The Blue Jays won their annual Canada Day game on Monday, cracking 18 hits against the Royals in front of one of the smallest holiday crowds they’ve ever had. That still meant nearly 30,000 people at an open-roofed Rogers Centre, but Toronto’s attendance is down nearly 30 percent from a year ago, a league-worst turn that’s not terribly hard to understand.
The Maple Leafs trading unrepentant goon Nazem Kadri was unquestionably bigger news in North America’s fourth-largest city, and the Raptors apparently watching Kawhi Leonard slip away to Los Angeles — if old friend Kendrick Perkins is on the money — debatably was as well. Such is the state of things when you’re 32-53 like the Jays are, the best of the American League’s quartet cruising toward 100 losses. (As we covered two weeks ago, they might not stay in that company long.)
The Red Sox (44-40) aren’t quite closer to that group than they are to the Yankees after their weekend in London, but it’s unfathomably close given most of this roster was here a year ago Monday, when Boston beat Max Scherzer in Washington to get to 57-29 and finally take over first place, alone, for good. This July dawns with the Red Sox close to another attempted title defense going off the rails before the summer dog days.
In 2014, the team needed to do something big from within as June came to a close, so they promoted a phenom prospect who’d never been above A-ball until that season to make his major-league debut at Yankee Stadium.
Mookie Betts looked every part the rookie that June 29 in the Bronx, after which the Globe’s Nick Cafardo reported Betts was “considered by some as a potential savior for the team,” but the Red Sox did win to take 2 of 3 and create some hope for themselves.
Afterward, John Lackey credited the real catalysts that night: David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, who drove in six runs between them.
“If you’re going to be good, your good guys got to be good,” Lackey said. “To get to where we want to be, those guys are going to have to drive the bus. You can put whatever parts around those guys. You need the parts to do well too, but they’re the engine that runs this thing.”
It’s not a straight-line parallel from then to now, promoting a 21-year-old outfielder to help what was the AL’s lowest-scoring offense versus plugging a starting pitcher in as closer to help the AL’s least-reliable bullpen, but it’s close enough. NESN’s Tom Caron broke the news late Monday night that when Nathan Eovaldi comes off the injured list following his cleanup elbow surgery and subsequent issues — we’re almost 11 weeks into an initial 4-6 week timetable — he will do so not only as a reliever, but as a “traditional closer” working the ninth inning.
Not even two weeks ago, Dave Dombrowski refuted this very idea, proclaiming “we really have not discussed that” and “we need a solid fifth starter.” When accepting his new four-year contract in December, Eovaldi noted “there were a lot of teams that reached out, wanted me to be a closer. I view myself as a starter … if I had that choice, I still wanted to be a starter.”
Later in the night Dombrowski fretted about the fifth starter, the Sox blew leads in the eighth and 13th, and lost in 17 innings. In the last seven games, they’ve blown three more saves. That includes Sunday, when Marcus Walden (tied for eighth in MLB for relief innings pitched this season) and Matt Barnes (who led the AL with 15 June appearances) lit the fuse on a nine-run seventh inning.
On an international stage, the Sox scored 13 runs one day, eight runs the next, and were blown out twice. They’d not lost two games in such a fashion since 1962. So make no mistake: This Eovaldi shift is, if not a panic move, at the very least the defending champions reaching in the desk for the “OPEN IN CASE OF EMERGENCY” envelope.
Since Eovaldi last pitched on April 17, his rotation slot has a 7.27 ERA, the Sox going 6-7 starting a mix of Ryan Weber, Josh Smith, Hector Velazquez, Darwinzon Hernandez, and Brian Johnson. Exactly one of those starts went longer than five innings, and eight had the Sox in the bullpen before the end of the fourth. Reliever overwork? That’s sure not helped.
Reducing Eovaldi from six innings every five days to one inning every couple gets him back to Boston faster, as it eliminates the need to build him back up to 100 pitches in the minors, but it also means you still have a rotation problem. It means you’re beholden to the offense and the rest of the staff getting potential victories to Eovaldi for finishing, as opposed to your third-best starter since he got here last July winning them for you.
It’s spending last winter proudly proclaiming you weren’t going to spend big on a reliever, then three months into the season plugging a $68-million pitcher — who, the Globe’s Peter Abraham rightly noted, believes a starter’s schedule is best for his health — in as your top reliever.
All that said, what other choice do they have?
Recovering to win a bad start is easier than to do it off a blown save. (Look no further than those six wins in those 13 Eovaldi-replacement starts; the Red Sox are all of 6-11 in Chris Sale starts this season.) Finding a fifth starter is certainly easier than finding a closer. And fretting about who’ll start Game 2 of a potential Red Sox Division Series in Minnesota or New York feels like a discussion a million miles from here.
This team needed bullpen help weeks ago, and John Henry pronounced the wallet closed across the pond. What’s that Lackey said up above?
“Your good guys got to be good. To get to where we want to be, those guys are going to have to drive the bus.”
Eovaldi became one of those guys in December, when pen went to paper on the contract that made him the fifth-highest paid player on the team. David Price, J.D. Martinez, Rick Porcello, Mookie Betts, Nathan Eovaldi. (Sale obviously leap-frogs him when his extension takes effect.)
Matt Barnes is 17th. Brandon Workman is 20th. Their failure to lock down the ends of games is, without doubt, on them. But it’s hard not to see they were never put in the position to succeed: Not by circumstance during the season, but also not by the team builders who worried more about restoring payroll sanity this winter than repeating.
Nathan Eovaldi as closer is not long-term smart, but it’s short-term necessary. It’s the whip of the wheel sideways to try and avoid the iceberg.
It might not work. But we know everything up to now hasn’t either, and it certainly beats the alternative.
In 2014, Boston came home following that late-June series win in New York as close to first place as they’d been since the start of the month. They’d never be that close again: They promptly lost 7 of 8 at home, including a sweep by the last-place Cubs, won 8 of 9 to momentarily right themselves, then lost 8 of 9 and folded up the tent. Jake Peavy to San Francisco. Lackey to St. Louis. Felix Doubront to the Cubs. Stephen Drew to the Yankees. Andrew Miller to the Orioles.
“We had to find a way to take advantage of the unfortunate position we were in and try to kick-start a little bit building the next team,” then-GM Ben Cherington told reporters on July 31.
That frenzy netted, among others, Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree, Eduardo Rodriguez, and — when the Sox traded Lester return Yoenis Cespedes to Detroit that winter — Porcello. They weren’t the core contributors to the 2018 title by any means, but they were two-fifths of the rotation and Alex Cora’s two most-used relievers in the regular season. (To say nothing of Kelly’s dominant October, or how trading Drew let Xander Bogaerts go back to shortstop.)
It was a hard thing to do in the moment, but history unquestionably validates it. And, as those failed defending champions would tell you, they did it to themselves.
“There’s nothing sort of celebratory about this. These moves are made because collectively, as an organization, we haven’t performed well enough,” Cherington said then.
One month until the 2019 trade deadline. One month to right the ship. One month, starting Tuesday night in Toronto.