LOS ANGELES — They are pushing forward. Trying hard to break this .500-or-so trap they’ve been in for five weeks. The Red Sox are 18-16 since the All-Star break and 8-10 over their last 18 games after Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Dodgers.
The Red Sox have arguably been the most consistent team in baseball. They have not lost more than three straight games all year yet they have to battle with every ounce of energy to stay in first place in the American League East because Tampa Bay refuses to go away.
This correspondent has continually harped on the fact that the key for this team’s playoff success will be whether Clay Buchholz returns to the form that produced a 9-0 record and 1.71 ERA. Imagine where the Red Sox might be right now if Buchholz had continued that type of production since he pitched his last game on June 8? They would likely have a comfortable lead in the division.
So they have plugged along, trying to keep their heads above water.
Jon Lester offers occasional hope that the Red Sox will have another shutdown-type starter besides Buchholz when the playoffs roll around. He had a very solid 7⅓-inning, one-run performance Saturday against the Dodgers on a pristine Southern California afternoon against the hottest team in baseball.
As Red Sox assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez pointed out before the game, “We’re resilient. We may lose a game or two and things don’t look so good, but we somehow find a way to put that in the past and come back and win a game. That’s what we’ve done all season.”
And that’s precisely what they did on Saturday. They had lost, 2-0, to the Dodgers Friday night, victimized by a good pitching performance by Ricky Nolasco. John Lackey’s only mistake was the difference in the game — a two-run homer by Hanley Ramirez.
After being shut out for the 10th time this season, the Red Sox scored four runs in the first inning off a very tough lefthander, Hyun-Jin Ryu, including a three-run homer by Jonny Gomes. The Red Sox didn’t have to look back because Lester took care of the rest.
This makes very good back-to-back performances by Lester and three straight if you take away the throwing yips he had against Toronto Aug. 14, his two errors proving costly in a 4-3 loss. Good thing for the Red Sox that teams have not bunted or made Lester make the throw to first he dreads. The circumstances have not dictated that because Lester has been pretty dominant lately.
If they are to break out of this .500 existence, the Sox will need more performances such as those by Lackey and Lester in this series. Great pitching performances can easily lift a team out of a malaise and into a strong streak. Just ask the Dodgers, who are 46-11 over their last 57 games.
The Red Sox entered Saturday with the fourth-best record in the AL behind Detroit (75-53), Texas (75-53), and Tampa Bay (73-53). That’s how tight things are right now. These records will determine whether the Sox win the division or are forced into a one-game wild-card playoff — or whether they have home-field advantage.
If they win the division they will have earned it. They have a tough schedule the rest of the way — nine games against the Orioles, who always play them tough, and seven more against the Yankees, who have found new life. They have to play at St. Petersburg against the Rays three more times. They host the Tigers for three more games at Fenway. They have to end the season in Baltimore with three games.
Maybe they never exit this .500 malaise this year and that ends up being good enough to make the playoffs.
But they can’t look at it that way. They have to go on a run, prove they’re better than the rest of the pack. That would build confidence the remainder of the way.
“The way I look at it,” said David Ross, who usually has a good handle on these topics, “the Yankees have made their run and are playing good baseball, Tampa Bay made their run. I don’t think we’ve played our best baseball yet and when we do play our best baseball, it’s over.
“The one thing we have been is consistent and that’s the one thing you’re looking for when the season starts is to be very consistent all season long. And when we get our pitching and our hitting clicking, we’re going to run away with it. Hopefully that happens in the last month and carries through into the postseason.
“The fact we haven’t lost more than three games in a row tells you a lot about our team. It tells you our pitching is good, for one, and secondly, it tells you that we have a bunch of hard-working guys who work through things quickly.”
If the Red Sox do go on a run, they would leave everyone in the dust. But can anyone really see that run from where they are right now? The Sox haven’t been a streaky team. They have won seven straight games, but that came in April when they also had a five-game winning streak. They have had two five-game winning streaks and one four-game winning streak since then.
“It’s been a grind,” Dustin Pedroia said. “We haven’t had the best schedule. A lot of time on the road. It’s been a little crazy.”
And September will be even crazier with a lot of divisional games.
They need a streak. They need a break from the .500 malaise.