From Flu To First: The 2017 Red Sox

Without a doubt this has been one of the most frustrating and agonizing seasons in Boston Red Sox history. It began with a bizarre flu epidemic that not only wiped out players, but coaches and announcers as well. In the middle fans were ready to riot and burn their season tickets, in addition to the offense never clicking during the entire season. Still, after all that the Boston Red Sox managed to win back to back American League East Division Titles for the first time in history. Right now they are in the process of taking on the AL West Division Champion Houston Astros in the ALDS but let’s see how we got here.

After the 2016 Boston Red Sox finished their season by getting swept by the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS, the team bid farewell to “Big Papi” David Ortiz, arguably the best clutch hitter in franchise history. The problem was they never replaced him. Hindsight is 20/20 but even so, looking back on the 2016 off-season, it was almost a complete unmitigated disaster. Ortiz himself personally recommending spending big bucks to sign perennial 40 home run threat Edwin Encarnarcion who was hitting the free agent market. Sox general manager Dave Dombrowski had other ideas, letting the same Cleveland Indians team that fell an extra inning rally away from winning their first world title in 70 years, sign Encarnarcion. Instead Dave signed the much cheaper and much less productive Mitch Moreland to play first base with Hanley Ramirez moving into Ortiz’ DH role. Its not that Moreland was a bad guy or a bad player, he was good, but not great. Its the fact the Sox needed a power threat and Moreland was more of a doubles machine.

Then came the big trades, one that almost saved the franchise and one that almost crippled it. Pablo Sandoval had not lived up to his 57 million dollar contract his first two seasons in Boston. He was about as average as it got in 2015 and became a complete embarrassment in 2016, showing up to Spring Training hopelessly out of shape and becoming a laughing stock by busting his belt during an at-bat. He was performing so badly that he was ASKED to go get shoulder surgery to just stay away from the team. In his place the young Travis Shaw became a legitimate power threat, becoming the starting third basemen for the rest of the season. He had his ups and downs but the potential for stardom was there. With both Sandoval and Shaw on the roster for 2017, one of them had to go. Dombrowski made his choice and on December 6, 2016…he traded Shaw along with prospects Mauricio Dubon and Josh Pennington to the Milwaukee Brewers for top set up man Tyler Thornburg. The move partially made sense because they needed to shore up the bullpen, but they parted with one of the only power threats on the team in order to keep their 57 million dollar fat boy happy. How did this work out? More on that later.

In a better trade, the Sox gave up younger-than-Shaw third basemen Yoan Moncada and prospects Michael Kopech, Luis Basabe and Victor Diaz for Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale. The feeling was that the Sox didn’t have enough starting pitching to compete with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs so Dombrowski went and got another ace to go with Cy Young champion Rick Porcello, 17 game winner David Price and returning 13 game winner Steven Wright. Sale had a reputation of being nasty but had a disclaimer that he runs out of gas towards the end of the year. Still, the Sox expected to have so much pitching depth that he would not be overused. How did this work out?

So with all the moves made, the Sox were now the clear favorites to repeat as AL East champions and challenge the Indians for American League supremacy. Things went bad right from the start as Tyler Thornberg, starter Drew Pomeranz and David Price all went down with injuries in Spring Training. Pomeranz was expected back early in the regular season but Price and Thornburg would be out a long…long time. This was not good considering Thornburg was supposed to replace Koji Uehara as the top set-up man to Craig Kimbrel. If that wasn’t bad enough, a strange flu bug struck the team late in Spring Training that wiped out half the team and the coaching staff.

The season began at home against Pittsburgh with the team still reeling from the flu bug, the signs of greatness were there when pre-season Rookie of the Year lock Andrew Benintendi struck a 3 run homer and Rick Porcello pitched into the seventh inning to earn his first victory of the year. Two days later Chris Sale made his Sox debut by tossing 7 shutout innings, scattering just three singles while striking out seven, the team winning on a walkoff home run by Sandy Leon. Trouble was brewing as Mookie Betts, Robbie Ross Jr, Mitch Moreland and Brock Holt were all out with the flu, Ross so bad he had to be quarantined for 2 weeks. One day after the walkoff, Hanley Ramirez was claimed too by the flu. During the game against the Detroit Tigers, Pablo Sandoval hit a 3 run home run but the bullpen faltered and lost it. One day later, Joe Kelly, John Farrell and Brian Butterfield all got knocked out by the epidemic. Even announcer Dave O’Brien had to call in sick as well. The Sox showed almost no life offensively the first two weeks of the season but many claimed the flu bug had everyone out of sorts.

