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Sox Split with the Tribe – What Did We Learn?

In this week’s BSoT Red Sox Column to be Named Later, I take a look at the Red Sox four game showdown with the Indians and wonder if we found out anything new about this team.  I also reveal a disturbing trend developing for leadoff hitter Mookie Betts and a stat you won’t hear them talk about on NESN.

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What a difference 24 hours can make.  After Tuesday night’s Red Sox loss to the Indians, their second of the series and their overall third loss in a row, you could feel the tension among Red Sox fans throughout New England.  The bats had (temporarily) gone silent, and the greatest fears of the bullpen were being realized.  But as they have proven so often this season, this Red Sox team is different from those that have come before them.

The Red Sox went into the big series against the Indians coming off a shutout loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, which ran the Red Sox scoreless streak to 14 innings dating back to the fourth inning on Saturday.  While the Red Sox got off to a quick 3-0 lead in Monday’s series opener against Cleveland, starter Rick Porcello was again bitten by the home run bug and failed to hold the lead.  The bullpen was similarly unable to keep the Sox in the game, and a ninth inning rally was not enough to take game one.

Game two followed the same pattern, with Nathan Eovaldi and the bullpen unable to keep Cleveland hitters in the park.  The Red Sox had suddenly lost three straight games for the first time this summer, and the lead over the Yankees had shrunk to eight games.  Those of us who have seen the Red Sox collapse in the fall far too often in the past were bracing ourselves for the ugliness.

Things weren’t looking much better in the third game when the Red Sox were down by two runs before their first at bat, again on a home run.  Mild panic was beginning to build from Williamstown to Provincetown, and all points in between.  The Red Sox put a single run on the board in the bottom of the first, but the bats remained ineffective for three more innings before coming back to life.  Led by Xander Bogaerts, the offense came alive and, despite the bullpen once again struggling, outhit the Indians on their way to a 10-4 thumping of the Tribe.

The two teams returned Thursday for a matinee get-away game in the series finale.  David Price continued his second half dominance (1.09 ERA since the All-Star Break) and shut out the powerful Indian offense on the way to a 7-0 Red Sox win, splitting the series and calming the angst of the faithful.  Like they had against Houston earlier in the season, the Red Sox showed resiliency when faced with the prospect of dropping a series to one of the few teams in the league that is viewed to be in contention to go deep into the playoffs.

Price is neither a fan favorite nor a media darling, and much of that is his own fault.  However, his recent performance merits praise.  He has recorded a quality start in his last seven starts dating back to July 12th against Toronto.  Since then, he has not allowed more than two runs in a start.  With Sale on and off the disabled list with shoulder inflammation, Price has stepped up and assumed the ace role Sox fans have been waiting for since his signing in 2016.

The series by no means erased all concerns of Red Sox fans.  Porcello, Eovaldi and Brian Johnson were hit hard by the Indians, and the bullpen was generally unable to hold opponents at bay to let the offense climb back into the game.  The offense struggled for stretches against quality pitching, especially Indians ace Corey Kluber and the talented Cleveland bullpen.  For two teams who appear to be so evenly matched, the bullpens are the glaring difference.  More on that in a bit.

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All Betts Are Off

Mookie Betts has had an outstanding season in 2018, and has thrust himself into the discussion for MVP candidacy and for consideration as baseball’s best player.  Alex Cora’s decision to place Betts in the leadoff spot, emulating the Astros’ George Springer, has been credited with turning Betts around after a disappointing 2017 season, and with igniting the Red Sox offense.  Betts is viewed as having the potential to provide instant offense in the first inning with his combination of power and speed to immediate put pressure on the opposing team. 

Lately however, I have noticed that the Red Sox and Betts have not exactly gotten off to quick starts.  So as I usually do, I looked to the stats to see if my perception matched reality.  And I was absolutely shocked by what I found.  In 31 games since the All-Star Break, Betts is hitting only .037 leading off a game with only one hit and ten strikeouts, including strikeouts in all four games of the Cleveland series.

Now, I’m not saying Betts needs to be moved down in the order.  He is still hitting .293 with four homers and 13 RBI over that span, off from his season pace, but still very productive.  The offense is still clicking, and the team is still winning at a historic rate.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  But this is a serious trend that bears watching into September, and one that hopefully will reverse itself when October arrives.

A Look Ahead

The Red Sox now head off to Florida for a three game set with the Rays in St. Pete followed by a brief two game home stand against the Marlins before going on the road for four games against the White Sox and three against NL East contender Atlanta. 

The next matchup with a potential playoff opponent for the Sox will come following the Atlanta series when the Red Sox return to Fenway for a three game set against the Astros.  Houston has been struggling of late and are in a dog fight with Oakland for the AL West. 

We didn’t learn any more about the Red Sox from the Cleveland Series.  It isn’t likely that we will learn any more about them in the upcoming Astros series, or in any of the other so-called “big series” the Sox have left this season.  The Red Sox have a very good team, yet one with a flaw in the bullpen that could become fatal come October.  We just won’t know until we get there.

Follow Bill on Twitter @BTravers_BSoT. 

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