Boston Red Sox

What’s wrong with the defending champion Boston Red Sox?

The Boston Red Sox are 1-5 so far in 2019, the worst start by a defending World Series champion in more than two decades.

A play from late in Tuesday night’s game in Oakland serves as a microcosm of how the Boston Red Sox’ title defense is going this year. Trailing the Athletics 1-0 with one out in the ninth inning, Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts hit a deep drive off the wall in center field. Easily making it to second, Bogaerts tried to extend it into a triple but was thrown out by Ramon Laureano.

The Red Sox went on to lose the game, their fourth straight loss in the young 2019 season. It was also their second straight game being shutout. Last season they never lost four in a row or failed to score in two straight games on their way to a franchise-record 108 wins and the World Series.

Boston had high hopes of becoming the first repeat World Series champions since the 1998-2000 New York Yankees. After all, they were returning nearly their entire roster from a year ago, minus closer Craig Kimbrel. But their 2019 season has gotten off to as bad a start as they could’ve possibly imagined. First, they lost 12-4 to the Seattle Mariners, the worst Opening Day loss by a defending champion in history. In their four-game series against Seattle, Boston gave up 34 runs, tying the record for most in the first four games by the reigning champions. The 11 home runs they surrendered set a new dubious record.

The Red Sox dropped three of four games in Seattle. Combined with two losses in Oakland on Monday and Tuesday, the Red Sox are now 1-5 in their first six games, the worst start by a defending champion since the 1998 Florida Marlins. That team had a complete firesale after their title and went on to lose 108 games.

The Red Sox won’t be that bad this season, but there are warning signs the club has to start playing better. The starting pitching staff ranks last in the Majors with a 9.00 ERA; a year ago they were eighth in that category. They’re 18th in batting average after leading the league in 2018. Reigning MVP Mookie Betts is batting just .222 with one RBI so far this season.

Even the play of pitcher Chris Sale, who finally gave the team a quality start on Tuesday despite the loss, should worry them. Sale’s fastball velocity has declined by nearly four MPH so far this season. He struck out just one batter in six innings against Oakland and is striking out five per nine innings in his two starts. The all-time leader in K/9 had a 13.5 rate last year. Sale only started seven games after the All-Star break in 2018 due to shoulder inflammation in his pitching arm. Despite that injury scare, the club signed him to a five-year, $145 million contract extension in the offseason. After his start to 2019, they must be wondering if his best playing days are already behind him.

There have been some positive signs this season, though. Designated hitter J.D. Martinez already has seven RBI and a 1.007 OPS. Reliever Matt Barnes, expected to take over from Kimbrel in the closer role, hasn’t yet allowed a baserunner. But the save opportunities have been few and far between for Barnes, who’s pitched in just one game.

The 2019 season has been a nightmare so far, but the team isn’t hitting any alarm bells yet.

“There’s no panic in this clubhouse or this dugout. Just that nothing good is happening right now,” David Price, who gave up four runs over five innings in his first start, said on Monday. “We’ll get through this time, and we’ll be better for it.”

Manager Alex Cora, moreover, only took away positives from Tuesday’s loss in Oakland. “Honestly, after tonight I feel better,” he said. “Because it was a game. You know, 1-0. We had a chance. We competed. It’s not that we weren’t competing, but most of the games we were out of it right away.”

If the Red Sox don’t turn things around soon, however, they have little flexibility in trying to make roster moves. They lead the Majors with a $235.8 million payroll this season, already nearly $30 million above the luxury tax threshold. That problem becomes even more precarious when taking into account the $120 million extension they gave Bogaerts on Monday. And they still have to figure out what to do with Betts, who becomes a free agent after next season.

A silver lining for the Red Sox is that their AL East-rival New York Yankees aren’t off to a great start, either. The Yankees are 2-3 and have been wracked by injuries to the likes of Giancarlo Stanton, Luis Severino and Miguel Andujar. The Tampa Bay Rays currently lead the division at 5-1.

There is still plenty of time for the Red Sox to turn the season around. But they have to start doing it soon, or they’ll be handing the title of World Series champions to someone else come October.

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