Baseball fans in favor of robot umpires may want to bookmark the first inning of Friday night’s Red Sox game.
With two outs and a runner on second, starter Brian Johnson appeared to strike out the Angels’ Justin Upton on a 76.8-mile-per-hour curveball to end the inning. Catcher Christian Vazquez tossed the ball to first baseman Mitch Moreland, and the Sox should have been on their way to the dugout with leadoff batter Mookie Betts ready to take the plate.
But umpire Mark Ripperger never signaled that Johnson’s pitch was, in fact, a strike.
Instead, on a full count, he deemed it a ball. As Upton trotted his way to first, the sellout crowd at Fenway Park showered Ripperger in boos.
“It’s a pitch that we thought was a strike, but it wasn’t called there,’’ manager Alex Cora said.
According to the pitch chart provided by MLB, Johnson’s throw was clearly inside the strike zone. Yet the 28-year-old lefty remained on the mound in search of his third out. Up next was first baseman Albert Pujols, who promptly crushed a home run off a billboard above the Green Monster. 3-0, Angels.
“It’s baseball,’’ said Johnson, who was filling in for starter David Price after Price was placed on the 10-day injured list on Thursday. “People make mistakes. Maybe it wasn’t a strike; maybe it was. I’m not one to look back now. I should have moved on and gotten the next guy. It is what it is. It sucks.’’
The bleeding stopped there, as Johnson struck out right fielder Kole Calhoun to officially end the inning. After retiring the side in the second, however, Johnson’s night wouldn’t last much longer. Cora pulled the plug 2⅔ innings into his start; he’d said before the game Johnson could last four or five frames.
But righthander Marcus Walden seamlessly took over, pitching a perfect 2⅓ innings. During that span, the Red Sox mounted a comeback, taking a 4-3 lead. It was his sixth straight outing not allowing a hit. His last 12 appearances, he has a 1.42 ERA in 12⅔ innings.
“He’s been throwing the ball well,’’ Cora said. “He’s kind of fallen into that same role as earlier in the season, coming in early, throwing clean innings. You start looking at his numbers against lefties, against righties, and he’s throwing the ball well.’’
Ripperger’s flub ultimately proved inconsequential, as the Sox tallied 10 straight runs for a lopsided 16-4 win.
“When the offense goes out and does that, it’s huge, especially when I give up three in the first,’’ Johnson said. “It’s never the plan.’’
Not only did the flurry of production give Cora confidence in the team’s bats moving forward, but the combined effort from the bullpen provides him with hope, too. Nathan Eovaldi retired the side in the sixth and, despite surrendering a run, managed to escape a bases-loaded jam in the seventh; Hector Velazquez retired the side on 11 pitches in the eighth; and Josh Taylor retired the side to close it out in the ninth.
Though the focus seemed to be on the team’s offense — the Red Sox have a league-high seven wins by at least 10 runs this season — Cora noted the rotation and bullpen are more than capable as well.
“I do believe that pitching-wise, we can do it,’’ Cora said. “[Chris Sale’s start on Thursday] was a great day. You felt the energy [on Friday]. That’s how it starts. [Saturday] is the next guy, and then we keep going.’’