Starting pitching sunk the Red Sox in Baltimore, like it’s been doing all year

Boston's struggles hit plenty of different parts of the team, but one's been overarching.

Rick Porcello's contract year couldn't be going much worse, with a 5.61 ERA and just 110 innings after 20 starts.

COMMENTARY

We will remember this weekend in sweltering Baltimore for a good while, I think, distinct in a way that so much of this wishy-washy season hasn’t been. You lose 2 of 3 to a presumed 110-loss team via “11-2 against the de facto ace” and “no hits until the seventh against a 30-year-old nobody” games, that’s going to make the mental DVD. (Winning the other game 17-6 doesn’t hurt, either.)

Especially when the grandest failure was the starting pitching, same as it has continued to be with alarming, season-altering frequency that the bullpen couldn’t dream of.

If these long-awaited next two weeks, 14 games with the Rays and Yankees starting Monday night in Florida, are the place where the 2019 Red Sox finally make a definitive statement of purpose, Baltimore will either be where they finally bounced off the bottom, or simply decided to move in down there. The latter could even be the impetus for a franchise-altering house cleaning akin to 2014, though that’s asking an awful lot.

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So, probably, is thinking these two nights will produce a clear picture. We’re 100 games in, they’re three games out, and none of us quite know what we’re looking at.

Hope remains present. Pessimism remains warranted. Championship mettle remains elusive, if not entirely absent.

“We have to turn the page. We know what starts tomorrow,” manager Alex Cora told reporters. “Just go over there and keep going with the rhythm offensively. Don’t let up. … It’s just a matter of tomorrow.”

In a vacuum, series like this one in Baltimore happen to just about everybody, especially when it feels like it’s 110 degrees all weekend and there’s something big looming on the other side. The 1927 Yankees got swept in late August by a sub-.500 Cleveland team they ultimately outpaced by 43.5 games. The 114-win Yankees of 1998 opened 1-4. The 2013 Red Sox got swept at home by 66-win Minnesota. In 1990, Boston’s eventual division champions lost 15 of 20 to a parade of teams that finished miles from the playoffs.

Heck, on July 28, 2004, the Red Sox lost 4-1 at Camden Yards to a Quad A righty named Dave Borkowski, who held baseball’s best offense hitless for the first 4 1/3 of his seven innings to drop his career ERA to 6.13, and drop the legendary curse-breakers to 55-45 — one game better than the 2019 Red Sox are after getting undone Sunday by Asher Wojciechowski, Triple A All-Star.

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The 2004 team was 43-19 after that day, setting the stage for the October immortality they were capable of after all. They did it not only because they averaged six runs/game on offense, but because their starting rotation was arguably the American League’s best the rest of the way. Better than six innings per game on average, second-best walk rate and second-best ERA. A good staff for 100 games, they became great, then even better in the playoffs: Ten of 14 starts of at least six innings, seven of those allowing two runs or fewer.

Know where the 2019 Red Sox starting rotation ranks in six-inning starts allowing two runs or fewer? Tied for 12th overall. Know how many of the nine teams ahead of them in the standings today have more such games from their starting pitchers? Eight of the nine. (All except the Yankees, who cover with a lockdown bullpen. Even Tampa’s got more, despite using an opener in a third of their games.)

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The starting rotation’s failings haven’t been forgotten as this Red Sox season’s circled the bowl, but if it gets no better than it feels right now, the bullpen will lead most post-mortems. Not replacing Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly’s innings. Those 18 blown saves and that barely 50-percent conversion team-wide. Matt Barnes, 4 for 10 despite his better than 16 strikeouts per nine innings.

It’s a teamwide failure, no doubt. But it starts, full stop, with a rotation of two Cy Young winners, a genuine annual contender for the prize, and a newly minted $68 million man falling on its collective face. It’s driven a shorthanded bullpen into the ground, it’s failed on its own merits, and it’s killed momentum time and again.

Momentum being the next day’s starting pitcher and all.

On Friday, David Price gave up a two-strike, three-run homer on a horrendous two-seamer. He gave up four other two-strike hits and needed 88 pitches to finish four innings. On Saturday, Rick Porcello outdid him — seven of 11 hits allowed in five innings came with two strikes, befitting baseball’s leader in allowing them. Given a 5-0 lead in the third inning against the worst team in baseball, Porcello gave it back in eight batters. On a night Boston scored 16 runs by the end of the fifth inning, it still needed four relievers to finish the job.

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Sunday was almost entirely on the offense, which swung at somewhere on the order of two dozen pitches out of the strike zone. (J.D. Martinez was particularly gruesome, flailing at Wojciechowski’s breaking stuff and getting beat with heat above the zone.) Andrew Cashner, however, has given up four homers in his first 11 Boston innings, including two on the changeup that has led his resurrection from an awful 2018.

“I thought other than those pitches [to Trey Mancini that resulted in two Sunday homers], I thought I threw the ball really well today,” Cashner told reporters. “A couple of adjustments here and there, I think I’m right where I want to be.”

He went six innings, at least. The Red Sox are 8-8 in games started by pitchers forced into duty by Nathan Eovaldi’s long injury layoff, but those 16 didn’t average even 3 1/3 innings/game. More needed from the bullpen.

Boston lines up how they’d draw it up at Tropicana Field: Eduardo Rodriguez, who’s been excellent in his last four outings, most notably against the Dodgers; Chris Sale, who’s been a mess since the spring, but did look great against Toronto; and Price, who not only comes in struggling, but draws AL ERA leader Charlie Morton on Wednesday afternoon.

Not that Tampa comes into this staking their claim. They’d lost five straight before salvaging one Sunday against the going-nowhere White Sox, and lost star center fielder Kevin Kiermaier over the weekend to a headfirst slide and busted thumb.

On Saturday night, the SB Nation blog DRaysBay asked a simple question while its team gave up 16 hits to a dreadful offensive club: “Is this the worst good team ever?” The season series with Tampa ought to award a championship belt with that blazoned across it, payroll difference and all.

The first false turnaround of this season happened at the Trop, when the Rays had the best record in baseball, hosted the 6-13 Red Sox and promptly got swept.

“Hopefully this gets us on a good roll,” said current PawSox Ryan Brasier at the time; he’d saved all three wins. “Coming in and beating these guys like that, it can go a long way.”

It didn’t go 24 hours: Detroit swept the Sox in a doubleheader the next day, Sale going all of five innings to kick it off.

Three months later, that’s still who they are. And they’re getting toward one of their last, best chances to change it.