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The importance of a single regular season series

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There’s not as much as one may think

Cleveland Indians v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Heading into this week, there was a fair amount of stock being put into this Red Sox-Indians series at Fenway. It was the first time these two teams have met in 2018, and these were two preseason favorites to make the postseason who have played up to expectations, with both coming into this four-game set with big leads in their respective divisions. There were MVP favorites facing off, old friends returning to Fenway and a potential ALCS preview, all of which combined for an easy hype machine. And for good reason! It’s always exciting when two good baseball teams play each other. When you add in the fact that the American League is filled with rebuilding squads right now, there was every reason to be excited.

Where things go awry is when people start to use a series like this as some sort of measuring stick for where a team is as they look ahead to October. It’s only natural, particularly when we are constantly inundated with series against non-contenders thanks to the massive gap between teams in the American League. So, people were looking at this as a major test for the Red Sox, and the first two games have certainly not gone according to plan. Of course, people are reacting accordingly. I’m not going to kid myself into thinking I can talk people down. This is how these things go, whether we like it or not. But for those who don’t know what to think, I’m here to tell you that reading too much into any regular season series is rarely a good idea. The Red Sox have played two bad games against a good team over the last two days. That’s it. Full stop.

Cleveland Indians v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

It seems fans are constantly demanding this Red Sox team to prove itself, as if being 49 games over .500 isn’t proof of anything. There is always this talk about how Boston demands more from its teams than other cities, and putting aside how egotistical that is, it’s also exhausting. This series is supposed to be a referendum on how this team will play in October, which would be fine except they just had one of those, and they passed with flying colors. They swept the Yankees in four games in the biggest series of the year, but now for some reason that doesn’t matter? The truth is, other than picking up four games in the series (which, ya know, is no small feat), that series didn’t have some grand meaning either. There is a segment of the fan base who believes that nothing matters except for performance in October. Putting aside that I disagree with the sentiment, and putting aside the hypocrisy that this same crew is the one who will panic about this regular season series, there’s some truth to that.

As much as we try to apply greater meaning to these series — it’s a long, 162-game season, so again I get it — none of these series have any greater meaning beyond what they mean in the standings. Not this series against the Indians. Not the sweep over the Yankees. Not next month’s series against the Astros and not the end of they year against the Yankees. Unless a team is absolutely falling on their face against top competition — and the Red Sox are not — these are just games. They can’t really predict how things will go in the postseason, because postseason baseball is managed so differently. In the regular season, you have to play the long game, and managers act accordingly. They dole out rest, they give longer leashes and they have five-man rotations. Things become much more aggressive in the postseason, and it’s almost a different sport.

So, just to apply a little recent historical context on this, I just want to dispel the myth that a team who doesn’t dominate contenders in the regular season can’t make a deep run through October. For reference, the Red Sox are currently 16-19 against American League contenders. The truth is, no recent World Series participants have really dominated other contenders. As it turns out, it’s hard to win consistently against good teams! Look at last year’s World Series participants. The 2017 Astros were 5-8 against the other two AL division winners, and 10-10 if you throw the Yankees in there as well. On the other side, the Dodgers were 7-5 against the other two division winners, and 15-16 if you throw in the Diamondbacks, who won the wildcard game. Go back a year further. The eventual champion Cubs posted a 15-13 record against postseason teams, and the AL pennant-winning Indians went 9-17. Let’s go back to the last Boston team to win it all. In 2013, the Red Sox went 6-7 against other division-winning teams, though they did go 18-8 against the wildcard teams. I think the point still stands despite that.

Look, I’m not saying we should totally brush aside the issues at hand. The Red Sox are playing bad baseball right now. The offense is in a major rut, and they don’t look like the group that has run through baseball like a buzzsaw for the majority of the year. Rick Porcello’s inconsistency and home run tendencies have been maddening, and teams seem to be figuring out Nathan Eovaldi after a few innings every time out. We are seeing flaws we haven’t seen much from this team. That being said, it’s also a slump. Slumps bring out flaws that don’t necessarily stick around for the long run.

All I’m saying is that we don’t need to make this any bigger than it needs to be. The Red Sox need to play better, but they have also spent the majority of the season proving they can and will play much better. To act as if this latest stretch of the year is more indicative than everything that came before it is, frankly, absurd. Hell, the 1998 Yankees — perhaps the greatest team of all time — lost six of eight games at pretty much the same point of their season. Good teams go through rough stretches. That’s baseball. It sure would be nice for the Red Sox to win these next two games against Cleveland to salvage a split, but not because coming back in this series will be some grand gesture. It’s just that winning is better than losing.