Mason: Season-defining stretch is upon the Red Sox

FILE — Alex Cora's inconsistent club has a chance to make up ground in the playoff race. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu) 

This week's column installment focuses on the trade deadline, subpar starting pitching and a loaded lineup getting even deeper. 

1. Season-defining stretch

It's not an exaggeration to say the most important stretch of the Red Sox season began on Monday night in Tampa Bay. 

Looking up at the Yankees in the AL East standings and the Rays in the Wild Card, the Sox will play 14 straight games against their divisional foes. If they're to make up ground, a golden opportunity is upon them. 

"Just, let’s take care of today," Alex Cora told reporters at Tropicana Field. "That’s the most important thing. Whatever happens today, we know what we have to do tomorrow. I’m not saying every pitch matters but it does. Every play. But I think every day is very important. We can’t get ahead of ourselves. You’re not going to gain ground, gain five games or 10 games in one day."

2. Buy or sell?

This Rays-Yankees marathon ends extends right through July 31 trade deadline, which should make Dave Dombrowski's plans far easier. 

If the Sox can prove themselves against their rivals, there's no doubt they're worth investing in. Buy away.

If they falter again and fall further back, it's not crazy to consider selling. With plenty of attractive rentals and one of the lowest ranked farm systems in baseball, replenishing now could go a long way in maintaining long-term prosperity. 

Look at what one deadline of selling did for the Yankees in 2016. 

"The front office has a job to do," Cora said. "Obviously our goals are set to win the World Series. If it doesn’t look that way and they go somewhere else and take another approach, you’ve got to respect that. At the end, we have to perform and we have to win games. We haven’t been consistent about it.

'We have to play better, win games, and I’m not saying put pressure on them, but at the same time, show them yeah, this group is capable. We know the group is talented. It’s just a matter of going out there and performing."

3. Another short start for Price

Though he owns the best ERA (3.61) of any Red Sox starter, David Price still isn't going deep enough in ballgames. 

Friday night's loss was the third straight start of five innings or fewer from Price, and that's happened eight times this season. He's only seen the seventh inning twice, and has yet to hit 100 innings on the season. 

Short starts were understandable early in the season given his October workload, but we're past the All-Star Game. The Red Sox need more from him. 

4. What's wrong with Rick?

Rick Porcello also struggled against the lowly Orioles, allowing at least four runs for the fifth straight start. 

Over the past month, his ERA has jumped from 4.31 to 5.61, the fourth-highest mark among full-time starters in the American League. 

5. No easy answer

Porcello is at a loss for what's continually gone wrong. 

“It’s been a grind. I know I gotta be better. I’m more than frustrated inside,” Porcello told reporters in Baltimore. “I promise you I’m doing everything physically, mentally to get it right. Just gotta keep grinding. Trust me, I want the results more than anybody. They’re just not coming right now.

"Continue to look at things and what adjustments I can make to change things up. Other than that, keep rolling forward and try to stay positive and don’t bring our guys down because the way our offense is playing, it’s pretty incredible to watch. Try and be the best teammate I can and take care of my stuff and clean it up."

6. Offense doing its job

Porcello is right about the bats.

Though Sunday afternoon was its worst performance of the season, by and large the Sox offense has done its job to mask their pitching problems.

Boston entered last night with the most runs scored in the majors (566), had the highest batting average (.272), and sat second in on-base percentage (.346). 

7. More help on the way

Shelved since June 7, Mitch Moreland is expected to be activated Tuesday.

The first baseman was off to a fine start to the season before a serious hamstring issue landed him on the injured list. With 13 homers in just 151 at-bats, an already loaded lineup with get some more thump. 

8. Quiet PawSox stint

On his rehab assignment in Pawtucket, Moreland went 0-for-13 with a walk and four strikeouts.

He had a sense of humor about it, though. 

"Let’s just say I didn’t waste any hits down there," he cracked to reporters in Tampa.

9. Christmas in July

If you're coming to the ballpark this weekend, bring a toy with you.

For the second season in a row, Moreland and his wife, Savannah, are hosting Christmas in July, a toy drive for patients at Children's Hospital. Donations will be accepted at Gates A and D before all four games against the Yankees. 

Chris Mason is a Red Sox beat writer for the Salem News and CNHI Sports Boston. Email him at cmason@northofboston.com, and follow him on Twitter at @ByChrisMason