The 2021 season was roughly 48 hours and fewer than 21 innings old when the Red Sox discovered their season-opening script had already been crumpled.
The team came out of spring training emboldened, insistent it would be significantly better than its 2020 predecessor. Manager Alex Cora spoke of the keys to make that case: Start quickly, play well at home, play well against the division.
Yet at 2:13 p.m. Sunday — exactly 48 hours after Nate Eovaldi had fired the first pitch of the season — a 10th Orioles run crossed the plate in the top of the third inning of an eventual 11-3 drubbing. As the Red Sox stared down the inevitability of their brooming at the hands of the only AL East team projected to finish behind them, the team recognized its failure to check a single box on the season-opening to-do list.
“We’re not proud of what happened this weekend,” Cora said. “We had urgency. We just got beat.”
The faceplant against the Orioles dropped the Sox to 0-3 out of the gate for the 20th time in franchise history. Though there are 159 games remaining, such a poor start bodes ill. In the wild card era, 15 of 83 teams (18 percent) that started 0-3 reached the playoffs. None of the 19 previous Red Sox teams that started 0-3 — something that happened most recently in the brutal 2012 season of Bobby Valentine — has qualified for the postseason.
Obviously, there’s an element of distortion at work when a team lays a season-opening (Easter) egg. Every team has a bad three-game series over the course of a year, but it usually comes with the benefit of the broader context of the season. That’s not the case for this year’s Red Sox.
“It’s three games in a season,” observed Garrett Richards, who allowed six runs on seven hits and two walks in his inglorious Sox debut. “It’s kind of an early panic button.”
Yet while the team recognizes the ridiculousness of panic, it’s hard even for those in the Red Sox dugout to ignore the discomfort engendered by a poor start — and the proximity to the dirt of the word “Boston” on the giant scoreboard in left field.
“You look at the scoreboard, you look at the standings, there’s no wins,” Cora said. “We know where we’re at.”
Cora frequently repeated the “We know where we’re at” mantra in the second half of the disappointing 2019 campaign — once he abandoned the misplaced faith of a different refrain (“We’ll be fine”) heard throughout the first half of that year.
(Narrator: “They would not be fine.”)
On the bright side, that Cora has already turned to a more direct assessment should help the team avoid complacency in the wake of its poor start. At the same time, this Red Sox group doesn’t have a recent championship to allow it to shrug off a dismal season-opening weekend as an aberration.
In every facet of the game, the team disappointed against the Orioles. It played poor defense in the first two games, endured an atrocious pitching performance in the third game, and showed a poor offensive approach in all three. (The Red Sox scored five runs against the Orioles in the series, the fewest the team has scored through three games since 2001.)
Still, more disconcerting for the Sox than the particulars of the three losses is the way those defeats connected to the team’s struggles of the past two years. The Red Sox said they needed to reclaim home-field advantage. With the sweep, they are now instead 11-23 (.324) in home contests dating to the start of 2020 — the worst home record in baseball since the start of last year. Since 2019, they’re a woeful 49-66 (.426).
With the three losses to Baltimore, the Sox are now 49-70 (.412) against the AL East since the start of 2019. And the path now gets steeper, with the Rays (13-4 against the Red Sox since late July 2019) set to come to Fenway Park for three days starting Monday.
“We’ve got to show up,” Cora said. “I still feel the same way about the team five days ago [as] right now . . . We’ve got a good team but we’ve got stuff to do. We have stuff to work on and we’ve just got to get better.”
There’s time for that to happen. A three-game series represents such a small slice of the season that it can be covered quickly. No one remembers that the 1998 Yankees were winless through three games. Of course, the stench of three stink bombs doesn’t always go away easily — as the 2011 Red Sox, who started 0-6, discovered when a September collapse left them one game shy of a playoff berth.
This 2021 edition isn’t a team with the talent of the 1998 Yankees or even the 2011 Red Sox. It has to play to the top end of its projected potential if it wants to have meaningful games beyond the trade deadline.
There is a longer runway to take flight this year than in the compressed 2020 campaign. But as the team discovered in each of the last two years, there’s also the potential for a season to get late in a hurry.
On Friday, the Red Sox arrived at Opening Day with something to prove. As the team gets ready for its second series of the season starting Monday, that burden of proof has only grown.