The Red Sox may have aced the first six weeks of the 2021 campaign, but it turns out those 42 games were simply prologue for the season-defining gauntlet that awaits.
Usually when we highlight a difficult portion of the schedule, we're talking 10 or 15 games. A particularly brutal stretch might last a month.
But the Red Sox are about to embark on a run of games that has no equal in recent franchise history. They visit the Toronto Blue Jays in Florida on Monday and they'd better buckle in, because the schedule simply does not relent.
And we don't just mean the rest of May. We're looking at all of June. And then all of July. It might be mid-August before the Red Sox get a break with series vs. the Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers, Baltimore Orioles, and Minnesota Twins.
In fact, depending on which way the fading Kansas City Royals go after their blistering start, it's possible the Red Sox will only face two teams with losing records in the next two and a half months -- three games vs. the Miami Marlins and three in Los Angeles against the same Angels club that beat Matt Barnes on Sunday with one big swing from Shohei Ohtani.
The Red Sox believe they're one of the best teams in baseball, and they're going to get a chance to prove it. Only two games separate the top four teams in the AL East, from the Red Sox at 25-17 to the Jays (22-17), New York Yankees (22-18), and Tampa Bay Rays (23-19). Between now and Aug. 18, the Red Sox will play those three division rivals a staggering 42 times in 81 games. That's more than half their games for exactly half a season.
Meanwhile, they'll face no shortage of contenders, from the second-place Philadelphia Phillies, to Ronald Acuna Jr. and the surprisingly underachieving Atlanta Braves, to the rampaging Houston Astros, to the division-leading Oakland A's. Even the Marlins, mired in fourth in the NL East after sneaking into the playoffs last year, own the best run differential in their division. It's not like the last-place Angels can be characterized as a gimme, either, not with maybe the two best players in the game in Ohtani and Mike Trout.
Even if you cut things off at Aug. 1 when the Red Sox complete a three-game set in Tampa, they're looking at SIXTY-SEVEN straight games with barely a let-up.
"I think the league is more balanced than what people made it seem before the season started," manager Alex Cora said recently. "I know there are a few teams a little bit banged up, but that's the grind of 162. It's not a sprint. It's not 60 games. A good start is just that, a good start. And we are playing in a tough division.
"This division for whatever people want to make it, it's balanced. Like I said even before the season started, the Orioles who nobody feels they have a good team, but they have some positives on their roster and they're trending up, what they're trying to do as an organization. Their starters are a solid, their bullpen has been amazing, they've got some dynamic players. In this division, it's going to be a dog fight all the way to the end."
It's easy to see where the Red Sox will be tested. Their bullpen remains inconsistent in front of Barnes, who was forced into Sunday's game in the eighth inning after Adam Ottavino put the tying run on second. Left-handers Darwinzon Hernandez and Josh Taylor -- and Ottavino, for that matter -- don't throw enough strikes. Once-reliable setup man Matt Andriese has seen his ERA climb near 5.00, and he's probably first man up if the rotation springs a leak. Right-hander Hirokazu Sawamura has allowed four home runs in only 16.1 innings.
Cora admits he's still searching for the right mix. That's a nerve-wracking proposition vs. the division foes alone, since one bad week could drop the Red Sox from first to fourth.
The Blue Jays have weathered injuries to two of their most important players -- $150 million outfielder George Springer and perennial Cy Young candidate Hyun-Jin Ryu.
The Yankees are surviving a COVID outbreak, as well as injuries to slugger Giancarlo Stanton and dependable outfielder Aaron Hicks. The Rays are doing what they always do, which is stay in contention against all logic and reason.
They're all about to be the only items on the menu for a Red Sox club that is certainly off to a great start, but with this rather glaring caveat -- the season effectively starts now.