At 95-44, the Red Sox took into Tuesday an 8.5-game lead atop the American League East, and with 23 games to play in the regular season. Were they to stumble through September, go 11-12 the rest of the way, and finish 106-56, the Yankees would need to go 20-4 from Tuesday forward just to force a one-game playoff atop the division.
Around here, one-game playoff talk elicits memories of 1978 – so for the purposes of comparison, with 23 games to go in that season, the Sox lead over the Yankees was already down to three games. And three days later it was gone entirely.
The Sox had been scuffling before Monday’s win at Atlanta, splitting a weekend series with the lowly White Sox after being swept by the Rays a week earlier. This coming weekend the defending champion Astros arrive from Houston for an encounter at Fenway, and six games still loom with the second-place Yanks.
Before getting too worried, though, take note that the Yankees just lost four of seven on a homestand.
They just traded for insurance because their MVP-caliber right fielder isn’t yet healed from a wrist injury, and their closer might be done for the year. And Monday they dropped the opener of a nine-game roadtrip that starts with series against good teams in Oakland and Seattle.
In other words, the division race remains over. The magic number is 16. 1978 this ain’t.
Here’s a look at the individuals who have put the Red Sox in this position, how they might factor in moving forward, and how they rank in comparison to each other at this point:
30. The call-ups (Not ranked last week): The August 31 waiver trade deadline passed without the Sox making a deal – but with bullpen roles remaining unsettled, there may be a possibility that with a good September one of Boston’s minor-league call-ups could pitch his way into the mix for a postseason roster spot. The lefties in that group, Bobby Poyner and Robby Scott, are the most intriguing, with righty William Cuevas a longer shot. From a position player perspective, Rafael Devers and Christian Vazquez both return from injury to find undefined roles — with Brandon Phillips potentially fitting as an occasional pinch-hitter.
28. Hector Velazquez (25): He has served a purpose this season as a swingman, but over his last four appearances leading into the Atlanta series he’s allowed 22 baserunners and 12 runs over 10.2 innings. Particularly if the Sox wrap things up relatively early he’ll likely pitch a lot in September, but it’s becoming less likely he’ll pitch at all in October.
27. Drew Pomeranz (27): Twice in a week’s span he was effective in outings of four-plus innings, but there was nothing among his August appearances to suggest Alex Cora trusts him in high-leverage situations. Until that happens, or until he emerges as the most reliable among the left-handed relief options, Pomeranz will remain on the fringe of the postseason roster conversation.
26. Steven Wright (NR): The knuckleballer was good out of the bullpen after returning from injury earlier this season, so the Sox hope he can recreate that closely enough to be an asset as a reliever down the stretch. He was fine in his one inning Monday, and over his career Wright has shown an ability to get hot for extended stretches; the question now is whether his knee can hold up well enough to give him that opportunity.
25. Tyler Thornburg (20): He did have a stretch during which he was scored upon just once in a dozen appearances, but Thornburg arrived in Atlanta having allowed runs in three of five outings, including an ugly frame against the White Sox last Friday (one inning, three hits, two walks, three runs). Dave Dombrowski described Thornburg as having reached a “plateau.” If that proves to be a cliff, the righty could quickly pitch himself out of any hope for the playoffs.
24. Brandon Workman (28): The righty made a dozen major-league appearances in August, finishing them with a 1.88 ERA and with opponents hitting .229 against him. However, with strikeouts so valued and emphasized in the late innings, Workman’s 11 strikeouts and 11-to-6 strikeout to walk ratio in those 14.1 innings could explain why he doesn’t seem to be in the mix for those more prominent setup responsibilities.
23. Brian Johnson (18): After a couple of starts where he faded just before becoming eligible for a victory, he gave the team no chance to win with his struggles on Sunday. He gave up seven hits while allowing as many runs as he recorded outs (four), and with that his season ERA bumped to 4.36. It’s almost two runs higher than that (6.28) since the start of August.
22. Brock Holt (21): In his seven most recent games entering Monday, Holt had been used in seven different roles – every infield spot, left field, pinch runner, plus designated hitter. And in 22 plate appearances over that time, he’d reached base at a .409 clip. Ever useful, if unspectacular.
