Until Red Sox repair their pitching, they should not be the favorite in AL East

The defending division-champion Blue Jays have a superior pitching staff and an awakening offense

David Ortiz is having a brilliant season, but the Red Sox can't keep depending on their offense to cover for their pitching staff.
David Ortiz is having a brilliant season, but the Red Sox can't keep depending on their offense to cover for their pitching staff. –The Associated Press

COMMENTARY

Ever seen a no-hitter in person? The closest I’ve come was at a Triple A game between the devastatingly defunct Maine Guides and Toledo Mud Hens 31 years ago.

The pitcher for the Mud Hens, a former Red Sox fringe prospect named Dennis Burtt, retired the first two batters of the eighth inning, keeping a zero in the Maine hit column, before a tall outfielder named Mike Brewer lined a single to end the suspense.

According to this recap, there were 2,012 other people in attendance that day in Old Orchard Beach, not including the various Mud Hens and Guides. I wonder how many of them also remember it besides me. Dennis Burtt, probably.

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Came pretty close to seeing a no-hitter Sunday, too, and it involved players you’ve actually heard of. Blue Jays righthander Marco Estrada, one of the more unheralded quality pitchers in the American League, took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Red Sox before Chris Young busted it up with a one-out homer.

I was in house at Fenway with my dad and daughter, in full baseball junkie mode and seated down the left-field line, just above where the chalk outline of Blake Swihart should be. When it was over, I brought home with me a souvenir batting helmet that once contained a brush pile of replacement-level french fries and three fundamental conclusions about that game – and, if we’re going to do the microcosm-of-the-season routine, about what it might suggest about these Red Sox in the long term.

1. Estrada could have completed the no-hitter against the most potent offense in baseball, and it still would have been the second-most-bewildering development of the day. Xander Bogaerts’s two-on, no-out bunt in the first inning was mind-bendingly inexplicable. That’s right: mind-bendingly. You’ve got to invent adjectives for blunders of that magnitude.

Bogaerts leads the league in hits and is second the Tigers’ Victor Martinez in batting. The argument can be made that there is no other player in the American League at the moment that you’d rather have swinging in that situation, other than maybe the big pinata-wrecker who was on deck.

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Dennis Eckersley’s visceral reaction on the NESN broadcast, which I heard Monday morning on the radio, was perfect: “What the heck was that?” Bogaerts’s explanation of the inexplicable wasn’t bad either: “It seemed like a good idea at the moment.” We’ve all been there, kid. Don’t do it again.

2. The Red Sox need to improve their pitching staff, and I have absolutely no idea how it’s going to happen.

Eduardo Rodriguez will be fine – yeah, he gave up four majestic blasts Sunday, including one to noted slugger Darwin Barney. That’s just rust, and he should seize the No. 2 spot behind David Price once he gets his feel for his repertoire back.

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He’d better, actually. Rick Porcello has found his level – his current 4.00 ERA should heretofore be known as the Porcello Line. Steven Wright is a knuckleballer, and we don’t need to rattle off Tim Wakefield’s career highs and lows as evidence that it is an unpredictable and sometimes maddening occupation. Price has offered only flickers of an indication that he could put the rest of the staff on his back and go off on a 6-0, 1.75 ERA type of hot stretch over the next month.

And Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly, those twin aggravations,  have been banished to different outposts – the bullpen and Rhode Island, respectively – without suitable replacements around to make sure they stay banished. (Henry Owens has walked 30 in 44.1 innings at Pawtucket in case you’re still deluding yourself that he’s viable.)

Oh, and the bullpen dearly misses what Carson Smith was supposed to be, especially with Koji Uehara’s splitter no longer splitting and Junichi Tazawa now in a position to be drastically overused by John Farrell, an annual rite of summer around here.

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I suppose Dave Dombrowski will make a trade, perhaps plural. He is a willing and accomplished wheeler-dealer. But even that will not be easy, and it could be painful. Attrition has dwindled their supply of near-MLB-ready prospects – Swihart’s injury looked brutal, and Sam Travis is done for the year with a knee injury at Pawtucket – and I don’t see a pitcher out there who might be available and is worth the cost of one of the truly prized prospects like Yoan Moncada or Andrew Benintendi.

I figure Dennis Burtt could be had, though.

3. I’m about ready to abandon my prediction that the Houston Astros will win the American League pennant. But I’m sticking with this: the Blue Jays will win the AL East. They have a deeper pitching staff – among J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez and Estrada, the highest ERA is Happ’s 3.06 – and their offense hasn’t really begun to percolate yet.

Jose Bautista is hitting .229. Edwin Encarnacion is at .248. Troy Tulowitzki was at .205 before the DL beckoned again. Josh Donaldson has 13 homers but just 30 RBIs. They’ll be better, and they’re just 3.5 games back of the first-place Orioles and 3 back of the Sox as it is.

I do believe the Red Sox will make the playoffs, provided the Bogaerts/Betts/Ortiz/Price core stays healthy. But they have some repairs that must be made. Despite what the current standings indicate, the best baseball team at Fenway over the weekend wasn’t the one that calls it home.

Who are the Red Sox’ all time statistical leaders?

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