If there’s ever a good year to not contend for a title, the 2020 Red Sox lucked into one

Baseball during a pandemic grows more absurd by the day, so it's high time to just enjoy it for what it is, win or lose.

J.D. Davis, New York Mets, Citi Field, Empty Seats
Mets left fielder J.D. Davis plays in front of a mixture of cardboard cutouts and empty seats on Thursday at Citi Field in New York. –Seth Wenig/Associated Press

COMMENTARY

A week into the 2020 Red Sox season, I’m going to make the bold statement that the following video will prove its distilled essence.

That’s the first of two home runs on Thursday night by Christian Vazquez, giving him four in five games and tying him with Teoscar Hernandez for the Major League Baseball lead. Teoscar Hernandez of the Buffalo Blue Jays — The City of Good Neighbors, where the grandmothers crush darts and hate Tom Brady, now major league by 2020 standards.

It’s theater of the absurd. And know what? That’s OK. We could all use a reminder that sometimes, taking the good and leaving the rest is an acceptable strategy for survival.

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Vazquez, who decided four years into his major league career that he was actually terrible and rebuilt his swing from the ground up, now regularly hits baseballs 400 feet. This season, he does so into a sea of indifferent fans — either because they’re superimposed by Fox or cardboard — just before air-fiving with third-base coach Carlos Febles and basking in the low hum of a video game soundtrack.

Seven-inning doubleheaders were reportedly approved on Thursday. We’re not only starting extra innings with a runner on second base, we’re convincing ourselves it’s actually great. The Red Sox haven’t partaken in one yet, but they have managed in a week to score runs via two wild pitches (by two-time reigning Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom), a hit batter, a bases-loaded walk, a 60-mph dribbler to third, and a double play.

Brandon Workman (on Wednesday, when he threw 19 curveballs in one inning) and Matt Barnes (on Thursday, in a 37-pitch, 26-minute bottom of the eighth) both offered shades of Henry Rowengartner trying to retire the Mets without his fastball at the end of ‘Rookie of the Year.’ Both were just as grittily, incomprehensibly successful.

I’m not going to go as far as Dennis Eckersley did, when he declared “I’m never going to complain again about this game” last weekend, but the only confusion for me right now is waffling between being in love with 2020 baseball and not caring anything about it. Listening to the NESN promos all week, intoning theatrically as they do about the Evil Empire and the greatest rivalry in sports renewing this weekend like nothing’s any different? Oh, stop already.

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Boston’s starting Ryan Weber and Zack Godley at Yankee Stadium, and they aren’t the “we’ll find someone else” penciled in for Sunday. If the sport even gets to Sunday without another outbreak grinding the whole thing to a halt.

They absolutely did not plan it this way, but boy did the Red Sox pick the perfect year to cash in their “four titles in 15 years” chips, set fire to everything, and begin anew in the ashes. (Provided, again, we get to Sept. 1 and their luxury-tax reset triggers.)

“We want to win in 2020, but we cannot discard the future,” Sox architect Chaim Bloom told WEEI on Thursday, the trade deadline in this shortened season a month from Friday. “If something’s going to help in ’21 or ’22 or ’23 or ’24, it would be irresponsible for us not to consider something like that.”

Just drop everything before the “but.” With a 16-team playoff structure, there’s going to be a dearth of sellers in the run-up to Aug. 31, every team convinced they can snipe a deep playoff run. There will be deals to be made, even for a team with absolutely zero pitching to spare. Also, and this is admittedly one of those points I don’t expect a ton of agreement on: You want to win what’s going to pass for a World Series this year? We’re two weeks away from baseball deciding pegging a runner with the ball for an out is OK because it promotes social distancing.

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John McNamara’s passing on Tuesday brought back all sorts of memories of October 1986 across New England, and the angst that lingered after every failure to summit the mountain. Imagine if the two-generation drought ended with this kind of year. That goofy clip of Tom Werner trying to get an empty Fenway Park to start chanting, “Let’s go, Red Sox” would’ve been the whole parade. Rob Manfred may as well commission a golden metal asterisk to give out. Or a giant pair of finger quotes.

This is a children’s drawing version of high-level baseball, and I’m supremely glad to have it. But there’s never been a better time to temporarily rescale your passion, which feels like something worth stressing when the Red Sox are about to march into the Bronx and, by all accounts, should have their doors blown off. Never mind the starting pitching: Barnes, Workman, and Heath Hembree have all worked multiple nights in a row, with Workman used in three straight for the first time since August 2018.

Vazquez, as previously noted, has become an all-fields power machine, even if 4-for-8 with three homers doesn’t seem hugely sustainable. Mitch Moreland and Kevin Pillar might just hit themselves into valuable trade chips. There’s not an arm on the 60-man roster who won’t get an opportunity to show what he can do at the highest level. Heck, Godley came into a game the Red Sox trailed by six, threw four scoreless innings, and is now in the starting rotation until he proves he doesn’t belong there.

The magic of fandom is how quickly it brings us back. I’ve just spent 800 words slagging whatever funhouse mirror version of sport we’re watching nightly, but when a win felt like it was slipping through Workman’s fingers on Wednesday, it felt as real as any in any normal season. (It certainly helps that Dave O’Brien, Jerry Remy, and Eckersley aren’t missing a beat, home or road, calling games from TV monitors at NESN HQ.)

This isn’t a normal season. And when we’re on the precipice of being reminded that title contention is not in the cards, that’s a rationalization — and a reality — we should all eagerly embrace.

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