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?

.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.

Signs of Life for the Red Sox?

After a season worst 5-game losing streak on May 8th and a string of 0 back-to-back wins since April 17th, the Red Sox finally realized the season was about to slip out of their grasp. Thanks to a favorable matchup against the below-.500 Texas Rangers, the Red Sox got over the hump and won their first series of the season since early April. The energy around the team perked up a hair as they faced Houston and despite getting absolutely clobbered thanks to a Nathan Eovaldi home run derby in game 2, they rode Nick Pivetta in the rubber match to secure a 2nd straight series win. This one was much more impressive, because it was against the Houston Astros, the 1st place team in the AL West. For the first time in more than a month, there are some small signs of life in the Red Sox clubhouse.

Over the last 9 games, the biggest difference for this team has been the offense beginning to wake up. We’re finally starting to see the production we expected, as they are scoring 5.75 runs per game during the stretch. Not surprisingly, in the 6 most recent wins, the Red Sox have scored 6.33 runs per game, while just scoring 2.67 runs per game in their 3 losses. It’s no secret, we’ve known this since well before the season began, the Red Sox will go as the offense goes. Besides the big three of Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, and JD Martinez, the catalysts of the mini-run have been Kike Hernandez, who has at least 1 hit in 6 straight games, Christian Vazquez, who has 7 hits in his last 7 starts behind the plate, and Trevor Story, who despite not hitting for average, has drawn a walk in 5 straight games creating traffic on the bases. All three of those mentioned, plus the rest of the lineup besides the big three, are still struggling well-below their averages, but signs of life have led to more Ws and a glimmer of hope.

Unfortunately, despite finally winning multiple series, the Red Sox have fallen even further behind in the AL East thanks to the absolutely dominant New York Yankees. A 6-3 record is a nice turnaround for the Red Sox, but during that stretch they dropped 2.5 games further behind the Yankees. While the goal at this point can’t be to catch the Bronx Bombers atop the division, you have to expect the Yankees won’t continue on their .757 winning percentage tear and set the MLB record with 122 or 123 wins on the season. The goal needs to be winning the next 2 months to determine if a Wild Card spot is possible or if it’s just not their year and the trade deadline should become a sell-a-thon.

The big question for me despite the recent optimism: Is the season realistically still salvageable? The answer is yes-ish, but it’s going to take a herculean effort. As it stands after their win on May 18th, the Red Sox are 7 games below .500 at 15-22 sitting in 4th place in the AL East, a whopping 13 games behind the Yankees. Their winning percentage is an abysmal .405 and if you think about who is in front of them in the AL East, I think they realistically need to hit 90+ wins to make the postseason (although I know it’s possible for a team to make the postseason with win totals in the upper 80s). At this moment, the 3rd AL Wild Card would go to the Toronto Blue Jays, who are surprisingly just 20-18 with a .526 winning percentage. They are on pace for just 85 wins, but you have to expect that they will pick up the pace a bit and end up near or over 90 wins. If they go 70-54 to finish the season (.564), they will hit win #90. If that is true, they the Red Sox would need to finish the season with at least a .600 winning percentage just to touch the 90-win mark and that’s likely just fighting for the 3rd Wild Card and squeaking into spot in the postseason. It’s possible that the Los Angeles Angels falter also and drop to the 3rd Wild Card, but they have a .600 winning percentage on the season thus far and with two of the best players in baseball, Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, will definitely be in the hunt. While a postseason run is not out of the question, to win over 60% of your games just to hang onto hopes of a postseason bid is a monumental task with 125 games remaining.

Before you come at me, I know there are about 1,000 variables and tons of uncertainty when projecting out potential scenarios, but in a season that has been anything but good to this point, it’s worth determining whether the Red Sox keep fighting or become sellers at the deadline. There are 68 games until the August 2nd trade deadline and ultimately the mark in the season when teams make decisions on whether to load up and make a run, stand pat, or sell. In a season with now 3 Wild Card slots per league, more teams will be competitive and in the race, which could be beneficial for teams looking to sell. The number of teams looking to buy will lead to higher asking prices and larger returns. For the Red Sox, if they win 60% of the 68 games in this stretch (that’s a big if), they will be sitting at about 66-49 and in a strong position to compete for the postseason and not be sellers. If they are winning closer to 55%, which would be the 6th highest winning percentage in the AL right now, then they are sitting at just 52-53 and are likely sellers focused on 2023. Just a percent or two can be the difference between loading up for a run and pointing toward the future. The worst place to be would be in between those two records, unsure of whether to buy or sell. Thanks to the awful start, the pressure is extremely high to have a shot at competing for the postseason come August.

