The Red Sox never spent a day below .500 last season on their march to the World Series title. This year, it took them nine tries before they finally got back to .500, beating a depleted Reds lineup Wednesday night at Fenway Park to improve to 17-17.
It’s their first time back at .500 in more than a month. The last time they were there was April 4.
“The last couple of days feel different,” said Burke Badenhop, who went two-thirds of a scoreless inning Wednesday, and has not allowed a run in his last 12 innings. “After the game [Tuesday], A.J. [Pierzynski] was telling people, ‘Don’t be scared to get to 500.’ Hopefully we’re starting to hit our stride.”
While the Red Sox may not have been scared to get back to .500, it had become a rather elusive target over the last month.
“I don’t think it was a mental hurdle,” manager John Farrell said. “I never heard too many of us mention that we’re bumping up against .500 and taking a step back. It was just more of a situation inside games where we had opportunities that we haven’t cashed in on, finally we do tonight.”
The Sox have had opportunities since their last time at .500. They went 4-8 in one-run games since then, with two of those wins coming in the last two games, as they swept the two-game series from the Reds. They failed to capitalize against teams who, like themselves, were struggling. Against teams with records below .500 at the time the Sox played them, they went 4-8, again with two of the wins in the last two games. And at home they were just 10-10.
In their previous eight tries to get back to even, the Sox were outscored 47-28, including four one-run games.
Still, in that time they have never been more than 3 ½ games out in the bunched-up American League East. No team has broken from the pack so far this season. Even now at .500, tied with Toronto for third in the division, they are just a 1 ½ games behind the division-leading Orioles and Yankees (with the O’s ahead by percentage points). And the Rays, last in the AL East, are just 3 ½ games back.
With the win Wednesday, the Sox improved to 5-8 in one-run games and 2-12 when trailing after seven innings.
“To be honest with you, you don’t look at your record,” said Pierzynski, whose ground-rule double in the eighth Wednesday night drove in Mike Napoli with the game-tying run. “You look at where you are in the standings. And we’re right there, tied with everybody. [The AL East] is kind of jumbled right now. So, we haven’t buried ourselves, which you can do [early in the season].”
Yes, the Sox still have work to do. Yes, the last two wins to get to .500 came against a Reds lineup that has been beaten up by injuries. And, yes, the Sox hit the road (where they actually are above .500, at 7-6) for six games beginning Friday with three in Texas and three in Minnesota.
But there is reason for optimism.
Farrell relies on his starting pitchers to set the course for the team, and the Sox have gotten strong starting pitching performances lately, with a combined 2.42 ERA over the last eight games. They’ve also had some terrific performances from the bullpen, most recently from right-hander Burke Badenhop and lefty Andrew Miller. Closer Koji Uehara, who had had some shaky outings recently, looked like his lights-out self Wednesday, with three ninth-inning strikeouts for his eighth save in eight opportunities. And the Sox offense went 4-for-11 with runners in scoring position Wednesday, a situation that has challenged them for most of the season.
“It’s early,” said Will Middlebrooks, whose eighth-inning single Wednesday produced the go-ahead run after he had been 3 for his last 23 with no RBIs. “We got a good team here and we’ll be just fine.”
The most the Sox have been under .500 is four games, on April 15. Now the goal is to get above .500. The most they’ve been above that elusive perch is by one game, on April 3. That is the only day this season they’ve been above .500.
“It’s a number,” Farrell said. “I didn’t think it would take until May 7 to do it. We’re back to par and ready to go down to Texas.”