BOSTON — It didn’t take long to dredge up the memories of last October. On Friday, as the Dodgers returned to Fenway Park for the first time since losing the 2018 World Series to the Red Sox, Max & Leo’s, a pizza restaurant located in Fenway Park, put up a sign facing those crossing the David Ortiz Bridge toward the ballpark. Its message? “Hey LA, In case you forgot, this is what the World Series trophy looks like.”
Victory lap aside, the cross-country rivals find themselves in different relative positions from last season. The Dodgers occupy the same territory as the 2018 Red Sox, running away with their division while maintaining the best record in major league baseball. The defending World Series champions, meanwhile, sit in third place in the AL East, one game out of a wild card, chasing the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cleveland Indians.
“This is the team that everybody knows is the best team in baseball,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said of the Dodgers. “They are. If you look for motivation after the All-Star break, it’s right there. From day one until the All-Star break, what they’ve been doing is amazing.”
Saturday’s trade for Andrew Cashner by Boston marked the official beginning of a playoff push as president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski moves to shore up some areas of the Red Sox’s roster. But not all improvements can come from the outside, as the front office intently monitors the payroll and manages any potential luxury tax penalties.
Boston will need to see improvements up and down the roster to put itself back at the forefront of the playoff picture. Here’s the short list of what has to happen, in no particular order:
1. Andrew Cashner needs to solidify the No. 5 spot in the rotation
The Red Sox made clear that they were looking to upgrade their starting rotation in recent weeks and got their man in Cashner, trading away two 17-year old prospects, infielder Noelberth Romero and outfielder Elio Prado. Since Nathan Eovaldi hit the disabled list with loose bodies in his throwing arm, the Red Sox have depended on the likes of Hector Velazquez, Ryan Weber and others for innings, with a lack of consistency from the last spot in the rotation contributing to the overworked bullpen’s workload. In 16 starts this season, the hodgepodge group of starters asked to fill out the rotation has amassed a 6.79 ERA in just 51⅔ innings.
Similar to his pre-deadline deal last year for Eovaldi, Dombrowski landed a starter before the rush of the trade deadline, locking down his major trade acquisition two weeks ahead of July 31. Cashner will make his Red Sox debut on Tuesday against the Blue Jays. So far this season, the 32-year-old righty has posted a 3.83 ERA with a 1.19 WHIP, striking out 66 batters in 96⅓ innings, posting a 9-3 record. Boston hopes for more of the same.
“He’s been throwing the ball well,” Dombrowski said. “He’s been a guy that has been in the big leagues for a long time. He’s throwing the ball as well as he ever has. … Definitely gives us an improvement in that fifth spot, which we’ve scuffled for such a long time.”
2. Nathan Eovaldi needs to become a reliable reliever
When Eovaldi returns to Boston, which Dombrowski expects to happen next week, he will return as the team’s closer, a role the team refused to assign to anyone else coming out of spring training, channeling the 2003 Red Sox with a closer by committee. Following the departure of free agent Craig Kimbrel, Dombrowski decided to stay pat with the bullpen and not sign an established reliever, instead turning to the likes of Marcus Walden and Josh Taylor. Dombrowski views Eovaldi’s return as equivalent to a major acquisition for Boston heading into the deadline.
“We are going to add Nathan Eovaldi,” Dombrowski said on Saturday. “Some people seem to not grasp onto that. He’s a big addition for us.”
This, however, operates under the assumption that Eovaldi will stay healthy. Eovaldi, who signed a four-year, $68 million deal with Boston this past offseason, has undergone two Tommy John surgeries in his career and underwent a second surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow in March 2018.
“We’ve always thought he could pitch in the pen,” Dombrowski said. “A lot of people have felt that. When we signed him, he really was choosing to not do that because he had other organizations approach him and signed him as a starter. He changed himself with his time frame and said, ‘I’m willing to do whatever you’d like. I’m happy to go to the bullpen and pitch.’ We think he can be very helpful for us at the back end of our bullpen.”
3. Chris Sale needs to get right
It has been an uncharacteristically down season for the Red Sox lefty. Sale signed a five-year, $145 million extension this offseason, but he hasn’t won a game in Fenway Park since July 11 of last year, posting a 4.27 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 46⅓ innings at Fenway so far this season. That winless Fenway starts streak continued on Saturday, when Sale lasted just 4⅔ innings, allowing five runs, seven hits and one walk while striking out seven against the Dodgers. His ERA of 4.04 far outpaces his career-high ERA of 3.41, posted back in 2015.
