TORONTO — That the Red Sox are flailing to maintain in contention is, on one hand, a surprise. A team that steamrolled the league in 2018 has yet to achieve any kind of consistency. Surges prove transient, setbacks frequent, and victories at times difficult.
Yet somehow, through a highly uneven first half, the Red Sox have managed to keep their heads above water. The degree of difficulty has been absurdly high, with easy victories coming rarely, yet the victories continue to come, albeit in steady drips rather than torrents, thanks in no small part to a lineup that repeatedly refuses to wilt.
On Thursday, the Red Sox stared down an early 6-1 deficit in a bullpen game, the likelihood of a win seemingly bleak. Yet the team overcame it with a six-run sixth and then, after the Blue Jays tied the score, another run on a Marco Hernandez solo homer in the ninth to claim an 8-7 victory in the rubber match of a three-game set in Toronto.
Neither the series win against the 33-55 Blue Jays, nor the come-from-behind victory on Thursday, were glamorous. Yet the Red Sox are beyond the point of seeking style points. Their need for wins is desperate regardless of the form in which they come — and that desperation has indeed been evident in the most common form of Red Sox victory this year.
Thursday marked the 26th Red Sox comeback win of the year, tied with the Astros and Yankees for the most in the American League. Yet unlike Houston and New York, they are the majority (57 percent) of Red Sox wins.
The Red Sox have conjured many victories as if from thin air this year, many coming with a promise this one can be the turning point that sets in motion a consistent run. To date, those individual comebacks have yet to. Nonetheless, there is something to be said for the consistency with which the Red Sox have clawed for what they’ve gotten this year.
In a season that unquestionably represents something between a riddle and a disappointment, the Red Sox have not relented. They’ve taken an incredibly hard road through the first half without being demolished by the undertaking.
Glass half-full: The repeated comebacks have prevented the Red Sox from falling off a cliff, and suggest a lineup that is willing to sustain pressure on opposing pitching staffs for 27 outs, a hallmark of last year’s team.
“We’re not World Series champions for nothing. We know how to fight, we know how to come back, we know how to win games. It just shows you again what we can do,” assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett said. “It’s not easy to win games in this division. We made it look easy last year at times, but as you know, it’s not. Last year is not something that happens very often. It’s a grind to win games in the big leagues. It’s a lot. It takes every one here to do it every day.
“Yeah, we’re grinding it out and winning games. Sometimes we’re scuffling to do that late in games, and it’s difficult to do that and takes a lot out of your club, but at the same time, we’ve got a lot of talent in this room that’s used to playing in those circumstances.”
Glass half-empty: The repeated need for comebacks suggests deficiencies early in the game. And while the team has managed to win plenty while running uphill, it’s fair to question whether that formula — reliant on their excellence in what is arguably the most difficult responsibility in the game, pinch-hitting — is sustainable for the long haul.
“It means we need to do a better job of pitching and not giving up runs early,” starter Rick Porcello said. “We have such a talented offense that it’s not a surprise that we’ve come back in that many games, but ideally, it’s not a position we want to continue to be in. It means that our offense and our team [are] resilient, for sure, but we need to do a better job of putting ourselves in position early in games where we’re not coming from behind.”
Much of the current Red Sox group is experienced in the dark art of winning with a high degree of difficulty. The 2017 team, for instance, managed to win the A.L. East thanks to its dominance in extra-innings and close games.
Has this season felt more like that campaign than the fantasy realm of the magic carpet ride to 119 wins in 2018?
“It feels like normal, honesty. Last year was such an incredible year. We played great baseball but at the same time, it seemed like everything really went our way,” said Porcello. “This year, it’s more, this is baseball.”
Porcello suggested that this Red Sox team is “a better, more experienced” club than the one that survived the 2017 regular season before getting dismantled by the Astros. Yet the 2019 edition has yet to prove such a claim.
What it has proven, however, is a survival instinct at a time when the team’s different parts have yet to fit neatly into a coherent picture. The 2019 Red Sox to date are a clearly flawed team with obvious shortcomings, particularly with their pitching staff.
But given those deficiencies, the team suggests that it’s important to appreciate what it has done well while buying time, perhaps, for better days to come. Though the search for something better continues, the Red Sox take some solace they have not gotten completely lost in the first-half wilderness.
“It’s just finding ways. That’s what you’ve got to do. . . . We know we have to pitch better. That’s obvious. But it really doesn’t matter. We found a way to win today, it’s two out of three, and now,” exhaled manager Alex Cora, “we move on.”