Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The 2018 State of the Red Sox: The Midseason Report

The 2018 Boston Red Sox have reached the All Star break and the unofficial midpoint of the season (although they've already played 98 games out of 162). I thought it would be fun during a respite from games and daily recaps to sit back, take stock of where the Red Sox are right now, and assess the team's performance to this point. Please keep in mind that while I am taking as many stats as I can into consideration, I'm also going by what my eyes and brain tell me; because of this, a lot will be my opinion with which you may agree or disagree. As such, I welcome lively debate and discussion either here in the comments section or whichever social media platform you may have reached this post from. With that out of the way, let's begin.

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THE HITTING: 2017 was the first season AO (After Ortiz) and it showed. The team had a power outage and finished dead last in the AL in home runs and struggled to generate a lot of offense for much of the season. Coming in to 2018, the roster wasn't retooled much beyond signing free agent slugger JD Martinez. There were many questions as to how the bats would perform: would Martinez be able to carry over his hot half season from Arizona to Boston? Would the bounceback seasons from Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley that we expected actually happen? Would Andrew Benintendi avoid the sophomore slump and build upon his impressive rookie season? Would Rafael Devers hot half-season translate into a good rookie campaign? Would the Red Sox actually hit a grand slam this season? (They had none in 2017).

I'm happy to report that the answers to most of those questions have trended in the right direction for the Red Sox so far in 2018. I'll tackle them in order.

- JD Martinez has been everything the Red Sox were expecting when they got him, and then some. At the All Star break, he's hitting .328 with 29 home runs and 80 RBI. His OBP is .393 and his OPS is 1.037. He's been a consistent threat in the order and his methodical approach to hitting has rubbed off on his teammates as he's helped elevate their play this season; in short, he's been as much a benefit as a leader as he has been a player. He would easily be considered as the Red Sox player having the best season if it wasn't for the next guy.

- I've just about run out of words to describe the season Mookie Betts is having thus far. We all thought his MVP caliber season in 2016, when he finished second in the AL to Mike Trout, may be his high-water mark. Mookie even said as much after a disappointing 2017 when he admitted that '16 "might be as good as it gets for me." He must have taken those words to heart because what he's doing this season blows away what he did two years ago. He's leading the league in batting average by hitting a whopping .359. He's got 23 HR and 51 RBI, but when looking at those RBI keep in mind that he's hitting out of the leadoff spot; were he hitting out of the 3-5 spots, he'd surely have as many RBI as JD. Mookie's OBP is a gaudy .448 and his OPS is a ridiculous 1.139. He's stolen 18 bases, scored 79 runs, and lest we forget he continues to play Gold Glove defense in right field. Combined with his perpetual smile and infectious personality, Mookie is one of the most exciting players to watch in MLB today. A third Gold Glove and the AL MVP are both within his reach. Regardless, he's already put together one of the greatest half-seasons I've seen in my 30+ years of following baseball and the Red Sox.

- Xander Bogaerts has been a very good player for the Red Sox since he first came up toward the end of the 2013 season, but the knock on his has been that he hasn't taken that next step in his evolution from "very good" to "great." He's typically had good first halves of his seasons before seemingly wearing down over the course of August and September. Last season this was exacerbated by an injury to his hand after being hit by a pitch. His power numbers drastically decreased last season after his All Star season of 2016. The big hope heading into 2018 was that he could repeat his 2016 first half over the course of an entire season. So far, so good. Xander started the season red hot, leading the team in average and home runs before a minor foot injury sidelined him for a few weeks in April/May. Since coming back and getting back into rhythm, he's been one of the team's best and most consistent hitters. He currently sits with a .284 average with 16 home runs (including THREE grand slams!) and 64 RBI. He's also playing much better defense at shortstop. In all, he's having an All Star caliber season and hopefully getting some rest so that he can finish the rest of the season strong. The team will need him if they're going to make any noise in the postseason this year.

- In any other year but 2017 where Aaron Judge wasn't there to hit 51 home runs, Andrew Benintendi would have been the AL Rookie of the Year (he finished second). After his sizzling play upon being called up to the big leagues in July 2016, he put together a great rookie season in '17. Heading into this season, the hope was that he would avoid the sophomore slump and build upon the successful rookie campaign. He got off to a bit of a slow start this year, but since May he has been on a tear and narrowly missed out on being named to his first All Star game. Right now, he's hitting .297 with 14 home runs and 57 RBI. He's swiped 17 stolen bases and scored 68 runs and while his aggressiveness on the basepaths still results in him running into a lot of outs, overall he's having a great second season.

