ARLINGTON, Texas — Are the Red Sox actually a contending team or merely an improved team that had a good first month? We’re about to get a much clearer understanding of that.
The Red Sox faced a test over the weekend with three games against the Texas Rangers and failed. The Rangers won, 4-3, Sunday to complete a three-game sweep.
Adrian Beltre’s walkoff single in the bottom of the ninth sent the Sox back to Fenway Park to deal with their first real predicament of the season.
They arrived in Texas with the best record in the American League. They left having scored four runs.
Now comes a seven-game homestand starting Monday night against Minnesota.
“There’s no panic in here. We can play better and we know that,” said Mike Napoli, who was 1 for 10 against his former team. “You’re going to have your ups and downs during the year. We’ll get out there tomorrow and get after it and let this series go. We’ll respond.”
The Sox took a 3-0 lead on Rangers ace Yu Darvish, who allowed home runs by David Ortiz and David Ross in the first two innings. But Jon Lester lost a 3-1 lead when Nelson Cruz lined a two-run homer to center field in the sixth inning.
The Sox left a runner stranded at second against Darvish in the seventh inning. They did the same against the Texas bullpen in the eighth and ninth innings.
The Rangers didn’t miss their chance in the ninth.
With Andrew Bailey unavailable because of a sore biceps, the Red Sox were a man short in the bullpen. Long reliever Clayton Mortensen started the inning as manager John Farrell kept closer Joel Hanrahan back for extra innings.
With two outs, Elvis Andrus singled. He advanced on a wild pitch when Mortensen threw a changeup in the dirt to Lance Berkman.
Mortensen was trying to throw the pitch low so that Berkman would swing over it. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who entered the game after Ross was pinch run for in the top of the inning, let it bounce away.
Red Sox pitchers have been charged with 12 wild pitches in the 169 innings Saltalamacchia has caught, three in the 105 innings caught by Ross, who is a strong defensive catcher.
The Sox intentionally walked Berkman to set up a force play at any base. Farrell also preferred the righthanded Mortensen to face the righthanded-hitting Beltre.
Mortensen, throwing all sliders, got ahead 1-and-2. His fourth pitch was down but stayed over the plate and Beltre lined it into right field.
“Threw him some good pitches,” Mortensen said. “Had a pretty good slider down and he stayed on it.”
The Sox were 18 for 96 (.188) in the series, 1 for 16 with runners in scoring position. Texas leads the league with a 3.02 earned run average.
“We knew this would be a tough series as well as they have pitched all year and the way their team is built,” Farrell said.
Darvish dominated the Red Sox over seven innings, striking out 14 with two walks. But the first few innings were rocky.
Dustin Pedroia reached on an infield single in the first. Ortiz then launched a Darvish fastball to right field for his fourth home run.
Darvish threw his first four pitches away from Ortiz. When he tried to sneak one inside, Ortiz pulled it down the line. He casually flipped his bat and watched it soar.
“I just reacted to a pitch that I saw,” said Ortiz, who has a 25-game hit streak.
Ross gave the Red Sox a 3-0 lead with a deep blast to left field in the second. The ball landed in the club level, the third deck of the stadium.
Only 18 home runs have reached that level since Rangers Ballpark opened in 1994 — four by opposing players. Ross joined Mark McGwire (1997), Evan Longoria (2008), and Mark Trumbo (2012) on the list.
“Not many people are as good as I am,” Ross deadpanned. “Close my eyes and swing hard, that’s my approach.”
“He threw me a good slider and I didn’t see it real well. I told myself to slow down,” Ross said. “I felt well-connected the next one.”
It was only the second time in 36 career starts Darvish allowed two home runs in a game.
Lester took a 3-1 lead into the sixth, but could not hold it.
With one out, Beltre grounded a single into left field. Lester’s 100th pitch was a full-count sinker to Cruz that stayed up in the strike zone. It was lined it over the wall in center field to tie the game at 3.
As Lester gradually wore down, Darvish got stronger. He allowed one hit after the home run by Ross and struck out nine of the final 13 batters he faced.
Darvish threw pitches from across the spectrum of possibilities. There was a 53 mile-per-hour curveball to Napoli followed by a 95 mile-per-hour fastball. Darvish threw five different pitches for strikes over the course of the game.
“He’s capable of throwing breaking pitches hard or soft for strikes. He had no clue about what his fastball was doing,” Ortiz said. “He can throw his offspeed pitches for a strike a lot. He’s got good command of a slider, two different breaking balls.”
Darvish threw 127 pitches, his most since joining the Rangers from Japan last season. He leads the majors with 72 strikeouts and already has had two games with 14.
The last American League pitchers with multiple games of 14 or more strikeouts in a season were Pedro Martinez (three times) and Mike Mussina (twice) in 2000.
The clubhouse was quiet as the Sox readied to leave. The swagger that marked the first few weeks of the season was bruised.
“We’ll be fine. We’ve got a bunch of guys in this clubhouse, this isn’t their first go-around,” Lester said. “Guys have been through the winning streaks, the losing streaks, and everywhere in between. I wouldn’t imagine it’s going to be a big thing for us.”Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.