By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Red Sox offense hasn’t been particularly healthy, explosive, or consistent to start the season. But it sure has been clutch.
The Sox sit at 5-4 after they rallied to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-3 on Thursday, scoring three runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to snatch the victory. It was already their third win of the season in which the winning run was scored in the eighth inning or later, and if not for a bullpen implosion in Detroit, they could have four.
There was little reason to be legitimately concerned about the Red Sox offense in the first nine games of the season, which have largely been played without a full starting lineup. But without the heroics of hitters mostly outside the heart of the order, the Red Sox may be off to a much worse start.
Sandy Leon got the clutch hitting started in game No. 2, when he smashed a walk-off three-run homer in the 12th inning to get the Red Sox off to a quick 2-0 start. The Red Sox entered Detroit’s Comerica Park two days later with a depleted lineup after the flu and the bereavement list ravaged the clubhouse – but they still found a way to come through late.
Game No. 3 was the source of arguably the most surprising clutch hit of the season so far, when Pablo Sandoval launched a three-run home run in the top of the eighth to give the Sox a 5-4 lead. They couldn’t muster another comeback in the ninth inning after the Red Sox bullpen coughed the lead back up, but their eighth-inning rally was certainly enough to win at the time.
After a quiet day at the plate in last Saturday’s 4-1 loss, the Red Sox finished the job in Sunday’s 7-5 win with another late rally. This time, Leon continued to channel Johnny Bench when he smacked a line drive single to center field to break a 4-4 tie and put the Red Sox up by two. Closer Craig Kimbrel let up a run in the ninth but eventually closed the door on the Red Sox’ third win of the season.
The first three games of this week didn’t muster any late-inning heroics – in the case of the Red Sox’ 8-1 win over the Orioles on Tuesday, it wasn’t necessary. But Thursday afternoon presented the Red Sox with an opportunity to deliver yet another late-game rally, and this time, the heart of the order delivered.
The clutch-ness practically came from top to bottom … Dustin Pedroia and Mookie Betts working one-out walks. Hanley Ramirez cranking a two-run double to the deepest part of the field. Xander Bogaerts slapping a fastball at the knees to the opposite field for the go-ahead run. For the first time this season with the lineup fully intact, the Red Sox got some timely hitting from the guys who are expected to deliver in those clutch moments.
As a team, the Red Sox have not performed well against starting pitchers but have often been lethal against opposing bullpens. They are batting .253 as a team against starters, versus .294 against relievers. Their team OPS has gone up with each successive three-inning frame; it’s just .653 in innings 1-3, but .695 in innings 4-6 and – most importantly – .773 in innings 7-9.
Their late-inning success hasn’t quite translated to the ninth, where they’re batting just .143 as a team in 21 at-bats. But their team OPS in the eighth inning is an eye-popping 1.080, to go along with a homer and 14 RBI in 52 plate appearances.
Moral of the story: maybe just don’t pitch to the Red Sox in the eighth inning. Just skip the thing if you can.
Sure, the power has yet to really come for the Red Sox offense in the post-David Ortiz era. They have four long balls as a team, which is less than the Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes (6) and the Astros’ George Springer (5) have hit by themselves. Betts, who is batting just .174 with a .470 OPS to start the season, also has yet to really get it going at the plate (their trip to Camden Yards next weekend could come in handy). But it’s certainly an encouraging sign that the Red Sox have shown an ability to turn things up several notches in crunch time and score runs when they really need them in the late innings.
It’s especially encouraging that the Red Sox’ latest offensive comeback came from the meat of the order, led by Ramirez and Bogaerts. First baseman Mitch Moreland is also off to a strong start in a Red Sox uniform with a .324 average and a major league-leading eight doubles. It could be sooner rather than later that the 2017 edition of the Red Sox offense really starts to heat up, regardless of the situation.
But oftentimes in baseball – and especially in October – a dominant offense is not as important as a timely offense, one that can score runs in key situations in the late innings when the games are tight and runs are at a premium. The Red Sox enter Friday above .500 through nine games, and their clutch hitting has been the driving force in keeping them afloat.
All stats and figures according to Baseball Reference.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.