Ultimately, while there are more glimmers of hope in the past week than most of the season so far, it’s going to be a tough road ahead if the Red Sox want to make the postseason. They are going to need their lineup to continually score 5+ runs per game and have their starters continue to perform well, with perhaps fewer of the duds Nathan Eovaldi put out there in game 2 of the Houston series, allowing 5 HRs in 1 inning. It’s unclear whether they will get support from James Paxton and Chris Sale this year and even if they do, when is an even bigger question mark. Perhaps we are seeing the page turn now and the Red Sox are ready to pull a Boston Celtics and emerge from the depths of despair to the sunshine of success, shocking everyone including me. I’m not holding my breath.

Are the Red Sox the ‘Surprise’ AL East Team?

As opening day is finally upon us, just slightly later than expected, it’s time to take a deeper look at the Boston Red Sox and the AL East landscape. For much of the shortened free agency period, it felt like the Red Sox were just taking a back seat while their AL East competitors improved, significantly in some cases. The Red Sox appeared to be content with their roster until on March 20th it was announced they had reached an agreement with SS/2B Trevor Story. The addition is a significant one and solidifies the shift to a focus on improved team defense this year, while also adding some nice pop to the lineup. Let’s take a look at the Red Sox, who I believe are closer to being competitive in the AL East than others believe.

Roster In:

OF Jackie Bradley Jr.

SS/2B Trevor Story (FA)

RP Jake Diekman (FA)

RP Matt Strahm (FA)

RP Tyler Danish (FA)

RP Kutter Crawford (From minors)

SP Michael Wacha (FA)

SP Rich Hill (FA)

SP James Paxton (FA – 60-day IL)

Roster Out:

OF Hunter Renfroe

UTIL Marwin Gonzalez

OF Danny Santana

SS Jose Iglesias

SP Eduardo Rodriguez

SP Garrett Richards

SP Martin Perez

RP Adam Ottavino

RP Matt Andriese

What stands out to me when looking at the roster ins and outs over this offseason is just how stable the Red Sox lineup remained. In terms of the lineup, their biggest weakness in 2021 was defense. As much as fans liked Hunter Renfroe with his burst of power and occasional diving play in center, by almost all metrics he was a terrible defender. He was so bad in fact, that despite leading the league with 16 OF assists, and hitting 31 HRs he was ranked 181st (2nd to last) in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in 2021 with a 2.4 and was ranked 172nd in defensive WAR with a -0.5 (i.e. an average defensive player would have been better defensively than he was). The addition of Jackie Bradley Jr. is surely a step down in offense, but that downgrade is compensated for by stellar defense. Jackie has the 24th highest active WAR in baseball and has proven in his career that despite being an extremely streaky hitter, his defense is consistently excellent and he’s a strong baserunner when he can find a way to get on.

In order to not see an offensive drop-off and continue to see defensive improvement this season, Chaim Bloom took a bold stance and signed SS/2B Trevor Story to a large contract. The addition immediately improves the defense at 2nd base (Story was 12th in defensive WAR in 2021) and adds a nice pop to the lineup offensively, not to mention legitimate speed on the bases. Story is a career .272 hitter with 158 HRs and 100 SBs in his 6 seasons with the Colorado Rockies (745 games). Even if there is a slight dip in production leaving the thin air of Denver, which I highly doubt will be significant, Story is coming to play in an almost perfectly-configured-for-his-swing Fenway Park for 81 games a season. No matter how you slice it, the defense and lineup improved over 2021.

The concern, as with most years in recent memory, is the pitching staff for the Red Sox. Do they have enough arms? Can the starting pitching compete with the other AL East lineups? Will Chris Sale ever be Chris Sale again? What does the backend of the bullpen look like? And so on.

