RED SOX INSIDER

Tomase: Superlatives from a magical Red Sox season and a 2022 outlook

RED SOX INSIDER

Though they fell short of the World Series by two games, the 2021 Red Sox accomplished something almost equally important -- they put themselves back on the map.

The combination of an underachieving 2019, the let's-pretend-that-never-happened disaster of 2020, and the trade of MVP Mookie Betts in what amounted to a salary dump left the club on the outskirts of the Boston sports scene, a place ownership works strenuously to avoid.

We had little reason to think much of them entering the season, and most of us figured they'd check in right around the Vegas over-under of 82.5 wins. Those feeling particularly generous could maybe sorta see a path to 85 wins if every Lincoln Log clicked into place.

Making the case: Carlos Correa | Freddie Freeman | Clayton Kershaw | Kyle Schwarber | Seiya Suzuki

What started as more of the same with a season-opening sweep at home to the hands of the lowly Orioles soon morphed into something delightfully unexpected. The Red Sox roared to nine straight wins to claim first place in the American League East, where they remained for most of the first half before faltering in the face of the white-hot Rays.

They won 92 games and earned their revenge over Tampa in the playoffs after beating the Yankees in an epic wild card game that will be remembered not for anything that happened on the field, but the electricity in the stands. The Red Sox, we discovered this October, were back.

Whether they can stay there without a dip remains to be seen, but at least they've rejoined the conversation. Let's take a spin through the highs and lows of an ultimately rewarding season, with observations, superlatives, and reflections on how we felt along the way, plus a prediction for 2022.

 

Biggest move

There can be only one, and with all due respect to Kyle Schwarber and his impact at the trade deadline, the true franchise-altering moment occurred in early November 2020 when the Red Sox concluded a lengthy managerial search by bringing back a familiar face.

Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom admitted that he didn't begin the process thinking he'd land on Alex Cora. But he kept an open mind and a lengthy meeting in a Puerto Rican airplane hangar ultimately convinced him to give the former World Series winner a second chance. It paid off tremendously as Cora became that rarest of breeds -- the manager who's the face of the franchise.

What we said at the time: I was skeptical of Bloom's autonomy and wondered if ownership had forced Cora on him.

"And so Alex Cora returns, news that will undoubtedly be greeted enthusiastically throughout the organization and fanbase. But if we're wondering it, no doubt some of Bloom's co-workers are, too -- was this really his choice?"

It turns out my skepticism was unwarranted. The Red Sox extended Cora after the season.

Favorite moment, regular season

So many games to choose from, whether it's Christian Vazquez's game-tying homer against the Rays in April, beating Mets ace Jacob deGrom in New York or the comeback on the final day of the season vs. the Nationals to clinch the first wild card.

But for whatever reason, the game that stands out to me came in June against the eventual World Series champs in Atlanta. A wild contest see-sawed into the seventh with the Red Sox trailing 7-6 after leading 2-0, 4-1, and 6-3.

Up stepped pinch hitter Christian Arroyo with the bases loaded and two outs against left-hander A.J. Minter, and out went the game-winning grand slam, a 467-foot moon blast that prompted Arroyo to Eurostep his way around third base and the Red Sox to pull within a game of the Rays in the AL East. They reclaimed the division lead two days later and stayed there until the trade deadline.

What we said at the time: I loved the Eurostep as well as the dimension the unheralded Arroyo had brought to the team.

"Eight years after being drafted in the first round by the Giants, and now on his fourth organization after flaming out as a seeming bust, he's having the time of his life in a regular role, and he doesn't care who knows it."

Favorite moment, postseason

This is a strange one, but it struck me in the moment and has stuck with me since. The wild card game was pure bedlam from start to finish, the home crowd undoubtedly goosed by a raucous minority of Yankees fans. The ballpark felt like one of the rap battles in 8 Mile, with Red Sox fans letting their New York counterparts have it during a wire-to-wire victory.

 

The crystallizing moment came in the second inning when first baseman Bobby Dalbec stepped to the plate and the entire park chanted his first name as if his last were Orr.

"I don't know what I did to deserve that," he admitted on the field much later while soaked in champagne. It perfectly captured the passion that dropped from the sky like a tornado that October.

What we said at the time: "At a time when baseball is supposedly receding from the local sporting consciousness, Fenway Park felt like something out of a time warp."

Favorite story

After the Red Sox beat the Rays in the Division Series on Kiké Hernández's walk-off sacrifice fly, outfielder Alex Verdugo shared a juicy nugget: The Red Sox were incensed at the Rays for openly discussing during a Game 1 victory how they planned to ship champagne to Boston after closing out the series.

These are the moments of disrespect that fuel a rivalry and what can I say -- once a tabloid writer, always a tabloid writer.

What we said at the time: "The first game, they're over there eating popcorn, sitting on the field, chilling, talking," said outfielder Alex Verdugo. "And then also, they're telling the guys to get the champagne ready here and already ordering the stuff over.

"Just that little bit of disrespect like, 'Wow, really? You guys think you've got it in the bag like that?' It gave us extra fire. We already knew what we had to do and understood our job, but to give us that extra motivation to really [expletive] get after it, it was great."

Biggest whiff

I hammered Bloom and the Red Sox for not doing enough at the trade deadline when they acquired a broken-down Schwarber and nondescript relievers Hansel Robles and Austin Davis. The team responded by going 3-11 to drop from 2.5 games up in first to five games out in second, and I crushed them for standing pat while the Yankees added Anthony Rizzo, the Jays landed Jose Berrios, etc. ... Bloom eventually got the last laugh, however, when Schwarber returned in August to transform the lineup and Robles didn't allow a run in September.

What we said at the time: "About the only area not screaming for an upgrade was the outfield, but Bloom struck there anyway, landing injured slugger Kyle Schwarber from the Nationals on Thursday night. But as Friday rolled along, that hopeful unease gave way to crestfallen disappointment. That's it? That's all there is?

 

Crystal ball

The Red Sox learned in 2014 what can happen when an overachieving team returns for more. They followed up 2013's Boston Strong title with a last-place finish, stripping the roster for parts at the trade deadline.

This club is better positioned not to similarly disintegrate, but a regression is probably in order. Too much went right last year, from Nathan Eovaldi making 32 starts to Hernández excelling in the leadoff spot to a 26-18 record in one-run games.

As much as the Red Sox would love to repeat that improbable success, they're more likely to take a step back in the short term as they continue focusing on the future. The Blue Jays appear loaded, the Rays just locked up baseball's best young player (Wander Franco) for a decade, and the Yankees always seem to find a way.

Success in the short term probably hinges on the left arm of Chris Sale, who made positive strides in his return from Tommy John and now needs to take the final step back to ace. Assuming the new CBA includes expanded playoffs, the Red Sox should at least contend for a wild card spot even if they fall short of last season's unexpected heights.