John Tomase

First-half superlatives for a Red Sox team finally gaining momentum

Some fresh faces have helped the Red Sox surge into the MLB All-Star break.

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Ten days ago, the Red Sox entered the most pivotal stretch of their season. Demoralizingly swept at home by the Marlins, they flew to Toronto two games under .500 with their season on the brink.

They won the opener behind a stellar outing from left-hander James Paxton. They took the middle game when Alex Verdugo cut down the tying run at the plate to end it. They won the finale on Verdugo's ninth-inning home run.

And now 10 days later, they hit the All-Star break on a certified roll, winners of eight of their last nine, including a three-game sweep of the woebegone A's that leaves them five games over .500 and just two games out of a wild card spot behind the freefalling Yankees and scuffling Blue Jays.

In the span of not even two weeks, the Red Sox changed the entire tenor of their season as we enter the crucial dash to the August 1 trade deadline. Whereas days ago Boston was in danger of holding a yard sale, now this look like a team that could legitimately seek reinforcements in the hopes of making a playoff push.

They may still technically be in last place, and we've seen them undo previous winning streaks by falling apart, but the Red Sox don't feel like a last-place team. Let's hand out some superlatives after an up-and-down first half that at least has them trending in the right direction.

MVP: Alex Verdugo

About all that's missing from Verdugo's game is power, but it's hard to quibble with anything else. This is the player the Red Sox hoped they were acquiring when they dealt former MVP Mookie Betts to the Dodgers.

Verdugo has maintained for a full half what he had only managed for two- or three-week stretches earlier in his Red Sox career, hitting the ball to all fields, playing above-average defense in right field, and making aggressive reads on the bases.

He enters the break hitting .290 with an .817 OPS, and even if that's his ceiling, the Red Sox will take it. He'll never be Betts -- who already has 26 homers -- but he could be a five-WAR player, and that's plenty good enough.

Biggest surprise: Jarren Duran

I thought he was a bust. You thought he was a bust. The Red Sox clearly harbored reservations, because they signed Adam Duvall to play center field. But score one for Chaim Bloom's patience, because Duran has exploded.

Summoned in April after Duvall broke his wrist, Duran finally found a comfortable batting stance, starting his hands above his shoulders, and that simple fix unlocked everything else. He enters the break as one of only four players leading their teams in OPS (.886) and steals (17), joining Angels MVP Shohei Ohtani, Brewers MVP Christian Yelich, and future Diamondbacks MVP Corbin Carroll.

He's hammering the ball to left field, driving it to right, and unleashing his speed. He has not only stolen 17 bases in 18 tries, he also leads the team in doubles with 27 (many of the hustle variety) despite having 100 fewer at-bats than his everyday teammates. He's also hitting .320.

Because his success can be directly traced to a specific mechanical adjustment, there's less reason to believe it's a fluke. Alex Cora's job in the second half will be getting Duran everyday at-bats.

Best acquisition: Masataka Yoshida

This isn't a slam dunk, because the Red Sox also hit on All-Star closer Kenley Jansen and scorching veteran Justin Turner, but talk about someone living up to their advanced billing.

The rest of baseball snickered when the Red Sox gave Yoshida five years and $90 million, an offer so aggressive that super-agent Scott Boras signed it immediately. The Red Sox claimed they were getting a player who'd hit for average and surprising power, but skeptics saw an undersized left-handed hitter who might potentially struggle with the high velocity of the big leagues.

Yoshida's first half fittingly ended with an eloquent rebuttal to all of those concerns, as he laced an elevated 95 mph fastball the other way and over the Monster to beat the A's on Sunday. He's hitting .316 with 10 homers and nearly as many walks (27) as strikeouts (36).

It turns out the stage isn't too big for him, and he's thriving.

Biggest step forward: Brayan Bello

Had the All-Star break arrived even a week later, it might've only taken one more start for Bello to cement his spot in Seattle over Jansen. Paxton earned AL Pitcher of the Month honors for May, but Bello has already emerged as the stopper.

Bello has dropped his ERA in 13 of his 14 starts, from a high of 16.88 after getting lit up on Marathon Monday, to its current low of 3.04 after beating the first-place Rangers with seven innings of two-run ball.

The Red Sox have won four of Bello's last five starts, the exception a 2-0 loss to the Marlins that saw him allow only two hits in seven innings. He pitches with personality, he is already demonstrating an ability to adjust on the fly depending on which pitches are working, and he wants the ball every fifth day.

He has all the makings of a legitimate ace, and he only just turned 24. Even better, he's becoming someone you'd pay to see.

Biggest disappointment: Kike Hernandez

You can make a legitimate case that Hernandez's awful play at shortstop is why the Red Sox are in last instead of third. Despite losing his job to no-names like Yu Chang and Pablo Reyes, Hernández still leads all AL shortstops in errors.

Making matters worse, he has been equally terrible at the plate, hitting just .222 with a .602 OPS. The Red Sox could try to move him at the deadline to a team seeking veteran utility help, but at his current rate, he'll be a DFA candidate, especially once Trevor Story returns to play shortstop next month.

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