- I'll touch on Bradley and Devers in another section down below.

THE FIELDING: Coming in to the season, the Red Sox were generally considered to have one of the best defensive outfields in the game, while the infield defense left a bit to be desired. While the outfield trio of Betts, Bradley, and Benintendi has definitely lived up to expectations, the infield has been a pleasant surprise. Most people will I'm sure immediately point out that Rafael Devers has more errors (19) than any other third baseman in the league, but I have been impressed with his increased range and his aggressiveness at going after balls. I chalk it up to growing pains and am fine with how he's played as long as he continues to improve. At the other corner infield position, Mitch Moreland has continued to play solid defense at first (remember, he's won a Gold Glove). Xander Bogaerts has been much improved at shortstop and the platoon at second base (especially Brock Holt) has been better than expected in the absence of Dustin Pedroia. As a team, the Sox have committed 46 errors this season for a .987 fielding percentage, both second best in the AL.  

THE STARTING ROTATION: On paper, this looked like a real strength for the team. Chris Sale was coming off one of the greatest seasons for a Red Sox pitcher ever having struck out 308 batters in 2017. Drew Pomeranz somehow won 17 games last year even though he routinely barely made it into the sixth inning. Eduardo Rodriguez had shown glimpses of his talent over the last two seasons and looked to finally be putting it all together. Rick Porcello had a bad year in 2017 but won 22 games and the AL Cy Young award in 2016 and was due for a bounceback. And then there's David Price. A real enigma, he had a very good 2016 season but completely squandered 2017 both to injuries and his behavior. Still, based purely on what they've all done over the past two seasons, it looked as though 2018 was set up to be a great year for the Boston rotation. Reality has been a bit more of a mixed bag. Sale has been his usual brilliant self, entering the break with a 10-4 record, 2.23 ERA, and 188 strikeouts. He'd have even more wins but he's been the victim of a few games where he only gave up one or two runs but didn't receive any run support. Porcello is 11-4 and while his ERA is a bit on the high side at 4.13, he's second on the team with 115 strikeouts and has been the team's second best starter. Rodriguez was having a fantastic first half before he left his final start before the break with an ankle injury. He currently sits at 11-3 with an ERA of 3.44 and 110 strikeouts. And then there's Price. He's 10-6 with an ERA of 4.42 and has struck out 109, but his last few starts heading into the break have been poor and the constant drama and excuses that always swirl around him have made him about the polar opposite of a fan favorite. Still, if the team is going to be successful this season they're going to need him to continue to pitch well and somehow break through his inability to deliver in the postseason (and against the Yankees). 

As for Pomeranz, he's been a disaster. Injured since early in the season, he looked bad before we went down and from all reports has been awful in AAA Pawtucket on rehab assignment. Steven Wright came back from the DL in June and was pitching great out of the fifth rotation spot until his surgically repaired knee caused him to go back on the shelf. Hector Velazquez and Brian Johnson have been ably filling that fifth spot with emergency starts, but with Rodriguez now out for the near future the Red Sox are going to have to rely on these two (or someone else) a bit more than anyone should be comfortable with. This is one area where there is no relief coming from the farm system so the Sox are going to have to patch it together and hope that the trio of Sale, Porcello, and Price can carry them until Rodriguez and either Wright or Pomeranz come back.

THE BULLPEN: My griping about the bullpen will be well known to anyone who's been reading my daily game recaps here. Statistically they're one of the better bullpens in the majors, but apart from Craig Kimbrel at closer, who inspires confidence? The middle relievers who have to bridge from the starters to the closer (because as we all know, starting pitchers almost never go beyond six or seven innings any more) have been the team's Achilles heel for the last few seasons and while it's better this year than it's been in years past, it's not by much. It seems as though right when one or two guys pitch consistently and are ready to take the mantle, they revert back into a pumpkin and set everything back to square one. That's happened with Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes, and Carson Smith (before his bizarre shoulder injury ended his season). Tyler Thornburg is finally back in the majors and in the lineup but has been inconsistent while reacclimating to the game. Alex Cora doesn't seem to trust Brandon Workman unless it's a blowout win or loss. And Heath Hembree...well, the less said, the better. I really hope that either these guys can tighten up and be consistent for the rest of the season or Dave Dombrowski can work some magic at the trade deadline to pick up some middle relief help on the cheap because if there's one area that will be this team's undoing in 2018, it's this one.


