After a lost weekend to open the season, the Red Sox appear to be finding themselves, and there's only one acceptable response to Tuesday's scintillating 6-5 victory over the Rays:
Now that's more like it.
When the Red Sox broke camp in Fort Myers last week, manager Alex Cora said he believed the club could contend for a playoff berth. But more to the point, he guaranteed they'd play the right way.
They wouldn't beat themselves defensively, they'd make things happen on the bases, and they'd wring every last platoon advantage out of their versatile lineup. They expected the pitching to be a huge upgrade over 2020 and if a few breaks went their way, maybe they'd actually factor in the division race.
Then came the unimposing Orioles and a hellaciously bad start that featured impotent offense, untimely errors, and on Sunday, wretched pitching. Three losses may not a season make, but they were enough to suggest we'd been deceived into believing this unheralded club might actually be "sneaky good."
It's OK to feel cautiously optimistic again. The Red Sox delivered on Tuesday, erasing deficits of 3-1, 4-3, and 5-4 en route to a 6-5 victory that wasn't decided until J.D. Martinez completed his redemption arc with a line double over the head of circus-catch-machine Randy Arozarena with two outs and two on in the 12th inning.
The game will get lost in the shuffle because the Red Sox play Wednesday afternoon, but it deserves your attention, because it told us something. It was the first hint that there's more to this team than the sum of its mildly impressive parts. It was the kind of game that should make Boston fans take notice, especially on a night when the Celtics were completely outclassed by the Sixers.
"We didn't stop playing and that's the mark of a good team," Cora said. "It didn't look great at one point, but we kept fighting, we kept them within distance, the pitching staff did an amazing job, we made some plays.
" ... We won the series against the defending American League champions. It's a good bounce-back from what happened this week and we get a chance to sweep them tomorrow."
- Starter Martin Perez delivered the fourth effective outing in five tries from the rotation, leaving in the sixth with the Red Sox trailing 2-1. Reliever Austin Brice allowed the inherited runner to score, leaving Perez with a line of three earned runs in five innings, but he did more than enough to keep the Red Sox in the game, especially opposite Tampa ace Tyler Glasnow.
- After a series of defensive miscues cost them against the Orioles, the Red Sox rebounded. The biggest play of the game came in the sixth, when left fielder Franchy Cordero, still familiarizing himself with the left field wall, corralled Manuel Margot's drive to the scoreboard with one out and two on. Instead of a two-run double, the Rays got nothing when Cordero's catch was upheld on replay and ruled a double play.
"His reaction right away, I knew he had it," Cora said, even though the sound of the ball striking metal through Cordero's glove reverberated throughout the park. "There were a lot of people running around. We were just trying to tell Xander (Bogaerts) to step on the bag. Off the bat, I thought it was over the wall, and all of a sudden he made the play."
- Martinez played the hero following a monumental screwup in the eighth. After his RBI double cut Tampa's lead to 3-2, he was doubled off when he lost track of the outs and bolted on Rafael Devers' lineout to right.
Christian Vazquez made sure the mistake didn't prove fatal when he launched a towering home run to left leading off the ninth that tied the game at 3-3 and forced extra innings.
"I knew if I messed up, Christian would come up the next at-bat next inning and hit a home run off Castillo," Martinez joked. "It was all planned."
- After an 0-for-11 start and a series of bad defensive plays led to a one-day benching, Devers delivered his first two hits of the season, including a tying single to left in the 11th.
- Closer Matt Barnes gutted out two perfect innings, striking out four. He was the only Red Sox reliever not to allow the runner on second as part of the new extra-innings rule to score.
Speaking of that rule, it added a layer of excitement and strategy to extras, even though Cora said he'd actually prefer the World Baseball Classic model of putting runners on first and second. The Rays scored single runs in the 11th and 12th, but the Red Sox rallied each time.
"We played the extra inning rule the right way," Cora said. "We don't care about the runner at second, we care about the hitter, that's the most important run of the inning. If they score one, we've got a man on second with no outs. The chances of us scoring are high."
Now the Red Sox look ahead to a sweep. It's exactly the kind of comeback you'd want to see out of them after their disappointing start to the season, and it suggests that maybe there will actually be baseball worth watching this summer.
"It was overall a great game," Cora said. "And I think the most important thing out of this is we won the series against the American League defending champions."