BOSTON -- The Red Sox have spun their tires all season. At some point, they'll either peel out or leave themselves hopelessly encased in mud.
The mud looks like it's winning, and at the worst possible time, too.
The Red Sox open a four-game set in the Bronx on Thursday with the high-flying Yankees, and they don't look remotely ready for the challenge. On Wednesday, they let the punchless Indians whack them all over Fenway Park in a 14-9 romp.
They then boarded a plane to New York for a showdown with the best team in the division, and one of the best in baseball. The reeling Red Sox have lost four of six and eight of 15. The rollicking Yankees, meanwhile, have won 13 of 16, including a 7-0 shutout of the Padres on Wednesday.
New York sees an opportunity to score a legitimate knockdown, if not a knockout. The Yankees lead the Red Sox by 7.5 games and could push that sucker to double digits with a sweep.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, have now had more than two months to get their act in gear, and they still can't find their shoes, even though everyone else is already in the car. They need to make a statement, amidst their most grueling stretch of the season, that they belong in the division chase. Otherwise, we'll be resigning ourselves to a summer of identifying favorable wild-card matchups.
A Red Sox sweep, it should be noted, could draw them within 3.5 games of first. There's a potential eight-game swing at play this week.
Each team arrived at this point by markedly different paths. The Yankees have surmounted every obstacle thrown their way behind players who won't ever reside in Monument Park, like burly first baseman Luke Voit, who slammed his 14th home run on Wednesday and then licked his chops at the prospect of facing Chris Sale and the Red Sox on Thursday.
"I can't wait," he told reporters in New York. "We know we get their best guy in the opener. They're going to bring their best stuff."
Are they, though? The Red Sox are coming off a miserable three-game set against the Indians that saw them drop the final two games in ghastly fashion. On Tuesday, a ninth-inning bullpen implosion turned a 5-2 lead into a 7-5 loss. In the finale Wednesday, manager Alex Cora seemed determined to avoid his prime bullpen arms, which is why right-hander Ryan Weber was allowed to absorb a beating for four innings before the dregs of the bullpen allowed the Indians to score in every inning except the last two.
The Red Sox arrive in New York just two games over .500 and that feels right, given their line-dancing approach to 2019 -- two steps forward, one step back, do-si-do your partner.
Straddling the break-even point isn't going to get it done after a 3-9 start, and the Red Sox could see their season spiral if they're no-shows in New York. That may sound alarmist, but it's true.
"It's not critical, but it's another series," Cora said. "We go there and we try to win the series, you know? We just have to play better, that's the bottom line."
It's hard to understand how we've arrived here, considering the teams' divergent paths. Whereas New York has thrived despite injuries ranging from annoying to catastrophic, the Red Sox have experienced just one serious injury, and right-hander Nathan Eovaldi could return this month after undergoing elbow surgery.
Mookie Betts is playing every day, but not making an MVP impact. Andrew Benintendi has been solid, but unspectacular. Jackie Bradley Jr. may finally be coming alive, but he's still hitting below .200. Sale opened the spring with a sore toe, but that hardly explains how the Red Sox could be 3-8 in his 11 starts. Eduardo Rodriguez sports a 5.04 ERA. The bullpen feels one arm short. Who knows where they'd be without young guns Rafael Devers and Michael Chavis?
"It's just a matter of putting it together," Betts said. "You never know when it's going to come, but when it does you just have to ride the wave."
By that standard, New York has been hanging ten all season. Consider the Yankees' challenges:
- Promising third baseman Miguel Andujar just underwent season-ending shoulder surgery.
- Ace Luis Severino was scratched from his opening day start and may not pitch until August.
- Bullpen stalwart Dellin Betances is on the 60-day IL with a bad shoulder.
- All-Star slugger Aaron Judge has only played in 20 games because of an oblique strain.
- Fellow bomber Giancarlo Stanton suffered a setback in his rehab from a shoulder strain by suffering a calf strain and there's no timetable on his return.
- Troy Tulowitzki, signed to fill a hole at shortstop while incumbent Didi Gregorius recovered from Tommy John surgery, is himself on the IL with a calf strain, though at least Gregorius should return in a couple of weeks.
- Oft-injured first baseman Greg Bird is on the 60-day DL with a plantar fascia tear.
- Left-hander CC Sabathia has been sidelined by right knee inflammation and could return this weekend.
That's some serious star power, and it doesn't even include left-hander James Paxton, who just returned from a left knee injury. In their place, players such as Voit, DJ LeMahieu, and Gio Urshela have stepped up offensively, with skinny right-hander Domingo German currently carrying the rotation at 9-1.
Had the Red Sox suffered even a quarter of those injuries, they'd probably trail the Blue Jays.
And so it comes to this. We've spent two months waiting for the Red Sox to wake up. We convinced ourselves they'd be fine. Why worry so early in a title defense? But with more than a third of the season already behind us, June knocking, and the Yankees beckoning, the Red Sox can't pretend it's early anymore.
Those tires are spinning, and if we don't smell burning rubber soon, the mud is going to claim them.
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