BOSTON — With a 33-24 record and a share of first place in the American League East, the Red Sox seem determined to return to playoff contention after back-to-back seasons of disappointment.
But if the last 10 days are any indication, that won’t be an easy task.
The Red Sox just completed a 10-game stretch against their closest AL East competition, going a combined 4-6 in six games against the Toronto Blue Jays and four games against the Baltimore Orioles. After Toronto’s 5-4 defeat of Boston on Sunday, the three teams are separated by just two-and-a-half games, with the New York Yankees still lingering at six games back.
Many expected the Blue Jays to be in the thick of things after they won the AL East crown in 2015, and they’ve managed to keep pace despite the absence of injured shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. But the Orioles have been a surprise, relying on the superb play of Manny Machado, a strong start to the season from pitcher Chris Tillman and an onslaught of home runs to enter Monday tied with Boston for the AL’s second-best record.
In short, this division is shaping up to be quite competitive, and Red Sox manager John Farrell isn’t surprised in the least.
“Fully expected it when we assembled in Florida in spring training,” Farrell said before Saturday’s game against the Blue Jays. “There’s not huge differences from one team to the next. There’s strengths that each team has. There’s probably some holes, likewise, that each team has.”
One trait that each team shares is an affinity for offense, particularly the long ball. Boston leads the majors with 336 runs scored, but Baltimore is sixth in the AL with 258 runs, and Toronto paced the league last season with a whopping 891 runs. The three teams all rank in Major League Baseball’s top 10 in home runs — the Orioles with 80, the Blue Jays with 75 and the Red Sox with 72.
“This is the AL East,” Farrell said Friday. “Ballparks that are unforgiving, and yet we put a hurting on people offensively, as well. So I think more than anything, you’re seeing a spike in offense in our division.”
That puts a premium on pitching, which should be an area of importance for Boston ahead of MLB’s non-waiver trade deadline on July 31. The Red Sox have demonstrated they can score runs in bunches, but consecutive 13-9 and 12-7 losses to the Orioles this week proved they will need more than bats to succeed in this division.
The Red Sox still are in a very good place at nine games over .500. David Ortiz is having a final season for the ages, while the young trio of Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. continues to impress on a daily basis. Even if their pitching doesn’t drastically improve, this team should find itself in the thick of the AL East race come September.
That said, the past 10 games have proven that Boston still has work to do — namely by getting more out of its starting rotation — if it wants to win its division for just the second time in the last nine years. The Red Sox are 14-15 against AL East opponents after Sunday’s loss and 19-9 against everyone else, partially a testament to the division’s strength. Even if Baltimore fades, Toronto has the offensive clout and the pitching staff, led by Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada and R.A. Dickey, to be one of the last teams standing in the American League.
Fortunately for the Red Sox, it appears the club is well aware of what lies ahead.
“It’s going to be close,” Bogaerts said Sunday of the AL East race. “We were watching the game just now with the Orioles and the Yankees. But we’re looking forward to (Monday), a huge off-day, to get our bodies well-rested and come back the next day.”
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