April put Red Sox in a hole, but they’re clearly climbing out
An old baseball saw holds that seasons cannot be won, but can be lost in April. The premise is certainly overbroad, a fact the Red Sox know well — at least when it comes to doubting the role of a great start in propelling a team to a great season.
A year ago, the Red Sox challenged the former contention by achieving cruising altitude in the season’s first month (a .750 winning percentage prior to May 1) and rarely encountering turbulence in an almost-wire-to-wire run atop the American League East — an echo of the team’s other championship runs in the 21st century. In 2004 (.714), 2007 (.667), and 2013 (.692), the team likewise used outstanding starts as springboards into and through the rest of the year, their early excellence providing room to stumble, but then correct course later in the year.
Now, the Red Sox face a far more difficult test. With April in the books, the team hopes to prove that five months are enough time to erase an unsuccessful first full month of the season. The task is not unprecedented, but it’s a road rarely taken.
With an impressive 5-1 victory over the A’s on Tuesday night, the Red Sox closed out April on an upswing — a 7-4 push to the end of the first leg of the season-long race. Even with their recent improvement, however, a 13-17 record and .443 winning percentage at the end of April almost never characterize a championship team.
The last time a team ended April with a winning percentage as poor as that and still went on to win the World Series was 1980, when the Phillies overcame a 6-9 start. That last World Series winner to finish April as many as four games under .500 was the 1935 Tigers.
“We know we’ve got some work ahead of us,” said first baseman Mitch Moreland, who blasted his eighth homer on Tuesday. “We’ve just got to kind of keep our heads down and keep moving forward.”
The team has started to do just that. With two straight victories over Oakland, they’ve clinched their second series victory of the season.
Increasingly, players are performing to their track records. The rotation, which produced an 8.79 ERA through 13 games, has stabilized. The starters have a 3.27 ERA in the last 17, a period in which no Sox starter allowed more than four earned runs.
Rick Porcello’s eight shutout innings on Tuesday offered the latest evidence of a group that is giving its team consistent chances to win. It took a few turns of the rotation as the team built slowly from a late start to spring training games into the season, but the pitching staff is increasingly showing the mix of command and stuff that will make it a strength.
“Not that we were throwing away April at all — that wasn’t the intent — but our guys are going to get better and better and better as the months and weeks pass,” said pitching coach Dana LeVangie. “They’re stepping up right now. Look at their baseball cards — it all shows. It’s proven. They’re going to give us innings. They’re going to give us a chance to win. That’s what they’ve been doing lately.”
The lineup, meanwhile, looks increasingly familiar. Mookie Betts closed the month with a 2 for 4 that included a solo blast to center to jumpstart the Red Sox offense in the first. He’s reached base multiple times in seven consecutive games, a surge that allowed him to close the month with a line — .295 average, .394 OBP, .527 slugging percentage — befitting a star, creating all kinds of run production opportunities for J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts behind him. And with Michael Chavis offering a jolt to the bottom half of the order, in tandem with signs of the offensive maturation of Rafael Devers, the offense appears close to putting together the pieces for a breakout.
The Red Sox are claiming a growing number of easy wins. Each of their last four victories has been by at least four runs, something the team accomplished just once through its first 24 contests. Those easy nights signify a team that is playing a better-rounded, more complete game.
“If we’re not there [playing a complete game], we’re really knocking on the door. It’s starting to jell,” said LeVangie. “You’re seeing our entire team play better, with more energy.”
Of course, the team faces a significant road uphill, thanks both to the sputter out of the gate, and strong opening performances by the Rays and Yankees. A club that positioned itself at the front of the pack by this point a year ago and remained roughly in that positon throughout the year enters the meat of this season with a sizable seven-game deficit in the standings.
Recent victories have given the team hope it is capable of overcoming its sputtering start. Even if there’s awareness that their April left them with little time to waste.
“We’re doing whatever we can to get on track and it’s starting to come around,” said Porcello. “It’s time to go for us.”