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Inside Baseball: After historic start, Red Sox settling into season

TORONTO — The Boston Red Sox are a team you're still trying to figure out. Are they the group that burst from the scene 17-2, giving Alex Cora the best start for a rookie manager since 1900? Or are they the team that entered Saturday just 9-10 in their last 19 and having already blown the 7 1/2-game lead they built on the Yankees in mid-April?

The answer probably lies somewhere in between.

Nobody was going to stay as hot as the Sox were at the beginning of the season, but this lineup is too good to stay down for very long, either. Still, the Sox have worrisome starting pitching after Chris Sale and Rick Porcello, who are a combined 8-1, and there are similar concerns about the bullpen other than closer Craig Kimbrel.

Cora, of course, knows about the grind of a season from his days as a player that stretched nearly 1,300 games for six teams — including Boston's 2007 World Series champions — and his more recent days in the dugout, including last year's run to another title as A.J. Hinch's bench coach in Houston.

The Sox won a rain-delayed thriller Thursday night in the Bronx, 5-4, and got to Toronto for Friday's series opener against the Blue Jays around 4:30 a.m. They entered Saturday 26-12 and tied with the Yanks for the best record in the game in what figures to be a seasonlong battle.

"As a baseball fan, that was just a great three-game series," Cora said before Friday's opener here. "If you love baseball and you were watching, it was fun regardless of who you were rooting for. Don't get me wrong; we wanted to win the series. But if you were a fan, that was baseball. That was cool."

The Sox are 3-3 against the Yankees thus far, and the three games in the Bronx were all riveting. The Yankees won the first two, 3-2 and 9-6, before Boston battled back to take the finale.

"We know it's going to be like that whenever we play each other. I had a blast. I loved it," Cora said. "The fact that it was a rain delay and we got here at 4 in the morning, not so much. But the way they were playing and to play at that level was great. They have something really good going over there but we know we have a good team too."

Mike Harrington's MLB Power Rankings

The Sox are in the midst of a 10-game road trip, which started out with a 3-1 mark in Texas. The last thing that they probably needed here Friday night was a long game, but that's exactly what they got with a 5-3, 12-inning defeat on a walkoff home run by Toronto catcher Luke Maile.

Long before Maile's stunning shot to right off reliever Brian Johnson, Sale put on one of the great performances of his career. The lefty went nine innings, struck out 15 and walked none, retiring 20 of 21 at one stretch thanks mostly to a wicked slider.

"I had a good feel for it so I wanted to use it as much as I could," Sale said. Catcher Sandy Leon "saw it was working pretty well early, so I felt like I was able to set guys up and put them away at times. You have something working as well, you want to lean on it as much as you can."

Sale threw 116 pitches in going nine for the first time since 2016.

"That was impressive. The slider was the best so far this season," Cora said. "There were no stress innings."

Sale said he wasn't surprised to get the go-ahead to keep pitching.

"I don't want off the field ever looking to come out. I walk off going to sit in my seat," he said. "I know that if 'AC' is waiting for me, that's about it. He was sitting down, so I just kept walking. I felt good. This was the kind of game we built up for. When you do that a lot, it wears you down, but when you build up and prepare for that, it makes it easier to go out there and get extended a little bit."

Wasting that kind of outing in a loss, however, was tough to take. Sale became the first pitcher with at least 15 strikeouts and no walks not to win since James Shields of Tampa Bay lost a 1-0 decision to Baltimore in 2012. The last time a nine-inning outing with 15 strikeouts ended in a no-decision was by the Cubs' Mark Prior in 2004.

Sale joined Pedro Martinez (four times) and Roger Clemens (three times) as the only Red Sox pitchers with at least 15 strikeouts and no walks in a game. And it was Sale's 21st game with 10 or more strikeouts for the Sox, breaking Jon Lester's franchise record for lefties in just his 41st start with the club.

Pedroia to face Herd

The Red Sox are about to get a big addition to their lineup with the return of veteran second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who has yet to play this season due a serious cartilage restoration surgery on his left knee in October. Pedroia is expected to report to Pawtucket by Monday — just in time to join the PawSox lineup for their three-game series against the Bisons that opens in McCoy Stadium.

"He's in a good place," said Cora, who pointed out Pedroia had seven at-bats Friday in extended spring play in Fort Myers, Fla. "He feels he's getting closer with soreness from his spring training is almost gone, so that's a good sign. So we feel comfortable with him starting to play next week."

Pedroia, who was limited to just 105 games last season by injuries, has not played a minor-league game since a two-game rehab stint for Pawtucket in 2010. He was an IL All-Star for Pawtucket in 2006 and joined the Sox full time in 2007, batting .317 to help them to their World Series title.

