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Defending World Series champion Red Sox still feared despite early stumble

Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers
Boston Red Sox’s Xander Bogaerts, right, celebrates his three-run home run with Rafael Devers during the seventh inning against the Dodgers on Friday in Boston.
(Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

For two days in Cleveland, Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora reaped the spoils of his team’s accomplishment in 2018. As the defending World Series champion, Cora managed the American League in the All-Star Game. He rubbed shoulders with the elites of the sport. And he heard — over and over, he insisted — about the respect afforded his third-place team.

Cora declined to reveal the identities of the opposing players who praised the Red Sox. But he said the anonymous boosters relayed a consistent message.

“They feel like ‘Your run is coming, your run is coming,’ ” Cora said Friday before beginning a rematch of the World Series with the Dodgers. “They know we’re very talented. For how positive it was, they were probably like, ‘Hopefully, it doesn’t happen.’ But it was good to hear from other people.”

Perhaps their run has begun. After dismantling the Dodgers by seven runs Friday, the Red Sox had won five in a row and pushed their record to nine games above .500, their best mark in 2019. They may be incapable of replicating last season’s 108-victory campaign, and they may be unable to unseat the New York Yankees atop the American League East. But they remain a club worth worrying about in October.

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As the second half opens, the division races in the AL look close to decided. Heading into Saturday’s games, the smallest lead involved the West, where the Houston Astros resided six games in front of the Oakland Athletics. Far more interesting will be the joust for the wild-card game, a race in which the Red Sox have bulled their way back into over the last few months.

FanGraphs pegged their chances to make the playoffs at 63.2%, heading into Saturday. Considering the team was once seven games below .500, the Red Sox will take it.

Among the team’s vying for entry into the play-in game, the Red Sox loom as the most threatening, with a championship pedigree and cast of stars that cannot be matched by their fellow challengers such as the Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Indians, Athletics and Texas Rangers. Boston flaunts a roster that features the reigning league MVP (Mookie Betts), one of the game’s most feared hitters (J.D. Martinez), two Cy Young Award winners (David Price and Rick Porcello) and seven-time All-Star pitcher Chris Sale.

“It’s essentially the same team that beat us last year,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I think at times they’ve been playing inconsistent. But the talent is still there. They’re a dangerous club, regardless of how they’re playing, with respect to who they run out there.”

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Dave Dombrowski, the president of baseball operations, made few substantial alterations to the roster in the offseason. He permitted closer Craig Kimbrel and second baseman Ian Kinsler to depart. He declined to pursue enigmatic reliever Joe Kelly, who took a three-year, $25-million deal with the Dodgers.

When Dombrowski spent in the offseason, he used it to retain members of the championship group. Nathan Eovaldi was rewarded for saving the Boston bullpen in the World Series Game 3 marathon with a four-year, $68-million contract. Steve Pearce, the World Series MVP, returned for $6.25 million. There were also sizable extensions for Sale (five years, $145 million) and shortstop Xander Bogaerts (six years, $120 million).

The decline of some of those assets has been swift. Eovaldi posted a 6.00 earned-run average in four outings before undergoing surgery on his right elbow. He has not pitched since April 17. He is likely to return this month. Eovaldi could join the bullpen as the closer, the role that Kimbrel vacated.

Pearce has hit .180 and is rehabilitating a lower-back injury. Sale finished the first half with a 3-8 record and a 4.04 ERA. His fastball velocity has taken a notable tumble. After sitting at 94.7 mph in 2018, he is averaging 93.1 mph. He was not an All-Star for the first time since 2011.

Meanwhile, the on-base-plus-slugging percentage of Betts has dropped more than 200 points. First baseman Mitch Moreland is nursing an injured quadriceps.

“We all have high expectations,” outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. said. “I don’t think we lived up to our expectations in the first half.”

Three elements conspired against the Red Sox. The Yankees refused to fold despite an early cavalcade of injuries. The Rays bolted out of the blocks and have stayed steady into the summer. And the Red Sox snoozed at the outset, going 13-17 through April. They spent most of the month in the basement of the division before, mercifully, passing the tanking Toronto Blue Jays.

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Their fortunes improved in May and June, but Boston has yet to solve the Yankees. The Red Sox have lost six of seven to their foes from the Bronx, including a two-game bludgeoning during a series last month in London.

That weekend in London could serve as a line of demarcation for the season. The Red Sox returned from Europe and won a series against the Blue Jays. Then they swept the Detroit Tigers heading into the break. The winning streak deposited the club in the thick of the wild-card chase.

“We know where we’re at,” Cora said. “We know what we have to do. It’s just a matter of going out there and performing.”

On Friday, the Red Sox demonstrated the depth of their talent. Eduardo Rodriguez — remembered by Dodgers fans for being victimized by Yasiel Puig in Game 4 of the World Series — struck out 10 batters and gave up one run in seven innings. The team hit three home runs, including one from Bogaerts and one from third baseman Rafael Devers.

The duo of Bogaerts and Devers have buoyed the offense throughout the early portion of the summer. Devers was not on the All-Star team, but Bogaerts was. He got to mingle with all the other stars from the AL, the players reminding Cora what they think about his team.

“I think that was the coolest thing at that All-Star Game, how many people still believe in us,” Cora said. “I don’t know if they like it or not. But they let us know how good we are.”

andy.mccullough@latimes.com

Twitter: @McCulloughTimes

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