September 24, 2021
There are nine games left in the regular season, and the Red Sox are in the driver’s seat in the American League Wild Card race.
What an enigmatic season. When you think about the kind of rollercoaster ride 2021 has been, it really boggles my mind how many ex-baseball fans are on a mission to convince us that baseball is too boring for the 21st century.
I’ve already gone on record with my stance on baseball’s place in modern American sports, so I’ll save you all some time and not bother rehashing it here today. If you’re down on baseball because it’s too slow for you or you only want to watch star athletes who date Kardashians and think they are profoundly deep-thinking iconoclasts, nothing I say here will convince you otherwise. But if it’s exciting competition and dramatic storylines you want, then watching the 2021 Boston Red Sox was a great way to spend the past six months.
Most Red Sox fans came into the 2021 season still angry over losing Mookie Betts, as if the $300 million contract they offered him was some kind of slap in the face. Apparently the fact that Betts wanted to make the most money possible to play in front of a less rabid fanbase was entirely the fault of Red Sox ownership being too cheap, too woke, too PR-conscious, too focused on their soccer team, or all of the above. Combine that with Chris Sale being on the shelf until at least the All-Star break, and what was there to look forward to this season? Sure, JD Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and Rafael Devers would deliver some big hits, but with no supporting cast or pitching staff to back them up, what was the point?
The narrative wavered from month to month. Four weeks into the season, this weak team had caught a few breaks. At the end of May, they were playing above their heads. By late June, they had a horseshoe lodged in their rectal cavity. At the All-Star break, die hard fans had sore throats from screaming to the world that the Red Sox were here to stay while a smattering of fair-weather fans snuck aboard the bandwagon, hoping nobody would notice their late arrival.
Guess what … we all noticed.
It’s not exactly like you did a good job of hiding it.
The July 31st trade deadline outed you all, even a few of you that had pretended to believe at the beginning of April.
Kyle Schwarber?! The gimpy fat dude who compiled all his Washington stats during a three-week hot streak?! But we needed a first baseman! We needed a starting pitcher! The rest of the AL East loaded up while we raised the white flag! Ownership quit on the team! The team quit on us!
Those fickle frauds that had clandestinely climbed aboard the bandwagon after four months of domination promptly kicked the stagecoach driver in the balls and swan-dived onto the dusty desert floor. The Sox sputtered and stalled as the Rays, Yankees, and Blue Jays surged forward. For the first time in baseball history, the trade deadline yielded immediate dividends that forever altered the trajectory of three teams.
Then, of course, we all remembered that this is still baseball. You don’t add a couple bats and then never lose again. You don’t transform overnight from a good team to a bad team. And a winning team of talented professionals with a ton of fight doesn’t just tap out after a losing streak. Hell, they didn’t even give up when half the team caught Covid and the only healthy bodies they could find had to call in sick from their bartending jobs to make it to the park.
Seven games ago, many Sox fans had the Yankees and Blue Jays penciled in as the American League wild card teams. Boston’s overall team play had improved well before this winning streak started, but you’d only notice if you’d been watching the games.
Bobby Dalbec got sick of striking out twice a game and began to rake. Hunter Renfroe cemented himself as the only roster mistake the Tampa Bay Rays have made in the past five years, outproducing Mookie Betts at the plate and gunning down 16 baserunners from right field. Schwarber began working counts, smoking doubles, and pulverizing bombs like no Sox lefty since David Ortiz. Xander Bogaerts returned form his ‘Rona respite looking like the shortstop we watched the entire first half of the season.
And let’s not forget old friend Jose Iglesias. Like Renfroe, Iggy was a man without a job on September 6th when Chaim Bloom stumbled upon him in the discount bin at a Sam’s Club in Rehoboth. Since taking over at second base, all this perpetually light-hitting defensive whiz has done is hit .378 with a 1.074 OPS. Since he was not on the team on September 1st, Iglesias does not qualify for postseason play. If the Red Sox hang on and make the wild card game, it would almost be a shame to see him go. That is, if he were not about to be replaced by this team’s long-lost, much-needed energy guy.