Pedroia, now 34, still had good numbers last year when healthy (.293-7-62) and could really help shore up the Boston infield.

Status quo for Vladdy Jr.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. continues to make opposing pitchers foolish at Double-A New Hampshire — and the Blue Jays continue to preach patience with the 19-year-old even as it appears clear he needs a new challenge by coming to Triple-A to join the Bisons.

Guerrero's 15-game hitting streak ended Friday night with an 0-for-3 showing at Harrisburg, leaving him with a .386 batting average. He's hit safely in 25 of 29 games this season, collecting five homers and 36 RBIs while posting a .649 slugging percentage and 1.089 OPS. He's leading the Eastern League in hits (44), doubles (13), RBIs (36) and total bases (74), is second in batting, and third in slugging and OPS.

"It's really so much more than his 1.100 OPS in 130 plate appearances. There's a lot more to professional baseball and his development," Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins said when asked the inevitable Vladdy Jr. question by this corner Friday. "Look, at some point players do have to be challenged. There's no doubt about that. There's a lot of players that have done what he's done. Most of them are big leaguers fortunately. First and foremost, we're excited about that."

The Blue Jays continue to preach that Guerrero is in Double-A to keep working on his defense at third base and to become a good teammate. Toronto insiders say the organization is also impressed with the relationship he's built with Double-A manager John Schneider. Still, the lack of a challenge he's facing against Double-A pitching, astonishing for a teenager, is something the Blue Jays acknowledge could reach a tipping point.

"Not today," Atkins said. "But we will continue to address that."

Stro Show put on hiatus

The Blue Jays were concerned enough about Marcus Stroman just by looking at the stat sheet and seeing 0-5, 7.71, an opposing batting average of .293 and an horrific WHIP of 1.714. He didn't want to go on the disabled list, but the team made it clear to its ace that he had little choice after he again reported shoulder fatigue that first appeared during spring training.

The rumblings are that Stroman might need longer than the 10-day DL stint to feel like himself again after a disastrous start to the season.

"It just got to a point where it became very frustrating physically, mentally,” Stroman said here Friday. “I was just at a point where I felt like I had to work at 115-120 percent when I would normally be working at 80-85 percent to do what I do out there. Just a collective decision between myself and the staff to kind of take a step back, do what I need to do for my shoulder and get my emotion and everything in sync, to get back to myself. I haven’t been myself out there at all.”

When the Blue Jays opened Friday's series against the Red Sox, they were 20-17 but one of six teams with rotation ERAs over 5.00, posting an ugly 5.53 mark. The others with records entering Friday were all dregs: The Orioles (10-27), White Sox (9-25), Reds (11-27), Padres (14-25) and Rangers (15-24).

Big welcome for 'Cutch'

Best moment of the week was easily the welcome-home Giants outfielder Andrew McCutchen got Friday night in Pittsburgh. He deserved it for being the marquee man on three straight playoff teams after the Pirates had 20 straight losing seasons.

"I just look at myself as being a part of it,” McCutchen said. “A lot of people may say I was the guy, but this is a team sport. I can’t do it on my own. There were a lot of people that were a part of it. That’s the way I look at it, but at the same time it is humbling to hear that from other people.”

Around the horn

• Giancarlo Stanton, speaking to New York reporters on his new reality of expectations compared to his previous life in Miami: "We’re like .500 after 14 games and it’s like, the world’s going to end. The importance of every game, of every out, is way different than anything I’ve ever experienced.”

• When 20-year-old pitcher Mike Soroka made his MLB debut, the Canadian joined 20-year-old Ronald Acuna Jr. and 21-year-old Ozzie Albies in the Braves' starting lineup. That put the majors' three youngest players all on the same team and made Atlanta the first team with a 20-year-old pitcher and 20-year-old position player in the same game since the 2006 Mariners fielded very young versions of Felix Hernandez and Adam Jones.

• From Jayson Stark of the Athletic: The Royals had four home runs over their first 422 at-bats this season. They hit four in the first inning in just seven at-bats Tuesday night in Baltimore against Orioles starter Dylan Bundy, who became the first starter ever to get taken deep four times and not record an out.

• Former UB standout Tom Murphy continues to rake at Triple-A Albquerque. The Rockies' top catching prospect had two homers and five RBIs in Friday's 7-4 win over Reno and is batting .298 with eight homers and 27 RBIs this season. Murphy's slashline is an impressive .298/.368/.615 and he has a .983 OPS.

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