For roughly two weeks in late August through mid-September, the Red Sox looked like a team being held together by little more than duct tape. No longer.
With the team’s COVID-19 crisis behind it, the roster features enviable depth that at times provides manager Alex Cora with an embarrassment of riches. On Wednesday, that notion was crystallized by a night when first baseman Kyle Schwarber — with Bobby Dalbec sitting — crushed homers in the first two innings to set in motion a 12-5 rout of the Mets.
The triumph extended the Red Sox’ winning streak to seven games, their third streak of seven or more games this year. Only once in the last 30 years — the championship season of 2018 — has the team had at least three seven-game winning streaks. The run has been anchored by a resurgent offense that has scored at least six runs in all seven victories.
“I do believe this is the most complete roster we’ve had the whole season. We have options to pinch hit, to pinch run, to mix and match,” said manager Alex Cora. “Right now, compared to a few weeks ago, we’re in a great spot.”
The decision to start Schwarber at first and sit Dalbec illuminated the team’s depth of options.
On the surface, sitting Dalbec seemed preposterous. The rookie has been on a run since mid-August that rivals the most prolific slugging stretches by any Red Sox player over the last handful of years. He entered Wednesday hitting .340 with a .426 OBP and colossal .802 slugging mark along with 12 homers in his last 34 games.
But for all of his recent success, Dalbec has continued to struggle against velocity, hitting .200 with a .320 slugging mark and just one homer against pitches of at least 94 miles per hour during his hot streak, numbers in line with the entire season.
Schwarber, on the other hand, has swung a sledgehammer against velocity. He entered the night hitting a modest .228 average but with a .545 slugging mark and nine homers against pitches of 94-plus m.p.h.
In a pregame hitters’ meeting, Schwarber told teammates to be ready for Mets starter Taijuan Walker to attack with heat. He then practiced what he preached, crushing a 94-m.p.h. fastball off Walker (7-11, 4.57) to straightaway center for his 30th homer to give the Sox a 1-0 lead in the first.
One inning later, with the Sox up, 3-1, Schwarber launched a 96-m.p.h. heater into the right field bleachers for a three-run homer. He finished 3 for 4 with two homers, a double, and a walk.
“Tonight was obviously his show and he carried the weight,” said Sox starter Chris Sale. “You couldn’t ask for any more from someone you acquire at the trade deadline, doing exactly what we expected him to do.”
By the end of three innings, the Sox had amassed a 9-1 lead on the strength of 10 hits, including seven for extra bases. The eruption made for a comfortable night for Sale.
The lefthander, coming off a Sept. 17 outing in which he’d struck out just one, tied for a career low, featured a more powerful arsenal on Wednesday. Sale (5-0, 2.57) allowed two runs on six hits over five innings, striking out eight (matching his season high) and walking two. His fastball topped out at 97 m.p.h., anchoring a three-pitch mix that produced 15 swings and misses among 89 pitches.
“I think [the velocity is] something that’s still kind of building,” said Sale. “I don’t really rely on it as much as I used to and I don’t really put as much into it, I guess. If it’s there, it’s there. If not, I’ll find a way. But yeah, obviously it’s something that I’d like to progressively kind of uptick.”
The Red Sox defense contributed to a well-rounded performance. In the third inning, with the Sox leading, 6-1, Sale put runners on first and second with one out.
Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor hit a laser up the middle. Sox second baseman José Iglesias made a diving play to his right to initiate an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play that had Sale howling in appreciation.
“That double play was amazing. It was a game-changer right there,” said Cora. “He got to the ball. His reaction was great, the feed was awesome, and the turn was great. We’ve been a lot better [defensively] lately.”
And in the sixth, with the Mets rallying against the Red Sox bullpen, Kiké Hernández turned a bases-loaded, one-out fly to deep center into an inning-ending double play when his perfect, one-hop throw to third nabbed Jonathan Villar trying to advance.
All nine Red Sox lineup members collected at least one hit. Schwarber led the way with three, while Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez, and Hunter Renfroe each had two.
The Sox improved to 48-29 at Fenway, including 39-18 since late May. They are 5-0 during the homestand while wearing their yellow, City Connect uniforms.
The Sox sit two games in front of the Yankees and 2½ in front of the Blue Jays in the race for the two AL wild-card spots. The stakes have the Red Sox giddily anticipating a weekend series at Fenway against the Yankees.
“You’re going up to the field and the energy is high and obviously the writing is on the wall there, especially out there in left field. You can see it. We know what’s at stake,” said Schwarber. “September baseball, especially when you’re in the playoff push, nothing can beat it.”