From the mound, Sale has been 90% the pitcher he used to be, which is still good enough to be one of the best pitchers in the league. Nathan Eovaldi has continued to deal the way he’s done all season long. And with Tanner Houk moving from the starting rotation to the bullpen, the Sox suddenly have a deep core of relievers that have been effective and efficient. Even Austin Davis and Hansel Robles, those other two trade deadline rejects that Chaim Bloom dropped at our feet like a fish wrapped in Luca Brasi’s vest, have brought it lately. This month, Robles and Davis have a 0.00 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 11 innings.
There is, however, a not-so-bright side to these recent developments. In fact, there are two.
First, Boston’s recovery over the past month has mostly taken place against poor competition. Among the teams that the Red Sox have taken series from since August 20th, only the Mariners have a winning record. The month-long funk occurred during a brutal stretch of their schedule where they seemed to play either Tampa, New York, or Toronto, the three hottest teams in baseball, over and over and over again.
The schedule, just like with all things in baseball, had to swing back in their favor sometime.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Red Sox can’t beat good teams. They beat up on the absolutely stacked AL East the entire first half of the year, a trend that was bound to come back and bite them once the baseball gods took notice.
Losing streaks start with bad play and bad luck, but they continue because of the lack of confidence that perpetuates itself more and more with each loss. Confidence is an enormous component of playing winning baseball, and players can easily call their abilities into question during a losing streak. When you begin to doubt yourself on the field, it’s like starting a race 20 yards behind your opponent.
Once you start winning again, you start to remember how good you are. You can regain your confidence against a bad team just as easily as you can against a good team. Right now, the Red Sox are on a seven-game winning streak with a two-game advantage in the wild card race and only nine games left to play. They’ve gotten hot at the right time and are playing like the skilled, confident team we watched through July. If they can take two-out-of-three in Fenway against the Yankees this weekend, they will have a berth into the wild card game virtually signed, sealed, and delivered.
The other area of concern is the back of the bullpen. Thanks to Matt Barnes’ dreadful August and bout with Covid, the Red Sox are now a team without a closer. Anybody that remembers the 2003 closer-by-committee fiasco will tell you this is NOT good news. As effective as Barnes, Josh Taylor, Garrett Richards, Hirokazu Sawamura, Garrett Whitlock, and Adam Ottavino have been for stretches this year, you are at a serious disadvantage if you go into the playoffs not knowing who will take the ball to get the last three outs of a close game. Luckily, the Red Sox can combat this issue with the one weapon they have that nobody else does.
The 2018 Red Sox also had a giant hole in the back of the bullpen. They had no defined setup man to pitch the eighth inning before giving the ball to Craig Kimbrel in the ninth. Cora resolved this problem by using starting pitchers on two days rest in that role. It worked flawlessly, patching up the biggest hole in that 2018 team en route to locking down a championship.
What will he do this year? Use starters on two days’ rest to close games? Use Barnes when righties are due up and Taylor when there is a dangerous lefty scheduled to hit? Or will he choose my preferred route and use Garrett Whitlock, fresh off a ten-day rest on the IL, in the closer role?
Nobody can anticipate what Cora will do, which is one of the things that makes him so great.
I honestly feel like Cora prefers to manage in situations like this, where every game feels like a “must-win.” He’s managing like the playoffs have already started, using relievers in terms of how many outs they can get rather than how many innings they can pitch. Darwinzon Hernandez closed out Tuesday night’s game. Garrett Richards locked it down Sunday. Taylor and Robles have netted saves recently as well. At this time of year, with his team’s playoff life in the balance, Cora doesn’t have to worry about burning guys out or saving them for next week.
It’s all about winning this game on this day, which is when Alex Cora is at his best. He’s not just smart. He’s not just gutsy. He’s a creative, well-prepared maestro that can outmanage anybody sitting in the dugout across the field. Every team in the league knows it, and that may be the biggest reason why nobody wants to face the Red Sox in the playoffs.
But then again, maybe it’s the jerseys.