Mookie Betts - See above. Quite simply, he's the Red Sox best player and the best player in the AL apart from that Mike Trout fellow who I hear is pretty darn good himself. The Red Sox need to make sure they sign Mookie long term. He's the face and future of the franchise.

JD Martinez - He's been even better than I expected, both as a player and as a clubhouse guy. The fact that he's now saying he's open to restructuring his contract to stay here longer is even better. The Sox need to do what they can do keep him here for a long time as long as it doesn't financially cripple them.

Chris Sale - I was a bit wary of trading for him in the wake of the whole "scissor-gate" thing when he was with the White Sox, but he's been a fantastic competitor on the mound and a great influence in the clubhouse, to say nothing of how dominant he's been. He's the definition of what an ace should be.


Christian Vazquez - His defense hasn't been nearly as good as we were all led to believe this season (the stats say he's actually worse than Sandy Leon) and he's been atrocious at the plate. The Sox pitchers all seem to prefer pitching to Leon, too (Sale and Porcello only throw to Leon). His injury for a broken pinkie finger may be a blessing in disguise for the team as Leon is now the primary catcher. While Sandy is no Johnny Bench, I'll take his solid defense and .242 average over Vazquez' .213.

Drew Pomeranz - He looked awful before his injury and the reports coming out of his rehab starts at AAA Pawtucket aren't good, either. This guy has gobs of talent, but durability and efficiency always seem to be an issue. Last year he put it all together to win 17 games (even though he never went deep in any of those starts). Perhaps that was as good as it's going to get? The Sox need him to be the 2017 version of himself, and fast.

Dustin Pedroia - It's not Pedey's fault, but I think age and injuries, not to mention how hard he's always played the game, may have finally caught up to him. He only lasted three games after coming back from his knee surgery and the word is that he's done for the rest of this year. It wouldn't shock me if he retires after 2018; if he does, it'll be sad but understandable. While I've never thought he was as good a clubhouse guy as a lot of fans did (and I think 2017 showed that once and for all), I always loved the way he comported himself on the field.


The Bullpen - Some nights they look great, other nights they look as inept and bumbling as ever. The only sure thing coming out of there is Craig Kimbrel. The inconsistency has cost the Sox a few games this season, but so far not as many as it did when John Farrell was managing. The team needs one or two of the middle relievers to step up and take the reins as the go-to bridge guys for the rest of the season. I'll be looking for that in the second half.

Jackie Bradley & Rafael Devers - Both of these guys are among my favorite players but have had up and down years. Bradley's defense has been as stellar as ever, but he started off so miserably at the plate that he was benched for a couple of weeks in May/June. He's been on a tear the last month, though, and seems to have turned it around. Devers started off hot with the bat and has been slumping badly since June. His defense has improved but it's still an adventure any time anything is hit to him. I have no doubt both guys will continue to improve and be important parts of the team, but both need to turn it on and trend in the right direction for the remainder of the season.

Sandy Leon - Like Bradley, he started off brutally at the plate but has been hitting really well over the last month. With Vazquez out for 6-8 weeks, he's now the primary catcher again and needs to show that he deserves that (I think he does).


