What's happened to the 108-win, World Series champion Red Sox?

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NEW YORK — When the Yankees swept the Red Sox in a two-game mini series in mid-April, it was tempting to foist an alarmist narrative on the reigning champions. Those losses in the Bronx pushed the Sox to 8.5 games back of the then-AL East-leading Rays, inspiring a spate of World Series hangover handwringing.

But it was still so early, and immediately after, Boston started looking like the team that had brought back nearly the entire 108-win 2018 roster (with the notable exception being Craig Kimbrel, who remains unsigned). With a 23-14 run, they climbed back up to and over .500. Regression to the mean was kind to a team that still boasts one of the most talented lineups in baseball.

During that same stretch, the Yankees went 28-10, including an MLB-best 20-7 in May. It’s been a giddy, superhuman streak pulled off by a group of Triple-A call-ups outperforming the injured All-Stars they replaced and a “next man up” mantra. The Yankees had won eight straight series ahead of the Red Sox’s return to the Bronx this weekend. And then they won one more, taking the first two of three from Boston.

With a 5-3 loss on Saturday night, the Red Sox slipped to .500 for the first time since May 8 and a new season-worst 9.5 games back in the division that is now led by the Yankees.

“We’re not closing the gap, we’re making it bigger,” said Red Sox starter Rick Porcello, who gave up all five runs to drop to 0-3 with a 6.37 ERA on the road. “It’s tough. We were in a tough spot coming in, and we’re in an even worse spot now.”

Alex Cora tersely diagnosed why his team has gotten off to an 0-4 start against its historic rival for the season series: “They play well; we haven’t hit. That should change.”

“We didn’t do too much with men in scoring position and we’ve been talking about this for like a week,” Cora added.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 01:  Gary Sanchez #24 of the New York Yankees rounds third base after hitting a two-run home run to center field during the fifth inning as Rick Porcello #22 of the Boston Red Sox looks on at Yankee Stadium on June 01, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Gary Sanchez rounds third base after hitting a two-run home run to center field during the fifth inning as Rick Porcello of the Boston Red Sox looks. (Getty Images)

The Red Sox repeatedly failed to capitalize on opportunities, tying a season-high with 14 strikeouts en route to leaving 10 men on base. Sandy Leon had the only hits with men in scoring position on the night and yet, in the eighth inning, with a runner on first, Cora pinch hit for him. Christian Vazquez promptly hit into an inning-ending double play.

Cora defended the decision based on the matchup, with left-handed Zack Britton on the mound. And it made sense — just like putting Mookie Betts back into the leadoff spot in an effort to recapture a little of last year’s magic did — but even the smart moves aren’t showing up in the results for the Red Sox right now, and it’s getting to be a little too late to wait for the season to straighten itself out.

“We gotta clean everything up from pitching to baserunning to fielding to hitting,” Porcello said. “All facets of the game right now gotta get better.”

The Red Sox played their butts off in an effort to rebound from an uncharacteristically awful April these past six weeks. And yet, after another two games against the Yankees, they’re even worse off than they were the last time the Bombers beat them two straight — and with a lot less of the year to work with.

Boston isn’t bad by any means, but with the way the Yankees have looked — and don’t forget about the Rays, currently resting comfortably between the two — the ultimate champions of the AL East will likely need at least 100 wins. With June just kicking off, the Yankees will need to play just .590 baseball (compared to their current .667 record) to get there. The Red Sox will need to pick up the pace from .500 to essentially a baseball’s best .683.

With a season that stretches six-plus months, baseball prognosticators are careful to couch any early extremes behind “small sample size” caveats. But April losses still count come September, and they weigh a whole lot heavier on a team when the calendar flips from May to June. The Red Sox are finding that you can’t ever actually undo a slump to start the season even with above average play, and when you lose to the team atop the standings, it’s that much harder to catch up.

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