The Bruins were eliminated and the Celtics dropped Game 1 to the Sixers, but just a couple of miles down Storrow Drive, all is going better than expected. Much better, actually.
After a 5-8 start, the Red Sox have caught fire. They’ve won 12 of 18, including two straight vs. the Blue Jays. If they beat Toronto again on Wednesday, they’ll equal last season’s victory total vs. their northern tormentors, but in 16 fewer games.
At 17-14, they’re a season-high three games over .500, they’ve passed the Yankees to move out of last place in the American League East, and if the season ended today (it doesn’t), they’d own the final American League wild card.
Discussing playoff positioning just days into May is patently pointless — the “how do you like us now?!?” propagandists dunking on social media should take a breath — but it highlights a Red Sox club that has unexpectedly given us some hope for the summer.
The question is how they’ve done it. Consider the following five players, who epitomize the club’s overachieving start, beginning with Tuesday night’s hero.
That would be Wong, the final piece of the Mookie Betts trade and largely an afterthought just a month ago.
The Red Sox opened spring training with Reese McGuire penciled in as the starting catcher and veteran Jorge Alfaro on a minor league deal with a reasonable chance of making the team. Wong, meanwhile, pulled a hamstring early in March and looked like a prime candidate to open at Triple-A Worcester.
Connor Wong is having himself a NIGHT in Boston. pic.twitter.com/duRaN9HkSR
— MLB (@MLB) May 3, 2023
He instead snuck onto the roster and almost immediately opened eyes by doing what McGuire could not — throwing out baserunners with a quick release and cannon arm. The offense is coming around, too, as illustrated by his four-hit night in Tuesday’s 7-6 victory. Wong tied the game with a solo homer in the sixth and won it with another shot in the eighth.
“He works incredibly hard,” starter Tanner Houck told reporters. “To see him go out there and do it on that stage is amazing. I’m super happy for him, incredible day, and hope to see many more.”
Wong is hardly alone. Fresh off Monday’s walk-off homer, Verdugo drilled two more doubles and made a nice catch near the Pesky Pole. He might be the best right fielder in the American League as he cements his hold on the leadoff spot.
Wong and Verdugo are all that’s left of the return for MVP Mookie Betts, and they’re finally making a case for chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom that the deal wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. It’s only a month, but that’s progress. Between them, they’re hitting over .300 with eight homers and 28 RBIs.
Winckowski wasn’t supposed to pitch Tuesday after going two innings Monday, but with the bullpen shorthanded and closer Kenley Jansen unavailable, the right-hander stepped up for his first save with a 1-2-3 ninth.
What John Schreiber was to last year, Winckowski is becoming to this one: a workhorse. He’s 2-0 with a 1.61 ERA while holding opponents below a .200 batting average.
As the primary return from the Royals for outfielder Andrew Benintendi, Winckowski looked like just another guy last year as a starter. But he’s touching 97 mph in the bullpen with a power sinker and he has slashed his walk rate by more than 30 percent.
He entered camp with basically no path to the roster, and has instead made himself indispensable.
“He’s throwing strikes,” Cora told reporters. “He’s not getting caught up in the swings and misses. It’s good stuff, too. He was throwing 96 and 97. We’re very proud of him.”
If there’s a batter version of Winckowski, it’s Duran. Little was expected of the center fielder after the Red Sox signed Adam Duvall to play his position, and if Duvall hadn’t broken his wrist after a scorching start, Duran might still be toiling in Worcester.
It started with Duran… pic.twitter.com/2AkKEPizFg
— Red Sox (@RedSox) May 2, 2023
But he arrived with a new stance, new confidence, and most importantly, new results. He’s hitting .396 in 15 games, and he’s smashing the ball, as he demonstrated on Monday with a 433-foot shot to dead center on a nice, easy swing.
The old Duran couldn’t get out of his own head, but this version finally looks ready to tap into the considerable physical tools that made him such a great prospect. In the process, he is rebuking those of us who wondered why the Red Sox hadn’t traded him.
That brings us to our final overperformer, and the Red Sox would probably argue that he shouldn’t be on this list at all.
Yoshida continued his torrid hitting on Tuesday with a homer and RBI single. Since a miserable start that dropped his average to .167 on April 18, the left fielder has been simply punishing the ball, raising his average to .298 with five homers, 19 RBIs, and a .902 OPS.
Masa knows how to extend a hit streak! pic.twitter.com/Zl7i9cdAA4
— Red Sox (@RedSox) May 3, 2023
He’s shooting fastballs to left, cranking inside offerings to right, and using the entire field. He has also answered questions about his ability to catch up to inside fastballs — Tuesday’s homer came on a 95 mph left-on-left heater — while giving everyone in the offices on Jersey Street a reason to breathe a sigh of relief after he signed a $90 million contract.
The Red Sox knew entering the season that a lot needed to break their way to compete in the impossibly deep American League East. So far, thanks to efforts from players like the aforementioned quintet, they’re emerging as a legitimately tough out and a pleasant surprise.