Alex Cora - What a difference from John Farrell. I've written a lot about Cora over the season, but I'll write some more. The team seems to really like playing for him and all seem to respect him; neither of those things were evident in the last couple of years under Farrell. As a tactician, he may not be a Terry Francona or Joe Maddon, but he's a hell of a lot closer to those guys than he is to the bumbling Farrell. If I have one gripe with Cora, it's perhaps his over-reliance on analytics and schedules. He had a tendency earlier in the season to rest guys according to schedule regardless of their performance. This led to some truly strange and/or weak line-ups being trotted out there and also guys sitting who were in the midst of red-hot streaks. The one that always sticks out in my mind is the stretch in June where Benintendi was absolutely tearing the cover off of the ball but ended up sitting a few games in a row because it was "scheduled." In those cases, I don't care if the guy is due for a day or two he's that hot, you keep him in the line-up. These are small quibbles, though, because overall Cora has been great. There's accountability again, there are consequences for things both good and bad, and the team feels like the manager is running things again instead of the tail-wagging-the-dog feel of the Farrell years. Plus, it's hard to complain about a 68-30 record at the All Star break.
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THE VERDICT: How can this first "half" of the season be anything other than a resounding success? The Sox are 68-30, 4.5 games ahead of the Yankees, and have the best record in MLB. They've played the most games of anyone in the league to this point and have 2/3 of their remaining games at Fenway Park. They can play .500 ball the rest of the way and still finish with 100 wins, but no one expects them to only play .500 baseball. The team is fun to watch and the guys seem like they're having a blast playing. They can beat you with their pitching, they can beat you by outslugging you, and they're deep enough so that different guys can beat you on different nights. I was avoiding giving out "grades" during this midseason assessment, but if I were do so it couldn't be anything other than an A+. Are there areas where they could improve? Of course (looking at you, bullpen). But compared to most other teams, the Red Sox flaws are minor and need tweaks more than a complete overhaul. I'm still a bit nervous about how this team will fare in the postseason given their flameouts the last two years, but I'm confident this is the group and manager to get over that hump. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy the rest of the season when play resumes on Friday. It's going to be a fun race to the finish line, that's for sure.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Game 98: Toronto Blue Jays at Red Sox (July 15, 2018)

Another hot and humid day, another day to stay inside the cool house and watch the Sox. I was able to get outside a little bit this morning when it was overcast and cool to help my son practice pitching. I just got a new catcher's mitt this past week after not having one for years and it has felt so good to help him with his pitching while having a proper mitt. I was a catcher all the years I played ball and it's felt so good getting back into it again. Once it got too hot, though, it was the perfect Sunday to run some errands and relax to watch this final game of the series before the All Star break.

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If there was one game I'd expect the Sox to lose, it would be this one. Brian Johnson returned from the DL to take the mound for Boston. I honestly wasn't expecting too much but will say that I was pleasantly surprised at what we got. He only went 4.2 innings and gave up two runs, but he did an adequate job in keeping the game close which is all you can ask for in a situation like this. Yesterday's hero Xander Bogaerts belted his 16th home run of the season, a solo shot, in the bottom of the first to give the Sox the early lead. Brock Holt followed up with a line drive RBI single to make it 2-0 and it looked like the Sox were on their way. The Jays got both runs back in the third on Teoscar Hernandez' two run homer but the Boston bullpen clamped down and kept Toronto off the board the rest of the way. In the fifth, Jackie Bradley doubled to drive in Sandy Leon and then Xander drove in another run (Bradley) on a fielder's choice. The Sox got some insurance in the sixth when Holt drove in another run with a single to right field. The 5-2 margin was plenty as five Red Sox pitchers out of the bullpen shut down Toronto culminating with Craig Kimbrel picking up his 30th save of the season.

At the plate, the Sox were actually outhit 8-6 in this game, but they made the ones they got count. Mookie Betts shockingly went hitless as did JD Martinez. Instead, the Sox got contributions from Xander, Holt, Leon, and Bradley; these four accounted for every Red Sox hit. While that may seem concerning, the way I look at it this team is so deep and talented that they can survive off days from the heavy lifters in the order. What is even more encouraging is that Jackie Bradley has been hitting great the last month or so and is now at .210 for the season. If he can keep this up and get his average up to around .230-.240 by the end of the season, this lineup will be truly fearsome.

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With the Yankees losing to Cleveland the Red Sox enter the All Star break having won 12 of 13 and with a 4.5 game lead in the AL East. They now have four days off the enjoy some rest and relaxation before starting the stretch run on Friday. Having played 98 games, they'll only have 64 left the rest of the way (and two-thirds of those will be at home). With a 68-30 record, the Sox could play .500 baseball the rest of the way and still finish with 100 wins; however, I dare you to find anyone who thinks they're only going to play .500 ball between now and October. For now, let's join the Sox in enjoying a break before the season rounds toward home. I'm planning on doing a first half recap in the next few days, so stay tuned for that as we bask in the glow of rooting for the best team in MLB.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Game 97: Toronto Blue Jays at Red Sox (July 14, 2018)

After the previous game's debacle I really wanted to see a bounceback performance from the Red Sox in this third game of the series. Eduardo Rodriguez got the start and had been throwing the ball really well lately so I was hoping that would translate into a win to help move on from the end of the streak last night. It was a hot and humid summer day, perfect for staying inside in the air conditioning and watching the game so that's just what we did. My wife spent the afternoon baking cookies with a couple of our kids while I sat on the couch with two of my daughters to watch the Sox.

