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Count the Red Sox out at your own risk

@MikeLupica
July 19, 2019

The Yankees are playing this season the way the Red Sox played last season. Maybe better, considering what they’ve had to overcome with injuries. They might not win as many games as the Red Sox did last season. But they might come close. Injuries haven’t stopped them, because nothing has.

The Yankees are playing this season the way the Red Sox played last season. Maybe better, considering what they’ve had to overcome with injuries. They might not win as many games as the Red Sox did last season. But they might come close. Injuries haven’t stopped them, because nothing has.

The Yankees have run away from everybody in the American League East even earlier than the Red Sox did last season. And now they have the best record in baseball, even though they still don’t have Luis Severino, the guy who was their ace last season, or Dellin Betances, or Giancarlo Stanton.

The Red Sox ended up eight games better than the Yankees in 2018. In the process the Yankees became a rare commodity in their sport: A Wild Card team with 100 wins. All it won them was a home playoff game against the A’s. But when they won it, they also won themselves another shot at the Red Sox.

The Red Sox aren’t going to catch the Yankees this season. But they do have a chance to catch the teams ahead of them in the AL Wild Card race -- the Indians, A’s, Rays -- and get another shot at their top rival the way the Yankees got their shot at the Red Sox last October. The team that won everything in 2018 now just looks to win that.

“You only get only so many chances to win in this game,” Frank Cashen said about his Mets back in 1987, when they were trying to repeat as World Series champs and then didn’t even make the playoffs that year.

There was no Wild Card for the Mets back then, no one-game playoff lifeline. But there is for the Red Sox. Now their fans and everybody else must ask themselves -- after what has so often been a mediocre and disappointing regular season despite the life they’ve shown lately -- if the Sox can get good enough, starting now, to secure the AL Wild Card Game at Fenway.

The Red Sox looked to be loaded again coming into this season, even if they lost their closer, Craig Kimbrel, and Joe Kelly, who became such an important setup man ahead of Kimbrel by last October. Then Boston started out 3-8 on the road and 6-13, and it has been trying to climb out of those holes ever since. The Sox still barely have more saves (20) than blown saves (18). Now they will turn to Nathan Eovaldi, who was one of the pitching stars of last October but has spent most of this season on the injured list with elbow problems, as their closer when Eovaldi is ready to join them out of the Minors.

But Mookie Betts, the AL MVP Award winner last season, has finally started to look like a star again. Rafael Devers continues to be team’s offensive star, even as J.D. Martinez has continued to be so much less of a force in the middle of the order as he was a year ago. Chris Sale struck out 12 on Thursday afternoon and won his first game at Fenway in over a year as the Red Sox shut out the Blue Jays.

The Red Sox can still hit. Problem is, they have just spent a lot of the season trying to outscore their own pitching staff. They still need a lot if the season they will play the rest of the way will be good enough to get them to October. They need Sale, who was 3-9 going into the Blue Jays game, to look like an ace again the rest of the way. They need Eovaldi to look like a real closer and not get hurt again. And then maybe it will have been too early to count them out. It is one of the beauties of the current system: If you’re good enough to get a Wild Card spot, you do get a do-over in the first week of October.

So the team that won 119 games in all last season will now try to get that.

Right before Dave Dombrowski made his trade last week for Baltimore’s Andrew Cashner to fill Eovaldi’s old slot in the starting rotation, I asked Dombrowski what his realistic expectations were for his team the rest of the way. As you might expect, they were slightly more modest than when the Red Sox left Fort Myers, Fla., looking to become the first Red Sox team in 113 years to repeat.

“To play well on a daily basis and see where it takes us,” Dombrowski said.

The best the Red Sox can hope for now -- the very best -- is that they can beat out the Indians or Twins or Rays or A’s or Rangers or even the Angels to get the AL Wild Card game at home that David Price, who has been swell this season, can start and Eovaldi can close. And then, if the standings hold, they would go to Yankee Stadium from there.

Can this year’s Red Sox look like last year’s Red Sox two months from now? We’re going to find out. They are four behind the Indians in the loss column, two behind the A’s, one behind the Rays. What feels like a 65-game pennant race for the defending champs starts now. You only get so many chances, Frank Cashen said. The Red Sox still have this chance: Proving that they got counted out too soon.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.