There were some notable departures this offseason that definitely left a bit of a hole in the rotation. Eduardo Rodriguez left for the Detroit Tigers in search of a change of scenery and despite my constant frustration with him, he occasionally had stretches of solid pitching for the Red Sox. The Red Sox lost some additional backend of the rotation depth in Martin Perez and with the injury to Chris Sale, the rotation looks mighty thin to begin the season. It’s shaping up to have Nathan Eovaldi, Nick Pivetta, Tanner Houck, Michael Wacha, and Rich Hill, with Garrett Whitlock in a multi-inning relief role or a rotation sub. Overall, Houck should be getting better in now his 2nd full season in the majors, Wacha is pretty similar to Martin Perez but with more upside and Rich Hill with his sub-4 career ERA as your #5 starter isn’t terrible. Not to mention that Chris Sale and James Paxton should be returning from injuries around mid-season. Call me naïve, but I think there is a potential for this rotation to be more than serviceable barring additional injuries with the offense this team puts out there each and every day. In general, this lineup should produce 5+ runs a game (5.12/game last season), so all you need from your pitching staff is to allow 5 or fewer runs and you’ll win most nights.

The other pitching area of concern is the bullpen. The absolute freefall of Matt Barnes last year became a glaring problem at the closer spot. Supposedly, he found a mechanical issue that is being corrected this spring and if that’s true and he returns to form, that solidifies the backend of the bullpen. Losing Adam Ottavino hurts, but the additions of Jake Diekman as a lefty and a more experienced Garrett Whitlock in a longer-relief role (for now), should be stable. Home grown Kutter Crawford (2017 Red Sox draft pick) has emerged in Spring Training and will have a shot in the majors after just a cup of coffee last year. The addition of free agents Tyler Danish and Matt Strahm are added to the returnees Josh Taylor, Ryan Brasier, Hirokazu Sawamura, Austin Davis and Phillips Valdez (to start the year). It’s hard to evaluate a bullpen without seeing them in action and in what roles they will be used, but I think the Red Sox have enough arms in the majors and AAA to mix-and-match a solid group. They have more lefty support than in the past and I believe Sawamura in his 2nd year with the Red Sox will be more comfortable and hopefully cut back on the walks while maintaining a 3ish ERA. He could become a high-leverage reliever for Alex Cora. I’m not sure as a group they are better than last year as of today, but I don’t think they got significantly worse.

Overall, I feel like the defense and lineup improved over 2021 while the starting rotation and bullpen still leave much to be desired. That being said, I genuinely believe there is enough talent in the pitching pool to match or potentially exceed last year’s production if you’re willing to be patient and wait for it all to settle out as the season wears on. There are some young arms (Houck, Whitlock, Crawford) who hopefully will take the next step in development this year and a few new veteran faces (Hill, Wacha, Diekman) to help them along. Yes, others in the league made splashy moves and got better, but I think the Red Sox methodically and somewhat under-the-radar got better (besides the splashy Story signing). They were 2 games from the World Series last year with a fairly similar roster, so there wasn’t the pressure for Bloom to blow it up and start over (like some other teams felt). He addressed the defense and 2nd base need and time will tell if his pitching additions were smart or a bust. If they turn out to be smart, I can’t rule out another nice playoff run in 2022. If they turn out to be busts, the offense will only carry this team so far and they may be fighting for the 3rd Wild Card come September.

AL East Prediction

  1. Toronto Blue Jays – 91-71
  2. Boston Red Sox – 88-74
  3. New York Yankees – 87-75
  4. Tampa Bay Rays – 86-76
  5. Baltimore Orioles – 60-102

Overall, I think this is finally the year the Blue Jays sit atop the AL East. They are stacked top-to-bottom and as long as they stay healthy, their offense can compete with anyone while their starting rotation continues to look daunting. I also believe that this is the season the Tampa Bay Rays fall back a bit. They have been overachieving for so long, eventually their small budget will begin to show and they will settle down in the division. Ultimately though, I think the top 4 in the division will be within 5-8 games of each other, so a win here or there in April or May could make the difference down the stretch. With a 3rd Wild Card this year, it could be a race for 3 or even 4 AL East teams to get into the playoffs. The only thing I know for certain? The Baltimore Orioles will be out of contention by the All-Star break (if not long before).

