How do we know this has been a true marvel of a regular season for the Red Sox? We could cite, oh, at least 106 different ways.
As a team, you pull off a feat that hasn’t been achieved since two years before a kid pitcher named Babe Ruth made his debut.
Monday night, Nathan Eovaldi pitched five excellent innings, Most Valuable Player-to-be Mookie Betts mashed his 32nd homer and stole his 29th base, and collected 106th victory of the season, a franchise record.
The previous record had been held by the 1912 edition of the Red Sox, who had a pitcher with 34 wins (Smoky Joe Wood), a home-run leader who hit all of 10 (Tris Speaker, who a batted .383), and won the World Series over the New York Giants in eight games (Game 2 ended in a 6-6 tie, while Wood outdueled legendary Christy Mathewson in a 10-inning, 3-2 win in Game 8.)
It wasn’t just early in a different century. It was a different world.
After all of these seasons and several generations later in the franchise lineage, the 1912 Red Sox have been surpassed in the standings by the ’18 Sox. There have been teams that might have had a fleeting inkling to chase the 1912 squad’s 106 wins (the ’46 Sox won 104) but not many. For all of the superb teams the Red Sox have had through the decades, none had won 100 since ’46 until this one.
It seems to me, then, that there is no better time than this immediate aftermath to acknowledge those who turned this Red Sox entry into the winningest in the storied franchise’s 118-year history.
There were two fundamental changes to this year’s Red Sox that led to the massive improvement on an excellent if ultimately unfulfilling 93-win season in 2017. Alex Cora took over for the mostly successful but increasingly uninspiring John Farrell in the dugout. And J.D. Martinez arrived via free agency to fill the aching void left in the heart of the lineup by David Ortiz’s retirement following the 2016 season.
Cora has been an absolute blessing. He’s open-minded, disarmingly accountable, masterful in his second language, informed and prepared. He doesn’t just get Boston, he thrives under the intense parameters. He’s poised under pressure, but bites back if challenged. He seems to have many of the same attributes as Terry Francona, and Tito is the best and most well-rounded manager the Red Sox have had in my lifetime. Cora was the right hire in every conceivable way.
And yet . . . Martinez’s arrival was more important, because he’s the one who has performed at an extraordinary level on the field, and that’s the more impactful job. He is a genuine Most Valuable Player candidate, if due to Betts an unlikely winner of the award, and for a time he threatened to win the franchise’s first Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in his fabled 1967 season, when he damn near made the impossible a reality.
Martinez’s serious dedication to his craft also has had a palpable effect on the other extremely talented hitters in the Sox lineup. This is not a comparison we make casually, but he has been pretty close to what they had for so long in Ortiz, and everything they did not have last year.
And yet (again) . . . as outstanding as Martinez has been, he is not even the most valuable player in the Red Sox lineup. That, as you know, is the claim of Markus Lynn “Mookie’’ Betts, who at age 25 has surpassed pre-bitterness Nomar Garciaparra and pre-assorted-injuries Fred Lynn as the most exciting young superstar of my lifetime and probably yours since I’m pretty old.
I will admit, with Betts slightly slumping by his standards for roughly a fortnight September, I was beginning to lean in Martinez’s direction in the MVP voting, especially when he briefly chased down Betts in the batting race. Then Betts went out and hit a three-run homer off Aroldis Chapman in the eighth inning Thursday night, turning an 8-6 Red Sox lead into an 11-6 advantage, putting the game on ice and pulling the champagne out of it.
That was a defining moment — though not quite on the thrill-level of his 13-pitch at-bat that culminated in a grand slam in July against Toronto — by the MVP-to-be. And it’s not like he really needed defining moments anyway, since he’s so consistently excellent. Check out his batting averages by month this year, chronologically from April: .344, .372, .290, .333, .353, .351.
It isn’t just the dueling heroics from Betts (10.2 WAR) and Martinez (6.1 WAR despite primarily DHing) that got them to 106.
Chris Sale was so exceptional through his first 22 starts (11-4, 2.04 ERA, 207 strikeouts in 141 innings) that he still has a decent shot at the Cy Young Award despite pitching just 12.2 innings since July 27.
Rick Porcello was a rock in the first half (11 wins, 4.13 ERA), while David Price has been exceptional in locales other than the Bronx in the second half (5-1, 2.00 ERA in 63.3 innings).
Xander Bogaerts (21 homers, 43 doubles, .863 OPS) has had the complete season everyone was waiting for, and Andrew Benintendi excelled in the No. 2 spot (.829 OPS).
Those are just the marquee names. Mitch Moreland, Jackie Bradley Jr., and even Sandy Leon have had their moments. So have many others, including in-season newcomers Eovaldi, Ian Kinsler, and Steve Pearce. These Sox may not have the outward unity of Ortiz and the admirable city-rallying ’13 champs, but make no mistake, this is a team.
Yes, they have serious stuff to sort out. The entire bullpen, save for perhaps Craig Kimbrel, has been an annoying collective tribute to Wes Gardner lately, and that’s not what you’re looking for heading into the playoffs. The Red Sox have a jarringly few number of players who can claim postseason success, though it feels like only a matter of time for Betts. There’s a gauntlet ahead against some superb teams, most notably the defending champion Astros, who are eager to make the Red Sox’ record-setting regular season a mostly inconsequential prologue to more postseason disappointment.
It is absolutely true that the salutes and savoring of what they’ve achieved from April through September ends abruptly when the October postseason begins. Winning three playoff games is the first assignment, and then seven, and then if they get to 11, well, that gets ’em a free ride on the duck boats.
But right now? Damn straight the Red Sox should savor it. One-hundred-and-six wins, something the franchise has never done before? That’s worth a moment of appreciation, even with bigger goals ahead. And remember: It’s 106 . . . and they’re still counting.