The Red Sox set sail for Tampa on July 30 with a chance to take control of the American League East. They limp back to port 10 days later following their worst loss of the season, and we're left to wonder: Is this how it ends?
So good for so long, the Red Sox are suddenly in free fall, and maybe not even Chris Sale can save them. On Sunday, they blew a 7-2 lead vs. the rollicking Blue Jays en route to a 9-8 loss that left them saying the right things, but not necessarily feeling them.
"It's a tough one," admitted manager Alex Cora. "It is."
Since building a 2.5-game lead in the division on July 28, the Red Sox have watched the wheels fly off. They've lost nine of 11 to fall four games behind Tampa. They lead the Yankees by 2.5 games and the Blue Jays by three, but only by a game each in the loss column. Neither has been this close to the Red Sox since early June.
The bad news has come in unrelenting waves since chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom made a decision that could haunt his first full season in Boston, choosing not to acquire immediate help at the trade deadline.
While the Yankees and Jays have received boosts from players like Anthony Rizzo and Jose Berrios, respectively, the Red Sox are floundering. There's little question the players noticed the lack of reinforcements, and they've since played like a team with abandonment issues.
They finished this trip from hell with a 2-8 record and were forced to leave two coaches behind in Canada because of COVID. Sunday's good news that Sale will make his 2021 debut this weekend was almost immediately counteracted by a report in the Athletic that trade deadline acquisition Kyle Schwarber has already suffered a setback in his return from a hamstring strain. The hope had been to see him in mid-August. Would anyone be shocked if he doesn't show up until September?
At that point, it might be too late, because the hits keep on coming. Reliever Hirokazu Sawamura left Sunday's game with elbow tightness, joining left-hander Darwinzon Hernandez on the sidelines.
Terrible starting pitching has pushed the bullpen to the limit and closer Matt Barnes is showing the strain. One day after giving up a walk-off homer to Marcus Semien, he walked the No. 9 hitter before surrendering the go-ahead three-run shot to George Springer in the eighth inning on Sunday.
"It's been a rough couple of weeks," Barnes acknowledged. "Particularly since the All-Star break. But we have a good team. This is a team that was in first place going into the All-Star break. Stretches like this happen. We have to cut it short and try not to let this thing last any longer."
History is littered with the shipwrecks of first-half pretenders who were exposed and then dashed along the rocks. Though it was encouraging to see the offense bang out 16 hits and eight runs on Sunday, it's also true that the attack has been muted over the last month.
Add baserunning mistakes, defensive miscues, and an overall vibe of weariness, and the Red Sox are dragging at exactly the moment their division rivals are catching fire. They open a three-game set at home with the Rays on Tuesday, and this is about the worst time imaginable to see Tampa, which knows what to do when it smells blood.
"It's been pretty terrible," said starter Garrett Richards, who could be ticketed for the bullpen when Sale returns. "The good thing is tonight the offense showed up and guys were raking balls all over the place, so that's a positive. We're just looking forward to the off day tomorrow and just kind of getting off the road and starting fresh when we come back Tuesday.
"We're still a good ballclub. Yeah, we're discouraged, but there's no faith lost. We know what we have. We know the lineup we have. We know our pitching staff. We know what we're bringing to the table. The first half wasn't a joke. We're just trying to get back on the same page and get rolling again.
"Every team I feel like goes through this at some point during the season. It's unfortunate it's happening right now, but this is a good ballclub. You shouldn't sleep on this team."
He may be right, but the time to prove it is now. If the season ended today, the Red Sox would still own an AL Wild Card spot, although now they'd be flying to Oakland for one game of winner-take-all mayhem vs. the A's.
Unfortunately, the season does not end today. Forty-eight games remain, and that's more than enough time for the 2021 campaign to go one of two ways -- the Red Sox either right the ship, or we spend the winter wondering how the feel-good story of the summer ran aground so quickly.