On Friday night, it was the eighth. On Saturday, it was the first. They weren’t the only issues that cost the Red Sox this weekend, even if manager Alex Cora forwarded the “We had two bad innings and we lose the series” theory on Sunday afternoon, but two blips were at the very least the catalyst to a successful Houston Astros visit to Fenway Park for those in orange and blue.
“I just made a bad decision, put him in a bad spot, and we paid the price,” said Cora after Friday’s 3-1 loss, referring to sending Rick Porcello out for the eighth after seven shutout innings and 91 pitches.
“Listen, man. That team can put up runs,” said shortstop Xander Bogaerts after Saturday’s 7-3 defeat, Boston never recovering after five of the first six Houston hitters scored against Hector Velazquez. “They’re the hottest team right now in baseball.”
And the hottest team in baseball, the one that’s 6.5 games better than the Red Sox and already the owner of two 10-game win streaks, offered a reminder to anyone that needed it that this recovery from 2-8 isn’t going to be of the snap-your-fingers variety.
Just because a core that won 108 games a year ago ripped off 14 wins in 19 games doesn’t mean the sea’s about to part. It’s a thin line between wins and losses at the highest level, and the Red Sox still are dealing with the degree of difficulty they set up for themselves those first few weeks.
“This series is going to make that statement a little bit truer when we can come here and hopefully sweep them tomorrow and make a bigger statement,” said Josh Reddick on Saturday, who still had a point even after Boston won 4-3 on Sunday. “I feel like this is the team to beat with us, and we have a target on our back even though we didn’t make it all the way last year. I feel like other teams think that as well, because they see how dangerous we really are.”
They are incredibly dangerous, without an out in their lineup at the moment beyond the Yuli Gurriel/Tyler White grotesque at first base. Getting to play them six times in a 10-day stretch, to begin a 34-games-in-34-days stretch, is either a blessing of a challenge for the Red Sox or a curse of the schedule makers depending on your personal preference.
Either way, they’re a measuring stick and a useful tether, though one that shouldn’t be overblown. Last season, the Red Sox barely won the regular-season series with the Yankees squad they steamrolled in the Division Series, and lost the regular-season series to the Astros side they steamrolled to win the pennant. Facing a smoldering team in late May beats the heck out of facing one in late October.
They’re also a reminder of how much thinner 2-8 made the margin of error. For as good as the Red Sox have played of late, for as dangerous as they are, a loss on Sunday would’ve left them with the same record, 23-23, as Bobby Valentine’s Titanic of a squad in 2012 had. That team won 14 out of 19 at one point, then 11 of 15 about a month later. Teams can get rocket hot, even teams without a single starting pitcher that musters an ERA of 4.50 over a full season.
This remains a long climb, though even in losing a home series, there’s so much to like with this team.
Michael Chavis is an obvious one, his story feeling almost too good to be true. Increasingly, I prefer the bullpen, which continues to just quietly get the job done more often than not. Marcus Walden finally was elevated to a big spot on Sunday, and got five outs from four batters. Nine straight scoreless outings for Matt Barnes. An 0.93 WHIP for Brandon Workman, who’s had two bad appearances out of 23.
They will need help, as all bullpens eventually do. (The fall this month of Ryan Brasier, giving up a .385 on-base in his last six appearances, puts a fine point on it.) Time will tell whether this closing shuffle, with Barnes’s 18 appearances split just about equally between the seventh (4 times), eighth (7), and ninth (7), and Brandon Workman on Sunday becoming the fourth pitcher with a save, keeps working. To date, however, they’ve been a top-10 group, and Friday night was just the third time in 19 games this season they lost a game they led entering the seventh.
Toronto comes next, with David Price returning on Monday and Eduardo Rodriguez — who was better than his final line last time out — lining up against Marcus Stroman, who’s pitching well (2.95 ERA in 10 starts) and would love to make a loud statement against the world champs.
It’s a letdown after two series against playoff competition, with Houston/Cleveland/New York to follow, but 2-8 means there can’t be steps back. The Red Sox don’t seem like the bunch who would, well adjusted to the vagaries of a baseball season (like questionable strike zones) and well aware where they stand.
It’s coming together, but Houston reminded it’s a long process. And, after 2-8, a particularly relentless one.