The doom and gloom talk regarding the Boston Red Sox has died down a bit over the last few days, and I’ve enjoyed the reprieve. I don’t listen to the Boston terrestrial sports talk stations, so I can’t actually speak to whatever dreck they may still be slinging. But it was nice to see the constant Red Sox pessimism quell during an eight-game win streak accumulated while playing exclusively against 2022 playoff teams.
The Guardians are a good team built on pitching and defense that has not yet hit their stride this season, so the first two wins of the streak were not particularly inspiring. It’s the following six wins that have really seemed to change the perception of the 2023 Red Sox … at least for the moment.
The 2022 Sox were 3-16 against Toronto, defeating the Blue Jays one single time at Fenway Park all season long. The final pitch of each game between these two teams last year felt like a mercy killing; the coup de gras to end a torturous, lopsided exhibition reminiscent of the 2021 AL Wild Card Game. The Jays were miles better than the Red Sox in every facet of the game last year.
And worst of all, they looked even better on paper when this season began.
Already stacked with a loaded lineup and starting rotation, the Blue Jays signed yet another high-profile starting pitcher in Chris Bassitt this past offseason. Then they acquired a dependable bullpen arm (Erik Swanson) and vastly tightened up their team defense by adding Dalton Varsho and Kevein Keiermaier, perhaps the two best defensive outfielders in baseball. On paper, they have arguably the best starting pitching, the scariest lineup, and the most airtight defense in the league. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to their visit to Fenway Park last week.
But then a strange thing happened: The Red Sox beat the crap out of them.
Okay, fine … the first two games were nip and tuck nail-biters that the Red Sox had to pull out in their final at bats thanks to clutch home runs from walk-off expert Alex Verdugo and baserunner sniper Connor Wong.
But the Wednesday and Thursday affairs were nothing short of dominant ass-whoopin’s. Nick Pivetta and Brayan Bello defeated Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman, perhaps the best starting pitcher combination in MLB, on the strength of a lethal offensive attack that drummed up 19 runs on 31 hits in 16 innings.
The free-swinging Sox of the past two years have drastically changed their approach. They are working counts, grinding out at bats, and turning over the lineup to make starting pitchers work harder. Thus far, they have knocked starting pitchers out of the game by the end of the fourth inning far more than any other team in baseball. Manoah barely lasted five innings Wednesday night, and Gausman never made it out of the fourth on Thursday. And while they’ve managed to hit some homers along the way (tied for fifth in MLB), the Sox are far from a three-outcome team banking on walks and bombs like the last-place Yankees.
Take the final two wins of the streak at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, the origin of more rockets than Cape Canaveral. Boston scored 12 runs on 18 hits (13 singles, five doubles) in those two games without the aid of a home run. Justin Turner, Rafael Devers, Kiké Hernandez, Triston Casas, and Enmanuel Valdez drove in the five runs on Friday. Rob Refsnyder, Devers, Christian Arroyo, and Reese McGuire supplied Saturday’s seven RBI.
The Red Sox won a series against Dave Dombrowski’s next scorched earth victims with an effort that is the antithesis of his Phillies offense: a well-rounded attack of patient hitters that work the count and rarely whiff or swing from their heels.
While the offense was an ensemble effort that came from all over the lineup (and the bench) during the eight-game winning streak, let’s not discount the particularly monumental results we’ve seen from a few key hitters.
Although his average is lingering at .250, Rafael Devers has an American League-leading 11 home runs and is second in the league with 34 RBI. He was hitting .231 when the winning streak began, and after two three-hit games in his last four contests, the singles and doubles appear to be piling up again. Don’t be surprised if he’s a lot closer to his career batting average (.280) in a couple weeks.
Masataka Yoshida has resembled a Wade Boggs with power of late, pounding line drives all over the field while sprinkling in a few long balls throughout his 16-game hit streak. After taking a couple weeks to adjust to the changeup, a pitch rarely used in Japan, Yoshida has shown that he most certainly belongs in MLB. His teammates call him Masa, but I am now re-christening him as Boggs-shida.
Oh, did I mention that he has not swung and missed at a single pitch in May?
Alex Verdugo continues to dazzle, barreling up a couple baseballs per game and collecting walk-off hits like Thanos gathering infinity stones. Focusing on agility and contact this past offseason instead of the bulk-and-power approach that had previously stalled his development, Verdugo has literally improved in every aspect of his game. He’s hitting and fielding better, he’s running faster, he’s throwing farther, and he’s even hitting more home runs. If he continues to play at this level, he may be a legitimate five-tool player by the end of the year.