20 (tie). Mitch Moreland (19) and Steve Pearce: Red Sox first basemen hit just .209 in August, ranking sixth-worst in baseball. Their .770 OPS was in the middle of the pack, but the slow declines of both Moreland and Pearce raises the question of whether Cora might experiment with his lineup down the stretch, given that those two continue to occupy the No. 3 spot in the order on most nights despite their difficulties and deficient power.
19. Nathan Eovaldi (16): After the spectacular start to his Boston career, he’s faced 117 hitters over his next six starts – and 48 of them reached base safely. Monday’s four walks were uncharacteristic of his command, and of the 40 hits he has yielded during that span, 29 were singles. A below-average strikeout rate belies the expectations that come with his upper-90s velocity, but the time is coming when the Sox will explore how Eovaldi could help them out of the ‘pen.
18. Blake Swihart (24): His bat was coming to life before he went to the disabled list early last month, and lately it has begun to enliven again. As it does, Swihart is quietly emerging as a potentially critical piece of the Sox’ postseason plans. His positional versatility could create opportunities for Cora to use his bench flexibly, and with Sandy Leon’s offensive struggles Swihart could well wind up behind the plate in the late innings on a regular basis. Then again, if Swihart doesn’t hit, Vazquez could yet swipe his roster spot if it’s determined solely on defensive acumen.
17. Heath Hembree (12): In the two weeks leading up to Monday, Hembree had been tagged with an 8.10 ERA and in the process relinquished some of the responsibility he’d earned. Opponents posted a 1.033 OPS against him for August, and in that month he let four of seven inherited runners score. He bounced back nicely to leave two runners in their places Monday, yet it has still begun to look like the faith in Boston’s former middle-innings fire extinguisher in July has eroded a bit.
16. Ian Kinsler (14): Kinsler put together three straight multi-hit games late last week, and his stabilizing defense has come as advertised at second base. He’s been good since arriving, and was a major force at the plate in Monday’s win, giving Red Sox fans hope that the dynamic, productive offensive player of Kinsler’s past could be emerging. That, in fact, might be the most convenient way for the Sox to lengthen their lineup at this point.
15. Eduardo Nunez (22): No Sox hitter piled up more total bases than Nunez (24) over the two weeks leading into the Braves series – even while rounding out that stretch with a 2-for-15 spin through Chicago. That run bumped him up to fifth in the batting order a few times, and might also have earned him a chance to retain the starting third baseman’s job even after Devers gets back.
14. Sandy Leon (11): In 30 games since the All-Star break, Leon begins Tuesday batting .111 – with his nine hits divided evenly over nine games. His contributions to the Sox are as a catcher, and so while the staff has heaped praise upon him for his work as a receiver, it also reflects on him when the club’s starters post an ERA pushing six over the period of a couple weeks.
13. Joe Kelly (23): It was an innocuous inning, but a potentially meaningful frame moving forward. On August 28, with a perfect inning against the Marlins, Kelly picked up his first hold since July 9 – providing statistical recognition for the growing sense that Boston’s go-to reliever for the first part of the season may be entrusted again with big outs when the games matter most. It still isn’t smooth all the time, and that clean inning was one of just four in 17 outings before he yielded a homer in his one inning Monday, but Kelly had surrendered single runs in just two of those tilts while generally doing a better job of limiting damage.
12. Matt Barnes (8): The righty is still shy of the number of innings and appearances he’s made in each of the past two seasons – which is a concern, because it makes it tough to pin his recent dip purely on exhaustion. His ERA one appearance into August was 2.25; one appearance into September it was 3.45, and in between he gave up 12 hits (including four homers) in 8.1 innings. That’s concerning because walks are typically the bugaboo for Barnes, but lately it’s more that he’s been getting hit harder.
11. Rick Porcello (10): He’s just 1-3 since his one-hitter against the Yankees, and the problem is a familiar one. The seven homers he’s allowed over his last five starts have accounted for 11 of the 20 runs scored against him. The first two of those taters gave away Boston’s lead; the next three came when the Sox were still within three runs; and the two most recent came with the score tied. When Porcello keeps the ball in the yard, he’s good. When he can’t, especially when the timing is bad, he’s as average as his 4.27 season ERA.
