If the Red Sox needed a reminder of who and what they were last season on their way to a World Series title, the Los Angeles Dodgers were the ideal opponent to jog their memory. For one night it felt like this season really was a continuation of 2018, another chapter instead of an entirely different story.
Led by ever upbeat manager Alex Cora, who has the eternal flame burning for this team, the Sox have maintained all season that it’s only a matter of time before they reclaim their 2018 form. They’ve refuted the notion that this season is its own independent entity, wholly separate and unrelated to all they accomplished last season. Different year, same result against the Dodgers, the team the Sox set down in five games last October. The Red Sox defeated the Dodgers, 8-1, on Friday night to commence baseball’s unofficial second half of the season in front of a Dodger-friendly crowd at Fenway Park.
After Rafael Devers’s RBI, Wall-ball double in the sixth, the Fenway Faithful broke out the chants of “Beat LA! Beat LA!” — a familiar and nostalgic refrain in these parts when taking on a team that calls America’s second-largest city home. But the significance of beating LA for the Red Sox had less to do with geography and more to do with the place the Dodgers occupy in major league baseball’s hierarchy as owners of baseball’s best record.
So far this season, the Sox have been baseball bullies. They pick on the teams that are weaker than them, then back down when confronted by teams in their weight class. The Sox thrive against the hapless and hopeless MLB entities, the tired, the talent poor, the huddled hardball messes. They finished the first half by taking five of six from the Toronto Blue Jays and the Detroit Tigers. But they haven’t played well against the upper crust. Entering Friday’s World Series rematch the Sox were 17-25 against teams with a record of .500 or better, a .405 winning percentage.
Like a lot of things with this team, that needs to change post-All-Star break, especially because the schedule serves up more of MLB’s gentry. The Sox open the second half with 17 of 24 games against teams with winning records, including a heavy dose of AL East rivals, the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays. Mixed in there are seven games against the JV Jays and the tanking Baltimore Orioles, the type of have-nots that have served as the Sox’ saving grace in their playoff chase.
Boston is 32-16 against teams with records at or below .500 but awoke Friday saddled with the 23d best record in MLB against teams at or above .500, just ahead of the shambolic New York Mets.
The Dodgers represented yet another opportunity for a launching pad point in the Red Sox season. LA is a team with something to prove of its own. The Dodgers are headed for a seventh straight division title and a third straight National League pennant. They boasted baseball’s best record (60-32) and run differential (plus-129) at the All-Star break. They don’t want to be the Buffalo Bills of baseball. As Cora said, they’re a team on a mission.
“We have to come out aggressive because we know that these guys are one of the best teams in the game. Obviously, they’re going to come here trying to beat us pretty bad after last year. I think it was a good way for us to start,” said Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts.
All season long the Sox have provided professions and promises of an eventual, inevitable return to their 2018 form. The second half and the presence of the best team in baseball at Fenway offered yet another chance for the Sox to reorient their season.
“I know they’re here. I know who they are. I know how they’re playing, but in the end, it’s up to us,” said Cora. “Our goal against them is just like our goal with everybody else — win the series and move on. The good thing is that it’s a team that everybody knows that right now they’re the best team in baseball. They are, so if you look for motivation after the All-Star break, well, it’s right there. From Day One until the All-Star break what they’ve been doing it’s amazing. It’s kind of like good to have them here. They’re great, so just be ready to play.”
The Sox rode a stellar start from Eduardo Rodriguez and a five-run seventh inning that was interrupted by a one-hour rain delay and highlighted by a Bogaerts’s three-run blast to their fifth straight win. Exposing Boston’s bullpen is much harder when the bats are shielding it, scoring six or more runs in five straight.
The old baseball bromide goes that momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher. It’s remarkable that the Sox are 14-5 in E-Rod’s starts this season and just 6-12 in starts made by ace Chris Sale, who takes the mound Saturday in search of his first win at Fenway this season. Sale is winless in eight home starts this season.
The series opener against Big Blue unequivocally went better than the last time the Sox faced a contender prior to this rendezvous with the old friend Dave Roberts and his Dodgers. They got their brains beat in and their bullpen beat up in London against the first-place Yankees. Adding insult to injurious result, one questioner referred to Cora as “coach.” Former Red Sox manager Terry Francona would’ve sent daggers with his eyes after being called coach following being swept by the Yankees.
The ever-confident Cora graciously let it slide. But no matter the side of the Atlantic Ocean, the Sox need to do a better job of properly addressing their play against teams that haven’t waved the white flag on the season.
“We’re very talented. We know that. We’re good. It’s just a matter of going out there, and we start doing it on a consistent basis,” said Cora. “It starts with the rotation and then the bullpen. We have to play better defense. We got to be more consistent, offensively. It’s all around. But in the end, this is the team we had in spring training that everybody was talking about it, that we had a chance to repeat. So, why not? Start thinking that way instead of feeling sorry for ourselves because nobody is going to feel sorry for us out there. So, we better start playing the way we’re capable of, and we will do that.”
Cora shrugged off a pre-game question about his team’s inability to play winning baseball against teams of similar talent level. But if the recentering of the Sox competitive chakra that Cora is adamant about is to come to fruition they’re going to have to perform better against clubs sharing their win-now window, clubs like the Dodgers. Last season, as they romped to a franchise-record 108 wins and a championship, the Sox were sharp against baseball’s iron, going 41-33 (.554).
The three teams with the best winning percentages in baseball last season against teams .500 or above were the Yankees (41-30), the Dodgers, and the Red Sox. The three best records entering play on Friday belonged to the Yankees (23-15, .605), the Dodgers (30-21, .588), and the San Diego Padres (26-19, .578), who were one percentage point better than the Houston Astros (30-22, .577). Three of those four teams are serious World Series contenders. The stat has some merit.
Winners beat other winners. They don’t just beat up on the detritus.
To get back to the top of their game, the Sox have to be more than bottom feeders.