Commentary

Blowouts happen, but they make it hard to avoid tightrope Red Sox must walk

Rich Hill pulled from the game by Alex Cora
Rich Hill flopped against the Orioles on Monday night, failing to record an out in the fifth inning as the Red Sox squandered a series against the AL East basement dwellers. Associated Press

COMMENTARY

Digging too deep into a night like Monday at Fenway Park is a dangerous exercise. The Red Sox were trounced, 10-0. Rich Hill, who’s been everything you’d dream a 42-year-old starter could be this year, had nothing. (Full credit for that cover of the plate, though.) The offense produced five baserunners.

These nights happen to champions and also-rans alike. For whatever reason, I remember a similar game last August against Texas, the Sox on the fringe of the wild-card fight kicking the ball around against one of the worst teams in baseball.

Of course, they’re a lot easier to weather with a positive identity having formed on a roster. These Red Sox? They should play their 50th game of 2022 Tuesday night, and I return to a simple question:

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What are these Red Sox, exactly? What are they building toward?

We know in a macro sense. A sustainable contender. A franchise that can grow its own each year and can use its financial might to paper over some mistakes.

But are they that? Not yet. Heck, I’d argue what’s coalescing in Baltimore feels at minimum just as promising at the moment.

The Red Sox have played six series against American League East competition and dropped them all, so much of the positive momentum of the prior few weeks drained in that bullpen debacle Friday. They’re 7-14 in division, and that’s despite avoiding the best-in-the-AL Yankees for three months.

Losing five of eight to the Orioles? When ace John Means is in Tommy John rehab? The nicest thing to say about it might be it’ll feel less calamitous not long down the line.

Baltimore has hope again after a lost half-decade. Adley Rutschman has arrived, baseball’s top prospect viewed as a potential face of the franchise at catcher. (Yes, they did this with Matt Wieters too.)

Monday’s starter Tyler Wells, who shut out the Sox for six innings, is the best right now of a young bunch, but what Alex Cora wouldn’t give for one arm as reliable as either Jorge López or Dillon Tate in his bullpen. Good grief has he got nowhere to turn.

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Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays, and Anthony Santander aren’t exactly murderer’s row, but they’ve got at minimum two more years together before Santander reaches free agency. With their only eight-figure salary (Rougned Odor!) off the books at year’s end if they want it? The slate’s there to draw as they see fit.

The Red Sox have more committed to Matt Barnes, who gave up a three-run homer hours after you stopped paying attention on Monday. Mop-up duty? Yes. Hitting his spot? It appeared so. But off a fastball he’s clearly lacked confidence in all year.

Boston’s best all-around player this season is Rafael Devers, who they’ve failed to sign to a long-term extension and whose free agency after next season gets more expensive by the day. Their No. 2, J.D. Martinez, seems unlikely to be brought back next year. Their No. 3, Xander Bogaerts, can opt out and hit the market after the World Series. (You may have heard this a couple times.)

Compared to that, a rotation humming along on reclamation projects and free-agent-to-be Nate Eovaldi is a positive alternative. Nick Pivetta has stabilized, and looks the hope he was in October. Garrett Whitlock is something special. Brayan Bello is an actual exciting starting prospect for 2023, and here’s hoping Bryan Mata can soon join him.

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But if I asked you right now how the 2023 Red Sox are going to win games, how could you answer? This is an offense-first team, 2-19 when they fail to score four runs — that .095 winning percentage more than twice as bad as league average (.232). Who’s going to drive that next offense is anyone’s guess.

Identity matters. The Celtics? They’re a defensive monster that has All-Star caliber players capable of taking over a game. They’ve coalesced into something real.

The Bruins? They were, in their Cup contention days, something. Rough to play against, able to beat you offensively with multiple lines. Now they’re not deep enough, they’re watching the window close on their core, their prospect base feels lacking, and they’re slammed against the salary cap.

I do think there’s a path forward for the Red Sox, and despite their relative frugality compared to recent history, they maintain the ability to spend their way out of trouble like few teams can should they decide to use it.

It just feels like they’re chasing it these days. Both in the macro sense of what’s looming as soon as this summer, and in the micro sense of this season.

That games like Friday’s 8-2 lead turned 12-8 loss also happen to good teams feels beside the point. (Last year’s Sox had one against Tampa like a week after the game I just mentioned.) The calendar will flip to June with the Red Sox swimming amongst the Texases and Clevelands, needing another hot week just to get near the Tampas and Torontos we’ve considered their peers.

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The Jays’ young lineup has underperformed this year, but they’ve been lifted by a rock-solid rotation (that’s gotten little from stud José Berríos). The Yankees are firing on all cylinders, though they face questions not unlike Boston’s with Aaron Judge. Tampa is holding it together despite major injury issues.

The Red Sox continue to need to show us what they are. And as they continue to squander opportunities, the hill gets steeper to make it a picture we’re going to want to look at.

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