The Red Sox made their first major free agent signing of last offseason on Dec. 14, and it barely caused a ripple.
The fans even paying attention after a last-place finish and trade of MVP Mookie Betts could hardly be blamed for exhibiting indifference when the Red Sox announced they had signed outfielder Hunter Renfroe to a one-year contract.
Designated for assignment by the Rays after hitting just .156 in 42 games, Renfroe arrived in Boston as a player most fans knew only as an all-or-nothing slugger who had averaged 28 homers a year with the Padres and Rays from 2017-19 while batting just .231.
Tucked away on his CV was a finalist for a Gold Glove award in right field, as well as a home run in last year's World Series vs. the Dodgers. Still, the numbers suggested Renfroe would start against lefties, sit against tough righties, and play no more than a complementary role.
Ten months later, we know better. Renfroe reminded everyone how absolutely indispensable he has been to the cause with one of the biggest hits of the year on Friday, a three-run homer that broke a scoreless tie in the sixth and propelled the Red Sox to a 4-2 victory over the Nationals. Boston now controls its playoff destiny. Win their final two, and the Red Sox are in.
"It's that roller coaster," said manager Alex Cora. "It's fun but it's not fun. It's stressful, but it's not stressful. Of course you really want it in a different way and you can breathe and get ready for next week like some of the teams that have clinched already, but this is where we at. We've got to take advantage of every day. Not too many teams can say they're still in the hunt."
The Red Sox would almost certainly be eliminated without Renfroe, who is hitting .264 with 31 homers, 96 RBIs, and an .829 OPS. He has set career highs in virtually every offensive category except homers, and he's hoping for his first 100-RBI season.
"Just go out there and leave it all on the line, give it everything you've got," Renfroe said. "You may go 0-for-4 with four punchies, but if you give everything you have, you can go to bed at night and sleep well knowing you did everything possible to win the ballgame.
"I think that's easy for guys to do because these are the last few games and we're giving everything we have. It's not one of those things where you're slacking off because you're hitting .300 or you have your 100 RBIs, whatever. No, we're playing for more. We want more."
More means a spot in the American League Wild Card game, most likely on Tuesday, and most likely in New York. Renfroe played in a three-game wild series vs. the Blue Jays last year and delivered the decisive blow, a grand slam in the second inning of Hyun-Jin Ryu that gave Tampa a 7-0 lead and propelled it to a sweep.
The Red Sox signed him in part because of that playoff experience -- he also homered during Tampa's come-from-behind Game 4 win vs. the Dodgers in the World Series -- and they'll be leaning on him over the final two games in Washington as they try to book passage to October.
"These are big situations we really need to win," Renfroe said. "We aren't necessarily putting a ton of pressure on ourselves, but we do know the urgency of needing to win. We have to prepare every day and just keep going, keep grinding. We can see the finish line. We just have to keep going strong, finish strong and get back into October baseball."