Forget about making noise in the American League East, rediscovering their mojo, or kicking it into overdrive down the stretch. The Red Sox season is suddenly about one thing only: survival.
If you didn't know it before Monday's listless 6-1 loss to the rampaging Tampa Bay Rays, it was written all over Alex Cora's weary face afterward. Cora has projected an air of optimism and positivity all season, as if the Red Sox could be willed into contention by daily affirmations alone.
But a disappointing trade deadline, followed by a disturbingly sloppy month of August, has brought us to the point of catastrophe: a COVID outbreak that has already sidelined the starting center fielder, second baseman, and closer, along with both left-handed setup men.
There's no such thing as good timing when it comes to contracting COVID, but the current circumstances could hardly be worse. Not only are the Red Sox in the midst of a four-game series with the division-leading Rays, but they're entering the most challenging stretch remaining on the schedule: seven games in 10 days against the Rays, followed by six on the road against the Central-leading Chicago White Sox and playoff-hungry Seattle Mariners.
The Red Sox lead the Oakland A's by two games and the Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays by 4.5 each in the race for the second wild card spot. They'll have to handle a portion of the next 10 days without Kiké Hernández, Christian Arroyo, Matt Barnes, and Martin Perez, who have already tested positive, and maybe Josh Taylor, too. And that's the best-case scenario; with three coaches either positive or awaiting test results, who knows what news today will bring?
"I'm just tired, to be honest with you," a downtrodden Cora said on Monday. "To be thinking about it the whole time and have to deal with this before a game and during the game and all that, honestly, that's how I feel right now. The season part, all that stuff, that's the easy part for me. To have to deal with everything that has to do with this, it's not easy, it's not easy."
There was a time when the Red Sox reliably surmounted any obstacle. Back in April and May, when the pressures of expectations were virtually nonexistent, they weathered an 0-3 start, the absence of ace Chris Sale, the impotence of the bottom third of the order, and woeful stretches from Garrett Richards and Eduardo Rodriguez to surge to the best record in the American League.
They carried themselves with a hint of defiance and just the right amount of "bleep you." When they needed Hernández to shift from second base to cover a hole in center field, he responded by playing Gold Glove-caliber defense. When they needed an answer at second, Arroyo Euro-stepped his way into a regular role. When they needed a multi-inning setup man, Rule 5 pick Garrett Whitlock answered the call. And on and on.
But now they feel beaten down, first by attrition, then by abandonment issues at the deadline, then by the realization that maybe their critics were right about them not being that good, then by a mystifying inability to convert routine plays into outs or avoid hapless baserunning mishaps.
Now comes an outbreak, which may or may not owe in part to the team's inability to reach the 85 percent vaccination threshold, and the walls feel like they're closing in on the season in the style of a Death Star detention block trash compactor.
"It is what it is," Cora said. "It's part of life. I've been saying it all along. It's not easy. But it's not only happening here, it's happening all over the world. That's the way I see it. I'm just glad the people who tested positive feel OK. they're going to be OK. On the professional side of it, we just have to keep grinding. Nobody is going to stop the tournament because we have X amount of cases and X amount of guys in close contact."
The tournament goes on -- whether the Red Sox will be a part of it depends on their survival skills.