We will know soon enough if the Red Sox are serious about making this season something more than a six-month long concession speech about how hard it is to repeat as champions.
The Los Angeles Dodgers arrive at Fenway Park on Friday for a three-game rematch of the World Series. The Dodgers have the best record (60-32) and run differential (plus-129) in the game, and Sox manager Alex Cora predicted last week they would be “hungry to kick our ass.”
Two of the Dodgers, Clay Bellinger and Max Muncy, happily confirmed that earlier this week while at the All-Star Game.
The Sox have Eduardo Rodriguez, Chris Sale and David Price lined up for the series. The Dodgers will go with Kenta Maeda, Ross Stripling and Hyun-Jin Ryu. For three days, Fenway Park will be the best spot in baseball.
But that series is really only a pop quiz compared to what comes next for the Red Sox: 21 games against American League East opponents in as many days, eight of them against the first-place Yankees, and six against the second-place Rays.
The Sox are nine games behind the Yankees, but Cora believes a fourth consecutive division title remains in play.
“They’re playing great. They’re doing what they’re doing,” he said. “We’ve still got a lot of games against them. We’ve still got a lot of games against the division. They still got a lot of games to play. I guarantee you that’s the message [the Yankees] have, that this is not over. It ain’t over. We know they’re playing great; we know it. You can’t hide that fact.
“The fact is we still have the second part of the season and we know we’re going to improve.”
To what degree the Sox can improve hinges on the July 31 trade deadline, their last chance to improve the pitching staff by either adding a relief pitcher or obtaining a reliable starting pitcher for the vacant fifth spot. Ideally, they would accomplish both.
The alternative for the Sox would be wasting the potential of a lineup that is third in the majors in runs per game (5.66) and fourth in OPS (.807) despite Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi having had what for them are below-average seasons.
Shifting budding superstar Rafael Devers to the second spot in the order made a good lineup even better.
“I feel like, offensively, we haven’t really got started and we’re still scoring runs,” J.D. Martinez said. “It’s going to get better.”
But will the pitching?
The Red Sox went into the season believing one of their strengths would be the rotation. But when Nate Eovaldi went on the injured list after only four starts, trouble started.
The Sox have needed 16 replacement starts through the first 90 games, approximately 14 of those filling for Eovaldi.
Those starters were 2-7 with a 6.79 earned run average in those games, and averaged only 3⅓ innings. That the Sox managed to win eight of the games is a testament to their offense, but the bullpen was taxed by picking up the additional innings.
The plan now is to use Eovaldi as a reliever once he returns from the injured list, which should be in the next 7-10 days. Eovaldi has pitched only four times in relief since 2012, so it’s uncertain how he will perform.
Presumably, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has more than that in mind to help a bullpen worn down by his preseason decision to replace the 128 innings pitched by free agents Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel last season by using assorted Triple A-level pitchers.
That left Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Heath Hembree, and Brandon Workman to carry a heavy workload.
“We’re doing the best we can,” said Barnes, who has already made 40 appearances. “I’ll say that.”
Cora believes the Sox have survived the worst already.
“I think we do a good job of turning the page right away. It just hasn’t happened,” he said. “We’ve been talking about it the whole first half. We get going and we stop. We get going and we stop. There are a few games that we don’t play well, then we show flashes. You’ve just got to stay positive the whole time.
“I think the [players] have handled it well. We understand where we’re at. I think that’s the most important thing. Be honest with yourself; be transparent with yourself. We’ve got a long way to go to win the division. But I think if we stay with our short-term goals, big things are going to happen.”
Along with any roster enhancements, what will change the season — or not — will be Cora’s ability to get the players to buy into the idea that this season can be more than sneaking into the postseason, making a quick exit, and joining the long list of teams who haven’t been able to repeat as champions.
“They want to be great,” Cora said. “We’ve got a chance to be special, to be one of the greatest groups in this franchise. People are going to remember us. Right now it hasn’t happened. We haven’t played to the level we know we can. We know it’s going to change.
“We will play better. There’s a lot of confidence in the clubhouse.”
The Red Sox are nine games out of first place with the season starting up again on Friday night. What do they need to fix?
The rotation: Red Sox starters are seventh in the American League in earned run average. Chris Sale and Rick Porcello are 9-15 with a 4.66 ERA. That can’t continue for a team built around its rotation.
The bullpen: The Sox relievers are getting worn out and the season is only 56 percent over. They need help, and more than just Nate Eovaldi working in relief. The heat is on Dave Dombrowski.
Mookie Betts: Sure, he was an All-Star. But Betts’ OPS is down 20 percent from last season. He also has attempted only 11 stolen bases after swiping 30 a year ago.
Andrew Benintendi: A dynamic player last season, Benintendi has been just OK (.274/.351/.433) so far this season and was dropped down the order. Will that get him going?
Home improvement: The Sox are 20-20 at Fenway Park. Of their 72 remaining games, 39 are at home. They need to regain the advantage at Fenway.
Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com.