Commentary

All that’s left for the 2021 Red Sox is to write their own legacy this weekend

The Red Sox still control their own playoff destiny even after losing two of three to the 107-loss Orioles.

Xander Bogaerts, Kyle Schwarber, Red Sox
Xander Bogaerts, Kyle Schwarber, and the Red Sox lost two of three to an Orioles team that was 50-106 when the series began on Tuesday. Rob Carr/Getty Images

Jay Jaffe has written for more than a decade that hot Septembers have little to do with postseason success. Looking at roughly 25 years of data, he declares no statistical correlation between the two. The Cardinals, winners in 20 of their last 22 games, are just as likely to make a deep run as the world champion 2000 Yankees were after losing 15 of 18 to end the season.

Much like “there is no such thing as clutch” and other frothy internet baseball declarations, it’s both backed by the numbers and yet still doesn’t feel entirely right. The tendency is to want to reach for contrary examples, but Jaffe’s point is modern baseball analysis personified.

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Our eyes and our guts aren’t nearly as reliable as the numbers are.

Which is a good thing, because there’s not an eye or gut left in New England that sees much left in the 2021 Red Sox, who still have their fates in their hands as they make the short trip to Washington, despite what they just did with it the last three days.

Given I’m the guy whose last missive here couldn’t draw enough parallels to the last-chance 2011 series in Baltimore, let me be clear: There is no practical comparison between then and now. Ten years ago, the Red Sox were preseason favorites, a No. 2 payroll juggernaut built to win. This team was nobody’s pick, a bargain-basement by big-market standards.

Which, again, is about the only thing it has going for it today. They weren’t dreamed of as an 89-win team that, if it sweeps the stone-dead Nationals in D.C., is guaranteed to play past Sunday. But they are here as one, and if it ends there, it’ll feel like a lost opportunity all the same.

Cue Alex Cora, the voice of our rational brains, whether it’s the right thing for this moment or it isn’t. The 2019 Red Sox were going to be fine until the day they were eliminated. This group won’t be treated any different.

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“Obviously we lost five out of six and it doesn’t look great,” Cora told reporters Thursday, after Alexander Wells and his 8.13 ERA as a starter mystified his Sox lineup for six innings, “but at the same time, like I keep telling them, we’re still a good team, we won a lot of games this year, and we still have a chance to make it.”

On Tuesday night, they were held to three hits by four Orioles pitchers with lineman numbers. On Wednesday, three early double plays let Baltimore hang around until a couple unearned runs eased the pressure. They got no such break Thursday, and showed they needed one.

When Ryan Mountcastle cracked Nick Pivetta — who got 16 swings and misses to Wells’s three, for the record — for a three-run homer in the fourth, the Boston lineup had exactly two hits left in it. When the top of the order got its third crack at Wells in the sixth inning, it somehow saw 10 total pitches including a Kyle Schwarber walk.

“You can slow it down as much as you want to and work counts, and grind at-bats, and put pressure on the opposition,” Cora told reporters. “And for a while there, we didn’t do that.”

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And yet, this was not a three-game set highlighting the Boston lineup’s free-swinging — they’re easily league-worst among contenders at chasing pitches outside the zone. Their 11 plate appearances to last two pitches or fewer on Tuesday included both of their solo home runs, and none of the other nine ended on pitches outside the zone. (A few, let’s say three, were pitcher’s pitches that Baltimore was likely happy to get a swing on.)

Thursday had another dozen two-or-fewer pitch plate appearances, again yielding the night’s visitor home run — Kiké Hernández on the game’s first pitch — as well as J.D. Martinez’s seventh-inning double. And yet, eight two-or-fewer pitch at-bats in the final four innings (plus a ninth when Alex Verdugo grounded out a 2-0 changeup for the game’s penultimate out) is tough to stomach even if they were reasonable swings.

The Yankees are surging to the line, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton simply capitalizing on more mistakes than anyone else. Toronto’s young core is desperate to stake its claim, even after its ace Robbie Ray got hammered by those big New York bats on Thursday.

Seattle doesn’t care about its season-long negative run differential, spinning out of multiple apparent death spirals and repeatedly rising to the moment, even after its front office traded its closer away at the deadline.

“It’s kind of like one of those things that you see in movies and you see when you’re young, you see on SportsCenter and stuff like that,” said Jarred Kelenic after delivering the go-ahead double for the Mariners on Wednesday.

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“You want to be that guy that breaks that curse or breaks the bad vibes over here,” said teammate J.P. Crawford, referencing Seattle’s two-decade playoff drought. “You want to be remembered, to be a legend in this city.”

Sound much like the other team in the wild-card mix? No?

The Red Sox’ days of belief are months old, and their spiritual leader, Xander Bogaerts, celebrates his 29th birthday on Friday in a 2-for-23 slump.

“The quality of my at-bats has been bad,” Bogaerts told reporters Thursday. “When you hit it good, there’s someone right there, but I don’t feel like there’s been many at-bats throughout these last couple of days. . . . It sucks, bro. It sucks.”

Bogaerts, even when he was on a tear following his return from COVID-19, suggested he still wasn’t right and that the toll of Boston’s outbreak was perhaps deeper than we could see. As we still can’t, I’ll leave that speculation there.

Suffice to say, of the four teams separated by three games with a weekend to play, exactly one has zero momentum. And for all the talk about schedule strength, Boston’s final leg is no easier than anyone else’s.

The Yankees have the Rays, who’ve already clinched the AL’s best record. The Jays host Baltimore. Seattle hosts the Angels, the AL’s worst team (9-17) in September and one game worse than the Nationals.

Is momentum a thing in baseball? Debatable, though the consensus is it’s bunk. “Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher,” the old quip goes, and there’s been not much substantive from the new school to disprove it.

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Ten years ago, one more win could’ve changed how we remember the worst collapse in a Red Sox generation. One more hit, one more walk, one more play at some nondescript moment might not have saved Terry Francona’s job, but it could’ve changed a narrative now carved in stone about the end of that golden run.

Again, this team? No one’s carving a stone tablet to the 2021 we’re-building-the-farm-system Red Sox. But a pleasant surprise playoff berth makes this season a success immediately, rather than months from now when the sting has faded and Chaim Bloom’s patience is (hopefully) being rewarded.

It’s right there. It’s still right there. That’s what the numbers tell us. We just have to hope they’re right.

The Red Sox, for at least 24 more hours, can actually prove them right.

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