Red Sox's hot streak, third base uncertainty stirs memories of 2013

BALTIMORE -- It's beginning to feel a lot like 2013 again -- and not just because it's September and the Boston Red Sox are running roughshod over the American League East.

The Sox won again Thursday night, 5-3 over the fast-fading Baltimore Orioles. It was their season-high eighth victory in a row, and it lowered their magic number for clinching the division title to five. It also marked Boston's first set of back-to-back four-game sweeps since July 1-7, 1968, according to research by Elias Sports Bureau.

Hey, David Ortiz, can you smell the playoffs?

"Cool breeze," Big Papi said before a spritz of cologne.

The offense is humming (the Red Sox are the first team ever to win five consecutive games in which they scored exactly five runs), and the starting rotation is rolling behind ace lefty David Price, who won his eighth straight decision by limiting the Orioles to rookie Trey Mancini's three-run homer.

And a bullpen that once appeared to be the Red Sox's weak link has been buoyed by setup man Koji Uehara, who has returned from two months on the disabled list with a strained right pectoral muscle to throw eight scoreless, walk-free innings and retire 22 of 27 batters, 10 by strikeout.

It's almost as though Uehara has borrowed a time machine and gone back to 2013.

But here's another similarity to three years ago: Even as they run away with the division title, the Red Sox face questions at third base and potentially catcher, two positions that remain unsettled with October looming.

Third base, in particular, bears watching over the season's final nine games. Travis Shaw has the inside track on getting a majority of the at-bats, but it was only three weeks ago that he temporarily lost his job to Yoan Moncada, the 21-year-old top prospect with exceeding talent who nevertheless was being called up directly from Double-A and offered no guarantee that he was ready for the big leagues.

The Red Sox now know Moncada wasn't ready. Not even close. He went 4-for-16 with nine strikeouts in four consecutive starts before being benched. Moncada has whiffed in nine straight at-bats and appeared so overmatched that he's no longer viewed as a third base alternative in the way that Xander Bogaerts replaced struggling Will Middlebrooks midway through the 2013 postseason.

But manager John Farrell served notice Thursday that the job isn't necessarily being handed to Shaw.

"We're looking for production at third base to continue to climb," Farrell said. "We were very candid that was why Moncada came here. Guys are here that have done it. It's a spot that can further be grabbed. We don't ever want to just hand a spot just because you hit right-handed or left-handed."

In other words, Shaw isn't the automatic choice to start at third base in a playoff opener against, say, Cleveland Indians right-hander Corey Kluber, even though he's a left-handed hitter. Shaw has only four hits in his past 28 at-bats and hasn't homered since Sept. 7 in San Diego when he reclaimed his job from Moncada.

Meanwhile, lefty-hitting utilityman Brock Holt went 2-for-5 Thursday night as a fill-in at shortstop and could be an option to start at third if he outplays Shaw over the final week of the season. Holt has considerable experience at the position, playing 327 innings at third base in 2014 and 227 last year.

"Because of his flexibility on the defensive side, he could find himself there if he's swinging the bat with some consistency," Farrell said. "I don't want to rule anything out at this point."

There's slightly more stability behind the plate, if only because Sandy Leon has handled the pitching staff so well since his unexpected midseason ascendance to the No. 1 catcher job. And although Leon's bat has cooled with a 10-for-50 (.200) spell over his last 15 games, neither veterans Ryan Hanigan nor Bryan Holaday or former top prospect Christian Vazquez are particularly appealing everyday options.

Three years ago, Farrell was willing to replace catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia with career backup David Ross during the World Series. But he also seemed to take up a stronger defense for Leon's job retention than Shaw's.

"There's one guy hitting over .340 in all of the American League, so [Leon] went on such a consecutive run on high average, a lot of hard contact, he's on the other side a little bit right now," Farrell said. "I know he's in a little bit of a dry spell here, but what he's doing leading our pitching staff through this stretch far outweighs his offense."

Indeed, for as much as the Red Sox's postseason run will hinge on their high-scoring offense, their pitching will be what determines whether they play long into October. And after holding the power-packed Orioles to eight runs in four games (Manny Machado went 2-for-14, Adam Jones 2-for-15, Chris Davis 2-for-15 and Mark Trumbo 2-for-16), the Red Sox's staff is pitching as well as it has at any point in the season.

"When you can smell the playoffs, to me, it's a motivation," Ortiz said. "We're doing good. We're playing bsaeball the way we're supposed to be playing it."

"We do everything well," Price said. "I don't know what our weakness is, to be honest. We do a lot of things really well. That's what you want."

Yes, it's beginning to feel a lot like 2013 again -- in every possible way.