It was a little over two months ago that the esteemed Charlie Pierce was blogging on this very site about the restorative powers of the 2021 Boston Red Sox. Here was a team that should have been—deserved to be, for the crime of trading away Mookie Betts—down in the dumps. After finishing last in the AL East during the pandemic-shortened season, more misery was expected coming into this year’s full slate of games. But then the Red Sox started hot and stayed hot, and as recently as July 5 they led the division by 4.5 games over the Rays. If the thought of the Boston Red Sox having anything close to a feel-good season makes your stomach turn, well then you should keep reading.
As of this morning, the Red Sox are five games back of first place in the AL East. They managed to turn a relatively comfortable division lead into a worrying deficit by winning just four of their last 14 games, with the majority of those losses coming against their division rivals, the Rays and Blue Jays. Last night’s loss to the Rays continued a particularly depressing stretch during which the Sox have been powerless to stop coughing up wins in the later innings. A four-run ninth inning wrapped up an 8-4 win for the Rays last night; on Sunday it was a go-ahead, three-run homer in the eighth inning from George Springer that sealed their fate against the Jays; the day before that it was a walk-off homer from Marcus Semien that earned them a 1-0 loss in a seven-inning game.
At the center of these meltdowns has been poor Matt Barnes, who up until recently was doing a serviceable job closing games for the Sox. He’s lost three of the last four games he’s appeared in, and was on the mound when the opposition seized the lead in each of the aforementioned games. Last night’s outing was the worst of the bunch; Barnes came into the game in the top of the ninth with score tied at 4-4, got himself into a two-out, bases-loaded jam, and then served up a bases-clearing hit. He was pulled from the game after that, and by the time the inning was over he’d been charged with four earned runs in just 0.2 innings of work. He seemed like he was not exactly in the best place after the game was over:
It’s not really fair to single out Barnes, though, as the problems that have been recently plaguing the Red Sox go far beyond having one shaky closer on the roster. All the things that were true about this team before the season started—those factors that seemed to signal a heap of losses were on the way—are still true today. The starting pitching is very bad (nobody on the staff has an ERA under 4.00), the bullpen is shaky, and there is still a Mookie Betts-sized hole in the middle of the lineup. The offense—lifted by the resurgence of JD Martinez, the continued excellence of Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, and a breakout season from Alex Verdugo—was good enough smooth over most of those issues during the first half of the season, but their position at the top of the division was always more than a little tenuous. It certainly doesn’t help that they did absolutely nothing at the trade deadline while the Yankees were busy becoming larger and more Italian than ever.
The Red Sox are still an objectively good team—you don’t go 65-50 in a division as competitive as the AL East, where every team aside from the Orioles is at least 10 games above .500, by being bad. But they aren’t special. For a while there it looked like maybe they were, and that enough things would keep breaking their way for them to outperform their expectations and run differential and steal a division title nobody expected them to compete for. Now, though, they’re just like every other team in the division: talented, flawed, and having to fight like hell for a sniff of the postseason.