What we should believe and what we should not about the Red Sox’ recently improved play

Boston Red Sox right fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. high fives catcher Blake Swihart after defeating the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park.
Boston Red Sox right fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. high fives catcher Blake Swihart after defeating the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park. –Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

COMMENTARY

I’ll admit it if you will. Hey, I’ll admit it even if you won’t. I don’t know what to believe any more regarding these suddenly sweet-September, never-was-a-cloudy-day Red Sox. And it’s making the coda on a long-lost season much more fun than we’d ever dared to expect, say, two months ago.

Oh, I’m certain that the team’s recent inspired play, which has been led by budding stars (Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts), early-season underperformers (David Ortiz, at 30-plus homers again, and Joe “September Cy’’ Kelly) and roster afterthoughts (Jackie Bradley Jr.), is a classic case of too little, too late. They’ve won 13 of 19 through Labor Day, and that pre-fabricated narrative of three last-place finishes in four years may crumble before it becomes reality. At 65-72, the Red Sox are tied for fourth place in the American League East with the submerging Orioles before first pitch on Tuesday.

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The Red Sox need to go 16-9 over the final 25 games to finish at .500. It’s daunting, but the way they are playing now, I wouldn’t put it past them. But in context of the whole season, it would also be a small consolation given what they were supposed to be. If only this prolonged stretch of inspired play happened in April. Or May. Or June …

That’s not to suggest the absence of a pennant race around here coincides with a lack of meaning in the games remaining on the schedule. They matter. Individually, the Red Sox are playing for a lot. They’re playing to be noticed, by new baseball boss Dave Dombrowski first and foremost. Individually as well as collectively, there is some inspired baseball being played.

But to paraphrase Joe Castiglione, can we believe it? After all, the most important task right now is properly assessing the roster to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated for 2016.

Since Dombrowski has yet to hire a general manager, I figure he would appreciate any helpful guidance, even from a nitwit like me, right? Here, then, are a couple of thoughts on players whose recent exceptional performances may have changed our perception of them – whether or not the perceptions should have changed at all.

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Jackie Bradley Jr.

Dig this: Through 126 plate appearances in the second half, Bradley has delivered a .360/.429/.739 slash line with seven homers. He has three more home runs (8) than batting title contender Xander Bogaerts in 365 fewer plate appearances. And defensively, man, if you believe the Red Sox have ever had a better defensive outfielder, please send me highlight package, but I’ll tell you now: I don’t believe such a player has existed, and you’re talking to someone who was raised on Dwight Evans and Fred Lynn.

Since returning from Pawtucket exile in July, Bradley has been everything he was supposed to be a season ago and then some. Last year … hey, you remember. Along with Bogaerts, he was half of the most hyped Red Sox prospect tandem in years. He was supposed to make Jacoby Ellsbury’s defection to the Yankees easily endure. Instead, he flopped in a long trial, hitting .198 with a .531 OPS in 423 plate appearances; he was essentially Gary Pettis without the speed. It seemed he had whiffed his way out of the Red Sox’ plans.

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So what do we say now? What do we say about this, a month-plus of play that prime-of-career Willie Mays would be proud to call his own? Obviously, he is not this. But it also tells us something else: He’s not who he appeared to be during last year’s lost season, either, when Bradley, who had habitually raked during his rise through the minors, struggled even after his demotion to Pawtucket. He’s probably somewhere in the middle, close to what we expected him to be in spring 2014: a .270-.280 hitting who will work a walk, hit a dozen home runs or so, and play center field like he invented the position.

I’m all-in on the Bradley resurgence, and I’ll admit that’s partially because from an aesthetic, how-great-is-this? standpoint, I want it to work. Bradley’s defense is a pleasure to watch on a daily basis. Thus, I want to continue to watch Bradley’s defense on a daily basis. I root for him to hit enough to justify his spot in the lineup. I believe now he will hit more than enough, and I will never have to compare him to Gary Pettis again.

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(Also: I’ve decided, after much deliberation, that I don’t care whether Bradley plays center field or right field. He’s a better center fielder than Mookie Betts, who ain’t bad himself, but Bradley’s arm is much more suited for right. All I ask is that you don’t tell me Mookie has to remain in center because, gosh, Bogaerts struggled mightily after a position change last year and you wouldn’t want the same thing to happen to Betts. You remember that Mookie came up as a second baseman and – get this – made a major position change last year as well. He can do it again.)

Blake Swihart

In his first 110 plate appearances since the break, the 23-year-old catcher who was initially scheduled to spend the summer sharpening his tools in Pawtucket slashed .354/.413/.485. That’s a remarkable tribute to his talent and adaptability given how overmatched he looked early in the season. But you know what? I still can’t pinpoint what his recent success means for next year. With Christian Vazquez due back from Tommy John surgery, it’s possible that Swihart could become part of the first-base solution if Dave Dombrowski believes his bat will play there. It’s also possible he’s one of the top two prospects to move in a deal for a front-end starting pitcher. (Too bad the Mets already have a couple of promising catchers in Travis D’Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki.) And it’s possible he’s the Red Sox’ starting catcher for the next half-dozen years. I’d be cautious to automatically assume Vazquez becomes the No. 1 or 1A catcher with Ryan Hanigan upon his return – his greatest weapon was his Yadi-like arm, and who knows if it’s the same now that it carries a scar.

Joe Kelly and Rick Porcello

I don’t know whether it’s a tribute to Carl Willis’s work as pitching coach or simply a rise to their median level of performance after absolutely miserable beginnings, but there’s no ignoring that both Kelly and Porcello have been beyond excellent lately.

Kelly’s sample size is somewhat larger – he’s won his last seven starts with a 2.72 ERA in that span, including a 1.89 ERA over his last six games. But Porcello has been just as dominant recently, posting a 1.61 ERA in 22 innings since returning from the disabled list three starts ago.

It’s been great to see within the moment. I just hope, in the case of Kelly in particular, that it isn’t duping Dombrowski into buying fool’s gold for 2016. For a team without many trustworthy starting pitchers, the Red Sox sure do have a lot of starting pitchers. As of right now, Eduardo Rodriguez and Wade Miley (who has been an innings-devourer as advertised for the most part) are the only apparent locks for next year’s rotation. Clay Buchholz, Henry Owens, Steven Wright, Kelly and Porcello are all in the mix … and there won’t be room for all of them, especially if Dombrowski spends on a true ace as expected.

It’s hard to imagine Porcello gets moved because of his salary. (That particular sharp twist of irony must thrill Dombrowski, who apparently had no intention of resigning him in Detroit.) Kelly has a blessed right arm, but so did Wes Gardner and Jeff Sellers and various other 10-cent-noggin types through the years. I’m not buying this Kelly resurgence (he’s not striking anyone out, for one tell-tale sign that this is unsustainable), and the best thing for the Red Sox is to hope some other organization is a sucker for him just like Ben Cherington was at the fateful, bungled trade deadline the July before last.

Please, anyone who is running a different organization, believe this is real. Because to answer Castig’s question, no, I cannot believe it.

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