ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It was the sort of incident the 2013 Red Sox would have laughed at, an opposing player bending one of baseball’s archaic unwritten rules.
That team arrived at the park every day concerned only with winning. Their unerring focus didn’t allow for silly distractions all the way through to the World Series.
But these Red Sox players, the ones sinking deeper into last place as each day passes, have lost those qualities. Sunday’s 8-5 loss against the Tampa Bay Rays, the team’s 10th in a row, was marked not by improved play but a benches-clearing brawl in the seventh inning.
The Red Sox didn’t appreciate Yunel Escobar taking third base on defensive indifference in the seventh inning with his team up by five runs. Curses were exchanged between Escobar and players in the Red Sox dugout. When Escobar took off his helmet and started gesturing, left fielder Jonny Gomes ran in and shoved him.
Gomes and Escobar were ejected along with Tampa Bay’s Sean Rodriguez. Then the Rays mocked the Sox by playing a few seconds of “Sweet Caroline” when the game was over.
The Red Sox are the first defending World Series champions to lose 10 consecutive games since the 1998 Florida Marlins, who had two 11-game losing streaks. The budget-conscious Marlins traded away many of their best players before that season. The Red Sox are supposedly trying.
At 20-29, the Red Sox are eight games out of first place and Sunday added first baseman Mike Napoli to the disabled list.
Only two teams in history — the 1951 New York Giants and 1982 Atlanta Braves — made the playoffs after losing 10 games in a row during the season.
It’s the longest losing streak for the franchise since the 1994 Red Sox lost 11 straight. That helped get manager Butch Hobson fired.
John Farrell has job security. But what he doesn’t have is a very good team. Even his two best hitters, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, are 12 of 75 (.160) in the streak with one RBI.
Pedroia shaved all his facial hair trying to change his luck. It didn’t help.
The results don’t suggest it, but Farrell says the Red Sox are doing all they can.
“There’s frustration, we can’t deny that. But at the same time our work ethic and our concentrated work is still consistent with stretches when we’ve been a little bit more on the winning side,” he said. “We know this: The game’s not going anywhere.”
Righthander Brandon Workman, called up from Triple A to start, allowed three runs over five innings. The Sox, trailing 3-1 in the seventh inning, tied it when A.J. Pierzynski doubled and Gomes belted a pinch-hit home run to left.
Lefthander Craig Breslow, who had not allowed a run in 10 appearances this month, quickly lost control of the game. He walked pinch hitter Desmond Jennings before Evan Longoria singled and Rodriguez came off the bench and homered.
Farrell anticipated the Rays would pinch hit against Breslow, but he liked the matchup and didn’t have better options after a 15-inning game Saturday night.
“Felt there was good history against that part of the order with him. It didn’t work out,” Farrell said.
Breslow later allowed a two-run double by Escobar.
“Trying to be aggressive, control contact, getting ahead. Felt like I threw the ball over the plate,” Breslow said. “They put a lot of good swings on everything that I was throwing.”
With the Sox in a defensive shift, Escobar took third base. Some Sox players took offense, believing it was unnecessary. David Ross was particularly upset, something he admitted later was a product of the losing streak.
“We’re down five in the seventh, so it’s somewhat of a gray area when you shut down a running game,” Farrell said. “Yunel is going to do some things that might be a little unpredictable.
“That’s what precipitated it.”
Rays manager Joe Maddon pointed out that Jacoby Ellsbury stole second base in Game 1 of the Division Series last season with the Sox up by six runs in the eighth inning.
“I think that was a little bit more egregious,” he said.
Gomes, as he often is, was an instigator. He charged in and the benches cleared. No real punches were thrown.
“He’s yelling in my dugout and pointing in my dugout. You take your helmet off and basically challenge our whole dugout. I have a problem with that,” Gomes said.
“What really has to be said? I figured a hands-on approach was a little more appropriate.”
The Sox scored two runs in the ninth inning on a single by Xander Bogaerts before Pedroia grounded out to end the game. By the time the Sox had cooled off, even Gomes admitted the futility of the fight.
“I’d rather win the ballgame than win the arguing match. We’ve still got our work cut out for us,” he said.
“A motivational speech is not really much right now. With this being a result-driven industry, I think find a way to score more points than them by the end of the game pretty much sums up the speech that needs to be had.”Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.