Photo Credit: USA Today Sports Photo

This Boston Red Sox team is very, very good and it’s been sparked by a change of culture.

Ninety-eight games down.  Sixty-four games remaining.

The 2018 Boston Red Sox are on a torrid pace with an MLB best 68-30 on the season.

Red Sox fans far and wide are fired up and they should be.

Wait a minute.  Boston is the 2-time defending AL East champions.  What makes this season standout from the 2016 and 2017 seasons?

Following the Red Sox final game in 2017, then manager John Farrell was relieved of his duties as the team’s skipper along with the rest of the Boston coaching staff.  The cohesive lining of Farrell’s teams in his final two seasons wore off and did so in embarrassing fashion.

Farrell’s mismanagement of his pitching staff along with his ill-timed forgetting of the rules spilled over into the clubhouse.  The clubhouse itself became toxic.  From the David Price/Dennis Eckersley debacle to Dustin Pedroia selling out his teammates during the team’s dust up with Baltimore third baseman Manny Machado.  As loved as Dustin Pedrioa is, I have no doubt that is a moment he would rather have back.

Boston was a good regular season team in both 2016 and 2017.  In both years, by mid-August the Red Sox pitchers were taxed.  They were pitching on fumes.  Contrary to how potent a team’s offense might be, you don’t stand a chance at a deep playoff run let alone winning a world series if a good portion of the team’s pitcher have arm ready to fall off.

Enter Alex Cora.  The former bench coach of the reigning 2017 world champion Houston Astros brought not only an entirely new coaching staff, he ushered in a new culture.  Something this team desperately needed.  Cora was and is the right man.  The Red Sox front office genuinely belted a grand slam on a coaching scale.

Winning ball games is important to a first-year manager.  Doing it while brining each player together into one functioning unit is not the easiest thing to pull off especially when the Red Sox clubhouse was an assortment of dysfunction the year before.  For a new culture to kick in, the players have to buy in.  In a way it’s almost as if the clubhouse has been reborn.  If you’re not convinced, just checkout the 4th of July photo before the Red Sox players boarded their next flight in route to Kansas City.  Uncle Sam would be proud.

Former Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester, a former teammate of Cora’s on the 2007 World Series Champion Red Sox, raved about why he’s not one bit surprised of the success Alex Cora is having so early as a manager.

In a MassLive chat with Chris Cotillo, Lester said the following about Cora’s presence on that 2007 team.

“Back then, he was a manager.  He was a guy that was your bench guy.  Obviously in the American League, your bench guy was a little bit different than in the National League.  He basically, and I don’t want to take anything away from Tito (Terry Francona), but he ran the bench.”

Moreover, Lester followed up saying, “Helping position players out, talking with guys, whatever needed to be done.  Getting on guys for not running hard or whatever.  He was that kind of guy.  I think people saw early on.  I saw early on my career that this guy could potentially be a manager and do a good job.”

Red Sox Nation, we have found ourselves a manager!

Roster Turnover Hits Boston

Moving on from the coaching, the gargantuan signing came in the form of J.D. Martinez.  Somehow, someway the Red Sox had to find some sort of answer to replacing David Ortiz.  A lot of folks weren’t sure signing Martinez was a good deal.  Others such as myself wanted so badly to see this happen.  Finally, the waiting game paid off.

Releasing Hanley Ramirez came as a shock to everyone.  What was key was how the team reacted among that highly controversial moment surprised…well everyone.  It wasn’t the most popular move outside of the team.  Fans wondered what really happened to prompt such a move.  The move itself allowed Mitch Moreland to become the everyday first baseman and he has not disappointed at all!  Moreland is healthy and raking the ball similar to way he balled out with the Rangers.

The offensive spark is back.  A year ago, the Red Sox ability to hit the ball over the wall was really bad.  Going deep 168 times in 2017 ranked 27th in the majors.  The loss of David Ortiz left this team in a spot never before seen.  Ninety-eight games into the 2018 season, Boston ranks second overall in home runs at 134 which is just 34 away from last season’s overall total.  JD Martinez and Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez lead the MLB with 29 home runs apiece.  Oh yeah, Martinez also lead the league with 80 RBI.  Mookie Betts is 8th with 23 home runs and has also batted in 51 runs from the lead-off spot.

Living and dying via the longball isn’t the Red Sox identity either.  They are so much more and they are relentless. Tied with the Indians with 74 stolen bases, the Red Sox rank 2nd behind the Milwaukee Brewers.  Mookie Betts is 18 for 20 and is on pace for a 30-30 type season.  Andrew Benintendi is 17 of 18.  Jackie Bradley Jr., who is not the fastest guy around is a perfect 11 for 11.  They guy has been smart and has meticulously picked his spots.