Sale’s Injury Puts the Red Sox in a World of Hurt

As Spring Training is back in full swing and players are working to get ready after a delayed start, news is flowing like fine wine. This player is looking good, this player won’t switch positions, this player is ready for a breakout. The one piece of news that no one wants to hear: this player has an injury. The news quickly spread on Wednesday morning that Chris Sale has a stress-fracture in his rib. The ace starter who is coming off of Tommy John surgery is now on the shelf again and will not be ready for opening day. That is not the news Red Sox fans wanted to hear.

The initial report is that the fracture has been healing and isn’t expected to be a long-term issue, but when Chaim Bloom says “We’re still trying to get a read on it. He’s doing much better than he was a week ago, but we have to get him rotating and throwing and then build him up. Again, we’re talking weeks, not days before he’s throwing again,” there is cause for concern. In an already shortened and compressed Spring Training, the loss of any time for a pitcher is significant, especially one who is going to need to build up his strength and stamina already coming off of major surgery. This isn’t an injury that will allow Sale to begin pitching, just with limited capacity, it’s going to prevent him from twisting and throwing, which is pretty important for a, oh I don’t know, pitcher.

The other component is the uncertainty of bone healing and timing. For some, a bone could heal fairly quickly and be back to 100% and for others it could take quite a bit of time to fully heal. As much as Bloom indicated it’s healing and moving in the right direction, I have serious concerns and hesitations when it comes to Sale’s ultimate return timeline. My gut is that we won’t see a full strength, up-to-speed Sale now until mid-season at the earliest, which is a massive concern as the Yankees and Blue Jays (especially) are stacking their lineups and improving significantly. The Red Sox have brought in some pitching depth this offseason so far, but with more games compressed in fewer days, losing a major piece of the rotation puts them at a large disadvantage.

Coming into the season I expected Sale to need time to build up and expected pitch and innings limits in April and perhaps the beginning of May, but now that timeline is pushed at least a month or (hopefully not) two. There is no doubt this is an early blow to the Red Sox rotation.

Tanner Houck is the Future (and Present)

You never know what to expect from young pitchers when the pressure turns up in the postseason. Some can handle it, and even thrive on it, and others collapse and lower their performance level. Good thing for the Red Sox, 25-year old Tanner Houck is thriving in his first taste of postseason baseball this season. Houck has emerged as the top long arm out of the bullpen during this postseason run, using his experience as a starter to help him stretch out in his relief appearances or give a short outing if needed. Houck has appeared in 2 postseason outings thus far and yesterday, he may have saved the Red Sox season.

In the first 3 postseason games for the Red Sox, Houck has appeared twice, throwing a shutout inning with 2 Ks against the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game and yesterday he relieved Chris Sale in the 2nd inning and threw 5 innings of 1 run, 2 hit ball with 5 Ks. The context of yesterday’s performance was incredible. He came in after Sale allowed 5 runs in the first inning, 4 off a Jordan Luplow grand slam, and was asked to stop the bleeding and try to fill some innings. Houck did more than stop the bleeding, he completely shut down the Rays throwing 4 perfect innings before allowing 2 hits, including a solo HR, in his 5th inning of relief. It was exactly what the Red Sox needed to stay in the game and let their offense get back in the game (which they did in a BIG way).

In critical, high pressure situations, Houck has been lights out. His outing prior to his two postseason appearances was essentially another postseason game. He came in early in relief of Chris Sale in the final game of the season at the Washington Nationals in essentially a must win. He spun another absolute gem, going 5 perfect innings with 8 Ks to keep the Red Sox in the game and allow for a comeback (sense a pattern here?). His last 3 appearances, in the highest of pressure situations, he has allowed 2 hits (1 HR), 0 BBs, and accumulated 15Ks in 11 innings. That’s dominance when the Red Sox needed it the most.

If the Red Sox can find a way to beat the Rays twice more and move on to the ALCS, Houck could be a pivotal piece of the pitching staff, whether as a starter or reliever. There will definitely be a decision to make about the starters in a 7-game series, especially with Eduardo Rodriguez‘s struggles and Sale clearly not being right coming off of Tommy John surgery. Eovaldi is definitely the Red Sox #1, and then it’s a mush of Nick Pivetta, Sale, ERod, and maybe Houck to either start or be long-relief. It feels like the Rays “starter” model of the last several years, where the starter is only expected to go a few innings backed up by a deep bullpen.

