The Red Sox have been one of the surprise teams in baseball for the first three months, yet there are signs that the run may be nearing an end. But — with a week of showdowns against the Rays and Yankees looming — is that really true? (Screenshot from You Tube)
It’s been three months now and it’s hard to keep calling them a fluke. The Red Sox are back in first place in the A.L. East (albeit by a mere half-game) and they’re within .009 percentage points of having the best record in the league. Everyone fretted about the long stretch of games they faced from May 25 to June 10 against teams that qualified for the playoffs in 2020 but they more than held their own, going 9-6. Then there was the marathon challenge of having to play on 17 consecutive days and yet they easily came through that as well, to the tune of a 10-7 record. These Sox have survived every trial so far, and what’s happened to make you think that won’t continue?
Well . . .
It just feels different now, don’t you think? This may be the main reason . . .
. . . but it’s more than that. Forget the debate over whether baseball’s crackdown on pitchers putting illegal substances on the ball is the cause of that ugly 6.34 smudge. There are any number of other potential reasons we can cite. (Regression to the norm by guys who’d been pitching over their heads, warmer weather, tougher opposition, just a routine slump.) But there’s also the ongoing search for a leadoff hitter who can actually get on base, the question of how long four productive bats (if Christian Arroyo is out for any length of time) can continue to carry five silent ones, the realization that the schedule isn’t getting easier. (Three in Tampa Bay, three at home against the suddenly-showing-signs-of-life Yankees, and — after four more with the Royals — a West Coast road trip. And don’t forget, they just lost two out of three to KC.)
We talked earlier this year about run differential and how it’s a good barometer of a team’s actual talent level. At +34, the Red Sox’ winning percentage should actually be .545 and not .597. They should be 39-33 (an 88-win pace over 162 games), not 43-29.
The cracks in this team’s foundation, it appears, are showing. And spreading. It’s been a fun ride to this point, but is the coach turning back into a pumpkin? A road showdown with the Rays may be coming at the worse possible time.
But . . . it’s been three months. It’s hard to keep calling them a fluke. Right?
So I asked myself: What does it mean that they’ve gotten this far and are still in first place? How often have they been here, and what does it bode for the future?
A constant refrain you hear is that modern Red Sox history began in 1967, making that a good place to start. (Fifty-four years is a pretty good sample size.) Since ’67 . . .
— The Red Sox on June 21 have been in first place 17 times.
— In 8 of those 17 years (2013, 2009, 2008, 2007, 1999, 1995, 1986 and 1975) they went on to at least make the postseason.
— In the nine years they were in first but didn’t make it (2011, ’06, ’02, ’01, ’91, ’82, ’78, ’77 and ’74), their average lead was a little over three games. That, however, is skewed by the seven-game advantage they held in (ahem) 1978.
— And in the six other seasons they made the postseason but weren’t in first place on June 21 (2018, 2004, 1998, 1990, 1988 and 1967) they had an average deficit of about five games.
What does that tell us about 2021?
Well, for one thing, it’s that being in first at this stage of the year is no guarantee of anything. (But who didn’t know that?) But I also didn’t see what I expected to see at least once or twice — a surprise team that broke fast from the gate and then ran of gas, coasting to the finish line in third or fourth (or lower).
Which is what we fear about this year’s Sox, in other words.
Fact is, all the teams that were in first place on June 21 were pretty good. Not championship-caliber necessarily, but not frauds. If 88 victories is this team’s ceiling — and many of us would have been in heaven with 88 wins not very long ago — be honest. It would be hard to be disappointed.
My friend Rob Bradford pointed out that June 21, 2018 is the day the Red Sox began taking control of the division en route to their World Series championship. (They were in second place, two games behind that day.) That, I don’t think is in the cards this time around.
But it’s been three months now and it’s hard to keep calling them a fluke. No matter how unsettled things look now, that’s still true.
At the risk of sounding as old as I actually am . . . what’s with this? (And I don’t mean the laundry-basket ride, which I kind of like; I mean the laundry they’re wearing.)
And this? (Again, not Devers’ walkoff hit; what he had on when he walked it off.)
