Felix Doubront emerged from a large pack of contestants to earn a spot in the Red Sox rotation during spring training, the 24-year-old lefthander impressing the judges with his improved fitness and consistency.
Keeping that job could be a tougher task. With Daisuke Matsuzaka a few weeks away from returning to the majors after elbow surgery, decisions will have to be made again.
Doubront cast some doubt on his future Tuesday night lasting only four innings against the light-hitting Oakland Athletics in a 5-3 loss.
The Red Sox announced an attendance of 37,225 at Fenway Park. But far fewer actually showed up on a wet and cold night. Those hardy fans saw Doubront give up four runs in the fourth inning as the Red Sox fell back under .500 at 11-12.
It was a confounding outing for Doubront, who struck out a career-best eight but also gave up five runs on six hits and two walks. Control was an issue as he fell behind 10 of the 20 batters he faced and threw two wild pitches.
Not having command of his two-seam fastball, a pitch that can induce groundouts, also played into Doubront’s problems.
“Today the strike zone was a little elusive,’’ manager Bobby Valentine said.
Given the opposition, it was an especially discouraging outing. The Athletics came into the game hitting .209 and had scored 73 runs, the fewest in the American League.
It left Doubront mulling over his mistakes but knowing what he had to do to correct them.
“Pound the zone. Throw the first pitch for a strike and let the hitter hit,’’ he said.
In what was a precursor to what followed, Doubront struck out three Athletics in the first inning. But he also allowed a run and threw 30 pitches.
Jemile Weeks singled, stole second, and scored on a single to center field by Yoenis Cespedes. Doubront then settled in before the game got away from him in the fourth inning.
Kurt Suzuki, a career .324 hitter against the Red Sox, singled to left field before Kila Ka’aihue walked. Doubront struck out Anthony Recker for the second out. But No. 9 hitter Cliff Pennington doubled to center field, driving in Suzuki.
Weeks then jumped on a low fastball and drove it to center field for a two-run single as Oakland took a 4-0 lead.
Marlon Byrd’s throw to the plate was not cut off and Weeks alertly took second. He stole third and scored on a wild pitch. It was Oakland’s third steal of third base off Doubront.
Doubront was finished after four innings and 94 pitches. He has not gone beyond six innings in any of his five starts and has a 5.19 earned run average.
“That was a little different Felix. He never really had his two-seamer tonight,’’ Valentine said. “He’s been the master of the one-ball, two-strike count and tonight he was behind virtually every hitter. He tried to battle through it without his real bread and butter.
Doubront and three relievers struck out 14, a season high for the Sox. Rich Hill struck out three in 1 2/3 innings in his first game at Fenway since returning from Tommy John surgery.
Oakland rookie Jarrod Parker pitched an impressive 6 2/3 innings, allowing one run on four hits. He walked two and struck out four.
Quiet all night, the Sox got the go-ahead run to the plate in the ninth.
Cody Ross (3 for 4) doubled, Marlon Byrd singled and Nick Punto walked to load the bases with one out against Grant Balfour. Mike Aviles singled to center to drive in two runs, giving him 19 RBIs on the season.
“It showed a lot about the character of this team,’’ Aviles said. “We’re not going to give up. We’re going to go out there and just try keep fighting. We’re down 5-1; it’s very easy to fold. Get three quick outs and take it to the house. It’s cold weather, nasty weather.’’
Oakland went to lefthander Jordan Norberto to face lefthanded hitting rookie Lars Anderson. An overmatched Anderson struck out on four pitches.
Anderson was in the game because of some gamesmanship in the eighth inning. With lefty Brian Fuentes on the mound, Valentine sent up righthander Darnell McDonald to pinch hit for Ryan Sweeney. Oakland manager Bob Melvin went to righthanded reliever Ryan Cook and Valentine countered by sending up Anderson, who struck out.
When Anderson’s spot came up again, the only pinch hitters available were backup catcher Kelly Shoppach or Jose Iglesias, called up earlier in the day from Triple A Pawtucket.
Anderson was optioned to Pawtucket after the game.
With two outs, Dustin Pedroia had the last chance and he grounded into a force at second.
“Always feel good with Pedey at the plate,’’ Valentine said. “I’ll take my chances every day with him representing the go-ahead run in the ninth inning. We’ll win a lot more than we’re going to lose.’’Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.