The Red Sox were six outs away from first place last night, not a significant accomplishment in May, but still an impressive one given their wretched start to the season.
But as manager, Terry Francona has to make decisions with an eye on the entire season, not the standings for one day. As such, the pitcher sent out for the eighth inning was Matt Albers and not Daniel Bard, the usual set-up man.
Bard is tied for second in the American League for appearances with 22, a pace that would get him in 81 games, eight more than last season.
The righthander also had pitched four times in eight days, throwing 95 pitches. The decision was made before the game to rest Bard for a second straight night.
“It’ll do him a world of good,’’ Francona said. “It didn’t do us a world of good tonight.’’
Albers could not get an out, giving up six runs as the Chicago Cubs came back to stun the Red Sox, 9-3, before a crowd of 37,798 at Fenway Park.
By the end, most were Cubs fans enjoying their team’s first victory on Yawkey Way since the 1918 World Series.
Instead of first place and an eight-game win streak, the Sox were left with a bitter loss. Albers had pitched well in his 12 previous appearances this season, posting a 1.56 earned run average. But the righthander put five straight runners on base as the Red Sox lost for the first time after holding a lead through seven innings this season.
“Definitely frustrating,’’ Albers said. “We get the lead, I come into the game and we want to shut the door and take the win. I have to put that one behind me.’’
It was Albers do-or-die in the eighth inning. With spot starter Alfredo Aceves throwing an effective five innings, Francona used Dan Wheeler and Rich Hill to get through the sixth and seventh. Scott Atchison was not available after throwing three innings Friday. Nor was Bard.
“I told them I was good to go,’’ Bard said. “But that’s my competitive nature and just wanting to help the team.’’
That left Albers, Jonathan Papelbon, and newcomer Franklin Morales.
Two singles and a walk loaded the bases with no outs. Albers then walked Carlos Pena to force in a run. Morales started warming up at that point.
Reed Johnson ripped a two-run double to center. Alfonso Soriano then popped to shortstop, but Jed Lowrie dropped the ball and Pena scored.
In came Morales, who was obtained from the Rockies Thursday. His first pitch as a member of the Red Sox was crushed off the base of the wall in center by pinch-hitter Jeff Baker for an RBI double.
“Then it kind of unraveled,’’ Francona said.
With one out and two runners on, Dexter Barney flied to right field. Soriano did not try to score, but Johnson went to third. The Sox botched the rundown, however, as third baseman Kevin Youkilis missed a toss from catcher Jason Varitek.
Soriano scored and Baker came in behind him as left fielder Carl Crawford threw wildly to the plate. Starlin Castro doubled in another run.
Wearing all-white throwback uniforms that looked silly, the Red Sox were suddenly playing like clowns.
“That was a tough inning,’’ Lowrie said.
“It got ugly,’’ Francona said.
Aceves made his first start since 2009 and gave the Red Sox what they hoped, and he left with the lead. He allowed one run on three hits with two walks, two strikeouts and two hit batters. He threw 86 pitches, his most since Sept. 28, 2008, when he threw 97 in a start for the Yankees.
Fenway was stunned into silence in the second inning when Aceves hit Marlon Byrd on the left side of his face with a 92-mile-per-hour fastball. Byrd fell to the ground and kicked his legs spasmodically in pain.
Byrd got to his feet quickly and left the field with a blood-soaked towel pressed to the side of his head. He did not lose consciousness according to a Cubs official and was examined last night at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. Manager Mike Quade said he would be kept overnight.
“It was not intentional, no way,’’ Aceves said. “I wish it didn’t happen.’’
The Sox scored twice in the fourth inning. Youkilis extended his hitting streak to nine games with a single to left field. David Ortiz fell behind 0 and 2 in the count, worked back to 2 and 2, then got the pitch he wanted, a fastball up and over the plate. He drove it just over the wall in left, giving the Sox a 2-1 lead.
It was his 300th home run as a member of the Red Sox, joining Ted Williams (521), Carl Yastrzemski (452), Jim Rice (382), and Dwight Evans (379) in that fraternity.
“It’s an honor for me to be mentioned in that category with those guys who played here for a long time,’’ Ortiz said.
Ortiz has 358 career homers, tying Yogi Berra and Adam Dunn for 74th place all time.
Jacoby Ellsbury’s RBI single in the sixth inning made it 3-1. But with first place in sight, the Sox could not finish it off.
“The world came to an end in the eighth,’’ Francona said.