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Beat writer's notebook

Despite their inconsistencies and COVID woes, the Red Sox are still in playoff contention as crunch time nears

As the Sox hit the stretch run, defense — starting with Alex Verdugo and the Boston outfield — will be a key focus for Alex Cora and his team.
As the Sox hit the stretch run, defense — starting with Alex Verdugo and the Boston outfield — will be a key focus for Alex Cora and his team.Justin Casterline/Getty

The Red Sox are in playoff contention.

Despite inconsistent play and a team ravaged by COVID-19, the Red Sox haven’t gone away. Entering Monday’s night’s three-game series with the Mariners, the Red Sox were 26-28 since the All-Star break. But, again, they have survived. Certainly they had moments in which it felt like free fall. But perhaps it was just a return to who they were: a solid yet flawed team under the tutelage of a manager in Alex Cora who understands how to get the most out of his group.

Now it’s about maintaining it here. Much of it falls on how they play defensively.

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Defense

The Sox will have 16 games left after Monday’s contest with the Mariners. After the Yankees’ comeback win against the Twins Monday afternoon, the Sox and Blue Jays held a ½ game lead over the Yanks for the top wild-card spot in the American League. Seattle is vying for a wild-card spot, too, three games out of a wild-card spot alongside the Athletics.

The Red Sox held a two-game lead over the Rays at the All-Star break for first in the AL East. But in many ways, their sloppy defense is the reason why they are in this position. The team has made 99 errors, second-most in the majors.

Hunter Renfroe's defense has given the Red Sox a big boost this season.
Hunter Renfroe's defense has given the Red Sox a big boost this season.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

If you look at the Rays during their pregame, you can understand why they are a team that ranked seventh in defensive runs saved (51) while the Red Sox ranked 20th with -1 defensive runs saved. The Rays take each grounder with intent, with a purpose. It’s a well-oiled machine with players understanding the importance of paying close attention to detail.

Cora always preaches the importance of that attention to detail, but it’s an area in which his team has failed mightily. If Kiké Hernández isn’t in center field, the Sox’ outfield defense falls apart. Without Christian Arroyo at second — who is still on the COVID-related injured list and has dealt with several injuries — the Sox’ infield defense falls apart.

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Alex Verdugo seems best fit in left field. His angles in center are out of sorts. His decision-making is also something that’s inconsistent. The way he plays the ball off the wall — particularly at Fenway — needs reps. The Sox are at their best when it’s Verdugo in left, Hernández in center, and Hunter Renfroe in right. Renfroe was a steal for the Sox and he has two more years of team control that the Sox will almost certainly pick up. He’s a very good outfielder, but even he can be a wild-card at times. He can make the dazzling play that can leave the Fenway faithful in disbelief, but with that comes the occasional mental mishap.

In the infield, Rafael Devers can go through occasional ruts despite his defensive improvements. Scouts have pointed to Devers’s pre-pitch setup, something that he can be lazy with. Oftentimes, you’ll see Devers on the balls of his feet. When a ball is then hit, Devers tries to speed up his actions, leading to misplayed balls. Exhibit A: the error he made on a Leury Garcia chopper in the fourth inning of Saturday’s contest against the White Sox.

The Red Sox have this going for them: Bobby Dalbec has turned into an exceptional first baseman since the Red Sox’ last series against the Rays. He’s matched it with the bat, too, hitting .313/.391/.717 with 10 homers since Aug. 1. That enables the Sox to play him there on an everyday basis instead of Kyle Schwarber who never looked comfortable there.

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“When we play defense we become a really good team,” Cora said recently.

The Sox do, however, need Arroyo back at second in order to stabilize their defense further.

Relievers

Garrett Whitlock has a 1.92 ERA heading into Monday's action.
Garrett Whitlock has a 1.92 ERA heading into Monday's action.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The training wheels are off Garrett Whitlock. The team brought him into the ninth inning of Sunday’s 2-1 loss where Whitlock gave up a walk-off homer after he worked two innings the previous night. The Sox have depended on both him and Adam Ottavino a ton. But the relievers on the COVID-19 IL — including Matt Barnes, Hirokazu Sawamura, and Martín Pérez have hurt the Sox. Cora considered bringing Barnes back early — or at least said it would be a conversation — following his one outing with the WooSox Sunday.

What’s next

The Red Sox are at the somewhat loose part of their schedule. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays have a three-game set with the Rays. The Red Sox travel back to Fenway to start a three-game series with the Orioles on Friday. Then they play the Mets, Yankees, Orioles, and Nationals to end the year. Following a13-game winning streak, the Yankees have a putrid 4-12 record. In short: the Red Sox have a chance to host a wild-card game at Fenway.

“We’re playing good baseball and I think offensively we’re going to be a lot better,” Cora said following their series loss to the White Sox. “We feel really good going into Seattle.”

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Julian McWilliams can be reached at julian.mcwilliams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @byJulianMack.