The greatest question the Red Sox face entering the second half of the season — well, final two-fifths, really — whether they’re good enough to avoid a Wild Card game. Whether they hold on to the American League East and keep the Yankees at bay.
How many wins the Sox (68-30) wind up with does not matter outside of that context. A 105-win season would look plenty disappointing if it gives way to a loss in the only playoff game the Sox play in 2018.
Lurking in the background is more of a question of context and remembrance. Will these Sox eventually be recalled for something other than being outrageously good?
They do not need to be, mind you. No team needs to do anything besides win (and act responsibly and benevolently as citizens, you could also say). This is the best team in baseball, with 64 games left on its schedule. They arrive, they rake and shove, they do it again the next day. It's 2007 all over again.
“It’s a very weird feeling in the clubhouse,” J.D. Martinez said in Washington D.C., during the All-Star Game festivities. “From the moment I got into spring training, it’s like everyone goes out there and whether we’re losing by a lot or we’re winning by a lot, the mood is always the same. There’s never any panic.
"There’s no really like highs and lows it seems like in the clubhouse. It’s just everything is kind of like, even-keeled. So to me it’s like, it’s almost like that’s who we are: we’re playing like how we’re supposed to be playing."
The Sox are not underdogs with the highest payroll in baseball. They’re not all bearded. There are no reports of Jack Daniels shots prior to games. There’s certainly no curse to be broken, or any other broad backdrop, aside from the desire to avenge early exits in 2016 and 2017.
None of those threads are necessary for enjoyment, although they can act as an enhancement. Perhaps there’s a blue-collar narrative to be found here, if you can ignore the highest payroll in baseball.
“Ah man, I don’t know,” Martinez said when asked about identity. “I feel like this is a very close group. It almost feels like a family. Everyone’s rooting for each other. I don’t know if I can put a label on it, it’s just, everyone always wants to grow and get better. Everyone’s always asking questions, and continuing to just not be satisfied I feel like in their own. They always want to get better. It’s been fun.”
The questions for Martinez and Mookie Betts didn’t stop at the All-Star Game, either. Both players will be high vote-getters in the American League MVP race, and Betts may well win. The duo, led by Martinez’s methods as well as hitting coach Tim Hyers, seems to have figured something out, a hitting approach that maximizes their off-the-chart talents.
“There’s a lot of hitting talk, but it’s not necessarily, ‘How do you do it?’” Betts said when asked if All-Stars were trying to understand what he and Martinez have been doing. “It’s the approaches and what not that you use. Just passing along information, that’s how everybody gets better. Everybody wants to get better.”
Hard to imagine the Sox actually getting better, given it would be a shock if they did not win 100 games. The Sox need to play .500 ball the rest of the way to reach that vaunted mark.
Martinez was asked if the Sox have peaked.
“I don’t know, you can always get better, right?” he said. “But we have a good team. I think we’re a very versatile team. I always say this: like, this is a team that can beat you in multiple ways. You can have someone throw a shutout and us put up one run. Or you know, us go out there and put up 10 runs and us win. You know the bullpen comes in, shuts the door.
“We can steal bases. We can manufacture runs. It’s a team that’s not dependent on winning on one way. I kind of remember when I was in Detroit it was like, we had to slug. That was what we had to do to score. Here, it’s different.”
But, again, being good, or being different, or improving from this point really matters in only one context: the Yankees (62-33). They’re the only other team that can with East. And the prize associated with clinching the division — avoiding a one-game Wild Card berth — is tremendous.
The Yanks sit 4 1/2 games back, with more games to play than the Sox down the stretch. Whether the Sox win 100 games, 110 games, really doesn’t matter outside of the magic and novelty associated with a big number.
As of Wednesday, the Red Sox had a 58.1 percent chance to win the division, per Baseball Prospectus’ daily playoff odds. The Yanks were at 41.9 percent. They next meet in the first week of August at Fenway Park.
"We have a long way to go," Betts said. "We have to take these couple days to heal up, rest up and get ready to go."