By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
If you made it to within 15 minutes of midnight on Sunday night, you saw the Red Sox snare victory from the wreckage of another bullpen implosion against the Astros.
If you’d gone to bed at a reasonable hour like any respectable working stiff, you probably would have predicted Monday headlines of the Sox getting swept at home and Carrie Underwood yet again changing up the Sunday Night Football theme song.
Instead, a dying quail off the bat of Mitch Moreland in the ninth proved to be a temporary salve for that pesky itch of a bullpen.
Sure, Boston dropped the first two games of the series, at home, to a team they’ll likely encounter if they plan to reach the World Series. They blew a save in Friday’s opener and another in the finale. But the fans went home happy, and Sunday night became another page of text in what many anticipate to be a memorable story.
For all the (much of it valid) hand-wringing about their pending postseason fate, the 2018 Red Sox have done everything they can to prove they are indeed different from the past two years.
Start with Alex Cora. The rookie manager has been affable, reasoned and generally unflinching in leading the club to its best regular season winning percentage in the past century. And while John Farrell can certainly stake a claim to any number of accomplishments during his tenure here as skipper, Cora has been a breath of fresh air.
J.D. Martinez has been far better than we ever expected. We spent the offseason stressed out about the Yankees’ acquisition of reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton. While Stanton’s been very good for the Bombers, it is Martinez who has submitted the MVP-level campaign in 2018, whacking seven more homers, knocking in 35 more runs, and posting a batting average 66 points higher than Stanton.
He’s been flanked by another MVP candidate in Mookie Betts. Xander Bogaerts has compiled the best start-to-finish season of his career - the one we’ve been hoping for since he emerged as a 20-year old phenom on the 2013 title team.
Andrew Benintendi has posted Ellis Burks-like numbers in the outfield. And Eduardo Rodriguez, when healthy, has been the best version of himself we’ve seen over four big league seasons.
Then you’ve got the potential folk heroes. Every great team needs them. Steve Pearce has mashed lefties at a prodigious .385/.510/.692 clip and contributed some key hits, including a triple Tuesday night. Brandon Phillips has just one hit with the team: a game-winning blast last week against Atlanta.
Could Steven Wright channel Tim Wakefield in 1999 and regain his All-Star form out of the bullpen?
Even David Price is on pace to make 30-plus starts, with perhaps better-than-expected numbers. He’s no longer the Cy Young candidate the Red Sox signed, but he’s collected 14 wins in a bounce-back effort as the number two starter for a team that presumably will deploy Chris Sale in a Game 1 playoff scenario.
Sale threw just 26 pitches against the Blue Jays Tuesday in what was nominally his second start since July 27.
My colleague Joe Murray often asks fans if they are “in” or “out” on a team, a player, or an idea. I am “in” on this team, but it’s completely reasonable to cast doubts. The past two postseasons revealed the Red Sox to be paper tigers, and that’s hard to forget. Even this year, there are plenty of reasons to be “out.”
You can criticize the soft American League, with perhaps seven teams ticketed for 90-loss seasons, or cite Price and Rick Porcello’s collection of postseason failures. You can be concerned about Sale’s shoulder or worry about a bullpen where Matt Barnes is out indefinitely and Wright currently appears to be the most reliable option.
For the most part, it seems like people are “in.” The wins, the walk-offs; those are tough to ignore. And while we’re waiting for October, September is full of games against playoff-level competition, with a combined nine matchups remaining with the Indians and Yankees, six of those on the road. In the meantime, the Sox will try to work out the kinks and beat up on the Blue Jays, Mets and Orioles.
That’s the classic recipe for a playoff team, right? Go .500 against the good teams and make hay against the bums?
Boston’s record against projected AL playoff teams is 15-15. Literally every time they’ve had a chance to position themselves as the top dog in the junior circuit, they’ve done just enough to make you think it’s possible, like grabbing the last two games of a four-game set in Houston back in June. Or Moreland on Sunday night. But they've barely provided any clues about what to expect when the leaves start to turn.
That’s why many are dipping a toe on the idea of a postseason run. The best regular season record only counts for so much. The Astros are the defending champs and they may indeed have the better roster. The Red Sox might have a fatal flaw. Or, we may be watching the culmination of a very special season.
So are you IN? or are you OUT?
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.