BOSTON (CBS) — The Red Sox are talented and they are relatively young, and they lead the American League East by 3.5 games. They have good pitching. They have a favorable schedule. And they have no excuse if they fail to win the American League East.
Don’t look now, Red Sox followers, but the second half of the Boston baseball season begins tonight at Fenway Park, where the Red Sox host the second-place New York Yankees in the opener of a four-game weekend series. The Yanks need the series and have owned the Sox this year, winning four of the five meetings to date. A decisive weekend in the favor of the Sox could open up a sizable lead in the division and leave fewer than 70 games to play.
Which brings us to the following questions: How good are these Red Sox exactly?
Are they true championship contenders or are they Tier 2 residents in an MLB hierarchy that feels increasingly like the NBA?
Take a good look at the baseball standings today. The baseball landscape has two teams on pace for 110 and 109 wins, respectively – the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros – and a B-list longer than Interstate-90. The Sox are near the top of that second group, but the gap between them and the top feels as great (or greater) than the gap between the top and the bottom.
Of course, we all know this isn’t basketball. The best team doesn’t always win. If the Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians or Washington Nationals get on a roll in October, they all seem capable of winning the World Series. Ditto for the Sox.
Well … maybe.
Professional athletes being professional athletes – and more specifically, ballplayers being ballplayers – the Red Sox are likely to take this personally. But that’s fine. Over the last several few years, the truth is that the Sox have been transitioning to an entirely new incarnation, one without David Ortiz and with Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley and Andrew Benintendi. The new Red Sox started to truly form in the second half of 2015. They won their first division title last season.
Then the Sox went into the playoffs and fell squarely on their faces, which many were willing to accept as a developmental step and part of an unavoidable process.
The Red Sox lost in 2003 before they won in 2004. The Cubs lost in 2015 before they won in 2016. Sports are littered with comparisons of the like.
Over the last weeks and months, there has been much discussion about the absence of buzz surrounding these Red Sox, despite the fact they possess, somewhat incredibly, the sixth-best record in the game. Local television ratings have dropped by nearly 20 percent. Theories have ranged from overall cord-cutting (broadcast ratings are down in every sport) to the absence of Ortiz to the general demise of baseball, which is moving at an ever-glacial pace.
Now we have to consider this question, too: Do the Sox know how to win?
Or more importantly, do you believe they can win?
Again, think about it. The Red Sox currently have one member of their rotation, including Chris Sale, who has ever won a postseason start: Doug Fister. Among positional players, only Dustin Pedroia has been a season-long contributor on a championship team. In last year’s AL Division Series against Cleveland, the Sox batted a collective .214 while scoring seven runs in three games. Their team ERA was 5.04. Boston batters had more strikeouts (31) than hits (21), and Messrs. Bogaerts, Betts, Bradley and Pedroia went a combined 8-for-44 (a .182 average) with 17 strikeouts.
It’s the whiff of failure.
To their credit, after a thoroughly mediocre start, the Sox have gone 29-18, a winning percentage that translates into a 100-win season over a 162-game schedule. That is good baseball. And yet, deep down, we all still wonder about this team, about the bullpen and the lineup and the depth of the rotation, and we wonder whether they really have what it takes against good competition in the most important times of year.
We wonder, in the end, whether they can win.