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JD Martinez got things off to a great start with his 29th home run of the season in the bottom of the fourth, a solo shot to put the Sox up 1-0. The way Rodriguez had been throwing the ball it seemed like that might be enough, but in the sixth inning things got a little scary. Rodriguez was running to cover first on a grounder and ended up colliding with the runner. He seemed to have tweaked his plant ankle and leg on the landing and had to leave the game. It was a real shame as he had been pitching great and had kept his pitch count down, only throwing 67 (47 of them for strikes). In his 5.1 innings of work he struck out five without walking any and only had given up four hits. It ended up hurting the Sox since the bullpen manged to give up runs to Toronto in the seventh (Joe Kelly, what happened?!). Kendrys Morales scored on a fielder's choice to tie the game followed by a Lourdes Guriel RBI single to put the Jays up 2-1. The Sox had a great chance in the eighth to tie the game when Mookie Betts made it to third base with one out, but they couldn't capitalize and so went into the bottom of the ninth down a run. Jackie Bradley made sure that missed opportunity wouldn't linger in the memory when his double drove in Xander Bogaerts (who himself had doubled to lead off the inning). Boston couldn't push across the winning run, though, and the game went into extra innings knotted at two. The major drama came in the bottom of the tenth. Mookie Betts led off the inning and hit a single. The Sox then executed a perfect hit and run with Brock Holt at the plate to put runners on the corners. With one out, the Jays intentionally walked JD to load the bases for Xander. At this point, all he needed to do was loft a deep fly ball to the outfield to win the game on a sacrifice fly; instead, he crushed a pitch to dead center field for a dramatic walk-off grand slam. Incredibly, that was his third grand slam of the season (and the team's seventh overall). The crowd went crazy at Fenway Park and so did we in my living room!

Every Red Sox hitter had at least a hit except for Sandy Leon and once again Mookie was a one-man wrecking crew. He went 3-4 and raised his average to a sizzling .362; the way he's been hitting this season, maybe he'll make a run at .400. It may seem crazy but the highest batting average for a right handed hitter in the post-WWII era was Nomar's .372 in 2000...Mookie has a real shot at breaking that. Xander went 2-5 and scored two runs, but it was the four RBI he drove in with a single swing of the bat that were his biggest contributions. The Red Sox are an incredible 67-30 after this game and yet still only 3.5 games ahead in the division because the Yankees are winning at almost an equivalent clip. Brian Johnson will be back from the DL and getting the spot-start for the series finale. Let's get a win and have some nice momentum heading into the All Star break, shall we?

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Game 96: Toronto Blue Jays at Red Sox (July 13, 2018)

It had to end eventually, didn't it? I just didn't think it would be at the hands of Rick Porcello. David Price? Sure. Whoever is filling the fifth rotation spot? Absolutely. But Porcello? I can only chalk this one up to his being due for a bad start after his predominantly stellar season thus far. I sat down on the couch with my oldest daughter after dinner to watch the game and we ended up watching a rollercoaster of excitement until it got away from the Sox at the end.

