In a season that began with about 6,600 miles of flights over 15 days, then entered the midyear break with another 7,600 miles of travel over another dozen days, the Red Sox could be forgiven if they felt their attempted title defense has been spent in the air.
Yet flight is not the appropriate transportation metaphor.
“It’s been stop and go, one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes, it’s seemed like the whole time,” said hitting coach Tim Hyers.
The 2018 Red Sox were a marvel of preparation and focus, a team that moved with a constant sense of purpose toward the first pitch and whose attention to detail lasted through the ninth. The team arrived to the park exuding readiness to feast on its opposition. More often than not, it did just that.
This year, the dynamic hasn’t resembled that of the championship team. There’s been weariness, fatigue, a sense that energy must be summoned rather than channeled.
There are any number of reasons for the distinct differences in the clubhouse feel. Certainly, the Red Sox aren’t the first team that has struggled to sustain the almost perfect dynamics that existed on a charmed championship path.
Kris Bryant of the Cubs recalled the unavoidable nature of an emotional lull that occurred in 2017, when the defending champions limped into the All-Star break with a 43-45 record.
“Especially when you play that long, from February all the way to November, that’s a long time playing baseball, then you kind of get a couple months off. I don’t know if that’s enough time,” said Bryant. “I think there’s something to be said for that. I think we’ve seen it with previous teams, too. [And] you see the Red Sox this year. I think any one of those guys will tell you that they’re not performing the way they thought they’d perform. I think there’s something to be said for that.”
Yet if there is an element of a championship hangover in play, it seems as if the Red Sox’ travel schedule may have exacerbated it. As a result of the team’s commitment to play in London at the end of June, in a year where the Sox had the N.L. West on their interleague schedule, the team sought to make just two West Coast trips during the year instead of three, and MLB accommodated.
“We have difficult travel because we’re Boston. The geography of teams on the coast is different from that of teams in the middle of the country, but that’s no different than any other year,” said Red Sox CEO/president Sam Kennedy. “With London, we were extremely pleased with the schedule, including, yes, the early, long trip to the West Coast. Because we have the National League West this year, it allowed us to avoid three trips to the West Coast in a year where we’re playing the National League West, No. 1, and No. 2, it provided us with a warm-weather schedule. We love to open on the road. We were pleased and appreciative of what baseball did on those two issues.”
Yet part of the solution was the 11-game, 11-day road trip to open the year, a trip drawn out even further by the exhibition games in Arizona against the Cubs — part of an effort to allow the Sox to adjust time zones — that preceded it. The result was 15 days living out of suitcases, and a 3-8 face plant recalled fondly by approximately zero members of the club.
“We’ve had road trips where we’ve been out there for multiple weeks. It’s a grind. I feel almost like we haven’t been home that much — we’re never at home. That’s what it seems like to me. We’re always on the road, and it’s kind of one of those things that kind of wears on you,” said J.D. Martinez. “It’s been a taxing first half, I would say. One, mentally, because we had the ups-and-downs, and two, because of the travel and all those trips we’ve been taking.”
There was more happening around the periphery of the club that seeped into the conversations of the day-to-day. In spring training, the subject of contract extensions — who was and wasn’t getting them, both with the Red Sox and around the game — was a frequent one. More players endured vexing struggles at the start of this year, and individual and team struggles both created widespread frustrations.
The rescheduling of the White House visit from the very first days of spring training, timing that the Sox pursued in hopes of leaving the matter in the rearview mirror well before the start of the season, to mid-May left another strange topic hovering for days and even weeks.
Most recently, there was the London trip — or, more accurately, the three-city, 7,600-mile journey (not entirely a “road trip,” since the London contests counted as two home games) from Boston to London to Toronto to Detroit the last 11 days before the break.
“Really, really brutal,” said Bogaerts.
“We went to, what, three countries on a road trip? It’s not easy,” said Martinez. “But it’s the hand we’ve been dealt this year. We try to make the best of it and try to figure it out.”
To their credit, after London, they did. The Red Sox closed out with a 5-1 stretch against the Blue Jays and Tigers. For all of the discussions of the difficulty and frequency of their travel, the team is an elite 29-19 (.604) on the road. Their poor home record (20-22, .476 — a mark that includes the two London games) is the reason why a yawning gap has opened between them and the Yankees.
Of course, it’s possible that the relative infrequency of time at Fenway — the team’s 42 home contests are tied for the fewest in the game; accounting for London, no team has spent more time away from its home park than the Sox — has contributed to the unimpressive performance.
But there’s nothing definitive. No way of knowing the role travel, or the team’s deliberate spring training build-up, or the more frequent conversations about off-field issues has played in the team’s good-not-great performance. Moreover, those around the team both in uniform and the front office recognize that every season comes with its unique challenges, and that it falls on the team to figure out how to work through them.
“[The first-half] was weird. It was definitely weird. But it’s kind of what we signed up for, too. It’s one of those things. We’ve just got to hang with them,” said Mookie Betts. “You can blame it on anything, but at the end of the day, we have to play better, I have to play better. It is what it is. There’s no excuses for anything. You’ve got to be ready to play.”
“You’re not going to hear us make any excuses about performance based on travel or logistics,” said Kennedy. “We play a lot of prime-time games, Sunday nights. That goes with the territory. We’ve managed to win four World Series having rigorous travel. We aren’t worried about it.”
There is basis for believing that the team’s true talent level will become apparent after the break. The 2017 Cubs, for instance, burst out of the gates after the All-Star Game with six straight wins on the way to an N.L.-best 49-25 (.662) record down the stretch that concluded with a division title and an advance to the NLCS.
“That whole season, we were kind of looking forward to the break, we got those four days off, and we’re like, ‘OK, now let’s get this thing right,’” said Bryant. “We ended up doing that.”
The Red Sox hope for something similar. Of their last 72 games, 39 (54 percent) are at home, tied for the most of any team. While they face a daunting stretch in the next few weeks that will include the Dodgers for three games this weekend and 14 straight games against the Rays and Yankees in July and August, September presents the possibility of a downhill run — one that, the Red Sox hope, permits a halting start to the year to give way to a timely sprint to the end.
“We ended the first half on a high note,” said Betts. “We have to kind of ride that wave throughout the season.”