Tomase: Three role players have helped turn around Red Sox' season originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
When the first domino fell this Red Sox season with an injury to center fielder Adam Duvall, it started a fire. Three recent dominoes, however, have extinguished it.
While you've been focused on the Bruins and Celtics, the Red Sox have very quietly righted the ship. Sunday's 12-5 pummeling of the Brewers completed not just their fifth series win in seven tries, but it marked their third straight against a first-place team, following the Angels and Twins.
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At 12-11, the Red Sox remain in last place in the American League East, but they've won seven of 10 to pull within two games of the Yankees and Blue Jays for the final wild card spot.
So how have they done it? With pieces of their mismatched roster clicking into place, led by three players: Jarren Duran, Yu Chang, and Brayan Bello.
Tomase: Faced with less pressure, Duran is starting to deliver
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That's a motley assortment at first glance. Duran started the year at Triple-A, his Red Sox career seemingly careening towards throw-in status at the trade deadline. Chang missed virtually all of spring training between the World Baseball Classic and visa issues. No one knew exactly what to expect out of Bello, who shut it down early in spring training with elbow discomfort.
What they've done is solidify three trouble spots, either directly or indirectly. Duran has taken over center field and given length to the lineup with his new swing, hitting .391 primarily in the bottom third of the order. He has also taken advantage of the new rules to steal two bases and change games with his speed.
Duran easily could hit leadoff, except that Alex Verdugo has excelled in the role. So he provides the next best thing -- a second leadoff man out of the eight- or nine-hole, which means that Verdugo and Rafael Devers often hit with someone on base.
While Duran has claimed center, he wasn't the first choice to replace Duvall. Manager Alex Cora turned to reliable super-utilityman Kiké Hernández for that job, since Hernández had played a Gold Glove caliber center in 2021.
That created an opening at shortstop for Chang, who has bounced between four organizations over the last 11 months. The Red Sox selected him off waivers from the Rays last September, then didn't re-sign him until mid-February. The transaction elicited minor derision -- all the great shortstops on the market, and they come home with Yu Chang? -- but Chang has fixed one of the team's most glaring flaws with his defense at short.
Hernández started the year there, but made five errors in 10 games while grading poorly from an advanced analytics standpoint as well. While Chang may not be hitting (.146, but with three homers), his glovework has been outstanding.
In Sunday's finale against the Brewers alone, he ranged into short left field to snare a popup, made a nice sliding play to his right and strong throw, and cut a ball up the middle as part of a busy afternoon. The night before, he saved a run by corralling a smash to his right that was ticketed for left field. A couple of days before that, he robbed Twins All-Star Carlos Correa. Baseball Savant already rates him in the 91st percentile for outs above average.
The performances of Chang and Duran also meant that when a hamstring injury sidelined struggling second baseman Christian Arroyo, Hernández could slide over to second base -- the position the Red Sox envisioned him playing when they signed him two years ago -- and turn another negative into a positive.
Hernández hit just .083 as the starting shortstop, but he's at .348 since returning to his super utility roots. With Verdugo and Devers playing like All-Stars, Justin Turner swinging it again, and Masataka Yoshida coming off a breakout two-homer day, the lineup is no longer two-thirds populated with easy outs. Its strength is measured as much by the recent losses as wins, with the Red Sox showing good fight in 5-4 defeats to the Angels and Brewers.
That leads to our final domino, and it's Bello. He hasn't pitched particularly well in his first two starts -- he's 0-1 with a 9.82 ERA -- but he was better Sunday vs. the Brewers, leaving with two outs in the fifth of a 3-3 game, and there's every reason to believe he'll improve as he gets his legs under him.
What Bello's arrival has done is shift right-hander Kutter Crawford to the bullpen, where he has become a multi-inning weapon, allowing just four hits and one run in 11.1 innings of long relief. With right-handers Zack Kelly and Chris Martin on the injured list, Cora needs places to turn beyond Josh Winckowski and John Schreiber in front of closer Kenley Jansen, and Crawford has eaten innings in three losses that otherwise would've taxed the bullpen.
With veteran left-hander James Paxton nearing a return, either Tanner Houck or Nick Pivetta could land in the bullpen, giving Cora further options that aren't Kaleb Ort or Ryan Brasier.
Add it all together, and it becomes easier to see why the Red Sox have played like one of the hottest teams in baseball since being swept in Tampa. If they keep this up, maybe those dominoes will lead right out of last place.