BOSTON -- The recent surge of the Boston Red Sox could be an aberration. Or it could be the start of a charge about which we one day tell our grandkids.
Regardless of what the 12-7 stretch means in the long run, it has, at the very least, presented the club with an opportunity. With five more home games before the All-Star break -- as well as two days off -- the Sox have a chance to emerge from the break rested, as healthy as they've been all year, and within striking distance in both the division and the wild-card race. Given that, these two games against the Miami Marlins and three versus the New York Yankees are critical.
Here are the five most pressing items for the five most important games (so far) on the season:
1. Rick Porcello must step up
Manager John Farrell surprised some by announcing Sunday that Porcello would take his turn in the rotation Wednesday against Miami. With the off days Monday and Thursday, and the upcoming break, there was thought that the team might skip Porcello and give him some extended down time to overcome a slump.
Farrell's call is the right one. If you sit Porcello through one turn in the rotation and then target his next start later this month then the question marks will linger for two more weeks, which isn't good for anyone involved. While the entire season has been a struggle, Porcello has been significantly better at home. He will be facing a Marlins team that ranks 13th in the National League in scoring (and lacks slugger Giancarlo Stanton) and will be backed by an offense that is finding its groove.
If you wait, throw some side sessions and then target a start at Anaheim or Houston after the break, you pin Porcello against more dangerous lineups on the road, where his ERA sits at 7.16. He doesn't need to dominate the Marlins, but a step forward in an advantageous spot could give him -- and the team -- a little more momentum entering the second half.
2. Mike Napoli must, well, step up
Sunday was a dream scenario for all those tired of seeing Napoli flail at strike three. He was benched, giving way to David Ortiz at first base and moving Hanley Ramirez to the designated-hitter spot, where he has flourished. It also provided Farrell an opportunity to put Shane Victorino in right and Alejandro De Aza in left, surrounding Mookie Betts in a quality defensive outfield.
It was, as Farrell noted, "about putting the best lineup on the field today," and it worked well. But it cannot last. Ortiz is a capable first baseman for a few games, but the organization has no desire to put its slugger in that spot on a daily basis. His glove is not on par with Napoli’s, there is always the increased risk of injury for the lumbering 39-year-old, and he has not flourished offensively at that spot in the past several years.
Since 2007, Ortiz is 30-for-139 (.216) with 35 strikeouts as a first baseman. Ramirez will hit wherever he is and the squad will have to hope his defense in left field is adequate enough going forward.
"He's going to be our left fielder," Farrell said Sunday evening when asked if Ramirez could see more time at DH.
That leaves a lot on the shoulders of Napoli, who has five hits in his last 46 at-bats and one homer in a 29-game stretch. The hope is that three days off in a span of five (including Sunday, although he did come on a defensive replacement) has a positive impact.
3. De Aza and Victorino must stay active
The best feature of the Napoli/Ortiz/Ramirez shift on Sunday was the sight of De Aza, Betts and Victorino left to right in the outfield. The corner guys will platoon with Ramirez in left, but it’s on Farrell to get them both in the mix as often as possible. They bring similar qualities -- defense, some speed, energy, enthusiasm. Those are qualities the team lacked in its early-season struggles. One will always start, but Farrell should jump at every opportunity to get the other in as a late defensive replacement, pinch hitter or pinch runner. They can be difference-makers in those roles.
Ramirez certainly has his share of bumps and bruises and will need days off along the way. Betts leads the team in games played and might have the same need down the road.
4. Dustin Pedroia must hit the ground running
Pedroia is eligible to return from a hamstring strain prior to the weekend series with the division-leading Yankees. Farrell indicated he will know more about Pedroia's status during the series with Miami.
Since Pedroia left the lineup, the Sox are averaging a solid 5.1 runs in 11 games. That's up to 5.6 during the current 6-2 surge as Ramirez, Betts and Pablo Sandoval have carried the load. The addition of Pedroia, who is enjoying his best offensive season since 2011, will never upset the masses, but if he is slow to get going in the two-hole it could cause the train to slow down a bit.
Conversely, a hot Pedroia could take a suddenly clicking offense to another level.
"Our lineup is starting to deepen, even with Pedey being absent," Farrell said. "The top of our order is doing a nice job and now that we got [Ryan Hanigan] back in that spot, just quality at-bats up and down the lineup."
5. They must win the Yankees series
The rivals haven't met since the Bronx Bombers stormed into Fenway over two months ago and left with a three-game sweep, which began Boston's 10-19 showing in the month of May.
Returning the favor, or at least taking two of three, could go a long way toward condensing the AL East. The Sox entered Monday trailing the first-place Yankees by six games. It was a 10-game deficit (behind Tampa Bay at the time) just over two weeks ago. Similarly, they've shaved three games from their wild-card deficit in that short span, from eight games to five.
There's too much talk of the number of teams between Boston and those playoff spots. Sure, they have to leapfrog a handful of others, but eliminating a game or two off your deficits every couple of weeks for the next three months takes care of that climb. Three meetings with the Yanks before the All-Star break present such an opportunity.