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Twice in Atlanta, the Red Sox blew significant leads. On Tuesday, they were up 4-0 six batters in, and 7-4 after five innings, only to end up tied going into the eighth. On Wednesday, it was 2-0 after six batters, then 4-1 and 6-3 before the hosts went ahead in the sixth.
It didn’t matter, because — as we’re all growing to accept with the 2021 Red Sox — of course it didn’t. This is a group that finds a way. On Tuesday, Alex Verdugo got a floater of a changeup, lost it in the left-center seats, then left his body.
“I was running around with my arms out and I didn’t even know I was doing that. I was so damn happy, bro. It just happened. Next thing you know, I’m yelling around the bases. I’m looking at my dugout. ‘What’s up?!’ I was just fired up,” Verdugo told the Section 10 podcast in Thursday’s episode, part of a nearly hourlong chat. “That’s just the love for the game. It’s all out of pure joy and happiness. I just enjoy to show it.”
On Wednesday, Christian Arroyo swung at three A.J. Minter cutters. The first was a miss at a pitcher’s pitch that ended up behind Arroyo’s hip. The second was a meek foul grounder. The third, up a hair from the second, slightly more in the zone, went 467 feet for Arroyo’s third game-changing home run in seven days.
“Four-sixty-seven?! Dang,” Arroyo said on NESN, later telling reporters he’d needed to calm himself down in the middle of the at-bat. “I didn’t know I had that in me.”
In their gauntlet of 17 games in 17 days, all against 2020 playoff teams, with their starters posting a 6.32 ERA during it, the Red Sox went 10-7. They allowed more runs (102) than any team in the majors and still won more than they lost.
Minnesota allowed 100 and went 6-10. Arizona allowed 99 and went 1-14. Heck, Toronto allowed just 63 — a full run and a half per game less! — and went 6-8.
It doesn’t matter because of Alex Cora, whose positive influence on this group is tough to quantify, but can’t be ignored. (“He’s just one of those guys. The players love him,” Verdugo told Section 10.) It doesn’t matter because of talent like Verdugo, who appears to naturally embrace everything that comes with being a big-time baseball player in a sports-mad region. (It’s quite a thing that Mookie Betts also hit a massive, game-winning home run on Tuesday and, if this isn’t the first you’re hearing about it, you probably didn’t care all that much.)
Teams like this happen because of the Arroyos, on his way to easily the best season of an undistinguished pro career. Teams like this happen because of the Josh Taylors.
With the Sox up three in the eighth Wednesday, and the Atlanta order coming to its 4-5-6 hitters, Taylor got the call. After walking the leadoff man on four pitches, Taylor mowed through Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson, then got a first-pitch groundout.
It was his fourth straight hitless outing, and his 19th straight scoreless one, which doesn’t even account for his stranding the last 10 runners he’s inherited. Since the calendar flipped to May, Taylor’s faced 52 batters and given up six hits and five walks.
“Red Sox have themselves quite a find,” Chip Caray noted on the Atlanta broadcast.
A year ago, it was Phillips Valdéz, albeit without many high leverage spots given the season lacked them entirely. Marcus Walden in 2019, Brandon Workman in 2017-18, Robbie Ross in 2016, Craig Breslow in 2013, Scott Atchison, Hideki Okajima … as the middle relief wheel turns, heroes emerge from year to year.
Some have pedigree, but many don’t.
Some have staying power, but most don’t.
All prove critical, in varying degrees as the stakes vary. And Taylor, on a surprise team, has grown into an essential piece getting increasingly important games to Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino.
“He’s been doing that for a long time,” Cora told reporters on Monday, when Taylor struck out the dangerous Rowdy Tellez in the seventh, then put down Toronto 1-2-3 in the eighth of a 2-1 win. “We felt that pocket belonged to him.”
Cora was referring to a bunching of lefties, whom the lefty Taylor has held to a .220/.238/.244 line this year. Righties are significantly better — .300/.417/.420, in about 30 percent more at-bats — but Cora gave Taylor the nod against them Wednesday in Atlanta, and those numbers keep dropping as Taylor continues to excel whenever asked.
Only Barnes is getting swings and misses at a higher rate on the team, and Taylor is in the top 30 leaguewide. That’s thanks largely to his slider, his primary weapon. Hitters have missed it on 52 percent of their swings, with eight hits on 89 swings.
It’s a slight uptick from 2019, when they missed it 48 percent of the time across his first 52 MLB outings and he was one of the better relievers in the game. Numbers that seemed a mirage during a lost 2020, when Taylor pitched in just eight games following an asymptomatic COVID-19 positive in July, but are being validated this year.
“JT’s been throwing the ball great,” Nate Eovaldi told reporters Monday.
It’s been a long, nondescript road of hard work and opportunities embraced. As a senior at Centennial High School outside of Phoenix in 2011, Taylor was All-State … honorable mention. He spent two seasons as a Scottsdale Community College Fighting Artichoke, twice taking his team to the [Junior] College World Series, then went to Division 2 Georgia College. He impressed in summer ball and signed with Philadelphia as an undrafted free agent.
Less than a year later, they traded him to Arizona for bonus slot money. Three years after that, in May 2018, he was the player to be named later for former top-10 Sox prospect Deven Marrero.
A year later, he was in the majors, finally able to shed the job working on a loading dock he told MassLive he needed to make ends meet. Two years since then, competing with Darwinzon Hernandez, he’s Alex Cora’s most trusted lefty on a postseason contender.
Banked wins and strikeouts matter, of course, but they promise no more going forward than all that pedigree Taylor’s never had. His four-seam fastball has a .353 average against it this year. Add in his sinker, and that’s close to .400 on his hard stuff. As Matt Collins of Over the Monster pointed out earlier this week, Taylor likely needs to elevate his non-breaking stuff more consistently.
Middle relief is a fickle industry, even within the context of baseball. Both require continuous proof of concept, and as the Red Sox roll into Kansas City — 15-29 since they had the best record in the American League on April 29 — that’s never felt more true.
Those two wins in Atlanta were both bonkers, both slivers from gutting losses multiple times. After wrapping two walkoffs around two blowout losses against Toronto, the Sox allowed eight runs twice, which is a recipe to win about 15 percent of the time this season.
The Sox won twice. Because of course they did. Makes you want to throw your hands up like Alex Verdugo.
Even if just like him, you have no idea why.
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