10. Ryan Brasier (9): The Sox’ most consistent, cleanest, reliable reliever over the four weeks preceding Monday had been Brasier. And it hadn’t been particularly close. Overall his ERA was 0.73 in 12.1 innings over the previous month, with six perfect appearances in that span, and the only run he allowed came on a solo home run while working with a nine-run lead. He’s such a Cinderella, though, that there are lingering questions about midnight looming, and so a performance like Monday’s (0.2 innings, three hits, one run, pulled with two men aboard) leaves everyone looking to see what happens next.
9. Jackie Bradley Jr. (15): Since the All-Star break, here are Boston’s OPS leaders: J.D. Martinez, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. JBJ remains behind the club’s twin MVP candidates, but his .852 OPS ranks ahead of the rest of the attack, and in terms of slugging he actually entered Tuesday slightly ahead of Betts (.523-.521). They both had six homers since the break, and Bradley’s 23 RBI trailed only Martinez and Bogaerts. And oh, yeah, Bradley’s not bad with the glove, either.
8. Craig Kimbrel (7): At his best, Kimbrel had the type of stuff that permitted him to rear back and blow the ball past hitters over the middle of the plate. This year, they were slugging .895 and batting .368 against him on middle-middle pitches as he made his return to Atlanta. He’s still effective at the top of the strike zone, but getting hit hard in the middle of the zone, and rarely missing bats at the bottom of the zone. More than 40 percent of his curveballs have been taken for balls this season, and hitters have caught on to that, posting a .768 slugging percentage against his fastball in August. The Sox have no choice but to trust Kimbrel. They need to operate under the assumption he will figure it out – because if he doesn’t the Sox are in serious trouble.
7. Andrew Benintendi (5): Last Friday’s was his second home run since July 7, and in reaching base three times Monday he might’ve signaled the end to a slump that had seen him become a .265 hitter with a .738 OPS since the Midsummer Classic. His overall numbers remain very good, and there’s no reason to move him out from behind Betts in the No. 2 hole. Yet.
6. Eduardo Rodriguez (13): Rodriguez has traditionally been slow to recover from injury, but he returned from an ankle injury on schedule and with a 12-strikeout statement. He’s now 12-3 on the year, with the team 17-3 when he takes his turn. His ERA is down to 3.34, and he’s averaging better than a strikeout per inning, with only 110.1 innings on his arm for the year. Rodriguez could be the X-factor of the Red Sox rotation next month.
5. Xander Bogaerts (6): Since his average sunk to .272 on Aug. 10, Bogaerts hasn’t gone hitless in consecutive games, and hasn’t gone more than four contests without a multi-hit effort. His next double will be his 40th, his next homer will be his 20th, and that he entered Monday with as many RBI as strikeouts (86) suggests he’s corrected some of the holes in his swing. Come October, he is on the short list of guys the Red Sox really hope will be at the plate in big moments.
4. David Price (4): It looks like the lefty escaped serious injury – not only because a line drive off his wrist left only a bruise, but because if he hadn’t got his wrist up so quickly that liner had its target on his head – and so the Sox are targeting a return for Price once the team gets back to Fenway. From numb fingers to carpal tunnel to now this, there’s been enough conversation about that part of the pitcher’s body that it’s hard to feel entirely comfortable about the situation, but the biggest concern at this point is whether Price can resume tossing at the elite level he was before leaving his last start.
3. Chris Sale (3): The ace is also expected to return when the Sox get home, albeit as an “opener” who’ll ramp with his way up to a full workload without the luxury of a minor-league rehab assignment. With that plan, he’ll enter the playoffs at somewhere close to 160 innings for the season – and while that might kill his Cy Young chances, it wasn’t until he got close to 170 innings last season that his performance began to fade.
2. Mookie Betts (2): According to Baseball-Reference, Betts enters the final four weeks of the regular season with a lead of one full Win Above Replacement in the American League, his 9.0 leading Mike Trout’s 8.0. In a season that began with the Sox haggling with their outfielder over $3 million at the arbitration table, Fangraphs calculates that Betts’ production has to this point been worth $69 million. At $10.5 million in actual salary, he’s quite the bargain.
1. J.D. Martinez (1): How’s this for consistency? Every month this season, Martinez has driven in 20-25 runs. After his 13-homer burst in May, the next three months he’s hit seven, seven, and … seven. His OPS each month since April has been somewhere between 1.016-1.139. Each of those four months he’s had 10-14 walks and 23-28 strikeouts. Day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, Martinez keeps making the case that he’s the best hitter in the game.