Commentary

With games like Thursday’s, the Red Sox keep making their start seem a little less surprising

How are they doing it? And will they keep doing it?

Xander Bogaerts reacts after hitting a home run in the bottom of the first inning. Getty Images

COMMENTARY

How are they doing it? And will they keep doing it? In the annual baseball marathon, you’re either asking this because your team’s better than you thought, or because they’re worse.

As the quarter pole nears for the Red Sox, nice to be on the happy side of the ledger again.

On Thursday afternoon in Detroit, Andrew Benintendi struck out swinging on a slider in the dirt, his Royals coming up a run shy in their 11th straight loss. Not that he’s been the problem: Your former left fielder is hitting .375/.404/.521 with 18 hits in 12 May games, a run that began with a two-homer game that remains the last Kansas City victory.

Three of the five best teams in baseball at the end of play on May 1 were Benintendi’s Royals (an MLB-best 16-9), the Red Sox, and San Francisco. All elicited the same response: Well, when’s this going to blow over? It usually doesn’t happen as dramatically as it’s happened with Kansas City, but the hindsight is clear: Pegged a 70-odd win club, they had a hot April despite scoring just six more runs than they allowed.

The other two, both .500 clubs that are third banana (at best) in their divisions, persist. The Giants have baseball’s oldest lineup, but it’s been enough thanks to three 30-something pitchers — Alex Wood, Kevin Gausman, and Anthony DeSclafani — with sub-2.20 ERAs despite one collective All-Star appearance.

San Francisco hasn’t met the Dodgers yet (the same as the Red Sox haven’t met the Yankees), they’ve split nine games with the Padres, and they’ve clobbered everyone else. Can it last? Doesn’t feel like it, but being halfway to the 18 games over .500 a team needs for 90 wins sure beats the alternative.

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Did the Red Sox starting this week with 4, 4, and 5 hits on consecutive days feel like some kind of reckoning, given the last two came against Oakland to begin a run of better competition? In the time it took to formulate the argument, they matched those 13 hits in six innings Thursday.

Against Sean Manaea, who’d been as good as anyone his prior six starts. With seven balls in the first three innings hit at least 106 mph, which is a full-on clobbering, plus Michael Chavis making the rare successful challenge of well-armed outfielder Ramón Laureano.

How have they gotten here? The offense has been gangbusters, but that was largely expected; as many have noted, even last year’s team hit carrying J.D. Martinez. The starting pitching?

Who could ask for more? Garrett Richards has a 2.16 ERA in his last four starts, allowing just six runs off 24 hits in 25 innings. (He allowed eight baserunners in his six shutout innings Thursday.) Nick Pivetta is 5-0 with a 3.19 ERA despite, as the Globe’s Alex Speier points out, mediocre strikeout numbers and a bottom-five walk rate.

The bullpen has slipped considerably since the calendar flipped. Neither Darwinzon Hernandez nor Matt Andriese have a clean inning in four tries each this month, and Garrett Whitlock’s turned mortal, though he was better Thursday in a low-leverage spot after six days off.

The starters, however, are the story. Twenty-eight times in 39 games entering Friday, Alex Cora’s starter has departed either with a lead or in a tie game. Of the 11 deficits, five came from the nine combined starts by Martín Pérez and Tanner Houck, and just once was the deficit larger than three runs: April 24 against Seattle, when Nate Eovaldi built a five-run hole.

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That’s a chance to win about every game, and thus a complete turnaround from 2020’s epic fail. It’s a delivery on a promise heard up and down the rotation this spring — “Don’t sleep on us,” Rodriguez warned in mid-February. It’s a testament to Christian Vázquez, who’s delivering on the words I wrote earlier this year when I said he was closer to the best catcher in baseball than you probably think.

“An underrated part of their success,” in the words of national baseball writer Ken Rosenthal, noting the 30-year-old clutch hitting as much as stewarding a better-than-most-thought rotation.

And so, the questions: How are they doing it? And will they keep doing it?

They’re 23-16. A 95-win pace. They could play .500 baseball from here on out and end up around the mid-80 wins most of us thought they were headed.

The question, really, is whose performance feels unsustainable? Pivetta, sure, but he’s also a bottom-of-the-rotation starter, and who could be breaking out at 28 in a new city. Guys like Eovaldi, Rodriguez, and Richards, the question is more sustained health than performance.

Not that they don’t have their own issues, coming off a shortened season, that’s a baseball-wide issue in 2021.

Based on advanced hit data, Rafael Devers is actually underperforming the expected. Bobby Dalbec has a tiny sample size, but he’s more than a .200 hitter, even if it’s always going to be feast-or-famine and it’s not by much.

This figures to be a clarifying stretch, beyond simply pounding out another month of the calendar. After this weekend against the Angels, as dreary a team with two legitimate MVP candidates as you’ll see, come Toronto, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, and — at last — the Yankees. Playoff contenders almost all, even if some are off to less-than-stellar starts.

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By the time Andrew Benintendi plays another game in Boston, they’ll be just about at the halfway point — Game 81, as currently scheduled, is the last day of June. Seems like we know about where the Royals will be by then.

The Red Sox? I still could believe just about anywhere. But with each passing day, and each successive answer like Thursday’s, my gaze keeps glancing a little higher.

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