It was around this time last summer when the first stories began to appear asking whether the 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers had a chance to be best team in baseball history. On Aug. 5, they improved to 78-32 — on a pace for 115 wins — and had just completed the best 50-game stretch (43-7) of any team in more than a century. By Aug. 25, they peaked at 55 games over .500, at 91-36.
But we all know what happened next. Out of nowhere, the Dodgers lost 16 of their next 17 games, cutting their lead in the National League West more than in half, before righting themselves in late September, finishing 104-58, then going 7-1 in the first two rounds of the playoffs and coming within a game of winning the World Series.
It is useful to recall the example of the 2017 Dodgers when considering the 2018 Boston Red Sox — this summer’s top contender to join the list of the greatest teams in history.
The Red Sox, coming off a 15-7 thumping of the New York Yankees on Thursday night, entered the weekend at 76-34 — a 112-win pace — and boasting a run-differential of plus-184. Their roster could include both the American League MVP (Mookie Betts) and the Cy Young winner (Chris Sale). They haven’t lost more than two games in a row since late April.
And they are doing it in the supercharged atmosphere of this year’s American League, where there reside two other scary-good teams — the Yankees and Houston Astros — who are just off the Red Sox’s scorching pace. The Astros (69-41) entered the weekend seven games behind Boston, but held a slightly better run-differential, at plus-185, while the Yankees were 6 ½ games back in the AL East, having been tied with Boston as recently as early July.
With those three teams in the mix, plus a dangerous Cleveland Indians squad and a second wild card team that is likely to come out of the loaded West division, the AL playoffs could produce some riveting theater.
Asked whether they are motivated at all by the quest to be considered among the greatest teams in history, Mitch Moreland, the Red Sox’s veteran first baseman said: “Absolutely. Every day, we want to win that night’s game, and if we do that as much or more than anyone in history, yeah, there’s something to be said about that. But in the end, the main goal is to win that last and be World Series champions. I’d take both of those things. That’d be great.”
But Moreland was also a member of the 2012 Texas Rangers, who had first-place leads of as much as 6 ½ games in mid-August and by five games as late as Sept. 24, before being caught and passed by Oakland in the final week after losing seven of their final nine games.
“Having been through that, I know we’re a long way from being done with what we’ve started,” he said. “There may be a time to look at October, but I don’t think it’s now.”
Just as the 2017 Dodgers’ unexpected swoon came as their injuries began to pile up, the Red Sox suddenly have a crowded roster of sidelined players. Entering the weekend, their disabled list included three starting pitchers — Sale, Steven Wright and Eduardo Rodriguez — plus catcher Christian Vazquez, second baseman Dustin Pedroia and third baseman Rafael Devers. Sale and Devers are expected back in the coming days, Wright in mid-August and Vazquez, Pedroia and Rodriguez — the Red Sox hope — in September.
Still, such is the speed and mass of the Red Sox’s juggernaut at this moment, it is possible to interpret the moves made by the other AL contenders at last week’s trade deadline as reactions to — and countermeasures against — Boston’s sheer power and seeming invulnerability.
The Yankees acquired three pitchers — left-handed reliever Zach Britton, lefty starter J.A. Happ and swingman Lance Lynn — who have track records of success against the Red Sox. And the fact two of them are lefties is also significant, as the Red Sox’s offense is slightly less effective against left-handed pitching.
The Astros picked up a Gold Glove-caliber catcher in Martin Maldonado — no doubt aware that the Red Sox lead the majors in both stolen bases and stolen-base percentage.
The Indians, Seattle Mariners and Oakland A’s all focused on accumulating late-inning relievers, perhaps believing that was an area where they could match up favorably with the Red Sox.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox themselves made two moves — getting veteran second baseman Ian Kinsler as Pedroia’s replacement and right-handed starter Nathan Eovaldi to bolster their rotation depth. (A third move, made back in June, has proven to be brilliant, as super-utility man/professional hitter Steve Pearce has become an indispensable part of their offense.)
The one move everyone expected the Red Sox to make — finding a late-inning reliever, preferably a lefty — never happened.
“I know people keep talking about it, [and] you can always have more bullpen pieces,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said after the deadline. “[But] there is no perfect club. We think, realistically, our bullpen is pretty good.”
Right now, the Red Sox are operating without a lefty in their bullpen, which might be alarming except for the fact their primary right-handed relievers — closer Craig Kimbrel, set-up man Matt Barnes and late-inning options Heath Hembree, Tyler Thornburg, Ryan Brasier and Joe Kelly — have been effective against left-handed batters.
For that matter, even among the likeliest playoff teams in the AL, there are few scary left-handed hitters — the best of them would probably be New York’s Didi Gregorius or Cleveland’s Michael Brantley — who would warrant the need for a late-inning, lefty specialist to face them.
What you need in the AL is a slew of right-handed options to match up against the likes of New York’s Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres and Giancarlo Stanton, Houston’s Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman and Cleveland’s Edwin Encarnacion — all of them right-handed hitters — and switch-hitters such as the Indians’ Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor.
The two best regular-season teams of the past half-century remain the 2001 Mariners, who went 116-46, and the 1998 Yankees, who went 114-48. But only one of them is in the discussion as the best team in modern history. The ’01 Mariners barely survived the Indians in the Division Series, then lost in five games to the Yankees in the AL Championship Series.
The ’98 Yankees, meanwhile, went 11-2 in marching through the playoffs, capped by a sweep of San Diego in the World Series.
Many factors could go into the discussion of whether a team can be called the best ever — including win-loss record, run-differential and even the number of future Hall of Famers on a roster — but unless the Red Sox win their final game, and lock down another World Series title, they will be just another would-be contender that wasn’t quite great enough.
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