The Boston Red Sox received their latest World Series rings on Tuesday, and this version — their fourth in the last 15 seasons — is a beauty. Encircling the facing are two rows of 128 total diamonds, symbolizing the franchise’s nine overall championships and its 119 victories in 2018. The inscription under the band is not subtle: TEAM FOR THE AGES.
So it was. The Red Sox were so dominant last October that they lost only once in each of their three postseason series. In their first three series of this season, though, they won only once apiece. They lost their home opener, too, leaving their record at 3-9 before Thursday night’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays.
The easy explanation is the schedule: The Red Sox were the last team to play at home this season, opening on the road against the Seattle Mariners, the Oakland Athletics and the Arizona Diamondbacks before finally staggering back to Fenway Park. No other defending champion had ever played its first 11 games on the road.
Then again, any rough part of a schedule always, by definition, creates an easier patch later. The Red Sox have already finished their longest road trip of the season, and they will play 13 of their final 22 games at Fenway. The Yankees, on the other hand, will play just six of their final 21 games in the Bronx.
By then, perhaps, the Tampa Bay Rays will have run away with the American League East. The Rays were Boston’s mirror image through 12 games, with a 9-3 record. While Tampa Bay starters had a major league-best 1.77 earned run average in those games, Boston starters had a major league-worst 8.78 E.R.A.
How bad is an 8.78 E.R.A. through 12 starts? To put it in an individual context, consider that only seven pitchers have ever had a higher E.R.A. in a season of 12 or more starts. One of them was the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Steve Blass in 1973, when he suddenly lost the ability to throw strikes. The mysterious condition has since been known colloquially as Steve Blass Disease.
The early failure of the Red Sox rotation is only slightly less startling than the woes of Blass, who had starred in the playoffs the previous fall and thrown the final pitch of the World Series the year before that. Chris Sale — who collected the final out for the Red Sox at Dodger Stadium last October — is 0-3 with a 9.00 E.R.A., a confounding start for a pitcher who signed a five-year, $145 million contract extension last month.
Sale, 30, has actually not yet begun that deal; it runs from 2020 through 2024. While he closed out last season in a scripted moment of triumph — the Red Sox had a four-run lead in Game 5 and had squeezed the life from the Dodgers — he has not pitched more the six innings in a start since before the All-Star break last July. Sale was bothered by shoulder trouble down the stretch and worked just 30⅓ innings in his final eight starts, including the postseason.
The Red Sox were satisfied enough with the condition of Sale’s shoulder to give him the new contract. But Sale’s average fastball velocity has dipped to 91.3 miles per hour this season, according to Fangraphs, down from 94.7 last season. He has thrown 88 fastballs so far, according to MLB.com, and generated just two swinging strikes.
“I’m struggling,” Sale told reporters after Tuesday’s 7-5 loss, in which he lasted just four innings. “I don’t know if I’ve ever pitched like this in my life.”
The Red Sox did not expect to worry about their rotation. Their starters all made relief cameos last postseason, eager to contribute to a title run and expertly deployed by Manager Alex Cora. In spring training, Cora limited their workload — even more than he had the year before — with an eye on the long game.
“We want them to be great the whole season, but we don’t want them to be in a situation where they come in April and they’re great, but throughout the season they’re going down, down, down,” Cora said in March. “Every game counts, obviously, from March 28 all the way to the end of the regular season, but we want them to be consistent, and I think they understand that.”
With their farm system largely depleted by trades, the Red Sox have invested heavily in their starters. Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez will combine to make about $88.5 million this season, more than the entire payroll of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Baltimore Orioles, the Miami Marlins or the Rays.
Yet the Red Sox have met the minimum requirements for a quality start (at least six innings, no more than three earned runs) just once so far: on April 2 in Oakland, when Sale allowed one run over six innings, with only one strikeout.
There are encouraging signs. The Red Sox bullpen — minus Craig Kimbrel, the unsigned free agent closer — has performed well, with a 3.61 E.R.A. All of the major position players are healthy. The starters have a proven track record.
But no team has repeated as World Series champions since 2000, before baseball began testing for performance-enhancing drugs. The toll of three postseason rounds — without the same access to shortcuts for physical recovery — appears to be real.
For inspiration, the Red Sox could look to another Boston team that recovered from an even worse beginning to win a championship: The 1914 Boston Braves started 3-16 yet romped to a pennant and upended the Philadelphia A’s to win the World Series.
Of course, history knows that team as the Miracle Braves — and it just might take another miracle for the Red Sox to stage an encore of the team for the ages.
Published at Thu, 11 Apr 2019 13:45:04 +0000