A potential turnaround? Outfield bats key in Red Sox's rout of Astros

August 25th, 2023

HOUSTON -- What a difference two days make.

After Tuesday’s sloppy loss, the Red Sox dipped into single-digit playoff percentage odds for the first time this season, according to FanGraphs. But in a comeback win on Wednesday, followed by a blowout 17-1 win on Thursday afternoon at Minute Maid Park, Boston showed how it can sustain a run to the playoffs: through its outfielders.

“A lot of people thought this season was over three days ago,” manager Alex Cora said. “But that’s not the case.”

Alex Verdugo hit his third career leadoff homer to open the finale, and Wilyer Abreu followed in the second inning with his first MLB home run. The Red Sox, who recorded a whopping 24 hits, have now homered in each of their past 13 games (21 home runs), and the club’s 15 homers in its past eight games are the most in the American League during that span.

Boston (68-60) climbed to 3 1/2 games back in the AL Wild Card race, in which Seattle (71-56) and Houston (72-57) occupy the two final playoff spots.

The series split in Houston continued what Cora described as the Red Sox’s “rollercoaster” season, where consistency has been hard to come by. No group of Boston position players knows that better than the outfield, which has struggled in the second half before losing Jarren Duran to a left toe injury in Sunday’s finale vs. the Yankees.

Outfield stats prior to the All-Star break: .289/.369/.447 and 3rd in wRC+ (122)
OF stats from July 14 to Aug. 20: .229/.284/.374 and 28th in wRC+ (74)

Enter: Adam Duvall, who has found his stroke at the right time, going 9-for-16 in the four-game series vs. Houston with three home runs and eight RBIs. Verdugo went 9-for-19, and Abreu added a 6-for-12 line.

“Obviously, there for like a month and a half, we struggled in the power department,” Cora said pregame. “But lately some of the big boys are finding their stroke and hitting the ball in the air and out of the ballpark.”

Duran’s injured-list stint is likely to last longer than the minimum 10 days, Cora indicated. So Duvall, Verdugo, Abreu (who was called up in Duran’s spot) and Masataka Yoshida will be crucial down the stretch as Boston looks to continue battling for a playoff spot. Here’s what each of the four Red Sox outfielders can bring down the stretch.

The 24-year-old outfielder has delivered above and beyond all expectations in his first three big league games. The Red Sox’s No. 17 prospect, Abreu stayed steady after being thrust into action in an impromptu debut.

So it was no surprise that he delivered with his first big league bomb, a 431-foot no-doubter to right field, in a key spot for the Red Sox, powering a four-run second inning to kickstart the blowout.

“I can’t even put into words how I feel right now,” Abreu said through translator Carlos Villoria Benitez. “It was a very special series.”

Abreu’s versatility across all three outfield spots should allow Cora to continue to play him throughout Duran’s absence. And the bat won’t hurt, either.

“He’s a good hitter, man,” Cora said. “Relentless.”

Verdugo’s ejection in the fourth inning of Tuesday’s loss clearly left the right fielder frustrated, and he channeled it into his play this series.

A cool July (.151/.232/.247) has shifted for Verdugo into a hot August (.315/.350/.521) with a change in his approach at the plate. He has received the most at-bats of his career in the leadoff spot in 2023, and the newfound contact-oriented approach is helping him make the most of it.

After returning from a fractured left wrist on June 9, Duvall continued a breakout season at age 34 with his monster series.

Duvall credited recent mechanical adjustments that have allowed him to pull the ball more and lift it at a higher rate as well. The result is his emergence as one of the “big boy” bats in the middle of the order that can help balance a lineup full of left-handed sluggers. The outfielder will also get the majority of the playing time in center while Duran recovers.

Yoshida earned an “A” from his manager for his impressive first half, and deservedly so. But as he approaches the rookie wall, dealing with the MLB’s 162-game season -- not to mention jet lag -- the Japanese outfielder has slowed down, going from an .874 OPS before the All-Star break to a .655 afterwards.

Cora gave him a rest day on Wednesday (with a pinch-hit at-bat), saying a day off would help the outfielder, and Yoshida responded with his own multihit game (with a double coming off Astros catcher Martín Maldonado). One of the AL’s best in batting average (4th, .295) and strikeout rate (3rd, 12.7%), a bounceback stretch from Yoshida could go a long way in boosting the lineup.