In praise of gritty Red Sox, who keep surprising amid myriad injuries

In praise of gritty Red Sox, who keep surprising amid myriad injuries originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

First off, to answer the obvious question: No, this can't last.

Red Sox starters won't keep pitching to a sub-2.00 ERA, especially with Nick Pivetta and Garrett Whitlock on the injured list and openers/bullpen games on the menu twice a week. Nor will the offense keep putting up six runs a game, as it did in a weekend sweep of the Pirates, without Rafael Devers, Tyler O'Neill, and Triston Casas.

But ... that doesn't mean the Red Sox haven't shown us something in the early going that might actually mean something down the road.

This season easily could've already vented into space. Every player listed above is currently injured, and that doesn't include starting shortstop Trevor Story or presumed starting second baseman Vaughn Grissom, not to mention replacement Romy Gonzalez. They've played eight, zero, and two games, respectively.

Without Story, the Red Sox can't play defense. Without Pivetta and Whitlock, they can't help but tax their bullpen. Without Devers, O'Neill, and now Casas, they shouldn't be able to score.

So let's give credit where it's due to manager Alex Cora and whatever he has left of a roster for the performance in Pittsburgh, where the Red Sox systematically dismantled a club that started 11-5.

The Red Sox could easily be 10-13 now and falling fast. Instead they're 13-10 and third in the rugged American League East despite starting a bunch of guys casual fans wouldn't even be able to name.

In Sunday's 6-1 victory, the red-hot Wilyer Abreu went 3 for 5 with two RBIs out of the cleanup spot, Cora aggressively pinch hit Reese McGuire for emergency callup Tyler Heineman in the fifth and was rewarded with a two-run single, and the bullpen made it stand, with the win going to stellar Rule 5 pick Justin Slaten, who lowered his ERA to 0.63.

"We're just going to go out here and play with the 26 guys that we have, and we're going to try to win every single game, fight until the last pitch," Slaten told "Nobody comes in here sulking about who we have and who we don't have. We feel confident."

The Red Sox made short work of the Pirates for a simple reason: They caught the ball. After a brutal homestand that saw them go 3-7 while kicking the ball all over the field, they made only one error in Pittsburgh.

When your pitching staff owns a league-leading 2.59 ERA, unearned runs can be the difference between winning and losing. And Cora has taken steps to shore up that weakness by shifting Rafaela, his outstanding center fielder, to short, where he's at least league average.

Meanwhile, the much-maligned Bobby Dalbec delivered solid defense at third with Devers out, and veteran Pablo Reyes has already seen time at every infield position. All three of them are hitting below .200, and that's not sustainable over a full season, but if they turn groundballs into outs, the Red Sox can survive – especially if Tanner Houck keeps tossing shutouts and Kutter Crawford keeps pitching like an All-Star.

They head to Cleveland for a three-game series that opens on Tuesday against the AL Central-leading Guardians, who own the best record in baseball at 16-6 and just took three of four at Fenway. Cora expects Devers and O'Neill to rejoin the lineup, but he's preparing for an extended absence from Casas, the slugging first baseman who's on the IL with a left rib strain that could sideline him indefinitely.

"We have to readjust," Cora told reporters. "We'll be OK."

At some point, if they really want to hold up in the division, they're going to need help from outside the organization. April is not generally a time for impact trades, however, so they'll have to stay in survival mode and try to find a way.

The good news is, they're improbably making it work.