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The Sox scored first when Mookie Betts scored from third on a throwing error on a ball hit by JD Martinez. Mookie had led off the game with a triple so it was a quick strike to put the Sox up 1-0. Seeing as how the Blue Jays had a recent call-up pitching and that the Red Sox had only lost four of the games this season when they scored first, it seemed a foregone conclusion that it would soon be eleven straight wins. Baseball is a funny game, though, and the Blue Jays must have missed the memo. Kevin Pillar doubled to bring in a run in the very next inning to tie the game. A sacrifice fly and a single by the next two batters put Toronto up 3-1. Porcello hadn't looked sharp all game and his pitches just didn't have the movement they usually do. Walks were also hurting him...this is a guy who averages a little less than three walks per game but had already reached that amount in the first couple of innings. The Sox came storming back in the bottom of the inning starting with Jackie Bradley's RBI single. Mookie was up next and missed a home run by about six inches, settling for his second triple of the game while driving in two to put Boston back in front 4-3. Brock Holt drove Mookie in, stole second, and advanced to third on an overthrow. That was a huge sequence as Xander Bogaerts singled to drive him in and make it 6-3. At that point, I was sure the Sox had this game in the bag. We scored one in the first, Toronto got three in the second, we scored over, right? To their credit, the Jays didn't pack it in and kept fighting. The third inning ended up being the one that did the Sox in as Toronto scored five of their own. Pillar continued to hurt the Sox with a two-RBI double after Justin Smoak's solo homer. At this point Porcello should've been pulled but for whatever reason Alex Cora left him in the game. Toronto made him pay when Dwight Smith smacked a two run homer to make it 8-6 Jays. Mitch Moreland drove JD in with a single in the top of the fourth and it looked like it was going to be one of those back-and-forth games but both teams quieted down for a while after that. Toronto made sure the game was out of reach starting in the eighth when they scored three runs; they followed it up in the ninth with two more on another Smoak home run. Joe Kelly and Robby Scott were the bullpen culprits in those last two innings and this ended up being a game to forget as the Sox went down 13-7. Streak over.

Porcello had a brutal night, giving up eight runs on seven hits in only two innings of work. He struck out two but walked four which is highly unlike him. The bright spots for Red Sox pitching were the innings put in by Hector Velazquez, Ryan Brasier, and Tyler Thornburg. This was Thornburg's first Red Sox appearance where he looked like the guy we've been expecting since we traded for him two years ago. At the plate, Mookie continued to be otherworldly going 3-4 with two triples and a single, a walk, two RBI, and two runs scored. His average is now up to .357 and there's no way anyone can say he isn't right there with Mike Trout in the conversation for AL MVP. Everyone Sox batter had a hit in this game except for Sandy Leon but it doesn't matter how many runs you score if your pitching can't keep the other team from scoring more. At least there was no damage done in the standings as the Indians beat the Yankees last night; our lead remained at 3.5 games. I'm looking for a bounce back today with Eduardo Rodriguez on the mound. A couple of wins (or at least a series win) heading into the All Star break would be some nice momentum to have.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Game 95: Toronto Blue Jays at Red Sox (July 12, 2018)

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If any game was going to stop the Red Sox winning streak, I had predicted it'd be this one. It was a new series against a Toronto team that always plays them tough and we had David Price on the mound. Even irrespective of his two shaky starts prior to this game, there's just something about the guy that doesn't inspire confidence at all. After taking my oldest daughter to her practice, she and I were both excited to watch the game and see if the Sox could keep their streak going when we got home.

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When Price gave up a two run homer in the first inning to Teoscar Hernandez, it seemed as though my concerns were fully realized. He'd collapsed against the Yankees, pitched poorly against the doormat Royals, and was now going to get roughed up by the Blue Jays. Right? Well, in a way he hasn't really done in his Boston tenure, Price buckled down and ended up quieting the Jays down for most of the night. His final line was 6.2 innings pitched with eight strikeouts and no walks. On its own that's a great line although he did give up three runs on six hits (two of the home runs) and his ERA is a mediocre 4.42. Still, it ended up being good enough for him to earn his tenth win of the season. But it was how the Sox got there that ended up being the most thrilling part of this game. The Sox got a run back in the bottom of the fourth when Sandy Leon drove Xander Bogaerts in on a fielder's choice. The epic event of the night was later in the inning: with the bases loaded, Mookie Betts battled and battled through a thirteen pitch at bat before launching a ball over the Green Monster for a grand slam. He knew it right away, too, as he was pumped the second he left the batter's box. It was absolutely electric to witness on my TV...I can only imagine how incredible that must've been in person at Fenway Park. I've been in that ballpark for quite a few moments like that myself and I can tell you, there's nothing like it. With that single swing of the bat, Mookie brought the Sox back and put them ahead 5-2. The Jays wouldn't go away quietly, though. Kendrys Morales hit the Jays' second homer off of Price in this game, a solo shot in the seventh. But who came to the rescue again in the bottom of the inning? If you said Mookie, you're right. He drove Jackie Bradley in with an RBI single to make it 6-3 Boston. It got a little dicey in the eighth when Matt Barnes allowed a single followed by a double that scored a run for Toronto. The play itself was a bit strange as a fan reached far over the fence to catch a ball that Jackie Bradley would have been able to make a play on. The umpires allowed the runner to score from first and gave Justin Smoak (the hitter) a double while the fan was tossed. With one out, a runner in scoring position, and the tying run at the plate Matt Barnes came up with two huge strikeouts to get out of the jam and preserve the two run lead. That was all Craig Kimbrel needed as he came in to pick up save number 29 and close out the game.