All of this sets Houck up to be a member of the starting rotation for the Red Sox next year, which is exciting to think about. The Red Sox have been searching for rotation depth, especially some younger talent to infuse energy. Tanner Houck is a guy who can give you a chance to win every 5th day and his ceiling is pretty high. He has the makeup to be a front-end rotation talent with a bit more experience and could be the future #1 in this rotation. Even more importantly, he’s proven he can pitch well and even be dominant when the lights are the brightest.

A Wild Finish Sets Up a Rivalry Grudge Match

Everyone take a breath. No really, it’s ok the breathe now. That was one of the wildest final few days of the regular season I’ve ever seen in the MLB and the every-team-starts-at-3pm-on-the-final-day-of-the-season was intense and absolutely amazing. Going into game 162 there were a half-dozen scenarios involving the 4 teams fighting for the 2 AL Wild Card spots, including a potential for a 4-way tie. As the games began, all Red Sox needed to host the AL Wild Card game was a W, but the anxiety increased for Red Sox fans pretty quickly.

With the 4 games that impacted the AL Wild Card all happening simultaneously, there was no time to sit back and relax. I was watching the Red Sox at Nationals and checking in on Rays at Yankees, Orioles at Blue Jays, and Angels at Mariners. Thankfully, for my sanity not for the wild card race, the Blue Jays jumped all over the Orioles early making that a game I didn’t have to keep checking. As time ticks on, the Rays and Yankees are still scoreless and Chris Sale is, well, not Chris Sale-ing, my anxiety level rose. Once Sale walked in a run and was pulled in the 3rd inning, doom and gloom began to overtake me. The Red Sox were guaranteed a game 163, but no one wanted it to be a tie-breaker game.

Once Garrett Richards gave up the 2-run double to retiring catcher Alex Avila, I thought that was it. It was 5-1 Nationals and I was figuring out my schedule for a potential tie-breaker game on Monday and running through all the potential scenarios once again. As the game progressed, my anxiety grew even higher the longer the Rays and Yankees remained scoreless. The Red Sox got one back in the 6th, then down 3 in the 7th, three straight singles makes in 5-3 and Alex Verdugo has one of the biggest hits of the season with a 2-run double to tie the game. For those who are keeping track, the Red Sox and Nationals are tied 5-5 and the Rays and Yankees are tied 0-0, both in the very late innings.

Then, the pressure grew to new heights when Aaron Judge had the softest walkoff hit I’ve ever seen (bunts not withstanding) to give the Yankees a 1-0 victory. The Red Sox’s chances of hosting the wild card game were slipping, but there was still time. Eduardo Rodriguez shutdown the Nationals in the bottom of the 8th and then the Red Sox get their chance to bat in the top of the 9th with the heart of the lineup scheduled to bat (2-3-4). Kyle Schwarber led it off with a ground ball to the shifted 2nd baseman on the outfield grass and he couldn’t play it cleanly so the Red Sox have some life for Xander Bogaerts. Unfortunately X-man continued his awful stretch with a K, bringing Rafael Devers up to bat.

Devers swung at the first pitch splitter and missed, then watched 2 more splitters to move the count to 2-and-1. The Nationals pitcher Kyle Finnegan then made a critical error, throwing Raffy a 4th straight splitter on the inside part of the plate and Devers crushed it. A 447-foot HR to give the Red Sox their first lead of the game and put them in a position to host the AL Wild Card game on Tuesday night. In the all-hands-on-deck game 162, starter Nick Pivetta came in to close the game out in the bottom of the 9th and retired the Nationals in order, including an impressive strikeout of Juan Soto to end the game.

It wasn’t easy, but nothing has been since June. This team was one of the best in baseball for the first 3-months of the season but has struggled and had to fight and claw for everything since that point. The fact they needed 162 games to get into the postseason is hard to swallow, but if you compare that to the pre-season expectations for this team, the postseason is an accomplishment to celebrate. The Red Sox officially finish the year 92-70, which is a great record in any situation. Before the season, Sports Illustrated predicted the Red Sox would finish 80-82 this season, 17 games behind the Yankees and 4th place in the AL East and the betting over/under on wins for the Red Sox was 80.5.

