This is how the Red Sox can climb back into the AL playoff race

Last year's team was good at plenty, but especially at capitalizing on bad competition.

Jackie Bradley Jr.
Jackie Bradley Jr. robs Baltimore's Trey Mancini of a walk-off home run in the 11th inning on Wednesday. –AP Photo

COMMENTARY

The timing of the Carolina Hurricanes pulling their old, green, Hartford Whalers pajamas out of storage this season, their 21st in North Carolina, is particularly delicious. Not only did it happen in a year the organization actually forged its own identity, its Storm Surge celebrations and needling of hockey’s old guard meaning it finally didn’t have to dress up as its dead uncle for attention, Carolina’s best season in a dozen years has built to a showdown with the Boston Bruins.

And a generation ago, whenever the Boston Bruins needed a victory, they could almost always count on their hapless neighbors to the southwest to supply one.

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In the 18 seasons Boston and Hartford played alongside each other in the NHL, the Bruins won the season series with the Whalers 14 times. (They split two others.) When Boston won the Adams Division in 1983-84 by one point, they took 11 of a possible 16 from last-place Hartford. Much the same in 1992-93, when Boston took 12 of 14 points from the Whale.

The teams played two playoff series: Boston won in 7 on the way to the 1990 Cup finals, the 6-5, Game 4 loss at the Civic Center still nightmare fuel for a certain circle of Whaler diehards, then won in 6 in 1991.

The Whalers were, as it were, the Generals to the Globetrotters. The AFC East cannon fodder of the modern Patriots.

The Baltimore Orioles of the Boston Red Sox.

Let’s not entirely rain on the parade here. Wednesday’s 2-1, 12-inning win to get the Red Sox back to .500 featured plenty of things to hold on to, (especially relative to the final act that was playing alongside it). Chris Sale and his eight sparkling innings — 14 strikeouts (including an immaculate inning), no walks, and nearly as many swings-and-misses against his fastball (16) as he’d had the whole rest of the year.

An eye-popping Jackie Bradley Jr. home-run robbery, even by his standards. Another Andrew Benintendi go-ahead hit in extra innings, his seventh in less than two calendar years. Matt Barnes maneuvering through a tied ninth inning with less than his best stuff.

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“This,” manager Alex Cora told reporters as part of a much larger quote involving Thursday’s White House visit, “was very gratifying today.”

And yet … it was the Orioles. It’s fair to say that because, well, it was the Orioles. A team that beat you 4-1 on Monday, when you had three hits and drew no walks, and hung with you Tuesday until you finally cashed in enough chances to win 8-5.

We rightfully make a lot out of how teams play against the best of their sport. Obviously important. However, clobbering the teams you’re supposed to clobber matters too, and that was something the 2018 Red Sox made zero mistake about.

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From 2006-09, Boston went 55-17 against Baltimore. Last season, the Red Sox went 16-3, outscoring them 127-66. The Yankees, 100-win team that they were, went 12-7 — at least slightly deceptive, given they were 6-6 on Aug. 1, by which point Baltimore was 33-75 and the Red Sox were 5.5 games clear of New York in the division. Boston won the division by eight games. There’s half of them, and yet, there’s more.

The 2018 Red Sox were 31-7 against Baltimore and Toronto, 5-1 against 104-loss Kansas City, 8-2 against Detroit and Miami, and 6-1 against Texas. That’s 50-11 vs. six of the eight worst teams in the majors. That allows you to split against the rest of the AL playoff teams, as the 2018 Sox did.

That’s what this team must do. Because 19-19 is still worse than any 38-game stretch of a year ago, and, more importantly, because winning 13 of 19 gained the Red Sox zero ground on the Yankees, who just did the exact same thing.

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Not that a 5-2 road trip can ever entirely be brushed off, especially one as close to 7-0 as this one was. The Red Sox are down a pair of starters in David Price and Nathan Eovaldi. Their 7-8-9 hitters on Wednesday night were Eduardo Nunez, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Sandy Leon — a combined .165 with six extra-base hits. Mitch Moreland leads them in home runs and RBIs while batting .209 with a .299 on-base.

Whatever the competition, though, their best are finding their way. Betts and J.D. Martinez have clawed to the top 40 in wRC+, the former up to .290/.405/.507. The bullpen has essentially passed every test.

It’s only 19-19, but it’s a symbol of something in a trying time. It’s now less a bad start than a slow start, and one which they might have taken coming out of the spring, even if Cora doesn’t want to say that.

“We’ve been patient,” Cora said. “The results, obviously, we don’t want to be playing .500 right now, but we’re playing .500 right now. It’s kind of ironic that we play Seattle [on] Friday, playing .500 baseball. We started the season in Seattle. That happened. I don’t want to say the season starts Friday, but, the season starts Friday.”

Thursday’s an off day, so we can worry about the Mariners later. Also, it’s an off day like few others.

A brief word on the White House

Truth be told, I don’t have much of anything to offer on Thursday because I don’t find it to be much of anything.

The Red Sox who choose to attend will get the treatment we’ve come to expect. New England-born staffers will wear Red Sox hats. Reporters will get their photos taken in the briefing room. A jersey will be given to the President. We will, two weeks from now, have moved on to 100 other stories in both politics and sports. We might get something akin to “David Ortiz takes a presidential selfie” or “Jonny Gomes wears a flag blazer” that lingers a little, but that feels the exception.

As fate would have it, both Chad Finn (while the team was in Chicago) and Peter Abraham (in Baltimore) said, from a team perspective, all that needs to be said. A couple snippets:

Finn: “The 2019 Red Sox are finally starting to resemble the team that will be celebrated Thursday. … The clubhouse scene after the game wasn’t much different than before. Chris Sale hugged the clubhouse workers who were familiar from his days with the White Sox, then sat down at a table to eat a postgame meal with [Heath] Hembree, [Rafael] Devers, and [Christian] Vazquez. Betts talked NBA playoffs in a group with Nunez, Moreland, and Sandy Leon. General manager Dave Dombrowski strolled through and patted [Xander] Bogaerts, who hit a game-breaking grand slam, on the back. … The Red Sox have players from six countries on their current 25-man roster. Right now, with the season at last pointed the right way, they look just about as unified as a team can be, one with a common goal, even if their destinations won’t all be the same come Thursday.”

Abraham:Manager Alex Cora, who isn’t going [Thursday], never felt a need to address the team because he didn’t want to make issue any bigger than it already was. … Let everybody make his own decision free from any pressure. … That the choices broke down on racial lines was a reflection of the world outside. Being photographed shaking President Trump’s hand would not be seen the same way in Puerto Rico as it would be in Texas. It’s uncomfortable and unfortunate and in the end, unavoidable. Because the Red Sox make for a trendy example of life in these divided times, Cora and the Sox players have been asked to explain their positions repeated times. Cora shut that line of questioning down on Wednesday when it came up again. … The political discourse, such as it was, lasted 47 seconds. The Red Sox have better things to talk about.”