3 thoughts after the Red Sox took 3 of 4 from Toronto

Analyzing the schedules of the contenders for the final AL playoff spots, plus an up and a down for Red Sox player development.

Mookie Betts and Rafael Devers have made for quite the combination at the top of the Red Sox batting order.
Mookie Betts and Rafael Devers have made for quite the combination at the top of the Red Sox batting order. –Barry Chin/Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

The Red Sox did enough these last four days, beating a 100-loss Toronto team three out of four games. Any series victory at home is somehow notable when it’s the latter half of July and you’re 24-23 at said home (not counting the two losses in London), but we all know the run against Tampa Bay and the Yankees that’s coming next week outranks this week’s against the AL East’s benevolent birds.

With Texas dropping four straight and Tampa falling eight behind the Yankees with Thursday’s doubleheader sweep in the Bronx, the nascent playoff picture is coming into focus: The Yankees, Houston, and five teams (Tampa, Boston, Minnesota, Cleveland, and Oakland) for the other three AL spots. On the other side, the American League might have an absurd five 100-loss teams, Seattle teetering above the Royals, Toronto, Detroit, and Baltimore, which the Sox visit this weekend.

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How often do those five meet up with the competing five the rest of the way?

Tampa — 29 left, 19-9 to date (13 with Toronto, 7 with Baltimore, 6 with Seattle, 3 with Detroit)
Minnesota — 20 left, 27-11 to date (10 with Kansas City, 10 with Detroit)
Cleveland — 19 left, 29-9 to date (10 with Kansas City, 6 with Detroit, 3 with Toronto)
Boston — 15 left, 29-14 to date (9 with Baltimore, 3 with Kansas City, 3 with Toronto)
Oakland — 14 left, 17-14 to date (7 with Kansas City, 4 with Seattle, 3 with Detroit)

Some things to think about: The Red Sox are two games back of the Rays after Thursday, with 10 head-to-head meetings left (and six in the next two weeks); they best not waste those given Tampa’s run home. There’s an awful lot of Kansas City on there … might they end up kingmakers?

Oakland has the longest odds of the five because of their tougher schedule, epitomized by the bear of a run through Minnesota and Houston they began with a loss on Thursday. (They see the Astros 11 more times this year.) But, the A’s are a plus-95 run differential for the season, essentially equal to the Astros (plus-99) despite Houston beating them seven of eight, and well better than Boston (plus-55).

Making it all the more amazing, they went 0-6 against the Blue Jays that the Red Sox just handled, Thursday’s shutout — in which Chris Sale traded fastball velocity for pinpoint control, though I wonder how sustainable that is — the merciful follow-up to almost losing a game they led 10-4, almost losing a game they allowed just five hits, and actually losing Andrew Cashner’s debut. That Oakland goose egg is the type that sticks with you when you’re traveling for a wild-card game or watching one from home and a cautionary tale as our eyes turn to Camden Yards.

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Where, unfair as this is, anything less than a sweep will feel like lost ground.

• • •

You hear the one about when the Yankees almost traded Mariano Rivera to Seattle in 1996? No matter what exactly “almost” means in real life, it’s a classic George Steinbrenner story: Derek Jeter was supposed to be the second coming, he struggled in the spring of ’96 as a 21-year-old, and so the Yankees had to immediately trade for a reliable shortstop.

Jeter turned 22 in June and, Steinbrenner talked off the cliff, ended up winning Rookie of the Year. Rafael Devers turned 22 during the World Series last fall; three days later, he knocked in the go-ahead run in the ninth inning of Game 4, and his age-22 season might end up being the AL’s best among players not named Mike Trout.

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On Monday, Devers drove in two runs, cracked a double, and made a genuinely absurd play at third base. On Tuesday, he went hitless for just the second time in 19 games as the No. 2 hitter. (The Red Sox are averaging seven runs per game since moving him there full-time on June 25.) On Wednesday, he knocked in four of Boston’s five runs. On Thursday, he made it eight home runs and 28 RBI against Toronto this season, a team-high 122 hits and .325 average, an MLB-leading (by 10!) 153 balls hit at least 95 miles per hour, 49 extra-base hits, 73 RBI total …

“Obviously I may get a couple more pitches to hit,” said reigning AL MVP and Sox leadoff man Mookie Betts, “because nobody wants to face [Rafael Devers].”

No matter how you feel about the WAR stat, allow me to use it comparatively here. Devers is projected to finish the year with 5.0 fWAR — that’s All-Star level, and a number only nine AL players reached a year ago. (Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez were there, while Xander Bogaerts just missed.) If Devers gets there, he’ll be the 13th active player to do it in his age-22 season or younger.

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It’s quite the club: Albert Pujols, Bryce Harper, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Giancarlo Stanton, Jason Heyward, Manny Machado, Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Troy Tulowitzki. Further, more than half of such seasons all-time among non-active players were done by Hall of Famers, from Ty Cobb to Ken Griffey Jr.

No career promises either way, of course. Imagine, though, that we saw one such season from Betts in 2015, we just missed seeing one from Bogaerts that same year, and we might get another this year. Not a bad little run for the player development staff.

• • •

Here’s another less-laudable run: Drew Pomeranz, Doug Fister, Nathan Eovaldi, and Cashner. That’s four straight seasons of the Red Sox feeling the need to add to their starting rotation in midstream. Four straight years that might have been avoided if even a sliver of their success grooming position players translated to starting pitchers.

Since drafting Jon Lester in 2002, the three best homegrown starting pitchers produced by the Red Sox are Clay Buchholz (a perennial frustration who was elite — meaning he pitched well and stayed healthy a full year — just once in a decade here), Justin Masterson (who made just 24 Red Sox starts, bookends to a middling eight-year career), and either Brian Johnson (a classic Quad-A guy) or Jalen Beeks (who netted Eovaldi and is coming into his own as a bulk-innings guy for Tampa).

That’s it. That’s why the annual need for a Cashner-type, the repeated risky dips in the free-agent pool, and the annual escalating payroll because no one that’s come through the Boston system can be trusted in the top half of the rotation.

We’re approaching two decades in this drought, easily the biggest failing — a relative term, what with the four World Series titles and all — of this franchise’s golden age. Actually amazing how well they’ve managed, Anderson Espinoza’s disastrous medical calamities playing a big part in that. Pomeranz at least gave them a stellar second half of 2017. Eovaldi earned himself a massive contract that’s yet to deliver much.

And Cashner? He was “rusty” on Tuesday. At least he’ll still have Sunday against his old team before the class of the AL East awaits, when he’ll really need to show that his resurgent 2019 — including a 2.75 ERA in nine games against Houston, Boston, New York, Tampa, Cleveland, and Oakland — was no fluke.