BOSTON -- The Red Sox are underdogs. They’re more lovable that way, if the fans notice what's happened to a team everyone thought would dominate. And the players might actually benefit from the realization that last year’s performance doesn’t matter four months into 2017. From the humility that can be found in their own shortcomings.
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Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel are typically dynamite, despite forgettable nights on Tuesday. But the supporting cast -- the Killer B’s, Hanley Ramirez, Rick Porcello -- has dropped off from a year ago.
Sure, Mookie Betts is excellent. But he's not all that and a bag of chips as he was last year.
Enter the role players, the run-of-the-mill names, now more central to success.
Christian Vazquez, the No. 9 hitter, went deep and was barely around third base when he flipped his helmet in the air Tuesday night, preparing for teammates to slap him as he reached home plate in the ninth inning of a 12-10 walk-off win.
When the helmet went airborne, Eduardo Nunez broke away from the pack to catch it.
Where the heck did this guy come from?
Nunez, billed as a utility player in the press release that announced his arrival from San Francisco Giants, is hitting like Nomar. His 4 RBIs on Tuesday matched a career-high. He’s done it three times in eight seasons and 636 games, and he’s just five games into his time in Boston.
Rafael Devers, who is not old enough to legally have a postgame beer, has a .500 on-base percentage through his first 32 career plate appearances. His single started the ninth-inning rally against closer Cody Allen on Tuesday.
There’s a new energy at play here, and it’s not about established star power.
“There’s certainly a newness that surrounds guys in your team, in your dugout, certainly your lineup, and the start that [Nunez and Devers] have gotten off to, there’s confidence each time they’ve stepped into the box,” Sox manager John Farrell said. “For a guy 20 years of age, there’s a lot of confidence that rings through everyone that’s watching him. Both of those guys, hard contact, a lot of it, and much needed, I will say that.”
Four months into the regular season, it’s clear who has fallen short of expectations, and what teams have caught up to or even leapfrogged the Sox.
The Yankees are division favorites now. The Dodgers are a super team. The Astros lineup overshadows anyone’s.
Enter Vazquez and Nunez. Enter Mitch Moreland, who’s re-emerging from a long slump caused by a fractured right toe that screwed up his lower-half mechanics. Tuesday’s home run was his first since June 26.
The 2017 Red Sox were simply anointed kings too quickly after they stormed to a division title last year. Now, in a year where identity has been a strange concept in the Red Sox clubhouse, being an underdog is one they should embrace -- mainly because it’s just reality.
Dustin Pedroia and David Price are both on the disabled list and are dealing with persistent injuries. The Yankees got a gaggle of strong players via trade, while the Sox landed righty Addison Reed in addition to Nunez at the deadline. (Reed’s eighth-inning debut wasn’t inspiring, with a home run allowed, but he has time to make other impressions.)
Yu Darvish didn't walk through any door on Yawkey Way yesterday.
The pendulum is swinging, and it's taken the sense of superiority away from the Red Sox. At least, it should have.
Andrew Benintendi is to return to the lineup Wednesday, said Farrell. The rookie is just one of many young players on the Red Sox who is managing expectations: if not necessarily the outside world’s, than his own. Most likely, both.
“The game is the greatest teacher we have,” Farrell said. “If you’re talking about Benny, who is in his first full season here, he’s gone through some periods where he’s come up dry. He’s been forced to make adjustments at the plate. He talked openly about it [Monday] when we had a little bit of a sitdown that game-plan, information travels quick.
“So as he’s adjusting to one, the opponent is at times one step ahead of him, but part of playing in a major market, part of playing here is going to be what goes on and what is said outside. The best that they can do and I think to a good extent, they’re keeping that in perspective and blocking it out as best as possible.”
The outside expectations are that the Red Sox aren't the best anymore.
They're talented, but hardly driving a runaway train.
It's OK to be an underdog, relatively speaking. It might even be a good thing. Embrace it.