I know this team almost collapsed and may bow out of the playoffs before getting into a series, but big picture, this has been a successful season for the Boston Red Sox to this point. It’s really hard to see that when watching day-in and day-out, but to be as competitive as they have been in a division stacked with 4 playoff-worthy teams. The Red Sox played nearly 1/3 of their games (57) against the Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, and Toronto Blue Jays, all 90+ win teams and 2 of the 3 are in the postseason and 1 missed the postseason by a single game. The Red Sox won the season series with the Yankees and Blue Jays, albeit by 1 game, but it’s why they are hosting the AL Wild Card game on Tuesday.

There is a lot to unpack about the 2021 season for the Red Sox and thankfully there is an offseason for that, but for now, I’m just looking forward to a single-elimination game between two storied rivals at America’s Most Beloved Ballpark on Tuesday night at 8:08pm EST.

A Pathetic and Embarrassing Performance By the Red Sox

Do the Boston Red Sox players know that they are playing for their playoff lives this last week of the season? If they do, they sure fooled me. Their performance against the 51-win Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday night was pathetic and embarrassing. Their defense let them down, again, and the offense looked completely lost and uninterested. Where is the leadership on this team? Do they even want to make the wild card game at this point or would they rather be golfing?

The situation seemed absolutely perfect for a big win on Tuesday. Chris Sale was on the mound following a rough weekend sweep by the Yankees and the Orioles are the worst team in baseball. That certainly should be enough for a W with this Red Sox offense. As it turns out, they couldn’t get more than 2 hits against the Orioles starter Bruce Zimmerman who was making his first MLB start since mid-June and mustered just 1 hit against the Orioles bullpen in 5 innings. Once again the defense made several critical mistakes, including 2 huge ones in the 8th inning with Rafael Devers‘ errant throw to first and Alex Verdugo‘s complete misplay of a ball in right leading to the Orioles 4th run.

The most egregious issue to me was the complete lack of plate discipline in the final stretch of the game when the team needed base runners and a spark on offense. According to Alex Speier on Twitter, from the 6th through the 8th inning, the Red Sox saw just 2.4 pitches per plate appearance including 5 plate appearances of 2 or fewer pitches seen. The impatience shows a lack of urgency and understanding the situation, not to mention the batters came across as listless and uninterested at times. Where was Alex Cora during that stretch? Clearly not reminding his players of the situation and approach.

I honestly just don’t understand Tuesday night’s performance. It feels like this team has not only lost its way, but is so far off the rails that no one can bring them back. At this point even if they make the playoffs, which has suddenly become a giant if, they have no chance at moving on unless something magical happens and they learn how to play defense, hit consistently, and pitch in clutch situations. This has been an epically embarrassing collapse.

Orioles Just What the Doctor Ordered

The last three weeks have been brutal for the Boston Red Sox. From July 24 through Aug 12, the Red Sox went 6-13 and went from being tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for 1st in the AL East to 5 games back. Other than one 20-run outburst on August 11 against the Rays, the Red Sox bats went cold and the pitching staff was struggling to keep opponents off the scoreboard. Then the Baltimore Orioles came to town.

When a really good team is struggling, sometimes it takes a little spark, and a terrible opponent, to right the ship. In a 3-game set at home against the Orioles this past weekend, the offense exploded for 30 runs and the pitching staff held the lowly Orioles to just 5 total runs in the series. While the results are in no way surprising since the Os sit at 38-78 on the season, a whopping 24.5 games out of 4th place in the AL East, the course correction couldn’t have happened soon enough. The Red Sox are talented, but were struggling top to bottom this past month.

Hopefully seeing the bat hit the ball and the K’s pile up will instill confidence across the roster for a team that was overflowing with it the first half of the year. The return of ace SP Chris Sale on Friday for the first time in two years was definitely a moment for the team to step up and it caused an energizing jolt. Sale’s 5 IP and 2 ERs were a welcome sight and hopefully the beginning of a slow build to the postseason for him and consistent starts every five days. The official Red Sox debut of DH/OF/1B (maybe) Kyle Schwarber also provided an offensive kick with 2 BBs on Saturday and 2 doubles on Sunday. The long overdue move to put young SP Tanner Houck in the rotation permanently also helps to solidify a struggling group and moves a few decent arms into the bullpen where they are more likely to have success.

It’s just three games against the worst team in baseball, but the jolt in confidence will hopefully carry over going forward. The Red Sox schedule continues with a 3-games set in the Bronx against the New York Yankees beginning Monday, which will be hard-fought. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, they will have a tough time gaining ground in the AL East the next few weeks because the 1st place Rays are playing the Orioles 6 of their next 11 games.

