July 1st, 2022

The Red Sox lost two of three in Toronto, but I’ve come away from it feeling as positive about this team as I’ve felt all year long.

Did they lose yet another series to an AL East team? Yes.

Did they blow two more save opportunities in consecutive games? They did.

Did the peanut gallery on social media and sports radio take another victory lap for their early predictions declaring that this team was not ready for prime time? I’d expect nothing less.

Thank God Red Sox fans have me to truly put things in perspective for them!

The Sox won their previous seven series before they crossed the border into the land of moose, maple syrup, and stanky weed. We all knew that they would enter the series shorthanded, with closer Tanner Houck and sizzling outfielder Jarren Duran unvaccinated and starting pitchers Nate Eovaldi and Garrett Whitlock still sidelined with hip issues. I say again … we knew all along that Houck and Duran would be unavailable.

Duran has been fantastic at the dish and on the bases during his most recent stint with the big club, and Houck has become the desperately needed bullpen lynchpin that this team had lacked all year. It was always a distinct possibility that missing those two players could potentially cost the Sox a win or two in Toronto. Houck’s absence in particular turned out to be critical.

The Eovaldi and Whitlock injuries forced the Red Sox to bring up Connor Seabold from Worcester to start Monday’s game. Although Seabold managed seven strikeouts and more swings and misses than any Red Sox pitcher has generated this season, the potent Blue Jays lineup had their way with him. George Springer, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Matt Chapman all took him deep on the way to a one-sided 7-2 loss.

Tuesday’s game was the real heartbreaker. It clinched a series win for Toronto and spurred the angry, shortsighted Red Sox fans we all know and love to declare that the Red Sox the bullpen is still a complete mess and the team is still incapable of winning a series against an AL East opponent. Many even complained that the 6-5 loss was a carbon copy of the many late-inning collapses they suffered during the first six weeks of the season.

I disagree.

Let’s start with the obvious … the Red Sox offense was a joke at the beginning of the season. Not only was their production downright anemic, they typically stopped scoring after the fourth or fifth innings. Prior to mid-May, Red Sox late inning rallies were less frequent than Pablo Sandoval’s cardio sessions. Once they fell behind, they stayed behind. And when they did manage to score, it was almost exclusively on the backs of the trinity.

When the Red Sox found themselves down 4-2 in the seventh inning on Tuesday, things seemed perilous. Monday’s drubbing, their recent lack of success against Toronto, and their inability to put up a crooked number against Ross freaking Stripling made it feel like one of those games where it just wasn’t gonna happen. But it was Rob Refsnyder, of all people, that pulverized a Trent Thornton fastball into the black seats beyond the center field fence for a clutch, game-tying two-run homer.

How many times did we even use the terms clutch or game-tying homer when speaking about the Red Sox offense of April and early May? The fact that they ever tied this game in the first place was a complete departure from the first 30 games, let alone actually taking the lead on a Christian Vazquez RBI single in the eighth. The few wins the Red Sox secured early in the year came from early leads that the bullpen somehow managed to hold onto. The kind of fight that the offense displayed in Toronto this week was nonexistent until they got to Astros stalwart Hector Neris on May 16th.

A quick note on Refsnyder while we’re here: he’s been beastly. Hitting .341 with 10 RBI, four doubles, two home runs, a 1.005 OPS, and only five strikeouts in 14 games with Boston, Refsnyder has been everything that Kike Hernandez was not before hitting the Injured List. In no way do I expect career fourth outfielder/minor leaguer Refsnyder to continue at this pace, but sending him back down to Worcester when Hernandez returns is nowhere near the layup that we would have figured it to be when he was first called up. Refsnyder has delivered several big hits the past few weeks and has been a crucial part of the 20-6 record the Red Sox compiled in June.

Any Sox fan that claimed to feel safe with Tuesday’s 5-4 eighth-inning lead is a lying scumbag, and any that claimed to feel anything more than depressed when Tyler Danish came back out to the hill to start the ninth is a grifting fraud. Danish handled Toronto’s 6-7-8 hitters in order in the eighth, but expecting him to record a two-inning save in Toronto was an enormous ask from Alex Cora. Danish had not been asked to pitch more than one inning since May 13th, and he had not been asked to record a save all season long. Yet with Houck banished from Canada, Cora was left with few reasonable options. 

After a quick single by the Blue Jays’ lone deserving All Star starter, Alejandro Kirk, and a walk to Springer, Danish handed the ball over to Hansel Robles, at which point the Blue Jays win was academic. Bo Bichette singled to tie the game, and Guerrero singled to complete a walk-off loss that sent a legion of disgruntled Sox fans spiraling into the depths of post-traumatic stress.

