In retrospect, we should’ve seen this coming.
Great teams are made by great players. And although we’d forgotten about him for understandable reasons, the 2023 Boston Red Sox opened the season with a pitching staff led by one of the greatest pitchers of the 21st century.
Christopher Allen Sale, that wiry, fiery, son of the Gulf Coast, swaggered back into the baseball world like a gunfighter kicking open the doors of a Dakota Territory saloon.
It started, of course, with that now legendary Patriots Day game. Sale vs. Ohtani on a festive, warm day when the daffodils easily outnumbered the clouds. The two giants of the mound dueled into the 8th inning of a taut, scoreless affair. Ohtani had already struck out 12, but the Sox had made him work for some of them, most notably the 13-pitch battle with Samurai Japan teammate Masataka Yoshida that foreshadowed what would come. As for Chris Sale, he’d given up just a single hit: the Mike Trout triple that missed clearing the center field wall by mere inches.
By the time Yoshida once again strode to the plate to face the greatest player on the planet in the bottom of the 8th inning, the entire baseball world was watching on its collective lunch break. The ball that clanged off the Pesky Pole moments later wasn’t quite the Shot Heard ‘Round The World, but it seemed at least to be The Shot Heard ‘Round Baseball Twitter.
Then it was Sale’s turn again, and it seemed he was determined not just to close out the game, but to send a message. With three straight strikeouts of Taylor Ward, Trout, and then Ohtani himself, he did. He was officially back, and the 2023 Red Sox had one of the best pitchers in the world.
What we didn’t yet know, though, was that they actually had two. Because 2023 was the year that Brayan Bello introduced himself to the world.
Again, we should have known, because Pedro Martinez of all people told us. But you never can tell with young pitchers, can you? Sure, we all saw the tantalizing talent that Bello flashed during his brief stint with the team at the end of the now forgotten 2022 season. But in between the fall-off-the-table change-ups and sharp sliders, there were also the walks, and the sporadic command issues, and the injury scare he had all the way back at the beginning of Spring Training. It was prudent to be cautious about Brayan Bello heading into this season. It won’t be next year.
After missing the first few weeks of the season following the aforementioned injury scare, Bello stormed onto the scene with 8 innings of 3-hit ball under the lights of a Sunday night game against the Yankees. He took off from there, culminating in that unforgettable June when he went 5-0 with an ERA under 2. Every five days, all of New England trained its eyes on Bello. And in the four days in between, there he was, seemingly connected to Sale at the hip. An aging ace trying to prove he still had it; a young ace trying to prove he belonged. They were made for each other.
With two of the best pitchers in baseball anchoring the top of the rotation, the rest of the squad needed only to be solid to make this team a contender. But Rafael Devers doesn’t do solid — he does amazing. Devers put together the best year of his superstar career yet, becoming the first Red Sox player to blast 40 homers since J.D. Martinez in 2018. And for all of that, he might not even be the next Red Sox player to hit 40 — not if Triston Casas keeps heading down the road he’s on. Casas finished second on the team in OBP and hit 26 homers of his own, announcing himself as the Red Sox first baseman for the next decade.
Watching the friendship develop between Casas and Yoshida was one of the most fun parts of the season. Two hitters each with near-genius level pitch-recognition, one a rookie new to big-time baseball, the other a veteran new to the Western Hemisphere. They needed each other, they made each other better, and along with Devers, they formed one of the most fearsome lineups in the game.
Building your team with two studs at the top of the rotation and three in the heart of the lineup is a great way to do things. But those guys didn’t carry the team on their own. Corey Kluber and Nick PIvetta (I can’t believe we once thought that Nick Pivetta wouldn’t make 30 starts this year) both provided solid, professional innings all season long. And while Garrett Whitlock continued to battle injuries, he showed enough juice that he’ll likely start the third game of the postseason for the Sox. The rotation was so dependable that no one even cared when it was reported that James Paxton’s arm came flying off and landed in a hot dog cart while he was throwing a bullpen session down in Worcester.
Sure, not everything went right. Adam Duvall turned out to be a dud, a strikeout machine who couldn’t find his power stoke. Alex Verdugo just kept on being Alex Verdugo, a thoroughly average, often frustrating player who is never going to be the All Star we once hoped for. And Kenley Jansen once again showed why paying top tier money for bullpen arms is always risky. But in the case of Duvall, that problem was fixed when Trevor Story returned, allowing Kiké Hernandez to move back to center and shore up what was looking like the single biggest flaw in the team: outfield defense. In the bullpen, Tanner Houck took over closing duties and never looked back; his time as a starter is done, and that’s for the best.
Now the Red Sox ride into October. They’ve got the vibes. They’ve got an MVP candidate, two Cy Young candidates, the Rookie of the Year, and the guy who’s going to finish second in the Rookie of the Year (though we’re not sure which one is which yet.) And they’ve got Chris Sale, one of the best pitchers on Earth, to start Game 1.
It’s a good time to be a Red Sox fan. And in retrospect, we should’ve seen this coming.