Turns out it wasn’t the flu that was the problem. Despite hitting the 3 run homer in Detroit, Pablo Sandoval performed miserably. Both Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts weren’t hitting as well as they were the previous year and Hanley Ramirez wasn’t hitting at all. The offensive woes were compounded in April by the fact Rick Porcello and Steven Wright began to stink up the mound. Not only that, Drew Pomeranz was as inconsistent as it got, routinely being pulled after throwing 100 pitches in 5 or 6 innings. The bullpen chugged along nicely even without Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg which kept the team afloat. The offensive woes culminated on April 27 when Masahiro Tanaka and the New York Yankees beat Sale with a complete game, 87 pitch, shut-out. If that wasn’t bad enough, Pablo Sandoval hurt his knee and was placed on the Disabled List on April 26th, the day before the Tanaka disaster. The Sox couldn’t rely on Brock Holt because he was out with concussion issues, so third base became a black hole offensively at this point. Before the month was out, an ominous note that the team wasn’t unified began on April 21st against the Baltimore Orioles. Earlier in the season manager Buck Showalter sarcastically insulted the Red Sox for going through the flu bug and during this game, Manny Machado unintentionally/intentionally spiked Dustin Pedroia at second base. Joe Kelly, John Farrell and Brian Butterfield were visibly pissed off but other members of the team didn’t seem to care. The next day you would think the Sox would come out with a vengeance to avenge Pedroia….the opposite happened. The Os shelled Steven Wright and cruised to an easy win. Then on April 23rd in a game the Sox were leading 6-0, Matt Barnes threw behind Machado’s head leading to his ejection. It should be noted that Barnes was suspended within a matter of days, more on this later. Machado chirped at Pedroia in the dugout but instead of giving him the finger and saying “Oh yeah you deserved it”, Pedroia acted like a whiny brat waiving his arms and saying “That wasn’t me, that was all him!” So not only did Barnes miss the target and had to miss 3 days, his own team “leader” threw him under the bus. The O’s would not forget this.

Things went from bad to worse in May as both Steven Wright and super utility man Marco Hernandez were both lost for the year days apart in early May. Luckily Eduardo Rodriguez was healthy and picked up the slack even though Porcello and Pomeranz were still pitching badly. With Wright out, there became a revolving door of 5th starters including Kyle Kendrick, Brian Johnson and Hector “The Insurance Policy” Vazquez. Then the O’s came to town again where Adam Jones revealed he was hit with racial taunts by an irate fan. Suddenly the entire organization was racist and so was each and every Sox fan….all because one guy shouted at him of course. On May 2nd Chris Sale allowed Jones to get a standing O from the REAL Sox fans to let him know they werent racist…..then threw behind Machado again. Whinebag Showalter complained that Sale be ejected and suspended, but the umpires told him to beat it. The next day Kevin Gausman hit Bogaerts with a curveball unintentionally….AND GOT THE HEAVE HO. It was complete crap then later in the game Jones got tossed for arguing with the same up. Once again the O’s would not forget any of this. Also in May, the Sox dropped to .500 as their offensive woes continued but picked it up in late May, culminating in Brian Johnson pitching a complete game, 5 hit shutout against the Seattle Mariners on May 27th. Also in late May both Pablo Sandoval and David Price came back, but things didn’t look great. On May 20th, Drew Pomeranz struggled badly by throwing 97 pitches just to get through the fourth inning. He was pulled from the game by Farrell and apparently wasn’t happy about it. He was filmed on national television receiving an epic tongue lashing by Farrell in the dug-out and many wondered if trading Anderson Espinoza for him last year was worth it? Still, with the offensive woes and pitching mishaps, the Sox ended May at 29-23 just 2 games behind the New York Yankees.

The June swoon began by getting dominated by both the Baltimore Orioles and the Yankees. The Yankees in particular held the Sox to just 1 run in the final 2 games. CC Sabathia began to dominate the Sox for the first time in years. Still, David Price and Eduardo Rodriguez were returning to form, Sale continued his march toward the CY Young award and Drew Pomeranz took the tongue lashing like a man, pitching better in June. All was not well as Mitch Moreland suffered a fractured toe and his batting average plummeted. Hanley Ramirez was nowhere close to the player he was last year, many predicting that without Ortiz to keep him in check, he was back to his 2015 ways. Not only that, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts showed signs of regression after 2 sucessful seasons in a row. Pablo Sandoval was playing like garbage and Sandy Leon was back to being an average catcher. If that wasn’t bad enough, Tyler Thornburg was declared out for the season on June 15th without throwing a single pitch after Spring Training. How was Travis Shaw doing in Milwaukee? Only becoming the second coming of Cecil Cooper by contending for the National League lead in home runs, something the Sox desperately missed. On the same day Thornburg was declared KIA, Sale and the Sox were shut-out 1-0 by the immortal Nick Pivetta of the Philadelphia Phillies. That same game was the beginning of the end for Sandoval. With two outs, the tying run on first and Phillies closer Hector Nerris unusually wild, Sandoval swung and missed half-heartedly at a pitch in the dirt. The second swing was even worse at a pitch way outside. Then the third pitch bounced in the dirt but Sandoval waived and did a .360, walking back to the dugout SMILING as the Phillies had won it 1-0. He was benched and 5 days later was put on the Disabled List with an “ear infection” Smart fans and media personalities saw right through it but to casual fans, the 57 million dollar investment had an earache. Not only that, after a promising start to the season, Eduardo Rodriguez tripped and fell in the bullpen prior to his June 1st start against Baltimore. The mental-midget re-injured his knee, stunk the joint out and went on the Disabled List just like the previous year. He never recovered, going 2-5 the rest of the season with alarming questions about his mental toughness. Then the team began to turn heel thanks to the actions of one man. It was bad enough Pedroia threw Barnes under the bus, but David Price began to piss off everyone. He started by attacking beat writer Evan Drelich earlier in the month, which fans shrugged off because media personalities tend to be annoying. Then during the June 29th game where Price was beating the Minnesota Twins, popular Sox announcer and MLB Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley noticed the linescore of a hideous Eduardo Rodriguez rehab outing in Pawtucket. All he said was “Yuck!” He didn’t call Rodriguez a bum, he didn’t insult anyone’s family, he just noticed how bad Rodriguez pitched and commented on it. That night during the team flight to Toronto apparently David Price said something to him, but nobody revealed what just yet. Still, when you have a bad offense and your supposed ace is acting up, fans started to get very angry.

