RED SOX INSIDER

Tomase: 10 reasons why Red Sox are still legit contenders

RED SOX INSIDER

The way Kiké Hernández sees it, a short losing streak was no reason for the Red Sox to sweat.

"You can't let a five-game skid decide or say what a team's all about," he said after homering in a 4-1 victory over the Tigers on Wednesday. "We're not going to lose every game from here to 162."

Indeed they are not, but it's nice to breathe again after the longest skid of the season also happened to coincide with an underwhelming performance at the trade deadline. The Red Sox remain a game behind the Rays, and now set their sights on the race to the finish line.

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After a week of justifiable doom and gloom, it's worth noting that the Red Sox haven't made it this far on luck alone. They're a good team, and in that spirit, here are 10 reasons to feel optimistic not only about their chances of reaching the postseason, but actually making some noise when they get there.

1. The division is winnable

There's no doubt the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Rays improved at the deadline. When Kyle Schwarber returns, maybe the Red Sox will be able to make the same claim. But New York and Toronto dug themselves sizable holes, and they currently trail the Red Sox by five and six games, respectively. That's a much tougher deficit to overcome than it seems, especially when trailing not one but two teams. The Red Sox are 29-18 vs. the AL East (2nd to the 30-17 Rays) and own the division's best record in extra innings (6-3) and one-run games (20-12). When the race inevitably tightens, the Red Sox should be well-positioned.

 

2. A mid-August boost

While the Yankees and Jays, in particular, received a lift from their trade deadline acquisitions, the Red Sox effectively put theirs on layaway. But it's likely that ace Chris Sale returns next week, followed in relatively short order by Schwarber. They call them the dog days of August for a reason, and just as the shine wears off Anthony Rizzo, Joey Gallo, Jose Berrios, and Co., the Red Sox should be in line to receive a considerable boost. It would've been nice to see some reinforcements on July 30, but at least help is on the way.

3. Did we mention Chris Sale?

The history of pitchers returning from Tommy John and stepping immediately into impact roles is not exactly extensive. But the Red Sox have proceeded as cautiously as possible with Sale, who will have taken more than 16 months to return from surgery and who hasn't pitched in a big-league game in nearly two years. A healthy Sale completely alters the perception of the Red Sox rotation from a bunch of Nos. 3 and 4 starters to a group fronted by a legitimate No. 1. Add an effective bullpen, and getting five good innings a start out of Sale might be enough.

4. The bullpen is a strength

Speaking of the relief corps, they were all relieved to see closer Matt Barnes return after his second COVID false alarm. He pitched a 1-2-3 ninth vs. the Tigers on Wednesday and leads a group that has emerged as one of baseball's best. Manager Alex Cora likes to talk about "the relay race" of relievers at his disposal, and even with lefty Darwinzon Hernandez shelved with an oblique strain, there's plenty of depth, from Adam Ottavino to Josh Taylor to Hirokazu Sawamura to Garrett Whitlock and Tanner Houck.

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Newcomers Hansel Robles and Austin Davis have struck out six in their first four appearances without allowing a run. When the games get tight, an effective bullpen can make all the difference, and the Red Sox are deep.

5. Alex Cora pushing buttons

Part of the reason the bullpen works so well is the manager deciding how to deploying his forces. A lot is made of Cora's natural confidence and enthusiasm, as well as his ability to inspire. He's also a deft tactician who has remained disciplined enough to keep all five starters healthy, which is no small feat. If there's a manager who won't let a losing streak snowball, it's Cora. He motivates with both carrot and stick, and is a primary reason the Red Sox have lasted this long in the pennant race. He can get them to the finish line.

6. It's in their DNA

Some teams just have "it" and these Red Sox certainly qualify. Time and again, they've overcome moments that seemed poised to doom their season, starting immediately with the disastrous sweep at the hands of the Orioles to open the season. The Red Sox stayed the course, quickly won nine in a row, and have remained in contention ever since. The Red Sox possess an air of "don't give an eff" that's embodied by the next man on this list, and as long as they believe, then we should, too.

 

7. Kiké Hernández sets a tone

Of all the offensive stars on the club, Hernández may not shine brightest, but that's always been his story. There's a reason the Dodgers considered him indispensable, and it's not because he hit .350. Hernández has a habit of showing up when it matters, and his ability to play Gold Glove-caliber defense in center when he was supposed to be the starting second baseman speaks to the club's ability to adapt and find a way.

8. The offense is due

Usually the phrase "seeking its level" is used dismissively to describe a team playing over its head. But in the case of the Red Sox offense, they've returned from the All-Star break far enough below their first-half form to suggest a correction is in order. After averaging five runs a game in the first half, the Sox are putting up only four a game in the second. Xander Bogaerts looks like he's playing hurt, J.D. Martinez (who homered on Wednesday) has been locked in a slump, and the entire outfield has gone cold. With Rafael Devers, Alex Verdugo, and eventually Schwarber, the Red Sox should start hitting again.

9. Kyle Schwarber is on his way

We don't yet know when Schwarber will return or which version of him the Red Sox will receive, but whether he plays first base or the outfield, the left-handed slugger should bolster the lineup.

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During the hottest June pretty much ever, Schwarber blasted 16 home runs in 19 games. Before that, he hit .218. The Red Sox believe Schwarber was one of the most impactful bats moved at the deadline. He'll have about six weeks to prove it.

10. They've been there

If this club reaches October, it'll have no shortage of standouts with experience. Hernández and Hunter Renfroe played in the World Series last year, and the former owns a three-homer game in the postseason. Schwarber was a playoff monster in 2015 and 2016 and has homered once every 11 at-bats in the playoffs. We all remember what Nathan Eovaldi did on the big stage. Barnes has only allowed one earned run in 11 playoff appearances. Xander Bogaerts owns two World Series rings, and the core holdovers won it all in 2018. Cora claimed titles as a player, coach, and manager. If they can just get there, they can do real damage.