At least for a weekend, Red Sox delivered promised improvements

Red Sox

After a winter of non-stop frowns, the Red Sox looked . . . fun.

Aerial photo of a baseball pitcher throwing off a mound.
Garrett Whitlock and the Red Sox rotation performed at a high level during the opening series in Seattle. Alika Jenner/Getty Images


The Red Sox won two. They could’ve won all four. And somehow, that wasn’t even the whole of it.

The sickos sure got to start baking their pies in the sky early, didn’t they?

“Like I’ve been saying all along,” manager Alex Cora told reporters after Sunday’s 5-1 finale in Seattle against the Mariners. “I do believe we’re going to pitch.”

Ever eager to toot his team’s horn, not even Cora could’ve really expected this. Against a sleeper pick in the AL West, Boston’s starters allowed four earned runs in 22 innings across four games. Improvements from within? Sure did.

They fanned 27 Mariners, against one walk. Add in the bullpen’s work and it was 45 and six, the latter the fewest free passes allowed by a team to play four games.

Caveats, of course. Only one team in baseball struck out more than Seattle last season, and the October dreams in coffee country are built around a starting rotation that itself struck out 27 Red Sox and gave up hits at a .205 clip. (Boston’s starters had a .177 average against.)

But good grief, enjoy something, will you? After a winter of non-stop frowns, the Red Sox looked . . . fun. The defense (outside of Pablo Reyes’s Friday error and Wilyer Abreu’s critical gaffe Saturday) was expectedly strong. The dynamism of Ceddanne Rafaela, Jarren Duran, Trevor Story, and others was on display.

The starters, though. Let’s go step by step.

Brayan Bello

The man of the moment looked every bit the part of an Opening Day starter at 24 — nervous, not his sharpest, but effective. He hit 98 miles per hour, but pitch tracking didn’t credit him with a single four-seamer. Smacked around to the tune of a .310 average last season, he didn’t throw it much this spring either and admitted a lack of confidence in it.

The home run he allowed to Mitch Haniger was on a heater — a 97 m.p.h. sinker.

No matter. He let Seattle chase his changeup, which delivered five of his eight swinging strikes and three outs in the field.

Nick Pivetta

The sweeper that changed the course of his 2023 season last summer, giving him a fourth pitch and control of opposing hitters he’d previously lacked, shone again Friday. He threw 28, and the Mariners swung at 19. Seven of his 10 strikeouts came on it, with just four put in play for one second-inning single.

It reeked of one of new pitching coach Andrew Bailey’s credos: Attack the zone with your best stuff. Nearly 60 percent of Pivetta’s offerings were in the zone, on a night he allowed just three hits.

Pivetta lost because the Sox couldn’t capitalize on two first-inning walks, or anything else George Kirby offered. A hung slider to J.P. Crawford stayed inside the foul pole, and that was that.

For one night, anyway. Pivetta appears ready for plenty more.

Kutter Crawford

An unearned run ended up mattering too much when the Sox again couldn’t hit Saturday, but Crawford retired 14 straight at one point, leaning on his sweeper despite his fastball holding hitters to a .164 clip a year ago. It was, at risk of hyperbole and sample size overvaluation, one of the better ones in the sport.

Cora stressed the scouting report for the series when talking about it, Seattle having been a strong fastball-hitting team a year ago, but Bailey’s history as a pitching coach seems to favor spin over speed. Nothing about pitching is that simple, of course, nor is one series anything but the start of something.

Garrett Whitlock

Speaking of sweepers and the start of something . . .

Forever the “isn’t he better in the bullpen” arm in the staff conversation, Whitlock fanned eight in five innings Sunday, pointedly switching from being sweeper/changeup heavy in the first three innings to almost exclusively (15 of his final 21 pitches) throwing sinkers his final two.

He credited backup catcher Reese McGuire for the adjustment.

“I feel like that’s something that I need to continue to learn how to do,” Whitlock told reporters.

It hinted back to words from Bailey during the winter, when he suggested he would have failed at his job if he didn’t have the members of the pitching staff “at higher tiers” by year’s end, and that he needed to “[help] them understand who they are and [give] them identities.”

“We have a talented bunch and for them to go out there [and perform], they’re built up properly, and had a really good Spring Training and now we’ll try to keep the momentum going,” Bailey told reporters Sunday. “I think that energy feeds off each other and that’s a good situation to be in.”

This weekend was the third time the Red Sox started one of these marathons in Seattle, and in both cases the opening series proved prescient. In 2000, Pedro began Year 2 of his pinnacle by starting a two-hit shutout of a 91-win playoff team.

Then there was five years ago, the Sox coming off the 2018 dream season and still unaware the ground below them was missing, Wile E. Coyote style. Starting with Chris Sale, a rotation that was supposed to be the team’s bedrock got clobbered for 22 earned runs in lasting 15 innings.

Boston lost 3 of 4, arrived home 3-8, and scarcely sniffed October. Game No. 162 was Mookie’s last, and we’ve been chasing his Red Sox ghost ever since.

Four games in Seattle amid the shrapnel of a barren winter do not erase that spectre, nor does it change that any surprise from this group comes with no promise of in-season additions. These Red Sox attacked the season with one hand tied around their back, and who’s to say the people who tied it have any interest in loosening the knot?

A story for another weekend. It’s on to Oakland and Anaheim, two baseball markets where the story’s as depressing as we make ours out to be.

It’s April, and the Red Sox are still worth watching.

Hey, every happy ending’s got to start somewhere.

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