While it has only been seven games, the passion that the Boston Red Sox have shown here in early April has been encouraging. After dropping the first three games of the season against the Orioles, Boston responded by sweeping the Rays and taking game one of the three-game series against Baltimore on the road.
First and foremost, it is obviously way too early to even be bringing up the idea of a World Series run. With that being said, it’s also hard to just sit there and deny the fact that there might be something relatively special brewing in Boston. It’s also hard to turn a blind eye to the numerous similarities that this year’s team composition has to the team that won it all nearly a decade ago.
The Red Sox were led by guys like David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester back in 2013. It was a veteran core that propelled a team of newcomers, young guns and misfits to the Fall Classic, and nobody saw it coming in the preseason.
Fast forward eight years later, and Boston once again finds itself with the same level of doubt surrounding the team, but a brand new slate of leaders. Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers have all stepped into leadership roles over the past couple of seasons. While they might not be the seasoned brigade of vets the team had in 2013, all three have proven they can produce at a high level.
Martinez has gotten off to a blistering start at the plate. He is 13-for-30 (.433) with two home runs and 12 RBI. He has also tallied an extra base hit in every game of his seven-game hit streak to start the season. Bogaerts is hitting a stellar .375, and Devers appears to be finding his groove after a 2-for-3 performance against the Orioles yesterday, where he hit his first home run of the season.
The Difference Makers
No matter what year it is, there are always a few surprises that can bring a team to the next level. In 2013, it was Daniel Nava and Shane Victorino, and in 2021, it might just be Christian Vazquez and Alex Verdugo.
Vazquez posted 23 home runs and 72 RBI in 2019 and was one of the few players who did not drastically fall off a cliff in 2020. He hit .283 last season and has always been a strong option behind the plate defensively. This year, he has taken it up a notch. He has started off 2021 going 11-for-24 (.458) with two home runs and four RBI. Vazquez has also come up in the clutch in the early going, as he hit the game-tying home run in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Rays on April 6 to force extra innings.
Verdugo has gotten off to a slower start and is hitting just north of .200. After coming over from the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of the deal that sent Mookie Betts and David Price to the West Coast, Verdugo was exceptional in his first season with Boston last year. He hit .308 with six home runs and was no stranger to exceptional defensive plays, so one would have to assume the 24-year-old is going to pick it up sooner rather than later. Verdugo has already started to show glimpses of an early-season turnaround, as he has tallied four hits in his last 13 at-bats.
Gritty Role Players
Watching players like Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, Mike Carp and Will Middlebrooks make a play that altered the course of the game was arguably one of the most special aspects of the 2013 season. None of them were perennial All-Stars, but they did so many of the little things in situations that many often thought were too big for them to handle. Whether it was a walk-off home run over the Monster by Gomes, a late-inning bomb to center by Napoli or a run-saving defensive play by Carp or Middlebrooks, the Red Sox would not have won 97 games without the efforts of their role players.
This year’s team features a plethora of players with similar roles. Boston added Marwin Gonzalez, Kike Hernandez, Hunter Renfroe and Franchy Cordero this offseason, and Bobby Dalbec will be looking to build upon the success he had at the dish last year. Will any of these guys single-handedly win the Red Sox a game? Probably not. They are not going to go and stuff the stat sheet, but each and every one has the ability to make a play that could be the difference between a postseason appearance and a tee time at Granite Links.
Bulldogs in the Starting Rotation
Alongside Lester, John Lackey, Ryan Dempster, Felix Doubront, Clay Buchholz and Jake Peavy all made starts in 2013, among others. Buchholz started the season 12-1, but soreness in his neck and shoulder shortened his incredible season. Lackey was coming off Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss 2012 after an abysmal 2011 season. Dempster was aging and coming off a weird one-year stint with the Rangers. Doubront was young and unproven. Peavy was facing the latter-half of his career and there were questions regarding how much he had left in the tank.
There were a lot of things you could say about the starting rotation in 2013, and not many of them were all that positive coming into the year. Nevertheless, the starting rotation blocked out the noise and did its job, and we’re seeing that again in 2021.
