ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Expected to continue as a marquee franchise and in the same breath as arch-rivals, the New York Yankees, recent hard times fell upon the Boston Red Sox. Early in the season, Sox were no longer mentioned in the same breath as the vaunted Yankees and appeared destined for an unexpected finish.
Over the first six weeks of the season, the Sox appeared as an afterthought and even on life-support. In games through May 15, the Sox were eight games under,500, 12 games behind AL East division leader Yankees, and buried in the basement.
Despite an outstanding season from Rafael Devers (.327, 19 homers, 51 RBIs through July 11), and injuries to pitchers Michael Wacha, Nathan Eovaldi and Rich Hill, all on the IR, a recent surge has been powered by players who experienced major contributions from the NL West.
Coming into a series here against the Rays just before the All-Star games, the Red Sox improved to eight games over .500, second place in a very competitive AL East, and favorites for a wild card spot.
One-third of the starting line-up cut their teeth in the NL West and the trio of leftfielder Alex Verdugo (Dodgers), designated hitter J. D. Martinez (Diamondbacks), and second baseman Trevor Story (Rockies) are now ingrained as significant in the Red Sox recent surge.
To the participants, there is little comparison between the caliber of play in the NL West and the AL East. Lineups are replete with solid hitters and strong arms on the mound. Yet, the nature of competition throughout the division appeared as the margin of difference.
“The AL East is in a league of its own, I think,” said Martinez before the Red Sox opened a four-game set with the Rays this week at Tropicana Field. “The NL West is a really good division, but I don’t see anyone better than the East right now. The standings show it. The top three in the wild card are all from the AL East. Then, you have Baltimore who is having a great year, and they are not the same old Baltimore they have been.”
After assisting the Diamondbacks to the post-season during the 2017 stretch run and smashing a major-league tying four home runs in Dodger Stadium on Sept. 4, Martinez eschewed offers from Arizona general manager Mike Hazen and inked a five-deal with the Red Sox. According to Boston manager Alex Cora, Martinez’s venture into Fenway Park turned fortunes for the Sox and elevated play of the club. At the same time, his experience in Arizona helped to solidify Martinez as one of the game’s most productive hitters, and his contributions to the Red Sox are noteworthy.
“In 2018, we made a great decision to sign J. D. and he changed the complexion of the lineup,” Cora said before the Rays series. “This was a good lineup in 2017 but with J. D. in 2018, it was different.”
Add infielder Story to the mix.
After seven seasons in the mile-high altitude of Coors Field, and hitting 173 homers, including a career-high 37 in 2018, the 29-year-old Story signed a six-$140 million deal with the Red Sox. Though off to a marginal start his season, Story’s power numbers have elevated. Coming into the Rays series just before the All-Star game, he second on the Red Sox in home runs (15) and leads the team leads in RBIs (58). He also is a perfect 10-for-10 in stolen bases.
“In the NL West for six years, it’s super competitive,” Story said before the Rays series. “There is really lot of good baseball is played on a nightly basis. It’s the same thing going on in the AL East over here. It really brings the best out of you. Every night, you’re going out there, and know it will a good ball game and tough opponent. You have to play well to win. That gets you ready for October baseball.”
In the current make-up of the NL West, the Dodgers, Padres, and Giants appear to balance the division Yet, in the AL East, the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, and Blue Jays are the traditionally strong teams. Now, the Baltimore Orioles have entered the conversation and clearly have the attention of the Red Sox, Rays, Jays and Yankees.