It could be so much worse than this.
I say that in two ways. When I recently compared this season to the failed 2014 title defense, I left out one critical caveat: For all the similarities between the teams, up through the big internal move come July attempting one last time to spark the thing, the 2014 Red Sox were not, after mid-May, on a playoff-qualifying track by any measure.
Fangraphs’ Playoff Odds dropped them below 50 percent to qualify on May 17 and, when Boston threw the season to the wolves on July 31, the Sox were 48-60 and 10.5 games out of a wild-card spot. That’s not the 2019 Red Sox, which remain a playoff team more probable than not.
It could also be worse, and more similar, if not for some reasonably absurd heroics. Seems the only positive thing about this team in a consistency sense is they’ve consistently pulled just enough games from the fire to keep this teetering train on the rails.
Down 6-1 into the sixth on Thursday night after Hector Velazquez couldn’t get out of the third and tied 7-7 into the ninth after Brandon Workman made it seven blown saves in the last 15 games, the Red Sox won. Rafael Devers — now the local with the loudest All-Star beef after Xander Bogaerts got in as an injury replacement — just about beat the Jays himself on Tuesday, Chris Sale was yikes on Wednesday … those are common themes anyone who’s watching this team would struggle to miss.
The comebacks? They’ve been so prevalent, but it’s still quite a thing to read that 26 of Boston’s 46 victories — 57 percent, as the Globe’s Alex Speier helpfully notes — included a deficit of some kind. The aforementioned 2014 team only had 30 from 71 wins. The 2013 champions, 36 from 97, plus five more in the playoffs.
“We’re not World Series champions for nothing. We know how to fight, we know how to come back, we know how to win games,” assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett told Speier. “It just shows you again what we can do.”
On Thursday, again, it was Devers — he went 7 for 12 in the Toronto series with three homers and nine RBIs. It was also Marco Hernandez, whose comeback from three shoulder surgeries is a well-trod story because his game-winning homer in the ninth was merely the latest hook he’s offered writers to tell it. It was Michael Chavis, whose three-run shot offered a reminder of all those early blasts when he rolled into town.
Between the three of them, they’ll make about $1.7 million this season. That’s pocket change on a $236 million payroll. And yet, sometimes, the change makes all the difference. It did in 2007, when what was the most expensive team in franchise history got multi-million dollar contributions — and a championship — from a slew of six-figure salary guys: Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jonathan Papelbon, and Jon Lester, to name a few.
This season’s not that, at least not yet, but they’ve certainly helped save this from disaster.
When the Sox erased a 6-1 deficit to the Rangers last month, it was Devers and Jackie Bradley Jr. — making $8.5 million, but still an arbitration player yet to reach the free-agency buffet — who played major roles. They trailed Toronto 5-0 back in April before Devers eventually walked them off for the first Fenway win of the year, and he was 3 for 4 when the Red Sox clobbered Felix Hernandez at Fenway, quickly erasing a 4-0 hole.
Andrew Benintendi is in this club too, making a mere $717,500 in his final pre-arbitration season, and his 2019 high-water mark might’ve come last month against Texas, when he cracked two doubles and a triple in a 4-3 win that started as a 2-0 first-inning deficit. He’s hitting the ball as hard as he ever has, but appears to be a little too launch-angle crazy this season.
Yes, most of these I mentioned were early deficits against teams, the Red Sox should be beating up on, at least based on the standings. The same will apply this weekend in Detroit, where the Tigers (28-54) might lose 110 this year if they, as expected, deal top starter Matthew Boyd — who the Sox miss after he lit up Chicago on Thursday — and/or outfield free agent to be Nick Castellanos this month.
No matter. A win is a win, and for as much time as we spend harping on the late failures — 10 losses when ahead or tied going into the seventh inning deserves the ink — imagine the state of things if the seven games I mentioned above went the way they usually do in the majors.
The team that’s 2.5 games out of a wild card this morning would be in 2014 Red Sox country.
No one’s done this like the Dodgers, who won three straight games on walk-offs from rookies last month, plus have Cody Bellinger (30 homers and an 1.149 OPS for a scant $605K) and Max Muncy (21 and .921 for $575K) holding down the 4-5 slots in their order. Oakland’s got Matt Chapman, the Mets have Pete Alonso, the Braves have Ronald Acuna, the Astros technically get it from Alex Bregman (whose megadeal kicks in next year), to say nothing of the pitching side.
It feels uncommon, though, to be a contender getting so much from their young up and comers. Benintendi has been Boston’s best hitter with runners in scoring position by both OPS and wRC+. Devers has 17 go-ahead hits, making him far and away the team leader, and he’s knocking in better than 20 percent of the runners on base when he hits, something only seven AL regulars can say. Chavis has nine go-ahead hits, tied with Mookie Betts, who has 100-plus plate appearances on him and, oh yeah, was the MVP of the American League last year.
“We know at any time we can turn it around and come back. so when it happens, it’s just a reminder we’re a good ball club,” Chavis told reporters Thursday. “At the end of the day, we’re a good ball club, and we’re starting to bring it together.”
We’ve probably heard that about 26 different nights this season, but be that as it may, the first part isn’t wrong. It’s that “hope can drive a man insane” factor that makes this team alternatingly impossible to turn away from and impossible to stomach. They should sweep the Tigers. They could. They could just as easily win one of three, bats silent one day, bullpen handing another over.
This reliance on the likes of Devers, Benintendi, Chavis, Hernandez, and friends is part of the issue. They’re not supposed to be carrying so much of the freight, and the underwhelming first halves of Betts, J.D. Martinez, and, well, the whole rotation are what have this team where it is.
If they weren’t, though? Perish the thought.