Nathan Eovaldi has a 1.46 ERA through 12 1/3 innings and has struck out 11 batters while walking four. Nick Pivetta held the reigning American League champions to two hits in his season debut. Martin Perez gave up three earned runs through five innings, but didn’t let the game get out of hand. Tanner Houck presented his filthy slider to Red Sox Nation and struck out eight in five strong innings despite taking the loss.
This Red Sox might not have a Cy Young Award winner in their rotation, but they don’t need one. With Boston’s offensive prowess, if starting pitchers can go at least five or six innings and hold opponents to three or four runs, the Red Sox are going to do just fine. Damage control will be the key to success, and if at least one starter can emerge as an ace before Chris Sale makes his return, the ceiling of this team could be pretty high.
Surprises in the Bullpen
Koji Uehara had to be one of, if not the most, memorable characters in the storybook season that was 2013. His 1.09 ERA, 21 saves and hundreds of high fives were a pleasant surprise that nobody saw coming. Craig Breslow was also incredible, posting a 1.81 ERA, which turned out to be the second-best of his 12-year career. Junichi Tazawa, Andrew Miller and Andrew Bailey also provided support in the mid-late innings.
It seems like the bullpen has struggled ever since 2013, but this might just be the year where things change for the better. Boston traded for Yankees reliever Adam Ottavino, who struggled last year, but posted a 1.90 ERA in 2019 and struck out 88 hitters in 66 1/3 innings. Garret Whitlock is already presenting himself as a bullpen staple and has pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing three hits and striking out eight. Phillips Valdez has already tallied four innings of no-hit ball and newcomer Hirokazu Sawamura has looked strong in his three outings, featuring a splitter that flirts with the mid-90s.
Matt Barnes is seemingly on a mission to strike out every hitter that steps in the box, and he has fanned nine in four innings. He has yet to allow a hit or a run and has only surrendered one walk. In his most recent performance yesterday against Baltimore, he struck out the side in order on 11 pitches. Ten of those pitches were strikes.
With Matt Andriese, Darwinzon Hernandez, Josh Taylor and Austin Brice also filtered into the relief effort, this year’s bullpen could make or break the team when it comes down to crunch time in August and September.
A Familiar Face at the Helm
After serving as Boston’s pitching coach from 2007-10, John Farrell made his return to the Red Sox as their manager in 2013. It took him just one season to bring yet another World Series trophy to the city, but he was out of a job by 2017.
Alex Cora served as manager in 2018 and 2019 before mutually parting ways with the team in 2019 in the wake of the Astros sign stealing scandal. Ron Roenicke found himself in charge for the 2020 season and Boston found itself at the bottom of the division just two years after winning a World Series.
Well now, Cora is back. As we have seen in the past, sometimes when a coach makes his way back to Boston, things end pretty well.
Sprinkles of Magic
The 2013 Red Sox were notorious for their ability to win in walk-off fashion. They also coined the term “Fear the Beard,” as they grew their facial hair out throughout the season and during their playoff run. On top of that, the team went from worst to first in just one season, which made things all the more special.
There have already been some unique traditions that have set Boston apart from the rest of the pack here in 2021. Any time someone hits a home run, they are entitled to a ride in the home run cart as soon as they get back into the dugout.
We also saw Verdugo, Cordero and Renfroe give us our first outfield celebration of the season after the win against the Rays on April 5, which gave off intense “Win, Dance, Repeat” vibes. The Sox also came back in the ninth, 11th and 12th inning in the second game of the series against Tampa Bay, a win that showed that this team doesn’t just roll over when things get tough. That same comeback win also provided a picture that won’t soon be forgotten.
Plenty of Season Left to Go
It is important to keep in mind that there are still 155 games left in the 2021 regular season. With so much time left, it would probably be in your best interest to keep your credit card inside your wallet for now. Don’t go putting the house on Boston to replicate the run that was made in 2013, because after all, the team only has a week of games under its belt.
Although it’s not time to take the tarp off the duck boats just yet, this team seriously might have something. What the “something” is still remains to be seen, but it feels like hope might be seeping its way back into Beantown. The personnel on the current roster is almost eerily similar to those that brought Boston its third World Series win of the 21st century.
So, don’t count this team out. Because as we’ve seen in the past, sometimes a little bit of doubt is all it takes to turn a good team into a great one.
Photo: (Stuart Cahill – MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
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