But this walk-off loss was much different than the many we had to suffer through early this season. First, the Red Sox grinded out an uphill battle and put themselves in a position to win late in the game, something that this team looked incapable of the first six weeks. The other major difference was the reason why they had no closer available.

Every ninth-inning blown save prior to this one, the Red Sox had no established closer to speak of. Tuesday, the Red Sox actually had an emerging closer on the 40-man roster. He just wasn’t allowed to enter Canada.

Don’t get me wrong, having your closer unavailable in a game against a division rival you’re competing with for playoff position is indeed a kick in the balls. But in the end, it’s merely a single loss. The early-season barrage of blown saves were so painful because there was no forthcoming resolution and, as a result, no end in sight to those constant heartbreaking defeats. Blowing a save due to Houck’s vaccination status is not nearly as worrisome to me because Boston only plays one more regular season series in Canada this year. Now that the Sox are south of the border again, they are no longer a team without a closer.

I will admit, however, that my tone would be a bit different if the Red Sox were swept by the Jays. And that was a reality that we were one swing of the bat away from having to face.

Wednesday night’s course of events were eerily similar to those of the night before. This time, it was the red hot Alex Verdugo that propelled the Red Sox to a 3-2 lead with his two-run bomb in the sixth. Just like Tuesday night, the meat of Toronto’s order came to the plate in the seventh, leading Cora to summon setup ace John Schreiber.

Schreiber has been the most effective Red Sox relief pitcher in 2022 by far, with his ERA down to a striking 0.73 after the two perfect seventh innings he worked in Toronto. Some Red Sox fans have screamed at the clouds wondering why Schreiber is not the closer, but his current role is just as crucial.

John Schreiber’s job in Toronto was to pitch to the meat of the order late in the game, whenever they happened to come up. He pitched the seventh on Tuesday and Wednesday because that was when the Guerrero part of the order was due up each night. If a lesser pitcher gives up three runs in the seventh, the Red Sox don’t even have a save situation to blow in the ninth.

Given the quality of righthanded lumber (making Matt Strahm a dicey option) in the Blue Jays’ lineup and the sheer mediocrity of Boston’s bullpen, it would be counterproductive to save Schreiber for the ninth inning without Houck available. Priority one was to not get beaten by the fiercest part of the order in the seventh inning. Once that was accomplished, Cora could use the (inferior) options he had left to get the final six outs of the game. 

Wednesday night was Ryan Brasier’s turn on the blown save carousel. He gave up back-to-back doubles to Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. and Raimel Tapia to even the game at 3. After that, I’m convinced Cora just threw up his hands and told Matt Strahm he’d be pitching the rest of the game, be it nine innings long or ninety.

Luckily, Alex Verdugo saved Strahm from an early diagnosis of arthritis by delivering yet another key hit, a two-run double in the 10th to extend Boston’s newfound  lead to 6-3. Finally, like a lab mouse that just can’t stop pushing the button on that cocaine dispenser, I relaxed.

Strahm cruised to retire the first two batters in the bottom of the tenth before the baseball gods decided to test my sanity yet again. Consecutive singles by Chapman and Santiago Espinal cut the Red Sox lead to two, and a Cavan Biggio double made it 6-5 with the tying and winning runs in scoring position for the horror movie monster who has slaughtered the potential of two Red Sox relievers in the last calendar year, George bleeping Springer.

Amazingly, Strahm induced Springer to flyout and allowed the Red Sox to haul ass away from that oppressive Canadian regime and back into the loving arms of Tanner Houck. Had Springer collected a hit to deliver yet another walk-off Red Sox loss, millions of heads around New England would have exploded and Strahm’s would have been added to Springer’s mantle alongside Barnes’ and Diekman’s. 

Houck is far from Mariano Rivera. His control waffles against lefties and he cannot … I mean literally cannot pitch in Canada. However, he is now a somewhat established closer, he has not yet blown a save, he is not injured, and he is not named Matt Barnes or Hansel Robles. In comparison to the condition of this bullpen back in April, things are looking up. WAY UP. 

The Red Sox face AL East teams almost exclusively for the next month, but they will do so with a closer that features a 96 mph fastball and one of the wickedest sliders in the game. Between Houck, Strahm, and Schreiber, the Red Sox have a core of late-inning relievers that are capable of closing out games against tough opponents. Houck missing a series due to medical/political reasons doesn’t change the improvements that this team has made in the past six weeks. And it doesn’t change my opinion that, had Houck had been available to Cora on Tuesday, the Red Sox would have won this series. 

The midseason Red Sox have a prolific offense full of fight, a trio of capable late-inning relief options, and one of the most talented starting rotations in the game. I’ll take this squad in a short series against any other team in baseball.

I know what you’re going to ask me now.

What happens if the Red Sox have to play in Toronto in the playoffs?

I’ll have an answer for you as soon as I finish slamming my head into my bedroom wall.

 

By Luke

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