NEW YORK — After the champagne, the Red Sox have never been much good at curing the hangover.
That’s not exclusive to them. No Major League team has repeated as champion since the 2000 Yankees, who won their third straight and fourth in five years. The Red Sox have had three opportunities since the ghosts were exorcised in 2004 to win back-to-back titles.
But the headache from the previous October’s celebration always has a tendency to linger, and no elixir so far has prevented the 2019 Red Sox from being affected either.
The Red Sox lost to the Yankees Saturday night, 5-3, and both the journey and final destination were already familiar.
A Red Sox starting pitcher, this time Rick Porcello, wasn’t quite good enough. The offense didn’t get the big hit with runners in scoring position. And a potential rally against Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman proved just a tease when J.D. Martinez hit into a 6-4-3 double play.
The biggest out of the game came when Adam Ottavino — the Northeastern alum and relief pitcher the Red Sox should have prioritizes signing in the offseason — came on to strike out Martinez with two outs and two on in the fifth inning and the Red Sox down two runs.
The Red Sox are now 9½ games back of the Yankees (38-19) in the American League East, with the Tampa Bay Rays between them in the standings. They’ve lost four in row to sink back to .500 (29-29). They’ve lost the first two games in this series, are 0-4 against the Yankees this year, and the best thing to happen to them here so far is Thursday’s rainout.
“We’re not closing the gap,’’ said Porcello, “we’re making it bigger.”
While watching them struggle to recapture their magic of a season ago, it’s illustrative to remember how their other World Series championship defenses have played out, if only to acknowledge that we should have known all along this was going to be tough.
2005: The Red Sox actually finished with 95 wins, three fewer than in 2004, while tying the Yankees atop the AL East. But New York won the division title based on a superior head-to-head record.
The Red Sox settled for the wild card, their title defense ending in a three-game wipeout at the hands of the 99-win White Sox.
General manager Theo Epstein, believing even championship rosters require alterations to counter complacency, made notable changes after the ’04 catharsis — Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Orlando Cabrera, and Dave Roberts were among the departures.
The additions weren’t quite as successful, unless you’re some weirdo who enjoyed Edgar Renteria complaining about the Fenway infield and Matt Clement starting Game 1 of the playoffs.
2008: Another 95-win follow-up season, and another wild card. The Sox finished two games back of the Rays in the AL East, the longtime division doormat improving by 31 wins over their ’07 last-place finish.
Terry Francona once said the ’08 team might have been the best he had during his eight years in Boston, even with the trade deadline blockbuster that sent Manny Ramirez to Hollywood and brought in Jason Bay. But those upstart Rays got ’em in the end, with rookie buzz saw David Price finishing off the Sox in Game 7 of the ALCS.
2014: Save for “Caddyshack 2”, sequels don’t get lousier than this. John Farrell’s squad followed up its unexpected and inspirational championship run in ’13 by becoming just the second champion to go from first to worst in their division, following the ’98 everything-must-go Marlins.
En route to a 71-91 finish, which left them 25 games behind the Orioles, they had a fire sale of their own, sending away Andrew Miller, John Lackey, and homegrown ace Jon Lester at the trade deadline. It was the biggest debacle of this era that didn’t involve Bobby Valentine.
So here we are with the first act of the ’19 Red Sox season complete, 58 games down and 104 to go. There’s still plenty of time left in the show to discover where the plot will take us. But right now, it feels quite a bit like 2005 and 2008 again, and perhaps just a little worse.
Sure, the Red Sox had some built-in room for falloff after winning a franchise-record 108 games last season. But they haven’t slipped slightly. They’ve been surpassed by the loaded Astros and resilient Yankees, while the Twins (an AL-best 39 wins) are the story of the season.
Even the wild-card leading Rays are their superior so far. The Red Sox, losers of 10 of 17, are now tied with the Indians and trail the Rangers by a game for the second wild-card.
Obviously this will not be a ’14 scenario for the Red Sox, but if they continue to play with a hazy malaise the next six or seven weeks, they will have some interesting decisions to make at the July 31 trading deadline.
Alex Cora has kept an upbeat and even tone through the peaks and valleys. He’s still quick to smile. But he has to know that there must be indications that the coin, so to speak, will flip soon.
“Are we saving it for the right time? I don’t know,” Cora said after Friday’s loss. “Get rolling and win 17 of the next 19.”
Guess that should be 17 of 18 now.
The 2018 Red Sox were the greatest juggernaut, beginning to end, in franchise history. A third of the way through the follow-up season, the roster looks similar, but the results do not.
They’re talented. They’re the defending champions. And they’re the picture of mediocrity.
There’s time to get it right.
“I don’t think we’re in September,’’ said Xander Bogaerts, who homered in the fourth and had both of Boston’s extra-base hits in a 3-for-4 night. “June just opened.”
But the standings don’t lie. If the Red Sox don’t find their lost mojo in the next few weeks — the finale here Sunday would be a fine place to start — we’ll stop looking to last season for hope, and might just have to start thinking about the next one.
September has a way of sneaking up on underachieving teams. October has a way of leaving them behind.