HOUSTON — The Red Sox swept four games from the Houston Astros during series at Fenway Park in late April. Three months later, the gap between the two teams is even wider.
The Red Sox arrived at Minute Maid Park Monday night only percentage points away from having the best record in baseball. The Astros are the worst team in the game and last week traded their best starter and closer.
But that’s not what made a 2-0 loss so discouraging for the Red Sox. It was how little fight they showed.
The Sox had five hits and never came close to scoring. The 37-74 Astros, a team playing for next season, showed far more energy. They stole six bases in eight attempts and successfully bunted for the second run.
It was hardly the way the Red Sox wanted to start a 10-game road trip. With Tampa Bay idle, the Sox now lead the division by a half game.
Rookie lefthander Brett Oberholtzer (2-0) threw seven shutout innings for the win. Wesley Wright and Josh Fields finished the Red Sox off from there.
The 24-year-old Oberholtzer was making his second major league start after throwing seven shutout innings against the Baltimore Orioles last Wednesday.
In two starts against AL East contenders, he has allowed seven hits over 17 scoreless innings and struck out eight with two walks.
Wright started the eighth inning for Houston. Jacoby Ellsbury walked to start the inning and took third on a bloop single by David Ortiz with two outs.
Fields, a righthander the Astros took from the Sox in the Rule 5 draft, struck out Mike Napoli to end the inning. Napoli was 0 for 4 and left five runners on base.
Napoli is hitting .215 with runners in scoring position this season and has struck out 145 times, only 32 away from matching the franchise record for a season of 177 set by Mark Bellhorn in 2004.
Fields struck out all four batters he faced for his first career save.
John Lackey (7-9) pitched into the seventh inning and allowed two runs on eight hits. He walked two and struck out 10. It was the fifth time in 20 starts this season that Lackey allowed two or fewer earned runs over at least six innings and did not get a victory.
Lackey has a 3.21 earned run average but the Red Sox are 9-11 in his starts.
Lackey had a scare in the second inning when he fielded a tapper back to the mound off the bat off Matt Dominguez and made an off-balance throw to first base for the third out.
He rolled his left ankle and limped back to the dugout. The Red Sox quickly got rookie Rubby De La Rosa up in the bullpen, but Lackey came back out for the third inning.
No. 9 hitter Jonathan Villar singled and stole second and third. But Lackey struck out Brandon Barnes to end the inning and pounded his fist into his glove as he left the mound.
Lackey struck out Chris Carter and Brett Wallace to leave two runners stranded in the fourth inning. But Houston broke through in the fifth.
L.J. Hoes singled and stole second before Villar walked. Robbie Grossman grounded a single into right to score Hoes and send Villar to third. Lackey struck out Barnes and Jose Altuve to end the inning.
As Lackey did his job, the Red Sox hitters failed at theirs.
Ortiz reached on an error to start the second inning. Napoli and Jonny Gomes popped up before Jarrod Saltalamacchia drew a walk. Stephen Drew popped up to end the inning.
Dustin Pedroia singled to start the fourth but was thrown out trying to steal second with two outs and Gomes up.
A two-out double by Drew in the fifth inning proved no trouble for Oberholtzer as Brandon Snyder flied to center field. In the sixth inning, Pedroia reached on an infield single with two outs before Ortiz walked. Napoli then grounded to second and Altuve stepped on the bag to end the threat.
Gomes led off the seventh inning with a double to the gap in right. He tagged up and took third on a close play when Saltalamacchia flied to right.
The Sox had a runner at third for the first time in the game. But Drew and Snyder struck out on eight pitches. That left the Sox 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position.
Lackey came back out for the eighth inning despite having thrown 107 pitches. That proved to be a mistake as Hoes doubled to right field before Villar reached on a bunt single.
Junichi Tazawa struck out Grossman but Barnes put down a squeeze bunt that gave the Astros a 2-0 lead.
Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.