out. I have a lot of concern if Robert Williams is unable to play or limited at any point in this series, which is a possibility given the knock he took on his knee in game 2 and his questionable status before both games 1 and 2.

Ultimately, if the Cs continue the trend of winning after a loss, they will win the series in 7, but that’s a lot to ask given the Warriors home court advantage. The team needs to come together, have a classic rebound game on Wednesday night in Boston and then figure out how to not get run out of the gym in game 4. The Celtics have the talent, athleticism, and coaching to win the NBA title, but if we see stretches like we saw in game 2 throughout the rest of the series, they’ll be cleaning out their lockers without the ultimate prize in hand.

.500 and in Playoff Position for Red Sox

Before the season, celebrating the Red Sox reaching the .500 mark would have seemed ridiculous. After watching the first 2 months of the season, this is certainly a benchmark worth noting and perhaps, celebrating. Sunday night is the first time all season, since the Red Sox were 0-0, that the hometown team has reached that .500 plateau thanks to a 3-game sweep of the Oakland Athletics. What’s even more interesting than that accomplishment? If the season were to end today, thanks to the struggling Los Angeles Angels (losing 11 straight), the Red Sox would claim the 3rd AL Wild Card spot. Over the last 30 days, the Red Sox postseason odds have jumped a whopping 43.2% and they now sit at a 55.6% chance to make the postseason, including an 18.4% bump just in the past week (Baseball Reference). Despite the awful start to the season and the seemingly endless struggles, the Red Sox are in the drivers seat with 108 games remaining.

On May 11th, the Red Sox were 11-20, 9 games under .500 and 11.5 games back in 5th place the AL East behind the Baltimore Orioles. To say the vibes were bad and the morale was low amongst fans was an understatement. The offense was struggling and the pitching staff was doing everything they could to keep the Sox in close games, but as Jon Madden would say, “You can’t win a game if you don’t score any points.” Since the walkoff 5-3 loss in Atlanta on May 11th, the Red Sox are 16-7 (.696), averaging 6.7 runs per game, and have a team batting average of just a tick under .300 (.297). Compared to the first 31 games of the season, that’s an astronomical improvement. The first 31 games of the year resulted in an 11-20 record, 3.5 runs per game, and a team batting average of .229. The Red Sox are getting contributions up and down the lineup and have seen several batting averages emerge from the depths of the .100s. During the most recent stretch, Franchy Cordero has been a nice surprise, collecting 6 of his 18 RBIs on the season in the Oakland series while Kike Hernandez has raised his average from .161 to .210 by grabbing at least one hit in 20 of his last 22 games (26 total hits with 3 HRs).

As much as some writers want to complain about the pitching staff (I’ve been known to spill some ink on occasion), the overall pitching numbers have remained quite steady all season. The only two numbers that have changed with any significance from the first 31 games to the past 23 games are K’s per game, which have dropped from 9.1 to 7.7 (Garrett Whitlock as a pitch-to-contact starter is the major contributor to that) and BBs per game, which has improved from 3.3 to 2.4. The team ERA was 3.77 the first 31 games and was 3.67 the past 23 games and overall the team has allowed 0.1 more runs per game the past 23 contests. Yes, the Red Sox need a closer and yes, the bullpen has struggled at moments, but overall, they have consistently done their job on a team constructed to score runs in bunches. On top of that, Chris Sale is on the road to a return and will be a huge plus for this team in the rotation and bullpen (whether he moves to the bullpen or remains a starter and a current starter is bumped there). He likely won’t be the ace of the staff, at least to start, but a mostly healthy Sale in any capacity is a bonus at this point. I said it from the beginning of the season and will continue to beat the drum: if the Red Sox offense can score 5+ runs per game regularly, they will win at an extremely high rate and will be a tough out in the postseason. It’s not rocket science.

