Through Sunday, the Red Sox offered a case study in season-opening disappointment with three straight losses against the Orioles amplifying every reason for skepticism about the 2021 team. Three whiplash-inducing games later, the club can be seen in a different light.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Red Sox clobbered the Rays by a 9-2 count, closing out a three-game Fenway sweep of the defending American League champions. In three games, the Red Sox delivered a pair of blowouts sandwiched around a never-say-die extra-innings victory in which the team erased three separate deficits in the ninth inning or after. Overall, the series proved no contest, with the Sox outscoring Tampa Bay 26-9, marking the fourth-most runs the pitching-rich Rays have allowed in any three-game series in the last decade.
The mixture of dramatic and decisive victories proved restorative to the spirits of a team that has maintained since spring training that it looks forward to defying and surpassing expectations. Whereas the team expressed disappointment and near embarrassment following its three straight losses to the Orioles to open the year, it concluded the three contests against Tampa Bay with different sentiments.
“This feels good,” said Christian Vázquez, who described himself as feeling “sexy” at the plate after going 2-for-4 with a two-run homer while serving as the designated hitter. “It feels good to sweep the Rays. It feels good to win. It’s a good feeling around. We’re playing better, we’re playing aggressive, [and] we’re pitching better. It feels good to win.”
The series finale offered a glimpse of a team capable of steamrolling a contender, with Opening Day starter Nate Eovaldi delivering a dominant outing that was backed by an offensive eruption of a Sox lineup that punished the struggling Rays (four straight losses) for every miscue.
Though the Rays scrapped for a run off Eovaldi to claim a 1-0 lead in the third, the Red Sox responded with three runs in the fourth. Xander Bogaerts delivered a one-out RBI single, his second hit of a 3-for-3 day, and Vázquez blasted a two-run homer over the Wall in left for his second homer in as many days.
Vázquez, it’s worth noting, was in the lineup not as a catcher — he had a day off behind the plate after navigating the Red Sox through their 12-inning marathon on Tuesday — but instead as the DH, a sign of his increasingly indispensable place on the Sox. He’s off to a .421/.476/.789 start, a performance that served as a reminder of how valuable he’s become.
“I do believe that he’s one of the top catchers in the league,” said manager Alex Cora.
One inning later, the Red Sox put the game away by pushing a half-dozen runs across the plate with two outs off Rays lefthanded starter Ryan Yarbrough (0-1). With two on, J.D. Martinez continued his scorching start by lofting an only-at-Fenway two-run double high off the Wall. The double not only extended the Red Sox lead to 5-1 but also gave Martinez extra-base hits in each of the first six games of the season. He joined David Ortiz (2005) and Faye Throneberry (1954) as the only Red Sox with such a season-opening streak.
Singles by Bogaerts (8-for-12 line in the three-game series) and Vázquez scored Martinez, and a wild throw by Rays shortstop Willy Adames on a Hunter Renfroe grounder scored two more for the Sox. Christian Arroyo then blooped a double down the right-field line to extend the lead to 9-1.
That advantage proved gratuitous given the excellence of Eovaldi (1-1). The big righthander proved in total command throughout the afternoon, staying away from the middle of the plate with a precision 95-99 mph four-seam fastball. He complemented that with a healthy balance of curveballs and slider, mixing in just enough cutters and splitters to baffle the Rays.
The mix allowed Eovaldi to cruise through seven innings in just 91 pitches. He allowed one run on three hits while striking out seven and walking three, lowering his ERA to 1.46 through two starts. Eovaldi expressed particular pride in offering a reprieve to a bullpen that had logged seven innings the previous night.
“We were short on guys,” he said. “For me to be able to come out today, get a little deeper into the game for us, and then for us to come out on top today, have the sweep, especially against the Rays is a big one for us, big series win.”
Eovaldi’s excellence through two starts is part of a broader general pattern of strong pitching thus far. Sox starters have worked at least five innings in all but one of the team’s first six games. Outside of the dreadful Red Sox debut by Garrett Richards, the staff as a whole has shown generally sharp execution, evidenced by the fact that it hasn’t allowed a homer through six games for the first time since 1992.
The team’s nightly competence on the mound and 3.63 ERA through a half-dozen games represent departures from last year’s train wreck. The team features depth that it didn’t possess a year ago — both in the rotation and beyond it. On Thursday, Eduardo Rodriguez will make his first big league start since Sept. 29, 2019, with promising rookie Tanner Houck headed to the Alternate Site in Worcester as an option of first resort.
“We’re a completely different team than we were last year, pitching-wise,” said Eovaldi. “Other teams are sleeping on us right now, which is fine, but we’ll be able to go out there and compete.”
That, at least, is the sentiment as the team leaves Fenway for its first road trip of 2021 — on the heels of a homestand that suggested that spans of three games might be inadequate for rendering definitive judgments about strengths and weaknesses. Unlike the past two years, the team did not get sucked into a season-opening black hole, but it remains in the early stages of defining its direction.
“We’re 3-3 against the division, 3-3 at Fenway,” said Cora. “We need to do better, but this is a good start. . .We do believe we have a good team, but we have to keep working to get better.”