Time to appreciate the 2021 Red Sox and the start no one saw coming

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John Tomase
·5 min read
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Tomase: Time to appreciate the Red Sox' fast start to 2021 originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Perspective can be in short supply during a baseball season, where every day brings a new reason to exult or despair. But as the Red Sox prepare to open a six-game road trip with a pair against the Mets on Tuesday, now is a good time to step back and appreciate how well they've played over their first 23 games.

Not even a year ago, we had written them off as unwatchable and unworthy of our attention. Bring on Cam Newton, the Celtics' young core, and maybe a last hurrah for the Bergeron-Tuukka-Marchand B's.

Baseball just didn't register.

The Red Sox had left fans feeling doubly wounded by the trade of MVP Mookie Betts followed by a last-place finish that pushed them to depths of irrelevance not experienced since the early 1990s. They had no manager, no prospects, and no immediate future.

Tomase: Bottom of the order is quickly becoming an issue

That disinterest allowed chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom to tinker in relative anonymity, and he made every move count. He turned closer Brandon Workman into right-hander Nick Pivetta and pitching prospect Connor Seabold. He swiped breakout reliever Garrett Whitlock from the Yankees in the rule 5 draft. He added World Series experience in super utilitymen Kiké Hernández and Marwin Gonzalez.

He even brought back manager Alex Cora, who helped restore credibility with a skeptical fan base. An unexpectedly strong spring training had us believing they might be "sneaky good." And then ...

And then they promptly dropped their first three at home against the Orioles, nobody's idea of a contender. Even Cora admitted feeling antsy as he drove home following an 11-3 blowout in the series finale. Was this really what they were?

The answer was a resounding no. The Red Sox swept the defending AL champion Rays, returned the favor against the Orioles in Baltimore, and then took three of four from the Twins in Minnesota. Those nine straight wins announced to the rest of baseball that the Red Sox did not intend to repeat their lost 2020.

They beat good pitching. They overcame deficits. They won blowouts. They survived extra innings. They did little things like moving runners. They did big things like slam six homers in one game vs. the Orioles.

In the process, they established a clear identity. They're the team that does not go quietly. The Rays and Twins threw aces at them and lost. The White Sox sent All-Star Lucas Giolito out on Marathon Monday and he lasted an inning. They've already claimed a league-leading 11 comeback victories.

A maligned starting rotation has delivered at least five innings in 17 of 23 games. Left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez looks like a legitimate stopper as he works his way back after missing the entire 2020 season because of COVID, with 26 strikeouts and only two walks in four starts, all wins. He's joined by right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, who's pitching like someone worth four years and $68 million.

There has been so much more to like. With the league batting average mired at an all-time low of .232, the Red Sox are hitting .276 and also leading baseball in doubles and OPS. They're doing it with a star-studded lineup that includes three of the top 10 hitters in the American League -- J.D. Martinez (.370), Xander Bogaerts (.366) and Alex Verdugo (.325) -- as well as slugging third baseman Rafael Devers and surprising second baseman Christian Arroyo.

Despite ranking third in the AL in homers (26), they're not all-or-nothing launch-angle devotees (sorry, J.D.). These Red Sox put the ball in play and create action on the bases. Though their offense may be top-heavy and thus prone to slumps, particularly at the bottom of the order, it's refreshing to watch Verdugo line high fastballs into either corner or Arroyo rip singles up the middle.

They also play with a relentlessness that's best signified by the yin and yang of Hernández and Gonzalez, two jack-of-all-trades who have already combined to play every position except pitcher and catcher. Hernández opened the season as the starting second baseman, but the combination of subpar outfield play and Arroyo's emergence necessitated his move to center, where he has started 15 games.

Hernández is basically a turbocharged Brock Holt, all fun-loving and gregarious, traits that made him a fan favorite in Los Angeles. Gonzalez, by contrast, carries himself like a foreman hellbent on bringing in his project on time and under budget, all grim determination and unrelenting will. The two World Series winners have helped remake the clubhouse culture after being empowered by Cora.

Ahh, Cora. For the second time in four seasons, it turns out he's the perfect man for the job. Humbled by his year-long suspension, he's got the squad dialed in on a nightly basis, playing a style that would've particularly suited him as a player -- whatever it takes.

So as the Red Sox finish one of the most grueling portions of their schedule with just one day off in 23 games and prepare to begin whatever comes next, let's take a moment to salute their 14-9 start. No one saw it coming, and it's nice to know they can still surprise us.