Maybe it's a bit dramatic to say that the Red Sox season is on the line over the next few weeks. After all, it's still only July.

Boston's first half struggles put them in a hole and the reigning champs have to make up some ground if they want to find themselves in the playoff picture this fall, starting with a long stretch against division opponents.

Boston's 21-game stretch against AL East clubs got off to a pretty good start last week when they took three out of four against the Blue Jays. They moved to nine games above .500 for the first time this season, and it looked like they were prepping to start making that divisional surge. The Blue Jays and Orioles would serve as a nice little tune up for 14 straight pivotal games against the Yankees and Rays.

Then the Sox got to Baltimore and promptly dropped two out of three against the Orioles.

When attempting to make that "hey, we're still the defending champs and we're not to be taken lightly" push, it's a good idea not to lose a series to the worst team in baseball. Yes, the Red Sox beat up on Baltimore with a huge 17-6 win on Saturday, but that drubbing was bookended by an ugly 11-2 defeat and an embarrassing 5-0 shutout loss on Friday and Sunday.

That shutout loss on Sunday? One hit for Boston. One. Again, against the worst team in baseball.

But the story of this year's Red Sox team has been the inconsistency and frustration, so I guess this development shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, huh?

In any case, the poor showing in Baltimore turns up the heat on the Red Sox heading into the next couple of weeks. It was already an incredibly important stretch, but losing two against the Orioles tightens the room for error against New York and Tampa. 

So maybe doesn't feel that dramatic after all to say that this has the makings of a do-or-die stretch for this team as they look to prove they can be considered legitimate contenders. The division crown is probably too ambitious at the moment, as the Yankees still hold a double-digit lead in the AL East, but the Red Sox are just one game back of the Rays after a series-opening win in Tampa on Monday. 

There's still time to save the season and make a big run, but the clock is ticking and it's truly put up or shut up time right now.

Then: July 23, 2018: 71-31, 1st in AL East, 6.0 game lead Now: July 23, 2019: 55-46, 3rd in AL East, 10.0 games back

The stove is burning

Baltimore may have turned up the heat on the Sox but the stove was already hot heading into the weekend series. The thing is, we still have no idea what Boston might do at the trade deadline. They could very well be buyers, or they could be significant sellers. It's all up in the air right now.

A lot of that probably depends on how they fare over the next week or so. If they continue to play well against the Rays and head into their upcoming homestand with second place in their grasp, then Dave Dombrowski could look to add. The most obvious area of targeted improvement will be pitching, whether it be insurance in the rotation or much-needed help in the bullpen. 

Boston has been actively scouting around the league and there are a number of pretty significant names they've been linked to. It seems they're getting their ducks in a row in case they decide they're going to be buyers.

But if the Red Sox lose four or five games over the next week, it's very possible they could also be significant sellers at the deadline. They have some decently valuable expiring assets in guys like Rick Porcello, Brock Holt, Andrew Cashner, and Mitch Moreland. Then of course there are some other guys with control that have been discussed as potential trade targets, such as Jackie Bradley Jr. 

It seems rather unlikely that things would go so south that they rush to move a J.D. Martinez or Mookie Betts, especially during a down year, but those guys have some uncertainty regarding their futures and you just never know. They're probably not totally off the table if there's a big haul being presented in return.

It's a strange position to be in, realizing you could be either buyers or sellers depending on what happens over the next week or so, but like I said, it's a real make-or-break stretch coming up here. Three or four months ago it would have seemed completely implausible that we'd even be discussing the idea of a potential stripdown from the reigning champs -- and it still seems kind of unlikely that they "give up" on this year when the wild card is still a strong possibility -- but here we are talking about it anyway. 

Nathan Eovaldi's troubling return

Hey, look -- Nathan Eovaldi is back and it turns out he's not ready to be the bullpen savior after one appearance. 

Eovaldi, who had been sidelined since mid-April after elbow surgery and a bout of biceps soreness, was activated off the 60-Day injured list last week and assigned to the bullpen, where the Red Sox hope he'll be able to provide some stability. Though he was a solid rotation guy before the injury, the transition makes some sense considering the bullpen staff was not only struggling and overworked, but the lighter workload could be good for Eovaldi post-injury. Also, he was strong for the Red Sox out of the pen last postseason.

However, his debut appearance out of the bullpen on Monday certainly did not inspire a whole lot of confidence. 

Eovaldi entered the eighth inning of Monday's game in Tampa with the comfort of an 8-0 lead. By the time he exited -- just two outs later -- that lead was cut down to five. He couldn't get through a full inning, giving up three runs on five hits and a wild pitch.

Not great.

The damage was ultimately limited by Matt Barnes, who replaced Eovaldi, and the Red Sox went on to win 9-3, but it was a bit troubling to see the right-hander struggle so mightily in his return. Obviously you have to be wary of overreacting to a guy's first appearance after a huge layoff while rehabbing from injury, but it's most definitely not what you want from the guy that is being looked at to help turn this bullpen (and this season) around. 

Highlight of the week

We have to go all the way back to Monday night for this one. The Red Sox put up a seven-spot against the Rays in the third inning of their series opener in Tampa. They smacked three home runs in that onslaught, including a three-run shot from Martinez as well as back-to-back solo dingers from Andrew Benintendi and Sam Travis.  

It was the seventh time this season that the Red Sox have plated at least seven runs in an inning, the most in the majors. Nobody else has done it more than five times.

The Red Sox lead the majors in runs scored and batting average (second in OBP) and have have homered in 20 of their last 22 games.

What's next? 

You already know. They've in the midst of a 14-game stretch in which they'll alternate series against the Rays and Yankees. Following this current three-game set in Tampa, the Sox head home for a homestand that sees them play four against the Yanks, then three more against the Rays. They'll cap off the run with four games in three days against the Yankees in the Bronx. Buckle up.