These Red Sox have thrived all season when they've been counted out

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Tomase: The Red Sox have thrived all season when being counted out originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The world's worst frontrunners are right where they need to be.

We've never seen a team quite like the 2021 Red Sox. Put them in first place, and they dive for fourth like Greg Louganis executing a three-and-a-half reverse somersault with tuck. Spot them a 5-0 lead in the clinching game of the ALDS and they can't even think about winning until they give it all back. Send them on the field in front of their adoring fans with a 2-1 lead in the ALCS, and watch them allow 18 runs over the next two nights.

No, these Red Sox don't know how to play with a lead. But the opposite holds true as well, and that's what makes them so dangerous as they visit Houston this weekend needing to win two straight on the road to advance to their fifth World Series since 2004.

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The Red Sox may suck at being favorites, but they thrive in survival mode. That backs-to-the-wall resilience allowed them to overcome, among other things, zero expectations at the start of the year, being swept by the Orioles at home to open the season, collapsing around the trade deadline, losing half the roster to COVID in August, trailing the Yankees in the final days of the season, and even a 5-1 deficit in the finale to avoid a date with the Blue Jays in a play-in game. They also lost the ALDS and ALCS openers, for good measure.

Now they face their stiffest challenge, against a team that has won one World Series and lost another over the last five seasons. The Astros own momentum. The Astros exude confidence. The Astros are playing at home.

these Red Sox don't know how to play with a lead. But the opposite holds true as well, and that's what makes them so dangerous as they visit Houston this weekend

In other words, the Red Sox have them right where they want them.

"You can say all the cliches, right?" said manager Alex Cora. "One pitch at a time. One play at a time. One inning at a time. One game at a time. One day at a time. It doesn't matter. You name it, we have them. Doesn't matter."

I've never seen a team oscillate so violently between desperate determination and self-satisfied lethargy. It's going to need to be all of the former and none of the latter if they hope to advance.

The Red Sox play best when counted out. They focus on the details, like hitting to the opposite field, working the count, cleanly fielding their positions. When they're being exalted, that focus wanes. They swing for the fences, they hack early in the count, and they make an eggplant hash out of even routine plays.

I've never seen a team oscillate so violently between desperate determination and self-satisfied lethargy. It's going to need to be all of the former and none of the latter if they hope to advance.

"I've been saying it all along," Cora said. "During the playoffs, it's not about getting RBIs or driving the ball out of the ballpark. It's about doing everything possible to win the game, and I'm not saying we're not doing that, but it felt like halfway through Game 4, the approach was a little bit different. There were some empty fly balls, empty at-bats, and that cannot happen in the playoffs.

"Here every pitch counts. Every at-bat counts. Every run that you add on when you have the lead, it means a lot, so we have to make sure to be relentless in the strike zone. They've been relentless getting ahead. We faced some other pitching staffs that they've been relentless working ahead, so we'll make our adjustments and get them out of their comfort zone the same way they got us out of our comfort zone."

The good news is the Red Sox are battle-tested, too. Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, Christian Vazquez, and Nathan Eovaldi are just some of the holdovers from the 2018 World Series. Center fielder Kiké Hernández won it all with the Dodgers last year. Right fielder Hunter Renfroe reached the World Series with the Rays. Reliever Adam Ottavino is participating in his fourth straight postseason.

Most of the Red Sox know what to expect, because they've been there. They also know that one misstep could mean the end of their season.

Cora should probably remind them of that. He should let them know that everyone has left them for dead, that no one thinks they can win, that their margin for error has been reduced to zero.

That's how they play their best.

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