The biggest concern entering the second half for the Red Sox was the road-heavy schedule.
On their recent 11-game West Coast trip, the Sox went 5-6 and dropped to third in the A.L. East. They returned to Fenway and had a relatively successful home stand -- 4-2 against the Yankees and Diamondbacks, capped by a three-game sweep of Arizona -- but then faced what looked like a death march: Eleven games in 11 days in four different cities, with the first three opponents (Cleveland, Baltimore, Detroit) all in the playoff hunt.
The Sox are 5-2 through the first seven games. Had the bullpen not imploded Thursday and were Eduardo Rodriguez healthy enough to make his scheduled start Sunday, they could conceivably be undefeated as they head into Tampa Bay for the final four games. They're back in second place in the division, only a half-game behind Toronto (tied in the loss column), and are in first place in the wild-card standings by two games over the Orioles and three over the Mariners.
This was supposed to be the be-all-end-all, make-or-break stretch that would reveal what this team really is. Between the travel and the caliber of teams they played -- not to mention the inconvenient starting times Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon in different cities -- the deck was stacked against them.
With little exception, they’ve passed the test.
“Our guys have done a fantastic job of not letting (the toughness, and unfairness, of the schedule) even come into their mindset. In some ways it’s a rallying cry,” John Farrell told reporters before Sunday’s game. “Is there, I don’t want to say, a conspiracy? But hey, this is what we’re dealt with and you let it roll off your back.
“And it some ways I think it’s allowed our guys to be free of mind and say ‘You know what, the hell with it. Let’s just go play. Doesn’t matter where we’re going, what time, how long the travel was to get there.’ They’ve done a very good job.”
The Red Sox are in good position to keep rolling against the bottom-of-the-barrel Rays, with their top four starters -- David Price, Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello and Drew Pomeranz -- lined up in that order for the series. “It’s all on the starting pitching,” Price said after his rain-shortened victory in Baltimore on Wednesday, and Farrell agrees.
“It’s been our pitching. Our pitching has been very consistent,” Farrell said. “Our starters have done a good job of maintaining games . . . "
The starters have an ERA of 2.78 in August, second-best in all of baseball, and are averaging 6 2/3 innings per start. That, in turn, lessens the load on the relievers, whose roles Farrell has adjusted slightly in the wake of Thursday's collapse.
"I think, on the whole, the body of work by the bullpen has been solid,” Farrell said.
Good starting pitching. Competent relief work. Continued production from the hitters. If this play continues, there’s not much opponents can do to stop the Red Sox.
At home or on the road.
Follow Nick Friar on Twitter at ngfriar.