Can the Bleeding Be Stopped for the Red Sox?

The last few weeks have been an abject disaster for the Boston Red Sox. The team has gone from an over-achieving, likable contender that was fun to watch to an under-achieving, disappointing mess that makes me want to turn off the TV at least twice a game. Since July 28th, the Red Sox are 3-10 and have gone from 1st place in the AL East, 2.5 games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays and 8.5 games ahead of the New York Yankees, to 2nd place in the AL East, 4 games back of the Rays and just 1.5 games ahead of the Yankees. The team is collapsing in every aspect of play with less than 50 games left. Can the season be salvaged at this point?

The 2021 season has been a tail of two halves (pre/post All Star game). The 1st half saw the Red Sox surprise everyone with a 55-36 record and a +57 run differential. After a sweep at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles to start the year, the team turned on the jets and were winning games in every way, including 30+ come from behind victories. It felt like this team had the championship contender x-factors: grittiness and never-give-up-mentality. Then the 2nd half of the season kicked off and the team has lost the qualities we fell in love with earlier in the year. Their 10-13 record in the 2nd half is highlighted by a -24 run differential.

The biggest issue with the team right now? It depends on the game, but basically everything. For most of the season the starting pitching has been just OK but the offense has more than made up for poor starts. The offense overall was averaging a very strong 5.1 runs per game before the All-Star break, but since the break, that number has dropped more than a run per game to 3.8. On the pitching side, the staff was allowing 4.0 runs per game in the first half and have been allowing 4.6 runs per game since the break. While the pitching jump isn’t as drastic as the offensive production drop, the combination of the two is dramatic.

The struggles on offense can be directly linked to the top two hitters in the lineup, J.D. Martinez (.253 in 21 games in the 2nd half with just 3 HRs and 9 RBIs) and Xander Bogaerts (.221 in 20 games in the 2nd half with 1 HR and 5 RBIs). During the 1st half of the season, Martinez’s average was .046 points higher and Bogaerts’ average was .100 points higher than the 2nd half. Overall, the team average dropped .009, which doesn’t seem significant in a small sample, but is obviously showing itself in runs scored. There is also some diminished power in the 2nd half of the season with the team’s HRs per game number dropping from 1.26 to 1.13, but even the 1.13 is inflated thanks to a 6 HR and 5 HR game on July 19 and 21. Since July 21, the Red Sox are hitting just 0.72 HRs per game.

The the pitching side, it’s a different chapter of the same story. Only 2 of the 5 primary starting pitchers on the Red Sox has an ERA at or below their career average, meaning that based on ERA alone, 3/5 of the starting rotation is underachieving this season. Since ERA doesn’t tell the whole story, a look at WHIP (Walks and Hits per Inning) confirms the struggles with 3/5 of the rotation above their career average. While the overall picture isn’t great, the 1st half vs 2nd half disparity is even worse. The ERA growth in the 2nd half of the season is absolutely crushing the team right now. All but one starter’s ERA has grown since the All-Star break, and the lone exception, E-Rod, was already so high at 5.52 before the break that a drop isn’t shocking (Garrett Richards +1.84 ERA, Nathan Eovaldi +2.30, Eduardo Rodriguez -1.32, Martin Perez +4.78, Nick Pivetta +0.20).

There has been, and will continue to be, a lot of talk around the inactivity at the trade deadline for the Red Sox, but I’m honestly not sure it would have made enough of a difference. As the offense has come back down to earth and the pitching staff has struggle a bit more, one more starter and one more offensive player weren’t going to turn around the fortunes of this club, but could have helped win a game or two. It’s an overall team struggle at the moment.

There were a few encouraging offensive signs in the series finale against the Toronto Blue Jays. If the bats can come alive and return to form and the pitching staff can begin to right the ship just a little, even just a little, they can recover. The addition of a 75% Chris Sale will help significantly by moving a starter to the bullpen helping to alleviate some strain there. The Red Sox are still 16 games above .500 despite the horrible slide, so a course correction could leave them in the hunt. I don’t think they are good enough to be a legitimate championship contender anymore the way the roster stands, but some competitive postseason baseball would be nice…please.