If you can peel your attention away from the Celtics for a moment before Saturday's return to the Garden, the Red Sox appear to be stabilizing.
They've dug themselves a considerable hole, but they're constructing the scaffolding that could allow them to climb back into wild card contention.
The headline Thursday was Trevor Story's coming-out party in a 12-6 victory over the Mariners. Story homered three times, scored five times, drove in seven runs, and stole a base. He took a curtain call after his final homer, which is a far cry from the boos that deservedly cascaded over him during the last homestand.
But Story isn't the only positive sign.
The Red Sox are hitting. Manager Alex Cora has finally seen enough of his bullpen to understand which arms he can trust and which he can't (Hirokazu Sawamura, Matt Barnes, and Ryan Brasier). And the element that to this point has been the team's strength -- starting pitching -- has remained consistent.
With the easiest portion of the schedule officially upon us, the time to make noise in the playoff race is now. And to their credit, they're capitalizing.
"Us as a team, we struggled early," admitted reliever Tanner Houck. "But I think everyone now has truly picked it up."
The Red Sox have won six of their last nine after a 10-19 start to improve to 16-22. While they remain 12 games behind the white-hot Yankees, they only trail the Blue Jays by four games for the sixth and final playoff spot. Of the other four teams they must leapfrog, only the White Sox scare you as a legitimate contender, and Chicago could easily overtake the Twins to win the Central, which is probably only looking at one playoff team.
As of now, the wild card leaders are the Rays, Angels, and Jays. Assuming the Rays get in by doing Rays things and the Jays overcome a relatively sluggish start, that leaves the Angels, who are perpetually one Mike Trout injury away from rejoining the pack. There's a lot of baseball left to play.
Reasons for Red Sox optimism suddenly abound. DH J.D. Martinez has caught fire and leads the club with a .344 average. Rafael Devers is up to .335 with a team-leading seven homers and 21 RBIs. Franchise linchpin Xander Bogaerts is hitting .331 and not letting his contract situation -- "Re-sign Xander!" chants may become a nightly occurrence -- detract from his performance.
"We're getting there as a group," Cora said. "As you guys know, when we get going offensively, it's pretty impressive."
Then there's Story. Ten days ago, he was hitting .194 with a .545 OPS. But during this nine-game stretch, he's hitting .333 with a 1.243 OPS, raising his overall numbers to .230 with a .730 OPS. He's a different hitter and more discerning, as evidenced by walks in six straight games.
And even more encouragingly, while two of Thursday's home runs came on hanging changeups that he absolutely destroyed, the first one saw him turn around a 95 mph fastball, the kind of pitch that had given him as much trouble as sliders off the plate early in the season.
"Baseball is the most challenging sport in the world," Story said. "I feel like on an everyday basis, you're going to be challenged, especially here. It's something I take a lot of pride in in trying to be very even-keeled about it all. I just believe that the hard work pays off eventually."
The offense is only half of the story, however. While it certainly helps that the Red Sox have averaged over six runs a game since beating the Braves to open their last road trip, they've also found some reliable bullpen arms.
Lefties Matt Strahm and Austin Davis have pitched well all year, and sidewinding right-hander John Schreiber has yet to allow a run in eight appearances. On Thursday, Houck gave the team four shutout innings behind starter Rich Hill to earn the win. Though lefty Jake Diekman has struggled with command, he remains Cora's best option when the need arises for a strikeout.
With Brasier reportedly optioned out to make room for Michael Wacha (per Julian McWilliams of The Boston Globe), Cora is starting to hone in on which relievers he can trust. The Red Sox remain at least one and probably two arms away, but they're stabilizing.
Now they must capitalize on the softest portion of their schedule. Including Thursday's win against the Mariners, the Red Sox will play 17 straight games against teams without winning records, including the Reds and Orioles, who would be picking first and fifth, respectively, if the draft were held today. The 19-19 White Sox pose the only challenge in that stretch.
And really, the schedule doesn't pick up again until late June, when the Red Sox return to Toronto to start a run through the American League East gauntlet. Even after this current stretch ends with a visit to Anaheim, they're still looking at a steady diet of Seattle, Oakland, Detroit, and Cleveland. All are sub-.500.
So it's OK to start feeling better about the Red Sox. They're by no means out of the crater they dug in April, but at least now there's some light.