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Watching the Boston Red Sox, While They're Still Weird

Right now, the Red Sox are a dazzling offense yoked to a miserable pitching staff. They'll improve at the trade deadline, but let's savor the oddity until then.

by Robert O'Connell
Jun 28 2016, 5:15pm

Photo by Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Recent struggles notwithstanding, the Boston Red Sox are a pretty good baseball team. By August 1st, the date of Major League Baseball's trade deadline, they figure to be a better one. Their plan all along has been so apparent it hardly needs confirmation from any front-office types. Boston is bat-rich and arm-poor, and they'll likely add a starting pitcher or two as the year narrows toward October.

Once that happens, a familiar routine will unfold. Folks will put Undetermined Late-Summer Addition's stats up on TV and say things like, "You do not want to face this guy twice in a seven-game series," or "The Red Sox went out there and got what they needed."

Read More: Watching The Detroit Tigers, Who Are Trying to Drag the Past into the Present

The yakkers will be right, of course; asking Clay Buchholz to start a stretch run or a playoff game in 2016 is only slightly less worrisome than pulling a fan in a Clay Buchholz jersey out of the lower deck to do the same. The strong-armed newcomer, whoever he is, will be vaunted as a savior, and that narrative will hold for as long as Boston remains in it. This drill has become an annual occurrence in baseball, a way of pulling together some thumbnail character development notes for late-arriving autumn audiences.

The only casualty here will be a minor one: the current, flawed Red Sox, whose four or so months of work will immediately become a sort of drawn-out prelude. The remodeled squad will make for a better postseason participant, but the present version has its charms. The Red Sox team currently working its way through midsummer scores runs in heaps, in style, and in just about every way you can imagine. Until Savior TBD arrives, they need to.

Look at this fucking king. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Here's how the Red Sox spent a three-day stretch late last week: losing to the Chicago White Sox 8-6, beating the White Sox 8-7, and beating the Texas Rangers 8-7. That first game's starter was Eduardo Rodriguez, once a phenom who now refuses to throw his breaking ball; the second's was Rick Porcello, who surrendered a characteristic four runs in five and a third innings; the third's was David Price, who after some early-season struggles had been trending upward before he failed to make it through three frames in Texas.

Not many teams can wrest two wins from a three-game stretch in which they allow 22 runs, but the Red Sox are uniquely equipped for such a challenge. They score more than anyone, and their lineup as balanced as it is varied. In David Ortiz, they have a historic slugger putting up some of his best numbers during his final season, and in Xander Bogaerts they have a brilliant young shortstop who flicks hits off the Green Monster with all the strain of someone swinging shut a screen door. Their franchise icon second baseman pounds singles up the middle with all the chill of someone undergoing his fourth non-anesthetized root canal of the day; it is a testament to Dustin Pedroia that he is not just as effective as ever but also as alarmingly keyed-up in his 11th season. They feature not one but two outfielders, breakout star Jackie Bradley Jr. and already broken-out star Mookie Betts, whose little ticking swings get triples rattling around in the corner of the yard. And they have Hanley Ramirez, an intermittent dynamo who, at his best, can send a baseball farther away in a greater hurry than any of the aforementioned, and most other living humans, as well.

In and of itself, this collection would be plenty of fun, running as it does every offensive gamut. One or two wrinkles in organizational history straighten out differently, a couple capable arms join their staff of chuck-and-hopers, and they're the American League's answer to the Chicago Cubs, breezing to a massive division lead and competing less with the other teams in their league than with their own dizzy projections. The Cubs, though, score runs while the other team doesn't. The Red Sox score while the other team does, which turns every game into a bruising exchange of haymakers.

What Boston loses in peace of mind through this approach, it gains in drama. That 8-7 win over the White Sox ended in the tenth, when Bogaerts reached for a low pitch and served it into shallow center to bring home the winning run. The next evening's victory didn't require extra innings but was far nervier. Down to the final out, Betts planted a middle-cut fastball over the left-center wall to tie the game, and a couple batters later a wild pitch let Pedroia scamper home and put the Red Sox ahead. The bottom of the ninth went to Koji Uehara, the ballet-on-tightrope reliever who two nights earlier had given up a Boston lead in the eighth; this evening, his combination of washy fastballs and heavy splitters struck out the side.

Jackie Bradley Jr., seen here doing Jackie Bradley Jr. things. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This white-knuckle process, repeated, more or less accounts for the Red Sox' current standing, six games above .500 and four and a half back of the AL East–leading Baltimore Orioles. The obvious charge against the approach is that the offense isn't sustainable, but thus far that seems not to be the case; the Boston lineup is deep and layered enough to be mostly immune to full-on slumps. The pitching corps presents a far greater threat than regression, as demonstrated by a current three-game losing streak during which the opposition has scored ten, six, and 13 runs. This is not the easiest way for a baseball team to stay in contention, but it's what Boston is.

What Boston isn't, at least according to prevailing wisdom, is October-ready. Team president Dave Dombrowski will spend the next few weeks making the kind of calls and spending the kind of money that will get the team there, and make the Red Sox whatever they will become. Until then, to the delight of everyone who likes to see crooked numbers, they'll just have to hit and hang in.

***

Given the choice, what kind of baseball season would you want? The easy answer is one like the Cubs are enjoying a league over, building an insurmountable lead on the strength of an almost flawless team and a seemingly endless supply of world-beating call-ups. The Cubs, though, have already erased most regular-season doubt; they'll astonish over the next three months but won't be able to thrill again, really, until the postseason. If they come up short then, their campaign will be oddly lacking memorable specifics. They deal in mind-boggling months, and as such they haven't needed too many gutty evenings.

The Red Sox' fireworks, meanwhile, are shot through with a vivifying strain of pressure. They might frustrate their fans, but they also relieve that frustration whenever Ortiz lifts one high and deep or Bogaerts circles second before the right fielder has even reached the ball. They are a messy, work-in-progress blast, and watching them right now is enough fun that we might even still remember it, dimly, once they become something better.

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