Red Sox have been up and down, but there is still plenty to like

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John Tomase
·7 min read
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Tomase: What to take from the Red Sox' recent stretch of inconsistency originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

We're about to find out what the Red Sox really are. They're neither as bad as their 0-3 start nor as good as the 9-0 follow-up, though the latter at least bought them time.

What they are at the moment is a team that consistently fights and pitches pretty well, but is beginning to spring leaks in the lineup and bullpen. Some of those problems will resolve themselves. Others will require minor league reinforcements or forays into the trade market.

On Sunday, the Red Sox lost a series for the first time since being swept by the Orioles to open the season. They blew a 3-2 lead in the eighth inning and dropped a 5-3 decision to the Rangers, who took three of four in Texas.

Since opening 9-3, the Red Sox have gone a pedestrian 8-9, allowing the Blue Jays and Yankees (gulp) to pull within 1.5 and 2.5 games of first, respectively, in the American League East.

Monday's off day will let them catch their breath before opening a three-game set at Fenway Park against the woeful Tigers. That makes now a good time to examine some early-season issues and determine who's trending up or down.

Trending up: Garrett Richards

Fans were ready to send Richards home on a surfboard after a dismal 0-2, 6.48 start. The problem wasn't only the results, which were terrible, but Richards' reaction to them, which was to blithely note he got beat by the shift after giving up six runs in just two innings vs. the Orioles or complaining about the cold a couple of starts later.

Tomase: Red Sox top-heavy lineup quickly becoming an issue

Richards didn't enter his 11th season with a lifetime 3.60 ERA because he stinks, though. The Red Sox revamped his delivery, eliminating some cross-body action that was causing his arm to lag behind his legs, and the last two starts have been excellent.

He limited the Mets to one run over seven innings with 10 strikeouts last week before striking out seven more over five one-run innings on Sunday.

After being unable to command his fastball or slider, Richards is now spotting both alongside a hammer curveball that he didn't really have vs. the Rangers.

"It was a good outing, not obviously the best one," Richards said. "Nobody really wants to go five and dive. I was looking to go a little bit deeper in the game, but they fought off a lot of pitches. A nice little building block outing. The last one was good. This one was decent. We're moving in the right direction  and there's still work to be done, but I'm starting to feel some familiar stuff of when I'm going good."

Trending down: Franchy Cordero

His time in the big leagues should be winding to at least a temporary close. The minor league season kicks off this week, and there's absolutely no reason to keep Cordero here when he should be working on his swing in Worcester.

Sunday's game ended with Cordero flying out to left, which felt like a victory simply because it wasn't a strikeout. Cordero went 0 for 3 with a sacrifice and saw his average fall to .158. Since a modest seven-game hitting streak ended in Minnesota on April 14 with his average at .348, Cordero has gone 1 for 34 with 17 strikeouts.

Meanwhile, the player he was traded for, outfielder Andrew Benintendi, is coming off a two-homer game for the surprising Royals and has raised his average nearly 100 points, to .273, in the last 10 games.

Veteran Danny Santana begins a rehab stint at Single-A Greenville on Tuesday. If he isn't ready to help, the Red Sox should summon infielder Michael Chavis, who had an excellent spring and has played 12 lifetime games in left field.

Trending down: Adam Ottavino

Between walks (9 in 10 innings) and an inability to command his fastball, Ottavino has been walking an increasingly perilous tightrope that finally snapped on Sunday.

With the Red Sox leading 3-2 in the eighth, Ottavino walked leadoff man Nate Lowe on five pitches before allowing him to steal second. He retired the next two batters, but failed to put away either David Dahl (game-tying single) or Isiah Kiner-Falefa (walk) before being lifted for Matt Barnes, who surrendered the go-ahead single to Brock Holt.

In a perfect world, Ottavino would own the eighth as a veteran counterpart to Barnes in the ninth, but he has allowed at least one baserunner in eight of his 12 outings, and five times he has put the first batter on base, including Sunday.

"The leadoff walk. I mean, that's the game," Ottavino said. "I'm not trying to do that, but pretty disappointed that I did. And after that, I got to the spot where I could have gotten out of it, but I made a bad pitch and I gave up a hit there and, yeah, it's that simple. A leadoff walk and your margin for error really shrinks."

Manager Alex Cora will give Ottavino every opportunity to find his form, because he knows his best bullpen features the veteran in the eighth. But the way Ottavino is going now, he's attempting to succeed with just one pitch -- his bread-and-butter slider. That's untenable.

Trending up: Darwinzon Hernandez

The flip side to Ottavino is Hernandez, who has figured things out after a wild start.

The 24-year-old left-hander found something in Texas, where he faced 11 hitters and struck out eight of them, surrendering just a pair of infield singles. With a mid-90s fastball, average slider, and back-pocket curveball, Hernandez generates as many swings and misses as virtually any pitcher in the game. His fastball only averages a tick under 95 mph, but it still manages to get on top of hitters.

"He's getting a lot of swings and misses in the strike zone, which we believe, his fastball can do that," Cora said. "We're excited to see where this is going to go, but we feel very confident that he can help us getting big outs late in games."

Trending up: Rafael Devers

If you judge a hitter by quality of contact, then about the only person in the game who can claim a hotter start than Devers is Angels superstar Mike Trout.

Devers has entered one of those zones where it feels like he's hitting everything hard, whether it's the 109 mph lineout he smoked on Sunday, the 100 mph double he laced on Saturday, or the 105.6 mph home run he launched on Friday.

No one on the Red Sox has hit into more loud outs than Devers, but that hasn't stopped him from hitting .283 with seven homers, 21 RBIs, and a .934 OPS. It wouldn't be remotely surprising if he's about to explode for a 10-homer month.

Trending down: Kiké Hernández

How much longer can Hernández stay in the leadoff spot? He delivered a key RBI single on Sunday, but it did little to mask how much he has struggled, particularly recently.

Since going 2 for 6 in a Marathon Monday blowout of the White Sox, Hernández is hitting just .162 with two walks. Cora liked the idea of Hernández hunting fastballs out of the leadoff spot, and he's hitting .286 with a .333 on base percentage when leading off an inning.

But that situation only accounts for about 38 percent of his at-bats. He's hitting .194 the rest of the time with an overall on-base percentage of .277. Even in an era when hitting is down across the board, that's just not a leadoff OBP.

The dilemma for Cora if he decides to reorder the lineup is how to maintain balance. His best 1-2 punch would probably be Alex Verdugo and Devers, but he's unlikely to stack his only two left-handed regulars. Another option would be second baseman Christian Arroyo, who hit leadoff on Friday and Saturday while Hernández got a couple of days off.

Arroyo was hit on the hand by a pitch a week ago, however, and has batted just .158 over his last six games, so there's no guarantee he'd be an upgrade.