BALTIMORE — Four weeks into the season, and after a stretch of 19 games in 19 days, the Red Sox have arrived at the first arbitrary checkpoint of the season.
After Wednesday afternoon’s 6-2 loss to the Orioles, they packed for Boston in eager anticipation of their first off day since April 7. The Sox went 10-9 over that gauntlet to move to 13-13 for the season.
Members of the team viewed the stretch as encouraging. Despite injuries to early standout Adam Duvall as well as relievers Chris Martin and Zack Kelly, the Sox found enough contributors to stay afloat.
“We’re battling, and I know there’s good stretches that are going to come,” third baseman Rafael Devers said through a translator. “We’re going to get better as time goes because we’re going to recover some guys that are down on the injured list, and the help we’re getting from Triple A is very good.”
At the same time, while a .500 record after four weeks would be comfortable in most divisions, the Sox enter the off day in last place in the unforgiving American League East.
The season remains in its infancy but has offered the first hints of both promise and concern.
▪ The lineup. The Red Sox have withstood injuries and dreadful starting pitching to remain competitive in nearly every game thanks to an explosive offense averaging 5.6 runs per game, fourth-most in the majors. Wednesday marked just the fourth time the Sox lost by more than three runs.
The Sox have been one of the more prolific home run-hitting teams in baseball, clearing the fences 34 times — fifth in the majors. Did they see that sort of power coming, particularly with Trevor Story sidelined?
“Oh yeah, 100 percent,” said manager Alex Cora, cracking a smile before a more candid assessment. “No. I still believe we [will] hit doubles and take walks. But there’s been some good swings. It starts with [Devers].
“I still believe we’re not a power-hitting team. We’re just a run-scoring team. That’s what we do.”
The Sox have consistently worn down opposing starters while working deep counts. Starters have completed six innings against the Sox just three times, the fewest against any team in the big leagues.
“We keep the line moving,” said Cora. “We create traffic, and when you put [the starter] in trouble, you get good pitches to hit and you can drive them. That’s when you get the 13th guy in the bullpen and the 12th guy from the bullpen and you take advantage of that. So far, it’s been impressive.”
▪ The rotation. The Red Sox’ competitiveness has come in spite of a rotation that has a 6.41 ERA, second-worst in baseball, ahead of only the tanking A’s. The Sox staff leads the majors in homers allowed, ranks tied for second in most starts of four or fewer innings (8), and is tied for last in starts of six or more innings (4).
While Tanner Houck — now 3-1 with a 4.50 ERA after allowing four runs (three earned) over five innings Wednesday — has been steadily competitive, Corey Kluber, Nick Pivetta, and Garrett Whitlock have mixed impressive outings with awful ones.
More disconcerting, Chris Sale has been unable to achieve consistency in his mechanics or results while getting shelled in three of five starts. While players believe the Sox have the ability to catch a wave, it will be short-lived without more consistent starting pitching.
▪ The bullpen. The Red Sox bullpen has a respectable 3.58 ERA, 14th in MLB. Yet that is inflated by the struggles of Ryan Brasier and Kaleb Ort, who have allowed a combined 23 runs (20 earned) in 25⅔ innings. The rest of the bullpen has a 2.43 ERA.
Closer Kenley Jansen (7⅔ scoreless innings) has anchored a group that is one of two in baseball yet to blow a save. Multi-inning relievers Kutter Crawford (11⅓ relief innings, 1 run, 0 walks, 9 strikeouts) and Josh Winckowski (1.47 ERA in 18⅓ innings) have been revelations.
“Without [Crawford and Winckowski], I don’t even know where we would be today,” said Cora. “Their value is not only multiple innings, it’s quality innings, and they’ve been outstanding.”
▪ And yet … In any other division, a .500 record would have the Sox anywhere from one game out of first (National League West) to four games out of first (NL Central and East). In the AL East, the Sox concluded Wednesday’s contest eight games behind Tampa Bay (pending the Rays’ game against the Astros Wednesday night).
“It’s no secret, man. We have the best division in baseball,” said outfielder Alex Verdugo. “There’s not even a title up for grabs.
“We’ve been playing good ball and it’s just, that’s how it goes in the AL East. We’ve got some really good teams and right now we’re hanging on.”
▪ But still … Asked to identify one surprising early-season trait, Cora didn’t hesitate.
“The fight, to be honest with you,” said the manager. “We’ve been down by seven early in the game and it doesn’t matter. They just keep grinding.”
The Sox entered Wednesday with nine comeback wins, most in the majors. They have remained undeterred in the face of injuries and focused on getting back into games when down. Those traits guarantee nothing but could serve them well as they continue their attempt to run uphill in the AL East.
“They don’t get caught up in the ups and downs of this thing,” said Cora. “We lost four to Tampa and we move on. We lost three to Pittsburgh and we move on. It’s still early to really tell you who we are, but like I always say, we’ve got a good baseball team. We just have to be better.”