Vision of Red Sox as legitimately good team coming into focus

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John Tomase
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Tomase: Vision of Red Sox as legitimately good team coming into focus originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

It's official: Opening weekend never happened.

Those three awful games against the Orioles? It turns out they were just an unannounced extension of spring training, and a team still fine-tuning its timing and execution.

What is there to say about the Red Sox right now except break 'em up? On Thursday afternoon, they did unto the Orioles in impressive fashion, slamming a pair of home runs and waltzing to a 7-3 victory.

Their fourth straight win was noteworthy not only for the return of left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez after an 18-month absence due to COVID, but also for the continuing evolution of their identity, which thus far can be summed up with words we haven't used to describe a Red Sox team in years: fun-loving, overachieving, relentless, and dare we say it -- sneaky good.

At this rate, they won't be sneaking up on anyone for much longer. The much-maligned pitching staff has delivered six excellent starts in seven tries, the lone exception a Garrett Richards stink-bomb on Sunday that sent the panic meters soaring. The offense that started so pitifully has turned punishing, recording 12 more hits on Thursday.

Flipping the switch

Red Sox runs per game first three games

1.67

Red Sox runs per game next four games

8.25

Variation

Double

And manager Alex Cora is pushing all the right buttons, whether it's DHing catcher Christian Vazquez on Wednesday, allowing him to hit a tie-breaking homer, finding a new spot for Marwin Gonzalez on a daily basis, or giving third baseman Rafael Devers an early mental health day on Sunday. All Devers has done since is mash, including his first homer on Thursday.

It's enough to make even the most hardened cynic wonder how high the ceiling has climbed for a club that Vegas pegged as no better than .500. Even when the rotation hits the inevitable bump in the road, the Red Sox feel positioned to handle it, with promising right-hander Tanner Houck waiting in the wings at the alternate site.

The Red Sox are rolling, and already we're seeing signs of some 50-50 best-case scenarios coming to fruition.

Catcher Christian Vazquez, for instance, opened the season as a borderline All-Star candidate. He's instead impersonating Johnny Bench. Vazquez added three more hits on Thursday and is now batting .458 with a pair of homers. He's also the primary catcher for a pitching staff with a 3.63 ERA, consistently pushing all the right buttons.

Then there's DH J.D. Martinez. After a woeful 2020 and a mediocre spring training, it was fair to wonder just which Martinez would show up. We've got our answer, and it's the vintage slugger. He has recorded at least one extra-base hit in all seven games this season en route to a .438 average and 12 RBIs. When Martinez is on his game, the rest of the offense has a habit of clicking into place.

After a rough start, Devers has been hitting the ball with authority. Ditto outfielder and sparkplug Alex Verdugo, who doubled down both baselines on Thursday. Even the struggling Kiké Hernández got on the board on Thursday, blasting his first homer of the season.

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And then of course there's E-Rod. Cora noted before the game that the team and pitcher were navigating uncharted territory. It's one thing to miss 18 months with an arm injury. It's another to be sidelined by a heart condition. But after a lackluster first inning that included a two-run homer, Rodriguez quickly looked a lot like his old self, striking out seven and walking none.

"I think today's story is not about hitting or defense or whatever, it's about Eduardo," Cora said. "For him to compete out there and give us five strong innings, that was very gratifying for the organization, for each individual here – I mean, this guy, you guys saw it in 2019. We were out of contention, and it seemed like we played harder in Game 162 trying to get him 20.

"For him to perform that way, it's a testament to where he's at in his career, who he is as a person, and I know it was a big day for him."

A healthy Rodriguez gives the Red Sox even more reasons to feel good about their future. Plenty can still go wrong moving forward -- the pitching staff includes a series of minefields, and the versatile free agents they signed this winter could wilt under a full-time workload -- but for now the Red Sox look like the real deal.

After all, they're 4-0 since extended spring training ended.