It’s up to Alex Cora to take advantage.
As we get down to the nitty gritty in this postseason chase, with the Red Sox among five teams within 3.5 games for two playoff spots, more and more focus is being put on the schedule. It’s not really something we pay all that much attention to for most of the season in the way fans do for, say, the NFL. In the marathon that is a baseball season, the quality of competition generally evens out, especially when talking about teams in the same division who have the same basic schedule. But as the sample gets closer, discrepancies in quality of competition grows, and it is the sort of thing that has the potential to swing a race.
For Boston’s part on that front, they don’t have a cakewalk of a schedule but they do have a chance to take advantage of some series. After this big series out west in Seattle, they have six total games left against Baltimore, plus three against the Nationals and two against the Mets. There’s also a huge three-game set against the Yankees in there, but by and large there are chances for this team to get some positive momentum.
But the thing is, the real schedule advantage for the Red Sox may not even be in quality of competition. To varying degrees, all of the wildcard contenders have soft portions left on their schedule to build up their win totals. But where Boston has a special advantage is with the number of days off they have. Over these last 15 games of the season, the Red Sox have a whopping four more days off mixed in, and only play as many as four games in a row one more time before the season closes out. Looking at their competition, Toronto, New York, and Seattle each have two more off days while Oakland has only one.
That kind of advantage in this sort of race can be big enough for any team, but for this specific Red Sox team and where they are right now it is particularly helpful. Most obviously, that is due to their COVID issues running through the clubhouse. Not only do the extra off days simply give the players still working their way back extra days to do so that wouldn’t have seen a game anyway, but we know COVID can affect players’ fatigue even after their feeling generally healthy. Those days off can be extra valuable to these players.
It can also have a big effect on the rotation, where the Red Sox still have a whole lot of questions. This isn’t the weakness that I think some people make it out to be, but there are still clearly two starters who you would want to see the get the ball over the rest in Nathan Eovaldi and Chris Sale. As far as I can tell, the Red Sox should be able to get four starts out of each of them the rest of the way while only needing Eduardo Rodriguez and Nick Pivetta for three each, and Tanner Houck for only two. Not only does that give more starts to the better pitchers, but it also opens up some of the other arms, most notably Houck, to help out in the bullpen where he’s likely better suited. And to give due credit to Cora, he’s already mentioned he’s thinking about this.
And speaking of the bullpen, these extra days off are also a huge help for that unit as well. For one thing, they have been worked to the bone of late with some short starts combined with those aforementioned COVID issues hitting the bullpen hard. But having these extra days off built in should allow Alex Cora to lean more heavily on his most important relievers without having to use some of the pitchers lower on the depth chart in more important situations out of sheer necessity.
And similarly, players in the lineup who might be looking at days off should be good to go without any days off their feet the rest of the way. We know Cora does like to get his players some rest, and again the COVID issues can make that more pressing for those coming back, but the schedule makers are doing the work for him now. There is really no reason for him to be building any more lineups with fatigue in mind. It’s all about what mix provides the best chance to come away with a win on any given day.
It should go without saying that, at the end of the day, the Red Sox are going to need to play good baseball to make it into the postseason. No small advantage will be able to overcome the way they’ve been playing far too often in this second half. But with that being said, this is the kind of tight and crowded race that will be one because of these small advantages. While most of the schedule conversation has been focused on the quality of opponents, for the Red Sox the real advantage should be the number of days off they have the rest of the way. It’s just up to Alex Cora to make the most of the edge.