Take your pick: Roots of this Red Sox debacle go deep, wide

An eight-game losing streak at the season's critical moment leaves plenty of question.

Tasked with stopping a seven-game losing streak at the season's most critical time, David Price's night was done after just eight outs.
Tasked with stopping a seven-game losing streak at the season's most critical time, David Price's night was done on Sunday after just eight outs. –Adam Hunger/Associated press

COMMENTARY

It is now twice as likely that the New York Mets will make the 2019 playoffs as the Boston Red Sox. Take a look. Baseball Prospectus, same thing. One player, or even one aspect of a club, does not create that reality. That takes a village.

Remember that, as we spend the next weeks and months channeling our younger selves and divvying up the blame pie after a lost season. I’m not so much worried about the relative size of the pieces as making sure everyone gets their rightful slice.

They screwed this thing up, soup to nuts. From John Henry to Trevor Kelley.

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“We have a very good team, 1 through 25,” said David Price on Sunday night, hours after his 2 2/3-inning cameo ended with seven straight Yankees reaching base — a walk plus six hits, four for extra bases. “It’s just that some of us haven’t had good seasons to this point.”

So much so, the Sox might literally have been better off Sunday if Price spent another day working on the nursery and Alex Cora gave the ball to Ryan Weber.

Look, baseball is inherently weird, and Kansas City (40-73) comes to Fenway on Monday. They too were just swept in back-to-back series — Toronto and Minnesota, in their case — and have lost 9 of 10. It’s about the softest landing pad a foundering team could ask for.

The Rays, now 6.5 clear of Boston in the second wild-card chase after winning six straight, host the Jays before traveling out west. Who knows what lurks therein? Alex Rodriguez wasn’t wrong on Sunday’s ESPN broadcast when he noted the defending champions have two more months to get right.

That he said it right before Gio Urshela obliterated a Price changeup 437 feet seemed pretty symbolic, though.

“There’s no doubt in my mind these guys can turn it around,” said Cora on Sunday, a long way removed from popping off at the doubters last October.

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Or, better yet, that January night at the Boston Baseball Writers dinner. You remember that one, right? In suit and tie, between team president Sam Kennedy and architect Dave Dombrowski:

“Somebody might write this, I don’t care. If you guys thought last year was special, wait till this year.”

That same night at the annual Sox winter celebration, team owner Henry told reporters the same thing I noted the other day he’d said in London: “You look at what your needs are. We do have [financial] constraints; every team has constraints. It’s not necessarily the [luxury tax] that is your constraint.

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“It’s how much money you’re willing to lose.”

I didn’t notice, and I bet you didn’t either. Title afterglow. Bad on us. Whether a belief in the bullpen led to feelings that adding a reliever wasn’t a need worth the tax, or the other way around, it’s the proverbial Patient Zero of the epidemic that’s wiped out this title defense.

Because that begat replacing the 128 regular-season relief innings, 136 appearances, and 65 high-leverage spots of Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel last season with a “full belief” in Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, and whichever of the slew of low-cost options became the next Brasier. (Oh, and when they were ready, Tyler Thornburg and Steven Wright.)

“We’ve got stuff in the bullpen,” Cora said in mid-February. “We’ve got guys who can step up. We’ve got to put them in the best spots possible, and that’s on me.”

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It was on the starting rotation, they of the oft-mentioned $88 million in salary obligations and the 1-2-3 in Cy Young voting potential. Plus, that didn’t even include Eduardo Rodriguez, a major breakout candidate. Price, Chris Sale, and Rick Porcello would carry the weight, and the rest would fall into place around them.

“We do believe,” Cora said at camp, “we’re going to do it.”

Porcello has a 7.17 ERA in his last 11 starts, a span which actually includes seven shutout innings at Central-leading Minnesota. (He started July 4-0 despite allowing a .330 batting average against because the Red Sox scored him 56 runs.) On Wednesday, he gave up three home runs.

Sale had a chance to extend a five-game winning streak last Sunday at home, retired seven straight to open the game, then gave up six runs before not finishing the fifth. He had a chance to stop a five-game losing streak on Saturday, got unquestionably squeezed on a potential strike three in the fourth inning, then gave up hits to six of his final seven batters. Sale’s only allowing a .218/.283/.391 line since the start of May, but his walk rate is still up 20 percent for the year and his ERA (4.68) is a run and a quarter higher than in any of his prior eight seasons.

Price has thrown seven innings once, and it was his third start of the year against Baltimore. In 10 of his 21 starts, he’s gone five innings or fewer. In his last four, with the need for big performances growing more desperate, he has a 10.59 ERA than has raised his season number from 3.16 to 4.36, which would be his worst since his first full MLB season in 2009.

“Communication, connection, preparation, and execution,” Cora has preached since he came to Boston. Hard to question the first two, especially from the outside.

Easier to question the third.

Impossible not to question the fourth, if not stare skyward and question whether there are Baseball Gods demanding tribute for Cora’s brashness.

The Red Sox will not catch a Yankees team that relied on Mike Tauchman, Kyle Higashioka, Breyvic Valera, and Mike Ford this weekend. (They went 9 for 27 in the sweep.) They’ll be lucky to catch a Rays team getting collectively paid less than Boston’s rotation, and which has gotten just 101 innings of 4.28 ERA from its Cy Young winner Blake Snell. Two of Cleveland, Minnesota, Oakland … they figure to be watching them all.

They brought the vast majority of the band back from a 119-win season. They had so tranquil a spring, even hive-kicker Dan Shaughnessy couldn’t stir it up. They figured, reasonably, that their talent would keep them afloat early and they could supplement on the fly. They couldn’t have imagined the injuries the Yankees would have to endure. Had we known, the Red Sox would’ve been everybody’s pick again in the AL East.

Instead, they’ll be lucky avoid their fate in 2014, when the defending champs receded 26 wins from the overachieving Boston Strong bunch in 2013. That coming two years after Bobby Valentine’s team won 21 fewer in 2012 than 2011.

Imagine that. The Red Sox franchise could have three 20-win dropoffs in eight seasons, tucked around four division titles and a pair of world championships. Talk about adversity, though Cora’s nowhere near reaching for the white flag.

“We’re going to go home. That Green Monster is going to remind us where we are,” Cora said Sunday night. “There’s no hiding. We know we’re talented and we can do it.”

He knows no other way, not with two seasons of MLB coaching experience and two World Series rings. He’s never been on the staff of a team without transcendent talent.

Which makes that transcendent talent’s rollover this week all the tougher to take. Last 14 out of 15 Sox retired in order in Friday’s loss. Last 15 retired in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader. Last 10 of 11 on Sunday.

It’s not a season without positive memories. But it’s also not a season that’ll end on one. Of that, we can now be sure.