Getting back to the offense, this game was all about the incredible Mookie Betts. He went 2-4 with five RBI and pushed his average up to .352. Jackie Bradley had a 2-2 night himself and is now hitting .208. Overall, the offense had a decent night although they did get outhit by the Jays 11-8. Still, it's not the number of hits but how many runs you drive in with them. It only took Mookie two hits to drive in five, after all. The one bit of bad news in this game was that Steve Pearce left early after taking a fastball to the shins. That pushed Blake Swihart into subbing at first base and he did a good job, especially at the plate. He went 1-3 and has his average over .200 now. We'll be seeing a lot more of him with Vazquez out and especially now if Pearce is out for any significant amount of time.

With this tenth straight win the Sox pushed their record to an incredible 66-29. You may remember a week or two ago that I mentioned how it'd be nice to see the Sox sweep through this final week of games heading into the break. You may also remember how I said it probably wouldn't happen. I'm happy to say that they just might prove me wrong at this point. Toward the end of this game my daughter and I checked the score of the Yankees game and saw they were tied with Cleveland. We were hoping the Indians would help us out, but unfortunately the Yankees came back to win so the Sox lead in the AL East remained at 3.5 games. Still, this is one of the most thrilling and exciting Red Sox teams I can remember in a long time. The fact that they're winning games in different fashions and having fun doing it makes it even more interesting and exciting to watch as a fan. I don't want to get ahead of myself, but with Rick Porcello starting in the next game, do I dare look forward to eleven straight? We shall see...

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Game 94: Texas Rangers at Red Sox (July 11, 2018)

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It was a beautiful night last night, both in terms of the weather and the Red Sox game. After dinner I took my son to the cages to get some swings in and have him practice pitching (as an aside, it felt damn good to be a catcher again!). After that, we headed home and were able to watch the Sox as they looked to win their ninth straight and sweep their third series in a row. With Chris Sale on the mound against Bartolo Colon (I was a high school senior when he made his debut, that's how long he's been around), the Sox looked to be set up nicely to pick up the sweep, especially with how dominant they've been the final game of a series this season.

As they've been doing lately, the Sox got on the scoreboard early when Eduardo Nunez reached on a fielding error by Rougned Odor which allowed Xander Bogaerts to score. It was 1-0 Boston and it stayed that way for quite a while. With Sale pitching, it might have been enough but I was nervous as it's always tough to win those one run games no matter who you're playing. JD Martinez must have heard what I was thinking because he smacked a double to left that drove in Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi in the bottom of the fifth to give the Sox a bit of breathing room and a three run cushion. Xander followed that up by hitting a triple to drive JD in and make it 4-0 Boston. It was his second triple in as many games which is not an easy thing to do! He's really been having a great season and flying under the radar in the American League. The big test will be to see if he can keep it up after the All Star break because he's typically been hot in the first half before flagging badly in the second half (and yes, I know last season his hand was hurt in the second half, but go back to 2016 for a prime example of what I mean). It ended up being a good thing they had the 4-0 lead because once the bullpen came in, Texas scored some runs. First, Nomar Mazara drove one in in the eighth inning with a single off of Heath Hembree (gee, what a surprise), and then Kimbrel walked in a run (an inherited runner, but still ugly) after coming in and inheriting the mess Hembree left. Kimbrel pitched a clean ninth inning to pick up his 28th save and secure the win for the Sox.

Chris Sale was dominant yet fact, it's getting to be so routine that I hope we Red Sox fans don't start taking it for granted. He went seven innings and struck twelve batters out while only walking one and allowing no runs. It lowered his ERA to 2.23 and was his tenth win of the season...imagine how many more he'd have if he'd gotten even a modicum of run support in a handful of his other starts. Heath Hembree was, unfortunately, Heath Hembree: the guy only pitched two thirds of an inning and gave up three hits and two runs. Why they keep going to him in anything other than a blowout win or loss (the Brandon Workman treatment) is beyond me. I'd rather see Joe Kelly or Matt Barnes in there any day of the week and neither of those guys inspires 100% confidence either (but they're better than Hembree!).

