Commentary

Health, hitting, and closing are rare commodities, and the Red Sox have made the most of theirs

J.D. Martinez (28) celebrates his two-run home run with Michael Chavis, Rafael Devers, and Christian Vazquez.
J.D. Martinez's (28) game-winning homer on Thursday night, May 20, helped pick up -- among others -- Michael Chavis (left) and Rafael Devers, each of whom had errors in the game. Mike Carlson/Associated Press

Red Sox 8, Blue Jays 7, on Thursday night in Dunedin, Fla., is one of those games that’s going to stick in the memory for a while. It is absolutely going to make the DVD or NFT or whatever commemorative production comes out for consumption this winter. A NESN producer may be folding it into promotional spots at an edit bay literally as I type.

J.D. Martinez’s ninth-inning, two-out, go-ahead home run to cap a three-run rally from nowhere — 10 straight Red Sox hitters went down entering the ninth, and Martinez had struck out in back-to-back at-bats — immediately reminded of “The Brandon Phillips Game” from September 2018. From a year packed with more victories than any year in Red Sox history, we remember that one fondly.

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The Mitch Moreland Game” of March 29, 2019, doesn’t quite have the same ring, but it dongs a lot of the same bells. The Red Sox trailed by five in Seattle, not quite the six of Atlanta six months before. Moreland’s go-ahead winner came with one out, not two. It came in Game No. 2 of the regular season, not win No. 97 of 108.

And it was not ultimately the 2018 moment we realized, in hindsight of course, the Red Sox team that authored it were champions and truly something special. It was one of the litany of 2019 moments that made it all the more frustrating when they proved and reproved they absolutely were not.

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Thursday, minutes before it was iconic, was a disaster — three fielding errors helping to squander a winnable game and series to a division rival. It was a turn as quick as the one from Tuesday, when Toronto pummeled Eduardo Rodriguez in a seeming statement win, to Wednesday, when Boston put five on the board in the first as an immediate answer. There are too many baseball games for any one to be much of a referendum.

But they’ve won six out of every 10 for nearly seven weeks now. Still 20 more weeks until October, but they could do much worse than sticking with this formula.

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Stay healthy. Mash in the middle. Close out wins.

None can be understated, but the first feels especially underrated today given Rafael Dolis’s ghastly attempt at finishing Thursday for the Jays. Having lost Kirby Yates to Tommy John surgery this spring, five different pitchers have gotten a ninth-inning save chance for Toronto/Dunedin/Buffalo, with Dolis the primary choice.

Yeah. That guy you watched hammer the dirt in a two-run game is what they’ve settled on as their best option.

Dolis and the Jays have done fine overall, just as their offense has continued to mash despite George Springer missing 38 of 42 games. But as noted repeatedly on the NESN broadcast, Dolis came into a relatively stress-free game and would not challenge Red Sox hitters.

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Contrast that with Matt Barnes, challenging hitters and experiencing success like never before. Think back to the shutdown days of Jonathan Papelbon and Koji Uehara — they’d have had some fun with that laundry cart, don’t you think?

Maybe Yates could’ve been that for Toronto, but he’s not been available. Same as Luis Severino hasn’t been and, now, Giancarlo Stanton isn’t available to the Yankees. Chris Archer and Michael Wacha are both hurt in Tampa. The White Sox lost Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert from their lineup. Jake Odorizzi quickly got hurt in Houston, and Byron Buxton is out again for Minnesota. The Dodgers’ injured list is bursting at the seams.

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The Red Sox? Outside of Chris Sale, they’ve lost Ryan Brasier. Kiké Hernández for 10 days, and Martinez had that day off for what turned out to be a cold.

It is as big a break as any in a year when the sport is wracked with injuries, and the depth-deficient Red Sox have thankfully made the most of it. Just .540 baseball the rest of the way, 63-54, gets them to an uplifting 90-win season.

When the Angels came through town last weekend, we noted it’s hard to imagine a team with two genuine MVP candidates looking less dead in the water. (Rest in peace, dreams of Mike Trout’s best season yet.) I neglected to consider the flip side: That the Red Sox have two of their own.

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Martinez is 10th in Fangraphs’ calculations of WAR on Friday morning with 1.9; his defense is a killer, even if he’s been just fine in the outfield when needed. Vlad Guerrero Jr. leads at 2.6, just ahead of … Xander Bogaerts, who continues to lead the American League in hits (56) and is seventh in the majors with a .991 OPS.

We know his value goes far deeper, his ascension to team leader as smooth as it was sudden. It’s no coincidence he was the one to douse Martinez with celebratory ice water while the latter spoke to NESN on Thursday.

It’s the sort of glue that doesn’t guarantee success by itself, but sure makes it a lot easier to find.

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“I know it’s early, but these are guys we’ve got to beat,” Martinez told NESN after he composed himself. “These are guys we’ve got to beat to get some space, to get ahead.”

These Red Sox have built just about all they can while the time to build’s been good. Fourth-best record in baseball a week before Memorial Day.

What team that was bad enough to merit the fourth pick in the draft come July could possibly ask for more?

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