BOSTON – The Red Sox entered Thursday night’s game 11 games behind the Yankees in the AL East, seemingly hopelessly out of contention in the division.
Then Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka took to the mound and suddenly – for one night – the Red Sox appeared to have hope, the kind of hope that should inspire Dave Dombrowski to go out and bolster a roster, that has been spinning its wheels a bit as it languishes in fourth place in the AL Wild Card race behind the Indians, A’s and Rays. But at 56-47, the Red Sox entered Thursday knowing they still have more than a puncher’s chance to make the one-game playoff, perhaps even host it.
Obviously, the mission is to get there first. There’s a reason the Yankees are in the comfortable position they’re in and the Red Sox have been stuck in third. This Red Sox team has shown its flaws on a regular basis through the first four months of their defense of the 2018 World Series championship.
But the one thing they can do is beat up on mediocre pitching. In a record-setting 19-3 rout of New York, one in which Xander Bogaerts homered twice and the team banged out 23 hits and scored more against the Yankees than ever before, beating up is understating what happened Thursday here at Fenway. For all of the power in the bats at the plate and in the arms of the bullpen, the Yankees starting rotation is the Achilles of a team destined to win 100 games again.
“It happened last year,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said of the slugfests. “They know what kind of offense we have and we know what kind of offense they have.”
Mediocre might actually be a kind adjective to describe the Yankees starting rotation of Tanaka, James Paxton, C.C. Sabathia, J.A. Happ and Domingo German. The 26-year-old German is the ace of this staff, with a 12-2 record, a 4.03 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP in 16 starts. The foursome of Tanaka, Paxton, Sabathia and Happ are 25-20 with none having an ERA under 4.00.
Coming into Thursday’s game at Fenway, Yankee starting pitchers allowed 28 runs over their previous four starts, with none getting beyond the fourth inning. No team needs pitching at the deadline like the Yankees, not even the Red Sox.
The Red Sox showed no mercy on Tanaka, pulverizing him for 12 runs on 12 hits in 3 1/3 innings, raising his ERA from 4.00 to 4.79 over the course of two hours of dreadful pitching. The message from Yankee manager Aaron Boone, with Tanaka sitting shell-shocked in the visitors’ dugout was pretty simple, we can’t keep bailing out our awful starting pitching.
The Red Sox scorched Tanaka for seven runs and seven hits in the opening frame, including a 451-foot moonshot over the monster from Xander Bogaerts that made it 3-0. Before the inning was over, it was 7-0. All jokes aside, this was enough for Rick Porcello, who actually had to expend 47 pitches to get through the second inning with just two runs scoring.
.@RedSox first-inning recap:
Seven hits, seven runs, and one moonshot.
— MLB (@MLB) July 25, 2019
In the last two starts, Porcello has received 33 runs of support. Thursday, the right-hander survived six innings, allowing six hits and three runs in 112 pitches of work.
Remember, Tanaka was the same pitcher staked to a 6-0 lead against Porcello in the first inning in London, only to give that right back up in the bottom of the first. He retired just two batters in that Red Sox onslaught, giving up four hits and six runs. Again, Boone’s message Thursday night to Tanaka is that eventually you’re going to need to figure it out against the Red Sox.
Xander's first HR put the @RedSox up 3-0.
His second HR made it 19-3. pic.twitter.com/2HSldjBv5D
— MLB (@MLB) July 26, 2019
You have to go back over 65 years to find a Yankee staff that suffered through such an abysmal stretch. Whether it was the Bronx Bombers of the 50s and 60s or the Reggie Jackson-led teams in the late 70s or the Jeter-Rivera pinstripes of the 90s and 2000s, pitching has always been there in the Bronx. Not this year. Not by a long shot.
The Yankees came into Boston off two of their more memorable slugfests in recent history. They were down 8-2 against the Twins Tuesday night. Took a 9-8 lead, trailed 10-9, led 14-12 in the tenth inning of a game that took 5 hours, 3 minutes to play. Then it took a miraculous diving catch by Aaron Hicks in left-center to win the game with the bases loaded. The next night, the Yankees led 9-3 into the bottom of the fourth. Was that enough for Happ? Nope. He could only get one batter out in the fourth and before you blinked it was 9-6. The Yankees won, 10-7, but these games are having a cumulative effect on even the most powerful team in baseball.
Here’s the point of all this, Red Sox fans: Yes, the Red Sox are still a long, long shot at this point, even if they win three of four this weekend. They entered 11 games back and winning three games would knock the lead down just two games to nine. But if the Red Sox find a way to get to the postseason, then there’s a real reason to believe in a reset switch.
Would you rather have Chris Sale, David Price and Eduardo Rodriguez or Herman, Paxton and Sabathia/Tanaka? Obviously, that dynamic could change drastically before next Wednesday but right now, these slugfests, even the losses in London, should give the Red Sox inspiration and hope.
The next two starters the Red Sox face in this series should not make them quake in their cleats, as James Paxton and C.C. Sabathia both take the mound with 5-5 records and ERAs north of 4.15. If the Red Sox can find a way to get to both and take advantage of real home field at Fenway Park, then Sunday night against German could be very interesting to say the least.
So which team is more desperate at this point to make a deal come next Wednesday? The Yankee juggernaut that is cruising at 66-36 but with a starting rotation that could get destroyed by the likes of the Astros or Red Sox come October? Or a Red Sox team that again is leading all of baseball in offensive production but with no certainty of making the postseason because pitching inconsistencies and a bullpen (18 blown saves) that has proven no lead is safe in the final three innings?
“There’s not a lot of needs, per se, that we have with the club because we’re leading the league in run scored. You can always get better,” Dombrowski told WEEI Thursday before the rout. “We’ve got five starters going out there. They can always get better.”
This statement essentially supports the sense that the Red Sox are what they are and if the pitching is good enough to get to a wild card, then they like their chances come October against anyone.
I’d lean on the side of the Yankees being the more desperate club simply because if they can shore up their rotation, the offense figures to wear down pitching staffs in the playoffs. And they might do that anyway.
It’s a fascinating and fun debate to have at this point, knowing the fan bases and ownerships in both markets feel anything less than a World Series appearance every October is a major disappointment.
After one glorious July night at Fenway, Red Sox fans can dream of another October showdown with the suddenly-suspect Yankees.