Tomase: Red Sox are in for a fight in historically loaded AL East originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The Boston Red Sox might've picked the wrong year to overachieve.
In a normal season, their 98-win pace would guarantee not only a playoff berth, but probably a division title, too. Since the AL East realigned in 1998 with the arrival of the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 98 victories has secured the crown in all but seven seasons.
But if the first two months of 2021 are any indication, 98 wins could leave the Red Sox in a dogfight for third place.
The AL East, quite simply, is loaded.
We paid lip service to that idea for years, but two decades ago it really only applied to the Red Sox, Yankees and their battle for baseball supremacy. The Rays, Toronto Blue Jays, and Baltimore Orioles might periodically rise, but the division earned its reputation for brutality on the I-95 corridor between New York and Boston alone.
That has changed significantly this season, and it's entirely possible we're setting ourselves up for an unprecedented scenario -- a four-team race to the finish.
The Red Sox just completed an impressive 4-2 road trip through Toronto (via Dunedin) and Philadelphia, and all it did was cost them two games in the standings.
That's because the Rays have rampaged to 10 straight wins while greasing the skids for the arrival of super prospect Wander Franco, and the Yankees have peeled off six straight, including a no-hitter by former Cy Young winner and current reclamation project Corey Kluber.
The Red Sox and Rays share the best record in the American League at 29-19, a half game ahead of the 28-19 Yankees. The three clubs are on pace to win 98, 98, and 97 games, respectively.
Needless to say, that hasn't happened since the division took its current form nearly 25 years ago. Just three times have a trio of AL East clubs won at least 90 games -- 2011, 2012, and 2018, when the Red Sox and Yankees each topped 100 and the Rays finished a distant third at 90-72.
Only once have four teams each reached 86 wins. That was in 2008, when the Jays had the misfortune of leading the league in ERA behind Cy Young runner-up Roy Halladay and still finishing 11 games out.
The most tightly-contested race came in 2011 -- a year Red Sox fans would like to forget -- when Boston opened September with a 1.5-game lead in the division, only to see it disappear during an epic collapse. The Yankees roared to 97 wins, while the Red Sox were eliminated by the 91-win Rays on the final day of the season after a series of events we need not revisit here.
The 2011 Jays were never a factor, finishing .500 at 81-81. It's far too soon to say that will be the case in 2021. This year's Jays were very much in the discussion a week ago after beating the Red Sox to pull within a game of first at 23-17. They have since lost five straight to Boston and Tampa, however, to fall to 23-22. The Jays boast an MVP candidate in Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and await the return of All-Star slugger George Springer, so there's time for them to become a factor.
What does this mean for the Red Sox? For one, they must keep grinding. They've had to play near-flawless baseball to come this far, and all it has gotten them is a half-game lead in the division. They've yet to encounter a serious injury, and they've used the same five-man rotation for all but two starts.
The Rays, meanwhile, have already used 11 different starters, while the Yankees have survived injuries to regulars like Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, and Luke Voit, as well as the absence of pitching stalwarts Luis Severino (Tommy John surgery) and Zack Britton.
In that sense, the Red Sox haven't cornered the market on finding a way. New York is hitting just .231 as a team and ranks an uncharacteristic 10th in runs, but since a 5-10 start has gone 23-9. The Rays don't boast a single regular batting higher than .298, but have once again received power from an unexpected source -- 11 home runs from catcher Mike Zunino?!? -- and are riding a no-name pitching staff fronted by ace Tyler Glasnow and the ageless Rich Hill.
They also just traded starting shortstop Willy Adames to the Milwaukee Brewers, which should eventually create an opening for Franco, a 20-year-old five-tool star who has been the consensus No. 1 prospect in the game for the last two years. Franco is hitting .268 in his first exposure to Triple-A, so the Rays won't rush him, but he's being primed to provide a boost later this summer.
The Red Sox hope to receive a similar lift from ace Chris Sale, while the Yankees are even further along with Severino, who's almost ready to start a rehab assignment.
That's a ton of talent concentrated in one division, and as the four clubs begin playing each other what amounts to every other series for the next two and a half months, the race should only tighten.
It's scary to think that as well as the Red Sox have played so far, they're one bad week away from fourth place.