These things happen in sports. Especially in baseball. Sometimes the worst team in the league beats the best team in the league -- and sometimes the worst pitching staff in the game shuts down the game's second-best offense. Both happened Monday night in Houston, where the Astros beat the Red Sox, 2-0, behind the pitching of the inimitable Brett Oberholtzer and Boston's general inability to execute.
Against an Astros team that entered with an earned run average almost half a run worse than the next-worst team in the majors, and a full run worse than the MLB average, the most frustrating of the Red Sox' failures was the trouble they had with the bats, and particularly in taking advantage of their opportunities.
Oberholtzer was good, and he validated the seven scoreless innings he threw against Baltimore in his first big-league start by matching that line Monday -- but the Red Sox had chances. Boston put runners aboard in six of the nine innings, and in five of those frames they advanced a runner into scoring position, though they repeatedly lacked the key hit and left those men stranded.
Stephen Drew popped out with two on in the second. Dustin Pedroia got caught stealing in the fourth. Brandon Snyder flew out after Drew's two-out double in the fifth. Mike Napoli grounded harmlessly to second with two on ahead of him in the sixth. Drew and Snyder both struck out -- Oberholtzer's only two Ks of the night -- after Jonny Gomes doubled and moved to third on Jarrod Saltalamacchia's flyout in the seventh. Then Napoli whiffed to leave the tying runs on the corners in the eighth.
Collectively, the Sox were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position, and left eight baserunners as a team. But that can happen when a team hits 15 flyballs in a game -- so maybe more glaring from an execution perspective was the defense.
Getting little help from John Lackey, who didn't do a good job of limiting the Astros to honest leads, Saltalamacchia allowed Houston to successfully swipe bases on six of its eight attempts to do so. One of their steals contributed to the game's first run, when LJ Hoes struck a one-out single, stole second, then scored on Robbie Grossman's hard shot to right.
Hoes would score again two innings later, when Houston again out-executed Boston. This time Hoes doubled to lead off the frame, then No. 9 hitter Jonathan Villar attempted to get him to third with what was supposed to be a sacrifice bunt, but he dropped it past Lackey on the left-field side of the mound, and by the time Snyder came off third base Villar reached himself without a throw.
That left the Astros an extra out to play with, and they dared use it to have Brandon Barnes drop down a suicide squeeze. It was an obvious option at that point, and the Sox should've been prepared for the possibility, though, instead, the Astros pulled it off without resistance. Junichi Tazawa left his pitch in a buntable location, even though the runner was breaking for home on the side of the diamond the reliever faces as he throws, and when he fetched the ball between the mound and the plate he had no play but throwing it to first
There haven't been a lot of these types of nights this season for the Sox -- a team for which preparation, readiness, and urgency have become hallmarks -- but for them to let it happen now, and for them to be mostly outplayed by the lowly Astros just as they embark on the home stretch of a pennant race, begs the question of whether they might've simply taken their opponent too lightly.
Throughout this first season as lead man in the dugout, John Farrell's greatest strength has been his ability to put his players in position to succeed and to get them acutely focused on winning a baseball game every time they step on the field. But if we read between the lines on some of the manager's actions over the couple days leading up to Monday night, a couple of them in particular could be interpreted as indications that the Sox perhaps thought they could show up and win without taking that task as seriously as they have when facing a more challenging foe.
The first came before Sunday's game, when the manager announced that rookie knuckleballer Steven Wright would start in Houston on Tuesday. The decision made some sense, given how bad the Astros have been against right-handed pitching, and inserting Wright between Lackey and Ryan Dempster gave Boston three righty starters in the series -- though that wasn't his publicly stated primary reason. Rather, Farrell said he was moving Wright in to give the rest of the starting staff an extra day between outings.
That's plausible, too, except that the Sox have a day off scheduled for next Monday, and have rest built in to every week remaining in the regular season except for the week of Labor Day. With the Rays nipping at their heels, now wouldn't seem the time to experiment with a Triple-A call-up -- unless the manager was already looking ahead to a four-game set with the Royals, and took the chance to have his four best starters ready for that series against one of baseball's hottest teams, because he figured it didn't really matter who pitched against the Astros.
The other telling decision came later Sunday, as the ninth inning approached. The Red Sox had a four-run lead, which meant it was a non-save situation. Closer Koji Uehara had pitched the day prior, and using him in that spot would likely render him unavailable for Monday -- but Farrell brought the Japanese righty in nevertheless. Certainly there were others who could've tried to seal up a four-run spread, but there's no sense in saving Uehara if you don't think Houston can stay close enough that you'll need him the next day.
Again, Farrell has done a terrific job. He probably deserves to be American League manager of the year for the work he's done reshaping the attitude and approach of this team. But sometimes human nature creeps in. Sometimes a couple of subtle decisions can unintentionally deliver the wrong message. Sometimes a team can let its guard down against the dregs. These things happen.
Farrell had just better make sure they don't happen again over the next two nights. Or the next opportunity lost for the Sox will be one that shows up in the standings.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||0-for-3, BB: His long drive to the left-center field warning track was a good sign, even if it was tracked down, though his night went quiet from there until his leadoff walk in the eighth.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||0-for-4: The newly anointed AL player of the week got off to a tough start as he looks to repeat, but he still boasts an 1.141 OPS over his past seven games.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||2-for-4: After registering just one hit over a seven-game stretch, Pedroia has now hit safely in six of his last seven contests. His caught stealing was his fifth of the year.|
|David Ortiz, DH||1-for-3, BB: Ortiz also reached on an error, so he was on base three times and in scoring position once. He's now got on in 19 straight games, though his OBP has actually slipped five points (from .405 to .400) over that time.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||0-for-4, K: Since being the lone offensive bright spot in Boston's series against Tampa, Napoli is batting just .135. He hit two balls to the warning track on Monday, but couldn't carry them any farther.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||1-for-4, K, 2B: Coming off the most impactful 1-for-12 homestand in modern history, he did a nice job of going with the pitch and crushed a double to right-center in the seventh. He then dived into third just ahead of Hoes' throw when Saltalamacchia's fly to right, but that's where he stayed.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||0-for-3, BB, K: A catcher's primary job is defense, and the Astros clearly weren't afraid to run on him. They stole six bases in eight tries -- and they won't likely be the last to at least try it. Before Monday he'd thrown out 19 percent of attempted thieves, markedly below the league average of 27 percent.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||2-for-4, 2 K, 2B: Remarkably, given where he was at in the public's mind two weeks ago, when he batted in the ninth as Boston's last hope, those who've been paying attention would've actually wanted him in that spot.|
|Brandon Snyder, 3B||0-for-3, K: Was indecisive on the bunt that led to Houston's second run, and went hitless in three trips at the plate. Expect the Sox to make a move for a more regular third baseman before long.|
|John Lackey, SP||6 IP, 8 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 10K: He pitched well early, then ran into some challenges, but recovered from that blip -- and a rolled ankle -- to strike out 10 and keep the Sox in the ballgame.|
|Junichi Tazawa, RP||1 IP, K: Tazawa made his 51st appearance of the season, and with the Sox wanting to preserve him as much as possible, it couldn't have worked out much better than a scoreless inning on eight pitches.|
|Craig Breslow, RP||1 IP, BB, K: With another scoreless appearance, Breslow hasn't been charged with a run since July 21. Beyond that, he's yielded one earned run in the past month.|
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