HOUSTON — The Red Sox swept four games from the Houston Astros at Fenway Park in late April. Three months later, the gap between the two teams is even wider.
The Red Sox arrived at Minute Maid Park Monday night only percentage points away from having the best record in baseball. The Astros are the worst team in the game and last week traded their best starter and closer.
But that’s not what made a 2-0 loss so discouraging for the Red Sox. It was how little fight they showed.
The 37-74 Astros, a low-budget team preparing for next season, played with far more energy. They stole six bases in eight attempts, successfully bunted for a run, and left the Sox looking sleepy.
The Sox managed only five hits and never came close to scoring. Worse, they wasted a determined effort by John Lackey, who pitched into the seventh inning despite spraining his left ankle in the second. Lackey allowed two runs and took the loss.
It was hardly the way the Red Sox wanted to start a 10-game road trip. With Tampa Bay idle, they now lead the division by a half-game.
“They have talent. This is the major leagues, anybody can beat anybody on a given day,” Dustin Pedroia said. “It happens. We have to come out tomorrow and play better.”
Astros rookie Brett Oberholtzer (2-0) threw seven shutout innings. The 24-year-old lefthander was making his second major league start after throwing seven shutout innings against the Baltimore Orioles last Wednesday.
In two starts against AL East contenders, Oberholtzer has allowed seven hits over 14 scoreless innings and struck out eight with two walks.
The Red Sox lead the majors in runs but are hitting .249 against lefthanders this season, a whopping 35 points lower than righthanders.
“It’s been more lefties that throw consistent strikes. That seems to be where the issues come with us,” manager John Farrell said. “We’ve run up against a few of them here coming out of the break.”
Wesley Wright started the eighth inning for Houston and walked Jacoby Ellsbury.
Ellsbury is 40 for 43 on stolen base attempts but stayed at first base for two outs before going to third on a bloop single by David Ortiz.
Josh Fields, a righthander the Astros took from the Sox in the Rule 5 draft, struck out Mike Napoli to end the inning. Napoli was 0 for 4 and left five runners on base.
Napoli is hitting .215 with runners in scoring position this season and has struck out 145 times overall, only 32 away from matching the franchise record for a season set by Mark Bellhorn in 2004.
Fields struck out all four batters he faced for his first career save.
The only other threat the Sox had came in the seventh inning. Jonny Gomes led off with a double to the gap in right. He tagged up and took third on a close play when Jarrod Saltalamacchia flied to right.
The Sox had a runner at third base for the first time in the game. But Stephen Drew and Brandon Snyder struck out swinging on eight pitches.
Lackey allowed two runs on eight hits. He walked two and struck out 10.
“I thought John threw a great game,” Saltalamacchia said. “He kept us in there the whole game. We just didn’t score any runs for him.”
That has been a season-long trend. Lackey has a 3.21 earned run average but the Red Sox are 9-11 in his starts. The Sox have been shut out seven times this season, four times with Lackey on the mound, including three of his last six starts.
Lackey has gone at least six innings and allowed three or fewer earned runs in 14 starts this season. He is 6-4 in those games with four no-decisions. The team is only 8-6 in those games.
“It’s all about winning the game more than anything,” Lackey said. “I can only control the way I pitch. Got to go out there and compete again in five days and try and get us another chance to win.”
Lackey had a scare in the second inning when he fielded a tapper off the bat of Matt Dominguez and made an off-balance throw to first base for the third out.
He rolled his left ankle on the play and limped back to the dugout. The Red Sox quickly got rookie Rubby De La Rosa up in the bullpen, but Lackey came back out for the third inning after a quick tape job.
“I’ve done that several times in different sports. It definitely didn’t feel great but I wasn’t going nowhere,” Lackey said.
Lackey didn’t seem affected by the injury. He didn’t allow a run until the fifth inning.
L.J. Hoes singled and stole second before Jonathan Villar walked. Robbie Grossman grounded a single into right field to score Hoes and send Villar to third. Lackey struck out Brandon Barnes and Jose Altuve swinging to end the inning.
Lackey came back out for the seventh inning despite having thrown 107 pitches. That proved to be a mistake as Hoes doubled to right field before Villar reached on a bunt single.
Junichi Tazawa struck out Grossman but Barnes put down a squeeze bunt that gave the Astros a 2-0 lead.
Farrell said Lackey was “pretty adamant” about going back out to the mound. The manager felt he owed his starter the chance.
“I felt great,” Lackey said. “Probably should have thrown a breaking ball [to Hoes] with two strikes. I’d take that one back.”
Lackey was walking gingerly after the game but said he would make his next start.
“I’ll be all right,” he said.
Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.