These are supposed to be alternate uniforms. Right?? Alternate. So how is it that — every night, it seems — they’re either wearing softball red or batting-practice blue?
As one of baseball’s most storied franchises, the Red Sox have a classic uniform. . . both home and road. And yet they come out almost every night looking like they just got up for breakfast.
My understanding is that the uniform selection is the choice of that game’s starting pitcher. (Or at least it was a few years ago; who knows how they do it now.) And I also understand management loves putting as many purchasing options as possible in front of the fans, a lot of whom just have to have all the garb. So I know these shirts aren’t going away.
But come on. How about someone putting a stop to this? These are the Red Sox and they should look like the Red Sox, not some expansion team with no history or tradition. They used to wear the alternates on Friday nights — red at home, blue on the road — and that’s fine. Maybe break them out for day games sometime. But not every bloody time they take the field.
I know, I know . . .
I’ll stop now.
After we posted the story of the changes in the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry, I was approached by a friend — someone older, who’s followed the Sox longer than me — for whom that piece brought back a great memory.
“Remember 1954?” he asked me. (I do, but not first-hand; I was born a year later.) “We knocked them out that year, too. We swept them and ended their chances of winning the pennant.”
I was intrigued. All I really knew about the 1954 season was a) Cleveland won a then-record 111 games and snapped the Yankees’ string of five consecutive pennants (and World Series championships), b) the Yankees finished second — by eight games — despite winning 103 themselves, and c) the Red Sox were nowhere (they finished an even-worse-than-I-thought 69-85). But my friend said knocking out the Yankees in ’54 was one of the biggest joys of his Red Sox fandom, so I was determined to find out more.
The Yankees came to Boston in mid-August in second place, 2 1/2 games behind Cleveland. And sure enough:
— Friday, August 20: Red Sox 4, Yankees 3. Yanks now 3 1/2 back.
— Saturday, August 21: Red Sox 10, Yankees 9 in 12 innings. (More on this remarkable game in a moment.) Yanks now 4 1/2 back.
— Sunday, August 22: Red Sox 10, Yankees 2. Yanks now 5 1/2 back.
New York never recovered. The Yankees were unable to get any close than 3 1/2 behind the rest of the way, and Cleveland put them out of their misery with a doubleheader sweep on September 12 before 84,587 at Municipal Stadium — the Mistake By The Lake — that increased the lead to 8 1/2. The Indians clinched the pennant just three days later.
Now. Back to August 21 . . .
The Red Sox came from behind three times — from the ninth inning on — to win that game. They trailed 6-5 in the bottom of the ninth, but Harry Agganis (who, tragically, would be dead in a year) drove in the tying run with a two-out triple. The Yankees’ two runs in the top of the 10th were answered by catcher Sammy White, who hit a two-run homer with no outs. Finally, after the Yankees had pushed ahead again with a run in the top of the 12th and brought in Hall of Fame starter Whitey Ford to close things out, a two-out, two-run single by Don Lenhardt won the game for Boston.
And here my only memory of Lenhardt was as Eddie Kasko’s first-base coach in the early 1970s:
I didn’t know anything about that August 21 game . . . but I should have. Because this April, the Red Sox did it again — three comebacks from the ninth inning on — for the first time since that summer Saturday 67 years ago. Remember?
Against Tampa Bay, no less.
It’s not as big a deal, I know. It was April. These are the Rays, not the Yankees. Then there’s that runner-on-second-with-no-outs business, which makes it (a lot) easier to score in extra innings.
But that 1954 game shouldn’t get lost in the mists of time. Thanks, Don, for opening my eyes to it.
Art Martone wrote a Red Sox-based Internet baseball column for projo.com, for which he was named Best Sports Columnist by Boston Magazine in 1998. He also wrote about baseball for the Providence Journal and has had Red Sox material published in several baseball-only publications. He worked at the Journal from 1974 to 2009 and was Sports Editor from 2000 until leaving in 2009 to become Managing Editor of NBC Sports Boston’s Web site. He remained there until his retirement in 2019.