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Alex Speier

Here’s why the Red Sox continue to struggle against elite teams

Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers was tagged out at first base by Brock Holt but was ruled safe after Hector Velazquez was found to have blocked the base path.
Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers was tagged out at first base by Brock Holt but was ruled safe after Hector Velazquez was found to have blocked the base path.(Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)

“This is bad baseball.”

Alex Rodriguez offered the strikingly blunt assessment of the Red Sox in the bottom of the 11th inning during ESPN’s broadcast of Sunday night’s 7-4 loss to the Dodgers in 12 innings at Fenway Park. He was reacting to the decision by manager Alex Cora to have Marco Hernandez swing away after a leadoff double by Jackie Bradley Jr., a decision that backfired spectacularly when Hernandez (an opposite-field hitter) grounded to short, and Bradley ran into an out at third.

Yet the characterization hovered over much of the final two games of the series against the Dodgers that opened the Red Sox’ stretch run, a reminder of how much a team that displayed almost flawless execution for seven months last year — culminating in a five-game World Series triumph over the Dodgers — has descended from that lofty standard.

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They’ve fallen and, to date, they can’t get up — at least not for any sustained duration over a couple of weeks.

There’s still time for that to change — and it will have to do so quickly if the Red Sox want their title defense to be something other than a clear disappointment. The Red Sox are about to play 21 consecutive games against American League East teams, including a 14-game stretch solely against the Rays and Yankees from July 22 through August 4.

It’s a run that some around the club believe will determine the fate of the season. The Red Sox will have to be better than they were against the Dodgers, and better than they’ve been this year in order to make the 2019 season a meaningful one.

While the Red Sox entered the break on the upswing, three games against the team with baseball’s best record were enough to offer reminders of some of the concerns hovering over this year’s Red Sox:

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They still aren’t performing at an elite level against elite opponents

The Dodgers have been outstanding against their best competition, posting a 35-22 (.614) record against teams with records of .500 or better. The Yankees (24-15, .615) and Astros (38-24, .613) similarly have been incredible against such clubs. The Red Sox are now 19-28 (.404, 22nd in the majors) against teams with records of .500 or better. The only teams with worse marks are the White Sox, Pirates, Mariners, Royals, Marlins, Blue Jays, Orioles, and Tigers — all teams with losing records.

They still aren’t performing at home

The Red Sox are now 21-22 at Fenway, and 21-24 in “home” games (London evidently being their home away from home). Only one team ever in a non-strike year (the 2001 Braves) has reached the playoffs with a losing home record.

The rotation is not turning

Pitching is an art that requires extraordinary precision, particularly for a pitcher like Chris Sale who has so many moving parts in his crossfire delivery with a low three-quarters arm slot. And while he was well-calibrated in the first inning of his start on Saturday, exhibiting power (mid-90s) and command (dotting the edges of the strike zone), his mechanics quickly unraveled into a mess of inconsistency, his extension towards the plate varying at times by more than half a foot even when throwing the same pitch two straight times.

There’s a lot of mechanical inconsistency in what he’s doing this season, which in turn results in inconsistent velocities, inconsistent spin, inconsistent command, and the mental anguish of a pitcher accustomed to dominance who is now searching for something elusive. The move to solidify the back end of the rotation by adding Andrew Cashner made a ton of sense, but as Peter Abraham noted, it pales in comparison to the importance of having the Sox figure out their rotation mainstays.

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It’s worth noting that Eduardo Rodriguez delivered a brilliant outing in the first game of the series against the Dodgers, mostly carving their lineup with his best fastball and changeup of the season. His progress – and the sudden cluster of seven-inning outings he’s produced in June and July — represents a promising sign for the team’s starters, but the team needs Sale to be Sale if it hopes to surge.

The Benintendi concerns aren’t going away

Andrew Benintendi sat for back-to-back days before the All-Star break in an effort to work behind the scenes and become, in Cora’s words, more “hitterish.” The immediate returns showed promise, with the leftfielder going 4-for-6 with a double and triple in his first game back, but he didn’t carry any momentum into and through the break. The Dodgers carved him up, with Benintendi going 1-for-14 with five strikeouts while repeatedly unable to hold up on checked swings.

Checked swings are a marker of something very dangerous at the plate — a lack of pitch recognition and/or a lack of decisiveness. As @redsoxstats observed, even home plate ump Pat Hoberg — one pitch after seemingly expanding the strike zone on called strike on a 3-1 pitch — found Benintendi an easy target of criticism after one of those checked swings.

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The Red Sox lineup is deep enough that it can mask a relatively modest performance from Benintendi (.266/.343/.419). But it doesn’t help the team’s consistency to have Benintendi lost amidst a search — with struggles not only on the offensive but also the defensive side.

He did make a temporarily game-saving throw from left late in Sunday’s game, but, overall, Benintendi has seemed out of sync in the field and at the plate for much of the year.

“This is the most frustrated I’ve been, for sure,” Benintendi said.

It wasn’t that far from being a success

The Red Sox rolled the Dodgers in the first game of the series, and Eduardo Rodriguez added to the limited but growing evidence that he’s finding ways to be a more reliable and stable source of innings. In particular, Rodriguez is showing an improved ability to recover from early-game struggles and inconsistencies to find a delivery and mix that works for him and allows him to delivery five or more innings — critical in saving a bullpen that has been overworked by its limited rotation innings.

Between Rodriguez and Cashner, the Red Sox have greater stability in two of the four rotation spots that had been subject to sudden jolts in different directions. Meanwhile, even as the bottom line of two losses in three games against the Dodgers suggests a disappointing resumption after the All-Star break, the Red Sox were able to come back to tie Sunday’s game in the late innings and had numerous opportunities to win the rubber match of the series. Had they pushed across a single run — if, for instance, a Xander Bogaerts single with runners on first and second and two outs in the 11th had snuck into the outfield rather than getting gloved by second baseman Chris Taylor — the narrative of the series and this month would have changed.

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The Red Sox are a mediocre team getting outplayed by better teams. But they aren’t very far from being a good team that holds its ground and looks at least the equal of contenders. Whether they are able to close that gap between potential and performance — and how soon they can do so — remain unknowns that will determine the team’s direction in 2019 and beyond.


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.