'We need to start making a move': Red Sox in surprisingly bleak spot as 2nd half looms

As the Boston Red Sox boarded their plane in London last weekend for the flight home, having been freshly walloped in successive games by the increasingly indomitable New York Yankees, they couldn’t really relish participating in Major League Baseball’s first-ever series in Europe.

They were too pissed off.

“Cool experience,” veteran utility man Brock Holt said. “But those games are games we needed to win against the first-place team. Any time you lose to a team you’re chasing, it’s not a good feeling. We got to win, and we got to win fast.”

“We got to play better, and we got to try to string a good stretch together where we can win like we did last year. You hate to keep saying, ‘Last year, last year.’ That year’s over. It was unbelievable. But we just haven’t put it together and gone on a little run.”

Indeed, the reigning World Series champions have had a remarkable amount of practice stowing frustration in their overhead compartments this season. Despite returning almost every key member of last year’s roster – one of the greatest of the modern era, which compiled a 108-win regular season the Red Sox have sputtered to a 46-41 record with an only slightly more encouraging plus-46 run differential.

They seemed poised to re-assert their dominance following a dismal 6-13 start, winning at a .620 clip for the next two months, but a recent swoon has plunged the team into a decidedly bleaker spot as the All-Star break looms.

“Everyone’s doing what we can,” Holt said. “We’re just not able to string those long winning streaks together, string those good runs together. We’ll win a couple, then we’ll lose one or two. And then we’ll win three. And then we’ll lose one.

“It’s not like last year (when) we didn’t lose more than three games in a row. We started off out of the gates hot. From start to finish, it was easy, pretty much. It’s never easy – this game is hard – but last year that’s what it seemed like, looking back. From start to finish, we came to the park expecting to win.”

Amid its struggles, Boston’s chances of winning the American League East for the fourth year in a row are effectively nil. With the official halfway point of the season behind them, the Red Sox trail the Yankees by 11 games, and sit 4 1/2 games behind the second-place Tampa Bay Rays. They don’t occupy one of the wild-card spots, either, with Cleveland, Oakland, and Texas sporting better records. Barring improvement in the second half, the Red Sox can expect to watch the playoffs unfold from the comfort of their living rooms.

The projections largely agree. FanGraphs has Boston’s postseason odds at 54.9 percent. Baseball Prospectus is less bullish, giving the Red Sox a one-in-three chance. Baseball Reference’s model is the most pessimistic, putting their likelihood of sneaking into October at just 22 percent. Those figures aren’t gospel, of course, but they nevertheless reflect a season gone awry. Thus far, at least.

“I don’t really put much into the 20 percents and all that,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “I’ve been in a position where I’ve been 95 percent sure of winning the division and we haven’t won. We have a good team. We have good players on our team. We probably just need to be playing better overall as a team, and we’ll see where that takes us. I did not think we’d be where we are now. But it doesn’t mean we can’t be where we want to be.”

Jamie Squire / Getty Images Sport / Getty

So how, then, does a juggernaut kept largely intact turn into a fringe contender by the following All-Star break? Let us count the ways. (And, no, there’s no such thing as a World Series hangover: “I think it’s just something people say,” quipped left fielder Andrew Benintendi.)

Chris Sale, for one, can’t stop giving up home runs. The same goes for Eduardo Rodriguez. Rick Porcello can’t do much of anything. And Nathan Eovaldi hasn’t pitched since April. The rotation, to put it succinctly, has not been a strength despite its solid fielding independent pitching (FIP) numbers.

There’s also the much-maligned bullpen. (To be fair, the brunt of that scorn should be directed at a front office that made no meaningful effort to replace Craig Kimbrel or Joe Kelly this past winter.) Boston’s assemblage of relievers has been wildly unreliable in 2019, stumbling to the worst save-conversation rate (48.6 percent) in the majors while enduring more meltdowns (51) than all but five other American League clubs. Late leads aren’t safe with this group.

Meanwhile, every positive development on the position-player side, it seems, has been mitigated by a countervailing woe. Rafael Devers has broken out in his third MLB season, but Mookie Betts has tailed off markedly following his MVP campaign. Christian Vazquez has finally discovered how to hit, but World Series MVP Steve Pearce, a boon to Boston’s lineup down the stretch in 2018, has been injured and/or ineffective all season. Rookie Michael Chavis has acquitted himself well on the right side of the infield in the absence of Dustin Pedroia, Mitch Moreland, and Pearce, but Benintendi’s in the midst of the worst season of his young career.

On the whole, the lineup has still been quite good – ranking seventh in the majors in wRC+ (107) and fourth in runs per game (5.56) – but not quite good enough to offset the struggling pitching staff. Or perhaps, as Benintendi put it, not timely enough, a suggestion supported by the numbers.

“Last year, it was a different guy every day (stepping up),” he said. “If the pitching didn’t do well, the hitting was there, and vice versa. It just seems like we haven’t hit a stride this year where we’re hot. It’s tough to do, and it felt like last year we did it a lot of times. I guess it’s just waiting until something hits, and just ride it out until it’s over.”

Jim McIsaac / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Realistically, the Red Sox have no recourse beyond waiting it out and trusting that their record will soon begin to more closely reflect their talent level. They’re not going to demote a struggling veteran like Porcello, and they have no stud prospects in the wings primed for promotions. (That also means their trade chips will be limited should they choose to be buyers ahead of the July 31 deadline.)

This group, as currently constituted, is the team, and though regression and bad luck have conspired against them in 2019, it remains a damn good one.

“We just got to keep going, keep grinding,” Holt said. “Everybody’s working hard. We still feel like we’re a good team. We just got to put it all together and go on a little run.”

Still, as the Red Sox prepare to adjourn for the All-Star break, the task of distinguishing themselves in the crowded American League wild-card race appears daunting. Their second-half schedule will kick off with a three-game set at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers, who boast the majors’ best record. And in a 14-game stretch from July 22 to Aug, 4, they’ll exclusively play either the Yankees or Rays.

An early slip-up may even compel Dombrowski to consider selling at the deadline – a notion that was laughable eight months ago when the Red Sox hoisted the Commissioner’s Trophy at Dodger Stadium.

Now, though, nobody in Boston’s clubhouse is laughing. They’re too pissed off.

“Anytime you’re not in first place, it weighs on you,” Benintendi said. “It’s a long season, obviously, and we can still turn it around, but we need to start making a move.”

Jonah Birenbaum is theScore’s senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.