Jul. 22—Over the course of a long baseball season, it often feels like there is one moment that sets the tone for the rest of the way.
In 2004 it was the big homestand against the Yankees in late July. Coming off a dispiriting three-game sweep earlier in the month — one punctuated by a 13-inning loss highlighted by Derek Jeter's famous dive into the stands and John Flaherty's walk-off single — the Red Sox fought back and proved they wouldn't be intimidated by their longtime rivals. First Jason Varitek fought Alex Rodriguez, then Bill Mueller hit a walk-off home run against Mariano Rivera, and not long afterwards the Red Sox won 14 of 15 games to solidify their place as an American League contender.
Two years later, the opposite scene played out. Welcoming the Yankees to Fenway Park for an unusual five-game set in mid-August, the Red Sox got swept and saw their postseason dreams go up in smoke.
More recently in 2018, the Red Sox swept the Yankees in the first week of August to stretch their division lead from 5.5 to 9.5 games. That series concluded with an epic comeback win, with the Red Sox erasing a 4-1 deficit in the bottom of the ninth against Aroldis Chapman before winning on a walk-off single by Andrew Benintendi in the 10th, and from then on the Red Sox never looked back.
Now, this year's team could be facing a similar make or break moment.
Tonight the Red Sox and Yankees start a pivotal four-game series at Fenway Park that could set the tone for the rest of the season. After failing to bury the Yankees last weekend, the Red Sox now have an opportunity to put the Bronx Bombers away for good while gaining separation from the rest of the AL East.
Setting the table
Heading into Wednesday night's game against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Red Sox held a one-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East standings and were seven games up on the Yankees.
Depending on how the next few days play out, the Red Sox could have a solid cushion in the division while knocking the Yankees 10 or more games out of first place. Or, if things don't go well, the Red Sox might be in second place with the Yankees right back in the hunt.
Whichever way things go may also play a decisive factor in the team's strategy at the July 31 trade deadline, which is less than a week after the series concludes Sunday.
Alex Cora said Wednesday that Tanner Houck will start the series opener against the Yankees after getting bumped from his originally scheduled start against the Blue Jays due to Tuesday's rainout. He will be followed by Eduardo Rodriguez on Friday, Nathan Eovaldi on Saturday and Martin Perez on Sunday.
Yankees still shorthanded
One of the most frustrating parts about this past weekend in New York was that the Yankees were badly depleted by injury and a coronavirus outbreak and managed to take two out of three from the Red Sox anyway.
The good news for the Red Sox is that the Yankees won't be in much better shape when they come to Boston.
Prior to last week's series, the Yankees placed first baseman Luke Voit on the 10-day injured list with left knee inflammation. Then outfielder Aaron Judge, third baseman Gio Urshela, catcher Kyle Higashioka and relief pitchers Jonathan Loaisiga, Nestor Cortes Jr. and Wandy Peralta were all lost due to COVID concerns, and none have been cleared to return to action as of this writing.
Then during the series, outfielders Tim LoCastro (ACL) and Trey Amburgey (hamstring) both went down with injuries, leaving the Yankees' outfield depth in a dire place.
By comparison, the Red Sox are in a much better spot.
As of now the only significant contributors to the 2021 Red Sox who aren't available due to injury are infielder Christian Arroyo (hamstring), utility man Marwin Gonzalez (hamstring) and likely infielder Danny Santana, who left Wednesday's game with a left groin strain. Everyone else is healthy and accounted for, and rookie Jarren Duran has provided a boost since his arrival, particularly after getting bumped to the No. 2 spot in the lineup.
The big difference for the Red Sox this week, beyond Duran's elevation in the order, has been Cora's decision to reshuffle the heart of the lineup with Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez batting 3-4-5.
"Our fifth spot has more RBI opportunities than our third spot, and this is something I always battled with JD with him hitting third, there are a lot of at bats where he goes out there with nobody on and two outs," Cora said. "With the way Xander and Raffy are getting on base, and also [Kiké Hernández] the last month, I was like 'You know what? Let's put all these guys in front of him and he'll get a lot of at bats with men in scoring position."
The move paid early dividends on Monday, with Martinez going 4 for 4 with two runs while Devers hit a solo home run.
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