Baseball needs the villainous Red Sox to expose the tankers and rebuilders

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. – The best thing about the Boston Red Sox – and maybe this is a weird time to bring it up, considering the shillelagh they just laid on the Los Angeles Angels, a decent team, for three days – is what they say about so much of the rest of baseball.

How they shame the tankers and half-ins and rebuilders. How they embarrass the long-view escapists. How they bury the devious alibis.

As of Friday morning, five American League teams stood at least 10 games behind the Red Sox, two of those teams also in the AL East. Four teams appear to be borderline helpless, meaning nearly one-third of the league is all but done. It’s mid-April. Those teams chose their courses, rainy-dayed their nickels, sold their fan bases on some tomorrow that may or may not come, then hoped they wouldn’t be too exposed. You know, they’d probably be bad, maybe barely engaged, but nothing too humiliating.

Then the Red Sox went out 16-2.

(And the New York Mets, Arizona Diamondbacks, Angels, Pittsburgh Pirates came out capably, too.)

This is not an ode to spending the most money (though the Red Sox apparently will) or, say, fielding four players who will earn at least $21 million (though the Red Sox do). That by itself doesn’t get you 16-2.

Three weeks of near perfect baseball gets you 16-2. So does 12 games against the Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles and Miami Marlins. Everyone will have their shots against the worst of a league in which perhaps a third of the teams decided 2018 just wasn’t worth it, and hardly anyone will go 16-2 over any 18 games. The Red Sox did, and they did with authority and, by the way, they also throttled the New York Yankees and Angels. They also examined a team that had won 93 games and an AL East title, turned it over in their hands, pawed at the edges, and sought a fresher course of their own. They risked what they had.

The Boston Red Sox have started the season 16-2 thanks to Mookie Betts and new manager Alex Cora. (AP)
The Boston Red Sox have started the season 16-2 thanks to Mookie Betts and new manager Alex Cora. (AP)

This is a lesson in showing up, in honoring the game. Not so that you can win 16 of your first 18 games. But so that you are not eliminated in the hearts and stomachs and wallets of your fans long before the first Mother’s Day cards go out, and almost predictably so.

Not so that you can run off the best start to a season in franchise history. But so that you can be reasonably proud of the effort, of an organizational plan that is long in theory and also fields a presentable baseball team in the meantime.

The Cincinnati Reds have won three games and fired their manager. The Rays are 11 games out of first place and are not in last place. The Orioles are. In the aftermath of the most stingy, mysterious and suspect winter in at least three decades, six teams are playing sub-.300 baseball. Six. Yes, it is April. No, none is expected to play significantly better in May.

This is baseball in 2018, where you hold steady against the proficient teams, crush the teams that deserve crushing, and ride that straight into October. Or, for that matter, May. It works when the number of fans in the ballpark or tuning in at home does not significantly alter the bottom line. It also undermines the credibility of the product, of the league, of the sport. There have always been bad teams. Maybe it’s never seemed quite so – what? – intentional? Submissive? Free of consequences?

So, the Red Sox, and the second-best thing about them. When Mookie Betts homered in the first inning Thursday night — his fourth home run of the series — the Red Sox had gone almost a week-and-a-half on a run-an-inning pace. When they’d finished with eight more runs against the Angels, scored 27 runs in a series that was so lopsided the Red Sox even had killed the buzz that is Shohei Ohtani (at the plate and the mound), they’d maintained their run-an-inning spree. For three weeks they’d hardly struck out at all. Their starters’ ERA was less than 2. They’d committed four errors. And Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts were on the disabled list. So was Drew Pomeranz.

When I asked a club executive about all that, and how it got them to whatever-and-2, the answer was: Alex Cora. The manager. And a fresh vibe. No disrespect to John Farrell, who, on his way out, merely won 93 games and an AL East title. Who, once, not so long ago, won a World Series. Who looked pretty good over 800-and-some games, who could look pretty good over 18 games, too.

And, of course, everybody loves everybody on a 16-2 team.

Still.

“It’s just a different feel,” Betts said. “A little more loose.”

He added quickly, “Not that we were really tight last year. But, it’s Alex. The coaching staff. We work. We get ourselves ready. There’s no rhyme or reason. It just fits.”

This was a couple hours before their 16th win, a season that has gone: lose one, win nine, lose one, win seven. Big love all around.

“We had culture last year as well,” Mitch Moreland insisted. “That’s something we had. I think maybe it’s taken the next step. We still have a great team. Alex comes in, and a lot of it comes from the top. Telling us, ‘You’re playing great, keep your foot on the gas.’ ”

Asked if that were a direct quote, Moreland, Mississippi bred, grinned and said, “That might be my country version of it.”

“Lance Berkman told me once, ‘Some teams will only win the games their talent will allow.’ Teams that have heart, though, maybe they’ll steal a game they’re not supposed to win. That stuck with me. I think that’s this team. Last year, everybody felt like it was a down year. We had a good year. Everybody knew we could improve.”

To 16-2? That much?

“I’m trying to understand it, too,” Cora said with a smile. “Good baseball. Good baseball for a while.”

Well, good for them. Good for baseball, too. The game needed a juggernaut, needed a villain, needed more than a mail-it-in league.

Needed someone to expose the rest.

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