BOSTON -- As the longtime starting catcher and a valued member in the Red Sox clubhouse, Christian Vázquez is more in-tuned than most to the variety of positive developments that are happening with the team these days.
Prior to Wednesday night’s game against the Blue Jays, Vázquez had several insightful comments on the areas that are leading Boston to a better level of success, at least so far than in the previous two seasons.
Here are some of the components he spoke of.
Chemistry: It is the old chicken or the egg theory when it comes to winning and chemistry. Does winning create chemistry, or is it the other way around?
It is a question that can never be answered with certainty, but Vázquez said that he noticed the improved vibe in the clubhouse and on the bench long before the wins started piling up. He started seeing encouraging signs at Spring Training in Fort Myers, Fla.
“I’m going to tell you the truth,” he said. “In Spring Training, everybody was talking about the right language. It’s the same language we talked in 2018 and we won [the World Series] that year. I’m not telling you we’re going to win this year, but we’re going to go on the same track. It’s fun to see the [guys] in the dugout and the clubhouse in Spring Training altogether talking about everything, and about getting better every day. I feel like it’s a family here. We’re together and it’s fun to see this.”
The fact the players are physically in the same spaces more is also of help. Last season, the Red Sox didn’t have a clubhouse at home. The players instead partnered up in luxury suites.
“Some days [last year] I didn’t see my teammates that day until we were in the dugout or when they’re coming in from the bullpen, so it’s tough to have fun like that,” Vázquez said. “We want to see each other every day, and we play cards and have fun together, like, in the gym and together. Obviously with the masks, but we’re together -- like a family.”
Pitching, pitching, pitching: You don’t have to tell the starting catcher how much of a difference it makes to have quality arms. Vázquez has the best view in the house. And having Eduardo Rodriguez while adding Garrett Richards and Nick Pivetta to the rotation is a big change from 2020, when the team was overly-reliant on openers that seldom worked out. Adam Ottavino and Hirokazu Sawamuara have added depth to the bullpen and Darwinzon Hernandez is rounding back into form after dealing with COVID-19 and an injury last year.
The mentality of the staff has also changed, much to the delight of Vázquez. Pitchers are now in attack mode.
“I think we’re throwing a lot of strikes,” Vázquez said. “We’re getting ahead more this year. We’ve got great arms. I think the front office made a great decision this year and got great arms to help this team be in the place we are right now.”
Vázquez and backup Kevin Plawecki did what they could with last year’s depleted stable of arms, but it was not easy. The current situation is far more workable.
“Yeah, it’s easier when you have a good arm on the mound,” Vázquez said. “It’s easier, you’re not afraid to attack the zone. When we have electric arms like we have now, it’s easier to call games. It’s a plus for the team, for me, for everybody. I think that’s the key. Strike one, and after that, [we can] expand, and I think that’s the key for the success we’re having right now.”
Best of Barnes: The first time Vázquez caught current Red Sox closer Matt Barnes was in 2012 at Class A Salem. That was four years after Vázquez was drafted by the club in the eighth round out of high school and the season after the Sox took Barnes as a first-rounder out of UConn. At that point, Barnes was a starter. For the last many years, he has been an invaluable reliever. But Vázquez has never seen Barnes as on top of his game as he is to start this season.
“Yeah, it’s electric. Electric fastball this year. I’ve seen the best Matt Barnes I’ve ever seen in all my years with him,” Vázquez said. “Before, he had the best changeup in the organization. Now he has one of the best curveballs in the organization and in the league. But, yeah, he’s got electric stuff this year.”
Hunter Renfroe is aiming to have a bounce-back season after being non-tendered by the Rays and quickly scooped up by the Red Sox in January. But so far, things aren’t working out. The righty slugger, who was not in the lineup on Wednesday, is slashing .171/.217/.268 with one homer in 41 at-bats. Manager Alex Cora said that Renfroe spent Wednesday’s pregame working with hitting coaches Tim Hyers and Pete Fatse to help solve some mechanical issues that are leading him to lunge at the ball.
For the second time in three days, the Red Sox had COVID-19 vaccines available to their players and staff members at Fenway Park. Cora, who got his first shot at Spring Training, received his second dose on Wednesday. As of a few hours before game time, he felt no ill-effects. The Sox are hopeful they will soon get to the 85 percent vaccination rate that will allow them to relax some of their COVID restrictions.
Clubs were informed on March 31 that MLB and the MLBPA have agreed to relax certain health and safety protocols contained in the 2021 Operations Manual for fully vaccinated Tier 1 Individuals and for clubs where 85% of their Tier 1 Individuals are fully vaccinated. As part of that memo, players and staff were again strongly encouraged to receive one of the approved COVID-19 vaccines when eligible.