July’s been a defining month for recent Red Sox teams

Red Sox

The Red Sox have reached the month where the buyers buy and the sellers sell and the Red Sox … what?

Rafael Devers got the Red Sox off to a strong start on Sunday, helping them salvage a win against the Padres at Fenway Park.
Rafael Devers got the Red Sox off to a strong start on Sunday, helping them salvage a win against the Padres at Fenway Park. Matthew J Lee/Globe Staff


For two days this weekend, the Red Sox were noncompetitive, outscored, 20-3, by San Diego. On Sunday, starting back-from-Triple-A Josh Winckowski, they went 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position . . . and won, because Rafael Devers and Jarren Duran delivered four runs with homers and Winckowski got 11 ground-ball outs in five innings.

He went to Worcester on May 12, when the Red Sox needed a roster spot for the returning Brayan Bello. He came back a week ago Monday, and pitched Sunday because Bello has too consistently lacked the guile that Winckowski showed.

Eighteen batters faced, seven hard-hit balls allowed (as calculated by Baseball Savant), just three swings and misses and one strikeout. Tough formula, out of game context.

“I kind of figured out something at Triple-A. I was throwing changeups that were literally just a ball down and almost never, ever getting swings, so we just kind of started trying to throw it in the zone at all times,” Winckowski told reporters Sunday.

Eleven ground-ball outs, with double plays in both the third and fourth after the leadoff man reached. Wouldn’t recommend it long-term, if I’m honest. Still, what’s that refrain manager Alex Cora gives almost every time he’s asked about Bello’s struggles? “Just throw strikes,” or something like that?

“The changeup for strikes,” Cora told reporters Sunday. “I think early on here, [Winckowski] was trying to get chases instead of just executing the pitch, and whatever happens happens, right? It was weak contact or swings and misses. He did a good job.”

The learning on the job goes on, and thus the Padres (46-42) leave town the way they entered. Hot, now winners of 9 in 11 games, but still just behind the Red Sox (44-39) in baseball’s overall standings. Boston is the 11th-best team in baseball by record as the calendar flips to July, with the first 14 teams behind it separated by a mere six games.

Fourteen teams! Six games! A zombie horde just fingertips from their carmine hose, the run reaching the month where the buyers buy and the sellers sell and the Red Sox …

Touchy subject, I know. Even if all that outrage about Christian Vázquez for Wilyer Abreu and Enmanuel Valdez at the 2022 trade deadline aged like all those contract deferrals we’ll be joking about today.

As noted by Red Sox Stats, Boston is one out of three to make the playoffs on Monday morning. Playoff odds age like milk in a greenhouse, but it’s a stark reminder that this injured, upstart bunch has actually played themselves into some real stakes.

And there is some runway here. The schedule is manageable this month: eight three-game sets, arranged in alternating sextets road and home. There’s a first trip to the Bronx between the Marlins (beginning Tuesday) and Athletics, but New York’s been struggling, narrowly avoiding a fifth straight series loss on Sunday.

There’s three at Colorado after visiting Dodger Stadium immediately after the All-Star break. There are home series with Kansas City and Seattle — two teams with the Red Sox just ahead of that horde, seeking the sort of weekends the Red Sox are. The ones that will define them as ahead of that pack come October.

The Mariners, leading the American League West, have lost seven of 10 while Houston’s finally surmounted .500, winning Sunday to reach 42-41 — they’ve been baseball’s best since opening 12-24. Just behind the Red Sox in the East are the Rays, the sport’s perpetual no-see-ums.

Remember a couple weeks back, when the Red Sox couldn’t shake .500? Tampa’s been .500 17 different times, but hasn’t been over it since the Red Sox swept it in late May. They remain on the periphery, despite being the sort of team who’ll only be represented at the All-Star Game because the league mandates they be.

It somehow isn’t rampant homerism to argue the Red Sox could send three players there. (Rampant homerism would be arguing Kenley Jansen should join Devers, Duran, and Tanner Houck to make it four.) Good for all of them, if they get it. That’s their honor, and their celebration.

The good for us comes if the team whose colors they wear channels the way it used to conduct itself when opportunity knocked.

“The best way to make a statement is to do the right things across the entire baseball operation. Invest in every area of the operation — scouting, player development, analytics, the big-league level,” Sox CEO Sam Kennedy told The Athletic in a piece released Monday. “I know the focus can be on dollars spent. We understand that. We accept that. But the best way to make a statement is do what we’ve done often over our last 23 years — October baseball.”

The specifics of what to shop for? We needn’t even mull that yet, given the next couple weeks will offer at least a little clarity to the contention picture.

Two years ago, the Red Sox cratered in July and made themselves easy not to prioritize at the end of the month. A year ago, they did the reverse. Sub-.500 when July began, they played their way into the conversation, just about running the table for three weeks outside of a fumbled series in Oakland.

Not even a Vázquez move we can look back on and chuckle about. They added only by not subtracting — outside of Luis Urías, whose tenure you’re forgiven for forgetting — hung around the fringes until the last week of August, then ran out of pitchers.

Since then, Cora has recommitted himself personally and professionally, unhappy with how it all ended. “I’m not gonna manage 10 more years,” he told reporters in February, ensuring he and his team would “attack the season the right way.”

Here they are, after three months of doing so. Refusing to waste one that felt so wasted before it ever began. The Red Sox sit one month away from forcing those in the position to support them in the endeavor to have a similar gut check.

To attack a possible surprise season, in a place where the surprises have mostly been bad news for five years and counting, the similar right way.

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