Now that the Red Sox have reached the .500 plateau and are in the drivers seat for a postseason spot, they need to assert their strength and continue to win (obviously). There is a TON of season left and a near infinite number of scenarios to play out, but even being close to this position on June 5th is incredible. It just so happens the day following their rise into the 3rd AL Wild Card spot, the Red Sox begin a 4-game series with the Halos in Anaheim, the team 0.5 game behind them in the standings and struggling mightily. The Red Sox have a chance to put some distance between them and the Angels if they can pull off a big series win, and if they take 3 of 4, can ensure a winning record on their road trip despite still having a 3-game set in Seattle to close it out. The elusive .500 mark is great if they can blow past it and begin to put the rest of the league on notice, but useless if it’s the top of the mountain. Here’s hoping it’s not the destination, but a marker on the path to the top.

Big Vince Wilfork Getting Naked

Photo from HBO

When ESPN announces the athletes that will be posing nude, or nearly nude, for the Body Issue, it is always an interesting group. When I saw the headlines today exclaiming Vince Wilfork will strip down to his birthday suit, I spit out my drink. This has the potential to be one of the greatest Body Issues of all time thanks to the hefty former Patriots and current Houston Texans DT.

Wilfork is officially listed at 6′2″ and 325 lbs, but there is just no way he isn’t closer to 350. That’s a lot of man meat to show off in the Body Issue and he will most certainly be the most anticipated picture(s) in the magazine. Some other notable names participating are Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs, Christen Press of the USWNT, and Dwayne Wade of the Miami Heat.

Bruins Hot and Heavy on Kevin Shattenkirk

The Boston Bruins are in desperate need of top defensive help going into the 2016-2017 season. Of their top 4 d-men, Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg are 39 and 34 respectively and are both looking like time and injuries have slowed them down. Torey Krug, Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller are all good players, but ideally aren’t your top D-pairing guys. A guy like Kevin Shattenkirk would instantly make the Bruins defense more formidable. 

Shattenkirk is a top 4 puck-moving defensemen who can leave a serious impression on a game. He collected 14 goals and 30 assists last season with the Blues in 72 games and had a career high in hits (82) and blocks (113). He is only 27-years, is signed through next season, and went to BU. He seems great, what’s the catch? The price-tag will be very hefty to get Shattenkirk in the black and gold uniform.

Price is Right

Steven Senne/AP

When the Red Sox announced they had signed David Price for 7 years and $217 million I was excited. The lefty has electric stuff and the Sox desperately needed an ace in order to stay competitive in the division. Then April and May happened. Price did not pitch like an ace, except for one or two starts, and had an era that ballooned to 6.75 on May 7th after 7 starts. The restlessness began to get uncomfortable and thoughts of wasting $30 million a year crept into my mind.

Then things started to improve. Since May 7th, Price has not allowed more than 3 earned runs in an outing and has posted a 2.47 era, dropping his season era to 4.33. In his last three games he has finished the 8th inning and with a little run support, would be 3-0 in those starts instead of 1-2. He has returned to ace form.

Because I can never be fully satisfied, my main concern around Price going forward are the HR balls he keeps allowing. In his last 5 games, all 10 earned runs Price has allowed came on the long call, including one on Sunday that was wrapped around the Pesky Pole. All of 2015 Price only allowed 17 HRs in 32 starts and in 2016 has allowed 13 in just 15 games. If he can figure out how to keep the ball in the ballpark, he will be fine going forward.

In order for the Red Sox to make and compete in the postseason, Price needs to pitch to his ability like we have seen the last handful of starts. The team still needs at least one more starting arm, but at least the top of the rotation is set.

Diaco Donates

Our UConn football family is very fortunate to call The Burton Family Football Complex and Mark R. Shenkman Training Center our home. These facilities are among the finest in the nation and fully serve the needs of our football student-athletes. I want all Husky student-athletes and my fellow coaches to be able to enjoy the same caliber of facilities, which they richly deserve.

UConn Football Coach Bob Diaco on his $250,000 gift to help with the construction of facilities for UConn’s men’s and women’s soccer program, baseball program and softball program.