Sullivan: Red Sox slump summons sorry memories

Jerry Sullivan

Enrique Hernandez #5 of the Boston Red Sox heads for the dugout after striking out to end the game during the ninth inning of Bostons 4-3 loss to the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on July 24, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

Life for a Red Sox fan is a lot less painful than it was in my younger days, when the team was living through the Curse of the Bambino and rooting for Boston meant always anticipating the worst.

The curse was lifted in 2004, when the Sox became the first team ever to rally from 3-0 in a playoff series against the Yankees and went on to win the World Series. They won it again in 2007, and 2013 and in 2018. 

That was four championships in 17 years — after a torturous wait of 86 years! As I like to remind my son (a Yankee fan, indoctrinated by the YES Network), the Yanks have just one World Series title in the last two decades. 

Winning became old hat. At times, I actually missed the curse, which gave Sox fans a collective, forlorn identity that baseball writer Roger Angell referred to as “lifelong doubters.” I imagine Bills fans would love to know how it feels for winning titles to become routine. 

But we still have 1978. No matter how many times they win, that failure still sears the soul of long-time Sox fans. It was the signature collapse during the curse, remembered for the blown 14-game lead and the Bucky Dent homer in the one-game playoff.

I know ’78 is still rattling around in the memory banks of Boston fans, because lately, I’ve been having flashbacks. 

On July 5 of this season, the Yankees were 10½ games behind the Red Sox in the American League East. The Yanks were 42-41. Boston was 54-32, having won 10 of 11, including a sweep of the Yankees at Fenway. Tampa Bay was in second at 49-36.

On Tuesday, the Yankees swept a doubleheader from the Red Sox, moving a percentage point ahead of Boston in the division. New York is 68-52 (.567), the Red Sox 69-53 (.566). The Rays, who have won 13 of their last 18, lead the AL East by five games.

The Yanks and Red Sox are tied with Oakland for the second wild-card spot at 16 games over .500. Someone in the AL is likely to win 90 games and miss the playoffs. As I said, I’m nervous.

Rafael Devers #11 of the Boston Red Sox looks back at Gary Sanchez #24 of the New York Yankees after he was almost hit by a pitch during the second inning at Fenway Park on July 25, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

Paul O’Neill said this on YES after the doubleheader: “Who could have ever believed in the middle of July when you’re 10 games back that you would be passing the Boston Red Sox?”

Who would believe it, Paulie? Uh, any Red Sox fan who’s old enough to remember Bill Buckner (let’s not even get into ’86). Here’s a little fact that can stir flashbacks to the old days: 

From July 20 to Aug. 17 in 1978, the Red Sox went 12-16 and lost 7½ games of their lead over the Yankees. From July 20 to Aug. 17 of this season, the Sox went 12-15 and lost 7½ games to the Yankees.

It was 43 years ago, but it feels very, very close. 

This year’s Sox have been an unexpected joy. They’ve exceeded expectations. But their recent slump summons grim memories of long ago. Growing up a Sox fan meant seeing good-hitting teams fail due to mediocre pitching, shabby defense and poor team speed.

Welcome to my boyhood nightmare. 

Andrew Velazquez #71 of the New York Yankees tags out Hunter Renfroe #10 of the Boston Red Sox in the first inning during game one of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium on August 17, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)

The Sox rotation is old and thin. They’re eighth in ERA, but 13th in the AL in WHIP (hits and walks per nine). Garrett Richards hasn’t gone six full innings since June 1. The league is hitting .300 against him. Opponents are hitting .299 off Martin Perez. Sorry, but I can’t trust Nick Pivetta.

One respected analyst called the Red Sox defense historically bad. I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s subpar, and not nearly as good as it was with Jackie Bradley Jr. in centerfield. 

Team speed? I know the stolen base is a forgotten art in baseball, like bunting and hitting behind the runner. But the Sox are dead last in the league in steals. That should tell you something. 

At least lefty Chris Sale is back from Tommy John surgery. Maybe that will allow them to boot Richards to the bullpen. They picked up Kyle Schwarber, too. Just what they need, a one-dimensional slugger who would have fit right in with the 1965 Red Sox. 

Oh well, maybe the Sox will turn it on again, the way they did in the stretch in 1978. They finished 12-2 that year to reach 99 wins and force that one-game playoff on Monday for the division.

Maybe they’ll wind up in another one-game playoff with the Yanks. I’m not sure I could handle the sight of Tyler Wade or Andrew Velazquez winning it with a home run into the left-field screen.

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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