“I’m going out there every fifth day and getting my ass kicked,” Sale said on Saturday after the loss to the Dodgers. “It’s not fun. I’m still working, still grinding. I’m not going to give up, but it’s tough going out there and being a liability to your team.”
The Red Sox won the World Series without Chris Sale looking like Chris Sale for most of the postseason, when he posted a 5.76 ERA in 25 innings pitched. But Boston wouldn’t have gotten there in the first place without his 2.11 ERA in 27 starts in 2018. Cora said it’s the responsibility of the coaching staff to make sure Sale is clicking on all cylinders, which he hasn’t all year. Sale, however, shifts the blame to himself.
“I’m trying to locate my fastball. That’s the biggest thing,” Sale said. “I’ve been throwing it all over the place. I’ve been trying to throw it in and it’s going away. I’m trying to throw it away and I’m throwing cut fastballs right now and I have never done that in my life. All my hit by pitches this year have been on breaking balls on right-handed hitters. That can’t happen. Shutdown innings, I haven’t had a single one all year. I’m digging my team a hole they can’t get out of early and they’re doing everything they can.”
4. Rafael Devers needs to stay hot
Devers has been a revelation for Boston this season. He has laid claim to the No. 2 spot in the lineup behind Mookie Betts, has markedly improved his plate discipline and has made a leap defensively, dramatically improving his footwork following a rocky first month. The 22-year-old is hitting .327/.380/.557 with 17 homers, 64 RBIs and 26 doubles, and he has been one of the team’s most consistent hitters this season.
As history has shown time and time again, one good half-season doesn’t mean someone has officially arrived in the big leagues. Devers is still a young player, which often goes hand in hand with inconsistency. With offensive production drops from Betts and Andrew Benintendi, Devers has made up a lot of the slack, and the team will depend on him for big offensive production if the rest of the lineup remains at its current levels of production.
5. Consistency, consistency, consistency
As boring as it may sound, the Alex Cora buzzword of the season has been “consistency,” because Boston has been anything but. It’s something Cora constantly brings up in his news conferences, a near-daily reminder that his team hasn’t been what it was just a calendar year ago. Just as frequently, Cora mentions that he believes his team can emerge from its yearlong funk.
“We’re very talented. That’s the bottom line,” Cora said on Friday. “We can play a lot better and everybody knows it. I think that was the coolest thing in the All-Star Game how many people in that clubhouse still believe in us. I don’t know if they like it or not, but they let us know how good we are. If we forgot about that, the three guys that were there and the coaching staff, the players reminded us.”
Those reminders will need to turn into production soon if Boston hopes to even have a chance to defend its World Series title.
Nats’ Turner hits for another cycle against Rockies
On Tuesday night, the Nationals shortstop hit for the cycle during Washington’s 11-1 win over Colorado, the second time in his career that he’s accomplished the feat versus the Rockies. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he’s just the third player in MLB history to hit for the cycle multiple times against the same team. Fred Clarke of the Pittsburgh Pirates had two cycles against the Reds (1901, 1903), and Christian Yelich did it twice last year, also against Cincinnati.
Turner led off the bottom of the first with a solo home run against Colorado starter Peter Lambert. In the second inning, he grounded a single off Lambert for a single. Facing Lambert again in the fifth, Turner hit a liner down the right field line that glanced off Charlie Blackmon’s glove and rolled into the corner for a triple. After grounding into an inning-ending double play against lefty reliever Sam Howard in the sixth, Turner came up in the seventh against righty Jairo Diaz and laced an RBI double to the gap in right-centerfield.
Turner is the 26th player in major-league history to hit for multiple cycles in his career. He previously did it on April 25, 2017 at Coors Field. In 18 career games against Colorado, the 26-year old speedster is now batting .386 with 16 extra-base hits.
Of the 10 cycles that the Rockies have now allowed in their history, Turner’s is the first one to be accomplished away from Coors Field.
Earlier this season, Turner missed six weeks due to a fractured right index finger that he suffered as the result a hit-by-pitch. In 60 games with Washington this year, he’s hitting .286 with eight home runs and 20 stolen bases.
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The 36-year-old Cano drove in all five runs and went 4 for 4. Vargas pitched one-hit ball for six shutout innings, possibly enhancing his trade value.
Cano began the day batting just .243 with six homers in his first season with the Mets. Yet before the game, manager Mickey Callaway expressed confidence that Cano would produce, putting him in the category of “Hall of Fame hitters.”
