A year ago, the Red Sox would have laid down a successful safety squeeze or gotten a big base hit from someone to win the game.
They would have made a great defensive play, like the throw A’s first baseman Daric Barton made to cut down Will Middlebrooks at third base in the 10th. Or Barton’s throw would have been too late to third.
Last year, the hard shot Jonny Gomes hit to third base for an inning-ending double play in the ninth would have made its way to the left-field corner for a double. Or the third baseman would have found Gomes’s scorching grounder too hot to handle.
As Sunday’s 3-2 loss in 10 innings showed, there are things that just aren’t going the Red Sox’ way that always went their way a year ago.
The Red Sox are now 3-8 in one-run games. They were 21-21 last season. They are 1-2 in extra innings; they were 10-6 last season.
They’ll take winning two out of three against the A’s any time. But it’s May 5, and the only time the Red Sox have been over .500 was when they were 2-1. They last were at .500 April 4, at 2-2.
The best thing the Red Sox can say about their season right now is that they have five healthy starting pitchers. John Lackey on Sunday again made a quality start, working six innings and allowing two runs. While staying healthy may not sound like much, it beats what the Rays and Yankees are going through with pitching injuries.
The Yankees are leading the division at two games over .500, with Baltimore a half-game back and the Rays and Red Sox two games behind. One could and probably should conclude that over time, if their starters remain healthy, that will pay off for the Red Sox.
What the Sox have to figure out is where the “it” has gone. The “it” that would have turned these close games in their favor. The “it” that helped them pull off late-game wins a year ago.
One thing that sticks out is the play of Jackie Bradley Jr.
He has made people forget Jacoby Ellsbury defensively with his superb range in the outfield and his ability to anticipate where the ball is going to be.
Offensively is another story.
Bradley knocked into two double plays Sunday. One came in the third inning, the other in the fifth with one run in, the bases loaded, and one out. Bradley hit into the dreaded 1-2-3 double play to take the Sox out of a big inning.
It didn’t get better for Bradley.
Probably not having the most faith in him to swing away, the Sox had him try a safety squeeze in the seventh. A.J. Pierzynski had tied the score, 2-2, with a solo home run, and then the Sox put runners on second and third via a walk to Xander Boagerts and an error by right fielder Josh Reddick on a ball hit by Gomes. After Middlebrooks struck out, Bradley finally got the bunt down, but right to pitcher Fernando Abad, who looked the runner back to third and threw Bradley out at first. Dustin Pedroia grounded out to end the threat.
In the 10th inning, Bradley hit a swinging bunt right to Barton, who nailed Middlebrooks, who was running on contact, at third. Middlebrooks had singled and advanced to second on center fielder Coco Crisp’s error. It had seemed like a great chance for Bradley to redeem himself.
The Red Sox eventually went down against Jim Johnson when Pedroia knocked into a double play.
On having to bunt twice, Bradley said, “I have to be able to handle the bat. I’m in the No. 9 hole.”
He said of the bunt back to Abad, a lefthanded pitcher, “I got the bunt down, but I just didn’t get it where I wanted. I needed to get it away from the pitcher.”
So is it a case of a young player not being able to come through when it counted? Is this an area in which the Red Sox are deficient offensively? Is this where the Sox aren’t winning these close games? After going 0 for 4 Sunday, Bradley is now hitting .215.
The bullpen isn’t as lights out as it became last season. Chris Capuano had been terrific until his last two outings, but loading the bases Sunday in the 10th he cost the Sox a chance to stay tied and create a possible sweep of the A’s.
Can all of this turn around?
Of course it can. But winning close games means things are breaking your way, and so far this season, that hasn’t always been the case. To win a championship, things have to go right most of the time. You create your own breaks.
Manager John Farrell consistently has said that the Sox are creating opportunities but just not finishing them off. Last season they finished them off. They also rarely beat themselves because they had air-tight defense and rarely made a base-running mistake or a mistake on a fundamental.
At some point, mentioning the losses of Ellsbury and Stephen Drew becomes futile. One is never coming back and at this point the Sox are too afraid to make a change, with Boagerts moving to third. It would disrupt too many things.
And quite frankly, as long as the AL East is bunched up, the Sox might as well ride it out.
Again, having five healthy veteran starters, four of whom (I’m excluding Felix Doubront) are showing signs of being on top of their game, should keep this team in the race.
But the other aspects of the team’s play — the defense, the timely hitting — have to start developing, particularly in close games in which just one big hit, or the execution of a bunt, could make all the difference.
This year feels different so far, but that doesn’t mean it has to end differently. There’s a long way to go in a race that is up for grabs and may continue to be.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.