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Sox are powerless to hit back

Gonzalez, relievers keep them at bay

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / June 10, 2012
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After answering a few questions following Saturday’s game against the Washington Nationals, Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine stepped off the small riser in the interview room and tripped on a microphone wire.

Valentine stumbled but caught himself before falling.

Can his team do the same? The Red Sox were beaten, 4-2, and have lost four of their last five games. At 29-30, they are back under .500 for the first time since May 27.

Given how bunched the American League East is, there is no reason for concern yet. But the better Red Sox teams have historically done damage in interleague play, and that’s all they have for the next 13 games.

The Sox finish up with the Nationals Sunday, then play six on the road against the Marlins and Cubs before returning home to face the Marlins and Braves. The goal can’t be treading water.

“We’ll be OK,’’ rookie third baseman Will Middlebrooks said. “We had it going pretty well there for a while and now we’ve lost a few. That’s baseball. But we know we’re better than that. We’re going to figure it out offensively.’’

Gio Gonzalez (8-2) and four relievers held the Sox to five hits. Their only runs came in the seventh inning.

Middlebrooks walked and Mike Aviles singled to knock Gonzalez out of the game after 98 pitches. Facing Craig Stammen, pinch hitter Ryan Sweeney walked to load the bases. A second pinch hitter, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, then belted the first pitch he saw from Mike Gonzalez off the wall to drive in two runs.

That’s 29 RBIs for Saltalamacchia, who is making a case to be included on the AL All-Star team.

The Sox had a chance for more but Daniel Nava struck out and Dustin Pedroia fouled out to first base.

Pedroia was 1 for 4 and is 2 for 20 since returning from a six-game absence because of a thumb injury.

“I’m OK, I’ll be all right,’’ he said. “My timing is still a little off. I’m late on the heater and a little early on offspeed pitches. But I’ll have one at-bat where it clicks . . . I have to start finding a way to get on base and help us score runs.’’

Said Valentine, “He’s got great effort. I think they’re pitching him really tough. He hasn’t gotten a lot of great pitches to hit, the ones he’s gotten his timing has been off a little.’’

The Sox got the tying run to the plate again in the ninth inning against Tyler Clippard when Sweeney doubled with one out. But this time, Saltalamacchia grounded to first and Clippard had his second save of the series and seventh on the season.

Daisuke Matsuzaka took the loss on the one-year anniversary of having Tommy John surgery.

Matsuzaka outperformed modest expectations by going five innings and allowing four runs on five hits. He walked just one and struck out eight, his most since Aug. 21, 2010, when he whiffed eight Blue Jays.

“Yes, I did feel nervous. I felt nervous leading up to the start,’’ Matsuzaka said via an interpreter. “When I was told by Bobby that I was starting, I got a little nervous and felt nervous all week. I felt nervous in the bullpen. It’s probably the most nervous I’ve felt in my whole time in Boston.’’

Matsuzaka struck out two batters in a perfect first inning. But Adam LaRoche homered to start the second. The Nationals scored three runs in the fourth.

Bryce Harper walked and Ryan Zimmerman singled ahead of an RBI double by Mike Morse. Ian Desmond’s two-run single made it 4-0.

The inning might have been bigger but Adrian Gonzalez made a terrific sliding catch to rob Danny Espinosa of a hit, then doubled Desmond off first. The first baseman continued to play seamlessly in right field.

“Every time you pitch you want to give your team a chance to win. Losing today was disappointing,’’ Matsuzaka said. “But I did have some positives I can bring to my next start. I definitely pitched better than I had in my rehab assignment starts.’’

Valentine, who acknowledged before the game that he didn’t know what to expect from Matsuzaka, was satisfied.

“It looked usable,’’ he said. “If we can build on that - eight strikeouts in five innings - that’s pretty good.’’

Lefthanded reliever Franklin Morales was a bright spot, retiring all nine batters he faced, three by strikeout.

With lefties Rich Hill and Andrew Miller available for late-inning situations, Valentine is trying to develop Morales into a long reliever and possibly a spot starter. He pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings against Toronto last Sunday in his previous appearance.

“That’s twice Franklin has pitched in a bit of long role. We’re stretching him out a little,’’ Valentine said. “He’s maintaining his stuff and throwing strikes. Doing a very good job.’’

Morales, who started 15 games earlier in his career, said his arm has responded well.

“I feel fine, I’m making all my pitches,’’ he said. “I’m not tired at all. I could have kept pitching.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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