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The incredible Mookie Betts pushed his average up to .350 with a 2-3 night and Benintendi got his average over .300 with a 2-4 night of his own. How he didn't make the All Star game, I don't understand. The only thing I can think of is that six Red Sox All Stars would have been more than MLB fan voters wanted to see. Rounding out the top hitting performances of the night, Xander went 3-4 and has his average approaching the .300, sitting currently at .283. All in all it was a great night for the Sox; even with the Yankees finally managing to beat Baltimore (hah!) the division lead remained at 3.5 games. The final series of the first half of the season begins tonight against Toronto: four games that are ripe for the picking before the Sox get some much deserved time off. Having played the most games of any team in the first half of the season (as well as the most road games), Boston should have a decided advantage in the second half in terms of the schedule and the home/road split. It's going to be a fun ride, but first they need to take care of business against the Blue Jays.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Game 93: Texas Rangers at Red Sox (July 10, 2018)

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If there was one game in this series that the Red Sox were going to lose, it was going to be this one. With the fifth spot in the rotation a revolving door since both Drew Pomeranz and Steven Wright went down with injuries, it's typically been a spot-start-and-then-turn-it-over-to-the-bullpen type of game. For this second game against Texas, it was Hector Velazquez' turn to fill in. I was supposed to drive my oldest daughter to her two and a half hour travel team practice, but it was cancelled at the last minute so after our family ate dinner I was able to sit down and watch the game. 

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When Texas scored first off of Rougned Odor's solo homer in the second inning, I thought my fears may have been confirmed, but the combination of Boston's offensive firepower and Texas' shaky pitching showed me there was nothing to worry about. Jackie Bradly's RBI double in the third tied the game and a couple of batters later, Andrew Benintendi drove him in for the lead. The Sox added more that inning when Mitch Moreland's single drove Benintendi in and Xander Bogaerts triple drove in two more. Just like that, the Sox were up 5-1 and it never felt in doubt after that. The Rangers added a run in the fourth on a fielder's choice, but Boston added one in the bottom of the fifth on a Moreland sacrifice fly. Texas made it interesting in the sixth when Joey Gallo's double drove in two to make it 6-4 Red Sox, but Jackie doubled again in the bottom of the inning to drive in Blake Swihart (who surprisingly started at catcher). Benintendi's double in the seventh drove in Mookie Betts and made it 8-4 which was how the game ended. The Sox outhit the Rangers 12-7 and every batter had at least a hit except for Rafael Devers. Mookie, Benintendi, Bradley, and even Swihart all went 2-4 and the game showed the relentless attack this team has when the whole order is clicking like they're capable of.

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As for the pitching in this one, it was ugly but it got the job done. Velazquez only went three innings before Alex Cora turned it over to the bullpen and it took five more pitchers to wrap up the win (don't you just love modern baseball?). Only Jalen Beeks pitched more than an inning (he went 2.1); everyone after him pitched an inning or less. It was Beeks who gave up the most runs to Texas with three scored off of him, but on a night where the bats were hot and there was plenty of run support they were able to withstand it. There were some sterling defensive plays in this game, too, perhaps none as important as Mookie robbing a sure two-run home run right at the wall in the fifth inning. Had Nomar Mazara's hit gone over the fence, it would have been 5-4 Red Sox and the entire complexion of the game may have changed.

The win put Boston's record at an incredible 64-29 and was their eighth win in a row. With the Yankees losing in extra innings to Baltimore (when I was sure they were going to win) the Red Sox opened up a 3.5 game lead in the AL East. While no lead will feel safe against the Yankees this season, I'm all for increasing it by whatever means possible. With Chris Sale going up against the ageless Bartolo Colon in the series finale, the Sox are in great position to sweep their third series in a row before heading into the last set of games against Toronto before the All-Star break. I keep telling myself that this team needs to play this way in the postseason before I'll truly believe in them, but when they're this good and this fun to watch I'm going to just enjoy the journey of the regular season.