The lights keep getting brighter, the contours sharper.
Friday night looked and sounded familiar at Fenway Park: Red Sox-Yankees; a loud, sellout crowd at Fenway; a house packed by first pitch for the ceremonies to honor Dustin Pedroia; a team in the thick of contention nearly halfway through the season.
“What an incredible crowd,” said outfielder Hunter Renfroe. “People will remember that for a long time.”
The Red Sox rewarded the crowd of 36,869 — as well as the Pedroia family, in Fenway for the first time since 2019 — with a 5-3 victory over the Yankees. The Sox remained within one-half game of the Rays and moved 4½ games ahead of New York.
The performance represented a notable rebound from a disheartening 1-0 loss against the Rays a night earlier. It also continued a pattern.
The Red Sox have obvious shortcomings, but they do not dwell on them. They move past struggles quickly. Through 76 games, they’ve been nearly slump proof, one of three teams in the majors that has avoided a losing streak of more than three games.
“If our bad times are playing .500 baseball, so be it,” said manager Alex Cora. “We don’t think we’re going to go through long losing streaks.”
The team’s consistency has allowed it to recalibrate its ambitions.
“I think there was a lot of confidence going into spring training that we had a very good team. I don’t think anyone was necessarily saying we would get to the postseason, but we all felt we would be competitive this year,” said Red Sox chairman Tom Werner. “I’m pleased that we are where we are. There’s really four good teams in the division and we all have to play each other. It’s going to be tough to win 90-plus games, but we think that’s achievable.”
But to hit that mark, as well as they’ve played throughout the season, the Red Sox need to start plugging growing leaks. The trade deadline is now five weeks away, and it remains to be seen how much the Sox — whose priority is long-term, repeatable, sustainable contention to break the boom-and-bust cycle of the last decade — invest in upgrades from outside the organization.
The team has interest in improving, but within limits.
“We’ll listen to [chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom’s] recommendation and [Cora’s] recommendation,” said Werner. “I don’t think we want to do anything that’s going to hamper us long term. If we could make a trade at the deadline that’s a significant trade but we have to give away a lot of talent, I doubt that Chaim would recommend that for a short-term fix.”
That approach suggests the team is unlikely to make a blockbuster move involving top prospects. Still, there is an organizational desire to upgrade and give a contending team a chance. So what might that mean?
The most glaring shortcomings have shifted. In April, the bullpen seemed like an inevitable target for trade reinforcements. This month, bullpen depth has saved the Sox.
The emergence of Garrett Whitlock (two scoreless innings on Friday, 1.49 ERA this year) and Hirokazu Sawamura (1⅓ shutout innings Friday, a 1.69 ERA in his last 16 innings) has created a bridge over the recent rush of abbreviated starts.
Josh Taylor (22 straight scoreless games) and Adam Ottavino (1.08 ERA in his last 18 outings after a scoreless eighth inning Friday against his former team) have been lockdown setup options. Matt Barnes — despite recent stumbles — has numbers that rank well along any closer (2.81 ERA while holding hitters to a .171/.233/.270 line and posting a 45 percent strikeout rate).
“These guys have been lights out,” Xander Bogaerts said of the bullpen.
The rotation, however, is sputtering. The team has gotten 10 outings of fewer than five innings in its last 24 games — after just eight such starts through 52 contests. Garrett Richards has acknowledged a career crisis brought on by the enforcement of foreign substance rules, and Martín Pérez (3⅔ innings Friday) is afforded little latitude.
Yet the Sox have internal options. Tanner Houck, back from a flexor strain, has struck out 12 in 6⅔ innings over two outings with Triple A Worcester. And then, of course, there’s the rehabbing lefty.
“I’m hopeful, like all Red Sox fans, that Chris Sale will be a part of our team the last few weeks of the season,” said Werner of a pitcher who will throw a live batting practice session on Saturday, the first time he’s faced hitters since he blew out his elbow last March 1, 2020. “That would be a terrific addition.”
A case can be made that the Sox’ most acute need is for a position player. And as much as the leadoff spot (an MLB-worst .644 OPS) and bottom of the order have been issues, the team’s infield defense has been brutal.
A Bogaerts error Friday set the stage for three unearned runs by the Yankees — leaving the Sox with 19 unearned runs allowed this month, most in MLB. The team is doing the worst job in MLB of converting groundballs into outs, having done so just 29.4 percent of the time entering Friday.
“Sloppy. Bad. All of the above,” said Cora. “We need to be better. That’s it, that’s the bottom line.”
Perhaps Jarren Duran eventually will upgrade both the lineup and defense, allowing Kiké Hernández to shift to second base full time. Still, there’s clear room for a slick-fielding lefthanded hitter who could complement or replace Hernández, Bobby Dalbec, and/or Marwin Gonzalez.
What would fit that bill? The team could look for something like a reverse-engineered version of its move to trade away Mitch Moreland last summer. Or perhaps it will remain opportunistic, simply looking to upgrade somewhere at the right price.
But the roster has earned the right to receive reinforcements, and to make a night like Friday a recurring event.