The Boston Red Sox enjoyed their signature win of the 2021 season last night, and I am still recovering from it twenty hours later. Sole possession of first place was on the line, as I imagine it will be in a bunch of games before this season is all said and done, and the Red Sox played downright ugly for much of the game. Good teams win the games they are supposed to win and use grit and balls to eke out a few others. Great teams never consider themselves out of the ballgame and fight hard every night for nine innings, no matter how aggravating the first eight may have been.
Nick Pivetta had his shakiest start of the season thus far and put the Sox in a quick 2-0 hole before Boston exploded for seven straight two-out hits in the second inning, including an emerging Bobby Dalbec’s fifth dinger of the year, to put them on top 5-2. From there, however, the Red Sox offense shifted into autopilot while their defense crashed into a freaking mountain. Hunter Renfroe and Rafael Devers committed errors that led to two runs in the fifth to tie the game. Then, after Toronto took a 6-5 lead in the sixth, Xander Bogaerts made what looked like a great inning-ending diving stop on a shot up the middle by Teoscar Hernandez. Michael Chavis, however, committed a Timmy Lupus-style error by muffing Bogaerts’ perfect flip to second that gave Toronto an extra life. That error enabled the next hitter, the impressive and underrated Randal Grichuk, to serve an RBI single to right that padded the Blue Jay lead to 7-5.
It was a game bound to go down as the ugliest and most frustrating loss of the season. And in 2019 or 2020, that undoubtedly would have been the case. These Red Sox, however, are not your average team. After tonight, I’m convinced that they have even excelled past the echelon of good teams.
Bobby Dalbec is a rookie. Michael Chavis has a season’s worth of big league at bats under his belt that have been spread out over the last three campaigns. These are not cagey, battle-tested veterans with ice water in their veins. Hell, Chavis had just committed the worst error of the year a couple innings earlier. Yet they both stepped in against Blue Jays closer Rafael Dolis, who incidentally looked like he was pitching the ninth as a consequence for getting a D on his latest Biology test, and ripped solid opposite-field singles to start the top of the ninth. After Alex Verdugo’s RBI groundout trimmed the deficit to 7-6 with two outs, the number one guy that Red Sox fans should want at the plate with the game on the line stepped into the batter’s box.
I want to take you back in time for a moment to another signature Red Sox victory from a few years ago.
July 12th 2018. Blue Jays at Red Sox. Blue Jays lead 2-1. Bottom of the fourth inning. Bases loaded. Two out. J.A. Happ pitches to eventual AL MVP Mookie Betts. After twelve pitches, including seven foul balls, Betts launches a fastball down and in over the monster seats for a grand slam to give Boston a 5-2 lead en route to an eventual 6-4 victory. The best player on the team stepped up in a big spot to deliver the biggest hit of the regular season. On that night, the Red Sox proved to Major League Baseball that they had not only the talent, but the gumption, pride, and intangibles of a championship team.
Flash forward to May 20th 2021. A disappointing performance from Pivetta and an atrocious effort from the defense set the Red Sox up for the kind of loss that prompts veterans to call players-only meetings in the clubhouse. But this team just doesn’t lose games like that. It’s not in their DNA.
Dalbec and Chavis, two guys with less cache on the team than a lot of mop-up relievers have, set the table. Verdugo served up the appetizer. And then J.D. Martinez dumped the entrée right onto Dolis’ chin. Martinez, the unequivocal centerpiece of this team, took a cement mixer slider over the heart of the plate into the right-centerfield bleachers to put the Red Sox on top 8-7. It was eerily reminiscent of the Betts granny in ’18. From the normally reserved JD’s fist pumps and hollering, to the dejection of the opponents, to the visceral F*&% YEAH!!!! feeling of witnessing it live, last night’s comeback win converged with the defining moment of the 2018 team on almost every level.
The three whiffs from Matt Barnes in the bottom of the ninth to seal the deal were academic. No way were the 2021 Red Sox going to blow this game after getting Shohei’d a mere four days before. It was time to show the Blue Jays how it feels to fight and crawl your way back into a game, only to have your heart crushed by the monstrous talent of a superior specimen. The Red Sox held off a team that was thought to be far better than them at the start of the season. They won the series. And they fended off the Rays to hold onto first place for another day.
Make no mistake … this is J.D. Martinez’ team. He was too new to hold the top spot when he got here in 2018 and there was already an incumbent generational talent here that outranked him. But Boston’s attitude toward hitting; a scientific study based on continuous video review, preparation, and pitch/swing analysis, took a giant leap forward when Martinez got here. His teammates go on about the tool box full of mechanical tees, weights, levers, pulleys, and plutonium-charged flux capacitors he brings to the field every day. His coaches praise his natural leadership. The front office marvels at the way the other players fall in step behind him. Xander Bogaerts is making the leap to become one of the greatest players in the sport. Rafael Devers has as much raw phenomenal talent as any player these eyes have ever seen. But there is only one captain on this ship. And as a certain large father showed us from 2003 – 2017, you don’t have to play the field to command the bridge.
The AL East is going to be a war all season. The Yankees have the biggest names. The Blue Jays have the hall of fame pedigree. The Rays have the proven blueprint. But you don’t win a war on paper, or by birthright, or with a computer. You win a war by manning up, holding your ground, and never giving in to your enemy. New York, Toronto, and Tampa have some great players on their rosters.
But the Red Sox have the best fighters.