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The Red Sox may be down right now, but with expanded playoffs it’s too early to count them out

Despite a rough start to the season, Alex Cora is still optimistic about the Red Sox.LM Otero/Associated Press

ARLINGTON, Texas — The 99-day lockout that caused the season to start late is something every good baseball fan would just as soon forget.

Intentional walks are more interesting than owners and players fighting over money. It was a wearisome three-plus months for everybody interested in the game.

But the collective bargaining agreement that resulted might be the only thing keeping this Red Sox season afloat.

One of the key provisions of the new agreement was expanding the playoffs to 14 teams by adding a third wild card to each league.

So the Red Sox, even at 13-20 and in last place in the division, are only 4½ games out of a playoff spot after beating the Rangers, 11-3, Saturday night.

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Under the old system, they would have been 7½ back.

That doesn’t guarantee there will be meaningful games played in September. But there’s a better chance than there would have been last season.

That’s the message Alex Cora has been telling his team.

“You have to be honest with yourself, understanding that we’re still good but we have work to do,” Cora said before the game.

That Red Sox starters are fourth in the American League with a 3.35 ERA suggests there’s a foundation to build on. Success is always contingent on starting pitching and the rotation should improve once Chris Sale returns from the injured list in late June or early July.

That the Sox scored 30 runs on 42 hits in the first four games of a road trip that wraps up Sunday afternoon is a good sign, too. They had averaged only 3.3 runs prior to that.

Trevor Story is showing signs of joining Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and J.D. Martinez as one of the run producers. Alex Verdugo and Kiké Hernández need to do the same.

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Cora is clinging to the idea of leading off Hernández but that should change if his .250 OBP doesn’t improve.

The schedule could break in their favor, too.

The Sox are in the middle of a 21-game stretch against teams outside of the division, which should be helpful, and starting Monday they will play 13 of 16 at Fenway Park.

“We always talk about winning series, putting yourself in that situation,” Cora said.

“I have people telling me about standings and all that stuff. As a baseball fan, I know what’s going on. I know there’s a team [the Astros] that has won 11 in a row … that’s part of the season. It gets magnified because it’s the early part of it.”

All that said, being in last place can strain any manager’s disposition. But Cora has maintained his optimism, a trait that has served him well in what is now his fourth season with the Sox.

“You can’t change your approach and what you preach,” he said. “You see the guys. Although they understand where we’re at and what we have to do, they seem like they’re ready to play every day.”

It’ll be an uphill trek. A minor transaction on Saturday underlined how bad this season has been.

To get Rich Hill back on the 40-man roster following a stay on the COVID-19 injured list, the Sox designated outfielder Jaylin Davis for assignment.

He had 0.2 WAR in two games, 12th highest on the team.

That’s a small sample size talking. The Sox roster has the talent to push the team into the mix. Meanwhile Hill went six-plus innings and allowed two earned runs.

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“We believe we belong in the conversation,” Cora said. “Obviously right now record-wise, we’re not there.

“We’re just trying to be consistent in every aspect of the game. If we do that, we should be OK. We’ve got to keep working, we can’t stop. That’s the message.”


Peter Abraham can be reached at peter.abraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.