This team can manufacture runs with the best of them.  No if, and’s or but’s about it.  Boston sits at 26th in the league in strikeouts.  They also hold strong at 13th overall in drawing walks.  Home runs are great but you can score in so many different ways.  Why waste the chances?

Base running has not been the Red Sox forte the past few seasons.  For the first few months of this season the same pattern of t-ball style base running continued to happen.  Lately it has been better so in a sense, maybe we’re seeing the beginning of an improvement.  Let’s be honest.  The elite youngsters who play in Williamsport at the Little League World Series annually show a better IQ on the bases then the Red Sox have over the last couple of years.  Gradually the bad base running trend looks to be trending in a positive direction.  We shall see.

Dominance on the Mound

From 2016 to 2017 the Boston pitching staff was decent.  What was concerning was the rate both starters and bullpen personnel were being used.  During the regular season the pitching was fairly solid.  However, by mid to late August everyone from the starters to the bullpen looked drained.   John Farrell gave his staff too much room.  He wanted his starters to push the limits of how deep in games they could go.  Farrell succeeded in a sense.  The result was undesirable.  When a pitcher like Chris Sale can’t throw the baseball harder than 93-94 mph in early September, needless to say you are going to have major consequences.  The Red Sox did as not only the starting pitching wore down, but the same 2 to 3 relievers out of the bullpen were being used every game.  You cannot sustain any type of successful postseason run with rundown pitching.  You just can’t and Boston didn’t.  Similar to the 2016 playoff run, the 2017 playoff run ended way too early.

When Alex Cora took over, he brought in Dana LeVangie as his pitching coach.  Together they devised a plan where longevity was key for his starting rotation.  So far, their plan has been terrific.  Every manager in the big leagues will have moments they wish they could have back.  Cora has had a few of those moments himself.  What does that tell us about Cora’s decision making regarding his pitching staff?  It tells us he’s not a cyborg.  He’s human and he’s been known to make the occasion mistake.  Cora and LeVangie sustain success because they have learned from past mistakes.

Think about it for a minute.  We’ve seen a few games where guys like Sale and Porcello walked off the mound in a not so happy mood and it’s not because they were losing the game at the moment.  It’s about sustaining what it takes to have your pitching staff perform late in the season and on into the postseason.  You know, when it really matters.  If Farrell were still managing, rest assured the starting staff would’ve shown early signs of tumbling downhill before the All-Star Break.  Under Cora’s leadership, pitching staff looks to be getting stronger.  Amen to that!

World Series Push Begins

Tomorrow the second half (if after 98 games you still want to call it the second half) resumes.  The break couldn’t have come at a better time.  We’re two-thirds into the season.  These players needed an extended break.  For die-hard baseball fans, the break is somewhat torturous but we also understand how beneficial it is for the players.

Health is key from here on out.  In terms of injured pitching, Drew Pomeranz might be close to rejoining the team.  Steven Wright says he’s feeling better but he’s not ready to come back just yet.  The Red Sox bullpen isn’t very deep and they were heavily relied upon before the break.  There were several occasions prior to the All-Star Break the bullpen did not look sharp at all.  Heath Hembree and Matt Barnes worked tirelessly.  Both still managed to get the job done but they need help going forward.

Yesterday the first shoe dropped when the Dodgers traded for Manny Machado.  Now the other shoe has dropped a flurry of activity from GM’s around baseball are setting in motion moves to improve their teams.  Boston is in need of services ahead of the trade deadline.  The primary need is to bolter their bullpen.  The injury to Eduardo Rodriguez in the last series against Toronto opened the door to add another starter to the rotation.  Some reports believe the Red Sox are in definite need of trading for a second baseman.  No, just no to the second baseman idea.  There’s a reason Brandon Phillips was signed to a minor league contract.  Recently Brandon Phillips was promoted to AAA Pawtucket which may be a good sign he will join the Red Sox soon.

Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy didn’t mince words.  He came right out saying the Red Sox are more than willing to exceed the luxury tax in order to acquire the team’s high priority needs ahead of the trade deadline.  Will the Red Sox cross that line?  Not sure but it seems to be a clear statement Boston is in win now mode.  Relievers like Zach Britton, Raisel Iglesias, Jeurys Familia and Fernando Rodney are just a few names mentioned for bullpen help.  Turning the attention to starting pitching, who is out there to be had for the Red Sox?

If the Red Sox are dead serious about exceeding the luxury tax, any of the above names may end up in Boston.  Until we hear anything concrete, the refresh button on MLB Trade Rumors and of course Twitter will be getting an exhausting workout.

Until we hear anything else, we go back to watching the Red Sox play baseball.  Scoreboard watching is already underway and the suspense of the trade deadline is enough to make one’s head spin.  Keeping up with everything until July 31 will be a challenge itself.  Bring it on.