The Boston Red Sox were done this time last week. Going into the All-Star break in the basement of the American League, we were setting up the tables and listing the prices for the garage sale that was about to take place on the Red Sox roster.
But when you play in a bad league and an even worse division, nothing can be counted out. The merest of hot streaks can get you back into it. It’s just what has happened to Boston over the past two weeks.
After losing 51 of their 90 games of the 2014 season, the Sox have now won 7-of-8. While they remain tied for last place in the AL East, they trail the Baltimore Orioles by just 7.5 games for the division lead, a deficit that was 10.5 when they dropped to 39-51 with an 8-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox.
A 7.5 game deficit with three teams to leapfrog is no molehill, but it’s not climbing Mount Everest either. Especially when you consider the circumstances.
First and foremost, the division stinks.
Baltimore has a middling pitching staff that lacks an ace, and to add insult to injury, lost Matt Weiters earlier in the season to an elbow injury. The Toronto Blue Jays‘ pitching is even more suspect, and they are currently missing Edwin Encarnacion, who was one of the most productive bats in baseball in the first half. The New York Yankees have lost Masahiro Tanaka, who was the best pitcher in baseball for much of the season’s first half. The Tampa Bay Rays, a team that prides itself on pitching, is playing without key arms Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson.
The Red Sox are nothing to right home about either, made evident by their sub-.500 record, but nobody matches their pitching. Jon Lester is one of the top five starting pitchers in baseball. John Lackey has been a very good second starter. Clay Buchholz has been very good since returning from the disabled list in June. Rubby De La Rosa and Brandon Workman have been the lead pieces of a strong youth movement that has injected energy into the clubhouse.
Meanwhile, the bullpen has been among the best in baseball. Ben Cherington likely has tenfold more pages of texts exchanged between GMs inquiring about Koji Uehara, Andrew Miller and Burke Badenhop than Bill Belichick has with Aaron Hernandez.
Put a little life on the lineup card, this team is better than any of their fellow division lightweights.
There has been signs of life from what was the worst offense in the American League through its first 90 games. Over the last eight games, the Red Sox bats have scored 43 runs while hitting .291 as a team. An offense that has got on base at a good clip all year, Boston is now moving over on the base paths at an even better clip.
If the season was to restart today — everyone record reverting to 0-0 — the Red Sox roster as constituted would likely be the overwhelming favorite to win the division.
Unfortunately, the first 16 weeks of the season will still count, and the Red Sox will need to make up 7.5 games on Baltimore in order to repeat as division champs for the first time since baseball adopted the division format in 1969.
What’s the best way of making up ground in the division? Playing teams in your division.
Of the final 64 games the Red Sox play, 38 of them will be against the AL East. Monday night starts a 13-game stretch in which they face Toronto, Tampa Bay and Toronto again. With the Red Sox playing their best baseball of 2014, and their other four division rivals flawed and/or decimated, the divisional competition gives them an opportunity to do some serious damage.
Unfortunately, their first 90 games did a great deal of damage to their 2014 playoff hopes.
It’s a big hole to climb out of, but it’s more than feasible. To what should be their benefit, the cards are very much in Boston’s favor.
It’s just a matter of digging out.