The second half began Thursday night, and what’s weird about this season is that if the Red Sox go 54-27 like they did the first half, you can’t even say with authority they would win the AL East. Imagine having 108 wins and still not clinching the division?
As good as the Sox’ record looks after their 4-2 win over the Angels in the series finale, the team has some issues to be resolved. One in particular is the production from the bottom third of the order. For a while, the bottom third was a wasteland of activity. It’s where the Mendoza Line was seen as an improvement.
But things have started to change. Suddenly, Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon form what manager Alex Cora now calls a good offensive catching combination. Eduardo Nunez is hitting the ball hard, as witnessed by his long homer to center field and deep drive to center that was caught Wednesday night. Jackie Bradley Jr. got hot on the homestand.
The Red Sox want a powerhouse lineup, 1 through 9, not just 1 through 6 — which is what most teams in the league have, except for the Yankees.
We’re not asking for a 7-8-9 like the Sox had in 2003, when Trot Nixon, Bill Mueller, and Jason Varitek mostly batted at the bottom of the lineup. Mueller won the batting title (.326), Nixon hit 28 homers, and Varitek hit 25 homers.
You can’t expect the Sox to have it that good this year. But at least the lineup is no longer resembling one from the National League with no DH.
“We’ve been saying all along that we knew Jackie would be swinging the bat better and that Christian and Sandy would be as well,” Cora said. “Honestly, the difference has been Eduardo the last couple of weeks. He’s been getting on base. Yesterday was his first extra-base hit in a month.
“There are no easy outs right now, which is tough for the opposition. They were struggling and they knew it. They kept making adjustments and it’s finally paying off. Sandy and Christian together are a real offensive catcher now. We’re very pleased. It’s a lot better when they’re swinging the bat.”
Leon is hitting .314 with three homers and 12 RBIs in his last 22 games. Vazquez is hitting .333 in his last 48 at-bats. Nunez is hitting .350 in his last seven games. Bradley is 8 for 14 in his last four games. Rafael Devers has driven in 10 runs in his last 10 games.
The Red Sox are hoping for other things to blossom in the second half. Such as:
■ They hope the Yankees cool off. Winning the majority of head-to-head meetings could decide the division.
■ They hope Dustin Pedroia can return to good health and take his rightful place at second base, which would improve the infield defense and lengthen the lineup. Brandon Phillips has been signed as insurance, and he will play second and third base in Pawtucket.
■ There’s hope Drew Pomeranz can return to health and be the pitcher he was in 2017. He’s about to start a rehab assignment, which is good timing with Steven Wright on the disabled list.
■ There’s likely to be a deal made to help the bullpen. While the Sox pen has generally been ranked near the top of the league for most of the season, every bullpen needs tweaking in the second half. Joe Kelly has struggled of late. With the return of Tyler Thornburg still up in the air, the Sox may seek to upgrade in this area.
■ Will the Sox add another bat after acquiring Steve Pearce Thursday night? They only have so many trade chips, and they’ll likely be devoted to getting bullpen help. Perhaps Adam Lind, who is starting to heat up at Pawtucket, could add lefthanded pop.
■ Whither Blake Swihart? Will he be used to obtain a reliever? His value is unknown because he’s only started one game behind the plate and simply hasn’t hit in other roles.
■ What steps might Cora take to keep Chris Sale fresh for the remainder of the season? Will he plug in a sixth starter on occasion? Will he seek to reduce Sale’s innings or pitch counts if the Sox have good-size leads in his starts?
■ Can J.D. Martinez, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Mitch Moreland, and Andrew Benintendi keep up their hot starts? And will Devers continue to trend upward offensively while smoothing out defensively? How about Martinez? Are we witnessing one of the greatest Red Sox seasons ever? Over his last 162 games (entering Thursday), he’s hitting .316 with 59 homers and 142 RBIs for the Tigers, Diamondbacks, and Red Sox.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com.