I don’t know what Jarren Duran did in the offseason, I just want him to keep on doing it. He is somehow tied for third in the AL in doubles despite appearing in only 20 of Boston’s 36 games, which is the most bonkers stat I’ve seen in quite some time. He’s now hitless in his last seven at bats, so we’re about to find out if he has the mental capacity to cope with the inevitable struggles that everyday players must endure. Regardless, he appears to have removed the old gaping hole from his swing. If he has the ability to play like this for 20 games, there’s no reason to think he can’t continue to be a contributing starter moving forward.
The offense, however, was never going to be the issue for this team. If the 2023 Red Sox are going to make a run, the starting pitching needs some semblance of consistency. Despite Chris Sale’s development, which saw him touch 99 mph and rack up 10 strikeouts against Philadelphia Friday night, there is little certainty in this rotation. When I look at Corey Kluber, Tanner Houck, Brayan Bello, Garrett Whitlock, Nick Pivetta, and James Paxton, I see equal parts of potential success and potential disaster. Even Sale, as we all know, is always one pitch or bike ride away from another prolonged IL stint.
On the bright side, the starting pitchers have been going deeper into games. Red Sox starters have now pitched five or more innings in thirteen consecutive starts, which has given the bullpen a much-needed respite. That trend will have to continue in order for the relievers to stay successful without getting burned out. Aside from Ryan Brasier and Kaleb Ort, every relief pitcher on the staff has performed admirably (eighth in MLB in bullpen ERA). That is only sustainable if the rotation (whichever five or six guys are in it) continues to pull its share of the load.
Speaking of sustainability, it’s perfectly clear that the offensive barrage we saw during the eight-game winning streak is bound to fizzle out. We saw a glimpse of that on Sunday, when the Red Sox mustered only one run on five hits during the 6-1 loss to Philadelphia that ended the streak. To continue moving up in the standings and power rankings, the Red Sox will have to find a harmony of run production and prevention that can hold up over the long haul. All hitters fall into slumps. For now, we have to hope that the teamwide hot stretch is not immediately followed by a prolonged cold spell, which often happens in baseball.
Regardless, you can’t ignore the level of competition the Red Sox ran through in order to improve their record to 21-15. Unlike Boston’s hot stretch through late May and early June of 2022, this was no mere instance of running amok through the dregs of MLB for a series of layup wins. Cleveland, Toronto, and Philadelphia were all playoff teams last season that experienced very little turnover coming into 2023. Despite the sub-.500 records currently held by the Guardians and Phillies, there is no denying the level of talent on those teams. Of these three teams, the only one to not win a playoff series last season is the one that Red Sox fans feared most heading into last week.
A four-game sweep over the Blue Jays sends a message to all of MLB. It says that the 2023 Red Sox are a far cry from the wounded, snake-bit team it was last season. It says that this team will not be walked over by the heralded paper champions many fans and pundits have already penciled in for deep playoff runs (I myself picked the Blue Jays to win the World Series). This Red Sox team has already eclipsed the 2022 squad’s season win total over Toronto, and it took them only one series to do it.
Taking two of three from the Phillies sends yet another message. It’s a message to Dave Dombrowski, who is still jaded enough about his 2019 firing that he rushed Bryce Harper back from Tommy John surgery in record time to get him on the field for Boston’s only 2023 visit to Philadelphia.
It’s also a message to Red Sox fans — specifically the legions of Dombrowski sycophants and Bloom haters that feel like you are essentially wasting any season in which don’t load up on high-priced superstars.
Dave Dombrowski built a top-heavy offense of home run hitters (plus Trea Turner). Rhys Hoskins is out for the year. Bryce Harper is returning too soon from a serious injury. Kyle Schwarber is hitting under .200 (way under this time). The contributions from three of Philadelphia’s four best hitters have been minimal. And the result thus far has been a record of 16-19.
Chaim Bloom, on the other hand, constructed a Red Sox offense based on depth, patience, and contact. Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez are gone. Trevor Story is out until at least July. Adam Duvall has played in eight of 36 games. The Red Sox lost three of their four biggest bats from last year, along with another big bat that they signed this offseason. And the result thus far has been a record of 21-15.
The message, in a nutshell, is this:
Maybe the lazy, uncreative, shortsighted method of building a team ain’t exactly the best way to go about it.
Didn’t you get the memo?