As the calendar turned to July, fans were growing increasingly upset not only with the team but the production as well. Not only were the Sox displaying a total lack of offense, the NESN broadcasts were almost unbearable to watch due to a variety of reasons. For some reason there was a weird audio discrepancy every time they cut from the game to the studio, their sideline reporters usually just spouted nonsense nobody cared about and they would play an annoying Southwest commercial at least FIVE times during the broadcast, further making fans groan. Then came the big week just after the All-Star break. After “rehabbing” his “ear infection” for 3 weeks, Pablo Sandoval was designated for assignment on July 14th meaning the Sox had 5 days to release him, trade him, bring him back or keep him in Pawtucket. That night the Sox walked off on the Yankees 5-4 but that was the best it got. The next night the Sox were beaten in SIXTEEN innings scoring just 1 measly run. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Sox had to play a double-header the next day and they were shut-out by Sabathia again 3-0. The Sox had played 25 innings and scored 1 total run. David Price rescued the Sox by pitching a shutout in the nightcap, winning 3-0…but the Sox had scored 4 total runs in 34 innings. Then on July 19th the Sox officially released Sandoval. The 57 million dollar man was done and over in the National League, Travis Shaw was strong arming the Milwaukee Brewers to NL Central contention. Dombrowski made a monumental mistake and he knew it. On July 22nd, Price got lit up by the LA Angels and the very next day the details came out about his confrontation with Eckersley. Apparently he chewed him out in front of the team, mocked him and dismissed him to thunderous CHEERS from the team. Fans were ready to riot because not only was the Sox offense inept, Price mocks a beloved player/analyst. The Sox were on a road trip but Price was scheduled to start July 28th at Fenway. Fans were waiting for him when he got there….but he never showed. That morning he was placed on the Disabled List as most of Red Sox nation THUNDERED with boo’s, “you gotta be kiddin” and “you coward!” tweets and comments. But then the Sox somehow caught fire.

Dombrowski made 3 moves that solidified the team in August. He brought over clubhouse guy Eduardo Nunez from the San Fransisco Giants (an unofficial trade for Sandoval because that’s where the fat man ended up) and called up 20 year old infield prospect Rafael Devers. He also traded prospects to the New York Mets for their closer Addison Reed. For 3 weeks in August, Devers, Reed and Nunez solidified the team and put them in position to win the AL East. Then on August 24th it all fell apart as the Sox lost 4 in a row to the Indians and the pissed off Orioles, swept Toronto then lost 3 out of 4 to the New York Yankees to end the month. The Yankees didn’t just beat the Red Sox, they were shutting them completely down. They made moves of their own to contend for the AL East led by AL ROY and potential MVP Mike Judge and the trade deadline acquisition of former closer David Robertson and Oakland A’s ace Sonny Gray. Actually the one game the Sox won out of the four was the one started by scrap heap pickup Doug Fister, who’s surprising August kept the team in first as Chris Sale began to fade.

From September 4 to September 27 the Sox played nothing but bad teams. The Blue Jays, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Cincinnati Reds and the Oakland A’s came and went…..and the Sox STILL couldn’t put the Jays away. The problem was Devers had cooled off, Nunez got hurt and was in and out of the lineup, Pedroia had a bum knee, Moreland had a bad toe, Ramirez had something wrong with his shoulder and Bogaerts took a fastball to the wrist on July 6th and couldn’t hit well the rest of the season. The pitching began to fade by mid-September as all the extra inning wins the team accumulated taxed not only the bullpen but the starters as well. Sale’s arm was hanging and Price came back once the heat died down to become a relief pitcher…..exactly what Sox brass wanted when they paid 217 million dollars for him. Still, through it all the Sox survived September and somehow clinched the Division with one day left in the season to earn a date with the Houston Astros in the ALDS.

Whether or not John Farrell keeps his job after all the idiotic decisions he makes day in and day out depends on how long they last. Back to back first round sweeps almost guarantees he’s gone. Still, the Sox went from the flu to first and won the division title back to back years for the first time in team history. Let’s see how October goes before writing the obituary.

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