NEW YORK -- You can't really characterize the 2019 Boston Red Sox as a bad baseball team. Two months in, they sit just outside the wild-card race, trailing the Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers for the two playoff spots, and several players on the team are putting together good seasons. But in a city that holds its baseball team to the highest of standards, following up one of the greatest seasons in franchise history by hobbling into third place in the American League East has not been the start many expected out of the defending World Series champions.
Put simply: Things are turning dire fast if the Red Sox want to compete for the division title.
With the calendar flipped from May to June, Boston is looking up in the standings, standing 8½ games behind the first-place New York Yankees after Sunday night's 8-5 victory over the Bronx Bombers, who are currently on pace to win 106 games. The victory provided a silver lining in a series that had characterized the 2019 Red Sox team so far. Inconsistency and inconsistency, with a side of inconsistency. Considering their place in the standings, the current team's track record, the star-studded roster and the coaching staff, the Red Sox aren't a bad team, but they certainly aren't quite a good team.
"Can't really be good if you're inconsistent," Boston outfielder Mookie Betts said after Friday night's loss to the Yankees. "We're definitely that. We have a long way to go to fix it."
The Red Sox do have a lot of bright spots on their roster. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts has taken another step forward, hitting .305/.386/.438 with 12 homers, 18 doubles and 39 RBIs in 56 games, looking like the shortstop many expected him to become when ESPN's Keith Law ranked him the second-best prospect in baseball back in 2014. Bogaerts, who went 2-for-4 with a home run on Sunday, ranks first in baseball among shortstops with 2.9 fWAR.
Among the team's other standouts are third baseman Rafael Devers, who has made large strides at the plate and in the field, and Michael Chavis, who has provided an adrenaline shot of youthful exuberance and light-tower pop at the plate. David Price has a 2.83 ERA in nine starts, and he threw 6⅓ innings on Sunday, allowing two runs, walking one and striking out six in the winning effort. Catcher Christian Vazquez, long considered a defense-first player, has hit .297/.335/.493 with seven homers in 46 games this year.
But manager Alex Cora expected more consistency out of his team going into this season. Boston entered Sunday having scored the fifth-most runs in baseball, with a run differential of plus-31. But Cora said before Sunday's game that the team has been more inconsistent offensively than the numbers suggest.
"Pitching, we're way close to who we are, although the results the first 10 or 11 days of the season, that wasn't us," Cora said. "Defensively, we've been a lot better early in the season. Baserunning, the last 10 days have been sloppy. Offensively, although people don't see it that way, that's where we need to get better."
The team is starting to make changes too. Cora committed this past offseason to hitting left fielder Andrew Benintendi in the leadoff spot and dropping right fielder and reigning MVP Betts to second in the lineup. With Benintendi hitting .257/.357/.416 in 53 games, Cora woke up on Saturday and decided to install Betts back into the leadoff spot for the remainder of the season. That Cora made the switch just two months in after very publicly committing to the lineup change this offseason speaks to the growing urgency within the Red Sox to make changes and break out of the up-and-down swings that have plagued the team.
"We've gotta find a way to win. We like winning. Every day is very important for us," Cora said. "Like I've been saying all along, you gotta forget about who's ahead of you and what's going on around you in the division and start taking care of business within ourselves. The first step is to play better baseball and be consistent. We haven't been consistent throughout the course of the season. The record speaks for itself. We have to keep improving and get into a hot streak."
Betts, the offensive catalyst for the Boston lineup, finished the series in New York 1-for-12, including an 0-for-5 on Sunday, his third oh-fer with five at-bats this season. Betts is hitting .203/.299/.254 with no home runs in 59 at-bats against left-handers. During his 2018 MVP campaign, the 26-year-old hit .368/.471/.736 against southpaws. Despite his recent struggles, the right fielder still ranks in the top 20 among position players with 2.6 WAR, tied with George Springer, Javier Baez and Marcus Semien. The move back to the leadoff spot means Betts will, once again, be asked to be the offensive tone-setter for the Red Sox's lineup.
"I'm pretty bad [right now], but it is what it is," Betts told ESPN after Sunday's game. "I have to do something, especially at the top of the lineup."
Boston heads to the Kansas City 8½ games behind the first-place Yankees. According to the Elias Sports Bureau research, the only time the Red Sox have overcome a deficit of more than 10 games to win the division was in 1988. Meanwhile, New York continues to trend upward, winning its past nine series while finishing May with a 21-6 record.
The Red Sox talk like a team that hasn't given up on the division title yet. But everyone, from the players to the clubhouse assistants, know something must change soon if they hope to make the playoffs, let alone escape the do-or-die wild-card game that could promptly end their World Series title defense.
"We're something away from being where we need to be," starter Chris Sale said after Friday's loss. "We've just gotta find that something. And whatever it is, a change of socks or frozen pizza, I dunno. We've just gotta find a way."