The frustration appears to be mounting, and how the Red Sox respond to their first real adversity since an 0-3 start may decide how long they remain in control of the American League East.
On Sunday night, they dropped their third straight series with a 9-1 loss to the Yankees. They did so in familiar fashion, winning the opener and nothing more, just as they did against the Angels and Phillies.
A team that made a habit of finding a way in the first half has stumbled out of the gates in the second, puncturing its aura of resilience in the process.
"I think we need to continue to play hard like we are in first place," said catcher Christian Vazquez. "We need to act more like we're in first place. That's the key for us. We need to be more cocky, like we're in a good place. And we're not acting like that. That's what I see right now."
After worrying only about themselves for the first three-plus months, the Red Sox have been directing their ire outward in recent days while losing six of eight. First, Kiké Hernández bemoaned being one of only two teams forced to play on Thursday out of the All-Star break, drawing uneasy parallels to the disliked Adrian Gonzalez. When a COVID outbreak on the Yankees canceled that game, Hernández suggested it was karma.
On Saturday, outfielder Alex Verdugo rightfully blew his top when a fan drilled him in the back with a baseball thrown from the stands, but it's easy to wonder how much Verdugo's reaction related to the month-long slump that has dropped his OPS to league average. Manager Alex Cora admitted that he pulled his team off the field partly so the emotional Verdugo could calm down.
That same night, the Red Sox were outraged over the miserable conditions at Yankee Stadium while trying to play through deluges before their 3-1 loss was finally called after six innings. Their grievances may have been merited, but the Red Sox of May and June would've simply found a way to win.
And then in Sunday's finale, the bats once again remained silent and the bullpen imploded while Red Sox players continued lashing out. Normally mild-mannered third baseman Rafael Devers appeared headed to an ejection after being called out on an appealed check swing, though Cora led him safely away.
Then Vazquez motioned at a light shining from above the monuments in center field. Whether the Red Sox believed it was an attempt at sign stealing or a random fan aiming a laser pointer, they were distracted enough to halt the game.
Add it all together, and they're limping into their most brutal stretch of the season, a run of 17 straight games against the Rays, Jays, and Yankees. Their pitching has intermittently faltered, their offense has cratered, and they're starting to point fingers externally when they've been so good at keeping the focus on themselves all season.
"I think it's more of the offense than anything else," Cora said. "We had that big game against Kansas City (a 15-1 win) at the end of the homestand and then after that, obviously a good pitching staff in Oakland and Anaheim, we didn't do too much. Against the Phillies we didn't do too much, and this series, it was the same thing. There are some positives, but as a group, we need to get better."
There's little doubt the Red Sox have played over their heads. They own only the third-best run differential in the division, which is suggestive of a 51-win team, but they're 56-38. Perhaps the last couple of weeks represent a market correction.
Their lead over the Rays, which stood at 4.5 games not even two weeks ago, has shrunk to a half game. The Jays have been playing nearly .700 ball for the last month and shut out the Rangers in both halves of a doubleheader Sunday to pull within six games. The Yankee are seven games out, but they boast the resources to improve in July, and the Red Sox failed to knock them when they had the chance.
There's a reason no one wins any awards for leading the division in July. There's still more than two months to play, and the club's brilliant and surprising first half won't mean anything if there's no payoff in October.