Wobbly Red Sox pitching can’t afford to falter in Anaheim

The Angels are playing out the string, and Boston can't fail to capitalize if it has any hope not to do the same.

Alex Cora's team is still clinging to the fringes of the playoff race, and must have another big weekend to stay there.

COMMENTARY

The Red Sox season is down to nine series, beginning with three games this weekend against the Angels in Anaheim. Both Oakland (77-56) and Tampa Bay (77-58) won on Thursday by 9-8 scores; the A’s benefited from a strange play for key ninth-inning insurance in Kansas City, and the Rays gave up runs in seven different innings in Houston, but still snapped their four-game losing streak.

Tampa hosts wild-card leading Cleveland (79-55 after also winning on Thursday) this weekend, a major series played under the looming threat of Hurricane Dorian. Oakland, with 10 wins in its last 14, visits Yankee Stadium, hoping to double down on their home sweep of the Yankees last week.

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What’s that all mean for Boston (72-62), sitting 4.5 games behind Tampa and 5.5 behind Oakland and likely still needing to pass both of them? LA (64-71), one of the five worst teams in baseball since July 24 at 10-22, represents a critical opportunity in a year where they’ve squandered too many. Winning 9 of 12 has helped return a little hope to these end-of-summer days, but it’s not close to having undone the damage of that eight-game losing streak around the trade deadline — the Red Sox were tied for the second wild card on the morning of July 28.

Further helping matters, Mike Trout comes into the series at least slightly compromised. The all-world Angels star has some of the gaudiest numbers of his career, with an MLB-leading 43 homers and 1.087 OPS (.293/.436/.651), thanks at least partially to both another mediocre year from his team — he’s walked an AL-leading 101 times — and the cuckoo baseball that’s exploding everyone else’s stats with his. He’s been playing through a “minor injury” to his foot for weeks, however, and sat out Wednesday’s Angels loss to Texas as a precaution.

“Just been sore. I’ll be good to go Friday,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “Good time to get some rest because we’ve got some days off.”

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He’s slugged .631 in August with eight home runs, so maybe the idea he’s less than his best doesn’t mean a whole lot. Still, he is clearly far and away the best thing the Angels have going, as Wednesday reminded when they were three-hit without him.

That didn’t stop the Angels from splitting four games at Fenway Park earlier this month, however, and this weekend looks like the pitching minefield we’ve become all too accustomed to in this backfiring attempt at a championship repeat. Nathan Eovaldi’s allowed runners on base at a .478 clip in his two starts after Baltimore and San Diego, and is being hit at a .320 clip (with 41 percent hard-hit contact, worst among Sox regulars) since returning from his surgery on July 22. He starts Friday, with the combined five innings he’s gone in his two starts magnified because Saturday is already listed as a “bullpen day.”

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Sunday is David Price’s scheduled return from the wrist cyst that’s shelved him since Aug. 5, the hope that’s why the lefty’s ERA ballooned from 3.16 to 4.36 in the four starts prior to the injury. Price allowed 30 hits and seven home runs in just 17 innings, the latter almost equal to the eight he allowed in his first 17 starts.

“When he gets on a roll and when he’s healthy, he’s one of the best lefties [there is],” manager Alex Cora said in Colorado. “Obviously, we didn’t like that he missed time. But you never know, it might help him out to finish strong and take us where we want to go.”

“A wise man told me when I was in Tampa, if you ever get hurt, don’t come back just to be back,” Price said after his simulated game in Colorado on Tuesday. “Come back to stay back, and that’s what we’re trying to do and make sure everything is firing. Just whenever I come back it’s to stay back, not just to be back.”

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Sunday is also Sept. 1, meaning the annual roster expansion to 40 players that allows teams to give their young prospects experience. Cora’s made no secret that pitching help will be a priority, especially once the team returns to Boston for its series with Minnesota starting Tuesday, but No. 2 prospect Bobby Dalbec figures to get his first crack at the majors in short order.

Dalbec hit the 27th home run of his season, and his seventh in 25 Triple-A games, on Thursday night. My mind jumps back to March when, in part to help push Rafael Devers in spring training, the Red Sox had both Michael Chavis and Dalbec in big-league camp as third base options. (Chavis, in Pawtucket on a rehab assignment, cracked a 427-foot homer of his own on Thursday.)

Been quite the year for all three of them. Could still be one that extends past the final Sunday of September for the Red Sox thanks to their help.

If only one of them could pitch.