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When J.D. Martinez, harmlessly and with little suspense, popped a well-placed Matt Wisler slider to right field with the tying run on third base for the final out of yet another loss to the Rays Sunday, it felt like the first time this season that the Red Sox have failed to conjure a win when they’ve desperately needed one.
Not that there have been many moments of worry so far this season. The Told-Ya-They’d-Stink brigade took their victory lap after the Sox looked miserable in opening the season with three straight losses to the Orioles. The Sox won their next nine, including a sweep of the Rays.
As May turned to June, they lost three straight to Houston, then promptly won the fourth game of that series and swept the Yankees three straight in New York. This team has made a habit out of serving heaping helpings of crow to its skeptics.
They’ve always responded. It’s one of the reasons this roster, with so many new and unfamiliar players, became so likable so quickly. It also helped, I suppose, that they have spent 85 days in first place and were 23 games over .500 less than a week ago. Winning is the foolproof way of discovering new fan favorites.
They’ve built up plenty of goodwill during the season’s first four months, or three-plus months anyway. In late July, the Sox stumbled into their first real and prolonged rut of the season. They’ve lost five of six, including three straight to the Rays while ceding first place in the American League East. They’re 8-8 since the All-Star break, and – this stunned me – only four games up on the Yankees and Blue Jays in the loss column. The Rays, Jays, and Yankees all gained three games on the Red Sox in the last three days.
One can appreciate all of the unexpected achievements, fun moments, and victories so far while also wondering, with genuine concern, what they are going to be moving forward over the season’s final third – 55 games remain, beginning with Tuesday’s game in Detroit.
Xander Bogaerts, a long-established voice of reason rather than alarm, said after Saturday’s loss that “we need a win tomorrow.” Alex Cora smiled away the notion that Sunday was a must-win, keeping the big picture in mind in times of frustration as the best managers do, but his tactics – notably pulling starter Nick Pivetta for Josh Taylor with two outs and the Sox trailing, 3-1, in the fifth inning – suggested he agreed with his candid shortstop.
Cora knew, even if he didn’t want to put so much importance on a single game. The Sox needed the win. For once, they couldn’t fulfill their own request, with Martinez’s pop out punctuating a series in which the Sox, as noted by NESN’s Adam Pellerin, went 3 for 18 with runners in scoring position, left 26 runners on base, and saw their starting pitchers give up 14 runs in 14 innings while being swept for the first time since that season-opening Orioles series.
So, what now? Well, presuming rehabbing Chris Sale doesn’t fall in love with Worcester the way Manny Ramirez once did with Pawtucket, there is significant help on the way to the area in which the Red Sox most need it: starting pitching. The only starter with an earned-run average below 4.50 right now is Nathan Eovaldi (3.71), and he’s already thrown his most innings since 2016. Eduardo Rodriguez (5.60 ERA) is basically in the rotation on reputation and a prayer right now. Garrett Richards (5.15 ERA) probably spends his afternoons staring longingly at pictures of Spider Tack on Google Image Search. Martin Perez and Nick Pivetta have adjusted ERAs of 101 – a tick above replacement level.
Even if Sale isn’t (*Steve Holt from “Arrested Development” voice*) CHRIS SALE! when he returns, he’ll be better than probably everyone but Eovaldi and Tanner Houck, who has a 1.62 ERA in 39 major league innings and should have a significant role the rest of the way.
Rather than adding a starting pitcher at the trading deadline, Red Sox president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom instead added a pair of non-descript relievers, righty Hansel Robles and lefty Austin Davis. Bloom has been so savvy in finding helpful players from a variety of sources that it’s wise, as I wrote before the trade deadline, to take the Ted Lasso “Be curious, not judgmental” approach to his acquisitions. Players like Hunter Renfroe and Christian Arroyo have revealed in their performance why Bloom liked them. But I’ll admit it gets cloudy when you try to see Robles and Davis as being anything more than depth pieces.
When he returns from a hamstring injury, Kyle Schwarber will help an offense that needs a boost. His top career statistical comps are Joey Gallo, whom the Yankees have been celebrated for acquiring, and Renfroe, and he’s averaged 42 homers per 162 games over the last three years. I suspect he’s going to take to first base well enough, and it’s necessary with Bobby Dalbec’s borderline unplayable 14/113 BB/K ratio.
But I still don’t know how Bloom let Anthony Rizzo get to the Yankees. He would have been an ideal fit on this team as a slick-fielding, lefty-hitting first baseman with power and a high on-base percentage. Bloom is building up the Red Sox’ farm system in a quest to be a Rays/Dodgers hybrid, and I understand why he didn’t deviate from that plan in what he found to be a sellers’ market. But the Yankees gave up nothing more than a couple of decent lottery tickets — 19-year-old rookie league outfielder Kevin Alcantara and pitcher Alexander Vizcaino (a 24-year-old in Single A with a 4.95 career minor league ERA) for Rizzo, their Nos. 9 and 12 prospects per MLB.com. And the Cubs are paying Rizzo’s remaining salary. Let’s just say I’d love to know what Bloom’s last, best offer was to Jed Hoyer.
I do not buy the common assumption that players on contending teams feel let down when their general manager doesn’t make significant additions at the deadline. This Red Sox group believes in each other, and besides, Schwarber will be a major addition when he’s ready. To put it another way: He’s a much better hitter than 2018 Steve Pearce, and we know how that deadline move played out. But after a season filled with unexpected highs, the Red Sox have hit a low point. Resilience has been an attribute of this team so far. Now, it must be more than ever.
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