Cano homered three times in a game for the first time in his career. It was just the third three-homer game ever by a Mets player at home — Lucas Duda and Kirk Nieuwenhuis both did it in July 2015.
After singling in the first, Cano made it 1-0 in the fourth with his first home run at Citi Field since early April.
Of Cano’s nine homers this year, five have come since the All-Star break. This was his 23rd career multihomer game and first since 2017 with Seattle.
Yoenis Cespedes was the previous Mets player to hit three homers, doing it in 2017. The feat has been accomplished by 13th different Mets players, with Cespedes doing it twice.
Vargas (5-5) put on a pitching clinic, getting the San Diego hitters to consistently flail away.
The 36-year-old lefty permitted only a single by Eric Hosmer in the fifth, struck out eight and walked three. Rookie Fernando Tatis Jr. struck out three times and Manny Machado swung at a strike three that bounced.
Several scouts were at Citi Field, and no doubt the performance Vargas piqued their interest as the July 31 trade deadline approaches.
Vargas’ hardest fastball was clocked at 84.6 mph — Paddack’s slowest changeup came in a tick faster 84.7.
The anticipated showdown between rookie stars Pete Alonso and Paddack didn’t amount to much — the slugging Alonso walked twice and grounded out against the young fireballer.
Padres: LHP Adrian Morejon “should be available” to pitch in relief during this three-game series, manager Andy Green said. The 20-year-old Cuban made his major league debut Sunday at Wrigley Field, allowing one run and three hits in 2 1/3 innings. Green said the Padres will consider using him as an opener over the weekend at home vs. the Giants.
Mets: Major league batting leader Jeff McNeil was hit in the right elbow by a Paddack pitch in the fifth. McNeil was checked by a trainer and stayed in. … RHP Zack Wheeler (shoulder impingement) threw batting practice on the field and could be activated Friday to pitch against the Pirates. “I’m 100 percent. Ready to go,” he said. Callaway said Wheeler, who last started on July 7, will be on a pitch count of 75-85 pitches. Wheeler (6-6, 4.69 ERA) has been the subject of trade rumors leading up to the July 31 deadline. “Last year was the same way,” he said.
Padres: RHP Dinelson Lamet (0-2, 5.14 ERA) makes his fourth start of the season. He won his major league debut in 2017 at Citi Field and went 7-8 overall, then missed last year after Tommy John surgery.
Mets: RHP Noah Syndergaard (7-4, 4.36) is 4-0 in his last nine starts.
Nationals’ Scherzer on track for Thursday return
“He felt good today,” manager Davey Martinez said of Scherzer, who threw a bullpen session Monday prior to the opener of a four-game series between the Nationals and Rockies getting rained out. That contest has been rescheduled as part of a doubleheader on Wednesday, with the finale coming Thursday afternoon.
Assuming Scherzer doesn’t suffer any setbacks between now and then, he would take the hill in the finale.
Scherzer has been dealing with an inflamed bursa sac below his right shoulder and has not pitched since July 6, when he tallied 11 strikeouts over seven scoreless innings against the Kansas City Royals. One week later, the Nats placed him on the injured list, retroactive to July 10.
On Tuesday, Martinez said the Nationals considered the calendar for the remainder of the regular-season schedule, as well as the postseason, before landing on Thursday as the likely return date for Scherzer.
“We actually sat down and looked at the schedule, and that’s basically how we came up with Thursday,” said the Nats’ second-year skipper. “I went all the way ’til the wild-card game. I’m hoping that we’re not the wild-card team. But we sat down and mapped everything out from that day.”
Washington began the day 6.5 games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves in the National League East, and in possession of the top wild-card spot in the NL. If Scherzer is able to go on Thursday, he would then line up to start in all three of his team’s remaining series against the Braves, as well as in Washington’s lone remaining series against the third-place Phillies. He’d also be in position to take the mound in a potential NL wild-card game.
A three-time Cy Young winner, Scherzer has been one of the game’s most durable hurlers, having made at least 30 starts in all 10 of his full seasons since debuting in 2008. Since signing a seven-year, $210 million contract with the Nationals prior to the 2015 season, the 34-year-old righty had made only one other trip to the injured list, in August of 2017.
This season, Scherzer is 9-5 with a 2.30 ERA. In 129.1 innings, he has recorded 181 strikeouts, most in the National League. In June, prior to hitting the shelf, he went 6-0 with a 1.00 ERA and was named the NL Pitcher of the Month.
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