Red Sox

Life can’t be easy for the Red Sox on the fringes of contention

It feels like the Sox, who have lost 12 of 17, are pressing again.

Xander Bogaerts laments after striking out against the Rays.
Xander Bogaerts hasn't been the problem production wise in 2022 for the Red Sox, though his looming contract talks might be hurting the club. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

COMMENTARY

The quote that stood out after the Red Sox had their 48 hours of bliss against the Yankees, the same juggernaut they visit this weekend in an entirely different state, was Alex Cora’s declaration that “we feel like we can play with anybody.”

Four games in July don’t change the truth behind that, at least for me and (I think we can assume) for them. This remains a team that has won more than it’s lost. That has led 68 of its 90 games even if 21 of those turned into losses. That is just about .500 (27-30) against teams better than .500, just like the Twins and the Blue Jays and the Mariners among the other second-tier contenders of the American League.

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The Orioles have won 10 in a row to leap into that group, as Seattle has done with its 11 and, well, the Red Sox did with their 20-6 June. That’s the nature of the game as constructed today: De-emphasizing season-long excellence for the allure of contention just being a couple weeks away.

But this morning, after four straight kicks in the teeth from the Rays that were shocking in summary yet also individually predictable, even that feels distant. And thus, I think back to the words that preceded the above “bring ’em on” type rah-rah from the Red Sox manager.

“I’ve been saying all along we have a good team, but it has to keep working to get better.”

That can be read as bleak as you like; far be it for me to stop a good pessimistic spiral. I see it as a reminder about the losses of focus that will happen across a six-month season, especially in a group that was at best a fringe contender when it was completely healthy, which it hasn’t been for weeks.

That knows they have an opportunity here, but knows how thin the tightrope to it is, and doesn’t entirely know how to stay on it.

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I’m not excusing that loss of focus. I’m merely accepting the reality. Which leads me to wonder whether the same looming reality that we’ve universally presumed — painful goodbyes are coming, this winter if not in a few weeks — is part of this puzzle.

Heck, even Cooperstown-bound David Ortiz is turning innocuous presser questions into a plea to keep Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers in Red Sox employ. He really is one of us.

To the field, though, because this is somehow a lot easier to understand than it might first appear. In the 16 games before Thursday’s seventh-inning implosion, the starting pitchers — that being a foundering Nick Pivetta and a parade of injury fill-ins — were winless with a 7.03 ERA.

As the Sox have lost 12 of 17, Trevor Story (.196 average) and J.D. Martinez (.344 slugging) have been absent. Bobby Dalbec and Franchy Cordero are striking out 40 percent of the time. Jackie Bradley Jr. and Jarren Duran have been . . . you know.

It feels like they’re pressing again and, well, they’re collectively third-worst chasing pitches outside the zone in this stretch. The overall swing rate, down to 15th during Boston’s torrid June, is fifth these last 17.

Baseball teams aren’t hive minds, but it hardly feels a stretch they’re as aware as we are the time to make something happen. They did over the weekend, only to tumble behind, 5-1, in a heartbeat Monday; then get twisted in knots by Corey Kluber and Shane McClanahan; then took the field for the bottom of the seventh Thursday.

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Increasingly, they never win at the Trop — six straight losses this season, and 14 of 19 since the start of the last (including postseason). That’s not all the Rays building better teams. That’s a place where, for whatever reason, Alex Verdugo’s shot to the corner in the ninth, hits the short wall instead of going over it.

That can’t help but eat at a team on the edge, especially with this year feeling like a final opportunity for a certain Red Sox vintage.

It was Cora on Wednesday night who rightly chastised his team for “not playing good baseball” and “making a lot of mistakes.” A night later, after a five-run Rays seventh a 3-0 lead, he praised a “better effort than yesterday.”

It, frankly, all feels a little pep talky. And I can’t say I blame him, because the bleak never feels far from the 2022 Red Sox. Even when the moments are good.

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