Just 36 games remain in the regular season for the Red Sox, and in some sense we’re still figuring out exactly what they are.
After Rafael Devers’s “Jump on my back, boys” performance in a comeback from a 6-0 hole against the Orioles Sunday, they have won five in a row, and per baseball-reference.com, their odds of reaching the playoffs have increased to . . . well, just 2.8 percent. But that’s more than double their odds a week ago. It’s not exactly hope, but it’s something.
Over on the bummer side of the ledger, they fell behind, 6-0, to the Orioles, which no team should do unless it is trying to get relegated to the Pacific Coast League. And Chris Sale is getting his sore left elbow checked out by Dr. James Andrews, with a determination of its condition hovering over not just this season, but next.
(A few days ago, someone asked on Twitter what word or phrase you’d eliminate from sports if you could. My initial answer was “Talk about . . .,’’ which is such a lazy way for a reporter to ask a question that it’s not even a question. But perhaps the choice should be the ever-ominous “he will visit with Dr. Andrews.”)
While the Red Sox’ final standing is still to be determined, we can already deduce what they are not. These are not the insubordinate and unprofessional 2011 Red Sox who buried themselves in a heap of beer cans and chicken bones in an epic September collapse.
They are not the 2014 Red Sox, a collection of veterans who, so inspirational in unison the championship season before, became so surly in their struggles that, as colleague Alex Speier details in his revelatory new book, it made Mookie Betts’s first taste of the big leagues an unpleasant one.
They are not the 2001 Red Sox, who had Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, about 20 aging players who thought they were as good as they once were (they weren’t), and a smug, dipstick interim manager in Joe Kerrigan who thought he knew better than both of them.
This year’s Red Sox may be frustrating and disappointing on the field, but they are not unlikable as a whole, like some of those aforementioned failures of roster construction and ego management. It’s essentially the same core of players that led the Red Sox to the most drama-free championship they’ll ever have less than a full year ago. Do not mistake a lack of results for effort; we already know these guys care. Sometimes we forget how hard baseball can be.
While this Red Sox team is still scripting its final act, there are elements to it that do remind me of some teams and seasons from the franchise’s past — just not those miserable aforementioned ones. This is not that bad, and there’s still that slim chance (2.8 percent!) that it gets much better, especially if they continue to navigate this stretch of mediocre to lousy opponents as they should.
A few teams of the past that share some characteristics, traits and plot twists with this one:
■ 2006: The obvious connection is that each team suffered a brutal August sweep by the Yankees that felt like the death knell at the time. It was in ’06; the Yankees pummeled the Sox in a five-game set from August 18-21, and the Sox eventually finished 11 games back.
These Red Sox lost four straight in New York Aug. 2-4, but they have gone 8-4 since, so right now that series still foreshadows only a finish shy of the playoffs. That ’06 team endured many more serious concerns than this team: Jon Lester was diagnosed with cancer in August, David Ortiz missed time with a heart issue, and there were far more injuries overall.
The most vivid comparison to me is both teams’ unexpected reliance on pitchers that never were supposed to have a role. The Andrew Cashner/Ryan Weber/Brian Johnson roles in ’06 were played by the likes of Jason Johnson, Kevin Jarvis, and Kason Gabbard.
■ 1977: The current Sox have a terrific lineup led by Devers, Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and J.D. Martinez, one that is second in the majors in runs. The pitching? Uh, well, that’s why they are where they are, isn’t it?
The ’77 Sox had a similar construction, though they were a more complete team, winning 97 games and finishing 2½ games back of the Yankees. Their lineup, which had five players with at least 26 homers (Jim Rice led the way with 39) and eight with 14 or more, was ferocious.
But Don Zimmer never knew much more about pitching beyond that he couldn’t hit it in his playing days, and the Red Sox’ leading winner was reliever Bill Campbell, with 13 victories.
Also of note: Both had mashing young third basemen. Pretty sure Devers is going to have a longer run than Butch Hobson (30 homers, 112 RBIs in ’77), a favorite at this address. He’s already provided three times more WAR this year (5.2) than Hobson did in his Red Sox career (1.7).
■ 2002: This team was frustrating and immensely likable at once. It featured an incredible amount of high-end talent: Pedro, Manny, Nomar, free-agent signee Johnny Damon, late-season pickup Cliff Floyd, 20-game winner and team WAR leader Derek Lowe.
But general manager Dan Duquette, just as Dave Dombrowski did with this year’s Sox, left some unfilled voids on the roster that ultimately haunted them in the end.
They won 93 games despite Frank Castillo going 6-15 with a 5.07 ERA in 23 starts and Tony Clark hitting 3 homers with a .556 OPS in 90 games as the first baseman before Floyd arrived.
This team missed the playoffs, but after the misery of the ’01 Kerrigan/Mike Lansing/Dante Bichette crew, it was a breath of fresh air, with Damon, Carlos Baerga, and 43-year-old Rickey Henderson bringing charisma and camaraderie to the roster.
There would be heartbreak to come in ’03, but beautiful days beyond that, and ’02 set the stage. There are more good things to come for this current core of Red Sox too, even if they don’t come around this season.