It’s a big “if,” but it’s a fascinating one for the Red Sox: What if they make the playoffs?
Members of the organization recognize the cart-before-the-horse nature of that inquiry, particularly at a time when the team is still adding names to its shockingly long COVID-related injured list. On Friday, Jarren Duran became the eighth member of the Red Sox to test positive for the coronavirus and the ninth Red Sox player to be sidelined by COVID protocols. (Lefthander Josh Taylor is out for a week as a close contact quarantine.)
While the team expects to start adding players back from the IL next week, likely starting with Kiké Hernández for next week’s series against the Rays, there’s no guarantee of what kind of performance the players will be able to offer when they do get back on the field.
Nonetheless, following Friday’s 8-5 win over the Indians, the Red Sox are in possession of a three-game lead over the A’s and a 4½-game advantage over the Mariners (who played later at Arizona) in the race for the second AL wild card spot. The Sox started the night closer to the Yankees (1½ games) for the top wild card spot than to their AL West competitors for the final berth.
Meanwhile, the Sox should be back at full health or something close to it when they play nine of their final 14 games against the Orioles and Nationals. There’s a reason why Fangraphs gives them an 81.5 percent shot at making the playoffs as a wild-card team.
So what if they do get into the October tournament? Of late, the Red Sox have given every indication that if they do sneak into the playoffs, they have a chance to become a problem for the rest of the American League.
Chris Sale (3-0, 2.53) has been outstanding in four starts since his return from Tommy John surgery. He’s still been capped at five to six innings, but even as the quality of his pitch mix has been inconsistent, the lefthander has impressed in his ability to adapt his arsenal and plan of attack to whatever is working for him on a given night. Put another way: No one is going to be rushing to the bat rack to face him.
Nate Eovaldi (10-8, 3.71) endured a performance dip in July and early August, likely a product of fatigue. But the All-Star appeared to have arrived on the other side of that trough entering Friday’s start against Cleveland, with a 1.85 ERA, 30 strikeouts, and two walks in 24⅓ innings over his most recent four starts.
He’s been particularly effective throughout his Red Sox career against the Yankees — a potential Red Sox opponent in the wild card game. Eovaldi has a 2.48 regular-season ERA against New York since joining the Sox, along with a dominant playoff start in Yankee Stadium (7 innings, 1 run in the pivotal Game 3 of the 2018 AL Division Series) on his resume.
For all of the inconsistency of his 2021 season, lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez (11-7, 4.88) has shown an ability to shut down playoff-caliber teams, most recently in delivering six shutout innings against the Rays on Thursday. Against the three most likely potential teams the Sox would face in a wild card game — the Yankees, A’s, and Mariners — Rodriguez is 3-0 with a 3.16 ERA, 47 strikeouts, and seven walks in 37 innings.
Since Aug. 10, that rotation trio has a combined 7-2 record and 2.57 ERA in 13 starts. At a time when the starters have been the only part of the roster to avoid the COVID list, the team’s top rotation members have been not only healthy but strong.
Meanwhile, Alex Cora’s recent bullpen deployments — a three-inning save for Garrett Richards, two dominant relief innings from Garrett Whitlock, a standout save by Adam Ottavino — have offered reminders of his willingness to improvise and exceptional feel in the late innings of meaningful games.
That group creates possibility, though certainly not a guarantee — especially given the daunting possibility of seeing Yankees ace Gerrit Cole on the mound in a potential wild-card matchup. Nonetheless, based on their recent performances, the Sox would have reason to believe that even against Cole, they might have the pitching to match up with the Yankees.
That view has helped to fuel the team through a tremendously unsettling period. Even as the Red Sox have struggled to find their footing since early July — first because of a performance dropoff and then, more recently, the COVID outbreak — they may have the pitching to hold their ground in October . . . if they get there.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.