The Red Sox have taken a cautious approach with Chris Sale as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery, much like they have with Jarren Duran and Tanner Houck. Elise Amendola/Associated Press

On Saturday afternoon, the Red Sox took batting practice under the hot sun at Fenway Park, where Xander Bogaerts sees the ball better than anywhere else, and where he thinks Kyle Schwarber could “play pepper” with the Green Monster if he wanted to.

The manually operated standings on the left-field wall made it clear how urgent Bogaerts, Schwarber and the rest of the Red Sox should be feeling with 38 games left in the regular season: as of sundown on Saturday, the Sox were not a playoff team.

The red-hot Yankees had surpassed them and held a two-game lead in the wild-card race. The Oakland A’s have been less intimidating, but remained a half-game up on the Sox. And should the Sox really fall apart, the pesky Toronto Blue Jays are just 4 1/2 games behind, with the Seattle Mariners just 3 1/2 games back.

“We don’t have the luxury of saying we have time,” Chris Sale said on Friday. “We don’t have a lot of baseball left. We don’t have this. We don’t have that. It’s crunch time. We’ve got to go.”

Sale’s comments were a breath of fresh air. It feels as though the Sox are finally feeling the urgency.

For so much of this season, they haven’t operated that way.

They waited until mid-July to call up center field prospect Jarren Duran because they said Duran’s development was the priority over the team’s needs. With Duran going through some growing pains at the big-league level, it hasn’t looked like a bad move. But that they waited as long as they did, despite having the need for a left-handed bat and despite Duran having success at every level he’s played at in the last 12 months, signaled a team that was being patient.

The Red Sox have used Tanner Houck for just 34 2/3 innings this year, or about the same number of innings as Phillips Valdez (34 innings) and Matt Andriese (37 1/3 innings). Houck has a 3.12 ERA while Valdez has a 5.56 ERA and Andriese has a 6.03 ERA.

At the trade deadline, Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom said it wasn’t the right time for the club to be sacrificing key parts of the future to win now. While every other competitor in the American League was arguably more aggressive than the Sox were, Bloom said those teams were in a better position to do that.

The Sox acquired Schwarber, but have taken their time getting him into a defensive position, instead using him exclusively as the designated hitter.

They had Sale at their disposal and could’ve had him pitch on regular rest against the Rays last week, but instead waited two extra days for a cushiony start against the lowly Orioles, and another on Friday, again on extra rest, against the struggling Rangers.

With Friday’s game clearly in hand, Sale threw just 71 pitches. The Sox would like to take their time before stretching him out all the way.

Each of these decisions could be perfectly argued for, just as they could be argued against, but together they portray a team that’s being cautious, optimizing efficiency and still playing with one eye (or at times, both eyes) on the future.

If they make the playoffs, and if Sale is trending in the right direction and ready to pitch like an ace in a one-game, single-elimination format, and if Schwarber is ready to fit into the lineup naturally rather than forcing J.D. Martinez into the outfield, and if the bullpen is good enough despite not adding any proven arms at the deadline, the Red Sox will get away with it.

That’s what they’re hanging their hat on this season. If it goes well, they’ll have made it work while walking a tightrope. If they miss the playoffs, it’ll be considered an epic collapse.

“First of all, hope that doesn’t happen. But in the end, it’s on us,” Sox General Manager Brian O’Halloran said on WEEI this week. “It’s on the front office. It’s on the baseball operations. Whatever happens on the field, the results, good or bad – we’ve been given the opportunity to do this job and gotten nothing but support from ownership. We have no excuses.”

It’ll be difficult to blame anyone else.

Manager Alex Cora far exceeded expectations with this group when he took them into the week of the trade deadline with the best record in the American League. He’s gotten the most out of a large majority of his players, including several (Martinez and Rafael Devers among them) who disappointed one year ago. He utilized a pitching staff that was considered sub-par by most and managed to survive into August.

At that point, it was on the front office to help.

The Sox weren’t a playoff team entering Saturday night. But a little urgency might help them become one.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.