With the Red Sox clinging to a one-run lead in the seventh inning, Craig Breslow walked into the tightest spot he’d been in all season.
He had pitched in tie games this year and he had come in to protect some of the team’s healthier leads.
But for more than eight months, he hadn’t been asked to make sure the thin threads of a one-run lead didn’t snap.
A year ago, Breslow came into a one-run game five times and made sure the Sox’ lead still stood up when he left the mound.
“That’s a spot that we all want to be in,” Breslow said. “Everybody wants to pitch with a lead with the game on the line.”
This was different.
Two pitches into Breslow's appearance Saturday, Asdrubal Cabrera ripped a ground ball up the middle. Sox shortstop Jonathan Herrera made a diving stop then fired to gun Cabrera down, but first baseman Mike Napoli couldn’t pick the ball out of the dirt.
On the very next pitch, Michael Brantley shot a ground ball through the right side of the infield, just out of Dustin Pedroia’s reach.
With runners on first and third, Breslow (2-2) induced a ground ball from Jason Kipnis, and when Pedroia came up with it, he fired home without so much as blinking.
The throw would have been good enough to cut Cabrera down at the plate, and initially when plate umpire Sean Barber saw Cabrera slide and Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski swipe the tag down, he called Cabrera out.
Then he looked at the ground.
The ball was still spinning in the lefthander’s batter’s box.
With that, the slim lead was gone, and when Breslow walked David Murphy on four pitches three batters later to load the bases, and Junichi Tazawa walked Carlos Santana to score Brantley, the Sox went from nursing a one-run lead at the start of the inning to being in a one-run hole.
After hanging up a season-high 10 runs on Friday, scoring in bulk to push their winning streak at Fenway to seven games, they found runs to be precious in a 3-2 loss on Saturday that snapped the run.
Generally Breslow can live with hitters putting balls in play.
Last year, hitters put the ball in play 76 percent of the time against him and only hit .228. But this time the Indians’ ground balls found the cracks and crevices of the infield.
“It’s easy to say that you don’t want to get too bogged down in the results, but when you give up runs and you lose a game, it’s impossible not to,” Breslow said. “If I make pitches and get ground balls, I have to trust that over the long haul, over the course of weeks or months ultimately the results will be pretty good, but it doesn’t make today any less frustrating.”
Pierzynski pinned the blame on himself for not coming up with the throw at the plate on the tying run.
“[Breslow] threw the ball fine,” Pierzynski said. “He made the pitches to get out of it and I just missed the throw to the plate.
“[Pedroia] made a great play. That’s why he’s a Gold Glover and that’s why I’m not.”
Sox manager John Farrell saw Herrera’s diving attempt and Pedroia’s throw home for what they were: players fighting to keep the thin threads of a one-run lead from snapping.
“I can see where [it’s a] questionable play in the first-and-third situation,” Farrell said. “Pedey feels like he’s got a chance to cut down the runner at home, the throw was on the backhand side to A.J. just enough that he doesn’t field it cleanly. But you can’t second-guess that. That’s a good, aggressive defensive play.”
From the time David Oritz stroked an RBI double to right in the first inning and Cabrera responded with one of his own to tie the game in the third, runs were scarce.
To get the go-ahead run for the Sox, Mike Napoli had to throw himself into a car crash at second base in the sixth inning.
Pedroia was standing on third, after blasting a fly ball into the triangle for a ground-rule double. He was heads-up enough to move from second to third on Ortiz's ground ball hit in front of him to shortstop.
Napoli then worked a six-pitch walk to make it first and third.
A double play was still a possibility, and it had already been cruel enough to the Sox all afternoon.
There was the one Pierzynski grounded into in the second inning that pulled the plug on a potential scoring chance after Jonny Gomes singled to lead off the inning.
Then there was the one Xander Bogaerts bounced into the next inning after Jackie Bradley Jr. singled and Brock Holt worked a walk.
Knowing the Sox had to get the run across, Napoli floored it from first to second and wiped out Indians second baseman Kipnis once he got there.
While Pedroia was racing home, Kipnis was picking himself up out of the dirt and Gomes was safe at first on a fielder’s choice. Napoli gave Kipnis a pat on the butt after a tough collision. Kipnis returned it to let him know the play was clean.
An inning later, it was irrelevant.
Pitching on seven days’ rest, Breslow allowed a run in his second straight appearance.
It rendered Jake Peavy’s best start since late April moot. Peavy pitched around seven hits to go six solid innings. When he stumbled into a two-out bases-loaded jackpot in the fifth inning after hitting Brantley, giving up a single to Kipnis, and walking Lonnie Chisenhall, Peavy coolly settled down and got Nick Swisher to bounce out to second, cutting the cord on the Indians’ threat.
He finished with five strikeouts but didn’t factor into the decision.
“That’s what’s disappointing,” Breslow said. “Jake battled all day, put us in a pretty good position coming into a 2-1 game in the seventh. That’s a game we should win.”
The Sox fell to 8-15 in one-run games this season, but the next time they find themselves in a tight spot Farrell said he would call on Breslow again.
“It had been [seven] days since his last outing, but still there’s complete confidence in him,” Farrell said. “We’d still go back to Bres in that situation again.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org